By Keith Kopka
Featured Art: The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse) by Albert Pinkham Ryder
Young John Wayne leaps, without effort,
onto the back of a Palomino, and I know
he’ll catch the leader of the Taylor Gang
for what he’s done to his woman. He’ll swing
for this one. Wayne is ruthless, but it’s hard
to forget him cut open for cancer research,
the forty pounds of meat wadding through
his colon like a saddle strap. You and Wayne
have a lot in common: doctor’s hands
searched the mineshaft of your stomach,
catalogued what they took, then fastened
you with a wandering stitch. Still, nothing
extracted from anyone can explain why
the body takes revenge on the body.
Hanging is the ninth most popular
suicide method behind gunshot to chest;
it has an almost seventy-eight percent
success rate, and takes seven minutes.
In the west, thousands gathered
to watch hanging judges size bight
and neck, and after the bags dropped
some took pieces of the scaffold or rope
as keepsakes. You hung, too.
I still have the pair of shoes you loaned
me in gym class on a nail hook
in the back of my closet.
Wayne and his bounty hunters use a horse
for the hanging under the only Joshua Tree
for fifty miles. The outlaw is forced
to straddle it. Then the shot, and I hear
the muffled punch of horseshoes
on clay. The camera steadies itself
on the twitch and climb of boot-heel
in air, there’s a clank of spur,
taut twine pops. Always the halo
of vultures, and the posse flatten
their hats against the sun. They pat
at the necks of their startled horses who wait
for the tug to signal it’s time for them
to carry their burdens back to town.
What gave you the guts
to stack bags of shingles beneath
the crossbeam of your parents’ deck?
I imagine the fire ants that nest between
the hot tar sheets pouring out to crawl
your ankles. As you pulled the rope tight,
in the lily heat did you swat at them,
or just step off?
Before you, the movies taught me
hanging was the only true option
for justice, and if you didn’t
deserve to die, someone
saved you, or the rope snapped,
and near-death experience turned
a decent man to revenge. I’ve spent hours
researching the techniques
of execution. Being a hangman
was a family profession. They call
your choice simple suspension: Your own
weight cut the air. In movies
nooses are always neat, but I have
trouble sizing a loop with the cord
of the vacuum my mom gave me
for Christmas. I wonder if it took you
as long to learn a sturdy knot, or if
it felt like you were born to it.
I read it takes seven minutes
to fall asleep, but Wayne can’t rest
because when he closes his eyes
he sees his wife washing clothes
at the river, then the water flashes
red and signals a Wilhelm scream
in his brain. Late at night, I lace
your shoes and go out on my deck.
Lack of sleep impairs moral judgment.
In your note, you said it was better to stop
than pretend life gave you satisfaction. The Duke
suffered for years, but there’s no sign of it
in the final scene when he loosens his neckerchief
and snaps his horse into a gallop. The movie
has ended. Everyone’s dead as when it began.
Keith Kopka is the author of Count Four (University of Tampa Press, 2020). His poetry and criticism have recently appeared in Best New Poets, Mid-American Review, The International Journal of The Book, and many others. He is also the author of Asking a Shadow to Dance: An Introduction to the Practice of Poetry. Kopka is a Senior Editor at Narrative Magazine and the Director of Operations for Writers Resist. He teaches in Philadelphia.
Originally published in NOR 18: Fall 2015