Doesn’t everybody get a strange life?
Don’t we all get to walk around
inside ourselves all day long
and sleep there through the whole night?
Don’t we all have permanent access
to the magnum and the minimum opus,
the rising up and the sinking down?
Aren’t we granted the right
to refrain from occupying
more than one place at a time,
from sharing the portable spaces we inhabit,
from being in the least interchangeable?
Doesn’t it take all of our courage
to be this but not that?—
no matter how incremental the distinctions
in this world where even the smallest entity
is epic to itself and objects go precisely
to their own edges and then stop,
or at least hesitate.
Don’t we get all the ocean
and the idea of the ocean—
diffusion, resistance, and support—
along with those in-your-face heavens
of exponential blue,
cumuli performing their high-wire act
as the wind releases its flayed
and flaming exhalations?
And consecutive failures,
each more luminous than the last?
Don’t we get to drink deeply
of the sun and grief and night
and other voluminous bodies?
And there is all this topiary profusion.
And there are things that are discrete,
things that overlap, things that can be
left to themselves, and things requiring
intermittent maintenance and repair.
There are things which once released
from their containers will never fit back in.
There are things we’ve torn apart
with our bare hands—
a few of them are even visible
here where it’s been arranged for us
to be asynchronously lonely while
we tingle with the temporal heebie-jeebies,
as though preparing to lift off
with wings sutured together from
the mangled remains of defective feathers.
Up comes a small wind,
and the temperature begins to drop.
O bright wound of existence,
so feral and ferociously shy,
first wonder of the unseen world,
are you God, or just
some kind of emissary?
How chagrined we find ourselves
that we couldn’t have made you up!—
nor water, whose work
is to taste like nothing,
nor air, whose work
is to look like nothing,
nor fire, whose work
is to billow in the bloodstream,
even as it burns.
The second wonder is that certain spaces
are larger on the inside than on the outside.
To this the works of Hieronymus Bosch attest
with excruciating lucidity.
Fortunately, there is nearly always an exit
or, inversely, an entrance—
consider Saint Anthony
whose desert was honeycombed
with caverns like a sponge.
He traced his own path backward,
arriving at an identical opening
on the opposite side of the mountain
he’d tunneled through all night.
Lifting his hands to the sun,
he saw that they were encrusted
with what might have been snow,
but resolved into tiny white shells
dropping from his stiff fingers
as he flexed them one by one.
Then it was the voice of the ocean
he’d heard in the darkness—
the voice, or the mountain’s
memory of the voice.
That’s when the fine mesh
of the net encompassing the heart
became the branching capillaries
of his own eyes,
and his tears found their way out
between the delicate knots,
for he had reached that place in the body
where salt flows out
from a point so infinitesimal
you can find it only
by diving through.
The third wonder
is the boredom of children,
which can most accurately be compared
to a great linen tablecloth
borne in the beaks of four cranes
patiently circling the earth’s skies,
seeking the one place
where they can lay it down.
They may never lay it down.
Thus, regarding the boredom of children,
there is nothing more to be said.
Interlude in the Manner of a Digression
Evaporation occurs on the threshold
between the visible and invisible.
Thus, it can be listed
but not assigned a number.
Evaporation means God spares us
the burden of drying off the world,
the misery of water
with no natural place to go,
a life weighed down by permanently
saturated towels and soggy dishcloths
beneath a scalding sky.
True, Noah learned fear
at the sight of those
heaped up, heaving tides,
but it wasn’t till he beheld
the waves drawn back,
steam rising in columns
from the glistening soil
that he suffered his first
The fourth wonder is the act of falling.
If it were possible to map a fall,
we would see that like reverse déjà vu,
a fall occurs in the mind
one iota of an instant
before it manifests in the body
The mental fall is the bride;
the physical fall is the verger
sweeping up the rice.
The fifth wonder is rumor and gossip;
third-hand testimony; a voice
navigating the turns
of a tale by intimate landmarks;
anecdotal evidence, all we get to keep;
snatches of narrative floating free
long after the speaker is forgotten.
The heiress who, hoping for a better man,
left her husband, and then, a year later,
in remorse, gave him the fortune
he married someone else with.
And the graduate student who accepted the offer
of fifty-thousand dollars if he’d just take
this free ticket to Mexico, spend the night
in a hotel (all expenses paid!),
fly home the next day.
We salute people who speak
with ghosts and extraterrestrials.
We honor conversions, deconversions,
everything people undergo in those places
they call their lives, not quite inaccessible
in parallel time, as though the little stories
are coalescing or the one big story is breaking down.
We trust how some almost-smothered part of us
imagines such reversals that even now
we can take ourselves by surprise.
If the air is all happening at once,
it finds no need to hurry;
if it occurs in tiny spherules
it knows leisure
but no reason for delay.
Break a breath down
to the smallest weather,
and it’s still a saga,
flesh’s first epiphany,
whose inner lining
is stitched with flame.
Wave-like, it recedes and surges,
adoring all its habitations
with equal ardor in infinite exchange:
hello Attila, hello Jeanne d’Arc,
hello cat-sized horses galloping
through forests of gigantic primeval ferns—
breath transmuting into breath
in ecstasies of iteration
And into the future it bears us
like packs of sled dogs
through our sleep.
Holes are falling
through the universe,
passing through the sieve
for invisible things
which is itself invisible,
so we can never know
how fine the mesh is,
how close the weave.
Midwifing our arrivals
at their incorporeal city,
the dead are courteous
in that clinical way.
Here comes the next peak, they say,
Try to relax—knowing that we won’t,
even though won’t in the end
will spare us nothing.
Still, they don’t chide,
remembering that we’ve had
no practice, that for each of us,
it’s always the first time.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.