Five Poems by Esteban Rodríguez for Haunted Passages

Haunted Passages: Esteban Rodríguez

Landscape with tree and leg

Then you come across a tree,
and hanging from its branch you find

a leg—long, pale, severed cleanly
at the thigh. You walk beneath it,

study the chain bolted to its knee, study
the way the sun—searing the edges

off the leaves—cauterized its flesh.
And even though its nails are broken,

even though its soles are weathered,
redefined by days upon days of backcountry,

you make yourself believe the leg
is an installation, an avant-garde attempt

to say something about captivity,
war, or about the uses of the body, its ability

to evoke what you want from it
when you reach up, touch the ankles, calves,

feel the hairlessness in your palms,
and recall the weakness in your legs

when you saw your first death,
how your knees learned to kiss

the dark, unconsoling ground.


That winter, at the top of a hill
you spent each night climbing,
you’d stop to watch the constellation

of cities below burning; the drowsy
architecture desecrated by a myriad
of armies: brick walls torched, streets

marauded, bodies piled onto carts
and dumped throughout the ash-coated
alleys, as though the soldiers that carried

them were fulfilling a laundry list
of prophesies, willing themselves
within kissing distance of God’s feet

and shadow. The screams were unending,
and though you were sure you heard
your name amongst the thousands

of names uttered each evening—
the syllables doused in lighter fluid
and gunfire—you’d shut your eyes

even tighter, wait till the kaleidoscope
of morning melted over the horizon,
illuminated the acropolis behind you,

where again you’d find mounds
of elephant carcasses, statues of naked
men with their kneecaps and hands

missing, tangled banners with faded
headshots and hieroglyphics, censored
leaflets splayed across the marble steps

you’d slowly ascend, each stride
a pilgrimage, each breath a ceremony,
the fragments of which you’d blow

onto the altar of your palms, and which
would give you the illusion of warmth
when you—expecting to see skeletons

of armor, spider webs stretched
from pillar to pillar, silhouetted limbs
sweeping across the crumbling parapets—

would walk inside and come upon
rows of TV sets glowing with news
anchors, pundits, children with rifles

and bandanas, missiles flaring
from some colonized ocean, nightly game
shows, soap operas, static, static.

The bowels of that citadel would digest you
slowly, lead you through hallways,
corridors, passages you’d tiptoe

and crawl through for hours before
you discovered a cage in the middle
of a skull-shaped room, where a goat

always stood, tethered to a small
pole, pacing calmly back and forth,
content as it chewed on a piece of plastic,

and as it gazed at the knife you found
yourself holding, at how you turned it
toward your torso, ready to guide

its fated trajectory.


But our prayers won’t work.
And despite the cattle we sacrifice,

and the effigies we burn, God
will sleep through the first night

of fires, shots, through the morning raids
that will take our daughters, sons,

and that will keep the rest of us—
standing on the road with everything

we have—watching a colonel
turned judge lecture us, offer parables

we won’t understand, then demand
we strip, bear the mockery of wind.

And when our nakedness fails
as punishment, he’ll kick us

to the ground, and we’ll be made to walk
on all fours, to howl like dogs

begging their owners to return.

Landscape with crowd and maggots

They will find you face down,
half-clothed, skin blistered

into hieroglyphs, limbs twisted
like roots unearthed. They will

hypothesize aggressors: wolves,
ghosts, shadows that feed on flesh

and bone. And as a man in the crowd
claims sorcery, explains the tricks

used on young girls, I will arrive
and contemplate your body,

the leaves in your hair, the scrawl
of dirt on your back, the maze

of maggots on your shoulder blades,
kissing the gashes the way

I’d kiss the space around your vertebrae,
believing my breath had the power

to heal, or to at least ease the pain
I knew you’d later feel:

the beatings, shots, the loneliness
when you watched the sun pierce

the sky, swell like a wound
bleeding out.


At night the guards gather,
chug jugs of whiskey, ale,

trade tales of love, conflict,
betrayal. And when their kill counts

become veiled claims for higher
rank, the drunkest one opens

our pen, picks his opponent out.
The rest of us turn, stare

at the emptiness in our hands,
and after bets are placed,

raised to see how long the bout
will last, we close our eyes,

listen as each strike redefines a chest,
nose, jaw, and till all we hear

are murmurs of prayers, blood,
of our names dripping

from a conquered mouth.

About the Author

Esteban Rodríguez holds an MFA from the University of Texas Pan-American. He is the author of Dusk & Dust, his debut book of poetry due out fall 2019 from Hub City Writers Project. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, Notre Dame Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New England Review, Puerto del Sol, and Zone 3. He lives in Austin, Texas.

Series Editor

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, Texas. He’s the author of Coyote Songs and Zero Saints. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias

Image: hnswick,

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