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.
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…”
If sleep is truce, as it is sometimes said,
a pure time for the mind to rest and heal,
why, when they suddenly wake you, do you feel
that they have stolen everything you had?
Why is it so sad to be awake at dawn?
It strips us of a gift so strange, so deep,
it can be remembered only in half-sleep,
moments of drowsiness that gild and adorn.
The waking mind with dreams, which may well be
but broken images of the night’s treasure,
a timeless world that has no name or measure
and breaks up in the mirrors of the day.
Who will you be tonight, in the dark thrall
of sleep, when you have slipped across its wall?
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.
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
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.
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.
Write any way you want to
In whatever style you please
Too much blood has gone under the bridge
To go on believing–I believe–
that only one road is right:
In poetry everything is permitted.
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
Some days I want to spit
me out, the whole mess of me,
but mostly I am good
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.
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.