Excerpts from ‘An Able Physiologist’

New Work

5: Between Chain Gangs, Lead Belly is Hired to Serenade Baptisms in the Holy Spirit, Two Performances


Take a great notion of Saturdays and morphine
and reduce it to a river scene, Irene and I
at play amidst a minstrel. The song of goodnight
and ways of parting; I begged her not to go,
I begged her, but she felt the trees and the water
were like my sick soul. She left singing a lyric
about drowning that had long been my own thought,
to return to my wife and family with no breath
and the knives of Texarkana in my neck
and the underaged of Louisiana saddled with seed
and all the things I’d never touched (not even my face)
or did but kept bitter and close to my wife and family
who bid return, return. All of these dreams
reduce to a river, Irene led me to the river
and she baptised me there with promises
of ghosts and fire. She left. I fell into a great
and deep notion that I would kiss her in dreams.


And I went down to the river to pray, never knowing another way, baptised my feet in a font of stones, O lord, let me drown. O lord, you let me drown, you let me go deep and you let me drown, I surfaced with a dirt robe and a grass crown, I went down to the river to pray. I realized I lost my way, I couldn’t find where the choir had gone, but O lord, you showed me the way. On my knees and on my hands, my face in the water and my breath at last, a great draught of river in my lungs and the Sunday preacher at bay, O lord, I met you today. O lord the men and women laughed in the branches that reach to show me what’s free! O lord, I exchanged the slave’s song for more but it couldn’t be, O lord, I see

your starry crown, the splintered hooves that beat good men down, you never knew what I know now, tempted but you never agreed, ask the born what happened before they were anointed by leaves, O lord it is so sweet to be

rid of me, you let me drown, I sank down yes I wanted to go down, down past where searchers from the town see, O lord, they won’t find my body. There is no hell, no baptismal fire, no archangel balancing upon a wire, no dusty revivalist choir singing woodland hymns and stroking lyres, no band of lovers looking concerned, no sheriff or constable marking probable paths.

O lord.

My lungs burned as I became heavenly,
this river claimed me at long and at last, the church of the present is built on the rock of the past, John dipped my head and silenced the reborn in the trees,

O lord, you showed me the dream.

8: Our Forensic Shakespeareans Present An Interesting Case History Called “In Thy Orisons, Ashley Smith”


The apples in my hand like those dispensed by fairy-tale witches: once ingested, they incarcerate dreams. I once lived with my mother in a grim land, a place where apples appeared in the orchard perennial. I ate apples and I slept in the pained refrain of bondage of self, in five-point restraint and spit-shield, the sixth needle in my arm, drugs in the bore spouting sleep, drugs that praise “You are better at rest, listen, calm down, submit” to arms and legs and bodies granted to my chest, pressing my thought to pulse and compressed breath, sleep into dreams themselves restraints. No, no orchard, just one scrub tree spitting gnarled fruit a week a year. Once in a fairy tale I was told I reached for the bough that slung low, that I shook it for a rain of projectiles. My mother hid me in this wrong orchard because she first dreamed me there. In dreams I want to fuck my guards, my doctors, I want to fuck the needles. I want the needles in my pouch. I lick the walls to look crazy, I like the taste. No one knows when I’ll hit them in the face.  As they reach for the ties I go for the eyes and smile and say “Do you like to watch” and I get bed sores for punishment, get drugs that knock me down like chairs, bed-sores the crown of the immobile high tone I’ve perfected accentual and green, with waves, the small black stem puncturing the green. With the green in my hand, as a princess, I watched him come for me with messages.  I wanted to give him a dream but saw him reject the gift and refuse the bough of my face.  I gathered a dozen more of the fruit, held them in the hem of my sun dress, waited and watched as dreams became confused and wandered into the forest of fairy tale and their policies of no intervention, blue, engorged blue as per policy, the weight on my chest, the ligature on my neck, if they come in too soon they fuck me as I blind them, I am that message, o love just three years ago the Petitcodiac wondered if it could arise and go now. I walked to the river and threw dreams into its polluted breast. Moncton’s grime and debris coated the green but yet kept it afloat, armouring it. I entered the water in my sun dress and brought the apple back to my breast, the apple emerging dark and particulate. It tasted like walls. That month I spent in bed, with a fever no doctor could dream right. I slept with the apple core

The centre of attention?
The world of my mother is alone.
“Where is Ashley?” isn’t a question.
Truth in kind is not kind.
Made to be entangled,
blood-decorated at birth, suspect human,
who’ll untie me ever after, who’ll me kiss me alive?

under the pillow, a broken pearl of dream this interpretation: needles and cores are the same injection. To see the poor guards hate what I want which is to see them angry, never feel until I’m hated, the crazy one with the fevers and feints, don’t come in too soon to see the candy and the oven. In church I once heard the priest talk of Saint Teresa, slings and arrows, outrageous fortune, apples.

“In the orison of union,” says Saint Teresa, “the soul is fully awake as regards God, but wholly asleep as regards things of this world and in respect of herself. During the short time the union lasts, she is as it were deprived of every feeling, and even if she would, she could not think of any single thing. Thus she needs to employ no artifice in order to arrest the use of her understanding: it remains so stricken with inactivity that she neither knows what she loves, nor in what manner she loves, nor what she wills. In short, she is utterly dead to the things of the world and lives solely in God… I do not even know whether in this state she has enough life left to breathe. It seems to me she has not; or at least that if she does breathe, she is unaware of it. Her intellect would fain understand something of what is going on within her, but it has so little force now that it can act in no way whatsoever. So a person who falls into a deep faint appears as if dead.” [preceding paragraph taken verbatim from William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience]

I had the apple core in my pocket, hardened into black. The priest wore the billowing robes of Gertrude, sang off key at an altar draped in quilted banners, the tree of life erupting in the banners, the tree of life shining in stained glass, the tree of life grows aslant the brook, the tree of life bears its fruit to fall upon the polluted water.  Possessed of image, I wanted to be clean but the multifaith chaplain came and he wouldn’t fuck me. I asked him to exorcise me, to fuck me. I licked the walls and showed him my tits and told him it was the same thing, right, to be clean? I threw away these dreams and let the tree of life throw its shadow: on my face loosed of hell, to speak of horrors, the method of my face a shadow cast by the bars of this place. The tree of life, rooted in the ground, can never be free. The roots exist in the black of the Petitcodiac, the black roar that envelops the green, the black that nourishes the boughs. I cannot see the sun move. I doubt it moves. I am dying, crying wolf, as the guards are told to watch with whips and scorns. They goad me in anger, sing Resurgo. Was I five years old when I first heard the tidal bore? I ask guards for apples as I tie my neck. I fight them if they enter too soon. I have hours to be wrong.  Guards away, I’m rooted in a Monktown of flood plain and scrub orchard.  Guards come on the shadow on my face, they come as sorrows not single spies but battalions, shove an apple in my mouth, fucking pig, I ate the apple long ago, the apple perennial, an apple with seeds that grew into the tree of life.

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Shane Neilson

SHANE NEILSON is a poet from New Brunswick. He will publish The River and The Road, a book of criticism on Maritime poetry, with the Porcupine’s Quill in 2017.