Every day try and write down one terrible thing.
One terrible thing—I’m filled with them,
carry each one
like an organ locked in a Coleman cooler.
Add a little color for emphasis.
I say my father’s surname to a migration of crows.
His name like a figure jumping out of an aerodynamic object
through a burning hoop
into a glass of still water.
My history is comprised of the inappropriate.
I look into the mirror and see disturbed human qualities,
my face like grass in a summer essay
like a senator stepping into an empty room
to hate his speech,
the almost symmetrical science of it.
Trying to feel something.
Covering rented light with a curtain.
Today make nothing happen very slowly.
I can see through the atmosphere’s silk chemise
all the way to the faint constellation in the southern sky
and it’s making me want to shake my head
and ask a question
to the clairvoyant 8-Ball in my hands—ask
if we are among those left in a dark forest
with our flare guns pointed at the ground
or among those loved by our parents’ parents
on the paternal side we never see.
Hell If I know, the 8-Ball says
drunk in its dark blue alcohol.
Winter breathed out all language.
My father appeared
and began taking my hair
one follicle at a time.
He worked his way to the neural tissue
threw himself down
in a tantrum.
I listen attentively to the wind
and cannot compute this.
I sell my letter to the sentimentalists
leaving behind a trail of fuck you
crumbs the largest of birds cannot tear.
Despite the parables I keep close
I won’t be mythologized by my father
who moves like an incoherent, boozing breeze
through my life’s antechambers.
I won’t admire the west vestibule of the Frick with him
not with this roast on a spit in my chest
the mind like a database of rage-expressions
the mind like a bottle of loose glitter—
so shadowy, my people, you begin
to see the blueprints in all things
until you can’t hold a book without
blowing on it to see if it will scatter
or laying on a bed, waiting to fall through
into the particle-laden apartment below—
to each his own until it ruins pleasure.
Where is the rain
when I am feeling this
I went to a doctor and she said
There’s a little you in there who feels
the little me fell
like a grand piano into my lap
Visualize a knock-knock joke with yourself
in a white noise somewhere
on the Upper West Side
a box of Kleenex in your hand.
memory swam through the grotesque
with its spoon paddle.
My dreams always fell flat.
The doctor said:
Start with finding out where your hands go
when you say your father’s name.
I say his name and I can see him.
He squats in the corner computing Zeno’s paradox.
He fills another glass and pukes,
starts in again about the illusion of motion—
If I’m coming toward you on the street
I will never reach you, he raves.
I’ll go half way and there will be another half and another half and another half.
He stands in infinite points on the distance
assuring with his ancient terrible glee
that I am going to go out and get a drink with him.
Deep within some cell
the nucleus grows unstable
I used to put a miniature rosebush
in the ground each year
to counteract my squalor.
Don’t tell me that definition of madness,
doing the same thing over again etcetera.
The definition of madness
is a certain enthusiasm, then there has
to be another person there
to not share in it—who is oppressed by it
who can only stare into it.
Tell it to the bluebird rustling over my head.
Tell it to a satellite orbiting in its delusion of being a moon.
I’m coaxing the black bull out of my mouth
with a red flag and a beer. I’m constructing
out of my faulty genes,
my last sentence, my last thing
which addresses the dilemma obliquely:
we will perceive our own pain in others.
And we will know if we are capable of loving them.
From Someone Else's Wedding Vows (Tin House/Octopus Books, 2014) by Bianca Stone. Copyright © 2014 by Bianca Stone. Used with permission of the author.
A black river flows down the center of each page & on either side the banks are wrapped in snow. My father is ink falling in tiny blossoms, a bottle wrapped in a paperbag. I want to believe that if I get the story right we will rise, newly formed, that I will stand over him again as he sleeps outside under the church halogen only this time I will know what to say. It is night & it's snowing & starlings fill the trees above us, so many it seems the leaves sing. I can't see them until they rise together at some hidden signal & hold the shape of the tree for a moment before scattering. I wait for his breath to lift his blanket so I know he's alive, letting the story settle into the shape of this city. Three girls in the park begin to sing something holy, a song with a lost room inside it as their prayerbook comes unglued & scatters. I'll bend each finger back, until the bottle falls, until the bone snaps, save him by destroying his hands. With the thaw the river will rise & he will be forced to higher ground. No one will have to tell him. From my roof I can see the East River, it looks blackened with oil but it's only the light. Even now my father is asleep somewhere. If I followed the river north I could still reach him.
Copyright © Nick Flynn and Josh Neufeld. Poem and illustration first published in The Common Review, Fall 2004. Used with permission.
After I've goosed up the fire in the stove with Starter Logg so that it burns like fire on amphetamines; after it's imprisoned, screaming and thrashing, behind the stove door; after I've listened to the dead composers and watched the brown-plus-gray deer compose into Cubism the trees whose name I don't know (pine, I think); after I've holed up in my loneliness staring at the young buck whose two new antlers are like a snail's stalked eyes and I've let this conceit lead me to the eyes-on-stems of the faces of Picasso and from there to my dead father; after I've chased the deer away (they were boring, streamlined machines for tearing up green things, deer are the cows-of-the-forest); then I bend down over the sea of keys to write this poem about my father in his grave. It isn't easy. It's dark in my room, the door is closed, all around is creaking and sighing, as though I were in the hold of a big ship, as though I were in the dark sleep of a huge freighter toiling across the landscape of the waves taking me to my father with whom I have struggled like Jacob with the angel and who heaves off, one final time, the muddy counterpane of the earth and lies panting beside his grave like a large dog who has run a long way. This is as far as he goes. I stand at the very end of myself holding a shovel. The blade is long and cool; It is an instrument for organizing the world; the blade is drenched in shine, the air is alive along it, as air is alive on the windshield of a car. Beside me my father droops as though he were under anesthesia. He is so thin, and he doesn't have a coat. My left hand grows cool and sedate under the influence of his flesh. It hesitates and then... My father drops in like baggage into a hold. In his hands, written on my stationery, a note I thought of xeroxing: Dad, I will be with you, through the cold, dark, closed places you hated. I close the hinged lid, and above him I heap a firmament of dirt. The body alone, in the dark, in the cold, without a coat. I would not wish that on my greatest enemy. Which, in a sense, my father was.
From Then, Suddenly--, by Lynn Emanuel. Copyright © 1999. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press. Available at local bookstores or directly from the University of Pittsburgh Press:
c/o CUP Services
Ithaca, NY 14851
Phone orders: 607-277-2211
Fax orders: 607-227-6292
Weight advantage: Santa. Sugar and milk
at every stop, the stout man shimmies
down one more chimney, sack of desire
chuting behind, while Elijah, skinny
and empty-handed, slips in invisible as
a once favored, since disgraced uncle,
through the propped open side door.
Inside, I’ve been awaiting a miracle
since 1962, my 9 year-old self slouching
on this slip-covered sofa, Manischewitz
stashed beneath the cushion. Where
are the fire-tinged horses, the chariots
to transport me? Where is the whirlwind
and brimstone? Instead, our dull-bladed
sleigh rusts in the storage bin beneath
the building’s soot-covered flight
of cellar stairs. Come back to me father,
during December’s perfect snowfall
and pull me once more up Schenck
and down Pitkin, where the line wraps
around Church Hall. Show me, again,
the snapshot of the skull-capped boy
on Santa’s lap. Let me laugh this time
and levitate like a magician’s assistant,
awed by my own weightlessness. Give me
the imagination to climb the fire escape
and look up toward the Godless Heavens
and to marvel at the ordinary sky.
"Elijah vs. Santa" from More Money than God, by Richard Michelson © 2015. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
—for Patrick Rosal
Before, ache never seemed long like a tunnel
under the city flaring off another tunnel
the subway rumbled against, or the dark
jutting out of daylight’s reach up on 187th
when I know some part is inhabited and
that habitation looks out at me. I know
every uninhabited place lodges a thing looking
out. I have grown into a life, become middle
aged, deepened into the hidden inside, like
the day into its other half, or a memory
of a woman’s silence after she didn’t
want to be kissed, and I wonder when rot
began, and I wonder what other ideas the cabbie
had when he turned into the truck’s path.
Sometimes silence is emptier than some oaths
I have made. Hours change habits and late seeps
into early and rain, in another part of this
country, suddenly, heavily falls, flattens seams,
frays and splits them like I did away from a lover once
in a city where both of us were foreign, and she
the only person who recognized me for a thousand miles,
the only one who knew where I was. And
then not. This ache is empty like that.
Copyright © 2015 by Curtis Bauer. “Self Portrait in Dark Interior” originally appeared in Southern Indiana Review. Used with permission of the author.
Here's my head, in a dank corner of the yard. I lied it off and so off it rolled. It wasn't unbelieving that caused it to drop off my neck and loll down a slope. Perhaps it had a mind of its own, wanted to leave me for a little while. Or it was scared and detached itself from the stalk of my neck as a lizard's tail will desert its body in fright of being caught. The fact is, I never lied. The fact is, I always lied. Before us, we have two mirrors. At times, they say, one must lie in order to survive. I drove by the house, passed it several times, pretending it was not my own. Its windows were red with curtains and the honeyed light cast on the porch did not succeed in luring me back inside. I never lied. I drove by the house, suckling the thought of other lovers like a lozenge. I was pale as a papery birch. I was pure as a brand new pair of underwear. It will be a long while before I touch another. Yet, I always lied, an oil slick on my tongue. I used to think that I was wrong, could not tell the truth for what it was. Yet, one cannot take a lawsuit out on oneself. I would have sworn in court that I believed myself and then felt guilty a long time after. I hated the house and I hated myself. The house fattened with books, made me grow to hate books, when all the while it was only books that never claimed to tell the truth. I hated him and I hated his room, within which his cloud of smoke heaved. I disappeared up narrow stairs, slipped quick beneath the covers. My stomach hurts, I told him, I was tired. I grew my dreams thick through hot nights: dear, flickering flowers. They had eyes which stared, and I found I could not afford their nurture, could not return their stare, Meanwhile, liars began their parade without my asking, strode sidewalks inches before my doorstep. I watched their hulking and strange beauty, their songs pregnant with freedom, and became an other self. I taught children how to curse. I bought children gold pints of liquor. I sold my mind on the street. 1 learned another language. It translates easily. Here's how: What I say is not what I mean, nor is it ever what I meant to say. You must not believe me when I say there's nothing left to love in this world.
From Fragment of the Head of a Queen by Cate Marvin. Copyright © 2007 by Cate Marvin. Reprinted by permission of Sarabande Books. All rights reserved.
Orwell says somewhere that no one ever writes the real story of their life.
The real story of a life is the story of its humiliations.
If I wrote that story now—
radioactive to the end of time—
people, I swear, your eyes would fall out, you couldn’t peel
the gloves fast enough
from your hands scorched by the firestorms of that shame.
Your poor hands. Your poor eyes
to see me weeping in my room
or boring the tall blonde to death.
Once I accused the innocent.
Once I bowed and prayed to the guilty.
I still wince at what I once said to the devastated widow.
And one October afternoon, under a locust tree
whose blackened pods were falling and making
illuminating patterns on the pathway,
I was seized by joy,
and someone saw me there,
and that was the worst of all,
lacerating and unforgettable.
Copyright © 2013 by Vijay Seshadri. From 3 Sections (Graywolf Press, 2013). Used with permission of the author.
In my defense, my forgotten breasts. In my defense, the hair
no one brushed from my face. In my defense, my hips.
Months earlier, I remember thinking that sex was a ship retreating
on the horizon. I could do nothing but shove my feet in the sand.
I missed all the things loneliness taught me: eyes that follow you
crossing a room, hands that find their home on you. To be noticed, even.
In my defense, his hands. In my defense, his arms. In my defense,
how when we just sat listening to each other breathe, he said, This is enough.
My body was a house I had closed for the winter. It shouldn’t have been
that difficult, empty as it was. Still, I stared hard as I snapped off the lights.
My body was a specter that haunted me, appearing when I stripped
in the bathroom, when I crawled into empty beds, when it rained.
My body was abandoned construction, restoration scaffolding
that became permanent. My body’s unfinished became its finished.
So in my defense, when he touched me, the lights of my body came on.
In my defense, the windows were thrown open. In my defense, spring.
Copyright © 2013 by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz. “Not Doing Something Wrong Isn’t the Same as Doing Something Right” originally appeared in The Year of No Mistakes (Write Bloody Publishing, 2013). Used with permission of the author.
You need me like ice needs the mountain On which it breeds. Like print needs the page. You move in me like the tongue in a mouth, Like wind in the leaves of summer trees, Gust-fists, hollow except for movement and desire Which is movement. You taste me the way the claws Of a pigeon taste that window-ledge on which it sits, The way water tastes rust in the pipes it shuttles through Beneath a city, unfolding and luminous with industry. Before you were born, the table of elements Was lacking, and I as a noble gas floated Free of attachment. Before you were born, The sun and the moon were paper-thin plates Some machinist at his desk merely clicked into place.
Copyright © 2010 by Monica Ferrell. Used with permission of the author.
Drunk and weeping. It’s another night
at the live-in opera, and I figure
it’s going to turn out badly for me.
The dead next door accept their salutations,
their salted notes, the drawn-out wailing.
It’s we the living who must run for cover,
meaning me. Mortality’s the ABC of it,
and after that comes lechery and lying.
And, oh, how to piece together a life
from this scandal and confusion, as if
the gods were inhabiting us or cohabiting
with us, just for the music’s sake.
Harvey Shapiro, "Nights," from The Sights Along the Harbor, © 2006 by Harvey Shapiro. Used by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
What I need from this
Slap & tickle is a full
Suckle of lies. Glue
My lips together with
Blow flies. I am not
Ashamed at how hot
My cravings swing—
Cinder blocks crashed
Through car windows
& a joyous Wuuuu-Wuuuuu
Shouted at the dark
Puckering stars. I love
My calamity—say I am
The prettiest thing
You have ever seen
When the fire starts.
Copyright © 2017 Alex Lemon. Used with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in Kenyon Review, November/December 2017
If you can’t trust the monitors
Then why do they have the monitors
If you can’t trust the cars
Then why have the cars
If you can’t trust that I think you’re hot
Then why do you look so good
Turning me on that way that you do
If you can’t trust the people
Then why have the people
If you can’t trust the cards then why have the cards
If you can’t trust this room then why have the room
Why not just an open space
Where you can be naked and fascinating
If you can’t trust the milk in the bottles
Then why have the bottles
If you can’t trust the wine the song
Then why have the country
If you can’t trust the kangaroo
Then why go jumping
If you can’t trust the sky
Then why have the sky at all
What good the moon and stars
If you can’t trust the stars
Then why look out
Why not just sit in your room
It’s dark and safe anyway
If you can’t trust what’s dark and safe anyway
Then why even bother
Then why even be here at all
I don’t know
I just went and walked
But desire is hopeless
If you can’t trust the windowsill
Then why put the flowers there
Why not leave it bare
Oh I did
And then what
After a while
That old sun
It burned it green
And when I returned to the room
All I saw was green
Like grass but greener than
A halting hue of it
And I forgot the flowers
And I forgot you
If you can’t trust the daybreak
Then why have the daybreak
Why not sit
Let the night come
It won’t stop itself
From Milk. Copyright © 2018 by Dorothea Lasky. Used with the permission of Wave Books and the author.
My heart’s desire was like a garden seen
On sudden through the opening of a door
In the grey sheet of life, unguessed before
But now how magic in sun-smitten green:
Wide cedar-shaded lawns, the glow and sheen
Of borders decked with all a gardener’s lore,
Long shaven hedges of old yew, hung o’er
With gossamer, wide paths to please a queen,
Whose happy silken skirts would brush the dew
From peonies and lupins white and blue.
Enchanted, there I lingered for a space,
Forgetful of the street, of tasks to do.
But when I would have entered that sweet place
The wind rose and the door slammed in my face.
This poem is in the public domain.
Copyright © 2017 by Jennifer Grotz. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 12, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.
This was once a love poem,
before its haunches thickened, its breath grew short,
before it found itself sitting,
perplexed and a little embarrassed,
on the fender of a parked car,
while many people passed by without turning their heads.
It remembers itself dressing as if for a great engagement.
It remembers choosing these shoes,
this scarf or tie.
Once, it drank beer for breakfast,
drifted its feet
in a river side by side with the feet of another.
Once it pretended shyness, then grew truly shy,
dropping its head so the hair would fall forward,
so the eyes would not be seen.
IT spoke with passion of history, of art.
It was lovely then, this poem.
Under its chin, no fold of skin softened.
Behind the knees, no pad of yellow fat.
What it knew in the morning it still believed at nightfall.
An unconjured confidence lifted its eyebrows, its cheeks.
The longing has not diminished.
Still it understands. It is time to consider a cat,
the cultivation of African violets or flowering cactus.
Yes, it decides:
Many miniature cacti, in blue and red painted pots.
When it finds itself disquieted
by the pure and unfamiliar silence of its new life,
it will touch them—one, then another—
with a single finger outstretched like a tiny flame.
From Given Sugar, Given Salt (HarperCollins, 2001) by Jane Hirshfield. Copyright © 2001 by Jane Hirshfield. Reprinted by permission of the author, all rights reserved.
wretched thou art
wherever thou art
I sit and work on a line and lean into the pain my mind
trying to think and all I come up with is a texture without
and to whatever
thou turnest —
the body I have is the body I once had but they could not
the teacher Agnes says abstract form holds meaning
I turn the pages
of the old book
the way certain feelings come to us with no discernible
the teacher Buddha says the practitioner agitated by
I have not held
makes stronger their bondage to suffering and the sting
during the time illness makes me feel most tied to the
its binding broken
its brittle paper
I sit in meditation and sunlight from the window calms
since the emergency I feel such sharp tenderness toward
its dog-eared corners
torn at the folds —
sort of attached to the white wall white door white dust
on the wood floor
mostly pain is an endless present tense without depth or
miserable are all
who have not
an image or memory lends it a passing contour or a sort of
the white door open against the white wall snuffs
headache’s first flare
a sense of present
I remember a man patiently crying as doctors drained his
lying on the gurney in my hospital gown we suffered
from having been being
but much more
miserable are those
adjacent and precarious the way a practitioner sits alone
on a cushion
resting alone unwearied alone taming himself yet I was
no longer alone
in love with it —
Copyright © 2015 by Brian Teare. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on September 16, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.