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James O’Leary

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Dust Baptism

In the building, in the desert, the adults hold umbrellas above their heads. In the haze of the

heat, rainbows revealed from stained glass light, the adults hold umbrellas above their

heads. I’m twelve & cold sweats & laying catatonic blessed on my mother’s lap. The

congregation murmurs & sighs a collective breath. There’s a pattern to the standing up

and sitting down, a pattern I cannot map. The adults hold umbrellas above their heads.

Candles flicker shadows that make so much noise, instrumentals & synchronized singing

& hallelujah & bodies rhythming up & down in a holy dance party; a stranger slips

quietly out of the confession booth. The congregation murmurs & sighs a collective

breath. Later, we’ll return to our homes: the man next to me on the pews will hammer

tulips into the north-facing wall, a woman will watch chicken bones dip into bubbling oil.

But right now, a volunteer struts up to the cup to open a vein, & a line of umbrellas forms

to drink the flesh of the son under a solar, air-conditioned god. Small blasphemy: my

blood runs hot when I look up at Jesus, mouth psalmed in ecstatic pain. When I say step

on me I pray, be gentle, walk on water. The congregation murmurs & signs a collective

breath. I am asked if I want medicine. The adults hold umbrellas above their heads. They

pray for wine. I ask for rain. There’s something in the air, here, but we have a different

relationship to petrichor. The desert needs water, essential element of life. But when it

rains, it pours our home: the drowning capital of the world: children trip into pools.

Arroyos flood, slip into streets & wash cars into buildings, turn highways into rivers

made silver with gasoline, with metal, lost in the way the summer light shines on a

drowned body’s back.


At the Naming Ceremony, I Can’t Look Anyone in the Eye

Alexander: masc. proper name, from Latin, from Greek Alexandros ‘defending men,’”

First, a line of teens, we take

communion: a scarlet promise glistering on the lip

of a cup, all the boys’ minds wreathed

in rainbows wrought from stained glass. If

there is a song, it is the hum of the wasp

drifting between St Mary’s candles, mistaking

burning for bloom. If there is a silence,

it is the soft severance suspended

when I walk out the door, & never

return. The priest ties a knot through my pupil, attaches

the other end to his tongue, then carries the ceremony on

that invisible tension above the pews. If

faith could balance on the rapture between us, I think falling

wouldn’t be sin, but flinching, a lack of perseverance.

No one knows I have gum in my mouth.

No one knows I spend all day on the internet, watching men

grind prayers into one another, their hands like delicate crowns

laid to rest at the temples. But I think, if I blink,

the deacons will flush. They’ll see me. They’ll know.

So I stare at the relatives, all proud in their Sunday best—

how a late Aunt enters loudly, her sopping hand

splashing holy water on her forehead, her shoulders,

her tangerine dress. I stare, & suddenly I’m called forth

to the Father. Confirmation’s no curse, he promises

to my jealousies of shame. But

I’m a vessel for commitment. I take

my own name in vain.


James O’Leary (they/them) is a bi, gender-fluid poet and writer from Arizona. James’s work has been nominated for both the Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize anthologies, and has appeared or is forthcoming in online and print publications including Frontier, The Indianapolis Review, the minnesota review, and Foglifter. James holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. You can find James on Twitter @thesundaypoet; they currently live in Orange County.

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