Nothing Wants to Suffer

after Linda Hogan

Nothing wants to suffer. Not the wind
as it scrapes itself against the cliff. Not the cliff

being eaten, slowly, by the sea. The earth does not want
to suffer the rough tread of those who do not notice it.

The trees do not want to suffer the axe, nor see
their sisters felled by root rot, mildew, rust. 

The coyote in its den. The puma stalking its prey.
These, too, want ease and a tender animal in the mouth

to take their hunger. An offering, one hopes, 
made quickly, and without much suffering.

The chair mourns an angry sitter. The lamp, a scalded moth.
A table, the weight of years of argument.

We know this, though we forget.

Not the shark nor the tiger, fanged as they are.
Nor the worm, content in its windowless world

of soil and stone. Not the stone, resting in its riverbed.
The riverbed, gazing up at the stars.

Least of all, the stars, ensconced in their canopy,
looking down at all of us— their offspring—

scattered so far beyond reach.

Service Station

You’re beautiful, sister, eat more fruit,
said the attendant every time my mother
pulled into the 76 off Ashby Avenue.
We never knew why. She didn’t ask
and he didn’t explain. My brother and I
would look at each other sideways
in the back seat, eyebrows raised—
though, lord knows, we’d lived in Berkeley
long enough. He smiled when he said it,
then wiped the windows and pumped the gas.
I liked the little ritual. Always the same
order of events. Same lack of discussion.
Could he sense something? Attune to an absence
of vitamin C? Or was it just a kind of flirting—
a way of tossing her an apple, a peach?

It’s true my mother had a hidden ailment
of which she seldom spoke, and true
she never thought herself a beauty,
since in those days, you had to choose
between smart and beautiful, and beauty
was not the obvious choice for a skinny
bookish girl, especially in Barbados.
No wonder she became devout,
forsaking nearly everything but God
and science. And later she suffered
at the hands of my father, whom she loved,
and who’d somehow lost control
of his right fist and his conscience.
Whose sister was she, then? Sister
of the Early Rise, the Five-O’Clock Commute,
the Centrifuge? Sister of Burnt Dreams?

But didn’t her savior speak in parables?
Isn’t that the language of the holy?
Why wouldn’t he come to her like this,
with a kind face and dark, grease-smeared arms,
to lean over the windshield of her silver Ford sedan,
and bring tidings of her unclaimed loveliness,
as he filled the car with fuel, and told her—
as a brother—to go ahead,
partake of the garden, and eat of it.

Bonfire Opera

In those days, there was a woman in our circle
who was known, not only for her beauty,
but for taking off all her clothes and singing opera.
And sure enough, as the night wore on and the stars
emerged to stare at their reflections on the sea,
and everyone had drunk a little wine,
she began to disrobe, loose her great bosom,
and the tender belly, pale in the moonlight,
the Viking hips, and to let her torn raiment
fall to the sand as we looked up from the flames.
And then a voice lifted into the dark, high and clear
as a flock of blackbirds. And everything was very still,
the way the congregation quiets when the priest
prays over the incense, and the smoke wafts
up into the rafters. I wanted to be that free
inside the body, the doors of pleasure
opening, one after the next, an arpeggio
climbing the ladder of sky. And all the while
she was singing and wading into the water
until it rose up to her waist and then lapped
at the underside of her breasts, and the aria
drifted over us, her soprano spare and sharp
in the night air. And even though I was young,
somehow, in that moment, I heard it,
the song inside the song, and I knew then
that this was not the hymn of promise
but the body’s bright wailing against its limits.
A bird caught in a cathedral—the way it tries
to escape by throwing itself, again and again,
against the stained glass.

The Watch

At night, my husband takes it off
puts it on the dresser beside his wallet and keys
laying down, for a moment, the accoutrements of manhood.
Sometimes, when he’s not looking, I pick it up
savor the weight, the dark face, ticked with silver
the brown, ostrich leather band with its little goosebumps
raised as the flesh is raised in pleasure.
He had wanted a watch and was pleased when I gave it to him.
And since we’ve been together ten years
it seemed like the occasion for the gift of a watch
a recognition of the intricate achievements
of marriage, its many negotiations and nameless triumphs.
But tonight, when I saw it lying there among
his crumpled receipts and scattered pennies
I thought of my brother’s wife coming home
from the coroner carrying his rings, his watch
in a clear, ziplock bag, and how we sat at the table
and emptied them into our palms
their slight pressure all that remained of him.
How odd the way a watch keeps going
even after the heart has stopped. My grandfather
was a watchmaker and spent his life in Holland
leaning over a clean, well-lit table, a surgeon of time
attending to the inner workings: spring,
escapement, balance wheel. I can’t take it back,
the way the man I love is already disappearing
into this mechanism of metal and hide,
this accountant of hours
that holds, with such precise indifference,
all the minutes of his life.

Related Poems

For It Felt Like Power

          They’d only done what all along they’d come
intending to do. So they lay untouched by regret,
after. The combined light and shadow of passing
cars stutter-shifted across the walls the way,
in summer,
                the night moths used to, softly
sandbagging the river of dream against dream’s
return…Listen, it’s not like I don’t get it about
suffering being relative—I get it. Not so much
the traces of ice on the surface of four days’
worth of rainwater in a stone urn, for example,
but how, past the ice,
                                  through the water beneath it,
you can see the leaves—sycamore—where they fell
unnoticed. Now they look suspended, like heroes
inside the myth heroes seem bent on making
from the myth of themselves; or like sunlight, in fog.

What the Water Knows

What the mouth sings, the soul must learn to forgive.
A rat’s as moral as a monk in the eyes of the real world.
Still, the heart is a river
pouring from itself, a river that cannot be crossed.

It opens on a bay
and turns back upon itself as the tide come sin,
it carries the cry of the loon and the salts
of the unutterably human.

A distant eagle enters the mouth of a river
salmon no longer run and his wide wings glide
upstream until he disappears
into the nothing from which he came. Only the thought remains.

Lacking the eagle’s cunning or the wisdom of the sparrow,
where shall I turn, drowning in sorrow?
Who will know what the trees know, the spidery patience
of young maple or what the willows confess?

Let me be water. The heart pours out in waves.
Listen to what the water says.
Wind, be a friend.
There’s nothing I couldn’t forgive.

The Bride Tree Can't Be Read

The bride tree puts down its roots
below the phyla. It is there
when we die & when we are born,
middle & upper branches reaching
the planet heart by the billions
during a revolution we don’t see.

Quarks & leptons are cooling
on their infant stems, spinning the spinning
brain of matter, fled to electrical dark
water, species with names the tree
can hold in the shale shade brought
by the ambulance of art;

no one but you knows what occurred
in the dress you wore in the dream
of atonement, the displaced tree in
the dream you wore, a suffering endurable
only once, edges that sought release
from envy to a more endurable loss,

a form to be walked past, that has
outworn the shame of time,
its colors sprung through description
above a blaze of rhizomes spreading
in an arable mat that mostly
isn't simple but is calm & free—