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.
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 They Wanted It
–Camille T. DungyBecause she’d heard him laugh through new moon darknessand 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 neckhe’d erected to recollect the man he’d beenbefore—because she found herself adding up his usefulnesslike some kind of auctioneer—she showed himthe dark coils areoling both her breasts and all the waysshe bent and lifted, bent and lifted, steady, strong.She let him believe he was past due for a harvestand her hands were the right ones, now, to hold onto the scythe.
•She made quick work of pleasure. The boysmile bunked downin his eyes, she claimed. Her tongue found the place in his mouthwhere the teeth were gone—where he’d hold his corncakesuntil they grew soft enough to chew. History had bedded himin 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 thoughtshe’d hated—watched his body opened, opened, opened untilblood had married brine. She’d watch that man be whipped into somethinggood for nothing more than fertilizing clay and she’d thoughtbuckshot would have been a brand of kindness if sprayed into himjust 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 nothingin return, she’d walked with him. But because the night progressed so—because there were some clouds—no stars—no moon—he’d trippedover the branch of a dead and down tree. In all that darkness,there, without a moon, even then, she had not fallen. She thoughtto say so, but she did not say so. She did nothingbut say she was sorry for him. She did not use her mouthto say this. Could he not listen to her hands? They spoke softly,articulating her condolences, to his torn and bleeding skin.