Who mows the lawn. Who prunes the rangy rose.
Who whacks the weeds by the chain link with mafioso panache.
Who drinks the beer. Who has no questions. Who knots
a tie four-in-hand. Who washes the car. Who drives stick.
Who smoked but did not inhale. Who wears the drugstore cologne
his kid gave him. Who wakes up beside the same wife.
Who has no questions. Who parts his hair. Who has a bald patch.
Who plays golf. Who plays Call of Duty. Who plays
the stock market, responsibly. Who reads biographies
of generals. Who does not dream. Who climbed trees
as a boy. Who leaves his towel beside the hamper.
Who has never swum nude. Who knows cardinal directions.
Who sees the sun set without a sense of unease.
Who walks to the train. Who watches sports. Who reclines.
Who maintains a sense of calm. Who has a small, bad tattoo.
Who wears humorous socks. Who tells the tame, dirty joke.
Who reads the newspaper online. Who is politically unmoved.
Who had a job upon graduation. Who go-gets. Who has no questions.
Who shovels the walk. Who did not keep his letters
from his college sweetheart. Who had a college sweetheart.
Who called her “baby.” Who was sincere. Who did not ask
why she left him. Who does not climb trees. Who drinks one beer
at the end of the day. Who remembers meeting his wife and how young
she was then. Who does not question. Who kills the spider.
Who clips a dog with his car and keeps driving. Who adjusts the mirror.
Originally published by The New Yorker. November 13, 2017 Issue.
a woman precedes me up the long rope,
her dangling braids the color of rain.
maybe i should have had braids.
maybe i should have kept the body i started,
slim and possible as a boy’s bone.
maybe i should have wanted less.
maybe i should have ignored the bowl in me
burning to be filled.
maybe i should have wanted less.
the woman passes the notch in the rope
marked Sixty. i rise toward it, struggling,
hand over hungry hand.
i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
when i was sixteen and
twentysix and thirtysix
even thirtysix but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me
—Lucille Clifton (1936-2010)
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.“
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
Do you know what my mother
was looking for? —
—from “At the Sea Floor Exploration Exhibit, Sarah Asks”
Orwell says somewhere that no one ever writes the real story of their life.
The real story of a life is the story of its humiliations.
If I wrote that story now–
radioactive to the end of time —
people, I swear, your eyes would fall out, you couldn’t peel
the gloves fast enough
from your hands scorched by the firestorms of that shame.
Your poor hands. Your poor eyes
to see me weeping in my room
or boring the tall blonde to death.
Once I accused the innocent.
Once I bowed and prayed to the guilty.
I still wince at what I once said to the devastated widow.
And one October afternoon, under a locust tree
whose blackened pods were falling and making
illuminating patterns on the pathway,
I was seized by joy,
and someone saw me there,
and that was the worst of all,
lacerating and unforgettable.
90. Last night I wept in a way I haven’t wept for some time. I wept until I aged myself. I watched it happen in the mirror. I watched the lines arrive around my eyes like engraved sunbursts; it was like watching flowers open in time-lapse on a windowsill. the tears not only aged my face, they also changed its texture, turned the skin of my cheeks into putty. I recognized this was a rite of decadence, but I did not know how to stop it.
91. Blue-eye, archaic: “a blueness or dark circle around the eye, from weeping or other cause.”
92. Eventually I confess to a friend some details about my weeping–its intensity, its frequency. She says (kindly) that she thinks we sometimes weep in front of a mirror not to inflame self-pity, but because we want to feel witnessed in our despair. (Can a reflection be a witness? Can one pass oneself the sponge wet with vinegar from a reed?)
93. “At first glance, it seems strange to think that an innocuous, inborn behavior such as crying could be dysfunctional or symptomatic,” writes one clinical psychologist. But, this psychologist insists, we must face the fact that some crying is simply “maladaptive, dysfunctional, or immature.”
94. — Well then, it is as you please. This is the dysfunction talking. This is the disease talking. This is how much I miss you talking. This is the deepest blue, talking, talking, always talking to you.
95. But please don’t write again to tell me how you have woken up weeping. I already know how you are in love with your weeping.
A Letter from James Wright to Mary Oliver
July 10, 1965
Dear Miss Oliver:
I hardly expect that you will actually read this note, because the address on the envelope is incomplete. But I will go ahead and write it for my own sake. I have loved your poems for a long time, but until I found and read your book (Poems to a Brown Cricket, No Voyage an Other Poems), I hadn’t realized how much they had come to mean to me. It is an extraordinarily beautiful book that you’ve written, and it haunts me in some secretly desolated place in myself where I had not hoped to see anything green come alive ever again.
Am I correct in remembering that you once wrote to me? Or am I simply imagining things? I recall a dreadfully unhappy letter from you, which heartened me. At the time I was quite ill; and, before I could answer your letter, I lost it. I hope you will forgive me. I have lost so many things. So many.
Till the very end of this summer I will be staying with a couple of very old friends here in California. I don’t know why I tell you this. Of course, I am a liar. I know perfectly well why. If you should receive this note, and if you should find a moment, and if you should feel patience, I would be truly grateful to hear from you. I have been laboring heavily from time to time on a new book of my own. It has been pretty jagged and difficult going, and the example of your book has given me some of he encouragement which I sorely need.
Wherever you are, and whether or not you even read my words, thank you for writing your book.
Oh! Science! Everything has been revised. For the body and for the soul,–the viaticum,–there are medicine and philosophy,–old wives’ remedies and popular songs rearranged. And the pastimes of princes and games they proscribed! Geography, cosmography, mechanics, chemistry! . . .
Science, the new nobility! Progress. The world marches on! Why shouldn’t it turn?
On highroads on winter nights, without roof, without clothes, without bread, a voice gripped my frozen heart: “Weakness or strength: there you are, it’s strength. You do not know where you are going, nor why you are going; enter anywhere, reply to anything. They will no more kill you than if you were a corpse.” In the morning I had a look so lost, a face so dead, that perhaps those whom I met did not see me.
Out there, are they not honest souls that wish me well? . . . Come . . . I have a pillow over my mouth, they do not hear me, they are phantoms. Besides, no one ever thinks of others. Let no one come near me. I must smell scorched I’m sure.
I used to make him promise never to leave me. It was as vain as when I said to him: ‘I understand you.’
“Ah! I have never been jealous of him. He will not leave me, I believe. What would become of him? He knows nothing; he will never work. He wants to live a sleep walker…”