"Before Abel" by Maia Carlson


I was born at the crossing of two bones,

which is like the crossing of

two words, who have to break

each other

a little

just to fit.

Words like shatterglass and thunderkite,

cinderglass and bitterbite.


I was born at the crossing of two bones:

jawbone and


Two beasts met with irreconcilable differences, I suppose.

Isn’t that just the way of things?

With an ashdown snow

and a bleakblown wind,

an old woman with pebbles

for eyes and stretched hide

for a face

saw fangbone and jawbone locked,

two corpses

cuddled in the ashdown snow. 

I’ve seen Irish Elk, with their antlers thus enmeshed,

snugged up tight like lovers

with their hands in each other’s ribcages.

Is a religion ever born

of anything less?


I was born at the crossing of two bones

as an Ice-age woman picked up two bare-boned skulls

and saw me

in four glaring eye-sockets. 

My flesh-coat gone but a bone-house was enough,

enough for her to see

whatever makes mankind


I breathed in belief through twin bleached nasal passages.


I’ve been born a thousand times before.

From the first real sin—

of one brother crossing another

unto death; vengeance is messy

and long-lasting—

to the raising of the jawbone of an ass

to the divinity an old woman saw in kissing skulls,

to wars that stretched across nations. 

Alexander was Great—

great for a breakbone, crushstone god like me.

I’ve never been born so alive as in the battle-

fields he sowed me in.


Immortal doesn’t mean living forever, perhaps.


Perhaps it means being reborn again

every time someone has a bone to pick with another. 


You remember Cain

but I remember Abel.

Because Cain kept on breathing

the smokesweet air

of another God, didn’t he?

But Abel got to pray to me.