“Deus Ex Machina” by Melissa King Rogers

Melissa King Rogers

DEUS EX MACHINA

Royal Gorge Bridge, Colorado
October 3, 2003

how all occasions do inform against me … why yet I live to say “this thing’s to do”
—Hamlet

The day the world’s top-ranked base jumper pitches
headlong from a plane twelve hundred meters
above a rocky gorge in Colorado
(where the world’s tallest suspension bridge is
packed with a couple hundred spectators
waiting, cameras rolling), his bravado
alone’s above our grasp. At this stark height
we’re queasy when we peek over the railing
(or fear the bridge might give beneath our weight).
A half-mile up, though, he’s free-falling, sailing
—at a hundred twenty mph—
more missile than a man, a God-slung gauntlet
in a wingsuit like a nylon pillowcase,
taunting our undaring from the edge
of some ungrounded self we’d be, undaunted
as a child whose boundlessness our years replace
with flat pragmatic dread. No wonder then
he’s snagged a million YouTube hits, his dives
meticulous and clean, Olympian
in airborne acrobatic grace that thrives
on Holy-Shit Impossibility
and practiced calculated risk to trump
the mortal ratio of balls to brains.

Which is, of course, the point. We’ve come to see
a showman on his thousand-somethingth jump,
this time, in tandem (straight-out-of-a-plane-
by-God)—which milks the drama of the drop,
wherein he’ll pick up speed (with gusto!), strafe
the bridge (the other guy glides under), pop
his chute once they’re both clear, and navigate
the ninety stories down. Like leaping from
the Empire State to touch down on the street
(but after falling half a mile). No brainer:
he’s that guy. He rode a bike off some
space needle in Malaysia, pulled a neat
dismount midair. He springs quadruple gainers
off Alpine cliffs. Some crazy shit each time.
Yet you can’t help but like him. Once plopped smack
into a prickly pear, face full of spines—
he plucked the needles one by one and cracked
an acupuncture joke, his chute still pinned
behind him like a shredded shroud. A grin
like Dad just caught him playing Superman
and fucking up the drapes again.

So when
he closes in, a flying speck, we scan
the sky, a kind of gawking genuflection.
The restless crowd swells in a giddy oohhhh.
My heartbeat’s in my throat. And then: it happens—
as a car wreck takes a life, and we don’t know
if our hands were on the wheel, or if we tapped
the brakes, or crossed the median, or swerved—
he slams the rail. Full force. So fast, so close,
he might have taken one of us down, too.
A burst of flesh and fabric like a bird
on impact with a windshield. Like a ghost
his chute deploys and drifts, subdued
and silent as a mobile on a crib.
Then, fleet as Daedalus, his partner clears
the bridge and lands. But he’s barely a blip
on a screen that no one’s watching. We’re
all stunted, struck—we’re playing back the shock—
like waiting for the meteor to fall
into the crater in the field, before
the crater is a crater, or the rock’s
a meteor. We half thought he might crawl
out from the distant sunken chute, but for
the flat inhuman thud, the iron hum
that rumbled through the bridge’s length, our soles
still pulsing with the impact.

Frame by frame
he’s still a blur, no matter how I scroll
down through each fuzzy screenshot. Yet it’s clear
the moment when we know—the way our cheers
turn into howls, the way we duck as if
a roof’s about to cave, how we go stiff
with terror, manning up to take the blow.
Not one of us will say—or really know
what godlike guts that fust in us unused
lie limply in his wilted parachute,
its crumpled flightless bundle thus relieving
us of its human burden, our believing
the need to prove ourselves somehow unbound.
Or that we’re happy, tethered to the ground.

from Rattle #50, Winter 2015
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist

[download audio]

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Melissa King Rogers: “I began this poem in part to purge the specter of an online video I couldn’t unsee, but as I wrote it, the poem became bigger than its original subject. (And bigger than its britches, perhaps: I thought I was writing a sonnet.) Unconsciously, perhaps, I wanted the poem’s form to work like some indomitable law of nature to push against, rhymes smacking past the ends of lines with the sass of a recalcitrant child. Maybe I write, sometimes, because I am that child. Sometimes I write to construct walls and a roof against what falls from the sky. But, also, I write because human experience is simultaneously chaotic and beautiful, and I want to contain that chaos and beauty, if simply by trying to name it.”