There is smoke rising from the small valley
where terrible things are burning—rafts of hard wheat,
rooftop shingles, the dress you wore
for a hundred yesterdays, crisp on the washline
and twice as golden,
a thousand arrogant indecisions
that didn’t lead you to flee
are torched and dampened with dew.
The prayers you whispered at daybreak and nightfall
are coals ripe as berries beneath your feet
and all of your letters and your book of poems
are blossoming their magnificent ash on the wind.
Now three black plums wither in your pockets
like old rocks. The river of dancing carp
you used to cross to watch the stars
is a stuttering puddle of stones.
The willow where you lay as a child
sleeping beneath clouds is spent with flame
and now you and your only hanky
are frozen beneath its dry black flint.
Take this map and run into the silver forest
through the scree until all you can hear
is the lap of water clean as light.
Bend yourself into a canoe
and slip into the sea
with no more than the sound of one pebble
or the tip of a curlew’s wing on the wave.
Practice tying your one blanket into a snare
or a noose in case you have to meet land again.
If you must sing, do so in silence,
so the ancient songs awaken only you.
The sky will collect you sooner
than the smoke clears from the village;
gathering you by tenderly reading
the fortune of your forgotten name.
At first there was only food and water
and maybe a little television on the off days.
We slammed the four walls thinking new kisses
and barstools, thinking pickup trucks and ginned texts,
thinking trap me in an elevator, thinking swallow me whole
to the first glancing stranger holding the highest bar
on the metro until his pecs heaved or her breasts winked
in the clacking haul between stops. Longing
jammed in jean pockets leaking its inky longing,
want crawling across the floor like a spent hooker,
words whispered to the kind of lovers
that thumbed rides on the backs
of our hearts. Of course in our other lives
there were palaces and there was greed
and there were troughs on the ground
full of cut black potatoes
and there were bruised ripe peaches
for fattening our delectable swine,
there were orchards always in blossom
and wine on the table
and small piles of quail bones
picked clean as blown eggs
and there were four-postered canopies
and a certain kind of fucking
and ways we learned to make ourselves laugh
by pulling our own hair in just the right way
but all of it was pleasantries because then we were lost
in terrible palindromes blinking the same kind of loneliness.
And so we called. We came to each other the way newborns
shimmy the mother’s tummy to find milk
before they know crawling will be invented.
And when it sprayed us for the first time
through the pinpricks found in nipples
and the black sheets of the universe,
then we could dream it, a thousand blades of grass
bent beneath us. How we’d missed it. How we knew
to hold it when we finally found it, wet and singing,
here where even the bowls of our elbows
were waiting. It has been so long, love.
Stay. Keep me close. Cover my eyes
until only our light escapes.
HEATHER ALTFIELD currently teaches Composition and Honors courses on Beauty at California State University, Chico. Her recent and forthcoming publications include poetry in Narrative Magazine, North American Review, Pleiades, Poetry Northwest, ZYZZYVA, Superstition Review, Rattle, The Squaw Valley Review, The New Guard, and others. She is a member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and is currently at work on a second book.