John Estes brings us this new poem in response to Philemon 1:12-16.


The Cell


Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything. — Abba Moses


Today I’m trying to conceive a world without the word insatiable

what would become of that happy current, that urgent emptiness,

its pit-like pleasures, without a term to house it?

Look it up: the opposite and negation of sad, which shares a root

with sate, its math makes me wonder why we bend so hard


toward fixity and fullness. We lack a curriculum of lack, a course

of study in keeping the nothingness we need from devouring us.

Keep turning, she said, as we parted, as if it were the last piece

of advice I’d ever need, and maybe it was, or still is. She might as well

have said keep tuning, or simply keep, following the laws


of parsimony which describe the reduction of all utterances, in time,

to their simplest, as these acts too serve across domains, serve like ring

bolts which hold us fast to the anvils of what we’d choose to last

until there’s nothing left to save. Too much depends, just to crawl out of bed,

upon reckoning unreconcilable acts of conservation and expansion.


Never finished the article, the one I started at my bedroom desk, the one

I thought the paper would take, my eye-witness account

of the overturned hog trailer, right there on the highway, right

in front of the house, the road smeared with blood, offal, and pig shit,

swine corpses ballooning in the summer heat. The stench and traffic.


Never finished that list of words they should ban from poems—

who would brook a world without stars and hearts or clouds and shrouds?—

as if I, having jettisoned (or been jettisoned by) God one too many times already,

don’t know too well that the closer one draws to (or is drawn by)

sacral agitations, how bone-dry trust in the wordhoard runs, as if already


Not body,

not figure, not form

not what has quality, quantity, or mass,

not in space,

not visible etc etc etc


or so says Dionysius the Areopagite, pseudo-Denys some call him,

but what’s in a name? What’s it to a life so long as we have the text

left behind? Here in front of me is 542 pages of Frank Stafford,

whose real name was Francis Gildart Smith, The Battlefield Where

the Moon Says I Love You, in the other room is a woman not speaking to me,


and I can’t stop thinking about him, caught between his wife

and lover, how he left the room where the three of them (fought, wept?)

and put three bullets in the center of his chest, right into

what that forger, the fake St. Dionysisus, might have called his

single all-complete and single cause of all, his cordis,


his roboris, his animus poeticus, and that was it, dead before 30,

extinguished but for the poems they’re still cleaning up,

this big fat genius mess on my desk, unreadable but read aloud anyway,

as all epic poems should be, a sport in Arkansas apparently

(if only Kansas would claim Ronald Johnson’s Ark as theirs):


I longed to be one of the monk saints so silent tending the fields

then I wanted to be one of the wandering students that had taken me under their

wind then I dreamed of a life on the sea a common sailer

I sing but I am not a singer

I write but I am not a writer


Like that, on and on, hour after hour. You can read Milton in 12

(which I last did in Kansas, with a table full of students

and a pot of chili), Stafford takes more like 15, but what’s time,

no more than another name, another word we give, to mark

an anomaly, Mark being the wrong name my psychoanalyst called me.


Who is Mark? This is the question Andrew asked me over breakfast

at Fred’s, hash and eggs for him, oatmeal with half biscuit

and gravy for me. I stressed the diner waitress by asking for fresh

fruit—wasn’t sure how the cooks would react to a request

like that—and she was quicker on the take than I had anticipated,


starting a glib repartee that bordered on flirtation;

I remembered my uncle, years ago, once people started worrying

about me or wondering, saying that you just never know where

you’ll meet her, maybe a waitress, he said, it will surprise you,

the one, he said, but the older I got, the more dislocated


my emotional (in)competencies became, and the one was the least

of my problems, but I looked a little closer at this one, unsure

why in diners they never bother to introduce themselves, so short order.

She poured more coffee, brought a steak knife with the strawberries,

told me to be happy, that was the best I was getting today,


and I looked again at Andrew, maybe the best looking guy I know,

glad that he felt comfortable enough around me to eat

a plate of food that a man with a Ph.D. should know better

than to ingest, and he’s going to clean it, just like I,

a vegetarian by declaration, don’t flinch at the dun sausage gravy.


We are Pisces, and like our secrets, that’s the point of it.

It equals the apophatic enrapture (or entrapment) inherent to holding

yourself in reserve, to living out of sight, to being unknowable,

impenetrable, more vapor than soul. A monk tried to convince

me once that the supreme value was, what he called, integrity—defined


as being as you appear, an exterior with matching interior—simple

to use the clinical term, though he had no idea I read Climacus

and so knew that a simple monk is like a dumb

but rational and obedient animal, that what it denotes is one

without evil thoughts or idle curiosity, a test


I would certainly fail, me, an enneagram 3 with a 4 wing (?),

much too engaged in the maintenance of my engramatic dissociation;

Luther Sloan from Deep Space Nine describes the theory: when

a person’s mind is sufficiently disciplined, he’[s]…capable

of compartmentalizing contradictory information, believing one thing


while doing another. We are of course, by nature, hypocrites,

simpletons even, full of inconsistency while deploring contradictions—

bats nesting in broad daylight, spiders forsaking the web,

bears loose on the prairie. The trend these days is to speak, as if

without shame, as if real, authentic, people, as if


nude pictures of ourselves on our phones made us more human.

And maybe they do; humility after all is beauty. Sure I’d prefer

the government not intercept or store them, but I condone that sort of intimacy,

the voluntary violation of one’s own privacy, better

than jealousy; forgiveness and mercy better than rage. The only law is grace,


with the only question being whether freedom comes from fusion or distinction.

We are just people here, whatever orgiastic cult you follow,

imprisoned by our cells (does the body hold or is it held?)

although it’s hard to say who’s more stuck, the living or the dead, the being

born or dying. Who are these people, who must be as acquainted as I am with nature,


with the fastness of our position, bonded even inside the cycles we pass through,

transmutations the givens within the constants,

like a runner in love with what the body can do, like a heroine enmeshed

in an endless quest chain, who insist we error on the side

of their ideas about angels, chaste perfections who pass through walls.


So when my student’s mother blackmails her adult poet son

in an effort to get what she wishes, namely (and solely) that he not

date the woman he loves, why is it not so plainly obvious

to everyone as it is to me what an abomination of heaven this is,

to speak figuratively? When St. Paul, from prison,


pleads for the life of Onesimus, maybe an escaped slave,

maybe an estranged brother (we need Origen’s lost fragment to settle

that dispute) he says to this prick Philemon:

“I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.”

And by heart he means his σπλάγχνον (splagchnon), his guts, his inward


parts and inwardness, the seat of his compassion. The KJV renders

it: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels.

Paul doesn’t, by this synecdoche (συνεκδοχή) demand his manumission

but you know that’s the strong arm he’s subtly applying.

Maybe it’s counterproductive to say I think that manipulative mothers


are going to hell (to speak literally), although I do,

which people will be surprised some day to discover is populated

only by terrorists, slavers, abusers, and terrible parents,

the only ones God at the apokatastasis will refuse

to absolve. I’m sorry to break it to you, saith the prophet,


but even St. Paul, himself prone to minor tyrannies

and tantrums, refuses to compel by force; he insists on individual

sovereignty, itself an aporetic knot, a throw of lots,

like the human being itself, that pure (or purely) symbolic thing,

so he takes his chance that Philemon might scourge the shit


(or worse) out of his repatriated property—in order that your goodness

be of your own free will—which seems like, I don’t know,

a sketchy bet, at best (even though American slaveowners cited the book

as God-given proof that runaways must be returned—let’s add fundamentalists

to that list). He even makes a joke or two at the kid’s expense,


punning on his name, Onesimus, which means useful in Greek,

who will one day be canonized as a Blesséd Onesimus,

who in his current suspended condition of vacated-subjectivity is,

like poetry, useless until put to use. Paul here invents

the Western inwit, the notion that conscience conveys reliable information


but the apostle, popularizer if not originator of the annoying trope

in Christ, invokes a good excuse to do or say about anything—

the figure of prosopopoeia, etymologically to make a face

(prosopon+poein), wearing the face, i.e., or putting on the mask

of the dead god, summonsing (or conjuring) his presence and performing


an alchemcial coniunctio (not unlike, oh, I don’t know, a platinum filament

catalyzing the combustion of oxygen and sulphur dioxide),

a virtual re-enacted resurrection and assumption of an absentee’s power

to effect, in effect, the epiphanic Voila! of a third thing,

a new self, a slave no longer enslaved, a master no longer a heartless


bastard, love manufactured from the mercury of lead. Who believes

this magic twaddlerot? And recall that Paul never once mentions

a miracle, or a parable, or exhorts the theotokos, his ever-virgin mother,

the first heart, because maybe those tales weren’t even written

much less extant; his Jesus, the Christ who lives, is straightedge,


a boring guy with a crazy plan that just might work. Who doesn’t believe

or want to at least in the possibility of getting better?

And so when we say the rest is history we mean

not only keep the moon, your hands, and your hydrangeas out of poems

but that the whole of it, what we kill each other over, is a pepper’s ghost


because if anything’s real it’s what’s off center somewhere

on the other side of the mirror, which is no less difficult a phantom

to fathom than the possibility of a new being. Maybe I will leave

this room and be the first to breach the silence, be like a telemarketer

trained to refuse to listen, to hear one word as another,


trained to press on and not to wait, because it’s not true

that the one to speak first loses, that there must be a loser, or losses,

that any of it zeroes out. It’s not like a model for monogamy

exists, like marriage is the only thing improved by fear, uncertainty,

and doubt. Maybe I’m really a 5 with a 6 and a 3 wing. Maybe


I’ve failed the one test I most sought to pass: don’t disappoint

the trace of Thoreau which finds no value in outward conformity consoled-

slash-tempered by the delusion of inward independence. He would hate

me for spending $200 on an 1865 first edition of his letters,

edited by Emerson, at an antiquarian bookshop in Sonoma. He would hate


Sonoma and curse me for liking to get drunk, and no not on the liquor

of esoteric doctrines. He would not appreciate the rigorous

contradiction at the heart of my economy, an insufficient wildness

compounded by a failed domestication. He would have an even greater disdain

for the digital scan now freely available of this collection,


or the fact that a market exists where it fetches a thousand dollars.

Let what’s gone stay gone, HDT would say, so long as those present stay perfect.

In a letter dated 1842 to Lucy Brown—the woman who introduced him

to RWE (her brother-in-law), a passionate attachment biographers call it (a cathexis

later transferred to Mrs. Emerson)—he says about his tetanic late brother:


I do not wish to see John again—I mean him who is dead—but that other,

whom only he would have wished to see, or to be,

or whom he was the imperfect representative. For we are not what

we are, nor do we treat or esteem each other for such,

but for what we are capable of being. But when I say that I’m capable


of anything I usually mean that which would land me in the clink or sink me.

But as it is I cosplay each day as a respectable person, not

letting on that I’d rather be looking at naked people on the Internet,

lost in a trance-like tryst with a beautiful stranger

with no concern for discerning between realms of the real and imagined.


But such dispassion, trenchant metaphysics notwithstanding, is a luxury,

a species of dissolution, unaffordable to or by my rioting brothers and sisters

who rise in protest, who burn their own neighborhoods, who go to jail,

who live and die in ways as beyond me as the essence of God is beyond us all.

What kind of creator sky deity admires much less preaches poverty?


One who’s never lived in squalor or want or gone to a shitty school or

hasn’t grown up under an omnipresent threat of violence.

One whose genealogy is not generations of the oppressed and ghettoed

who was not the subhuman other on whose backs the new money

that became the old money was made. If Jesus returns, and that’s a pretty


big if, the rapture will not disappear the virtuous but open up the prisons—

it says right here: the Lord looseth the prisoners—

for what else did a Christ say the gist of his project was but wholesale reversal:

to bring what’s dead to life, to sight the blind, to release the captives,

so by Latin raptus (to carry off or snatch away) he must mean


to return them. We must confront the possibility that things haven’t turned out

as intended; there is no end at which all things will be unfolded,

no arc or entelechy toward which the human history, despite what nature implies

by analogy, moves. Truly, I say unto you, only the addict

can know self denial and earthquakes happen because plate tectonics;


the crust floats atop the lithosphere asthenosphere boundary, a six-mile thick

slurry of sludgy rock, and when the plates shift we see

what we’re worth—no birds get harmed—and under the rubble of temples

we can’t protect we understand how limited the dithyramb of justice will prove.

On the day my father was born Jung gave a seminar on Zarathustra


in Zurich, where he examined and explicated the image of the serpent and eagle,

and asked what does it mean for chthonic snake to encircle the neck

of inspirited accipiter, the animal under the sun and the cleverest

animal under the sun—out on reconnaissance as Nietzsche says?

Something to do with inverting the age-old clash between Geist-slash-Grund:


If we forget that we also consist of a living body, and try to live

in an entirely spiritual medium, the body is going to suffer; and inasmuch

as the body suffers the mind is affected too. It’s a terrible strain on our minds

when we are not right with our bodies. So though he hopes

that his beasts will guide him, it is very questionable they will.


My father, a man’s man who lived to mow his lawn and keep his trees trimmed,

who if born to a decadent age, like his sons, would have manscaped—

such a lover, so wanting to please—like he landscaped,

with delight and care. He wore a bronze belt buckle with a flying eagle

icon in low relief, probably swag from some manager’s seminar


years before he failed to learn to keyboard or realized he didn’t give a shit to master

much less muddle through with modern business; mail and bills

to pay he kept in a hollowed out tortoise shell, and a taxidermied deer

head hung above his desk. What did it mean to find a book of bondage porn he owned?

What does it mean to be uncursed with knowledge of him drunk or naked?


He never went to church but read the Bible every day; I have no idea

what, besides Republican orthodoxy, he believed in,

no clue what—beyond Kentucky, maybe, his Southern sense of honor & duty,

or between history and family—mattered to him most.

Why was it tough to understand, when I asked him if he even loved


me, what it meant for him to say because you’re mine? I wonder what hamartias

bequeathed to me—let’s give a metaphor the benefit of doubt—

what inbred inadequacies, I’ve fated my sons

to bear without even trying: incarceration fears? feeble lungs? the stronghold

of lusts and arcane dispositions masked by convention?


a thralldom to pain and the body and blessed rot? Whatever, we perform it (invent

your antecedent) again and again. Noah’s curse of Canaan,

what church fathers called the creation of servitude, followed Ham’s discovery

of his uncovered father, drunk on the dirt of his tent—that plagued

soil—and laughed about it with his brothers.


What does any of this explain, this pericope that Byzantine as well as

antebellum bastards said sanctioned enslavement and segregation of the races?

Jesus said, according to Thomas: Woe to the flesh

which depends on the soul; woe to the soul which depends on the flesh.

One man’s theologoumena is another man’s dogma (G. dogma), which means opinion anyway.


We have failed to advance Paul’s Haustafel, the household code that reset the relations of all

things in accordance with the cosmic org chart.

Today we believe in extraterrestrials, that love consists in honoring what already exists.

Why was you father so angry, you ask, at anyone not like him?

Racism seemed the most natural thing imaginable.


You remember the scene—of course you don’t—at least it seems as if because

the story was told so many times—he’s in the kitchen of a morning,

standing at the window, drinking his weak Folgers, plus milk with 3 sugars,

and looks out onto the neighbor’s basketball court where a bunch

of n-word kids were playing, and he knew right then he had to get us out of there.


You are rendered so unsure of yourself, want so much to speak right,

to teach your children to navigate relating with blind ease, you are trying to describe

the little girl who expressed sadness that your son had missed school,

you hesitate to even call the girl black;

is she maybe just the one with pig tails? In Claudia Rankine’s Citizen:


For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you

as a person. |But| Our very being exposes us to the address of another; we suffer from

the condition of being addressable. You begin to understand yourself as rendered hyper-

visible in the fact of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to

exploit all the ways that you are present.


Maximal Presence: submit wholly to the pledge you made to submit wholly.

He who gives himself entirely to his fellow-men, Thoreau says,

appears to them useless and selfish; this falsehood one must simply learn to live with.

You have of course learned the limit of how far you’ll go, that virtue

in part is a kind of devouring. Simone Weil’s lays this bare in her Terrible Prayer.


Father, in the name of Christ, grant me this. That I might be beyond

any condition to make any movement of my body, obey any of my wishes, like a total paralytic.

That I might be unable to receive any sensation. That I might

be beyond any condition to put two thoughts together. That I might be insensible to any kind

of pain and joy, and incapable of any love for any being and for any thing.


Here is a book its author would prefer not exist, [I, Afterlife], an attempt

to account for the grief of a father’s suicide, a failure,

of course, which commits the insult of being beautiful, which breaks

down along the fault line of language, which made me

feel, as I read it in the tub on a Sunday morning, what a fuck-up I’d create


in the wake of helping myself to the other side, as I often wish to,

even if I ushered in some art. I asked a group of high school girls the other day

what was more important, that people are happy or that art

gets made, and they to a one chose the person over the work, but had no idea

that it’s the work of elegy to constitute and maintain an image of the person.


It posits: the elegiac tradition as it evolves is perhaps no longer concerned with articulating

the unspeakable :::::::::::::::::::::::: / ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

but rather with… / rather… / That sentence cannot be completed. / At least

not how it began. / To start again. /// Our eyes are not the only way

we see things. Is this what / I’m trying to say


Then I remembered the vision that kicked off this congregation of concerns,

A poem begging to be named “Grand Theft Auto Examination of Conscience”

that someone should write, for of course those games

are godless hellish anything-goes crime-pays landscapes—depraved (i.e.

warped, subverted, perverted, debauched, debased, degraded, defiled, sullied, polluted)


and wicked, deprived and wicked as if by capillary action of values

we (we good people) consider redeemed or redeeming or redeemable, able (i.e.)

to be bought back, returned, like a redemptioner, an indentured,

to an ordered status of legitimate, permissible, admissible, approved, paid up,

free and all clear. The point then as now as always is the pleasure


of roaming an open world, even a throwback car-jacktastic world we’d never live in,

a less linear life of diminished consequences and restraint,

where every action’s reaction—cop shoot-outs, wrecked cars, dead pedestrians,

gangstaland drug-runs, gangsterland hits, and motorcycle tricks—

metes out its effects by heart power and cash haul, lung capacity and ammo clips,


with the ultimate consolation, if a mission goes south, of new hope in the respawn,

the re-up, the glory of the unlimited life cheat code.

As with anything else, it’s impossible to know what must be known

without putting in the time. So much education just to turn up money without bloodshed

or jail time, finding hidden packages or picking up hookers


(to get your ride rocked you need a sports car and some cash,

good for a road-side plus-twenty-five hit points).

But what does it even mean, to call a thing, or a place, or person godless?

If one believes in a god at all, could a space, virtual or real, exist

or be opened where that god could flee from and not only into?


And there’s the question of what is meant by the whole heart—with all your kardia,

all your psyche and ischus and your dianoia, too—this specious

business of Kierkegaard’s that purity of heart is to will one thing when a man

can easily enough be double-, triple-, or four-hearted

like the hag fish, which feeds on the dead (i.e. tradition) like necromancers and poets.


And of course, of course, this place must exist beyond good and evil, as he says:

Whether it be hedonism, pessimism, utilitarianism, or eudaemonism,

all those modes of thinking which measure the worth of things according to PLEASURE

and PAIN are naivetes, which every one conscious of CREATIVE powers

and an artist’s conscience will look down upon with scorn, though not without sympathy.


No truth’s stopped anyone from trying to be true, and why should it

in the absence of ironclad thou-shalt-nots, in the absence of dire repercussions?

Where any thing and any one is a possible center of profit?

In the terms of St. Paul, any uncircumcision can be made to appear equal to

or better than every other uncircumcision. And maybe it is.


In GTA the negated deity may be that stuff-strutting, ditty-humming Huggy Bear-type,

a bedizened nobodaddy bedeviled by nothing but equally vulnerable to side-swipes.

But everywhere else, where the venerable laws of physics apply,

it’s one more word of unknown origin, a contested dereliction, striving alongside the rest

of us drudges to split the differences, into which the whole of it must be thrown.


Gertrude Stein learned this, the whole Room section of Tender Buttons says this.

Why is the name changed The name is changed because

in the little space there is a tree,

in some space there are no trees, in every space there is a hint of more,

all this causes the decision.


We live with the notional understanding that our every act is translated into data.

I live inside somebody’s metrical calculation

within tolerance, within spec, within the emerging delta of marriage.

Why is it so hard for people to see

that what they believe in changes nothing that is? In terms of what they call


owning the stack, we do not own our own stacks. Out of the foaming foment of finitude, spirit

rise up fragrantly, Hegel prayed. I would have said flagrantly.

The violence is inevitable, the clash of even what appears like tenderness,

when our duty is to another’s body, the negotiation of bodies,

and we realize at once and for all that we belong to much more than belongs to us.


For nobody knows himself, Novalis says, if he is only himself

and not also another at the same time. There are times we are tyrannized

by another’s thought, Henry Miller goes on, hapless victims, a possession that occurs

in periods of depersonalization, when the warring selves come unglued.

To ask the purpose of this game [of writing],


how it is related to life, is idle. The artist’s game is to move

over into reality. It has been so and will be so until man ceases to regard himself

as the mere seat of conflict. Until he takes up the task

of becoming the I of his I. Never will I want to write a poem about the 14 million

bees that spilled, spectacularly, onto a Washington highway,


when their grove-bound semi overturned, what with its built-in thematic peril,

its inescapable, overbrimming symbolism. Beekeepers convened

to recover them, but most were lost; everyone was stung; bee colonies are difficult

to save, once ruptured, because the entire hive must stay intact,

with its single queen, the worker bees and attendant bees.


But what good is so much theoria when there’s so much dog shit to clear each day?

No good will come, today, from so much stress over the objet petit a,

over formulas to unlock the promised paradoxes. The care with which the rain is wrong

and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care

with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. I close the book and go to her.



From the Artist: 

While I can hope it stands on its own, this poem is part of a longer work in progress called Utopiary which, broadly speaking, explores questions of apocalypse and perfectibility, the human inclination toward not only these ends but any projected and aimed for end, idealisms of any kind which remove us from the real present and, more importantly, from real presences. This section is a response (and a reaction) to the book of Philemon, and in particular Philemon 1:12, “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you,” which I found pleasingly ambiguous and pregnant with possibility beyond its context. Not that its context—Paul in prison, writing on behalf of a slave to his owner—isn’t suggestive enough. Christianity, like most religions, is grounded in a rigorous idealism, even as it attempts to deal with humanity in ruthlessly realistic terms, and the poem explores the question of human autonomy in its relation to images of bondage, and of life in relation to images of death, both central tropes of the Christian imaginary which inform history as well as the domestic quotidian in myriad, mostly disastrous, but occasionally beautiful, ways. As Hannah Arendt writes, “To raise the question, what is freedom? seems to be a hopeless enterprise.” Yet, still, we do.







John Estes directs the Creative Writing OProgram at Malone University in Canton, Ohio and is a visiting faculty member of Ashland University’s Low-Residency MFA. He is author two books, Kingdom Come (C&R Press, 2011) and Stop Motion Still Life (Wordfarm, forthcoming), and two chapbooks: Breakfast with Blake at the Laocoön (Finishing Line Press, 2007) and Swerve, which won a National Chapbook Fellowship from the Poetry Society of America.

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This poem is copyrighted by the artist and used here by permission.

Curated by Kent Shaw.

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