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Beloved, men in thick green coats came crunching
through the snow, the insignia on their shoulders
of uncertain origin, a country I could not be sure of,
a salute so terrifying I heard myself lying to avoid
arrest, and was arrested along with Jocko, whose tear
had snapped off, a tiny icicle he put in his mouth.
We were taken to the ice prison, a palace encrusted
with hoarfrost, its dome lit from within, Jocko admired
the wiring, he kicked the walls to test the strength
of his new boots. A television stood in a block of ice,
its blue image still moving like a liquid center.
You asked for my innermost thoughts. I wonder will I
ever see a grape again? When I think of the vineyard
where we met in October-- when you dropped a cluster
custom insisted you be kissed by a stranger-- how after
the harvest we plunged into a stream so icy our palms
turned pink. It seemed our future was sealed. Everyone
said so. It is quiet here. Not closing our ranks
weakens us hugely. The snowflakes fall in a featureless
bath. I am the stranger who kissed you. On sunny days
each tree is a glittering chandelier. The power of
mindless beauty! Jocko told a joke and has been dead
since May. A bullethole in his forehead the officers
call a third eye. For a month I milked a barnful of
cows. It is a lot like cleansing a chandelier. Wipe
and polish, wipe and polish, round and round you go.
I have lost my spectacles. Is the book I was reading
still open by the side of our bed? Treat it as a bookmark
saving my place in our story.
(here the letter breaks off)
I can’t write you because everything’s
wrong. Before dawn, crows swim
from the cedars: black coffee calls them down,
its bitter taste in my throat as they circle,
raucous, huge. Questions with no
place to land, they cruise yellow air
above crickets snapping
like struck matches. My house on fire, crows
are the smoke. You’ve never left me.
When you crossed the river you did not
call my name. I stood in tall grass
a long time, listening to birds
hidden in reeds, their intricate songs.
The grass will burn, the wrens,
the river and the rain that falls on it.
I can go nowhere else: everything
I cannot bear is here.
I must listen deeper. Sharpen my knife.
Something has changed the angles
of trees, their color. Do not wait to hear
from me. I cannot write to you
because this is what I will say.
I'm writing to you from the loneliest, most
secluded island in the world. I mean,
the farthest away place from anything else.
There are so many fruits here growing on trees
or on vines that wrap and wrap. Fruits
like I've never seen except the bananas.
All night the abandoned dogs howled.
I wonder if one dog gives the first howl, and if
they take turns who's first like carrying
the flag in school. Carrying the flag
way out in front and the others
following along behind in two long lines,
pairs holding hands. Also the roosters here crow
from 4am onward. They're still crowing right now
and it's almost noon here on the island.
Noon stares back no matter where you are.
Today I'm going to hike to the extinct volcano
and balance on the rim of the crater. Yesterday
a gust almost blew me inside. I heard
that the black widows live inside the volcano
far down below in the high grasses that you can't
see from the rim. Well, I was going to tell you
that this morning the bells rang and I
followed them and at the source of the bells,
there I found so many animals
all gathered together in a room
with carved wooden statues
and wooden benches and low wooden slats
for kneeling. And the animals were there
singing together, all their voices singing,
with big strong voices rising from even
the filthiest animals. I mean, I've seen animals
come together and sing before, except in
high fancy vaults where bits of colored glass
are pieced together into stories. Some days
I want to sing with them.
I wish more animals sang together all the time.
But then I can't sing sometimes
because I think of the news that happens
when the animals stop singing.
And then I think of all the medications
and their side effects that are advertised
between the pieces of news. And then I think
of all the money the drug companies spent
to videotape their photogenic, well-groomed animals,
and all the money they spent to buy
a prime-time spot, and I think, what money
buys the news, and what news
creates the drugs, and what
drugs control the animals, and I get so
choked I can't sing anymore, Lonely Animal.
I can't sing with the other animals. Because it's
hard to know what an animal will do when it
stops singing. It's complicated, you know, it's just
--New Orleans, November 1910
Four weeks have passed since I left, and still
I must write to you of no work. I've worn down
the soles and walked through the tightness
of my new shoes calling upon the merchants,
their offices bustling. All the while I kept thinking
my plain English and good writing would secure
for me some modest position Though I dress each day
in my best, hands covered with the lace gloves
you crocheted--no one needs a girl. How flat
the word sounds, and heavy. My purse thins.
I spend foolishly to make an appearance of quiet
industry, to mask the desperation that tightens
my throat. I sit watching--
though I pretend not to notice--the dark maids
ambling by with their white charges. Do I deceive
anyone? Were they to see my hands, brown
as your dear face, they'd know I'm not quite
what I pretend to be. I walk these streets
a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes
of some stranger upon me, and I must lower mine,
a negress again. There are enough things here
to remind me who I am. Mules lumbering through
the crowded streets send me into reverie, their footfall
the sound of a pointer and chalk hitting the blackboard
at school, only louder. Then there are women, clicking
their tongues in conversation, carrying their loads
on their heads. Their husky voices, the wash pots
and irons of the laundresses call to me.
I thought not to do the work I once did, back bending
and domestic; my schooling a gift--even those half days
at picking time, listening to Miss J--. How
I'd come to know words, the recitations I practiced
to sound like her, lilting, my sentences curling up
or trailing off at the ends. I read my books until
I nearly broke their spines, and in the cotton field,
I repeated whole sections I'd learned by heart,
spelling each word in my head to make a picture
I could see, as well as a weight I could feel
in my mouth. So now, even as I write this
and think of you at home, Goodbye
is the waving map of your palm, is
a stone on my tongue.