Poem Addressed to You

This poem is dedicated to a political prisoner who shall remain unnamed. I am sorry for what happened to you. I am sorry that this poem is all I have to offer. The world is ruled by heartless despots.

In the life we do not lead, I sit in a cold jail cell
flooded with light

and imagine your hands—
how you once covered my eyes

and let me lead you through a cherry blossom orchard 
at night; the blossoms incandescent,

loud as the ghosts of prisoners long-
forgotten. Without warning,

the dark wing of a barn owl
cuts through the jail cell

like the hour hand of a broken clock.
And all I can do

is remember you, all
I can do is forget.

In the life we do not lead, you run your warm
fingers over the cold glass

and I cannot help but imagine that I
am the glass—gifted, after days of fog, with sight.

You say it is better, in the end, to never
have known: one moment peeling clementines

dangling a cigarette from your lips, the next
bathing your shadow in ice water

as two guards look on.
When they took you away

it was winter. I could count what life was left
on one hand.

I could see the mountain’s scarred back,
the meadow’s cracked lips.

I could touch you and then I couldn’t.

In the life we do not lead, I carry firewood from village
to village, your name etched in its bark.

By March the rains have undone the river
and the only road leading

up the mountain is a braid of water
and cement. Come, you tell me,

you must not spend your life waiting
for the world to change.

In the life we do not lead, there is a fountain
somewhere, that bears your likeness—water

rushing from your mouth. I undress
in front of you, wade in your silence.

tether               musculature         tooth-mark             almost

human             bestial                  peach pit                 bleeding in the snow

What do you call mercy
when it is begged for, 

when it is the punchline
of a joke? The hand of your jailor clutched

in your own. An ocean
raging within a stone.

In the life we do not lead, I read to you from a book
written in a language that neither of us understand

and we are happier like this
you tell me as you count the coins in your palm.

The night the lights went out you thought
you’d gone blind. The first time you lit the match,

it burned black. The second time you lit the match,
it burned black. The third time you

lit the match, its light flooded the room
and all the light drained from your eyes.

I still have visions of you
hanging in your cell

hovering and backlit
like an angel.

In the life we do not lead, you blow out the candles
above the altar,

photograph me in the dark surrounded
by incense smoke. On the altar

a picture of a hand emerging from water
curls in on itself. Perhaps this

is how you’ll remember me: two images
returning to the same darkness.

In the life we do not lead,
we tell each other everything but remember only

broken silence
cracked ice
black water
night map

I am getting
a little closer
to you
                    a little closer
     a little


Copyright © 2024 by Simon Shieh. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 28, 2024, by the Academy of American Poets. 

About this Poem

“This poem is an inscription into the silence imposed on a friend who was detained in an act of political retaliation. By preserving their anonymity, I do not wish to make this person a symbol, for this poem is a gesture of intimacy, and the symbol, in its transparency, leaves no room for the opacity of intimacy. Poets are taught that the only way to the universal is through the concrete, but why is their relation self-evident? This poem is interested not in the well-marked path of meaning but the veil of intimacy, which reveals nothing if not the distance between self and other.”
—Simon Shieh