At first, I spoke to my neighbor daily, in part because of the weather
(he could still sit out on bench)
in part because of vice
(I was chain-smoking and he’d shout for one when I passed)
but this stopped, in part because of trust
(he did not believe I was smoking less and resented the imagined lie)
in part because of routes
(at first I added 15 minutes to my commute to walk north, past his apartment, towards 6th avenue, and up through the park, as this removes 25-50% of my anxiety, but now that I have lived here half a year, I find myself incapable of waking up early enough to permit this easy remedy, so I walk the other, faster direction)
and in part because of novelty
(having covered introductions, we now tend to say only “hello” when I do pass).
I have a sense of what he looks like, due to this regularity,
but I could not describe his building.
Someone I was hoping to kiss informed me
that it’s easy to remember
images (all you have to do, they said, is take
a lesson from a children’s book, one in which a girl could
remember anything she wanted by saying “click,”
and imagining she held a camera). Later, distracted
on my walk home by the kiss’s memory, which came
easily because my eyes had been closed for it, I took a wrong
turn and struggled to find my building
on an unfamiliar street. That’s why I’m studying:
There is my own blue bicycle; the round planter to the left
of the steps I use to enter, which the downstairs neighbor keeps
tidy—cutting back the plants that don’t stay green
in the winter, for example, but keeping the heartier cabbages
watered—though I have never seen her do this work;
somewhere between two and five pride flags,
some of which are there year round while others
appear only in June; a fire hydrant; the windows
of the apartment that face mine, through which I see my least
favorite bookshelves: they look mildly expensive
and comprise a set of intersecting diamonds, making the books
hard to remove and reshelf since they are all piled at slants;
some scaffolding that seems to attract unhappy couples mid-fight;
one set of table and chairs; a house that frequently puts books
or toys or clothes out on the sidewalk for free. I know that
there are two or more remarkable sculptures, but only
because I remember remarking: one might be of a silver
bust of a woman, maybe an angel or a pop star, while others
are definitely at the base of the railings to the steps across the street, but I don’t
remember now if they are dogs or birds. There is a statue of an owl
on a window ledge I can see from one chair, and it often scares me.
Now some buildings have Christmas lights, but I couldn’t say
which, and that could easily lead me to turn down any other residential
block. There is a lilac bush immediately next door, and in May, it helped me
identify my building from very far away. But when we came
to pick up our keys, I began to cry—it resembles
another that grew in front of my childhood and I am
sentimental. I sat down and demanded my roommate tell me
why he hadn’t pointed out the lilacs earlier, and he threw up
his hands: he had tried, but I had talked over him.
When the kisser who recommended I take snapshots
of my surroundings came to my apartment, there is a chance
that they noticed many more things: they probably know
whether it is broken up at any point by vinyl siding, or what words
appear on the inflatable Santa down the hill. When we passed
through the park, I did attempt to capture the snow lifting
from the ground in spirals, the two bodies—one seated, one running—blocking
some light, the corner-eye view of their metallic jacket. But I wanted
to remember what we looked like to the seated person, so replaced the above
description with an imagined photo of two people connected
by elbows, which I now see instead.
My panic, when it comes in public, starts
with lost vision; at home, with the heart. The classroom used to turn
to white: I could make out, maybe, the light from the streetlamps
visible from the class’ windows, but the shapes of the students’ faces
and the windows themselves would be gone. I got very good
at remembering where I had left my chair, sitting down, and pretending
to glance thoughtfully at my notebook. If I said “yes, mmhmm,
anyone else?” my students would feel prompted to speak
without raising hands, and sometimes I’d take illegible
notes on their comments in order to prolong the period
before I would need my eyesight back. If no voices emerged, but
I could register the electronic sounds enough to know my hearing
was still with me, I would spontaneously become a person
who lectures, or I would ask them to break into groups of 3-4
to collectively answer some question. Years before, when sound
and sight left together, I would sit on the floor
of the subway hoping to faint from a more auspicious
starting position. Looking at things indirectly—on a telephone,
say—does not typically produce such a reaction.
Copyright © 2020 by Diana Hamilton. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 28, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
translated by Ursula K. Le Guin
When I’m walking, everything
on earth gets up
and stops me and whispers to me,
and what they tell me is their story.
And the people walking
on the road leave me their stories,
I pick them up where they fell
in cocoons of silken thread.
Stories run through my body
or sit purring in my lap.
So many they take my breath away,
buzzing, boiling, humming.
Uncalled they come to me,
and told, they still won’t leave me.
The ones that come down through the trees
weave and unweave themselves,
and knit me up and wind me round
until the sea drives them away.
But the sea that’s always telling stories,
the wearier I am the more it tells me...
The people who cut trees,
the people who break stones,
want stories before they go to sleep.
Women looking for children
who got lost and don’t come home,
women who think they’re alive
and don’t know they’re dead,
every night they ask for stories,
and I return tale for tale.
In the middle of the road, I stand
between rivers that won’t let me go,
and the circle keeps closing
and I’m caught in the wheel.
The riverside people tell me
of the drowned woman sunk in grasses
and her gaze tells her story,
and I graft the tales into my open hands.
To the thumb come stories of animals,
to the index fingers, stories of my dead.
There are so many tales of children
they swarm on my palms like ants.
When my arms held
the one I had, the stories
all ran as a blood-gift
in my arms, all through the night.
Now, turned to the East,
I’m giving them away because I forget them.
Old folks want them to be lies.
Children want them to be true.
All of them want to hear my own story,
which, on my living tongue, is dead.
I’m seeking someone who remembers it
leaf by leaf, thread by thread.
I lend her my breath, I give her my legs,
so that hearing it may waken it for me.
Cuando camino se levantan
todas las cosas de la tierra
y me paran y cuchichean
y es su historia lo que cuentan.
Y las gentes que caminan
en la ruta me la dejan
y la recojo caída
en capullos que son de huella.
Historias corren mi cuerpo
o en mi regazo ronronean.
Tantas son que no dan respiro,
zumban, hierven y abejean.
Sin llamada se me vienen
y contadas tampoco dejan…
Las que bajan por los árboles
se trenzan y se destrenzan,
y me tejen y me envuelvan
hasta que el mar los ahuyenta.
Pero el mar que cuenta siempre
más rendida, más me deja...
Los que están mascando bosque
y los que rompen la piedra,
al dormirse quieren historias.
Mujeres que buscan hijos
perdidos que no regresan,
y las que se creen vivas
y no saben que están muertas,
cada noche piden historias,
y yo me rindo cuenta que cuenta.
A medio camino quedo
entre ríos que no me sueltan,
el corro se va cerrando
y me atrapa en la rueda.
Los ribereños me cuentan
la ahogada sumida en hierbas,
y su mirada cuenta su historia,
y yo las tronco en mis palmas abiertas.
Al pulgar llegan las de animales,
al índice las de mis muertos.
Las de niños, de ser tantas
en las palmas me hormiguean.
Cuando tomaba así mis brazos
el que yo tuve, todas ellas
en regalo de sangre corrieron
mis brazos una noche entera.
Ahora yo, vuelta al Oriente,
se las voy dando porque no recuerdo.
Los viejos las quieren mentidas,
los niños las quieren ciertas.
Todos quieren oír la historia mía
que en mi lengua viva está muerta.
Busco alguna que la recuerde
hoja por hoja, herbra por hebra.
Le presto mi aliento, le doy mi marcha
por si el oírla me la despierta.
From Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral: Translated by Ursula K. Le Guin. Copyright © 2003 Ursula K. Le Guin. Courtesy of University of New Mexico Press. Published in Poem-a-Day on September 27, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.