Brandon Courtney

Rooms for Rent in the Burning City 


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Rooms For Rent in the Burning City


—after Marvin Bell

“A shamal had been developing throughout the night. The winds had increased 30 to 40 knots & the seas were 8 to 10 feet. […]We received a call from the USS Peterson that MV Samra was capsizing in the heavy seas. The crew & security team were preparing to abandon ship. […]We were told a few minutes later the ship had gone down, & all 22 people were in the water.” —Dave Bout

Of the captain, Nakhoda Yekom, I remember his teeth,
Van Gogh-yellow like orchids
blown between rows of cotton stocks, & his uniform,
his arrow point collar, the fabric’s Venetian blonde weave:
the color & texture of boxwood grain.

Of the Nasarvan’s forearms, I remember the sallow
shapes of his brother’s name—the Farsi method
of tattooing: patterns razored into skin, incisions kneaded
with black ash from the funeral pyre.

Of the Navban Dovom’s Kalashnikov, I remember
the slight bank of the banana clip, the polished
butt of the weapon pressed hard against his clavicle, & the scar
he showed me, pulling the collar off his shoulder: a pink
night crawler stretched across travertine.

Of the Navi Yekom, even less—only the slow pull on
a smuggled Cuban bent between his lips, ash as long
& true as his index finger.

Of the Navi Dovom—my same age & equivalent rank—
I remember the sewing needle he used to drain the blisters
on both heels, & his parade boots, how he practiced
tying deck-knots with the laces: bowline, reef, & timber-
hitch before a full-length mirror.

Of the shamal, I remember the sudden swell of waves,
the yarn of sea kraits washed aboard the weather decks
before capsizing, a hundred snakes, motionless, unable
to move on land or this steel island.

For provisional lifeboats, some men folded their bodies
over the curve of crude-oil canisters. I used the buoyancy
of the Nakhoda Yekom’s bloated body.


A treatise on grief and endurance, Brandon Courtney’s Rooms for Rent in the Burning City explores the what remains in the aftermath of violence, both literal and psychic–in the return from war, in the end of a marriage.

Brandon Courtney served four years in the United States Navy’s Maritime Interdiction Operations. He is the author of The Grief Muscles (Sheep Meadow Press) and Improvised Devices (Thrush Press). Poems from his debut collection have been praised as “sharp, dense, lyrical, and devastating” and “at once complex, subtle and harrowing.” A 2013 Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, he holds degrees from Hollins and Drake University, and is currently a graduate student at the University of Chicago.