characteristics of life

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Characteristics of Life
Camille T. Dungy

A fifth of animals without backbones could be at risk of extinction, say scientists.
—BBC Nature News

Ask me if I speak for the snail and I will tell you
I speak for the snail.
speak of underneathedness
and the welcome of mosses,
of life that springs up,
little lives that pull back and wait for a moment.

I speak for the damselfly, water skeet, mollusk,
the caterpillar, the beetle, the spider, the ant.
I speak
from the time before spinelessness was frowned upon.

Ask me if I speak for the moon jelly. I will tell you
one thing today and another tomorrow
and I will be as consistent as anything alive
on this earth.

I move as the currents move, with the breezes.
What part of your nature drives you? You, in your cubicle
ought to understand me. I filter and filter and filter all day.

Ask me if I speak for the nautilus and I will be silent
as the nautilus shell on a shelf. I can be beautiful
and useless if that’s all you know to ask of me.

Ask me what I know of longing and I will speak of distances
between meadows of night-blooming flowers.
I will speak
the impossible hope of the firefly.

You with the candle
burning and only one chair at your table must understand
such wordless desire.

To say it is mindless is missing the point.

almost like

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Almost Like They Wanted It
Camille T. Dungy

Because she’d heard him laugh through new moon darkness
and she knew he’d fallen and she knew, before she turned,
he’d be crawling, like a crawdad, rock to loam—
because she tried to love the straight back and neck
he’d erected to recollect the man he’d been
before—because she found herself adding up his usefulness
like some kind of auctioneer—she showed him
the dark coils areoling both her breasts and all the ways
she bent and lifted, bent and lifted, steady, strong.
She let him believe he was past due for a harvest
and her hands were the right ones, now, to hold onto the scythe.

                                                        •

She made quick work of pleasure. The boysmile bunked down
in his eyes, she claimed. Her tongue found the place in his mouth
where the teeth were gone—where he’d hold his corncakes
until they grew soft enough to chew. History had bedded him
in all of this—his own history and failures not his own.
Before he’d tramped in she’d watched another man—a man she’d thought
she’d hated—watched his body opened, opened, opened until
blood had married brine. She’d watch that man be whipped into something
good for nothing more than fertilizing clay and she’d thought
buckshot would have been a brand of kindness if sprayed into him
just then. But even after his hard going, she did not miss him very much.
                                                        •
Anyone she chose could be shucked like surplus property tomorrow,
but that hadn’t been enough to warn her off of picking him that night.
Because she knew if she set her sight on nothing she’d get nothing
in return, she’d walked with him. But because the night progressed so
—because there were some clouds—no stars—no moon—he’d tripped
over the branch of a dead and down tree. In all that darkness,
there, without a moon, even then, she had not fallen. She thought
to say so, but she did not say so. She did nothing
but say she was sorry for him. She did not use her mouth
to say this. Could he not listen to her hands? They spoke softly,
articulating her condolences, to his torn and bleeding skin.