"Hungry Ghost Dance" and "Recovery"

Hungry Ghost Dance

“In the etymological sense of the word, sacrifice is nothing other than the production of sacred things.” - Georges Bataille

Call it a landslide caught
in the blurred sepia tone
from the over-processed film:

most have forgotten 
the hellfire Buddhists, preaching
of ghosts born in 

the Narakas. I can preach to
myself--burn the joss
money, smear the ashes

on my face and body
until it runs like varicose
veins.  I laughed to stop

crying, when my brother
shot himself in the jaw
near the hospital on

Hemlock street.  In the
desert of air of Torreon,
I went to courtyard under

the thinning shade of the
lime tree, I punched the wall,
under the glass shards

embedded in the mortar,
it shook like the nervous shark
fins in a shallow saltwater

pools. Blood on bricks,
I told my other brother
hours later: “At least,

this is one time, I am
glad he fucked things
up.”  Whoever. Old.

Ancient humor.  Who
speaks for lost, says
I am not home.  My

brother has been drinking,
but I can’t smell whiskey
sweat from Georgia

humidity in the aridity
of the North Mexican
desert. Great-tailed

Grackles mock me
in the evening air. Cállate
zenate, hijo de puta,

sneer. Superimposition,
we move back beyond
the cagey sagebrush

and citrus trees.  I bow
to each of 109 male beads
near the Geuknakjeon in front

of Amitabha from under
the paper lanterns for
Buddha’s birthday, I carefully

hide my fingernails from
the view of the bhikkhus,
hurrying about in gray

robes.  It is deep going
from here, from one very
old world to one that we

have known for even less
time.  A foreigner ghost, pale
in a moon.  I slur the mantras

and the psalms, we profane
as prayers. What use is a pure
land near the South China Sea?

The ghosts will come soon, hungry
for anything we can burn to them,
my brother’s jaw wired tight, his

hearing in the left ear gone, but
his mistakes buy him more time,
I will groan out syllables in broken

Hebrew or Sanskrit from ritual books
I barely read.  The temperature feels
far beyond boiling. The door, the wind

cuts through, let the ghosts from one karmic
thread to the other.  All the world
is burning. We will sail by its light,

the ghosts will dance to Santa Muerte.
My blood will dry on bricks. My brother’s
beard will comb over the stitched scar.

I carry the desert with me. I am joss
abraded in fire.  The landslide of
the desert in the only August rain.




I sit near the window
slurping noodles in Cairo’s
Chinatown. The muezzin
crooning adhan over loud

speakers in the minaret:
my wife is an ocean away,
mosquitos rest on the other side
of the glass in the collecting

sand and road dust. Watching
mosquitos hover--tiny wings
pressing against the sky, the subtle
familiar feeling of watching double-
breasted cormorants at the water’s
edge near Fort Pulaski. Spring comes

to us in the desert like a negligee, briefly
alluring then gone. All the faint hints of
sex sandblasted away by the dry heat. Young
women in hijabs sit in the cloistered groups,
the Chinese couple next to me smile over the glow

of smartphones. Expatriates dine around me, 
foreigners here,  even foreign to each other:  
memories of the haunting Civil War memorials, 

Imaging cannon fire near the splayed wings
of black feathers on Cockspur Island, dreaming of being
anywhere but Georgia. Reflections of Georgia spy on me 
here in Cairo, but  I am thinking about my wife’s dyed red hair. 
Making  memories in vein, without a needle but in the blood, 

I fake solemnity and self-negation, finish my meal.
Mosquito swarm about my face, sweat beads on
my brow. Emptiness was more fun to write about
before navigating the corridors of cancer wards, orderlies
offering me water as I waited, distracting my peering
at frailer hands, bruising from butterfly needles,

loose bundles of hats to cover increasing balding heads.
The tumors shrinking down to harmless masses now, I go
back to my apartment, the green neon of the mosque lights
cast a pale hue across my living room. Distance is space.
Space is time. The convolution of memory and space, my hands
shake slightly, my beak seems hooked to rip the day apart,

breaking the choice viscera of the sky to her, to feed her since she is still. 
Not a ghost like the Confederate and Union dead, not like the giants on tombs,
one can see through the rays of the sun on the edge of Cairo. In the stillness
of the apartment, my cat purrs and whines batting at my feathers.



C. Derick Varn

C Derick Varn is a poet, podcaster, and teacher. He served as assistant editor for Arts and Letters: A Journal of Contemporary Arts, managing editor for the defunct Milkweed Review, founding editor for Former People, and was a reader for Zero Books. He won the Frankeye Davis Mayes/Academy of American Poets Prize in 2003. He is the author of the collections Apocalyptics (Unlikely Books, 2018), and Liberation, and all the other bright etcetera (Mysterioso Books, 2022). He currently lives in Utah but spent most of the last decade outside of the US. He hosts the politics, history, and culture podcast, Varn Vlog. Derick recommends the Huntsman Cancer Institute and Doctors without Borders.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Monday, July 2, 2018 - 11:16