Documenting the War and Other Poems

   Documenting the War

The invasion began on a Tuesday morning     which for some reason felt strange    as if something so important would have been scheduled for the beginning of a new week 

Once we realized that it was happening     our immediate problem was how we could gather our loved ones together     we needed to be close at this time     to know who was still safe each day     as the sun rose over the newfound horror of our lives 

The land that we gathered on was an inheritance     flowing back through many generations of the blood     that we now undertook should never be shed     except in the service of evicting the oppressor

We began to take copious notes     even those of us who had never felt the importance of keeping a diary     for the first time in our lives     we understood the documentary urge     and thus we wrote everything down     even to the smallest detail

We knew that this might be a futile gesture     there was every possibility that our notes would be destroyed     along with our fragile bodies     that the charred remains of bone     and flesh     and paper     would singe the air together 

Some of us turned to religion as a comfort     others among our number refused     in our anger     to accept any possibility that redemption could be available     for the perpetrators of this terrible crime     our hatred carrying us     afloat in a sea of despair

We now find that we are trapped      not only in this city     but in the weakness of our bodies 

The earth seeming heavier     than it ever did before     gravity leaning into the situation

We leave an emptiness between the lines of our text     so that we can add new information as it comes to light.

   Ritual of Mouth

Mouth is a strange man who lies to your face     who carries a thermostat that cleaves to his chest     his breastbone pierced with unforeseen ax-weight     mouth is milk under gravity     asking you what it means to be a woman

falling under the spell of a machine-made ritual     compensation for the unexplained death of a teenage bride     such a whiplash of ocean strategy     the terror of the lost women who cool themselves on Arabic stone 

mouth is a comfort nest devised by a pregnant daughter     it’s a gospel choir on the road to Afghanistan     the delirium of safe lights blazing     forcing through sickness into the kind of theory that is banned in schools

stained with a ritual of wood and metal     machined to the finest tolerance     the dream of spirit-lathe and the stink of fornication     behind the turnstile     the fevered memories of lifeguards are all that remain from the time of freedom

even now     mouth still tightly pursed     unspeaking of the forgotten phrases     building a case from glints on summer evenings     lost behind the batted eyelids of someone’s sister     painted thick with sugar-rich tar


The empty page stretched out like a winter field     waiting to be marked over with scribbles of blackness

We started at a point not null     not blank     but still a lesser place     we have since flowered into something newer     something more specific 

Whatever we exchanged was always a distillation     grabbed out from under the beaks of chattering birds

Trust was essential     my signature on every page     a paper trail to lead you inwards

Lights flickering out     as lethargy filled a world that had been carved from rocks by the power of water 

     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

My father twice took me to the reservoir – with a pair of fishing rods (one short)     and a can of earthworms

Life took me on a meandering tour across a swathe of continents     letters were rarely exchanged with even the best of you

The stones sitting gray and heavy now     surrounded by dead flowers

Iron chimney stacks     blackened from history

Death parading the midnight streets     proud as a lover

Some words are no longer legible.  

   In Jars

She kept lists of parts ordered by category     not by size     which is not to say that size lacked all significance     their bodies barely remembered without the photographic evidence     that she claimed to so disdain     there was a story published once     that regurgitated aspects of her philosophy     her rage and her jars     the molding into shape     the immersion into boiling liquids   

          nothing she had lived through made her sad in retrospect     not even her expulsions from certain European nations     or the repulsion sometimes evidenced for the stink of her experiments     so many men had swung quite boldly through her life     bringing with them a tasting menu of human sexuality     her eyes attuned to their differences     while perceiving them as less than grubs or worms     such putrid underpinnings from a forest floor     their phone calls ignored     and their letters unanswered.

   Unfinished Business

There is incompleteness     even when a journey ends     there is baggage still needing heavy work to lift and shift a life     there are curtains that block out the rejuvenating light     and a room that’s not exactly dark but furiously shadowed     leaking oil-slick pools of emptiness 

soldiers and sailors had sent us on our way with triumphalism and marching     through airports and shipyards stretched with metal frameworks and the airy flight of canvas     not knowing yet how we could overthrow a corruption that leached across so many systems

we dreamed so brilliantly in our youth     our blunted transformation now faltering into later stages of decay     like fish who tried and failed to leave their oceans     our stunted prongs have never managed to evolve as proper legs     wheezing gills that never developed into lungs 

all around us is the aura     a thickening stream of luminescence     fanaticism never vanquished     we hear the thrumming     hear the echoes     the tintinnabulation     somewhere beyond are other places     where you might walk past my open door without a second glance. 

Paul Ilechko

3 Questions for Paul

What was your process for creating this work?

It's interesting that you use the word "process," as much of my work is process-driven. It's my experience that if you sit around waiting for inspiration to strike, you won't get much writing done. I also believe that the more you write, the more you improve, so it's critical to have techniques that you can use to generate writing at any time. In addition, I want my writing to go in unexpected directions, and not to be clichéd or locked in predictable patterns. I use a process-driven approach to address both of my goals, both frequency and unpredictability. One of my methods is start with a book, choose a poem at random, and write whatever comes to mind based on the first line of the poem. Once I run out of things to write, I skip to the next poem and write whatever is triggered by the second line of that piece, and then continue to repeat this process. This forces me to take my work in unexpected directions, and sets up a tension between what I might think I am writing about, and what I am forced to incorporate by the process. 

What is the significance of the form/genre you chose?

I tend to write my first draft as a solid block of text, usually in an app on my phone. I then manually transcribe it into a document on my computer, at which point I will put it into the form that feels right, be that lineated, prose poem, something more formal like a sonnet, etc. It's a very intuitive thing, I don't usually start writing with the form in mind. 

What is the significance of the work to you?

That's a hard question to answer! Based on my writing process, my pieces tend to come from multiple places at once — things which are important to me at that point in time, and things which are interjected by the manner of composition. Among the pieces that you have taken, there are works with very different meanings to me (of course, the reader's interpretation is every bit as valid as mine, so I don't want to privilege my perspective on the work!). "Documenting the War" was written since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, so that's part of what's gone into it, but I think that the documentary urge also relates to me personally as an older writer, looking at what gets left behind as my legacy. "Ritual of Mouth" is very stream-of-consciousness, but there's also a strong underpinning of feminism, and the way that women are treated in different cultures. As a father of a daughter, that's important to me. Those are a couple of specific examples, but other aspects that are strongly present in much of my writing relate to ageing, sickness, and the climate crisis. 

Poet and songwriter Paul Ilechko lives with his partner in Lambertville, NJ. He is the author of several chapbooks. His work has appeared in a variety of journals, including The Night Heron Barks, Louisiana Literature, Iron Horse Literary Review, Gargoyle Magazine, and Book of Matches. His first album, "Meeting Points," was released in 2021.

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