Voices on Addiction: Four Poems by Nick Flynn








that your body is able to fit into my eye, O that

the airplane that carries your body over oceans

fits into my eye, O that the ocean itself fits into

my eye, all of it, today, has made me unholy . . .

& that tomb behind your eyes, did someone

dump her purse out on it, did someone empty

his pockets, line all his pennies up on that little

ledge? I see an inhaler. A metro card. A lipstick.

A tiny bottle of Bacardi (emptied). A bouquet of

white flowers (plastic). Mardi Gras beads (broken).

A cigarette (half-smoked). A key. A cork. A pencil.

Three x’s (XXX) scrawled everywhere, on every

tomb. Now we have only three choices—DOOR



is a hammer, to break the wings off angels. Behind

DOOR NUMBER TWO is a fistful of painkillers &

the story I tell about how sad I am. Behind DOOR

NUMBER THREE a tiny king gives me a tiny coin for

every day I don’t drink—Hold it beneath your tongue,

he orders, until it dissolves. O look, some of these

little houses are now just piles of rubble, while some

have been rebuilt & whitewashed, just like the city

outside these walls, parts of it still (still?) underwater—

O let’s listen to the storm on the radio again, O let’s

look at the people on their roofs, the word HELP

written out in trash. Think of this as a city for everyone

you’ve ever loved, think of it as a gift you don’t know

how to open. O Carcass, I tell myself, you would

tremble if you knew where I was carrying you next.

Here’s the me breathing into the you & here’s the you

breathing into the me & here’s the trembling & here’s

the chalice & the only way out is to make sin holy.





A child (somewhere) squats, scratches / the dirt with a twig, muttering broken
broken / broken muttering an excellent place to hide / an excellent hole a hidey-
hole, a spider hole, the hole she / will crawl into or through one day, not /
today, thank god, not yet, she can’t know yet / each hole is a word, each word /
a thread. Let’s try this again, without / the child this time—broken broken broken /
no sun today, no shadow. Tiring / isn’t it, this kneeling, lips pressed to / the side-
walk, whispering into a crack.  Yesterday /  it all seemed normal, Brooke Adams
says / to Donald Sutherland, as he drives her to / the psychiatrist—today every-
thing seemed the same / but it wasn’t. Brooke didn’t know, couldn’t / know, not
then, that Donald was gone / already gone.





A good waitress, I wait up for her
to come home, smoky

& exhausted, her feet
swollen, I wait in her bed. Purple shadows

cross the purple carpet, her television
makes Sherlock Holmes blue, he sees

evidence everywhere

of the man who last used this room, scrapes
mud from the floor into an envelope, rich

with lime, with ash fallen
from the factories in the east. I wait.

Doze. The tv turns to snow. Silently

she pulls off her black shoes, empties
Her pockets. Next, her

genie trick, blowing smoke
into an empty juice glass,

cupping it with her palm until it slowly releases
up to the ceiling, the orange

tip of her cigarette a dying
ember. We

scatter her in the Atlantic, my brother & I, I
watch her sink, diffuse. I break off

another chunk of hash, impale it
on a common pin pushed up

through the cover of Abbey Road, set it on fire
under an upturned glass

& we take turns taking it in, our lips
to the tilted rim. Then we fall back in

our chairs, we never

talk about her, as if even her name
were ash

& might turn to paste in our throats.





Once I fall from my stilts     once the elephant

steps over my body     once the strong man tosses me

& everyone like me into the hay     once I step out of my little car

once the enormous hammer crushes my tiny flowered hat

once I climb the rigging     once I leave the cannon

once sawdust becomes my sea




Years later I fell in love with a sword swallower

now when we come to your town we set up in fields

a field like every field     if it rained the night before

it shimmers     pits of shimmer I navigate home

home a trailer on the edge of a field

I hang up my face     she hangs up her sword




The ferris wheel stops at the top

to let someone on      I sway in my chair

the tent staked to the earth below

I used my hammer like everyone else

I am the one shot out of the cannon

every day at three     this same face

this same cigarette     a tiny ember

I’m always on fire     I end the fucken show


“CEMETERY SAINT LOUIS” appears in the forthcoming collection, I Will Destroy You (Graywolf 2019). “INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS” appears in The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands (Graywolf 2013). “HER SMOKE (HER TRICK)” appears in Some Ether (Graywolf 2000). “ALCOHOLISM” appears in My Feelings (Graywolf 2015). All poems © Nick Flynn and reprinted with permission.


Feature photograph of Nick Flynn © Geordie Wood.


Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.

Nick Flynn has worked as a ship’s captain, an electrician, and as a caseworker with homeless adults. His poems, essays, and nonfiction have appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and National Public Radio's This American Life. He is currently a professor on the creative writing faculty at the University of Houston, where he is in residence each spring. His most recent book is My Feelings (Graywolf, 2015), a collection of poems. In 2019, two new books will appear, Stay (Ze Books), a collection of collaborations and writings, as well as I Will Destroy You (Graywolf), a collection of poems. His work has been translated into fifteen languages. More from this author →