The Specious Present

I stared at the tiny xeroxed faces 
we wore like blurry jokes
pinned to our lapels.

Outside, the light raked the dry brown foothills 
we slid down on flattened cardboard boxes,
decades ago, out of control, fast,

fast as years. 
I still love the California hills,
I still love boxes and the way a word 

is a box. It holds things,
flotsam holding flotsam. 
Be the void, said the strobe-light disco ball.

The red wine warmed in my hands, it
spilled on my bare feet as I danced
above the San Andreas Fault.

“Cathy,” they called me that night,
and in the reunion’s obsolete blear
I looked a little like a Cathy, 

or a Nadia, unrecognizable save for the eyes 
and the animal drive to throw herself 
into a long line of aerial cartwheels, 

propelled forward and upside down 
past language into anachronistic light. 


Copyright © 2023 by Catherine Barnett. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 22, 2023, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“Going to a reunion is a layman’s form of time travel, as is writing a poem. Both bring about a vertigo of space-time simultaneities. I wish I could ask you how long the present—this moment, right now—lasts for you. For the speaker of this poem, this little fraction of time lasts forever and is already over; it’s also known as the ‘specious present,’ as described by William James.”
—Catherine Barnett