“Elegy” by Kevin Clark

Kevin Clark


I’ll never forget that punk Cagney jabbing words
like shivs as if he knew everything
was black-and-white as the movie. Plump
with urban blarney, his old friend the priest
visits just before his hanging, tells him, Listen,
it’s not too late, the ticket to heaven is acting

the coward when you climb the gallows. That way
the street kids won’t have a bad guy for a hero.
You think, Well, maybe. —Or maybe going good
is a fool’s dream. We all know Cagney was pissed
at the universe for the lonely Jack he was dealt,

how he would have told the orphans the end
is close as tomorrow’s gruel, grab
what you can. Then he would have laughed
in their faces. Can you see the thing

forever announcing its arrival, like grey rust
crawling up those silver skyscrapers
every dusk, no matter how good or bad
the deck? Maybe there ain’t no heaven,
maybe there is. So what do you do

when the two cops lead you to the last
stairs you’ll ever climb. Either way,
you’ll be dead in a few seconds. But by god,
you’re alive right now, this very moment
widening like a summer day, the mother
you never had backlit in the park, saying,
Baby, the world’s all yours. Make it count.

from Rattle #61, Fall 2018


Kevin Clark: “When my heart-close friend and editor Judith Kitchen died in November of 2015, I was intent on writing about her, but soon enough I found it was too early to do so directly. Instead, I was scratching words on a page when I found myself remembering the classic 1938 movie Angels with Dirty Faces, which I’d seen when I was very young. The most powerful scene in the movie depicts the priest (Pat O’Brien) imploring the murderer (James Cagney) to act the coward at his execution so that all his orphan admirers might ultimately turn from crime. I was with Judith (and her husband Stan Rubin) on and off for years after she received word that she had a terminal disease. In the face of her diagnosis, Judith’s continual writing, teaching, and friendship—as well as her open-hearted poise—never failed to move me. She was my inspiration for the poem’s ending … and much more.” (web)

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