Alexander Long: “On Distance”
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
In memory of W. F., 1972-1995
I wish I couldn’t see
From this seat on a train
Stalled, heading north, eventually,
A skein of geese flying low
Over the Delaware
On this sleety Sunday morning
Now that you’re both
Wave and particle, past
Participle and pluperfect,
I won’t have to show you, B.,
How far we are from each other,
And why I might not reach you
Or space, and why
Geese in flight remind me
Of what we once were:
Oblivious and persistent.
This way, you decide
Whether this is the only love poem
I need to send.
Geese flying low
Over the Delaware,
For example, must understand
Better than either of us,
And seem to bother no one
Because they know
Where to go, and die
When no one’s looking.
But before they do, they lift into
Shapes only they can make,
And honk their desperate arias
Over an abandoned lot of mailboxes
Holding letters, maybe,
That never made it,
But once felt urgent enough to send.
Maybe you can make some sense now
Of how these tattered flags,
These white plastic bags draped
From dead maples surrounding
An unguarded lot are another failed attempt
A gesture of surrender,
A minor distraction
To me, to you, now.
And if you can’t, well,
There’s plenty of wind and ice
To go around.
The morning we couldn’t stop admiring
That rose bush facing west,
How it bowed in rain and grew
With light, and she—you named her
Grace, remember?—would smile
As her petals fell, a bit red,
A bit brown,
And as I watched you with Grace
I began to understand how nothing,
All that I can’t name,
Lures us, without us isn’t much, nudges us
To fall because what’s grace
without a fall?
Where’s the grace?
In some shriveled sage
And stubborn habaneros
And plum tomatoes keeping their flower
Closed as if blossoming would
Reveal something shameful—
Something shameful, was what you said—
And by the next fall, their vines sank,
And their leaves turned a brittle brown
That made the dust
I brushed with my thumb
From the spine of the copy of Lincoln’s letters
I was always carrying
I sensed then it would become a morning
I’d miss, and I knew then
I’d never understand why
I thought of Confederate soldiers—
Gaunt, brittle, young,
Presaging Ohrdruf, Dachau, Birkenau—
Forever sequestered behind the walls
Of Andersonville Prison
Planting magnolia and lilac
Into long rows of corpses,
And as a wind nearly stole my hat
I dropped the book into the dirt
And out spilled a dog-eared printout
Of Lewis Thornton Powell’s photograph,
Barely twenty-one, shackled in wrist irons
Aboard the USS Saugus a few days
Before his hanging for his role
In the attempt on William Seward’s life,
Lincoln’s right hand man, had he needed one.
No one’s a footnote, not even someone
As deranged as Powell, if that’s what
He was, if to lose one’s mind is to believe
In something so severely that….
That’s something I could never finish
For you, a slow burn of terror
Stoking the embers of grace until
A white flash of clarity bursts, a camera’s
Blast catching the cast-iron gaze
Of Powell, the distance in his eyes
Dwarfed only by the rooms
Spinning behind those eyes, rooms
With flames draping the windows slowly
Filling with family and friends, heroes
And lovers gathering,
And all of them throwing their arms
Around him, telling him all of those things
He desperately needed to hear
Too late, things that may have been truth
If only to Powell, and he mastered
Those things he never could learn,
—opera, astrophysics, carpentry—
Mastered them instantaneously,
And he grew bored with them
And with all those there to say goodbye.
They back, away, shift
Their admiration and affections
From him and toward themselves, repeat
The same gestures, the same words
Among themselves, and when he moves
Toward them, calls out to them, they look
Surprised, frightened, threatened,
Not having the slightest notion
Of who he might be or might have been.
This is why, in the photograph, his hands
In cast-irons blur, caught as they are
In a flurry of quiet panic as the flash bulb
Bursts behind his irises and his stare draws
Both you and me into them, into
The scores of rooms behind them,
And we stare at the flames draping
The windows until we become a window,
And in our solitude
Grow purer, stiller
Until our voices give way,
Our sight gives way,
And we stare through our blindness,
We speak to our lost
Voice that carries nowhere…. Remember
When we first glimpsed
The sky over West Philly
As something we could open
For each other,
Maybe you weren’t there that day, B.,
Maybe I never carried
A copy of Lincoln’s letters
Into a garden, maybe there never
Was any garden, never any photo
Of Lewis Thornton Powell
I’d found and folded and slipped
As a kind of poultice between pages
For words that have to face each other
For decades, maybe longer….
Maybe all along all
You’ve been trying to say is
Sit. There’s plenty of ice and wind to go around, but not now, not just yet. Sit. Look at all these generations of sparrows at the feeders, these swarms of lightning bugs drinking in the air of early summer, a mourning dove’s early morning coo, and your favorite, the geese! Sit. Look at how all of this takes forever. Let me take my life now and set it inside all of this fluttering and singing before we break apart again.
Before we break apart again
Into the sky’s shape at the end
Of Elmwood and Sharon Avenue
That resembles fire,
Its shape, which might be
The shape of the soul,
Into every damaged fiber of my lungs
That fills with surprise
Whenever I try to understand
Why you chose to go,
And fills with surprise
Whenever I fail to understand
How it never was a choice for you,
The shackles of light
And air and love.
You freed yourself
The way dust is punched
From a pillow and floats
Long past the eye’s endurance,
And inscribed yourself
Into an impossible line or two
In that story by Melville,
I would prefer not to.
I struggle to pick up
Of you that can’t exist now
Because you claimed, quietly and calmly,
That you never wanted
A birth, and gathered up suicide
Into your own two hands, breathed
Into it, and raised it
In your own likeness.
Am I supposed to believe
In afterlives diagrammed
In a grammar
That accepts suicide as a dialect,
Something like singing
Only the dead like you are permitted to hear?
It must be
That the soul is capable
Of shattering before the body is ready
To put itself back together,
That the voice
In those photographs I have of us
Has tried to replace
Everyone I love
Over and over.
I must need
To see our faces tilted a little
To the left in a fogged mirror
I’ve wiped clear
With soap and a towel
Just after a shower,
Before our day has begun.
I must want you to see us
Clearly and believe
Before we break apart again,
Such dreams, B.,
All these years
That shrink calendars
Into that Catholic school cliché
Until the end of time,
Which must be where you’ve gone.
Palm trees creak as you rise
From the hammock as the sun rises
Above the sea, and you walk into it
As if there was no other way.
There is no other way:
I dream you
Vanishing into what you believe,
Into a light we might all
Some light within a photo,
The one of you I can’t have.
Palm trees are in it, yes, and I’d like
Some music in the background,
Someone playing piano simply
But clearly, the graceful stumbling
Of Monk and the glacial glide
Of Peterson and the simple sleep of Chopin,
All three of them sitting
On benches you built
From stumps of maple and oak
Torn from the stubborn
Soil of our Sharon Hill.
I’m tuning three pianos on the beach,
And the six-toed cats are sleeping
A lazy arm’s length away,
And a cigarette is tattooing my lungs,
And the waves are lapping themselves,
And the quiet that’s drifting
Along the sky of my skull carries
Some geese’s distant lullaby that calms
All of this as you sleep a little more
Than a lazy arm’s length away.
The palm trees’ husks drop
In the shapes of loosely rolled scrolls,
Stubborn parchment, perfectly unprintable.
In your half-slumber
You point at Eternity
In our kindergarten class photo,
Mumbling here me, here me,
As a voice more mine than yours
Winds its way
Through the canals
Of my ears,
Gently, almost, reassuringly,
Almost, like a piano’s fading
Or the affection dust
Must have for air.
Maybe it was the sun that came out today
After a gray week
Of rain and wind and falling leaves.
Maybe it was what I caught
For the first time in Homer—Tell
me plainly how thou didst get sight of him—
And how I must have not allowed myself
To see that line
Because something in me—is that the soul?—
Was protecting me from you,
All the consequences
Budding like little thorns….
I couldn’t look away from that line,
Then from the sun, then that line again,
Despite the pain it brought,
A pain I’m letting happen, now,
Despite the luminous blur
I still see in my first memory:
I’m an infant in a car seat, squirming
And powerless and pure and open
To everything, and the sun hurts
As it warms me, and I cry
Because it’s the only voice I have, and…
Maybe whatever this it is
Is the soul trying
To make its way into this world
Where souls may or may not exist,
Where you may no longer exist.
It’s possible that souls are
It’s possible to fully believe
There’s nothing after all
But wouldn’t such an image,
Such a dream peel open
The cold clouds of Homer’s eyes?
And wouldn’t God, paring his nails,
Have to pause
At such a thought, having made it all so?
And if so, would He cringe or laugh
At our ruth
Genesis divines we’re made in God’s image, B.,
And Augustine was convinced he glimpsed God’s presence
Outside of Time.
Pound claims an image captures
An instance of time, which passes,
Unless, you might add—now
That you’re both wave and particle,
Past participle and pluperfect—
We are no longer….
The ellipsis is my humble offering,
A little triptych of loss
No smaller than God’s conscience,
No lighter than these ashes I’m flicking
From my third cigarette
This draft of this line
Of this poem I didn’t want to start,
That you’ll have to finish, and won’t
Because you’ve vanished
Into what you believe.
What an existence you’ve acquired.
Most mornings I find myself standing
In a darkened room or hallway.
For how long I can’t say.
Why remains unfinished, too.
Usually, the walls press themselves
Against me and beat
My blood through the canals
Of my veins,
Until every breath and every bone,
Every feather and every gill, leaf, blade
Of butchered grass and sickened cell
Feels perpetually in default.
Most mornings I give up
As no less fleeting than a pool
Of blood congealing
On a goose’s neck.
I know, that most seeing it
Wouldn’t give a goose and its syrupy blood
Much thought, let alone prayer,
Let alone poem.
That’s how it is.
I can’t remember exactly when,
For example, you killed yourself.
And how doesn’t matter, now.
It’s a daily thing
You hold against me now,
And hold me up to.
So, I hold on.
How does this sound:
The sky seemed clearer this morning.
It’s always been pressing itself
Upon my face, coursing through
My veins’ tiny canals, a muffled
Iambic echo, filling
With its almost endless requiem,
And even though everyone’s blood is a debt
Perpetually in default,
Today, I’m going to believe
Otherwise as a new month takes hold.
Today, I’m going to believe
That you’re finishing this
On this stalled train.
No lines today, none,
Anyway, worth sharing.
Nothing I can’t walk away from.
It’s Time that’s tripping me up.
I’d like to make every day a Wednesday,
Late October, 4:27 P. M.,
That’ll jerry-rig Time, throw a stick
In Its spokes, trip It up,
Slow It just enough
So I can slide you back
Into whatever year you want, where
Whatever Cervantes dreams
Styron dreams just as vividly and simultaneously,
And Coltrane can transpose Jung’s marginalia
Onto your forearm in notes above
Every register in a tempo that blasts
Through all the signatures of Time
Because that’s the work of the dream,
Especially the ones I keep making with you
Falling out of them and landing into them,
Sometimes in a field dotted by windmills
And a clearing with some geese,
Maybe six or seven of them, and fleets
Of gravestones keeping watch
Over the grass because that, too,
Is our work, keeping watch
And juggling, and tossing stones,
And whistling, and singing, quietly,
From time to time, but only to ourselves
Fort! Da! Fort! Da! Fort!
Only to ourselves.
And the geese will waddle into a line,
And one will honk, and another,
And one will begin to run as he honks
And another will follow
Flying gracefully away with their desperate arias
Hanging in the spaces
Where they used to be,
And all is as it is and shall ever be,
On a Wednesday,
The sun unspooling itself and the earth
Bluer than God’s blind iris, plucked
And placed inside Homer’s skull
So all the world might see
What’s been divined once Time—
God’s little glitch
Tripping up His bigger mix
Of things—floats by,
Resembling a circle of sky
And smelling of sliced oranges,
And pauses, or appears to pause, then turns
Into an expanse no larger than the space
Between my forefinger and thumb,
Which can be your forefinger and thumb,
The same vista and same slow drift
From any distance,
No matter how bored we may be,
Behind the first cloud that’s been blasted
Ten thousand times into the tens
And tens and tens of thousands of clouds
Longing to be whole again,
And maybe that’s why their shapes
Keep changing and why
They keep circling and circling,
A thousand fugues, B.,
Of snow swirling in the wake
Of a train….
I press my hand to this cold
Window. More geese are gliding by,
And I’ve lost count
How long this train has sat here
And I’ve begun to believe
It’s merely a chain made entirely
Of the anguish you refused to endure
A minute longer.
As if it were a child or a poem
With no ancestors, no history, no home.
You’ve pulled it off.
What an existence you’ve acquired.
Such dreams you’ve given me.
I press my hand to this cold
Window, which at this hour gives more
Light than I could ever have imagined.
We’re no different from these geese,
From the relentless spray of little splinters
Of frozen rain pelting their wings.
Alexander Long’s third book, Still Life, won the White Pine Press Poetry Prize in 2011. He’s also published two chapbooks, both prose/biography about Larry Levis: Lunch with Larry (2014) and The Widening Spell (2016), with Q Avenue Press. Other work appears in AGNI, The American Journal of Poetry, American Poetry Review, Blackbird, Callaloo, Miramar, New Letters, Southern Review, and Third Coast. An associate professor of English at John Jay College, CUNY, Long is at work on a literary biography of Larry Levis.