“The unsayable builds a secret room in the best poems.” – Donald Hall
I sit on my stoop, my book of myths—a high school textbook
coated in spilt apple juice—lying in my satchel.
Looking at the mysterious bay window overhead,
I eat a pomegranate sold by a vendor passing by
and wonder what the unsayable would say about
the man who fell from heaven with scorched wings,
what the unsayable would say about the woman
who turned soldiers into swine—
those mythological figures of hubris I’ve read
about in school. The unsayable stands
in many poems, even this one, half-hidden at its bay window.
It doesn’t even answer the door when I stop by.
That’s to be expected, my teacher insisted. The unsayable
becomes each room it inhabits, like a grizzly bear
becoming its bellow. Besides, the unsayable wants
to be felt more than understood—to be fog
whose tears can be felt years after they evaporate.
Maybe that’s why the unsayable barely
shows its face, a glimpse of its peplos barely
visible, its fingerprints sparkling on the window
like shadowy logs under moonlit ripples.
I must learn to love its reverberating silence,
my teacher told me. It lives in many forms, living
in objects whose meanings I’m invited
to figure out for myself, such as the unmatched
baby booties a poet wrote about ten years ago,
or the peacock feathers in cast-iron cooking pots
a poet wrote about like laughter I can’t place.
Even when I don’t see the unsayable, I can hear
it shuffling in the back of poems my teacher
tells me to read, its shadow chuckling or sobbing
across every tributary of white space on the page.
But where does the unsayable come from? I once asked.
Well, my teacher began, it can spring from anywhere—
from aluminum trashcans heaved along the curb, for instance.
Or under sycamores and maples, where lanky men
sometimes strum guitars to gather crowds, to make money.
Or in small discount stores whose treasures appear
in poems you already read, such as that one poem with saucers
with missing teacups: a villanelle about a woman who
slaps her daughter for no reason, the unsayable silent in the eyes
of the child. Or, I recall, that one poem with orange
liquor labels: a pantoum about a poet’s first time at AA,
the unsayable sitting behind her, its hand on her shoulder.
Even though I want to know more about the unsayable,
I leave it alone as much as I can, waving at
it whenever I head out for school. Now it’s not
at its window, but I still feel its gaze washing over me
as I rise to head back inside for lunch, the smell
of fresh strawberries stepping out of my kitchen window,
reminding me of a poem I read for school last night:
a sonnet about a cloaked ghost wandering down
a strawberry patch while the unsayable peeks out from the clouds.
THE SHIT I THOUGHT TO COMFORT MYSELF
You don’t have to carry the weight
of a river on your head, I thought
when I fell onto the kitchen floor,
tears dripping down my chin
as I remembered Grandma Dee,
a woman I barely knew,
but knew enough to love—
struck by a truck in a hospital crosswalk
the day her doctor told her,
You’re in remission.
But who put the river on my head
in the first place?
You don’t have to walk on a bed of nails
for just a glass of water, I thought
when she was lowered into the ground.
But what if I’m parched, dying, desperate
for relief in the Iowa heat,
made more unbearable without her?
You don’t have to answer your own echo, I thought
after I visited her grave yet again,
after the helicopter retrieved her body,
after she cooked spaghetti for us grandchildren,
after she abandoned her dream to be a teacher
so that she could marry the man she loved.
But what if she speaks through my echo
and I’m not there to talk to her?
I don’t know when the river on my head will dry,
when the bed of nails will flatten,
when my echo will say more than I can.
I try to find comfort when I walk among
these sun-scorched trees in her graveyard,
shadows clinging to my shoulders, twilight
looming toward me with skeletal red talons.
THE POET IMAGINES HIMSELF AS A DYING MAN WALKING THROUGH THE GRAVEYARD
GRANDMA DEE WAS BURIED IN
I breathe cigar smoke into the gnarled arms
of a naked maple, my beard a bundle of coal,
tobacco caught on my lips like a fishhook.
A passing hearse shatters sleet on a road snaking
among stones carved with Marys, Henrys,
Samuels, and Berthas. Snaking by
fishflies floating, dead, in fountains of rainwater.
Snaking around a church, its pillars
and stonework coated in poison ivy.
Reader, I’m here to hear the mockingbird’s call
reflected in fading gardenia blossoms.
I’m here to touch statues of Mother Mary,
her stony eyes trained on darkening daylight.
I’m here to imagine the child I wish I had,
the tiger lilies I wish I planted,
the walks I wish I took along the Dubuque Riverwalk,
sun-slashed air still smelling of Dee’s
spaghetti sauce, shiny once, unobtainable now.
While the setting sun clutches clumps of ice
on wrought iron spires, like fingers
black as frostbite below thunderheads,
I wonder, Did I live? Did I dare to live with a pen
in hand, sowing words of sorrow, sowing
my heartbeat across rows of notebook paper?
From the nearby convent, I hear a radio playing
a sonata composed by an unknown Sister
who died years ago, perhaps buried here,
in a gravesite covered with cherry blossom petals
that’ll rain, windswept, across my loafers,
past rows of white memorial crosses.
Did you live? ask the hills of grass and rot.
Did you breathe life through the wings
of swifts swooping? Melt the frozen moon
with a sigh? Lasso the sun with a smirk? Reader,
have you opened your mind to comets hurling
through our cosmos of ice and stardust . . . ?