“I’ve had the wind knocked out of me
but never the hurricane.”
I fear having lived a quiet life.
I couldn’t name it, the sweet
sadness welling up in me for weeks.
So I cleaned, found myself standing
in a room with a rag in my hand,
the birds calling time-to-go, time-to-go.
And like an old woman near the end
of her life I could hear it, the voice
of a man I never loved who pressed
my breasts to his hips and whispered
“My little doves, my white, white lilies.”
I could almost cry when I remember it.
I don’t remember when I began
to call everyone “sweetie,”
as if they were my daughters,
my darlings, my little birds.
I have always loved too much,
or not enough. Last night
I read a poem about God and almost
believed it—God sipping coffee,
smoking cherry tobacco. I’ve arrived
at a time in my life when I could believe
Today, pumping gas into my old car, I stood
hatless in the rain and the whole world
went silent—cars on the wet street
sliding past without sound, the attendant’s
mouth opening and closing on air
as he walked from pump to pump, his footsteps
erased in the rain—nothing
but the tiny numbers in their square windows
rolling by my shoulder, the unstoppable seconds
gliding by as I stood at the Chevron,
balancing evenly on my two feet, a gas nozzle
gripped in my hand, my hair gathering rain.
And I saw it didn’t matter
who had loved me or who I loved. I was alone.
The black oily asphalt, the slick beauty
of the Iranian attendant, the thickening
clouds—nothing was mine. And I understood
finally, after a semester of philosophy,
a thousand books of poetry, after death
and childbirth and the startled cries of men
who called out my name as they entered me,
I finally believed I was alone, felt it
in my actual, visceral heart, heard it echo
like a thin bell. And the sounds
came back, the slish of tires
and footsteps, all the delicate cargo
they carried saying thank you
and yes. So I paid and climbed into my car
as if nothing had happened—
as if everything mattered — What else could I do?
I drove to the grocery store
and bought wheat bread and milk,
a candy bar wrapped in gold foil,
smiled at the teenaged cashier
with the pimpled face and the plastic
name plate pinned above her small breast,
and knew her secret, her sweet fear—
Little bird. Little darling. She handed me
my change, my brown bag, a torn receipt,
pushed the cash drawer in with her hip
and smiled back.
When I am frustrated with poetry, or lost and unsure of how to feel, or heartbroken even, I turn to poets that I already know and love. Last week, I read Dorianne Laux’s collection, What We Carry (BOA Editions, 1994), for some guidance—even if I didn’t know what I was seeking.
It’s hard to describe the muted autopilot I’ve been on lately, the way I’ve spent my days packing up boxes and boxes of books (47 or 48 so far), going to the gym in order to prepare my body for the sacrifice of moving, going through the mundane motions I’ve been through so many times before: choosing an internet provider, rerouting my subscriptions, setting up university accounts. When I move this weekend/next week, I will have lived in four cities and states in two and a half years. In total, I will have lived in Kentucky, Missouri, France, Georgia, Chicago, and Louisiana. And every time I move, even when my mom and a best friend or two helps, I move alone.
This poem knocked me out of autopilot. Whether I have been feeling “the sweet / sadness welling up in me for weeks” or not (or nothing), I am reminded what it feels to be alone. Especially the two lines at the beginning of the fourth stanza—“And I saw it didn’t matter / who had loved me or who I loved. I was alone.” Look at that line break. The words “it didn’t matter” are set off, separated from love. The second line ends with the word “alone.”
I am alone.
This poem reminds me that when I am done packing and driving 850 miles to Louisiana, when my mom and my best friend leave, when I am left alone with my boxes and my two cats in a new town where I barely know anyone, I will feel it again: “I finally believed I was alone, felt it / in my actual, visceral heart, heard it echo / like a thin bell.” I am excited about moving, but I am alone. And I wish I could say I’m scared of this lonely feeling again, but it is almost comforting in its pervasiveness. I’d rather feel alone than numb, and I do now.
The cool & rattly can
of spray paint felt
human in my hands as
it spit neon green
on my high
school’s brick wall. The mural
was wide, like Buddha’s belly.
We’d even brought
a ladder, for height.
The wall told me
not to look
for answers. All answers
are platitudes. The
only urgent work is in
the questing. But
cops came and
to the edges
of the wet night,
I still thought
I needed answers.
Hiding in the
bush seemed like a start
to me, until three police
cruisers hemmed me
in. Maybe it was the forty five
crouched minutes I spent
boiling there under the stars
& moon & sirens, red & white &
blue, and all the books
I hadn’t yet read, and the way
college was looming and I was afraid, but
I assessed my life
and decided yes,
there are degrees
to which one can feel
alive and yes,
this is the most alive
you’ve ever felt,
way back when
every star seemed
like a tiny fist,
and the sky was
in an uproar
as I hauled up
the ladder’s wooden
weight and ran,
street with it,
then down through
then down through
the woods and down
Just when it is time to say goodbye
I think I am finally understanding the lightbulb
but not milk or NAFTA or for that matter paper money
let’s not get into my stove top coffeemaker
I don’t even get how this book is fastened or why that orchid
seems happier or at least its petals a little whiter
when it is placed right up against the window
or how certain invisible particles
leave the wall and enter the cord and somehow make
the radio make the air become
Moonlight Sonata or Neighborhood #3
basically a lamp is a mechanism
to shove too many electrons into a coil
or filament a lightbulb i.e. a vacuum surrounds
the first filament was made in 1802 out of platinum
as soon as it was made to turn deep untouchable orange
the air took the electrons away
which left it charred like a tiny bonfire
just like ones we have all seen when we squint and hold
the glass bulb that no longer emits
soft white light when we flip the switch
I wonder if my fear this morning sitting in the dark
and listening to music is anything like
the inventor of the telephone growing deaf
and knowing all those poles and wires
were starting to cover the land and someday everyone
would be able to get exactly what they want
I spend a lot of my time wondering how things work: relationships, unemployment, the economy, computers, poems. What makes a person decide to marry one person after dating everyone else? How do little pieces of plastic and metal convey zeros and ones—and better yet—how does that translate into the words you see on your screen or the photographs we take? Do we all see the same thing? And poems: how do you write one without trying so hard? How can it be so simple and so hard to write poems instead of prose? I have spent my whole life asking questions in order to understand better, and when I don’t understand, asking again. Sometimes I still don’t understand.
I don’t understand why I’ve spent the last two years unemployed and underemployed, or what I’ve done wrong with my life, in this economy. I’ll never understand why my father was stupid enough to grow 32 marijuana plants in his house as a retired cop, or who turned him in. Even after my parents divorced and I remembered all of the girlfriends my father introduced me to when I was a child and finally understood all of his addictions, this was the last thing, the last vestige of my childhood middle class identity falling away. I don’t understand why my aunt pointed her gun at my head on Christmas Day two and a half years ago; for months afterwards, I couldn’t think of anything but holding a similar Smith and Wesson 9mm. I held a 9mm Smith and Wesson in a gun shop because I needed to understand what my aunt was thinking, even though she said it was unloaded. I wrote about it. I still don’t understand. I suppose I accept these facts without understanding them.
It’s been hard to hold onto this sense of wonder as an adult, though, hard to feel optimistic even when I don’t understand. Poetry helps. I don’t understand everything about this poem, like why the lines of this poem are double spaced in Matthew Zapruder’s new poetry collection (Sun Bear, Copper Canyon Press 2014), or why the speaker starts to understand the lightbulb (“your eyes” from the title) “Just when it is time to say goodbye”—but he does not understand everything else. Relationships still seem like the biggest mystery to me. And yet I like this poem for the parts I don’t understand, because it does not over-explain, and somehow I know what Matthew Zapruder means anyway.
Mostly, I love that the last lines of this poem reference the telephone and remind me of an essay by Eula Biss called “Time and Distance Overcome” (in Notes from No Man’s Land, Graywolf Press 2009). She writes of Alexander Graham Bell in the second and third paragraph of the essay:
Bell’s financial backers asked him not to work on his new
invention because it seemed too dubious an investment. The
idea on which the telephone depended—the idea that every
home in the country could be connected by a vast network of
wires suspended from poles set an average of one hundred feet
apart—seemed far more unlikely than the idea that the human
voice could be transmitted through a wire.
Even now it is an impossible idea, that we are all connected, all
I would like to think you understand what I’m saying, because I do believe we are—all of us—connected.
“Be young. Be dope. Be Proud.”
and about how when you blow
on the campfire,
it is possible that none of the air
from your lungs actually makes it
to the flames but instead touches more
molecules which touch more molecules,
and in a cheering, microscopic rush,
they spill into the base of the fire and make it grow.
And I keep thinking about how
when the fire pops!we aren’t hearing
the fire, but the message it sent and the air
relayed, a game of telephone across the space
between. I wonder how
much gets lost in the translation—
which molecules get the words wrong,
or mess with them on purpose.
But when you told me
from across the campfire that
the thunder—the sound of it
came down like a fist and shook me,
the ground, everything—when you told me
that it did not sound threatening
I believed you,
and you were right.
yes, poetry is a sickness, but fuck it
Do it long enough, and I promise like an anti-superhero
your secret power will become loss
Loss like only old people must know
when the last red maple on the block goes
and the drizzle turns to snow
Maybe the best poem is always the one you shouldn’t have written
In the quiet woods, the man’s breath preceded him; he ran shirtless and dripping along the leafed footpath between spears of sunlight that poked down through the canopy. There were numerous fallen pines spanning and obstructing the path, but the man relished jumping them. Running made visible most of the muscles working just under his skin, including the major six in his abdomen. As he planted a light foot on a dead trunk and leaped over, he thought about how young and virile he was, and about how he really does have time to write his novel.
He purposefully breathed and ran as quietly as he could, looking for deer. For years, he had run through the woods in the hopes of chasing a deer down and touching it. Sometimes it felt cruel, the idea of running after and scaring the shit out of some poor animal, but the man liked to believe that he and nature were good enough friends that they can inflict small cruelties on one another for the sake of fun. Recently, and despite his job as a schoolteacher, he had even begun to grow out his hair and beard; but to his disappointment, it was growing faster than he could become the type of person who has a beard and long hair.
Today, the man saw no deer. He followed the path to the left and it became grassy, leaving the woods and cutting across an old hayfield. The field, in a state of disuse, was all tall grasses and weeds that reached up to chest height, and it extended far enough to be flush with the sky; the man studied the ground’s subtle rises and thought about how violence is such a cheap trick in writing—killing off a character is a lame and easy way to make people feel something, especially if you make them do something likeable just beforehand. It’s because everyone dies, so death is relatable. He made a mental note to write that down as he continued to glance around for deer, but found none. He was so absorbed by this that when he passed by the corpse of the woodchuck, he had to jump to avoid stepping on it, even making a small ah! as he passes over it. There were flies coating its body, clustered in its eyes and in some kind of abrasive wound that encompassed most of its side.
The man stumbled and recovered. He ran for a few more yards, but the image of the body stayed, and he slowed. It seemed cruel to him that the flies first go for the eyes, the injuries, the anus. He considered walking back to it to inspect it further, maybe to learn what killed it. When he turned back up the path, the woodchuck was standing and looking toward him. The animal was not dead, but dying.
For a brief moment, the man believed that he and the woodchuck were making eye contact, but flies had bored into its eyes and were now nesting in the vacant space; it was simply looking in the direction of the graceless loud thing that had jumped over it. When its mouth came open, more flies flitted in and out as if the woodchuck’s body had become a hollow receptacle for them. Now that he was not running, the man became aware of how loud all those flies were, and how big the woodchuck was—probably twenty-five pounds, just like his family dog. The body took a step, and then another, each one a product of its own labors, then lay back down again. The man decided that it was clearly suffering, and that the best thing to do would be to kill it.
He considered using the heel of his sneaker, but that would require too intense proximity to the body, and he had doubts about its ability to crush the skull in one go.
“Okay, just sit there,” he said, holding his palms out. The woodchuck rose and looked at him again, eyes crawling—its insistence on saying nothing disturbed the man. Some inert, cloistered segment of him understood that he partly wanted to kill the woodchuck out of not mercy, but his selfish desire to be contrary; he was not sure what most other people would do in this situation, but he was sure that it was not this.
He took off running back toward the woods, “wait there.” When he passed by the woodchuck, he went off the path and into the grass to avoid it; he told himself this is because the animal might leap out on its atrophied legs and bite him. When a toad hopped from the field onto the path in front of him, he jumped like a seizure, exclaiming again. He was shaking, thinking about the prospect of ending the animal’s life—it’s big, which makes it more difficult.
His eyes scanned the approaching trees for branches that might make a solid bludgeon—he thought about the flies. A branch probably wasn’t solid enough either. What if it just broke? The whole point was to quicken the dying process. The man thought about Nature like it was a lush person watching from the trees, and he hoped that it approved. A rock. That’s what he needed.
It took a few minutes of jogging back and forth, but he found a rock about the size of an epic novel. He extracted it from the earth with sweaty hands and hefted it up by his shoulders, running back to where the body lay, but he found a depression in the grass still covered in abandoned flies. The woodchuck was gone. The man looked on either side of the path and thought he might see a spot where the grass was bent from the animal’s passage. He breathed open-mouthed. A mercy killing would be one thing, but he was hunting it now. He stepped across the grassy threshold and off the path, staring at the ground, rock held up near his head with both hands. His stomach felt cold, and sweat gushed from his skin and down his lean body in runnels, dripping from his beard and hair.
The tightly crowded nature of the tall grasses meant that the man didn’t see the woodchuck until it was less than two feet from him. It was lying down again with its ubiquitous swarm, but at the sound of the man it stood and came toward him, skin alive with the flies. The man backpedaled, shouting, but the woodchuck was heedless. Worse, it still did not make noise. It seemed to be refusing to confirm for the man yes, I am suffering, please kill me, but instead pressed and bullied him, I know you won’t do it, bitch. So fuck you.
It silently herded the man backwards until they both were on the path again, where it took a shuddering step and lay down again with its head extended out in front of its body, almost like an offering. The man watched the woodchuck for a moment before he realized that he was waiting for nothing.
He brought the rock above his head, extending as high up as he could reach, leaning back and rocking onto his toes, every one of those shining muscles cranking tight; he needed to kill it in one blow. His body apexed, almost fell backwards, and then compressed with a sick woosh as he slammed the rock directly on its head. The woodchuck convulsed violently, writhing in the grass as the rock bounced off the path. Its back legs ran on nothing, body turning on its side. Still, it made no sounds.
“Fuck,” the man said, and he was distantly pleased to notice that his voice was not shaking. Though as he picked up the rock and the woodchuck writhed behind him, his hands still were shuddering—quite a bit more than before. There was a wet spot on the rock and the man was repulsed by it until he realized that it was his own sweat. He turned and stretched up again, hit the skull, again. Still the woodchuck did not die but its legs continued to run, now in a kind of slow motion. The man wondered if truncating the woodchuck’s suffering was worth this kind of agony. He picked up the rock, which was soaked at this point, and turned it over so that the sharpest end would be pointing down. Once more he opened and closed his whole frame, and when the rock hit the woodchuck this time, he definitely heard a loud crack. When the rock hit the path it made a surprisingly big thud, like the earth was hollow. The man and the woodchuck did not move while the flies busied themselves.
The man knew he would be running by this place again, to he used two strong sticks to pick up the corpse—it was so limp, like a water balloon, that it had to be dead. When the man rolled the body into the long grass and it turned over, he could see what a mess he’d made of the animal’s face. He covered his mouth like he was afraid that some kind of dead particulate would find its way in. The rock was dashed with a swipe of blood now and the man picked it up gingerly, placing it next to the woodchuck in the hopes that nature would see it as an object of liberation and not one of brutality. He tore up fistfuls of grass and covered the body with them, making (in his mind) a makeshift burial. He thought about thinking a few words for it, but he wasn’t sure what to do and he had barely known it anyway. He wasn’t a good person for what he’d done; he knew that he hadn’t wanted to help the woodchuck at all. It was not mercy that made him find the rock and crush its skull, or follow it into the field, and it wasn’t curiosity that had made him turn around in the first place. He did not know how to work hard, but he did know how to suffer. He was looking for something to fuck him up—not so bad that he would become unhappy, but just enough so that he could write something worthwhile. And, happily, his mind churned with stories as he turned to run home; he did not even startle when the toad leapt back over his shoes, the small creature jumping through the field toward the smell of water, where it would continue to live to the best of its ability.