excerpt from “At the Sea Floor Exploration, Sarah Asks” – W.J. Herbert

Ghost fish, tail flapping
like a translucent scrap
of linen in the wind,
flag of surrender
with a spine inside,
eyes riding on slow
light through the deep
ocean’s darkness:

Do you know what my mother
was looking for? —

from “At the Sea Floor Exploration Exhibit, Sarah Asks”

“Diary [Underworld]” – Rachel Zucker

Only a mother could manufacture such a story:
the earth opened and pulled her down.

She shows my picture all over town
and worries the details of my molestation.

Terrified she screamed for mother. . .
but I did not scream.

She says it is like having an arm ripped
from her body. But think, Mother,

what it is to be an arm ripped from a body.
Bloody shoulder bulb, fingers twitching, useless.

Did she expect me to starve?
To wither away, mourning the tulip, primrose, crocus?

And if I have changed, so be it.
He did not choose me for my slim ankles or silken tresses.

She moans and tears her hair Unfair!
There was so much I longed to teach her.

Sad Mother, who thinks she knows so much–
teach the farmer to grow seed.

The fields await instruction.
 

 

 

 

 

 

From Eating in the Underworld. Copyright © 2003 Rachel Zucker.

“Diary [Underworld]” – Rachel Zucker

In him is a loneliness so complete he cannot feel it.
I grow to fit it.

         My hips, under his, give way.

Everywhere the air is thin with ghosts–they float
like mist across the edges of the eye, gone

when the head turns to acknowledge. Their courtesy
makes a path for me to pass, a cleaner atmosphere.

We are not just lovers,
but no one understands this.

My mother lies with Poseidon, Dionysus, Helios, Hermes
and is unchanged. I am

becoming something
other than I was.

         A consort. A Queen.

No more a maiden but still with maiden hands.
It’s true that I am less without him

         but when he sees me

all the gold of this world glows against the marble walls
and the veins of the deep stones blush with color.

His bones make a soft place for me on his granite bed.
His touch is the sweet glance of the past, but his laugh–

         he has always been expecting me.
 

 

 

 

 

From Eating in the Underworld. Copyright © 2003 Rachel Zucker.

“Spoiler” – Hala Alyan

Can you diagnose fear? The red tree blooming from uterus
to throat. It’s one long nerve, the doctor says. There’s a reason
breathing helps, the muscles slackening like a dead marriage.
Mine are simple things. Food poisoning in Paris. Hospital lobbies.
My husband laughing in another room. (The door closed.)
For days, I cradle my breast and worry the cyst like a bead.
There’s nothing to pray away. The tree loves her cutter.
The nightmares have stopped, I tell the doctor. I know why.
They stopped because I baptized them. This is how my mother
and I speak of dying–the thing you turn away by letting in.
I’m tired of April. It’s killed our matriarchs and, in the back yard,
I’ve planted an olive sapling in the wrong soil. There is a droopiness
to the branches that reminds me of my friend, the one who calls
to ask what’s the point, or the patients who come to me, swarmed
with misery and astonishment, their hearts like newborns after
the first needle. What now, they all want to know. What now.
I imagine it like a beach. There is a magnificent sand castle
that has taken years to build. A row of pink seashells for gables,
rooms of pebble and driftwood. This is your life. Then comes the affair,
nagging bloodwork, a freeway pileup. The tide moves in.
The water eats your work like a drove of wild birds. There is debris.
A tatter of sea grass and blood from where you scratched your own arm
trying to fight the current. It might not happen for a long time,
but one day you run your fingers through the sand again, scoop a fistful out,
and pat it into a new floor. You can believe in anything, so why not believe
this will last? The seashell rafter like eyes in the gloaming.
I’m here to tell you the tide will never stop coming in.
I’m here to tell you whatever you build will be ruined, so make it beautiful.

Published in the print edition of the New Yorker September 28, 2020, issue.

“Emergency Management” – Camille Rankine

The sun eats away at the earth, or the earth eats away
at itself and burning up,

I sip at punch.
So well practiced at this
living. I have a way of seeing

things as they are: it’s history
that’s done this to me.
It’s the year I’m told

my body will turn rotten,
my money talks but not enough,
I feel my body turn
against me.

Some days I want to spit
me out, the whole mess of me,
but mostly I am good

and quiet.
How much silence buys me

mercy, how much
silence covers all the lives it takes to make me.

In the event of every day and its newness
of disaster, find me sunning on the rooftop, please
don’t ask anything of me.

If I could be anything
I would be the wind,

if I could be nothing
I would be.

“The Dalliance of Eagles” – Walt Whitman

Skirting the river road, (my forenoon walk, my rest,)
Skyward in air a sudden muffled sound, the dalliance of the eagles,
The rushing amorous contact high in space together,
The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel,
Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling,
In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling,
Till o’er the river pois’d, the twain yet one, a moment’s lull,
A motionless still balance in the air, then parting, talons loosing,
Upward again on slow-firm pinions slanting, their separate diverse flight,
She hers, he his, pursuing.


*Whitman himself had never seen the mating of eagles but wrote the poem – with much reworking – from a description given him by the naturalist John Burroughs.

 

“Diary [The First Seed]” – Rachel Zucker

He gives me the wedding band of the real world
a story with pockets and mirrors

woos me with music that could kill insects
its frequency

reveals men in the distance forging the bridge
between nether and either

when night sets, the stones return to the earth

and in the morning, work again:
swimming through chaos to find the world

 

 

 

 

From Eating in the Underworld. Copyright © 2003 Rachel Zucker.

“Anthracite” – Saeed Jones

A voice mistook for stone,
jagged black fist

thrown miles through space, through
doors of dark matter.

Heard you crack open the field’s skull
where you landed.

Halo of smoke ruined the sky
and you were a body now

naked and bruised in the cratered cotton.
Could have been a meteorite

except for those strip-mined eyes, each
a point of fossilized night.

Bringing water and a blanket,
I asked, “Which of your lives is this,

third or fifth?” Your answer, blues
a breeze to soak my clothes

in tears. With my palm pressed
to your lips, hush. When they hear

you, they will want you. Beware
of how they want you;

in this town everything born black
also burns.
 

From Prelude to Bruise. Copyright © 2014 Saeed Jones.

“Nothing Gold Can Stay” – Robert Frost

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

“Door in the Mountain” – Jean Valentine

Never ran this hard through the valley

never ate so many stars

 

I was carrying a dead deer

tied on to my neck and shoulders

 

deer legs hanging in front of me

heavy on my chest

 

People are not wanting

to let me in

 

Door in the mountain

let me in