“Greetings Unanswered” by Joshua Martin

Ekphrastic Challenge, December 2019: Artist’s Choice


photo of letters left in a snowy tree

Image: “Bound” by Natalie Seabolt. “Greetings Unanswered” was written by Joshua Martin for Rattle’s Ekphrastic Challenge, December 2019, and selected as the Artist’s Choice.

[download: PDF / JPG]


Joshua Martin


That December of salt, there were letters
from loan and electric companies,
letters from clothing stores praising
their cottons as if pea coats could turn
lives around, letters from my landlord
typed in that font that looks half-human
with its orchestrated imperfections, that read
Happy Holidays with the insincerity
of Caesar before the Senate, letters I didn’t open
because they were addressed to someone else
who had woken once in the same bedroom at 2 AM
with the same unshakable thirst,
the same knotted throat, letters that urged
action on behalf of some politician
who, pending a donation, could save us all.
There were letters that slept uneasy on my table
like hungry children on pullout couches,
letters that screamed like prisoners tortured
by open windows, letters containing
cards of families I couldn’t remember—
someone’s son looking past me, smiling,
Seasons Greetings inked above the photograph
like a sign outside that hospice in Nitro
where my grandfather died after a lifetime
of chemical plants and Wednesdays numb
in West Virginia. Though his letters burned
my palm like sulfuric acid, I never opened them
out of fear they’d be the last I’d read
of his chicken scratch laid down
like a seed with his one good hand,
so I’d bundle his letters and forget them
in boxes like leaves hanging on
the one holly left in the meadow
I never returned to, the wind
like a blunt letter knife, powerless
to do anything but save them.

from Ekphrastic Challenge
December 2019, Artist’s Choice


Comment from the artist, Natalie Seabolt: “I chose ‘Greetings Unanswered’ because it speaks to a past that is worn and aged, a past that craves to be remembered, a past that has become letters with a hunger all their own. The poem’s language is hungry and wary of how past and present can switch places. The letters of the poem feel kin to those in my photograph—letters that exist in a dimension of urgency, lingering around the speaker’s presence whispering of their importance, but lost to those to whom they were delivered.”

Rattle Logo