The Everlasting Self
–Tracy K. Smith
Comes in from a downpour
Shaking water in every direction —
A collaborative condition:
Gathered, shed, spread, then
Forgotten, reabsorbed. Like love
From a lifetime ago, and mud
A dog has tracked across the floor.
–Tracy K. Smith
The sky is a dry pitiless white. The wide rows stretch on into death.
Like famished birds, my hands strip each stalk of its stolen crop: our name.
History is a ship forever setting sail. On either shore: mountains of men,
Oceans of bone, an engine whose teeth shred all that is not our name.
Can you imagine what will sound from us, what we’ll rend and claim
When we find ourselves alone with all we’ve ever sought: our name?
Or perhaps what we seek lives outside of speech, like a tribe of goats
On a mountain above a lake, whose hooves nick away at rock. Our name
Is blown from tree to tree, scattered by the breeze. Who am I to say what,
In that marriage, is lost? For all I know, the grass has caught our name.
Having risen from moan to growl, growl to a hound’s low bray,
The voices catch. No priest, no sinner has yet been taught our name.
Will it thunder up, the call of time? Or lie quiet as bedrock beneath
Our feet? Our name our name our name our fraught, fraught name.
Unrest in Baton Rouge
–Tracy K. Smith
after the photo by Jonathan Bachman
Our bodies run with ink dark blood. Or else
It pools in the pavement’s seams.
Is it strange to say love is a language
Few practice, but all, or near all speak?
Even the men in black armor, the ones
Jangling handcuffs and keys, what else
Are they so buffered against, if not love’s blade
Sizing up the heart’s familiar meat?
We watch and grieve. We sleep, stir, eat.
Love: the heart sliced open, gutted, clean.
Love: naked almost in the everlasting street,
Skirt lifted by a different kind of breeze
Image: Ieshia Evans stands before policemen in riot gear in Baton Rouge, LA July 9, 2016
( Jonathan Bachman for Reuters / Flickr )
The Museum of Obsolescence
–Tracy K. Smith
So much we once coveted. So much
That would have saved us, but lived,
Instead, its own quick span, returning
To uselessness with the mute acquiescence
Of shed skin. It watches us watch it:
Our faulty eyes, our telltale heat, hearts
Ticking through our shirts. We’re here
To titter at gimcracks, the naïve tools,
The replicas of replicas stacked like bricks.
There’s green money, and oil in drums.
Pots of honey pilfered from a tomb. Books
Recounting the wars, maps of fizzled stars.
In the south wing, there’s a small room
Where a living man sits on display. Ask,
And he’ll describe the old beliefs. If you
Laugh, he’ll lower his head to his hands
And sigh. When he dies, they’ll replace him
With a video looping on ad infinitum.
Special installations come and go. “Love”
Was up for a season, followed by “Illness,”
Concepts difficult to grasp. The last thing you see
(After a mirror—someone’s idea of a joke?)
Is an image of an old planet taken from space.
Outside, vendors hawk t-shirts, three for eight.
My God, It’s Full of Stars
–Tracy K. Smith
We like to think of it as parallel to what we know,
Only bigger. One man against the authorities.
Or one man against a city of zombies. One man
Who is not, in fact, a man, sent to understand
The caravan of men now chasing him like red ants
Let loose down the pants of America. Man on the run.
Man with a ship to catch, a payload to drop,
This message going out to all of space. . . . Though
Maybe it’s more like life below the sea: silent,
Buoyant, bizarrely benign. Relics
Of an outmoded design. Some like to imagine
A cosmic mother watching through a spray of stars,
Mouthing yes, yes as we toddle toward the light,
Biting her lip if we teeter at some ledge. Longing
To sweep us to her breast, she hopes for the best
While the father storms through adjacent rooms
Ranting with the force of Kingdom Come,
Not caring anymore what might snap us in its jaw.
Sometimes, what I see is a library in a rural community.
All the tall shelves in the big open room. And the pencils
In a cup at Circulation, gnawed on by the entire population.
The books have lived here all along, belonging
For weeks at a time to one or another in the brief sequence
Of family names, speaking (at night mostly) to a face,
A pair of eyes. The most remarkable lies.
Charlton Heston is waiting to be let in. He asked once politely.
A second time with force from the diaphragm. The third time,
He did it like Moses: arms raised high, face an apocryphal white.
Shirt crisp, suit trim, he stoops a little coming in,
Then grows tall. He scans the room. He stands until I gesture,
Then he sits. Birds commence their evening chatter. Someone fires
Charcoals out below. He’ll take a whiskey if I have it. Water if I don’t.
I ask him to start from the beginning, but he goes only halfway back.
That was the future once, he says. Before the world went upside down.
Hero, survivor, God’s right hand man, I know he sees the blank
Surface of the moon where I see a language built from brick and bone.
He sits straight in his seat, takes a long, slow high-thespian breath,
Then lets it go. For all I know, I was the last true man on this earth. And:
May I smoke? The voices outside soften. Planes jet past heading off or back.
Someone cries that she does not want to go to bed. Footsteps overhead.
A fountain in the neighbor’s yard babbles to itself, and the night air
Lifts the sound indoors. It was another time, he says, picking up again.
We were pioneers. Will you fight to stay alive here, riding the earth
Toward God-knows-where? I think of Atlantis buried under ice, gone
One day from sight, the shore from which it rose now glacial and stark.
Our eyes adjust to the dark.
Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,
That the others have come and gone—a momentary blip—
When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,
Setting solid feet down on planets everywhere,
Bowing to the great stars that command, pitching stones
At whatever are their moons. They live wondering
If they are the only ones, knowing only the wish to know,
And the great black distance they—we—flicker in.
Maybe the dead know, their eyes widening at last,
Seeing the high beams of a million galaxies flick on
At twilight. Hearing the engines flare, the horns
Not letting up, the frenzy of being. I want to be
One notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.
Wide open, so everything floods in at once.
And sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
For the first time in the winter of 1959.
In those last scenes of Kubrick’s 2001
When Dave is whisked into the center of space,
Which unfurls in an aurora of orgasmic light
Before opening wide, like a jungle orchid
For a love-struck bee, then goes liquid,
Paint-in-water, and then gauze wafting out and off,
Before, finally, the night tide, luminescent
And vague, swirls in, and on and on. . . .
In those last scenes, as he floats
Above Jupiter’s vast canyons and seas,
Over the lava strewn plains and mountains
Packed in ice, that whole time, he doesn’t blink.
In his little ship, blind to what he rides, whisked
Across the wide-screen of unparcelled time,
Who knows what blazes through his mind?
Is it still his life he moves through, or does
That end at the end of what he can name?
On set, it’s shot after shot till Kubrick is happy,
Then the costumes go back on their racks
And the great gleaming set goes black.
When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope, he said
They operated like surgeons: scrubbed and sheathed
In papery green, the room a clean cold, a bright white.
He’d read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,
His eyes exhausted and pink. These were the Reagan years,
When we lived with our finger on The Button and struggled
To view our enemies as children. My father spent whole seasons
Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find.
His face lit-up whenever anyone asked, and his arms would rise
As if he were weightless, perfectly at ease in the never-ending
Night of space. On the ground, we tied postcards to balloons
For peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di. Rock Hudson died.
We learned new words for things. The decade changed.
The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is—
So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.
At Some Point They’ll Want to Know What It Was Like
–Tracy K. Smith
There was something about how it felt. Not just the during —
That rough churn of bulk and breath, limb and tooth, the mass of us,
The quickness we made and rode — but mostly the before.
The waiting, knowing what would become. Pang. Pleasure then pain.
Then the underwater ride of after. Thrown-off like a coat over a bridge.
Somehow you’d just give away what you’d die without. You just gave.
The best was having nothing. No hope. No name in the throat.
And finding the breath in you, the body, to ask.
–Tracy K. Smith
You were you, but now and then you’d change.
Sometimes your face was some or another his,
And when I stood facing it, your body flinched.
You wanted to be alone—left alone. You waded
Into streets dense with people: women wearing
Book bags, or wooden beads. Girls holding smoke
A moment behind red mouths then pushing it out,
Posing, not breathing it in. You smiled
Like a man who knows how to crack a safe.
When it got to the point where you were only
Him, I had to get out from under it. Sit up
And put my feet on the floor. Haven’t I lived this
Enough times over? It’s morning, but the light’s still dark.
There’s rain in the garden, and a dove repeating
Where? Are? You? It takes awhile, but a voice
Finally answers back. A long phrase. Over
And over. Urgently. Not tiring even after the dove
Seems to be appeased.