2018 Frontier OPEN Winner: A Brief History of Mercy by JP Grasser
JP Grasser has won the 2019 Frontier OPEN and its $5000 prize with his “A Brief History of Mercy.” You’re invited to join us in this inevitable decision by reading the work below. Congratulations JP!
A BRIEF HISTORY OF MERCY
There must have been poppies at the foot
of the fence, below the bent awning
of barbwire, or if not poppies, the downy
heads of dandelions, heavy with humid air,
or if not air, was it the heft of mercy
that made them bow, slightly, the night
you climbed the chain-link, planning to throw
yourself in front of the train? Wasn’t it
halogen that tunneled through the darkness,
hovering just over the tracks, or was it
softer, something incandescent and seeping?
An Attempt, I told your sister, eliding
the unspeakable for her sake, not mine—
and why? Was it clemency, intimacy,
knowingness, my own familiarity
with the runaway speed of worry?
I can’t say. I know the green bruise lingered
on your neck for weeks, the trace
of your mother’s engagement ring,
its three-pronged setting, after she choked
you up against the wall. How long had
she wanted that violence, that release?
Since the day you told her about your father’s
father, now long dead, how he unbuckled
his seatbelt, reached over the gearshift
and between your legs? I don’t remember it,
you said, just that his hands were cold;
he was taking me to basketball practice.
Was it mercy that made her keep that secret
from him, her husband? Cowardice?
How long had you felt the impossibility
of belonging? I think of the low rumble
of your voice, its gravel, as you sang
that one Billie Holliday line over and over
in the shower: Hanging from the poplar trees,
hanging from the poplar trees, hanging
from the poplar trees. You sang it with such sadness,
it was almost joyful. Some nights I sit
and wonder what it means, my fingers grasping air,
caressing the hem of your dress as you climbed
and climbed the fence, then turned, seeing me,
and came down.
A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, J.P. Grasser is a PhD candidate at the University of Utah, where he serves as Editor-in-Chief for Quarterly West.