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by Rachel Custer


for the men whose names I’ve swallowed

Stunted man, little tree, more reach than might,

who, being moved by wind, claims wind to move,

throw what shade you can. Too soon the night

subsumes you, falseness first, that shadow you’ve

cast like a lie you tell about your size.

Shade: false shelter, net knit with no thread,

self made of tricks played on another’s eyes,

fake cape thrown over nakedness. Proud head,

secondhand crown, you’ve bought your own façade:

king of a land doubled dark on another’s land,

pretending god over smaller pretending gods.

Shade is stolen sun in your grasping hand,

the truth of you laid bare by another’s glow,

without whose light your shape you’d never know.

without whose light, your shape? you’d never know,

still life in black on undiluted black.

Shade: the light in ink, the dark in snow,

the sun our night retains. What desperate lack!

to be the kind of man to dream new worlds,

then dream in monochrome. To hold the power

to render storms, great thunderheads unfurled

across a painted sky, advance the hour

by color choice alone—and then to choose

to flatten life for your own comfort’s sake.

You would steal the beauty from the bruise.

You would smooth the danger from the lake.

Shade, cast once away, will chase more shade

to absence, flat and undisturbed decay.

To absence, flat and undisturbed decay!

Fading man, earthbound alone by faith

that you are chained: gray shade, it’s words that weigh

you down, unspoken, heavy on your wraith-

like tongue. All truth you do not speak you lose,

bit by bit, like embers fleeing fire,

soon leaving ash alone, and you to choose

between your scripted part in a useless choir

and silence, having no truth left to speak.

You, who, having filled your belly full

of empty praise, now scrape along truth’s maw,

tongue wrecked up against the cracking hull

of futility, your worthless jaw

a broken piston, chewing only air.

Console yourself: nobody will know, or care.

Console yourself. Nobody will know, or care,

just where you draw yourself, decorative shade,

owned to eat the light. A little flair,

newest design, each stitch an accolade

to taste. A banner hung to testify:

the owners of this house, above reproach

as far as fashion goes. (What greater lie

has ever been? Righteousness a brooch,

fine shoes, the newest threads, and nothing more?)

Shade: a veil between us and the light,

pretty enough for now to steal our eyes,

made to search for truth. Your noon is night,

you fool us into dimness, call it wise.

Trending now is soon do you recall

why we needed any shade at all?

Why we needed any shade at all:

we never have, we don’t, we never will.

You be the pride, I’ll proudly be the fall.

You buy the bar a round, I’ll be the bill.

If you’re the revolution, I’ll be peace.

If you’re the money, I’m what can’t be bought.

You be the clenching fist, I’m the release.

You be the cutting words, I’ll be the plot.

If you’re the shade, I’ll be the noonday sun.

You be the newest thing, I’ll be the last.

If you’re despair, I’ll gladly bring the fun.

I’ll be the art to your iconoclast.

I’ll be the silence to your constant noise.

I’ll burn the club right down. You stay old boys.


Rachel Custer the author of Flatback Sally Country (Terrapin Books) and The Temple She Became (Five Oaks Press, 2017). She was a 2019 NEA fellow. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals, including Rattle, Valparaiso Poetry Review, OSU: The Journal, B O D Y, One Art, and The American Journal of Poetry, among others. She currently resides online at


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