When people ask me what it’s like, I tell them imagine being born in a hospice that’s on fire. As my relatives melted, I stood on one leg, raised my arms, eyes shut, & thought: tree tree tree as death passed me—untouched. I didn’t know God saw in us a failed attempt at heaven. Didn’t know my eyes had three shades of white but only one image of my mother. She’s standing under an ancient pine, sad that her time on Earth is all she owns. Oh human, I’m not mad at you for winning but that you never wished for more. Lord of language, why didn’t you master No without forgetting Yes? Sure—we can make out, if you want, but I’m warning you it’s a lot. Sometimes I think gravity was like To be brutally honest . . . & then never stopped talking. I guess what I mean is that I ate the apple not because the man lied when he said I was born of his rib but because I wanted to fill myself with its hunger for the ground, where the bones of my people still dream of me. I bet the light on this page isn’t invented yet. I bet you never guessed that my ass was once a small-town wonder. That the triceratops went nuts when I danced. How once, after weeks of drought, I walked through my father’s laughter just to feel the rain. Oh wind-broke wanderer, widow of hope & ha-has, oh sister, dropped seed—help me. I was made to die but I’m here to stay.
We are shoveling snow, this man and I, our backs coming closer along the drive. It’s so quiet I can hear every flake on my coat. I used to cry in a genre no one read. What a joke, they said, on fire. There’s no money in it, son, they shouted, smoke leaking from their mouths. But ghosts say funny things when they’re family. This man and I, we take the weight of what will vanish anyway and move it aside, making room. There is so much room in a person there should be more of us in here. I wave to you, traveler, inches away but never visible from where I am. Are you warm where you are? Are you you where you are? Something will come of this. In one of the rooms in the house the man and I share, a loaf of rye is rising out of itself, growing lighter as it takes up more of the world. In humans, we call this Aging. In bread, we call it Progress. We’re in our thirties now and I rolled the dough just an hour ago, pushing my glasses up my nose with my flour-dusted palm as I read, reread, the hand-scrawled recipe given me by the man’s grandmother, the one who, fleeing Stalin, bought a ticket from Vilnius to Dresden without thinking it would stop, it so happened, in Auschwitz (it was a town after all), where she and her brother were asked to get off by soldiers who whispered, keep moving, keep moving like sons leading their mothers through wheat fields in the night. How she passed through huddled coats, how some were herded down barb-wired lanes. The smoke from our mouths rising as the man and I bend and lift, in silence, the morning clear as one inside a snow globe. For how can we know, with a house full of bread, that it’s hunger, not people, that survives? The man pours a bag of salt over the pavement. But from where I’m standing it looks like light is spilling out of him, like the ray of dusty sun that found his grandmother’s hands as she got back on the train, her brother at her side, smoke from the engine blown across the faces outside blurring into pine forests, warped pastures, empty houses with full rooms. The man clutches his stomach as if shot, and the light floods out of him, I mean you—because something must come of this. Poetry makes nothing happen, someone who is dead now said after a friend’s death. When the guard asked your grandmother if she was Jewish, she shook her head, half-lying, then took from her bag a roll, baked the night before, tucked it in the guard’s chest pocket. She didn’t look back as the train carried her, newly seventeen, toward where I now stand, on a Sunday in Florence, Massachusetts, squinting at her faded words: sift flour, then beat eggs until “happy-yellow.” The train will reach Dresden days before the sky is filled with firebombers. More smoke. A bullet in her brother under rubble, his name everywhere outside her like the snow falling on your face forty years later, on December 2, 1984, while your mother carries you, alive only three hours, the few steps to the mini-van where your grandmother, nearly sixty now, crowns your head with her brother’s name. Peter! she says, Peter! Peter! as if the dead could be called back from rubble into new, stunned bones. The snow has started up again, whitening the path as though nothing happened. Oh, to live like a bullet, to touch people with such purpose. To be born going one way, toward everything alive. To walk into the world you never asked for but then choose the room where your hunger ends—which part of war do we owe such knowledge? It’s warm in this house where we will die, you and I. Let the stanza be one room, then. Let it be big enough for everyone, even the ghosts rising now from this bread we tear open to see what we’ve made of each other. I know, we’ve been growing further apart, unhappy but half full. That clearing snow and baking bread will not save us. I know, too, as I reach across the table to brush the leftover ice from your beard, that it’s already water. It’s nothing you say, laughing for the first time in weeks. It’s really nothing. And I believe you. I shouldn’t, but I do.
It’s true I’m all talk & a French tuck but so what. Like the wind, I ride my own life. Neon light electric in the wet part of roadkill on the street where I grew up. I want to take care of our planet because I want a beautiful coffin. It’s true, I’m not a writer but a faucet underwater. When the flood comes I’ll raise my hand so they know who to shoot. The sky flashes. The sea yearns. I myself am hell. Everyone’s here. Sometimes I go to parties just to dangle my feet out of high windows, among people. The boy crying in his car at the end of his shift at McDonald’s on Easter Sunday. The way he wipes his eyes with his shirt as the big trucks blare from the interstate. My favorite kind of darkness is the one inside us, I want to tell him. And: I like the way your apron makes it look like you’re ready for war. I too am ready for war. Given another chance, I’d pick the life where I play the piano in a room with no roof. Broken keys, Bach sonata like footsteps fast down the stairs as my father chases my mother through New England’s endless leaves. Maybe music was always a stroke of night high in the lord -low oak. Maybe I saw a boy in a Nissan the size of a monster’s coffin crying in his black apron & knew I could never be straight. Maybe, like you, I was one of those people who loves the world most when I’m rock-bottom in my fast car going nowhere.
they treat me well here they don’t make me forget the world like you promised but oh well I’m back inside my head again where it’s safe cause I’m not there the xanax dissolves & I’m okay this bed no longer stranded the door coming closer now & I’m gonna dock some days I make it to the reading room they have one flew over the cuckoo’s nest can you believe it but hey I think I’m getting better though I learned in the courtyard yesterday I’m still afraid of butterflies how they move so much like a heart on fire I know it doesn’t make sense this pill a bone-shard of will unwilling me Peter I feel sorry for anyone who has to die despite the fact I was fifteen once but who knows I tell lies to keep from falling away from me you wouldn’t believe it a man in the back of a walgreens once said I can make you look like something true fuck he said oh fuck you’re so much like my little brother so I let him kiss me for nothing oh well childhood is only a cage that widens like this sunlight honest through the clinic window where a girl on methadone claps alone at a beige butterfly knocking its head up the beige wall Peter I’m wearing your sea-green socks to stay close I swear I’ll learn to swim when I’m out once & for all the body floats for a reason maybe we can swim right up to it grab on & kick us back to shore Peter I think I’m doing it right now finally maybe I’m winning even if it just looks like my fingers are shaking
The pen tip jabbed in my back, I feel the mark of progress.
I will not dance alone in the municipal graveyard at midnight, blasting sad songs on my phone, for nothing.
I promise you, I was here. I felt things that made death so large it was indistinguishable from air—and I went on destroying inside it like wind in a storm.
The way Lil Peep says I’ll be back in the mornin’ when you know how it ends.
The way I kept dancing when the song was over, because it freed me.
The way the streetlight blinks once, before waking up for its night shift, like we do.
The way we look up and whisper sorry to each other, the boy and I, when there’s teeth.
When there’s always teeth, on purpose.
When I threw myself into gravity and made it work. Ha.
I made it out by the skin of my griefs.
I used to be a fag now I’m lit. Ha.
Once, at a party set on a rooftop in Brooklyn for an “artsy vibe,” a young woman said, sipping her drink, You’re so lucky. You’re gay plus you get to write about war and stuff. I’m just white. [Pause.] I got nothing. [Laughter, glasses clinking.]
Unlike feelings, blood gets realer when you feel it.
Because everyone knows yellow pain, pressed into American letters, turns to gold.
Our sorrow Midas-touched. Napalm with a rainbow afterglow.
I’m trying to be real but it costs too much.
They say the Earth spins and that’s why we fall but everyone knows it’s the music.
It’s been proven difficult to dance to machine gun fire.
Still, my people made a rhythm this way. A way.
My people, so still, in the photographs, as corpses.
My failure was that I got used to it. I looked at us, mangled under the TIME photographer’s shadow, and stopped thinking, Get up, get up.
I saw the graveyard steam in the pinkish dawn and knew the dead were still breathing. Ha.
If they come for me, take me home take me out.
What if it wasn’t the crash that made me, but the debris?
What if it was meant this way: the mother, the lexicon, the line of cocaine on the mohawked boy’s collarbone in an East Village sublet in 2007?
What’s wrong with me, Doc? There must be a pill for this.
Too late—these words already shrapnel in your brain.
Impossible in high school, I am now the ultimate linebacker. I plow through the page, making a path for you, dear reader, going nowhere.
Because the fairy tales were right. You’ll need magic to make it out of here.
Long ago, in another life, on an Amtrak through Iowa, I saw, for a few blurred seconds, a man standing in the middle of a field of winter grass, hands at his side, back to me, all of him stopped there save for his hair scraped by low wind.
When the countryside resumed its wash of gray wheat, tractors, gutted barns, black sycamores in herdless pastures, I started to cry. I put my copy of Didion’s The White Album down and folded a new dark around my head.
The woman beside me stroked my back saying, in a Midwestern accent that wobbled with tenderness, Go on son. You get that out now. No shame in breakin’ open. You get that out and I’ll fetch us some tea. Which made me lose it even more.
She came back with Lipton in paper cups, her eyes nowhere blue and there. She was silent all the way to Missoula, where she got off and said, patting my knee, God is good. God is good.
I can say it was beautiful now, my harm, because it belonged to no one else.
To be a dam for damage. My shittiness will not enter the world, I thought, and quickly became my own hero.
Do you know how many hours I’ve wasted watching straight boys play video games?
Time is a mother.
Lest we forget, a morgue is also a community center.
In my language, the one I recall now only by closing my eyes, the word for love is Yeu.
And the word for weakness is Yếu.
How you say what you mean changes what you say.
Some call this prayer. I call it watch your mouth.
When they zipped my mother in a body bag I whispered: Rose, get out of there. Your plants are dying.
Enough is enough.
Body, doorway that you are, be more than what I’ll pass through.
Stillness. That’s what it was.
The man in the field in the red sweater, he was so still he became, somehow, more true, like a knife wound in a landscape painting.
Like him, I caved.
I caved and decided it will be joy from now on. Then everything opened. The lights blazed around me into a white weather
and I was lifted, wet and bloody, out of my mother, screaming
It’s been a long time since my body. Unbearable, I put it down on the earth the way my old man rolled dice. It’s been a long time since time. But I had weight back there. Had substance & sinew, damage you could see by looking between your hands & hearing blood. It was called reading, they told me, too late. But too late. I red. I made a killing in language & was surrounded by ghosts. I used my arsenal of defunct verbs & broke into a library of second chances, the E.R. Where they bandaged my head, even as the black words kept seeping through, like this. Back there, I couldn’t get the boys to look at me even in my best jean jacket. It was 2006 or 1865 or .327. What a time to be alive! they said, this time louder, more assault rifles. Did I tell you? I come from a people of sculptors whose masterpiece was rubble. We tried. Indecent, tongue-tied, bowl-cut & diabetic, I had a feeling. The floorboards creaked as I wept motionless by the rehab window. If words, as they claimed, had no weight in our world, why did we keep sinking, Doctor—I mean Lord—why did the water swallow our almost human hands as we sang? Like this.
brushing my teeth at 2 in the morning I say over my shoulder you guys you guys I’m serious what are we going to make of this mess my voice muffled with wintergreen foam what are we going to do now that it hurts when I look at those I love like you two you who have been through so much together the thick & thin the skin of it I’m proud of you both I say as the foam pinkens through my lips I’m told our blood is green but touches the world with endings my name a place where I’ve waited for collisions you guys are you listening I’m sorry for being useful only in language are you still with me I ask as I peer into the tub where I placed them gently down the two white rabbits I had found on harris st the way back from Emily’s where we watched American Dad! on her mom’s birthday her mom who would have been 56 this year we ate rocky road in bowls with blue tulips I’m too tired she said to be this happy & we laughed without moving our hands perhaps the rabbits are lovers or sisters sometimes it’s hard to tell sex from breathing earlier I had scooped them from the pavement they were crushed but only kinda one had a dented half-face the other’s back flattened like a courage sock I cradled them wetly in my sweatshirt but now the tub is a red world save for the silent island of fur flickering in my fugitive words guys just wait for me alright just wait a while longer you guys I swear I’ll take us home I’ll leave this place spotless when I’m done I say reaching back to my wisdom teeth forgetting it’s been 4 years since they were gone