after John Murillo
After learning that there are over one hundred thirty-two
distinct phobias & still no word for the fear of fish hooks,
I think of my father, his broad hand, unfurled over
my tiny fist, the knife he teaches me to clutch, its rough
handle of recycled bone suddenly gone
slick against my not yet calloused palm.
The way the ice-box thumps like an unsteady
heart—like I imagine my grandfather’s did, that year
in the restaurant, breath snagged sharp in the back of his throat,
face blooded as dawn over his crucifix’s pale gold, & we waited
in shock for him to gasp back to his body’s surface.
Let me start again, my father dragged the panicked pulse,
a bluegill, out from the ice. Its mouth, like my grandfather’s,
a wordless babble. Both their eyes, flat & dull as a copper ashtray.
There is a word for the fear of water, but not of drowning. Another
for the fear of darkness, but not how it hides a person’s face.
Sometimes, I forget the difference between an eclipse & silhouette
—sorry, I’m losing the thread—I mean, my father made me hold
the knife. Showed me on the fish where to find an entrance
& make it open. Blade dragged from anus to throat. Its guts
a door kicked in. Its blood escaping like still-hot wind from a kitchen
in the winter where my father told me how, in high school, he wrote
a guide for field dressing humans, just for fun. Now, I imagine
every animal he pries open, guts steaming like spring dirt, could be
a child; the scar where I once opened, thin strip of sunset,
that still aches when a lover hooks their fingers to drag
an orgasm’s unsteady pulse from inside me, to leave me
gasping, eyes fish-wide & panicked. I mean, some days,
I still can’t look straight into the mirror surface of glass
or a fish’s eye & there is a name for both these fears.
Like, the fear of dead fish, Ichthyophobia, from the Greek
ichthys, meaning fish, but also the name which Christians used
to hide their faith when it was a hunted thing. Perhaps this makes my fear
a kind of prayer, how some mornings, I wake unable to move, a body
above me, eclipsing the light. Always with a man’s face.
& always a gold cross, glitter & flail, strung from his neck,
like a fish with punctured gills, open mouth futile
against the gilded line. Let me start again, once,
my father caught a fish hook through his palm, dipped his hand
into the river & his blood—his blood was touching everything.
Note from our guest judge, Shane McCrae:
“The first time I read “Hapnophobia or the Fear of Being Touched,” I felt as if I were first stumbling, then tumbling through it, not lost, exactly, but following no clear path through, until I slammed into that final clause: “his blood was touching everything.” Seemingly all at once, I understood what I had been doing as I tumbled through the poem, that I had been the blood, touching everything. I had been, in other words, by reading the poem, forcing the poem to confront its titular fear, and yet in the end, it was I, who had no such fear myself, who felt contaminated, fearful. “Hapnophobia or the Fear of Being Touched” laid its claim upon me as completely as any poem I’ve ever read, and I feel privileged and grateful to be able to reward it.”