James Owens

The Old Age of Cain

James Owens

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My forehead, where a Mercy somewhat like lightning

leaned its thumbprint, seldom aches these days,

the mark still legible but no worse than the bruise

from stumbling into a doorframe.


My name has multiplied, the generations

coming a bit relentlessly, to this old-fashioned mind

shaped in the unteeming, primordial dawn.

I watch the young raise cities, iron smelters

and captains of work-crews, my issue,

makers of railways, tanks, bombs, colonization, financial networks,

and final machines whose wiry brains hum.

I see where this is headed.

In a culture driven from the soil, guilt

will be one of those paper fists that fall

from branches, releasing its torrent of wasps

– but who heeds the worries

of a relic whose chief fame is for murder?


I find music most redemptive of my children's contrivances,

the quick, useful evolution of instruments in taut strings and tubes.

Listening, I close my eyes and tune my breathing

to taste some hint in complex harmonics

of the broken order that might have lasted.


“Come home. Perhaps all might be forgiven,”

Mother writes, as mothers will,

and I am tempted – after all, I hardly remember

the green angers of baffled youth, and if I think of Abel,

it isn't my rage in the field;

I see two children, having slipped off from our parents

and back to the forbidden gate, daring each other

to broach the flaming sword, the grinning angel.

But I do recall Father's face dark with rage

and disappointment, shaking, lowered to the earth

over that still body.

How awkward it would be, both of us

obstinate old men now, no words

between us for too many years.

She never surrenders hope, as mothers won't.


I haven't heard from Seth in years.

He likes to tell strangers that he's an only child,

but all the strangers he meets carry me in their cells.



Life goes on, as long as it does.

When Lamech kills and brags of killing,

I keep my own counsel.

I read, when music cloys, some history or books on the new physics.

I putter about in my little garden, in a straw hat for the sun

(sun irritates the mark),

whisper “brother” and “keeper” when I thump the melons for ripeness,

and walk out at night beneath the stars

that are ever rushing away into the void like a vast gasp.

I understand this.

I invented dark matter.

James Owens

James Owens's most recent collection of poems is Mortalia (FutureCycle Press, 2015). His poems, stories, and translations appear widely in literary journals, including recent or upcoming publications in Adirondack Review, The American Journal of Poetry, Connecticut River Review, and Southword. He earned an MFA at the University of Alabama and lives in a small town in northern Ontario.

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