You’re in Atlantic City, lying on the sand,
a nymph washed up on the beach, a 40s-era
Botticelli drained of color, your lips looking black
though I know they were red;
you’re posing with one pale dimpled knee on the birdbath,
trying to look vampy;
you’re sitting in a dress with stripes cinching to a v at your waist,
your hair coiffed just so,
a million hidden bobby pins nestling at your scalp,
which is shockingly bright against your dark hair.
You are bathing my father in the sink,
and you are both smiling real smiles with all of your real teeth.
There’s your husband with his hat at a rakish angle,
effortlessly suave, though I’m sure someone,
probably you, positioned the hat. I wonder how you all
stood to live in the thick of all that glamour.
You were a consummate artist,
you designed how you would be seen,
but it was not a screen, a facade,
the illusion encompassed the entire thing.
The position of your hand in an idle moment would pass scrutiny,
even the candlesticks were of the highest quality.
You pruned my grandfather like an arrangement,
and he quenched the cut ends with gin and quietly hated you
while he racked up awards for being the most excellent insurance salesman.
What you might have been had you had the option.
But my father said being a carpenter was lofty enough.
It was, after all, the paid occupation of Jesus.
Your one day of the week
Is now every day of the week.
Once, you held each of your tales
aloft, daring to expose yourself,
your sex a deadly sort of awning.
It was the kind of sex a man might
strap himself to a mast to avoid,
though his body would writhe
against rope, feeling your voice
composed of honey and salt.
And your strange beauty
bore disfigured progeny,
leaving you singular.
whore for a caffeine empire,
mystical allure traded for chemical
addiction, your terrifying womanliness
plastered over, your complexity
expressed in the fewest of lines,
White Lady to white lady holding
some weird stuff and wearing
a crown, maybe a mermaid.
Maybe like Hans Christian
Andersen filtered through
the candied substrate
of the year 1989.
I wanted to sew my shadow to the sole of my foot,
little beads of blood at the base of neat hemming stitches.
Not because I was afraid of separation.
I wanted this necessity.
I wanted something
strange and familiar.
I look down and it too is flicking a page,
a tangle of hair bobbing
just slightly in the air-conditioning.
I want to know you,
and I want you
to be unknowable.
I am the others [the pretty, cheaply-scented girls with neat, compact
calves, the gaunt boys with long, elegant fingers blunted with calluses].
I contain them I and strain to touch their separateness.
There is a knowledge
I can only get by brushing
your arm on accident.
It’s like we’re all reciting
the pledge of allegiance,
divisible like the moon,
like the face of the clock,
The meat of my heart
and the meat of your heart
can never meet.
They are plugs in closed systems
enclosed in closed systems
so that you cannot trace
their tracery, map their trajectories,
or monitor their levels
of order or entropy.
We are pressed together—
dried flowers, forgotten book.
We press for knowledge,
thinking we might know
of each other what
we cannot know
You may have thought of yourself
as of a piece with the possessions
you gathered, rather like the heron
flying with one twig wedged within
its commissure, and flying again,
the whole action becoming a map
of the gathering, a map superimposed
on a nest, each twig a record of place,
each ring within each twig a record
of arboreal growth. Your apartment
was just such a map, but when you died,
all of it, and you too, no longer belonged
to yourself—you all belonged to the state,
to the city that issued a parking ticket,
veined with creases bent in by the wind.
But now the debt represented is forfeit,
and your neighbors, once perturbed,
have put aside their vague disquiet
about the engine never roaring to life
with the great gusto of combustion.
Your apartment was just such a map,
but when you died, it evaded sense;
now, who could ever comprehend
the take-out boxes, months/years old,
careening in towers, or Real Mayonnaise
containers queuing up on the stove,
or how you might have chosen your tapes
[the criteria], or why you never ceased
buying long strands of Christmas lights,
or tire-pressure gauges or ironing boards,
or the piles of unopened greeting cards,
or the streaks of grease, cured like sap
and red as rust, that paint the pale faces
of your appliances, or the bathroom sink,
unusably full of full bottles of cleaner,
sitting like tributes on an altar, fetishes
containing the spirit of cleanliness?
You are given up, deposited like a small stone
on the wing of a mosquito. You drown in the wind
of its voyages until it nestles against something’s skin,
softly, no more perceptible than a lover’s strand of hair
and the warmth draws you, shedding your egg, down
into a hole created by the archaeologist of blood,
your burrow needing no burrowing. You latch in,
the bite soon becoming an articulated womb,
the space beneath becoming your hidden teat,
the mosquito’s hole a mouth through which you breathe.
You are miraculous, you can fashion a man
into a surrogate mother bearing his own lurid dream:
that he has no control over how he might be used,
that he, the inserter, can be instead the place of insertion.
When you are ready, when you’ve grown past the size
of a spotted egg and even your smallest move transmits
a sort of agony, you will bloom painlessly, bloodlessly,
ghost exiting, and the man will feel your absence
suddenly and want to see you, having missed the event,
your perverse birth that left a blossom of wilted skin.
He, like a person checking the contents of his handkerchief,
will want to see you because of your having once been
a part of his body.
“Now is the envy of all of the dead.”
They’ve tried to package essences:
worlds they’ve seen, words they’ve read,
the activities filling the middle absences.
“Someday, you have to not make a snake boy.”
Someday I will have to not do anything at all.
Someday I will be a red smear in the alloy
that will be the new Earth, a raw burning ball.
“We only appreciate the present when it is past”
even when we inhabit the now before it arrives,
it’s not the same as moving though, having amassed
the memories while knowing that the memories will die.