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James Sallis

Second Generation

I thought of you as I drove through
the war, face turned from the train's window
beyond which lay bodies steaming from their wounds
in the chill of morning.

I thought how you worked to build a life
of borrowed habits, half-forgotten turns: preserves
taken from others' shelves. How you were forever
at rehearsal, trying on these new skins and masks,

trying out turns of phrase: head tilted just so,
hands held thus. How even now you go on studying
these strange people, this race, this species
among which you do not fit and will never belong.

Traveling Light

We are all guests in the language;
arrive at the border with
old schoolbooks, vaccination cards, comics
whose panels are drawn at strange angles.

How will you support yourself
while in our country? the guard asks.
Is this your first visit?
I will be earning American dollars

while here, one visitor answers. I offer
this letter of credit from my bank
in Argentina, another explains.
Once before here I have been.

These all seem to you good answers.
Now it is your turn. Words,
protect me!
And if not words,
then all the possible misunderstandings.

Little Sister

This is what my life comes to, then. Ten yearsittle Sister
of moving things from hamper to hanger
and back, excuses to your mother and mine on the phone,
daytime TV. And not once
did I take up your time unless I had to,
when Father died, when Lauren refused to wake up
in the hospital. You were always in Germany
or in seclusion, or at a meeting; your time
was important, and your life. When we spoke,
it was as though by notes
thrown between windows opened for their passage
and quickly closed, windows against which,
afterwards, I would place my hand,
finding what comfort I could in the warmth of the glass.


In what corner of morning
Did you encounter that horror of dawn
Breaking on the panes

When walls turned to chalk
And lights came yellow behind windows

What was it you bent
To pick up from the walk and the sea
A shell lamenting some used-up life

What have you carried home inside you
From the bank of morning

Finding Home

Now at last you can set down
the luggage of the heart.

Its place is here, after all, here
where years ago you wrote:

Bus pulls into station, my suitcase
entering first your nation,
this new content and continent.

Now at last you can unpack
the luggage of the heart,
roll up and put away
these ill-fitting clothes,

this loose second skin
too long lived in.

This piece is part of our feature on James Sallis.


James Sallis is a prolific man of letters. Author of the popular Lew Griffin novels (The Long-Legged Fly, Moth, Black Hornet, Eye of the Cricket, and Bluebottle), he has also written the avant-garde novel, Renderings, the spy novel, Death Will Have Your Eyes and more than one hundred short stories, poems, and essays. He has also written and edited a number of musicological studies and works of literary criticism, including The Guitar Players, Difficult Lives, a study of noir writers, and, most recently, Chester Himes: A Life, a biography of one of his literary heroes.

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