Real Estate

My mother married a man who divorced her for money. Phyllis, he would say, If you don’t stop buying jewelry, I will have to divorce you to keep us out of the poorhouse. When he said this, she would stub out a cigarette, mutter something under her breath. Eventually, he was forced to divorce her. Then, he died. Then she did. The man was not my father. My father was buried down the road, in a box his other son selected, the ashes of his third wife in a brass urn that he will hold in the crook of his arm forever. At the reception, after his funeral, I got mean on four cups of Lime Sherbet Punch. When the man who was not my father divorced my mother, I stopped being related to him. These things are complicated, says the Talmud. When he died, I couldn’t prove it. I couldn’t get a death certificate. These things are complicated, says the Health Department. Their names remain on the deed to the house. It isn’t haunted, it’s owned by ghosts. When I die, I will come in fast and low. I will stick the landing. There will be no confusion. The dead will make room for me.

More by Richard Siken

The Language of the Birds

1

A man saw a bird and found him beautiful. The bird had a song inside him, and feathers. Sometimes the man felt like the bird and sometimes the man felt like a stone—solid, inevitable—but mostly he felt like a bird, or that there was a bird inside him, or that something inside him was like a bird fluttering. This went on for a long time.


2

A man saw a bird and wanted to paint it. The problem, if there was one, was simply a problem with the question. Why paint a bird? Why do anything at all? Not how, because hows are easy—series or sequence, one foot after the other—but existentially why bother, what does it solve?

And just because you want to paint a bird, do actually paint a bird, it doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished anything. Who gets to measure the distance between experience and its representation? Who controls the lines of inquiry? We do. Anyone can.

Blackbird, he says. So be it, indexed and normative. But it isn’t a bird, it’s a man in a bird suit, blue shoulders instead of feathers, because he isn’t looking at a bird, real bird, as he paints, he is looking at his heart, which is impossible.

Unless his heart is a metaphor for his heart, as everything is a metaphor for itself, so that looking at the paint is like looking at a bird that isn’t there, with a song in its throat that you don’t want to hear but you paint anyway.

The hand is a voice that can sing what the voice will not, and the hand wants to do something useful. Sometimes, at night, in bed, before I fall asleep, I think about a poem I might write, someday, about my heart, says the heart.


3

They looked at the animals. They looked at the walls of the cave. This is earlier, these are different men. They painted in torchlight: red mostly, sometimes black—mammoth, lion, horse, bear—things on a wall, in profile or superimposed, dynamic and alert.

They weren’t animals but they looked like animals, enough like animals to make it confusing, meant something but the meaning was slippery: it wasn’t there but it remained, looked like the thing but wasn’t the thing—was a second thing, following a second set of rules—and it was too late: their power over it was no longer absolute.

What is alive and what isn’t and what should we do about it? Theories: about the nature of the thing. And of the soul. Because people die. The fear: that nothing survives. The greater fear: that something does.

The night sky is vast and wide.

They huddled closer, shoulder to shoulder, painted themselves in herds, all together and apart from the rest. They looked at the sky, and at the mud, and at their hands in the mud, and their dead friends in the mud. This went on for a long time.


4

To be a bird, or a flock of birds doing something together, one or many, starling or murmuration. To be a man on a hill, or all the men on all the hills, or half a man shivering in the flock of himself. These are some choices.

The night sky is vast and wide.

A man had two birds in his head—not in his throat, not in his chest—and the birds would sing all day never stopping. The man thought to himself, One of these birds is not my bird. The birds agreed.
 

Detail of the Woods

I looked at all the trees and didn't know what to do.

A box made out of leaves.
What else was in the woods? A heart, closing. Nevertheless.

Everyone needs a place. It shouldn't be inside of someone else.
I kept my mind on the moon. Cold moon, long nights moon.

From the landscape: a sense of scale.
From the dead: a sense of scale.

I turned my back on the story. A sense of superiority.
Everything casts a shadow.

Your body told me in a dream it's never been afraid of anything.

Detail of the Hayfield

I followed myself for a long while, deep into the field.
Two heads full of garbage.

Our scope was larger than I realized,
which only made me that much more responsible.

Yellow, yellow, gold, and ocher.
We stopped. We held the field. We stood very still.

Everyone needs a place.

You need it for the moment you need it, then you bless it—
thank you soup, thank you flashlight

and move on. Who does this? No one.

Related Poems

The Old Orphan

           for Andrew Periale

The sparrows in the gutter knew you
And hopped out of your way.
The trash being blown about
By the wind gusting did as well.

A few scenes from your life
Were about to be performed
By a puppet theater in the park,
When it started to rain hard,

Making the great trees panic
Along with mothers and children,
Who ran shrieking for cover
Wherever they could find it,

Except for you, already seated
In a long row of empty chairs,
Waiting for your angry stepfather
To step out from behind a curtain.

In Praise of Their Divorce

And when I heard about the divorce of my friends,
I couldn't help but be proud of them,

that man and that woman setting off in different directions,
like pilgrims in a proverb

—him to buy his very own toaster oven,
her seeking a prescription for sleeping pills.

Let us keep in mind the hidden forces
which had struggled underground for years

to push their way to the surface—and that finally did,
cracking the crust, moving the plates of earth apart,

releasing the pent-up energy required
for them to rent their own apartments,

for her to join the softball league for single mothers
for him to read George the Giraffe over his speakerphone

at bedtime to the six-year-old.

The bible says, Be fruitful and multiply

but is it not also fruitful to subtract and to divide?
Because if marriage is a kind of womb,

divorce is the being born again;
alimony is the placenta one of them will eat;

loneliness is the name of the wet-nurse;
regret is the elementary school;

endurance is the graduation.
So do not say that they are splattered like dropped lasagna

or dead in the head-on collision of clichés
or nailed on the cross of their competing narratives.

What is taken apart is not utterly demolished.
It is like a great mysterious egg in Kansas

that has cracked and hatched two big bewildered birds.
It is two spaceships coming out of retirement,

flying away from their dead world,
the burning booster rocket of divorce
                                 falling off behind them,

the bystanders pointing at the sky and saying, Look.

Second Sight

In my fantasy of fatherhood, in which I’m
your real father, not just the almost dad
arriving through random channels of divorce,
you and I don’t lie to one another—
shrugging each other off when words
get the best of us but coming
full circle with wan smiles.
When you hole up inside yourself,
headphones and computer screen
taking you away, I want to feel in ten years
that if I’m still alive you’ll still look
at me with that same wary expectancy,
your surreptitious cool-eyed appraisal
debating if my love for you is real.
Am I destined to be those shark-faced waves
that my death will one day make you enter?
You and your mother make such a self-sufficient pair—
in thrift stores looking for your prom dress,
what father could stand up to your unsparing eyes
gauging with such erotic calculation
your figure in the mirror? Back of it all, when I
indulge my second sight, all I see are dead zones:
no grandchildren, no evenings at the beach, no bonfires
in a future that allows one glass of wine
per shot of insulin. Will we both agree
that I love you, always, no matter
my love’s flawed, aging partiality?
My occupation now is to help you be alone.