The City of Letters

JESSE K. BUTLER is a poet based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He recently won third place in the Kierkegaard Poetry Competition, judged by Dana Gioia and Mary Grace Mangano. His poems have been published in many different journals, including Arc Poetry MagazineBlue UnicornDappled ThingsTHINK, and The Orchards Poetry Journal. His first book, The Living Law, was published this year by Darkly Bright Press.

The City of Letters

And Caleb drove out from there the three sons of Anak, Sheshai and Ahiman and Talmai, the descendants of Anak. And he went up from there against the inhabitants of Debir; now the name of Debir formerly was Kiriath-sepher. —Joshua 15


There’s Caleb, stomping his late way to the mountain.

His mind’s an immediacy each experience folds into.

He knows what he wants. Eighty-five years young and counting,

he’s a sagging skinsack filled with unsoftened sinew.

When he was flung out into the desert, he couldn’t

help but feel his strength was seeping out in the sand.

But he sharpened his will. His eyes would scan and blueprint

stray boulders as siege machinery, ready to his hand.

Now he’s here to slaughter giants, until their soupy blood

swamps the foothills and their cavernous skulls are crowned

in curses. His world is warm like the closed fist of God.

His aim strikes home, but it bends the long way around.


Othniel founded the City of Letters

on the ashes left of the City of Letters—

rattled clear the scarred walls of the fortress,

restacked the pyramid of debtors on debtors.

Like any city it started with love

and slaughter. Nothing could stop his hand

until Caleb’s daughter was claimed as his wife.

She came complaining about the parched land.

But that was then. Imperfection drives

the founder to filter out the flaw.

He’s building an industry of scribes,

layering law on law on law.


The desert-dry earth

surrounds her here, but

still Achsah’s content.

Life blooms in her reach—

brimming with blessings,

bubbling, bottomless—

she tends to the fountain

that’s gathering in

to swell and sing

to the thirsty land—

the upper spring


the lower spring.

It grows to her hand,

nascent, nourishing.

Stony-eyed, her men

only see the mountain.

How to show them this—

the gurgling essence,

the source, around which

their will is bent?

Listen—far underfoot

it breaks into birth.


The chaos Othniel came to was awful

when the city called him back as judge.

Who else would determine what was lawful

or wasn’t, when most things tip on the edge?

Everyone was shouting. He had to rid them

of the morass of stories, endlessly shifting,

the graves of giants, the murkiness hidden

beneath the foundation stones of the city.

Now the work of it shrivels his margins. There’s something

special dancing past reach, about to disappear.

He’s lost in his own streets, remembering

how he used to remember why he was here.


The desert dragged on. But what dreams it let Caleb have!

He’d see the mountain swarming thick with giants

until their milling weight popped it concave.

They’d drop down, waist-deep in their confusion, packed dense

in that sudden indent, while Caleb galloped up

to gut their accessible flanks. Slumped in that abyss,

they’d die like Nimrod—broken, a bellowing heap.

It’s like that, though. You climb till hope collapses

with its own weight. What Caleb could see at forty

was desert, not which way the horizon bent.

Each morning when he woke he woke up ready

to make another inside-out ascent.