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.
Nothing is more important to the ant
whose exoskeleton has been breached
by mushroom spores that are now
controlling his nervous system
and compelling him to climb to a high leaf
only to die and release the spores
over the whole forest
than this poem about his sad plight.
Otherwise his life is meaningless.
Forage. Chew. Recognize by scent.
Abdication of the will. A huge wind
that comes and sweeps his fellows
off the grass. When he dies up there
in the treetops the mushroom grows
right out of his head and breaks open
lightly dusting the afternoon.
Everything he thought he was here
on Earth to do has been left undone.
Through the trees
the spores move on their sinister ways.
I put down the science magazine written
for elementary school kids
in which I have briefly disappeared.
From Surrounded by Friends, published by Wave Books. Copyright © 2015, by Matthew Rohrer. Reprinted with permission by The Permissions Company, on behalf of Wave Books.
One day the patterned carpet, the folding chairs,
the woman in the blue suit by the door examining her split ends,
all of it will go on without me. I’ll have disappeared,
as easily as a coin under lake water, and few to notice the difference
—a coin dropping into the darkening—
and West 4th Street, the sesame noodles that taste like too much peanut butter
lowered into the small white paper carton—all of it will go on and on—
and the I that caused me so much trouble? Nowhere
or grit thrown into the garden
or into the sticky bodies of several worms,
or just gone, stopped—like the Middle Ages,
like the coin Whitman carried in his pocket all the way to that basement
bar on Broadway that isn’t there anymore.
Oh to be in Whitman’s pocket, on a cold winter day,
to feel his large warm hand slide in and out, and in again.
To be taken hold of by Walt Whitman! To be exchanged!
To be spent for something somebody wanted and drank and found delicious.
Copyright © 2017 by Marie Howe. From Magdalene (W. W. Norton, 2017). Used with permission of the author.
If a human body has two-hundred-and-six bones
and thirty trillion cells, and each cell
has one hundred trillion atoms, if the spine
has thirty-three vertebrae—
if each atom
has a shadow—then the lilacs across the yard
are nebulae beginning to star.
If the fruit flies that settle on the orange
on the table rise
like the photons
from a bomb fire miles away,
my thoughts at the moment of explosion
are nails suspended
in a jar of honey.
I peel the orange
for you, spread the honey on your toast.
When our skin touches
our atoms touch, their shadows
merging into a shadow galaxy.
And if echoes are shadows
of sounds, if each hexagonal cell in the body
is a dark pool of jelly,
if within each cell
drones another cell—
The moment the bomb explodes
the man’s spine bends like its shadow
across the road.
The moment he loses his hearing
I think you are calling me
from across the house
because my ears start to ring.
From the kitchen window
I see the lilacs crackling like static
as if erasing, teleporting,
thousands of bees rising from the blossoms:
tiny flames in the sun.
I lick the knife
and the honey pierces my tongue:
a nail made of light.
My body is wrapped in honey. When I step outside
I become fire.
Copyright © 2014 by Sara Eliza Johnson. Used with permission of the author.
I didn’t know I was blue, until I heard her sing. I was never aware so much had been lost even before I was born. There was so much to lose even before I knew what it meant to choose. Born blue, living blue unconfessed, blue in concealment, I’ve lived all my life at the plinth of greater things than me. Morning is greater with its firstborn light and birdsong. Noon is taller, though a moment’s realm. Evening is ancient and immense, and night’s storied house more huge. But I had no idea. And would have died without a clue, except she began to sing. And I understood my soul is a bride enthralled by an unmet groom, or else the groom wholly spoken for, blue in ardor, happy in eternal waiting. I heard her sing and knew I would never hear the true name of each thing until I realized the abysmal ground of all things. Her singing touched that ground in me. Now, dying of my life, everything is made new. Now, my life is not my life. I have no life apart from all of life. And my death is not my death, but a pillow beneath my head, a rock propping the window open to admit the jasmine. I heard her sing, and I’m no longer afraid. Now that I know what she knows, I hope never to forget how giant the gone and immaculate the going. How much I’ve already lost. How much I go on losing. How much I’ve lived all one blue. O, how much I go on living.
"Spoken For" from The Undressing by Li-Young Lee. Copyright © 2018 Li-Young Lee. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 20, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.
shoals in sparked night real creatures crushed by heated hunter gathers me, in long stocking pearlescent, feasting salty heat of abalone stewed in derelict measure climbed, naked, on board each body, a mosaic in sand drift, sea rind, carapace in hand to which we, a fire red carved, each tissue ripped from small purse tessellated surface talus shade in tears
From Western Practice by Stephen Motika. Copyright © 2012 by Stephen Motika. Reprinted with permission of Alice James Books. All rights reserved.
The Chinese truck driver
throws the rope
like a lasso, with a practiced flick,
over the load:
where it hovers an instant,
then arcs like a willow
into the waiting,
of his brother.
What does it matter
that, sitting in traffic,
I glanced out the window
and found them that way?
So lean and sleek-muscled
in their sweat-stiffened t-shirts:
offloading the pallets
just so they can load up
again in the morning,
and so on,
and so forth
forever like that—
I might tell them
if I spoke Mandarin,
or had a Marlboro to offer,
or thought for a minute
they’d believe it
when I say that I know
how it feels
to break your own
back for a living.
what’s the difference?
When every light
for a mile turns
green all at once,
no matter how much
I might like
to keep watching
the older one squint
and blow smoke
through his nose?
Something like sadness,
like joy, like a sudden
love for my life,
and for the body
in which I have lived it,
overtaking me all at once,
as a bus driver honks
and the setting
sun glints, so bright
off a windshield
I wince and look back
and it’s gone.
Copyright © 2015 by Patrick Phillips. Used with permission of the author.
The afternotes: orange, a little frangipani,
and then something harsh and mineral:
an old jug rutted out of the ruins of a lost chapel.
But first it was like drinking spring water
lathed by rocks fatty with quartz.
No, it’s inexplicable,
even the way that drink spared our feelings.
That drink liked loneliness and appreciation, lingering appreciation.
Just thinking about that drink creates a kind of yearning
that douses you like sea spray.
I drank that drink and was convinced my body
was flying of its own accord, and why not?
The myth of Icarus is an ugly story
retold and retold and retold
by someone resentful who wasn’t able to drink
the best of the drinks we ever drank.
There was a clear sky in that glass and shaggy pines
and a bit of snowmelt doused in a fire,
and soon a blue shawl drew itself from the rim
and brimmed over us both, and something caught
inside our throats and was released—some old grief.
A grief that, possibly, didn’t even come from us. Or even from our ancestors.
Copyright © 2016 by Lee Upton. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 20, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.