Almost dusk. Fishermen packing up their bait,
a small girl singing there’s nothing in here nothing in here
casting a yellow pole, glancing at her father.
What is it they say about mercy? Five summers ago
this lake took a child’s life. Four summers
ago it saved mine, the way the willows stretch
toward the water but never kiss it, how people laugh
as they walk the concrete path or really have it out
with someone they love. One spring the path teemed
with baby frogs, so many flattened, so many jumping.
I didn’t know a damn thing then. I thought I was waiting
for something to happen. I stepped carefully
over the dead frogs and around the live ones.
What was I waiting for? Frogs to rain from the sky?
A great love? The little girl spies a perch
just outside her rod’s reach. She wants to wade in.
She won’t catch the fish and even if she does
it might be full of mercury. Still, I want her
to roll up her jeans and step into the water,
tell her it’s mercy, not mud, filling each impression
her feet make. I’m not saying she should
be grateful to be alive. I’m saying mercy
is a big dark lake we’re all swimming in.
It’s not pointless to love,
Just like training snakes, it calls for
a refined technique and losing our shame
of performing in front of the world in loincloths.
And nerves of steel.
But loving is a job
with benefits, too: its liturgy soothes
the idleness that maddens—as Catullus knew—
and ruined the happiest cities.
Under the tightrope there stretches—don’t ask
for a net, it’s not possible—another rope,
so loose, but ultimately
so pointless at times,
below which there is nothing.
windows that air out your anger and show
to your night other nights that are different, and like that
only love saves us at last from the grip
of the worst danger we know of:
to be only–and nothing else—ourselves.
This is why,
now that everything is said and I have
a place in the country of blasphemy,
now that the pain of making words
from my own pain
has crossed the thresholds
I need from your love an anesthetic;
come with your morphine kisses to sedate me,
come encircle my waist with your arms,
making a life preserver, to keep the lethal weight
of sadness from drowning me;
come dress me in the clothes of hope—I almost
had forgotten a word like that—,
even if they fit me big as on a child
wearing his father’s biggest shirt;
come supervise my oblivion and the gift of unconsciousness;
come protect me—my worst enemy
and most tenacious—, come make me a haven
even if it’s a lie
—because everything is a lie
and yours is merciful—;
come cover my eyes
and say it passed, it passed, it passed,
—even if nothing passed, because nothing passes—,
And if nothing will free us from death
at least love will save us from life.
Poem That Leaves Behind the Ocean
I’ve always wanted to write a poem that ends
at the ocean. How the poem gets there
doesn’t much matter, just so at last
it arrives. The manatee will be there
we saw all those years ago,
almost motionless under the water
like a pendant swaying at an invisible throat,
the one my mother used to wear
on the most special of occasions. My God
is still there, the one I prayed to as a boy:
he never answered but that didn’t keep me
from calling out to him.
I turn off the notification app for good,
no longer needing to know exactly how many gone.
After all, clinging to life
is what we have always done best.
We are still trying to hide
from the truth of things and who
can blame us.
Lists don’t make sense anymore,
unless toilet paper and peanut butter head them.
Last-stage patients are not being told
how crowded the ferry will be
that will take them across the river.
We are forbidden cafés, churches, even cemeteries.
Fishing by ourselves, however, is still permitted. As long
as we keep nothing at all. As long as we walk
back home, in darkness, empty-handed,
breathing deeply, having thrown back
what was never ours to keep.
The Spring Cricket Repudiates His Parable of Negritude
we just climbed. Reached the lip
and fell back, slipped
and started up again––
climbed to be climbing, sang
to be singing. It’s just what we do.
No one bothered to analyze our blues
until everybody involved
was strung out or dead; to solve
everything that was happening
while it was happening
would have taken some serious opium.
Seriously: All wisdom
is afterthought, a sort of helpless relief.
So don’t go thinking none of this grief
belongs to you: Even if
you don’t know how it
feels to fall, you can get my drift;
and I, who live it
daily, have heard
that perfect word
enough to know just when
to use it––as in:
Oh hell. Hell, no.
this is hell.
–Tracy K. Smith
There was a sea in my marriage.
And air. I sat in the middle
In a tiny house afloat
On night-colored waves.
The current rolled in
From I don’t know where.
We’d bob atop, drift
I liked best
When there was nothing
That I could
Or could not see.
But I know
There was more.
A map drawn on a mirror.
Globe cinched in at the poles.
Marriage is a rare game,
Its only verbs: am
And are. I aged.
We sailed past bottles,
The strangest signs inside:
A toy rig. A halo of tears.
Rags like trapped doves.
Why didn’t we stop?
Didn’t sirens sing our names
In voices that begged with promise
–Phillip B. Williams
When you were mine though not
mine at all permanently, just a body borrowed
without permission, a body interrupted,
the sky opened like a secret in a mouth
mouth with a word in it
word with an arrowhead in its flank: Love, small
creature it was
crying in the night beneath me
–Maggie SmithLife is short, though I keep this from my children.Life is short, and I’ve shortened minein a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,a thousand deliciously ill-advised waysI’ll keep from my children. The world is at leastfifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservativeestimate, though I keep this from my children.For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,sunk in a lake. Life is short and the worldis at least half terrible, and for every kindstranger, there is one who would break you,though I keep this from my children. I am tryingto sell them the world. Any decent realtor,walking you through a real shithole, chirps onabout good bones: This place could be beautiful,right? You could make this place beautiful.