Live long enough and you’ll have a few if you’re lucky. Take me, for instance— when my son crossed the street and the car’s tires screamed and his body arced into a C. Or once in the doctor’s cold office when the air froze into a word.
Or maybe it’s a choice—your choice, the other person’s, doesn’t matter. You sit on the edge of the bed in the hotel room, run your hand over the quilted bedspread and wait for the answer. It’s not much really, not much that determines a life.
Maybe it was hot, I was out of work & the car actually started, maybe I didn’t even think to bring a towel, just drove & walked into the water, walked in & let my feet rise, floating in salt & seaweed, fishlike, minnows darting below me, maybe that’s why I got to lie like I belonged in a horizon of water smooth as the sky, a rich silk luxury of blue, early evening in Paris blue, the blue of the Comtesse d’Haussonville’s opera dress, not the way it was, trapped in fabric, but how Ingres painted it, the way it still looks even in the print in my room, faint ripples flowing smooth in reflection, the kind of blue you’d wear & your bank account would never run low or maybe if it did you wouldn’t notice, or wouldn’t care, that rich Comtesse blue ferrying me seaward, blurring the smells of suntan lotion & fries, the echoes of men loud on phones, into the holiday happiness of striped umbrellas & beach chairs & who knows, maybe the Comtesse herself sunbathing right here at Sandy Neck, floating in time, sure, just a day at the beach like any other day, maybe, the way if you didn’t look, you might think the water was just blue.
Jim Dahlberg was eating a bran muffin and reading The New York Times when he saw that Lucas Bloy had won the Joslyn P. Fish Award for New Conceptual Art. Jim put his muffin down. He wondered if there had been some mistake—not that he was an expert in the field necessarily. He wasn’t an artist, or a critic, or a scholar. He didn’t know the first thing about the Josyln P. Fish Award. He did, however, know a thing or two about the recipient. Lucas had been his nemesis.
Years earlier, Jim had entered a sandwich shop in Madison, Wisconsin. He was in his third year of law school at the time and had just completed a lengthy exam on copyright litigation. Whenever he finished a big exam he liked to eat a roast beef sandwich slathered in tangy hot sauce. It was, for him, a kind of joy. And so he was deeply touched when he saw that Joanne Neier—by far the prettiest girl he’d ever seen at Ralph’s—chose the same condiment. On the basis of this connection, he was able to score an impromptu date.
Featured Art: Portrait of Kaitlyn (2018) by Erin Dellasega
Each generation learns from the previous so said my mother who never left the house. She would close herself up in her bedroom for days, only to emerge in a wig and a dress made of paper on which she had sketched vague faces and landscapes with fat pieces of charcoal and spit. Once I thought I saw her in the street, a fur hat and hooped earrings, eyes vacant and no response to my call. Doppelgänger she would say later, like the thick-boned villager who helped load the trains with mothers and daughters and turned to the camera to swear it wasn’t her.
Featured Art: The Sacrificial Lambs by Brooke Ripley
The stores have closed early even though it is the middle of the week. The cathedral begs forgiveness, promises to open tomorrow. No reason is given. At an intersection, two women ask for directions to the town square. They only venture a couple of feet before they consult their phones, are given the same instructions: Walk down that street. It’s not like it is a large town. If this were a Western, there’d be tumbleweeds. Despite recent warnings of a thunderstorm, it hasn’t rained in over a month. Six years ago a 300-year-old bridge washed away for good. There have been three floods in seventeen years. The two women are still looking for the town center, stop in the middle of the street to look west, then east. And it’s clear they’ll never find the center even though all they need to do is look up. In the square, employees from a supermarket chain are camped out in booths. They carry trays of cubed cheese and melon that smells like cold cuts. It is too hot for cheese. The city is building a new wall to fight future flooding. Does it matter that the shiny metal gates rest against centuries-old stone? Back in the town square, a mime on stilts waves coupons in the faces of passersby, bends down to gauge their response. No one accepts the coupons. The supermarket employees suddenly appear at every side street, each dressed in a matching red shirt, ambushing anyone who dares get close, calling after them: Excuse me. Excuse me.
The octobered sky. The overarching evolution of your abdomen. The salutatious relove we do once we’ve forgiven our mommas. Let’s go arachnid and eat our mommas or ok we can just wrap each other in silk. O yes I am an aprilfaced king. O yes I am a uterus genius. O yes I bleed while I walk down Seventh. O yes & yes & yes I have made such a snow of your hands, an astronomy of your syntax, an ambulance of your eyes, and I’ve decided that I have no issue with meeting your mother next Tuesday. Wait. I can wear a green coat like Chalamet in Little Women or a red tie like a coach. I should practice my little voice in my little mirror hi my name is how are you impressive charming not at all o yes afraid
the day gathers up in a blonde geometry and we drive out to turn phantom on DeSalvo’s dock because we can because DeSalvo went dead and left his pond unattended so we come here and watch the moonback like maybe it might turn around and make us real to somebody sometimes I wish I could throw her up in the air and watch her spin forever she’s like yawning during the pledge and missing indivisible or picking scabs during catechism you see I am stupid as the weather when she says Please like a field waving itself into the blade when she rubs her thumb in circles in the middle of my palm I am honest to god adjacent to me or ajar there is no halo like leaving yourself ajar you become a room so danced it thumps violet or you become ready for another room to enter you back she is a room too asking me if this is alright like she can’t see my face already decided under this light we call our space juice because we drink it we pray for no spoon in the persimmon we sit down scared like substitute teachers we learn how to love with one hand and we scrape our backs on this wood like we’re rubbing off velvet or making the muscles in our traps to fight and we know this house is a gift even if invisibled
If my heart breaks loose and darts across a lawn—if, stopped at crossroads, my heart pries my ribs apart, takes wing through the open car window—if my heart gets away from me— help me bring it back. Walk with me, hedge to hedge, with a butterfly net, a baseball glove, a sauce pan. We’ll crunch over cicada husks, duck the sprinklers, race the coming dusk. When we spot it, cupped in a daylily or tangled in chain link, by then, relieved and grass-stained, we’ll be laughing and crying and the streetlights will be just starting to sputter above us.
Houses on a bluff; below them, off-limits to construction, a few acres of watery woods. A clear simmering of spring water glazes bright moss and gravel, slows to a bog, where a marsh wren reveals its single note. Slow growths of mistletoe on thick-gnarled limbs of elm and oak.
I’m here with my two wolves— my daughter and her friend, both twelve, who’ve tied to their waists lush tails. They prowl among the folded smells of leafmold unleashed by winter sun. They run, they fade behind trees. From the woods I hear long high howls.
Is it only make-believe? Each day, they feel an approaching metamorphosis. They’re at an age for trying things on: clothes, hair, such baubles that dangle from pierced ears, language fanged to affront their parents—whose worst fear remains the child might be no predator, but prey.
But these two wolves are at play. Are they too old for this? In Finland, my daughter tells me, teenage girls ride stick-horses, in organized events. It’s like dressage, except the living and too expensive horse is assumed into the girl herself. Spine and head convey
the rider’s attentive, upright carriage, while legs perform the horse’s measured moves. It’s ignorant to presume an animal will share a human’s feelings in a human way; just so, I can’t presume to think I know the nature of these wolves, or cultivated horses the Finnish girls become, as if to say
what’s best might just be something else than human. The houses crowding the edge of bluffs know nothing of these changelings, who bark and bay, wander the unruled ways of the leftover woods, and in becoming, renounce. Unless these houses breed them too.
There is always someone who suggests that his poems would be far better than yours if he’d only bothered to write them. What’s more, he would have handled the whole enterprise with more grace and aplomb than you ever did had he chosen to write those poems instead of making a killing in investment banking. And yet you keep going, even in the knowledge that the poems you are writing are not as good as his poems, the ones he didn’t write . . .
and, for that matter, not even as good as the ones you didn’t write. “Your poems would be better if you didn’t write them” is either a Zen koan, a quip by Yogi Berra, an insult, or just nonsense, which is why no one says it. I hate the idea that any poem written down is somehow inferior to a poem that does not exist. Yes, plenty of bad poems have been written, but out of all the poems that have gone unwritten, there’s not a single one I love.
I got an email from Tony just now though he’s been dead for a year and a half, and in the instant before my rational brain told me it was spam, I felt the thrill of seeing his name pop up in my inbox, the dopamine rush that he was writing me from beyond the grave. And when I clicked on his name to open the message, the body of the email consisted only of my first name followed by an exclamation mark (as though he was excited to be writing me) and, under that, a compressed link in the electric blue that indicated it was live. My giddy finger slid the cursor over it, to see what Tony was sending me—maybe instead of infecting my computer with malware that would harvest my data and require me to pay a huge ransom in cryptocurrency, the link would take me to a web page where I could find all the poems Tony has written since he died. I paused a moment and thought about what those poems would be like, but my imagination failed me. Then I clicked “delete,” and went into my trash and deleted the message again, which made me feel timid and puny, as though, like D. H. Lawrence and his snake, I’d missed my chance with one of the lords of life.
After you left the party someone’s dog picked a fight with the resident ancient hound and big human hullabaloo ensued followed by talk of infectious diseases, tricks for making perfect piecrust, the battle of Waterloo. Literature was avoided (too controversial), as was real estate (too dull). The Sanskrit scholar refused to recite a poem we yearned to hear called Remembrance of Songs of the Future. Everyone wanted to know the truth about you so I spun one tale after another about lost items, Cochabamba (remember the awful soup we ate every single day?), and the exigencies of soul retrieval. They toasted your future with pretentious cocktails while I sat on my heart to keep it quiet. Without you, my partner in all things stealthy, I couldn’t slip away early. Then it was late, dark and windy. I stepped outside to gaze into the vastness overhead and the cosmos was as it ever is— persistent and forgettable.
Featured Art: Peony – side yard by Kayla Holdgreve
In Tang verse classics, lonely wives rebuff the orioles that flirt amidst their flowers; they’d rather climb steep observation towers and, wrapped in tragic shawls atop a bluff, command a view of miles on miles of rough terrain uncrossed by human forms for hours than lean into the softness of spring showers, breezes, birdsong, and such sensual stuff. Or so the male bards of the Tang portrayed them when writing verses in a female voice; I cannot blame them for it. Simple boys, they merely wanted someone back at home to miss them in their absence, to upbraid them for being gone, to love them through a poem.
Walking around in Central London I find myself even browner than I remember feeling when I lived there three years ago before returning to Lahore
[and her kind shisham trees and the unkind eyes of strangers that make my eyes heavy with the second pair of eyelashes that grow over the first as I navigate her narrow sidewalks]
but London looks exactly the same— everyone seems hurried, busy rushing to someplace else, someplace better where suddenly, violently like snakes shedding off their skins they will blossom into finer versions of themselves.
Now at a roadside café I try to gather my self but I cannot feel anything.
Instead, I watch myself from a distance—an object clad in red pants, practical blue Toms, and wristwatch with a cluster of crystals around the dial
and I wonder how the faint London sunshine manages to erase me so efficiently, so completely every time
until one of those absurd motorbike rickshaws targeting tourists races by and the notes of a loud Bollywood song slash the air and I feel sudden, improbable delight, recognizing in the sound something I cannot name, but which turns me briefly into some body
and it slides into me the way a ray of sunshine slides perfectly, angularly into the dark patch on a windowpane
that all of London is a dollhouse and I am a doll in the dollhouse— a tiny object in the gloved hands of a woman in a factory, hunched over an assembly line
[now she wipes away the sweat on her forehead, now she imperceptibly stretches, the muscle in her back relaxes by a tiny degree and the ache recedes for a bit]
she glues me to one of the miniature sidewalks and I sit there forever afterward my wristwatch gleaming my new Nikes shining sipping a cup of tea with petite, manicured hands.
Looking back, perhaps I should have known— I mean, I had a crossing guard named Hope, and my third-grade teacher was Mrs. Schoolman—that life in Allegory was not as it seemed.
But of course in childhood the marvelous will greet you as the given, and the habitus of your natal genre accommodates even the extraordinary without interpretation:
The lady on the white mule, trotting through town followed by a dwarf carrying her purse, certainly inspired her share of wonder among the seventh-grade boys out for bagels at the Jewish Deli. And the knight seen galumphing after a beast with a thousand tongues (very Monty Python) prompted serious concerns among local parents, even an emergency assembly with the police at Everyman High. But no one ever thought to call in the exegetes.
If, in grammar school, we suspected the gym teacher (Coach Lust, an amateur taxidermist) and the art teacher (Ms. Seeley, a talking paintbrush) were having an affair, we didn’t think to say, “Aha, the marriage of soul and body!” We just wondered what they were up to in the custodian’s closet.
And when the snow fell, it was white as regular snow, sparkling just as cold and diamond-bright in the sun. That it spelled out the word INNOCENCE in the parking lot of the municipal building, made no difference to us as we threw snowballs, built igloos, went sledding, and peed our steaming names in gold behind the library.
In high school, my friend Boredom and I spent weekend nights wandering the town, keeping clear of Idleness and Vice who were always hanging around the Duck Pond of Despair, smoking weed and listening to The Dead. We roamed the satyr-haunted golf course and the foundling-littered park looking for something to happen to us that we couldn’t explain. But adventure in Allegory seemed in short supply.
So when we got tired of killing Time (even in Allegory, a victimless crime) we’d head to Music’s house and hang out, listening to records, poring over lyric sheets and album covers, pondering the mysteries of life and death, love and sex, Aqualung and Stairway. Later we confirmed our insights by telephone, which was otherwise useless except for getting busy signals from the universe and silence from unrequited crushes, which, in Allegory felt like having your whole body stuffed in a pressure cuff.
And if you fell in love it meant tumbling down a heart-shaped well, the result of not watching your step when AMOR walked by in a bright red sash and silver crown, with a face that no two victims ever described the same (and our sketch artists could only draw visions anyway).
From the bottom of the well, you’d watch the patch of sky above, an eye opening and closing, going from day to night and back to day.
And once they’d pulled you back up, blinking in the literal sun,
There would be more mornings, more dark pink of sun through closed eyelids. More people rolling over to check that the other was still there. The day they left the rover alone on Mars, most didn’t read the news and most of those who did didn’t read about the rover—a wandering machine supposed to last for only ninety days. But ninety days passed and still there were more mornings. People continued to wake up startled, to churn their ways through the covers to find someone. Some never did, in beds too big or apartments too small. There were more mornings for the rover too—thousands more— until everyone who wasn’t a computer lost count, until the rover made mornings the wrong metric altogether. Back then,
those thousand days ago, you’d wake up grasping for me in a panic that felt new each time. Morning always the same dark pink that Mars looks in that selfie the rover took just before it stopped responding. I’m sorry, I love you always the first things you’d say aloud until I stopped hearing the comma. Not something you needed me to know so much as a ping sent to a wandering machine worlds away, still listening for who knows how long.
White girl with the slender legs, I’ve been measuring myself by those yardsticks, trying to fit into the cocoon of your skinny jeans and make this butt a butterfly. White girl with the limpy locks—
angel hair—I’m running behind you on the track, watching your ponytail, a pendulum, swing back and forth and back again. I bet even the hair in between your thighs is smooth as thread, your knuckle frizz
a fine, fine filament. You fair thing! The way you stop to stretch, raising your arms without thinking, bending back without looking to see who’s behind you. O how I want you and hate you.
Or want to hate you. Or hate to want you. Butter-skinned beauty, I could swallow you whole and alive.