Not Holding the Gun

First Prize, New Ohio Review Poetry Contest selected by Robert Pinsky

By Keith Kopka

Featured Art: Spring Flowers by Claude Monet

Knowledge of crime is a crime
even if one is not committed
by participation. At this cookout,
in a parallel universe, a version
of me lifts the gun, considers
its weight a handful of peanuts.
Another variant lets off a shot
into Godless sky, a traditional
celebration of manhood, in
the dimension of Texas oil barons.

I have a self who understands
breech-bolt action, another
who can separate grip cap
and butt stock, put them back
blindfolded, turn shotgun into
sawed off. In our current rotation
of speed and light, his pump
action is between us on the table.
The cookout has been great,
and I’m glad his sister, my date,
invited me. His mother is grilling
cow tongue. The whole gang’s
here to celebrate Marshmallow’s
release after three years in prison,
he’s at the grill asking for a fourth
helping. The word Rascal carved
in his chest like a pacemaker scar.
In the universe of wooden nickels,
I am best friends with this blunt
instrument. Of course, this isn’t
the universe where we live. My date’s
brother is asking if I’m interested
in a job, simple robbery, I get a part
of the product, but he needs me
because I’m white, because it won’t
get back to his gang, or the black
gangs, if a white man robs a white
man of some drugs. I’ve noticed
I’m the only guy at the cookout
wearing a shirt. Her brother
has a tattoo of two devils balanced
on the top of a mountain range.
It covers his whole stomach.
He tells me if I shoot the guy,
when I rob him, it’s okay, but if I kill
there’s nothing in this world
he can do to help me. Marshmallow
settles himself in a deck chair,
eyes closed, the meat on the grill
smells like warm wood. Hungry
is the only word I can think of.


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

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