poemoftheweek poemoftheweek.com poemoftheweek.org poem of the week
Her eyes flared like torches. She couldn’t understand
how she’d struck me dumb. She couldn’t believe,
she said, how I could believe nothing, wouldn’t accept
that I would choose annihilation, death over life.
(That’s what she said: death over life. Said it was a choice.)
She told me her lord stood and knocked and waited
for me to open a door. It’s really a simple choice, she said.
Everlasting life or eternal death. Which one do you want?
Her eyes flared like torches carried by monks
or by villagers. Her words seemed to float
from her mouth, and her teeth were beautiful.
Isn’t that strange, that teeth can be beautiful?
Have you ever looked at a mouth and thought,
Those teeth are beautiful? Have you ever looked at a skull
and thought, Those teeth are beautiful? Have you ever thought
about the teeth of a crocodile tearing at the flesh
of an early mammal, crushing bones and flashing white
against primordial mud millennia before the first hominid?
Have you ever thought about all those years of silence?
I didn’t want to hurt her as she stood there waiting.
I wanted to say something that would please her,
but I couldn’t tell her she was right. She was not right.
She was neither right nor wrong, neither light
nor dark. She was neither angel nor demon, neither dove
nor asp. She was neither the one who could save me
nor the one who could damn me. She was neither
the pearl nor the meal, neither the fossil nor the fir.
She was neither judge nor gem, neither catechism
nor catacomb, neither breath nor body nor fire nor fear
nor yes nor no. She was neither nil nor love
in this half-life world, neither the bomb, nor the flash,
nor the wave that washes everything away.
Well? she said, nearly spitting, her eyes flaring still.
Which . . . one . . . do . . . you . . . want?
And my answer held there, like a flame,
in the deepening silence between us.
of severed cord
and flesh, lord of fever,
sweat, dementia, and meat cleaver,
lord of curtains set ablaze, of burning,
lord of tumors, of remission, of returning,
lord of time and time alone, lord of space and empty space,
lord without body, without soul, lord without feet or face,
lord of statistics, lord of bodies, lord of death,
lord of breathless hope, lord of hopeless breath,
O lord of every deafened ear,
I know you’ll never hear
in vacant air
Aphelion & Aphasia
July, Virginia, one hundred degrees.
A wall of wind has swept enormous trees
off the face of the earth, and a sick man
has killed twelve strangers in a theater,
and I’m supposed to craft an art from air—
make something here worth memory, worth speech—
and I just want to make a confession:
I can’t frame, form, or even find those words.
Syllables stutter in my silent head
while the distant sun spits its light at me
eight minutes, twenty-five seconds ago.
This morning I tried to articulate
a rough definition of poetry
to a table of strangers. I told them
essentially nothing. It was mostly
pauses, unfinished sentences, silence.
One evening during a broadcast bombing
of Baghdad in the nineties, my sister,
whose mind had not yet completely fallen
into madness, tried to describe for me
the sound of a tremendous explosion
I had missed while I was in the bathroom.
Boom! she said, and her eyes grew wide, her head
bobbed back a bit, and then she stared, confused,
at the blank space before her, as if stunned
by the percussive force of her own voice
or baffled by its inability
to make any meaning, to say it right.
Wow, I said, trying to offer comfort.
We’d each managed one simple syllable,
and that’s the only real conversation
I can recall over the void of years.
When I was leaving the family slowly,
my mother would call and ask, How are you?
I would say, Fine, and we would both listen
to the silence on the line, and I would
listen to the silence of my bedroom
in Greensboro after she had hung up
in Florence, would imagine the silence
of that house that I’d abandoned her to,
the silence she would sleep in and wake to.
In her last few years, she lost more and more
the ability to speak. Right, right, right
was almost all she could say in response
Mother, I can’t come home.
Right, right, right.
Mother, I won’t be coming
home ever again. I’m gone.
Right, right, right.
Mother, I wish it could have been different.
Right. It could have been. Right. It couldn’t have.
The last time I saw her in this world,
she’d been diagnosed with early stages
of Alzheimer’s. I sat at a table
with her and my father, not having seen
either for months. I remember nothing
of the conversation except for this:
her slow struggle to construct one sentence.
It’s only . . . going to get . . . worse.
Right, right, right.
Composers, painters, and sculptors waited
patiently as I tried to find the words.
But I was hearing the meter of words
unsaid, the silence between my attempts
feeling closer to poetry, to truth.
I looked beyond them and out the window
at the torn limbs that still littered the ground
after the great storm of two weeks before.
Dante’s suicides are denied the right
to speak, transformed into small trees that sway
in hell’s wind. They must be injured again
to gain a momentary voice. They speak
when Dante breaks their branches, and like most
of the souls in that inferno they use
their allotted time to express regret.
My voice felt as wrong as the distant sun
warming the earth when it’s farthest away
as I stammered about form, refinement
of the soul, the transformative power
of metaphor, and the necessity
of failure. I smiled and excused myself.
I walked outside amidst the fallen limbs
and listened hard to their silence, trying
to imagine the sound of the great wind
that passed two weeks before I’d arrived there,
feeling the heat of the far sun, knowing
it took eight minutes, twenty-five seconds
to reach me, knowing that what’s in the past
is unreachable now and all voices
will be quiet forever soon, fading
as they get farther and farther away.
- from Millennial Teeth
BIO: Dan Albergotti is the author of The Boatloads, (BOA Editions, 2008) which was selected by Edward Hirsch as the winner of the 2007 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, and Millennial Teeth (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), which was selected by Rodney Jones as the winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition in 2013. He is also the author of a limited-edition chapbook, The Use of the World, published by Unicorn Press in 2013. Albergotti's poems have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Five Points, Mid-American Review, The Southern Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and other journals. His first chapbook, Charon's Manifest, won the 2005 Randall Jarrell/Harperprints Chapbook Competition, and one of his poems was reprinted in Best New Poets 2005. His poem "Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale" won the 2005 Oneiros Press Poetry Broadside Contest and was printed in a limited letterpress edition in March 2007. He has been a scholar at the Sewanee and Bread Loaf writers' conferences and a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In spring 2008 his poem "What They're Doing" was selected for a Pushcart Prize. A graduate of the MFA program at UNC Greensboro and former poetry editor of The Greensboro Review, he founded the online journal Waccamaw at Coastal Carolina University, where he is Professor and Chair of the Department of English.