When the bass drops on Bill Withers’ Better Off Dead, it’s like 7 a.m. and I confess I’m looking over my shoulder once or twice just to make sure no one in Brooklyn is peeking into my third-floor window to see me in pajamas I haven’t washed for three weeks before I slide from sink to stove in one long groove left foot first then back to the window side with my chin up and both fists clenched like two small sacks of stolen nickels and I can almost hear the silver hit the floor by the dozens when I let loose and sway a little back and just like that I’m a lizard grown two new good legs on a breeze -bent limb. I’m a grown-ass man with a three-day wish and two days to live. And just like that everyone knows my heart’s broke and no one is home. Just like that, I’m water. Just like that, I’m the boat. Just like that, I’m both things in the whole world rocking. Sometimes sadness is just what comes between the dancing. And bam!, my mother’s dead and, bam!, my brother’s children are laughing. Just like—ok, it’s true I can’t pop up from my knees so quick these days and no one ever said I could sing but tell me my body ain’t good enough for this. I’ll count the aches another time, one in each ankle, the sharp spike in my back, this mud-muscle throbbing in my going bones, I’m missing the six biggest screws to hold this blessed mess together. I’m wind- rattled. The wood’s splitting. The hinges are falling off. When the first bridge ends, just like that, I’m a flung open door.
The divorced mother and her divorcing daughter. The about-to-be ex-son-in-law and the ex-husband's adopted son. The divorcing daughter's child, who is the step-nephew of the ex-husband's adopted son. Everyone cordial: the ex-husband's second wife friendly to the first wife, warm to the divorcing daughter's child's great-grandmother, who was herself long ago divorced. Everyone grown used to the idea of divorce. Almost everyone has separated from the landscape of a childhood. Collections of people in cities are divorced from clean air and stars. Toddlers in day care are parted from working parents, schoolchildren from the assumption of unbloodied daylong safety. Old people die apart from all they've gathered over time, and in strange beds. Adults grow estranged from a God evidently divorced from History; most are cut off from their own histories, each of which waits like a child left at day care. What if you turned back for a moment and put your arms around yours? Yes, you might be late for work; no, your history doesn't smell sweet like a toddler's head. But look at those small round wrists, that short-legged, comical walk. Caress your history--who else will? Promise to come back later. Pay attention when it asks you simple questions: Where are we going? Is it scary? What happened? Can I have more now? Who is that?
From Bat Ode by Jeredith Merrin. Copyright © 2000 by Jeredith Merrin. Reprinted with permission by The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.
is it a good thing to find
two empty pages between the day
before yesterday & yesterday
when trying to make room
for the blue opera afternoon
of today a sunday like any sunday
there is no one could tell
or judge though my own
obsession with the in between
should dictate the answer
& thus let me rejoice at being able
to insert today between the
day before yesterday & yesterday
as if it were the yeast of night
allowed these spaces to open
(do not say holes to grow)
in the spongy tissue of this
my papery time-space discon-
leaven of earth leaven of writing
of running writing to earth
in these in betweenesses that now
please as much as the opera in ear
that asks que dieu vous le rende dans
l’autre monde but the desire is to stay right
here in this world this in between even as
the sound changes the radio sings son
vada o resti intanto non partirai
exactly my feeling sheltered on these
pages now filled and pushing up against
Down sat Bud, raised his hands, the Deuces silenced, the lights lowered, and breath gathered for the coming storm. Then nothing, not a single note. Outside starlight from heaven fell unseen, a quarter- moon, promised, was no show, ditto the rain. Late August of '50, NYC, the long summer of abundance and our new war. In the mirror behind the bar, the spirits—imitating you— stared at themselves. At the bar the tenor player up from Philly, shut his eyes and whispered to no one, "Same thing last night." Everyone been coming all week long to hear this. The big brown bass sighed and slumped against the piano, the cymbals held their dry cheeks and stopped chicking and chucking. You went back to drinking and ignored the unignorable. When the door swung open it was Pettiford in work clothes, midnight suit, starched shirt, narrow black tie, spit shined shoes, as ready as he'd ever be. Eyebrows raised, the Irish bartender shook his head, so Pettiford eased himself down at an empty table, closed up his Herald Tribune, and shook his head. Did the TV come on, did the jukebox bring us Dinah Washington, did the stars keep their appointments, did the moon show, quartered or full, sprinkling its soft light down? The night's still there, just where it was, just where it'll always be without its music. You're still there too holding your breath. Bud walked out.
From Breath by Philip Levine. Copyright © 2003 by Philip Levine. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved. This poem appeared in Poem-a-Day on September 2, 2013.