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Recorded for Poem-a-Day, November 30, 2016.
About this Poem 

“The architecture of ‘Key to the Kingdom’ is based on an early, anonymous nursery rhyme of the same name, which moves line by line from the universal to the particular and back out. This poem keys each of its first twelve stanzas to one of the nursery rhyme’s initial twelve lines. It was written over the course of the summer of 2016, during the Orlando night club shooting; police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philandro Castile in St. Paul; the July 7 ambush of police officers in Dallas; and the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.”

—Ted Mathys

Key to the Kingdom

July 2016

This is the key to the kingdom, rustproof
nickel silver, cut in the hardware aisle
by a man in uniform on a rotating steel 
carbide blade, a vice securing the blank,
the key’s rounded bow a medallion of sun
with a hole punched through to hang
on its galactic ring. Weightless in the palm,
the shoulder is sharp to mark the exact
depth of engagement. A jagged range
of peaks garnish the shaft, align
with wards in the pin tumbler keyway
and unlock the door, swung open to reveal

the kingdom. Of rain, of infancy, kingdom
of clapboard, concealed carry, of the night shift
at Frito-Lay, nuclear gerontology at Los Alamos,
L-shaped couches, tributaries of heroin up
the Mississippi basin, of prison writing workshops,
kingdom of arugula, of a slaughtered pee wee team
invoking the mercy rule, peaches and asters, of
helicopter cinematography, a girl blowing bubbles
over the river, of a poet unable to sustain
the Blakean conviction that all subjectivities,
predator and prey, are holy, that police are,
a coyote stalking the pinnacles, bald eagle at the zoo.

In that kingdom there is a state, “the state
with the prettiest name,” land of flowers
on the conquistador’s tongue, the state of 
brackish water, coastline and glade, made 
habitable by sugar and central air, porn mecca
with oranges, flakka zombie flail, grandchildren
lollygagging in manatee exhibits, space exploration
over a red tide choking the cape east of the polis  
where a dance club pulses until a man
enucleates its love. If blinded by hatred
of those unlike himself, or by hatred of himself,
the stem that anchors the thorn is the same. 

In that state there is a city, initiating its morning
thaw, flag over the courthouse at half mast,
a hollow sidewalk yawning to accept boxes of granola,
olives, wheels of manchego slid down into the deli’s
larder, newspapers slung at stoops from the window
of a crawling minivan, women in yoga pants
clutching Lululemon mats like scrolls, diesel exhaust,
certified nurses in scrubs streaming into the hospital
where a man bleeds from a hole in his still
uncertain future and a woman veers into labor,
the ovaries in the fetus in her womb already freighted
with all the egg cells her child will possess.

Over that city there is a forecast, severe weather,
a storm that hangs like a decaying gourd from twine
in the kingdom’s portico, gourd of a variety present
in the New World before Columbus, the exact moment
of its breaking impossible to predict but certain
to arrive when its curved neck can no longer
sustain the weight of its own rot and snaps, drops,
blows open nutty white flesh on steps below,
gale force and hail wrung out of the jet stream’s
trough and bulge contact zones, over grasslands then
south to the city where white men confuse any threat
to their absolute power as a form of persecution.

In that storm there is a house, its roofline lashed
by rain that courses down asphalt shingles
to decorative gables, slides over dormers,
pools in gutters then runs down downspouts
onto the saturated lawn, water wrapping the house
like a body in muslin. A house in old Colonial style
but thrown off by additions in the back, interior walls
subtracted for flow, a decade-by-decade replacement
of hardwood floors, fixtures, the chimney sealed up,
molting over generations each original element
like the ship of Theseus, this poem of slow violence
with bodies that change in a form that remains.

And now that she is at rest, poor woman,
now that the sky’s ritual errancies have tried
to sack her house and failed, and fled,
Justine is alone again. A black kerchief 
tied across her eyes, she measures in darkness
ground coffee beans strong as rocket fuel
on a digital scale, pours steaming water in circles
to bloom the beans. When the brew is rich
and viscous, she glides to her typewriter and writes
“In that house there is only this room.”
She removes her sword from the wall
and cuts the blindfold from her eyes.

In that room there is a bed, Justine’s bed,
tucked with hospital corners, quilt spread
tight as a drum skin and depicting a black cross
side to side, toe to head, marking the kingdom’s
epicenter in crosshairs beneath which she nightly 
slept. The bed is empty. Justine is gone. She drags
her sword through thick woods, alive with new 
perceptual acuity, hacking at brambles, hoverflies
mobbing her head as she reaches the brook, blade
glinting with orange flecks of sunset as she writes
the word “retribution” in the sky, leaving tracers
in her vision like a sparkler on the Fourth of July.

On the bed Justine left behind, there is a book
bound in leather, the one that wrote her into allegory
long before statues in her honor were erected
in civil squares, dog eared at the passage in which
she is still an ideal, standing blind in train tracks
with a falcon on her shoulder. Before she sees
the locomotive, she hears the bell, bell, bell, 
feels the ties tremble, and then the engine’s
pistons announcing the arrival of freight: an eight
ton Bearcat armored personnel vehicle, assault rifles,
Kevlar helmets, pilotless surveillance drone, hounds of hell,
bomb-disarming robots and 400 sworn officers of the law.

In the final pages of that book there is a flowering plant,
blue false indigo, native to America, growing wild 
at the border of the forest where Justine now stands,
its roots described as woody, black, unkillable, branching
underground in a rhizomatic hydra of power belonging
to no one, to all, its genus derived from the Greek,
bapto, as in dip, immerse, baptize, and make new
from criminal soil. In writing, the plant is motionless,
an image that flickers in the mind and recedes again
into the grammar of its making, but in the wind
that wraps Justine just now, the plant is stereoscopic,
grey-green leaves waving, violet flowers in riot. 

In that plant there is a sap that goes blue
on contact with oxygen. It contains a toxin. 
Toxic blue dye comes alive as Justine slices
into the hairless stem. Silken weapon, it beads
then streams toward her heels, a blue
the Greeks could not see, blue of the ribbon
holding back Washington’s hair, blue robin egg
hidden in the nest, blue of the officer’s uniform
the moment before he raises his firearm, Neptune’s
blue glow, blue of her birth certificate and a darker
blue passport embossed with the kingdom’s gold eagle,
one talon for the olive branch, one for the arrows.

In that blue there is a belief
that the kingdom’s dome has been sealed
from within, that the exceptions have devoured
the rule, that the watchers need watched
and the charges dismissed, that the presumption
of safety has been put on permanent layaway
for those not born into it, a presumption replaced
with this color that cuts, as it has, as it must,
both ways. Justine’s eyes ache. The sky
is bright with exhortation. She fills each vial
like an inkwell, clambers over monster ferns,
and heads to the city to face the king.

Belief in the blue, in its cruel illusion
of habeas corpus, of “You may have a body.”
Blue in the sap, in its toxin of last resort.
Sap in the plant, blue false indigo,
its deep and communal roots. Plant
in the book where Justine’s an ideal.

Book on the bed in the room she fled
for the city, where if you stand, if you run,
if you resist or comply, where if your pants
are low or high, where to be visible is to hang
in the balance. Bed in the room, room in the house
where she cut the kerchief from her eyes.

House in a storm mistaking its temporary
strength as permanent weather, storm in the city
where Justine follows a river of others
into the tear gas plume. City in the state
with the prettiest name, state in the kingdom
that forgot its key and kicked in the door.

Copyright © 2016 by Ted Mathys. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 30, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2016 by Ted Mathys. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 30, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Ted Mathys

Ted Mathys

Ted Mathys is the author of Null Set (Coffee House Press, 2015). He teaches at Saint Louis University and lives in Saint Louis.

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