Edward Hirsch cites the late William Matthews on “the four subjects of poetry,” which are:
1. I went out into the woods today, and it made me feel, you know, sort of religious.
2. We’re not getting any younger.
3. It sure is cold and lonely (a) without you, honey, or (b) with you, honey.
4. Sadness seems but the other side of the coin of happiness, and vice versa, and in any case the coin is too soon spent, and on what we know not what.
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.
You happened to me. I was happened to
like an abandoned building by a bull-
dozer, like the van that missed my skull
happened a two-inch gash across my chin.
You were as deep down as I’ve ever been.
You were inside me like my pulse. A new-
born flailing toward maternal heartbeat through
the shock of cold and glare: when you were gone,
swaddled in strange air I was that alone
again, inventing life left after you.
I don’t want to remember you as that
four o’clock in the morning eight months long
after you happened to me like a wrong
number at midnight that blew up the phone
bill to an astronomical unknown
quantity in a foreign currency.
The U.S. dollar dived since you happened to me.
You’ve grown into your skin since then; you’ve grown
into the space you measure with someone
you can love back without a caveat.
While I love somebody I learn to live
with through the downpulled winter days’ routine
wakings and sleepings, half-and-half caffeine-
assisted mornings, laundry, stock-pots, dust-
balls in the hallway, lists instead of longing, trust
that what comes next comes after what came first.
She’ll never be a story I make up.
You were the one I didn’t know where to stop.
If I had blamed you, now I could forgive
you, but what made my cold hand, back in prox-
imity to your hair, your mouth, your mind,
want where it no way ought to be, defined
by where it was, and was and was until
the whole globed swelling liquefied and spilled
through one cheek’s nap, a syllable, a tear,
was never blame, whatever I wished it were.
You were the weather in my neighborhood.
You were the epic in the episode.
You were the year poised on the equinox.
Being a glacier, I remember birth,
The waves of stars falling over the years,
White, six-pointed stars descending to form
My soul. On my birthday, it always snows.
Being the sea, you wait for everything
With motherly love. You eat continents
Of land, continents of ice. Your blue tongue
Catches snow. You taste like salt. You make sand.
I’m inland now, grinding the path that ends
At your door. I’ll pause for weeks on the shore
Before I let go. You will let me in
Then begin to melt me down as I float.
Months later you’ll ask me, “Do you love me?”
I’ll answer you, “Does the sea love the sea?
I leave the number and a short
message on every green Volvo
Is anything wrong?
I miss you.
The phone rings constantly.
One says, Are you bald?
Another, How tall are you in
your stocking feet?
Most just reply, Nothing’s wrong.
I miss you, too.
The best advice I ever got about how to heal
came from a beleaguered camp counselor
who found herself suddenly surrounded
by a flock of heaving sobbing twelve year old girls.
It had been billed as a session on conflict resolution,
an alternative to wood cookie crafts, or horseshoes,
and maybe she should have seen it coming,
how water seeks the cracks in any dam.
One girl had been brutally sexually assaulted
by the preschool director, and had not slept
through the night alone since.
One had been molested by her foster brother,
who sliced his arms with scissors in the bedroom dark.
One had been strangled by her own mother,
who later found God and apologized,
and then punished her for not offering up
the fish and loaves of forgiveness instantly,
the forgiveness which her mother had been promised
by some pastor that she deserved now, and would receive
through the mysterious machines of grace;
the kind that multiplied and magnified and
fed the endless hunger at the center of things.
There were other stories.
Abuse is a word that sounds powerful in your head
and goes limp the moment you speak it,
hanging like a soaked wet curtain
around the things we can not bear to know.
I don’t remember the counselor’s name, or
what she looked like, just that she was an enormous
buoy of a woman.That her voice was deep
and calm and quavered at all the right turns.
That she sat in a way that trained gravity.
How unprepared she must have felt,
to see the sharks swimming in our eyes,
to have been handed the heavy anchors
of our trust. What well of strength did she draw from?
What inheritance of bedrock and granite and spine?
What gospel stolen from the bent melted steel of kitchen knives?
She absorbed every blow of every word.
When we had finished, when we were softened
by confession, she took a breath and began.
Without getting into the kind of details that get attention,
she told us the story of her own early ruin,
of the lifetimes of gentle obligation it left in its wake.
The heart and the mind and the body
might never align on the requirements of joy.
The mind must be taught patience with the heart.
The heart must learn faith from the body.
The body must be tended lovingly and unwaveringly, an infant.
The heart will take its own sweet time, and can not be rushed.
“Just fake it ‘till you feel it,” she told us,
and like that, gave us permission
to put on the tight masks of adulthood,
to build walls around what was
too tender and shocked;
for J.V. C.H. A.F. E.H. E.M.
Sometimes you dance slow with your best friend
while a woman you love differently than you love
Etta James sings At Last into a karaoke machine
like she wrote it in the bathroom.
Sometimes every person you know is drunk enough
it becomes a new definition for sober.
There is a bar on the west side of Brooklyn
the fishermen call home (or they used to
when Brooklyn had fishermen), a siren carrying them back
to their whiskey. Sometimes there is tonight.
We are six people making footsteps that never disappear.
Can you imagine the lines we have drawn to get here?
There are people who have called us their homes.
Tonight, there is family in the oxygen. Sometimes,
two people is its own person. It has a lifespan,
it gets hungry, it too, can lie underneath its sheets
and wonder how it can still feel alone—
Sometimes it is more.
There is a phone booth in the bar that seats one.
Six of us scramble inside, crawl up the walls
until even our drinks fit. Our bodies are rediscovering
what it is to be possible. It is one night
when the clocks in Brooklyn begin to spill backwards,
then stop. The bartender — still as a stalagmite,
while the perfect pour stays perfect.
The couple at the corner table,
together like popsicle sticks in a freezer—
the ovvvvv from I love you suspended
in the air like a vibrating chandelier.
We, with our songs, with our slow dances,
our smiles — which on any other day
rotate like the swing on a jump rope —
we are the last to go, we are the last to go
we are last —