Ashberries: Letters

Philip Metres - 1970-

1.

Outside, in a country with no word
for outside, they cluster on trees,

red bunches. I looked up
ryabina, found mountain ash. No

mountains here, just these berries
cradled in yellow leaves.

When I rise, you fall asleep. We
barely know each other, you said

on the phone last night. Today, sun brushes
the wall like an empty canvas, voices 

from outside drift into this room. I can’t
translate—my words, frostbitten

fingers. I tell no one how your hands
ghost over my back, letters I hold.

2.

Reading children’s stories by Tolstoy,
Alyosha traces his index

over the alphabet his mouth so easily
unlocks. Every happy word resembles

every other, every unhappy word’s
unhappy in its own way. Like apartments

at dusk. Having taken a different street
from the station, I was lost in minutes.

How to say, where’s the street like this,
not this? Keys I’d cut for years coaxed open

no pursed lips. How to say, blind terror?
Sprint, lungburn, useless tongue? How say

thank you, muscular Soviet worker, fading
on billboard, for pointing me the way?

3.

Alyosha and I climbed trees to pick berries, leaves
almost as red. On ladders, we scattered

half on the ground, playing who could get them
down the other’s shirt without their knowing.

Morning, the family gone, I ground the berries
to skin, sugared sour juices twice.

Even in tea they burned. In the yard,
leafpiles of fire. Cigarettes between teeth,

the old dvorniks rake, scratch the earth,
try to rid it of some persistent itch.

I turn the dial, it drags my finger back.
When the phone at last connects to you, I hear

only my own voice, crackle of the line.
The rakes scratch, flames hiss and tower.

4.

This morning, the trees bare. Ashberries
on long black branches. Winter. My teacher

says they sweeten with frost, each snow
a sugar. Each day’s dark grows darker,

and streets go still, widen, like ice over lakes,
and words come slow to every chapped mouth,

not just my own, having downed a little vodka
and then some tea. Tomorrow I’ll bend down

branches, brittle with cold, pluck what I can’t
yet name, then jar the pulp and save the stones.

What to say? Love, I live for the letters
I must wait to open. They bear across

this land, where I find myself at a loss—
each word a wintering seed.

More by Philip Metres

Prayer

Wither me to within me:
Welt me to weal me common again:
Withdraw to wear me weary:
Over me to hover and lover again:

Before me to form and perform me:
Round me to rill me liquid incisions:
Behind me to hunt and haunt me:
Down me to drown indecision:

Bury me to seed me: bloom me
In loam me: grind me to meal me
Knead me to rise: raise me to your mouth

Rive me to river me:
End me to unmend me:
Rend me to render me:
 

Hearing of Alia Muhammed Baker’s Stroke

How a Basra librarian
could haul the books each night,
load by load, into her car,

the war ticking like a clock
about to wake. Her small house
swimming in them. How, the British

now crossing the limits
of Basra, the neighbors struck
a chain to pass the bags of books

over the wall, into a restaurant,
until she could bring them all,
like sandbags, into her home,

some thirty thousand of them,
before the library, and her brain,
could finally flood into flame.

For the Fifty (Who Formed PEACE With Their Bodies)

In the green beginning,
     in the morning mist,
          they emerge from their chrysalis

of clothes: peel off purses & cells,
     slacks & Gap sweats, turtle-
          necks & tanks, Tommy’s & Salvation

Army, platforms & clogs,
     abandoning bras & lingerie, labels
         & names, courtesies & shames,

the emperor’s rhetoric of defense,
     laying it down, their child-
          stretched or still-taut flesh

giddy in sudden proximity,
     onto the cold earth: bodies fetal or supine,
          as if come-hithering

or dead, wriggle on the grass to form
     the shape of a word yet to come, almost
          embarrassing to name: a word

thicker, heavier than the rolled rags
     of their bodies seen from a cockpit:
          they touch to make

the word they want to become:
     it’s difficult to get the news
          from our bodies, yet people die each day

for lack of what is found there:
     here: the fifty hold, & still
          to become a testament, a will,

embody something outside
     themselves & themselves: the body,
          the dreaming disarmed body.