poem index

Vacancy 223

Vacancy 223
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Lessons from a Mirror
Thylias Moss, 1954
Snow White was nude at her wedding, she's so white
the gown seemed to disappear when she put it on.

Put me beside her and the proximity is good
for a study of chiaroscuro, not much else.

Her name aggravates me most, as if I need to be told
what's white and what isn't.

Judging strictly by appearance there's a future for me
forever at her heels, a shadow's constant worship.

Is it fair for me to live that way, unable 
to get off the ground?

Turning the tables isn't fair unless they keep turning.
Then there's the danger of Russian roulette

and my disadvantage: nothing falls from the sky
to name me.

I am the empty space where the tooth was, that my tongue
rushes to fill because I can't stand vacancies.

And it's not enough. The penis just fills another
gap. And it's not enough.

When you look at me,
know that more than white is missing.
Vacancy 223
next
I Am Not Yours
Sara Teasdale, 1884 - 1933
I am not yours, not lost in you,
Not lost, although I long to be
Lost as a candle lit at noon,
Lost as a snowflake in the sea.

You love me, and I find you still
A spirit beautiful and bright,
Yet I am I, who long to be
Lost as a light is lost in light.

Oh plunge me deep in love—put out
My senses, leave me deaf and blind,
Swept by the tempest of your love,
A taper in a rushing wind.
Vacancy 223
next
Diving into the Wreck
Adrienne Rich, 1929 - 2012
First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
Otherwise
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.
Vacancy 223
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Boston
Aaron Smith
I've been meaning to tell
you how the sky is pink
here sometimes like the roof
of a mouth that's about to chomp
down on the crooked steel teeth
of the city,

I remember the desperate 
things we did
                and that I stumble
down sidewalks listening
to the buzz of street lamps
at dusk and the crush
of leaves on the pavement,

Without you here I'm viciously lonely

and I can't remember 
the last time I felt holy,
the last time I offered
myself as sanctuary

*

I watched two men 
press hard into
each other, their bodies
caught in the club’s
bass drum swell,
and I couldn’t remember
when I knew I’d never
be beautiful, but it must 
have been quick
and subtle, the way
the holy ghost can pass
in and out of a room.
I want so desperately
to be finished with desire,
the rushing wind, the still
small voice.
Vacancy 223
next
Gospel
Philip Levine, 1928
The new grass rising in the hills,
the cows loitering in the morning chill,
a dozen or more old browns hidden
in the shadows of the cottonwoods
beside the streambed. I go higher
to where the road gives up and there's
only a faint path strewn with lupine
between the mountain oaks. I don't
ask myself what I'm looking for.
I didn't come for answers
to a place like this, I came to walk
on the earth, still cold, still silent.
Still ungiving, I've said to myself,
although it greets me with last year's
dead thistles and this year's 
hard spines, early blooming
wild onions, the curling remains
of spider's cloth. What did I bring 
to the dance? In my back pocket
a crushed letter from a woman
I've never met bearing bad news
I can do nothing about. So I wander
these woods half sightless while
a west wind picks up in the trees
clustered above. The pines make
a music like no other, rising and 
falling like a distant surf at night
that calms the darkness before 
first light. "Soughing" we call it, from
Old English, no less. How weightless
words are when nothing will do.
Vacancy 223
next
Forgetfulness
Billy Collins, 1941
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, 
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those 
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
Vacancy 223
next
What Goes On
Stephen Dunn, 1939
After the affair and the moving out,
after the destructive revivifying passion,
we watched her life quiet

into a new one, her lover more and more
on its periphery. She spent many nights
alone, happy for the narcosis

of the television. When she got cancer
she kept it to herself until she couldn't
keep it from anyone. The chemo debilitated
and saved her, and one day

her husband asked her to come back —
his wife, who after all had only fallen
in love as anyone might
who hadn't been in love in a while —

and he held her, so different now,
so thin, her hair just partially
grown back. He held her like a new woman

and what she felt
felt almost as good as love had,
and each of them called it love
because precision didn't matter anymore.

And we who'd been part of it,
often rejoicing with one
and consoling the other,

we who had seen her truly alive
and then merely alive,
what could we do but revise
our phone book, our hearts,

offer a little toast to what goes on.
Vacancy 223
next
To Earthward
Robert Frost, 1874 - 1963
Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of--was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Downhill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they're gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.

Now no joy but lacks salt,
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love,
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length. 
Vacancy 223
next
Her Body Like a Lantern Next to Me
John Rybicki
            There's this movie I am watching:
my love's belly almost five months 
            pregnant with cancer, 

            more like a little rock wall 
piled and fitted inside her 
            than some prenatal rounding.

            Over there's her face 
near the frying pan she's bent over,
            but there's no water in the pan, 

            and so, no reflection.  No pool 
where I might gather such a thing as a face, 
            or sew it there on a tablet made of water.  

            To have and to haul it away, 
sometimes dipping into her 
            in the next room that waits for me.

                        •

            I am old at this.  I am stretching
the wick again into my throat 
            when the flame burns down.

            She's splashing in the tub 
and singing, I love him very much, 
            though I'm old and tired
 
            and cancerous.  It's spring 
and now she's stopping traffic, 
            lifting one of her painted turtles 

            across the road.  Someone's honking, 
pumping one arm out the window, 
            cheering her on.

            She falls then like there's a house 
on her back, hides her head in the bank grass
            and vomits into the ditch.
	
                        •

            She keeps her radioactive linen, 
Bowl, and spoon separate. For seven days
            we sleep in different rooms.

            Over there's the toilet she's been
heaving her roots into. One time I heard her
            through the door make a toast to it, 

            Here's to you, toilet bowl.  
There's nothing poetic about this.
            I have one oar that hangs 

            from our bedroom window, 
and I am rowing our hut 
            in the same desperate circle.  

                        •

            I warm her tea then spread 
cream cheese over her bagel, 
            and we lie together like two guitars, 
	
            A rose like a screw 
in each of our mouths.  
            There's that liquid river of story 

            that sometimes sweeps us away 
from all this, into the ha ha 
            and the tender. At night the streetlights 

            buzz on again with the stars, 
and the horses in the field  swat their tails 
            like we will go on forever.

                        •

            I'm at my desk herding some 
lost language when I notice how quiet 
            she has been. Twice I call her name  

            and wait after my voice has lost its legs 
and she does not ring back.  
            Dude, I'm still here, she says at last

            then the sound of her 
stretching her branches, and from them 
            the rain falling thick through our house.  

            I'm racing to place pots and pans 
everywhere.  Bottle her in super canning jars.  
            For seventeen years, I've lined  

            the shelves of our root cellar with them.  
One drop for each jar.  
            I'll need them for later.