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poetry Secret Agent

With its surreal twist on death, birth, and reincarnation, the poet Philip St. Clair reminds us that some memories we don’t ever want to hear again.

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Secret Agent

By Philip St. Clair

A man is gunned down in a narrow back alley in Vienna, and his spirit
     is dispatched at once to the place such spirits go:
a waiting room with benches that stretch to infinity.  After the usual delays,
     he's offered a family: Canadian,
this time around, with a chubby mother who likes to laugh, a bearded dad
     who plays bagpipes on weekends,
a big sister who will major in international relations when she's old enough.
     He agrees, and soon he's in the delivery room,
hovering over the shoulder of one of the nurses, watching himself be born.
     When the cord is cut, he expects to be 
drawn inside with a rush of forgetfulness, but all he feels is the gentle tug
     of otherworld nostalgia for flesh and bone. 
He learns that coming back doesn't happen all  at once: it's a gradual process, 
     a relic of the days when most kids
died young – an easy return if something went wrong.  He begins to spend 
     more time in his new home, watches with amusement
the first word, the first step.  Soon the tie grows stronger: he begins to let go
     of who he once was.  Then he is four,
and one night when his sister has tucked him in and is telling him a story,
     he tells her one -- KGB versus CIA;
Prague, Zagreb, Belgrade, Budapest; moles, safe houses, microfilm chips;
     terminations with extreme prejudice.
Night after night, his story continues, and she is astonished at his knowledge,
     his ability to sustain a taut,
compelling narrative.  One night, in the middle of his tale, he begins to cry: 
     “It's going away!” he moans.  “I can't remember any more!”
She dries his eyes, turns out the light: soon he falls asleep, suspended
     between two of his lives, two sets of secrets.        

Philip St. Clair is the author of six collections of poetry.  His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Gettysburg Review, Harper’s, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, The Poetry Review, Rattle, Shenandoah, and elsewhere.  Awards include the Bullis Prize from Poetry Northwest and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kentucky Arts Council.  
His website is ><