James Cagney

James Cagney

Oakland native James Cagney is the author of Black Steel Magnolias In The Hour of Chaos Theory, winner of the PEN Oakland 2019 Josephine Miles award. His poems have appeared in Alta, Poetry Daily, Colossus: Home, The Maynard, and Civil Liberties United, among others. Visit Nomadicpress.org for his book, and more writing at TheDirtyRat.blog

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3 AM

awoke again at three in the morning
at that hour, the world sounds buried
i opened the curtains
to a blueblack sky bruised with clouds

before anything could be decided
the power cut off
streetlights blew out at once
houses submerged to sleep

right then, i missed you

every you i have ever known

i am your hollowness drawn thru the vacuum of space

silence suckling milk from my eardrums
compelled me back to bed
despite my radar scanning.

the ceiling fan, the fridge
every invisible motor whirred to a stop.

i touched my throat

the sky ceased to promised anything else
ghosts held their corners
drew up the ectoplasmic lace of their skirts

from bed, i reached out far as i could
feeling between the ribs of a dead animal

longing for even an echo of illness
or rapture howling its lasers to spite the moon


new years day 2020–
fourteen years a guest at her table,
my first caller after midnight
finally mispronounced my name.

she choked on fermented
black eyed peas
and together we mourned
the ending of things.

after that, only robot
marketers would call
just to let me know
how much longer i had to live.


The awful virus of it; the expectations of genius
arising out of nothing mere attention to the banal.

Over the years I’ve learned to just watch it and wait.
There’s an old haiku about writers block:

Disobedient poems! They never come
When you call. Heal, u sombitch. Heal.

But even if I sat still in the grass after a rain
there’s no promise any words would approach.

There are enough poems about rain. Is any-
thing left? What melodies play between blades

of grass? Does rain get an afterlife? Are there poems
wetting one’s pants? One should

never write a poem about poetry. It seems
counterintuitive; like getting a receipt for a

receipt. Yet I remain afflicted with writer’s
block. I toss, I turn, I can’t

break the fever of wanting. I’ve exchanged
telepathic glances with birds

read The Scoville Heat Scale for
Chili Peppers and Hot Sauces

and gasped when I saw cloud forms appear
to hold hands while skipping over mountains.

But I failed writing a poem about it
because its obvious, right? You’ve

seen it. Besides, I felt choked up
wanting my own hand held and felt

envious. Envious of clouds. Envious
of the first graze of rain across a mouth.

There are things I haven’t yet written
as there are prayers God won’t take

responsibility for. Prayers like dead
batteries. Prayers like toxic medicines.

Perhaps one could ask here:
What’s the difference between Prayer and

poetry? That’s one way to confront a
block. Ask questions: How would you

spend today if you were a goat
or a dolphin or a cloud reaching

out for another cloud while leaping
over mountains like stepping

over cousins sleeping on your dining
room floor. Every day there are miracles

and moments of beauty that need
poems; Unchaperoned flowers making

love in a field of grass. Cephalopodic
clouds shifting color, texture and giggling

rain — animals that stop and appear to admire the
light at dusk. They seem contemplative, thinking

having realized something. If only, If only…