I’m afraid I can’t go anywhere without stacks of books, boxes
in the trunk, a book bag over my shoulder—wherever I sit,
more within reach, just to sample a stanza, line, or word,
someone’s invocation to the color blue, another’s wandering
of fields and grief; and some have died I can’t bear losing;
in the produce aisle I hear Rilke crying out, wondering who is listening.
I am! When I touch the artichoke, Neruda’s ode has guided me.
I want to reach inside the glove compartment, hand the cop the poems
of Simic so that—parked in an alleyway, on break—he’ll hear
the voice of an insomnia, the terror of quiet sounds, how the Infinite
is a dandelion carried through bomb-embattled streets. I’m not deranged,
though like Thoreau I want to redefine economy so that an insight
has more weight than gold. Why not, at the high school football game,
read aloud a Saramago sentence with all its interruptions, feints,
and secret passageways, its wanderings downfield, its ravings at the sky
gone dark past the stadium lights. Proust has something more to say.
A treatise on the mourning dove? Of course. Why not. So be it.
Another failed peace treaty, another scandal involving high-ranking
officials—who learns from Tranströmer to see the sphinx from behind?
So much hollowness we’re carrying when sometimes thoughts can soar.
So much space between Sappho’s words in order to make us whole.
I enter the courtroom with Issa, whose grievances were many
but laid aside; because of his presence I cast my vote for the spider
clinging to the third-floor window; I forgive the bailiff the order
he keeps. The judge, with his gavel, makes a haiku of sound.
Is this my own existence, or have I found myself in others’ lives
and they in mine? If I’m only myself, I ask a little help to get from
who I am to something more than broken, something more than
nothing less than these my only questions—oh Kafka, what is
this weight upon me, enormous, flailing to touch all the corners of air?

More by Jeff Hardin

Concerning the Shape of Time

 to Tony Earley

Strange how I remember standing on a limb
that curved out over open space that fell
away down slopes I’d never climb back out of
had I fallen. And once, when I was six,
I almost left my mother’s car—outside a bar—
because I knew the nearby bottomlands
would reach the river, and I could disappear
from her and find another family—just
show up at some stranger’s door, be taken
in, and live a different life. That’s how
I thought back then—a determined little cuss,
I’m told, who hid my fossils in the snaky
roots of trees and sometimes climbed up
high inside a thick magnolia, where I
refused to answer when my name was
called. I think about the times I might have
died, my infant brother sliding from the seat
to slam against the floorboard, the car
stuck sideways down a ditch embankment,
the icy nights near swollen creeks and rivers,
the woods a child could lose his life in
trying to escape. I guess that’s why I
listen toward the farthest trees as if a prayer
were stirring only I can hear. Perhaps its
single word is mend, a word that all my
other words have felt a kinship with.
Evenings when I sit out back, I think my
thoughts have always been inclining toward
a self whose soul has found a place to be
alone, away from others I don’t trust,
content to watch the falling leaves. Dull
image—perhaps cliché—but I’ll take it
nonetheless. The truth is: here we are
inside these lives we sometimes do not
recognize, these lives we don’t deserve.
So many selves we almost came to be
never came to be. So many words too true
to whisper to ourselves we go on listening
toward. So many bridges never crossed,
others stepped back from. So much I’ll
never understand about the reasons
I survived when others didn’t. Years
ago I found a book, like a gift, fallen
between two shelves. Inside, someone
had penciled, Language isn’t sad but
meaning is. I’ve held those words as
close as any I have known, having felt
a pull toward nothingness, toward lack
of anyone or anything that might repair
my ruined thoughts, and just as often
I have stood in shallow creeks, waiting
on my world to end, assured I have no
place, no name, no face, no words to say
the source of what I’m always reaching
toward. I have followed driftwood,
imagined my own dead self assigned
to stir above the silt. I’ve watched
the motions course along through shadows,
soon to reach a bend and carry on unseen.
Still, I have a faith that what is next is what
the story most requires so that the shape
of time allotted, ordained to be, can then
reveal itself. Bend, mend—the echo isn’t
lost on me—and giving in to where I’m
being taken has been the way I’ve come
to know my life, to speak its mysteries.
My guess is such an explanation overlooks
as much as it imagines. I’m sure I’ve
simplified the coarser parts, smoothed
them over as a stream refines a stone
through centuries. I’ve left out what is
obvious to anyone who knows or cares
to know the fullness of my life. Even so,
once I hid beneath a car, half an hour,
refusing to be left somewhere I didn’t
want to be—knowing days would pass,
my mother drunk. I was caged and fierce
despite the gravel shards that scraped
my arms and face when finally she caught
my leg and jerked my body out. So many
times another story line became the thing
that almost did me in. My papaw
snatched me from a pigpen where I
tumbled in one morning while he milked
the cows. So many times I’ve wondered
what the reasons are for why my life
was spared. Curses were all around me—
guns, dynamite, darkening fields, coyotes,
waterfalls, snake dens, hard-driven men.
I stood on snowy hillsides and almost
turned to follow logging roads wherever
they might lead. I guess I’m saying that
I came to where I am by way of almost
going somewhere else. I hope you’ll see
how I have tried to find a word to hold
between our broken souls, a word no voice
has ever found that sounds like wind that
bends and mends the sage grass in its wake,
perhaps the Holy Spirit’s whispering
revealing countless mercies granted all
the times I didn’t see its presence leading
me to where I am, to who I am, this self
I never thought I’d be, who found a language
meaning can rejoice in—a kingdom I’m still
wandering,
                  the only home I call my own.

One Moment Touching All the Others

If only each line of a poem could be its true beginning.
If only each moment could know every other moment
and we could hold them all at once the way we wish to,
the way we keep imagining we can. I don’t care
what anyone says about the impossibility, for I step
into the same moment again and again. I’ve lived
such a blessed life, a dying friend told me as I
leaned in close and caressed her face. I am writing
this line, this poem’s true beginning, six years later,
touching her radiant face again. Every moment is
the time I followed a yellow leaf downstream when I
was nine. To be, or not to be, Hamlet asked, and two
centuries later, Issa’s poems were born. And yet, and yet
the cancer still arrives to steal her breath, the same
breath blessing all her time. Just now a purple bird
flew up and startled me, and I said, Yes, yes, and raised
my hands. To live lightly in the body is to live deeply
in the spirit—I say her words out loud some days,
holding them all at once, and follow a yellow leaf
through overhanging limbs and enter my grandfather’s
quiet steps along a ridge a century ago when he was young.
He is being and not being, in and out of shadows,
arriving wherever the next step takes him, here and here.
When rain begins, he just keeps walking, drenched
and smiling, emerging decades later, holy. Sometimes
an echo hints from half a life ago. A driveway puddle
trembles at the foster home I lived in when I was three.
Good Lord, son, how did you know how to get here,
the father asked when I showed up, adult, from two
towns over. In the beginning was the Word, John wrote,
for each word starts anew, each word startling the sky,
the cells, the breath. Each word, each line, is an echo,
an arrival, a blessed breath, being and not being. I don’t
care about the impossibility of anything. The dawn keeps
breaking for which I am awake. The prologue is the epilogue,
the epilogue a leaf holding everything at once. I keep
arriving where I am, born and blessed again. I lean in
close to radiance: I’ve always known how to get here.