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for the 21st century

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Winter 2022-2023

Al Ortolani


The crazy woman next door said hedge apples
kept spiders away. My mother
preferred a commercial poison like Raid.
Cows bite hedge apples into chunks, and if swallowed,
they can choke them to death. As boys,
we threw them at each other in war games,
boys with good arms and boys who were targets
for the good arms.
     It’s a complicated world
we grow into, one where
hedge apples are good for little
except as bombs, and the souls of cows,
if they have one, are grilled
medium rare with cheese.

Once, we spent the better part of three days
throwing hedge apples at one another,
a Market Garden, a Bastogne,
our father’s memories wrapped in secrets.
Probably, I go too far with this story,
stretch it like a bandolier of prayer beads
for those ground to hamburger,
for those whose memories are so sealed
they only bleed in sleep.
I know nothing of reincarnation,
but it is promising, the good arm

launching hedge apples, play acting
death scenes, giving strong last words
before dying on a news reel,
before rising like Lazarus. Maybe,
we are rehearsing, maybe reenacting,
to play out the violence in our brains
as children do in games.

Al Ortolani has directed a memoir writing project for Vietnam veterans across Kansas in association with the Library of Congress and Humanities Kansas. He is a recipient of the 2019 Rattle Chapbook Series Award. His longer collections have been published primarily by Spartan Press and New York Quarterly Books. Most recently, his pandemic collection Swimming Shelter was selected as a Kansas Notable Book.