I’m Trying to Write a Joyful Poem

By Emily Mohn-Slate

Featured Art: Chrysanthemums by a Stream by Followers of Ogata Korin

after reading Ross Gay’s new book,
which makes me feel light
and giddy, like maybe
a world in which figs fall
from a city sky is possible,
but my poem becomes
about the collapse of long
love, how even the brightest
glint in the eye
becomes shadow eventually.
My son dances across
the room in a red
cowboy hat, he asks me
to chase him,
but the girl in the documentary
I watch lives in a landfill
outside Moscow—
she drinks water from
dirty milk jugs and—
why does joy always slide
into darkness?
My son laughs, his eight teeth
new and white, shining in the sun
while I tickle his belly.
Joy must be at least
as complicated as sorrow,
which is one reason
I hate those posed pictures
people take before
weddings, before babies,
hands clasped over the woman’s
belly—cupping warm skin
thinking they know
what’s inside.

Maybe joy is an animal that scurries
when you get close,
or maybe it’s my son
pointing out the moon
saying Look! Up there!
which makes me think
how he almost wasn’t
so many times.
And doesn’t the girl in Moscow,
Yula is her name,
have joys, too?
And this cramped coffee shop
hums with people telling
other people across a stretch
of table what it feels like
to live on this planet right now,
to have a mouth,
to form words—I’m saying,
How are you feeling?
She’s saying, It was just so funny,
so damn funny
and the woman next to me
she laughs, she sighs,
she holds her belly.

Maybe joy is the real mystery.
Maybe I’ve been wrong
for decades, only looking
under the rock, pointing out
the shades of dark.
Last night I lay across
from my love and
said I love you,
something I usually say
while opening the fridge,
while leaving the house,
my back turned,
I said I love you
staring right into
his open eyes—
what made me look
is that I remembered
he will die. Maybe joy
is a hand reaching out
in a fierce wind,
one so very hard
to open your fingers in,
or your eyes.

Emily Mohn-Slate is the author of The Falls, winner of the 2019 New American Poetry Prize (New American Press), and Feed, winner of the 2018 Keystone Chapbook Prize (Seven Kitchens Press). Her poems and essays have appeared in AGNI, New Ohio Review, Muzzle Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. She teaches high school English by day and poetry workshops by night for the Madwomen in the Attic at Carlow University.

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