John Estes

Beside This Stack of Ungraded Papers

​It feels too much always ready-to-hand, this turbid sensation of ready-
to-rupture, a spade-broken slice of ocean, an inexplicable –philia that hangs on and threatens to disappoint or slow everything it touches,
like the marathon runner who by mile five is walking. I recently saw

a photoshopped image of a woman’s body (I’ll send it to you), her flesh
inter-stitched with tiny metal zipper teeth, stop to stop across the navel,

and all I could think about was the expenditure of human consciousness,
about stupid and misguided wastes of time that nature qua nature ennobles,

like the hundred small worms a rainstorm runs aground writhing that later
dry into an artist’s rendering of bent Twiglets (remember those?). I know

it must sound banal, to say that a scene like kids scrounging for snacks
in their tote bags to feed the fatted squirrels finds me attuned to the day

as it passes, to my breath as it passes, to the tall sun and its blinding
22-degree halo as it passes, to the four-year-old-who-will-bury-me as

he runs past on his way to the swings, to the fourteen billion light years
between here and the edge of the beginning that can’t go on forever

(can it?). On these cringe-worthy occasions when I agonize most over my
corrupt and Bond-villainesque tendency to string along tasks that should

have been finished hours ago, when I think about my colleague who turns
back papers the next day, who because he could trained for a marathon

then gave up running, whom everybody trusts and wants at the center
of every decision because he, so Lenten in his composure, says what God

must think, it’s then that I feel most abandoned to being who I am, who I’ve
always been, whatever kind of empty cartridge that proves. But the next

hunger comes on and before long I’m insatiable again for a new conversion,
like Thomas, who like any functional sociopath discovers the wound through

which he has to crawl to get back to where he started. Not sure why it was
you I called from the car (thanks for picking up), from inside the garage,

before I shut off the engine but only after I saw the planet’s fate should I close
the overhead door, even though I felt, with unconcealed clarity and dread,

the imperative to die, maybe the same sensation my childhood neighbor felt
when she cradled her husband’s .38 Special to the backyard, opened her skull

to an early Sunday sunrise from which she’d never asked so much. Ridiculous,
I know, to consider myself a survivor, as if that excuses every pleasure I assure

myself I deserve. Life is hard enough only goes so far (but yeah it goes pretty far),
however the law shall judge. Still, I wager hell will teem with virtuous damned

who failed the only test that mattered; so let the shiv that lord and savior
took for good measure be one more bit of evidence they can bag. Who am I

to believe my cuts will heal or fractured selves meld into blissful union? A man
should carry a knife, my dad liked to say—you just never know; he showed

me how lucky that man is who escapes intact with the mortgage paid. It’s true
one knot seems to precede another, but readiness trumps the sharpness of a blade.


John Estes directs the Creative Writing Program at Malone University in Canton, Ohio and is on the visiting faculty of Ashland University’s Low-Residency MFA. He is author of Kingdom Come (C&R Press, 2011), 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.