REASON / UNREASON
the brain is
an unlit synagogue
in dark waters
it can baffle faith
it can asphyxiate
the drowning dogs
your pretty head
painted for the gods
to rage & riot & rot
the vacant parking lot
with the appropriate
knives do what some
Copyright © 2017 by sam sax. “Post-Diagnosis” originally appeared in Madness (Penguin, 2017). Reprinted with permission of the author.
From I Know Your Kind (Milkweed Editions, 2017). Copyright © 2017 by William Brewer. Used with the permission of Milkweed Editions.
The lover's footprint in the sand the ten-year-old kid's bare feet in the mud picking chili for rich growers, not those seeking cultural or ethnic roots, but those whose roots have been exposed, hacked, dug up and burned and in those roots do animals burrow for warmth; what is broken is blessed, not the knowledge and empty-shelled wisdom paraphrased from textbooks, not the mimicking nor plaques of distinction nor the ribbons and medals but after the privileged carriage has passed the breeze blows traces of wheel ruts away and on the dust will again be the people's broken footprints. What is broken God blesses, not the perfectly brick-on-brick prison but the shattered wall that announces freedom to the world, proclaims the irascible spirit of the human rebelling against lies, against betrayal, against taking what is not deserved; the human complaint is what God blesses, our impoverished dirt roads filled with cripples, what is broken is baptized, the irreverent disbeliever, the addict's arm seamed with needle marks is a thread line of a blanket frayed and bare from keeping the man warm. We are all broken ornaments, glinting in our worn-out work gloves, foreclosed homes, ruined marriages, from which shimmer our lives in their deepest truths, blood from the wound, broken ornaments— when we lost our perfection and honored our imperfect sentiments, we were blessed. Broken are the ghettos, barrios, trailer parks where gangs duel to death, yet through the wretchedness a woman of sixty comes riding her rusty bicycle, we embrace we bury in our hearts, broken ornaments, accused, hunted, finding solace and refuge we work, we worry, we love but always with compassion reflecting our blessings— in our brokenness thrives life, thrives light, thrives the essence of our strength, each of us a warm fragment, broken off from the greater ornament of the unseen, then rejoined as dust, to all this is.
From Selected Poems/Poemas Selectos, by Jimmy Santiago Baca, translated by Tomas H. Lucero and Liz Fania Werner. Copyright © 2009. Used by permission of New Directions. All rights reserved.
What little I know, I hold closer, more dear, especially now that I take the daily reinvention of loss as my teacher. I will never graduate from this college, whose M.A. translates “Master of Absence,” with a subtext in the imperative: Misplace Anything. If there’s anything I want, it’s that more people I love join the search party. You were once renowned among friends for your luck in retrieving from the wayside the perfect bowl for the kitchen, or a hand carved deer, a pencil drawn portrait of a young girl whose brimming innocence still makes me ache. Now the daily litany of common losses goes like this: Do you have your wallet, keys, glasses, gloves, giraffe? Oh dear, I forgot my giraffe—that’s the preferred response, but no: it’s usually the glasses, the gloves, the wallet. The keys I’ve hidden. I’ve signed you up for “safe return” with a medallion (like a diploma) on a chain about your neck. Okay, today, this writing, I’m amused by the art of losing. I bow to Elizabeth Bishop, I try “losing faster”—but when I get frantic, when I’ve lost my composure, my nerve, my patience, my compassion, I have only what little I know to save me. Here’s what I know: it’s not absence I fear, but anonymity. I remember taking a deep breath, stopped in my tracks. I’d been looking for an important document I had myself misplaced; high and low, no luck yet. I was “beside myself,” so there may have indeed been my double running the search party. “Stop,” you said gently. “I’ll go get Margaret. She’ll know where it is.” “But I’m Margaret,” I wailed. “No, no.” You held out before me a copy of one of my books, pointing to the author’s photograph, someone serious and composed. “You know her. Margaret Gibson, the poet.” We looked into each others’ eyes a long time. The earth tilted on its axis, and what we were looking for, each other and ourselves, took the tilt, and we slid into each others’ arms, holding on for dear life, holding on.
The afternoon light lights
the room in a smudged
sheen, a foggy-eyed glow.
The dog digs at the couch,
low-growling at the mailman.
I’m spelling words with pills
spilled consolidating bottles:
yes and try and most of happy:
Maybe I’ll empty them all.
A woman I don’t know
is having a drill drill into her
skull. To get rid of the thing
requires entering the brain.
How to imagine a story
that ends with that ending?
I don’t know how to live my life,
but at least today I want to.
Copyright © 2015 by Aaron Smith. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 7, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.
You are standing in the minefield again.
Someone who is dead now
told you it is where you will learn
to dance. Snow on your lips like a salted
cut, you leap between your deaths, black as god’s
periods. Your arms cleaving little wounds
in the wind. You are something made. Then made
to survive, which means you are somebody’s
son. Which means if you open your eyes, you’ll be back
in that house, beneath a blanket printed with yellow sailboats.
Your mother’s boyfriend, his bald head ringed with red
hair, like a planet on fire, kneeling
by your bed again. Air of whiskey & crushed
Oreos. Snow falling through the window: ash returned
from a failed fable. His spilled-ink hand
on your chest. & you keep dancing inside the minefield—
motionless. The curtains fluttering. Honeyed light
beneath the door. His breath. His wet blue face: earth
spinning in no one’s orbit. & you want someone to say Hey…Hey
I think your dancing is gorgeous. A little waltz to die for,
darling. You want someone to say all this
is long ago. That one night, very soon, you’ll pack a bag
with your favorite paperback & your mother’s .45,
that the surest shelter was always the thoughts
above your head. That it’s fair—it has to be—
how our hands hurt us, then give us
the world. How you can love the world
until there’s nothing left to love
but yourself. Then you can stop.
Then you can walk away—back into the fog
-walled minefield, where the vein in your neck adores you
to zero. You can walk away. You can be nothing
& still breathing. Believe me.
Copyright © 2015 by Ocean Vuong. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on September 2, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets
Sometimes I don’t know if I’m having a feeling
so I check my phone or squint at the window
with a serious look, like someone in a movie
or a mother thinking about how time passes.
Sometimes I’m not sure how to feel so I think
about a lot of things until I get an allergy attack.
I take my antihistamine with beer, thank you very much,
sleep like a cut under a band aid, wake up
on the stairs having missed the entire party.
It was a real blast, I can tell, for all the vases
are broken, the flowers twisted into crowns
for the young, drunk, and beautiful. I put one on
and salute the moon, the lone face over me
shining through the grates on the front door window.
You have seen me like this before, such a strange
version of the person you thought you knew.
Guess what, I’m strange to us both. It’s like
I’m not even me sometimes. Who am I? A question
for the Lord only to decide as She looks over
my résumé. Everything is different sometimes.
Sometimes there is no hand on my shoulder
but my room, my apartment, my body are containers
and I am thusly contained. How easy to forget
the obvious. The walls, blankets, sunlight, your love.
Copyright © 2015 by Matthew Siegel. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 8, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.
I plucked my soul out of its secret place,
And held it to the mirror of my eye,
To see it like a star against the sky,
A twitching body quivering in space,
A spark of passion shining on my face.
And I explored it to determine why
This awful key to my infinity
Conspires to rob me of sweet joy and grace.
And if the sign may not be fully read,
If I can comprehend but not control,
I need not gloom my days with futile dread,
Because I see a part and not the whole.
Contemplating the strange, I’m comforted
By this narcotic thought: I know my soul.
This poem is in the public domain.
us was a thing hard to
come by. We would have to make due with
we had: these
were pills and a pencil,
blue earplugs to block out the voices
our heads, which
would tell us time passed and
these thoughts that would shine like soft lights on
our brains would
one day fade
relief. We would write in our binders,
a moment of grief. We
were deeply aware we would have to
make up for
lost time, but
when we took our pills, the
world would seem fine, seem as if it had
fine. Once we
had adequate supplies
we’d sell, but until then we decid-
ed to re-
fill. We had
determined that we would
not brood. Instead we charted out our
moods and light-
ened up our
loads. Before the rest of
time unfolds, we would like to hold on-
to this life,
feel like it’s
beating, there, deep inside
of our chests, not out of fear. We are
Copyright © 2014 by Katy Lederer. Used with permission of the author.
Consider the palms. They are faces, eyes closed, their five spread fingers soft exclamations, sadness or surprise. They have smile lines, sorrow lines, like faces. Like faces, they are hard to read. Somehow the palms, though they have held my life piece by piece, seem young and pale. So much has touched them, nothing has remained. They are innocent, maybe, though they guess they have a darker side that they cannot grasp. The backs of my hands, indeed, are so different that sometimes I think they are not mine, shadowy from the sun, all bones and strain, but time on my hands, blood on my hands— for such things I have never blamed my hands. One hand writes. Sometimes it writes a reminder on the other hand, which knows it will never write, though it has learned, in secret, how to type. That is sad, perhaps, but the dominant hand is sadder, with its fear that it will never, not really, be written on. They are like an old couple at home. All day, each knows exactly where the other is. They must speak, though how is a mystery, so rarely do they touch, so briefly come together, now and then to wash, maybe in prayer. I consider my hands, palms up. Empty, I say, though it is exactly then that they are weighing not a particular stone or loaf I have chosen but everything, everything, the whole tall world, finding it light, finding it light as air.
Copyright © 2018 by James Richardson. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 13, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.
Copyright © 2017 by Lynn Melnick. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 26, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.
In man, it was written, are found the elements
and their characteristics, for he passes
from cold to hot, moisture to dryness.
He comes into being and passes out of being
like the minerals, nourishes and reproduces
like the plants, has feeling and life
like animals. His figure resembles the terebinth;
his hair, grass; veins, arteries; rivers, canals;
and his bones, the mountains.
Then the vascular system was discovered.
Pump and pulley replaced wind and mill
sweeping blood down those dusty roads.
And Descartes, the first to admit
he supposed a body to be nothing
but a machine made of earth. Mere clockwork.
He found this a comfort because
you can always wind a machine back up.
The Chimera was a clock in the form of a leviathan,
Memento Mori was the shape of skull.
Spheres and pendants, water droplets and pears.
Milkmaids tugging udders on the hour.
Some kept time using Berthold’s new equation,
some invented the second hand. The Silver Swan
sits in a stream of glass ripples and gilded leaves,
swallowing silver-plated fish as music plays.
After Descartes’ daughter died,
he took to the sea. They say he went
so mad with grief he remade her
as automaton. A wind-up cog and lever
elegy hidden in the cargo hold.
He said the body is a machine
and he may well be right about that.
But when she was so hot with fever
she could not breathe, and then so suddenly cold,
he held his fingers on her wrist and felt
only his own heart pumping. All the wind
and water of a daughter became a vast meadow
that has no design and no function
and there is no way beyond that stretch of grass.
Grief, the sailors said, is a hex
and contagion and it will draw the wind
down from the sails. It will stopper
in the glass jar sitting like a heart
in the chamber of a mechanical girl
with mechanical glass eyes. On a ship beleaguered
by storm, they ripped open the box
with a crowbar to find the automaton
Descartes called Francine because he missed
saying her name. They threw her into the wake
and his face became a moon in the black
deep, each wave lapping it under.
He supposed that if you thought hard enough
you should be able to understand,
for example, how a stick would refract
in water even if you had never seen a stick
or water or the light of day. By this means,
he said, your mind will be delivered.
If you think hard enough, you can light a fire
in the hearth. Your child can press herself
against your knee and snug her shoulder into yours
as you wind the clock of a girl like and unlike her,
who can walk three remarkable skips and blink
and curtsy politely before ticking down.
It may be there is no wind blowing
blood through the body, but, arm around her,
you feel how she flushes with fiery amazement
as she puts her little hand over her own
cuckooing heart, because this is what we do
when Papa has taken our breath away.
From The End of Pink. Copyright © 2016 by Kathryn Nuernberger. Used with the permission of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.
if the body is just a parable
about the body if breath
is a leash to hold the mind
then staying alive should be
easier than it is most sick
things become dead things
at twenty-four my liver was
already covered in fatty
rot my mother filled a tiny
coffin with picture frames
I spent the year drinking
from test tubes weeping
wherever I went somehow
it happened wellness crept
into me like a roach nibbling
through an eardrum for
a time the half minutes
of fire in my brainstem
made me want to pull out
my spine but even those
have become bearable so
how shall I live now
in the unexpected present
I spent so long in a lover’s
quarrel with my flesh
the peace seems over-
cautious too-polite I say
stop being cold or make
that blue bluer and it does
we speak to each other
in this code where every word
means obey I sit under
a poplar tree with a thermos
of chamomile feeling
useless as an oath against
dying I put a sugar cube
on my tongue and
swallow it like a pill
Copyright © 2017 by Kaveh Akbar. From Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books, 2017). Used with permission of the author.
We could say that Rembrandt was a greater painter than Kandinsky. We could not say that Rembrandt was three and a half times better than Kandinsky. . . . We could say, "I have more pain than I had yesterday." When we tried to say, "I have nine dols of pain," we found we were talking nonsense.
- Leshan and Morgenau This is the pain you could fit in a tea ball. This is the pain you could pack in a pipe – a plug of pungent shag-cut pain, a pain to roll between the thumb and the forefinger. Here: this pain you could pour down the city sewers, where it would harden, and swell, and crack those tubes like the flex of a city-wide snake, and still you would wake and there would be more for the pouring. Some pain believes its only true measure is litigation. For other pain, the glint of the lamp in a single called-forth tear is enough. Some pain requires just one mouth, at an ear. Another pain requires the Transatlantic Cable. No ruled lines exist by which to gauge its growth (my pain at three years old. . . at five. . . ) and yet if we follow the chronolinear path of Rembrandt's face self-imaged over forty years - a human cell in the nurturing murk of his signature thick-laid paint – we see the look-by-look development, through early swank and rollick, of a kind of pain so comfortable it's worn, at the last, like a favorite robe, that's frayed by now, and intimate with the frailties of its body, and has an easy fit that the showiest cloak of office never could. In 1658, the gaze is equally into himself, and out to the world-at-large – they've reached a balance of apportioned disappointment – and the meltflesh under the eyes is the sallow of chicken skin, recorded with a faithfulness, with really a painterly tenderness, that lifts this understanding of pain into something so accommodating, "love" is the word that seems to apply to these mournfully basso bloodpan reds and tankard-bottom browns. Today in the library stacks, the open face of a woman above this opened book of Rembrandt reproductions might be something like the moon he looked to, thinking it shared in his sadness. What's her pain? her ohm, her acreage, her baker's dozen, of actual on-your-knees-in-the-abattoir misery? I don't know. I'm not writing this pretending that I know. What I can say is that the chill disc of the stethoscope is known to announce an increment of pain not inappropriate to being blurted forth along the city wall by a corps of regalia' d trumpeters. Who's to say what a "unit" of pain is? On a marshy slope beyond the final outpost, Rembrandt stares at the moon, and stares at the moon, until the background drumming-in of the ocean and the other assorted sounds of the Amsterdam night, and then the Amsterdam dawn, are one with his forlornness, and the mood fades into a next day, and a woman here in Kansas turns to face the sky: she's late for her appointment. She's due for another daily injection of nine c.c.'s of undiluted dol.
Copyright © 2007 by Albert Goldbarth. Reprinted from The Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems, 1972-2007 with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota.
If many remedies are prescribed
for an illness, you may be certain
that the illness has no cure.
A. P. CHEKHOV
The Cherry Orchard
1 FROM THE NURSERY When I was born, you waited behind a pile of linen in the nursery, and when we were alone, you lay down on top of me, pressing the bile of desolation into every pore. And from that day on everything under the sun and moon made me sad—even the yellow wooden beads that slid and spun along a spindle on my crib. You taught me to exist without gratitude. You ruined my manners toward God: "We're here simply to wait for death; the pleasures of earth are overrated." I only appeared to belong to my mother, to live among blocks and cotton undershirts with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes and report cards in ugly brown slipcases. I was already yours—the anti-urge, the mutilator of souls. 2 BOTTLES Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin, Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax, Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft. The coated ones smell sweet or have no smell; the powdery ones smell like the chemistry lab at school that made me hold my breath. 3 SUGGESTION FROM A FRIEND You wouldn't be so depressed if you really believed in God. 4 OFTEN Often I go to bed as soon after dinner as seems adult (I mean I try to wait for dark) in order to push away from the massive pain in sleep's frail wicker coracle. 5 ONCE THERE WAS LIGHT Once, in my early thirties, I saw that I was a speck of light in the great river of light that undulates through time. I was floating with the whole human family. We were all colors—those who are living now, those who have died, those who are not yet born. For a few moments I floated, completely calm, and I no longer hated having to exist. Like a crow who smells hot blood you came flying to pull me out of the glowing stream. "I'll hold you up. I never let my dear ones drown!" After that, I wept for days. 6 IN AND OUT The dog searches until he finds me upstairs, lies down with a clatter of elbows, puts his head on my foot. Sometimes the sound of his breathing saves my life—in and out, in and out; a pause, a long sigh. . . . 7 PARDON A piece of burned meat wears my clothes, speaks in my voice, dispatches obligations haltingly, or not at all. It is tired of trying to be stouthearted, tired beyond measure. We move on to the monoamine oxidase inhibitors. Day and night I feel as if I had drunk six cups of coffee, but the pain stops abruptly. With the wonder and bitterness of someone pardoned for a crime she did not commit I come back to marriage and friends, to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back to my desk, books, and chair. 8 CREDO Pharmaceutical wonders are at work but I believe only in this moment of well-being. Unholy ghost, you are certain to come again. Coarse, mean, you'll put your feet on the coffee table, lean back, and turn me into someone who can't take the trouble to speak; someone who can't sleep, or who does nothing but sleep; can't read, or call for an appointment for help. There is nothing I can do against your coming. When I awake, I am still with thee. 9 WOOD THRUSH High on Nardil and June light I wake at four, waiting greedily for the first note of the wood thrush. Easeful air presses through the screen with the wild, complex song of the bird, and I am overcome by ordinary contentment. What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment? How I love the small, swiftly beating heart of the bird singing in the great maples; its bright, unequivocal eye.
From Constance by Jane Kenyon, published by Graywolf Press. © 1993 by Jane Kenyon. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
When I walked across a room I saw myself walking
as if I were someone else,
when I picked up a fork, when I pulled off a dress,
as if I were in a movie.
It’s what I thought you saw when you looked at me.
So when I looked at you, I didn’t see you
I saw the me I thought you saw, as if I were someone else.
I called that outside—watching. Well I didn’t call it anything
when it happened all the time.
But one morning after I stopped the pills—standing in the kitchen
for one second I was inside looking out.
Then I popped back outside. And saw myself looking.
Would it happen again? It did, a few days later.
My friend Wendy was pulling on her winter coat, standing by the kitchen door
and suddenly I was inside and I saw her.
I looked out from my own eyes
and I saw: her eyes: blue gray transparent
and inside them: Wendy herself!
Then I was outside again,
and Wendy was saying, Bye-bye, see you soon,
as if Nothing Had Happened.
She hadn’t noticed. She hadn’t known that I’d Been There
for Maybe 40 Seconds,
and that then I was Gone.
She hadn’t noticed that I Hadn’t Been There for Months,
years, the entire time she’d known me.
I needn’t have been embarrassed to have been there for those seconds;
she had not Noticed The Difference.
This happened on and off for weeks,
and then I was looking at my old friend John:
: suddenly I was in: and I saw him,
and he: (and this was almost unbearable)
he saw me see him,
and I saw him see me.
He said something like, You’re going to be ok now,
or, It’s been difficult hasn’t it,
but what he said mattered only a little.
We met—in our mutual gaze—in between
a third place I’d not yet been.
Copyright © 2017 by Marie Howe. From Magdalene (W. W. Norton, 2017). Used with permission of the author.