Richard Siken is the author of Crush (Yale University Press, 2006), which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 2004. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.
He was pointing at the moon but I was looking at his hand.
He was dead anyway, a ghost. I'm surprised
I saw his hand at all. The moon, of course, is always
there—day moon, but it's still there; behind the clouds but
it's still there. I like seeing things: a hand, the moon, ice
in a highball glass. The moon? It's free, it doesn't
cost you anything so go ahead and look. Sustained attention
to anything—a focus, a scrutiny—always yields results.
I'd live on the moon probably except I think I'd miss
the moonlight, landscaping craters with clay roses in earthshine
and a reasonable excuse to avoid visiting hours
at the mental hospital. In space, no one can hear you
lying to your mom: "Can't make it, Mom. It's
a really long schlep." The coffee's weak and the coffee cake's
imaginary. You're not missing anything. Inside: a day room
and a day pass. Outside: a gazebo under a jackfruit tree.
The other inside: a deeper understanding of the burden
and its domestic infrastructure. Make yourself white.
Make yourself snow but the black bears trample
your landscape like little black dots that show up on x-rays.
It is not enough to be a landscape. One must also become
the path through the landscape, which is creepy. Truly.
The sun melts the snow, the bears wander off, the leaves
tremble like all my sad friends. I can still see his hand.
Once, in a fable, the moon woke the dead. Buried
underground, its light was too much to bear. How did it
get there? Greed. The brothers who owned it had it
buried with them. Later, St. Peter hung it in a tree.
The dead went back to bed, allegedly. One wonders why
a story like this exists. Who wrote it and to what end?
An ingenious solution: trees. Cashew, avocado, fig,
olive. Put it in a tree. Hide it in plain sight and climb
higher. We are all of us secret agents, undercover in our
overcoats, the snow falling down. Little black dots.
Some dream of tall things—trees, ladders, a rope trick.
My dreams are filled with bricks, or things in the shape
of bricks. Rectangles in the hot sun. A cow, a car,
a carton of cigarettes. Even my imagination sleeps
when I sleep and why not rest? Why crash the party
on the astral plane? You'll just be too tired to go
to the real party later. Have you ever eaten
Swedish meatballs at a dream party? They taste like
your blanket, because they are your blanket.
My imagination wants breakfast burritos. It refuses
to punch the clock until then. I could eat six but then
I'd need a nap. A breakfast that puts you back to sleep
is useless. Dear bears, we must not hibernate!
The bathroom tile is always wet and slippery and the door
from sleeping to waking always sticks and squeeks
but I have arrived, triumphant, with corporate coffee!
Tawnya has written our names on the paper cups
in her immaculate cursive. Her eyes are dead
and lusterless but her heart is in the right place, I guess.
Somewhere deep in her chest, I guess.
We take our hats off and get down
to business. "You got plans tonight, Dick?"
"Eight dollar spaghetti dinner and all you can sing
karaoke at the Best Western. Gonna school
Pace and Killian in the finer points of falsetto."
Not even one hour later: smoke break
in the breezeway by the handicapped bathroom.
Why is it we believe we only have one soul?
Because it's easier to set the table for one. And you can
sing your dinner tune to yourself while you eat over the sink.
The throat of the sink: silent. The throat of the argument:
more silverware, a tablecloth, gratitude, more souls.
A kid under a tablecloth isnists he's a ghost. A table
underneath a tablecloth is, I guess, like the rest of us,
only pretending to be invisible. Or worse:
dressed for work and not in the mood for, you know,
how it all plays out, always the same ways, boring times infinity.
"When I grow up I'm going to be a truck,"
says the kid underneath the tablecloth, and that's one way
to deflect the weight of the inevitable, to insist on possibility
in the face of grownups and the pumace of their compromises.
The trees die standing. My Spanish teacher told me this.
I had conjugated the verbs beforehand and taped them
to the bottom of my sneaker. Cheater, yes. Also uninvested
in the outcome. She could tell. Nothing to be done about it.
Verbs of being and verbs of action. We, neither
of us, were doing much anyway at the time and the room was
too hot. I think she meant unroot, which is a good thing to mean
but a difficult thing to hear when you're living under someone
else's roof. I climbed trees then, too. Then climbed back down.
How do I tell you how I got here without getting trapped
in the past? I suppose that's a bigger question than I expected.
"Hey Dick, tell ‘em about that one time when we made out.
That was a good time." Yes, it was. And yet
should we really spend our velocities on backwards motion?
Yes. Any motion, every motion. It's spring, green, take off
your coat, pull down your cap, roll up your sleeves, we're
hunting, we're arrows, we're stag in a meadow, in a frenzy.
"Like I said, Dick. That was a good time."
Soul 1: Was it a good time?
Soul 2: I had fun. You seemed to like it.
Soul 3: He's no Neil Armstrong.
Soul 2: Few are.
Neil Armstrong: Hush.
"He was such a colicky baby. Always fussing and crying.
As if he didn't want to be here at all. Right, Dicky?"
No, mom. I don't remember. And you're not supposed to be
in this part of the poem. You come back later, near the end,
with the ghost and the hand and the moon, after dark, after
the gimlets. "Sweetie, you asked for prompts and it's getting dark
on the East Coast. Tick tock. And don't type drunk."
Dear East Coast, I'm sorry it's getting dark. It must be problematic,
living in the future, always a few steps ahead, knowing
things you shouldn't say, since they haven't happened
to the rest of us yet. And Poland? I don't dare wonder
what you know about tomorrow. "Your grandma was from Poland."
I know, mom. And grandpa was handsome and you
were the smart one and the pretty one. "Still am. Poor Barbara.
You know, Dicky, I've been out of the hospital for a while now.
Remember how you promised you wouldn't write about me
while I was alive, Dicky? Remember? So if you're
writing about me that must mean something, yes?"
You're not sticking around for the end, then. "No, you're
doing fine, Squish. And yes, I miss you, too."
We cannot tarry here. We must march, we must bear the brunt.
Smoke break: in the alley by the oleanders, the pink ones.
Dear East Coast, it is getting dark here too now. Suddenly.
"It's getting late, Little Moon. Sing them the song."
It's not that late, Mr. Kitten.
"You are my moon, Little Moon. And it's late enough.
So climb down out of the tree."
Is it safe? "Safe enough." Are you dead as well?
Soul 1: Sing.
Soul 2: Sing.
Soul 3: Sing.
Stag In The Meadow: Sing.
The Black Bears: Sing.
Kid Under The Tablecloth: Sing.
I've been singing all day.
"Yes, you've been singing all day. And no, I'm not dead, not
everyone is dead, Little Moon. But the big moon needs the tree."
There is a ghost at the end of the song.
"Yes, there is. And you see his hand, and then you see the moon."
Am I the ghost at the end of the song?
"No, you are the way we bounce the light to see the ghost."
He was looking at the moon by I was looking at his hand.
He was dead anyway, a ghost. I'm surprised I saw
his hand at all. Once, in a fable, the moon woke the dead.
One wonders why a story like this exists. Who wrote it
and to what end? Sure, everyone wants the same things—
to belong, and to not be left behind—but still, does it help?
Perhaps. Once, in a fable: a man in a tree. Once,
in a fable: the trace of his thinking, the sound of his singing.
I like seeing things: a hand, the moon, ice in a highball glass.
The light of the mind illuminating the mind itself.
Put it in a tree. Hide it in plain sight and climb higher.
We are all of us secret agents, undercover in our overcoats,
the snow falling down.
This poem was tweeted one line at a time on April 4, 2011, and shaped by the responses of other tweeters, as part of the Academy of American Poets' 30 Days, 30 Poets feature. Copyright © 2011 by Richard Siken. Reprinted with permission.