Against Dying

Kaveh Akbar
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

More by Kaveh Akbar

The Perfect Poem

In god’s gleaming empire, herds of triceratops
lunge up on their hind legs to somersault
around the plains. The angels lie in the sun
using straight pins to eat hollyhocks. Mostly
they just rub their bellies and hum quietly

to themselves, but the few sentences
they do utter come out as perfect poems.
Here on earth we blather constantly, and
all we say is divided between combat
and seduction. Combat: I understand you perfectly. 
Seduction: Next time don’t say so out loud.
Here the perfect poem eats its siblings

in the womb like a sand shark or a star turning
black hole, then saunters into the world
daring us to stay mad. We know most of our
universe is missing. The perfect poem knows
where it went. The perfect poem is no bigger
than a bear. Its birthday hat comes with
a black veil which prattles on and on about

comet ash and the ten thousand buds of
the tongue. Like people and crows, the
perfect poem can remember faces and hold
grudges. It keeps its promises. The perfect
poem is not gold or lead or a garden gate
locked shut or a sail slapping in a storm.
The perfect poem is its own favorite toy.

It is not a state of mind or a kind of doubt
or a good or bad habit or a flower of any
color. It will not be available to answer
questions. The perfect poem is light as dust
on a bat’s wing, lonely as a single flea.

Ways to Harm a Thing

Throw scissors at it. 
Fill it with straw 
and set it on fire, or set it 
off for the colonies with only 
some books and dinner-
plates and a stuffed bear 
named Friend Bear for me 
to lose in New Jersey. 
Did I say me? Things 
have been getting
less and less hypothetical 
since I unhitched myself 
from your bedpost. Everyone 
I love is too modern 
to be caught
grieving. In order 
to be consumed 
first you need to be consumable, 
but there is not a single 
part of you I could fit 
in my mouth. In a dream
I pull back your foreskin
and reveal a fat vase 
stuffed with crow 
feathers. This seems a faithful
translation of the real thing. Another 
way to harm something is to 
melt its fusebox, 
make it learn to live
in the dark. I still want
to suck the bones out 
from your hands,
plant them like the seeds
we found in an antique 
textbook, though those 
never sprouted and may not 
have even been seeds. 
When I was a sailor I found 
a sunken ziggurat, spent 
weeks diving through room 
after room discovering
this or that sacred 
shroud. One way to bury
something is to bury it 
forever. When I was water
you poured me out
over the dirt.  

What Seems Like Joy

how much history is enough history     before we can agree
to flee our daycares      to wash everything away and start over
leaving laptops to be lost in the wet along with housecats and Christ’s
own mother      even a lobster climbs away from its shell a few
times a life      but every time I open my eyes I find
I am still inside myself     each epiphany dull and familiar
oh now I am barefoot       oh now I am lighting the wrong end
of a cigarette     I just want to be shaken new like a flag whipping
away its dust     want to pull out each of my teeth
and replace them with jewels     I’m told what seems like joy
is often joy     that the soul lives in the throat plinking
like a copper bell       I’ve been so young for so many years
it’s all starting to jumble together     joy jeweling copper   
its plink      a throat    sometimes I feel beautiful and near dying
like a feather on an arrow shot through a neck     other times
I feel tasked only with my own soreness      like a scab on the roof
of a mouth      my father believed in gardens      delighting
at burying each thing in its potential for growth     some years
the soil was so hard the water seeped down slower than the green
seeped up     still he’d say if you’re not happy in your own yard
you won’t be happy anywhere      I’ve never had a yard but I’ve had apartments
where water pipes burst above my head      where I’ve scrubbed
a lover’s blood from the kitchen tile       such cleaning
takes so much time you expect there to be confetti at the end    
what we’ll need in the next life      toothpaste      party hats
and animal bones      every day people charge out of this world    
squealing       good-bye human behavior!      so long acres
of germless chrome!      it seems gaudy for them to be so cavalier
with their bliss      while I’m still here lurching into my labor
hanging by my hair from the roof of a chapel      churchlight thickening
around me     or wandering into the woods to pull apart eggshells     emptying
them in the dirt      then sewing them back together to dry in the sun

Related Poems

A Better Life

It’s silly to think
fourteen years ago
I turned thirty.

How I made it that far
I’ll never know.
In this city of hills,

if there was a hill
I was over it. Then.
(In queer years,

years
are more than.)
Soon it will be fifteen

since the day I turned thirty.
It’s so remote.
I didn’t think I’d make it

to fourteen years ago.
Fear lives in the chest
like results.

You say my gray, it makes
me look extinguished;
you make me cringe.

I haven’t cracked
the spines of certain paperbacks,
or learned a sense of direction,

even with a slick device.
But the spleen doesn’t ask twice,
and soon it will be fifteen years

since I turned thirty.
Which may not sound like a lot.
Which sounds like the hinge

of a better life:
It is, and it is not.