How can children read, with words wobbling any way they feel like? Spelling shows up as speling, and spelin spills to spleen. Stolen bases slide to stollen basis. There’s no Too Far, no leash to keep the feral hound from escape, no property line between ideas, no surveyor to fasten edges.
And if Johnson doesn’t finish soon, words might wander further into wildness, soar like index cards in a hurricane, and scatter like so much litter. Or worse— careen like bullets into meanings, blowing every deal to pieces.
If he finishes, you could be stuck in a poem entirely on spelling, longing for rescue from the strait- jacket they tied us into so we can read and write this. How fragile the guide rope of logic seems between us! How tenuous sweet mutual understanding!
Sam Johnson, in your stained shirt, big as Fleet Street, rehearsing for the thousandth time your smudgy slips of paper, you’ve never finished anything on time, you rarely finish. This is a prayer for you. But shall I bless or curse?
In the nightmare of the dark All the dogs of Europe bark, And the living nations wait, Each sequestered in its hate W. H. Auden
In this dark time, I want to make light bigger, to throw it in the air like a pizza chef, to stick my fists in, stretching it till I can get both arms into radiance to the elbow spinning it above us.
But oh, dark is such a genius at argument, using all the rhetorical figures. And you aren’t bad yourself, Mr. Auden, elucidating war, how it subtracts and subtracts light till each nation becomes a blind man alone in his own dark, gripping his cane, unable to cross to his lover who waits by the pizza parlor. Unable even to see her, unable to sing out to her the way a lover might sing out, Susan, it’s you!
In truth, the dark is that personal, fluttering like a red moth behind my eyelids. My Texas cousin lies dead this afternoon and his widow’s at the Funeral Home with their child, trying to explain where he went. Isn’t that the brilliant final move of dark, Poof! to separate us from each other? Between us, Mr. Auden, you and I have multiplied
the dark till some might say there’s no escape. But seeing darkness is seeing something. Maybe that’s why, as Susan crosses to the blind man, I notice the horizon begins leaking into the sky. Light reaches the treetops. It falls in chutes. And then, god help us, like everything, it breeds and breeds.
There is no happiness like mine. I have been eating poetry. –Mark Strand
What shall I do with this book I love so much I’d like to eat it? Meeting the poet at a reading, I would cast my eyes down. I’d walk behind him, not stepping on his shadow. If he told me I was half blind, I might lose sight in both my eyes. At home, everything I write becomes infected with his wildness: for instance, this, which I never planned, which has no ending.
Where shall I put the book, so full of life my car could barely stick to the Expressway? When my cold encyclopedias sense its goofy brilliance, they climb and hang on one another like Chinese gymnasts. I must subtract to make a place for the book to live. I lift out histories, then other listless volumes. I toss my boring files, erase the answering machine, renounce the desk, computer, pens.
Only the illumination of St. John stays. In my study’s scooped-out heart I wait beside the book, which glows with light borrowed from some distant star. I look at St. John’s face. He gazes from his throne, his eyes blazing with love and understanding. Tongues of flame play over him, sent from the Source who is both arsonist and fireman, and in his right hand, he holds a book.
You’ve gone AWOL and only Jesus can bring you back, not this poem that I began with the lie that we can overhear your laughter, not hubris or tears and rain. You are an ocean who’s left the nest of earth I thought you’d promised not to. The sky who folded up your blue tent and took off.
What remained, they packed off to flame. Before the day we sat to make your legend in the church, I could almost feel your curious, dare- devil spirit peel itself from the wall of death like a cartoon character and bop out to explore. So tell me what you learned. Is it possible to breathe astral, heavenly air?
And tell me. Was it worth it?— all that sturm und drang you pitched against our brother Death who’d rather work in secret—swelling, hemorrhage, collision of blood cells, collusion over charts, snarled traffic of the body, roads under construction, accident, the rampage of doctors to prevent the clever kleptomaniac from winning as long as possible. He could only steal your body. Which I miss, it’s true, oh god, true. The screen door you banged every afternoon, now silent.
Those days, I sat on our front porch holding my daughter, my arms and chest vibrating with joy like a tuning fork. Atoms of our happiness fell in on one another like gears turning at the heart of the universe. When stars came out at noon, the meadow of my hollow hand was filled up with strange light. How can it be now that we are two separate islands in an ocean of blue water? I think of my own mother long ago, sitting on her porch with me. That distant island. When my daughter sits on her porch this summer, holding her own child I will watch her from my island. I will call to her over the blue water.
Since time flies one way like an arrow, the sugar can’t be stirred out of your oatmeal and no matter how long the murderer sobs on the median strip—sorry!—he can’t reverse his swerve, cannot rescind his drink
before the crash. Like him, was Jesus heartsick to find history’s not a zipper running both ways? He who loved eternity—its roominess, its reversibility—as he grew up, did he have to learn he never could unsay a thing
he’d said? And yet today, like all Good Fridays, He hangs on the cross again. On altars he hangs. On necklaces. His death is like an x that rides the wheels of time to come again in ritual, that miniature eternity, that spring
re-sprung. Dear God, there in your big eternity, remember that your hands and feet can never be unscarred again. Hear these words spoken by a body that suffers, by a tongue that will stiffen soon and be gone.
Have mercy on us who love time. May this prayer be a tire that rolls over every inch of the way to find You. May it be a bell which can never be unrung.
Chariot from Hades, fire glinting from its windshield, steel knife splitting the atom to pull in front of me, so close now I can see the driver, her phone, can hear death ring. Searching for a place to get away, I swerve into a corridor of hate, detesting her, my body fired with full throttle hatred, I rev up, speed ahead, so close now I can see her her mouth a frightened grimace. How exposed she is, wearing only the flimsy dress of a car, her brief face etched and dying on the air, when someone calls, Bless this child. May her parents see her alive tonight, speaking through me, a voice, then peace, as she passes safely by.
Going down the list: after against among around, I think how trivial they are, how low their self-esteem, how like safety pins they merely connect. Prepositions are the paid help we’re not allowed to talk to, the maids in black uniforms who pass hors d’oeuvres at parties. Or rather, if we could laugh together, they would be the forbidden joy leaping like sparks between us. Who can survive without connection? All winter, green waits for the sun to wake it from its nap and so we say sunlight lies on the grass. Even the simplest jar connects—jar under moonlight, on counter, jar in water. Imagine prepositions in the Valley of Dry Bones stitching the femur to the heel, the heel to the foot bone. And afterwards, they got up to dance. Between, beside, within may yet keep the chins and breasts from tumbling off Picasso’s women. If I could, I would make prepositions the stars of a book, like the luminary traveling the navy sky the night sweet Jesus lay in his cradle, pulling the nameless, devious kings toward Bethlehem, and us behind them,
Not that you couldn’t reach Him if you tried (maybe you couldn’t) but that you no longer try. Your last real prayer? In a plane, beseeching Him, don’t let me die. How actual He seems at 30 thousand feet, how passionately you love Him in your hope for solid ground. Not unlike that day you first felt Him ripping through your heart, you driving fast, believing you’d foiled gravity, dendrites of rain flowing up your windshield, the sting of joy like spearmint in your mouth, and now how improbable He seems. That Whoever made the stars would even notice. You! A word in His mouth? And yet you miss Him. If it could be true! You think of trying to reach Him, tell Him you’ve reconsidered.
This morning shows up at my bedside like a mother holding a glass of water, so I say thank you, glancing out the window at the tiny farmhouse flung into the lap of emerald hills below, and feel the sweetness sleep has brought, such sweetness I feel I could pen a volume on the history of sugar, and make readers love it. I am giddy with the lack of war, of pain, amazed at the silent terrible wonder of my health. So I make a rosary of the room, I pray the bedpost, the window panes. I put our children on two doorknobs, our sick friends on chair rungs. Like the aperture of a camera, the morning opens and keeps on opening till the room is filled with rosy light and I could believe anything, that my ancient mother may still get well and thrive, that later when someone robs the bank, all the tellers may survive.