Weekend Poetry: The Channel Swimmer, and other poems
The Channel Swimmer
I know someone entering non-being in the worst way
With lesions & tumors & denial & that pain unknowable
Until you know. But the channel between fast-forward dying
& the rest of us—you can’t swim it this time of year
Or anytime, until it’s your turn & you get greased up
& spit in your goggles & ease your body into the wet shock
& push off, your love following in a rowboat beside,
Rowing through the grief chop & handing you energy bars
Them, like, Is that the best you can do, love, really?
You, the one not dying? Can’t you join me, or at least
Take turns being me? Just a fucking energy bar, really?
It’s unfair, & the rest of us stand like lawn ornaments
Back on shore, one arm up & waving. Then slip
Into our cars & drive home because, well—what else
Can we do? No one we know has seen that other coast.
The Romanian poet brought an icon of the Blessed Mother with her on the plane. She held it up, pointing Mary's face at the pilot’s cabin, then at the rear of the plane, then to either side. On the way to the restaurant she crossed herself every time our car passed a Catholic Church. I did not tell her that many were abandoned. At the reading she was charming—strong voiced, her poems full of wit and passionate invention. She loved America, she said, and had been trying to write a poem about every still functioning lighthouse in the United States. At this the audience smiled. During Q & A she spoke of her faith, simply, as if it were a natural activity of the body, like walking or breathing. I don't know what it's like in a Romanian literature department, but I was glad she was going back. Her country was poor, and though things had begun to improve, her husband was still out of work, unhappy now that she was the provider, the one with a job. And there were children . . . The family needed every dollar her poetry earned. She told me this in private, at drinks after the reading. When I handed her the check she hugged me and her body shook slightly. Then she boarded the plane, the icon once again tucked under her arm. The soul also can starve.
I think we
Which doesn’t mean I
Or—of course, separate, but do
Draw the line at
One damn minute!
Touch me like, like, like oh,
Little bit more
Up & down, less round
Don’t say it, it’s
Not a word
Yet, too much animal, less
Bound by piano string or
Tripod with teeth
Cantabile or say, I can
Or you can, love
Sketchy sky, your
Awnings, each you
In me surely
Logos by now, incorruptible
But mute, unsaid—
Animal we, this one
Inside the other, out
Loud: this I of us.
The Department Party
It seems obvious reverence is due somewhere,
Obvious even to the theorists balancing whiskeys
On their knees & waiting for someone to stack five words
On top of one another so they can knock
That tower down. But, here’s the thing—everyone’s face
Has gotten sensitive as a little girl who
Believes inside her a little boy shoots an AK-47
Into a mannequin stuffed with cotton & gender stereotypes.
I try to enter the conversation, but my pockets are empty
Of generalities, which is the preferred currency.
One has to step back from time & the theorists’
Circle to see clearly who or what is due
Reverence . . . But suddenly it’s neither the time
Nor place, because the new hire in International Ecology
Has touched bare skin below your shirt sleeve
& smiled, two incandescent drunk girl eyes
You haven’t seen the like of in thirty years, & you
Turn on a spout of words, even words
Locked behind your personal firewall. Yo, Romeo—
Time to put down the drink & take a taxi home.
Home? —It’s that address you labor to remember,
That house where you were not in charge of understanding,
Where you thirsted for milk & were given milk,
Hungered for honey & were given honey.
Where your second story window looked out
Over buzz-cut lawns & tons of children. If
You squint you can see yourself in a cab that stinks
Of worn vinyl & perfume. Better tell the driver to step on it—
Someone is whispering in your ear how little time
Is left, how you must, you must be home before dark.
- Jeffrey Skinner is a poet, playwright and essayist.
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