“When did the ‘present’ begin?”
            —Lauren Berlant

When the tyrant’s voice comes on the car radio, I close my eyes in an effort to slow the rate at which hopelessness enters me. With this act, I hurl myself faster toward extinction.

Every morning, I stretch, put food in my throat, and fail to forgive myself. 

At night, I sit down to watch last year’s extinctions paint the wall, while next time’s fire buffers in a perpetual next time.

Somewhere between these, I occupy the present tense, with all the confidence of a settler.

Sometime before was when the things we survived happened. What am I surviving today: the war or its unending ending?

I remember none of it and so live without language for its opposite. 

The country (was/is) divided, the US military (occupied/has occupied) the country, I (return/am returning) there. 

What is the opposite of the present tense? 

(I’m speaking, I say, until it’s no longer true.)

I love next time. I love it with all the declarative confidence of a child who’s never fished the softened bodies of her parents from a river as soldiers chew cud.

History hangs inside me, like a dependent clause.

History ends when its mirrors rush from the future like brake lights, polishing me into language.

After the catastrophe. By polishing me; through buffering grammar. In red memories dotting the highway smudged out by a storm. By the tyrant, unevenly distributed. With current.

The screech of tires is just the sound of my past catching up with yours.

Copyright © 2023 by Franny Choi. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 31, 2023, by the Academy of American Poets.