Two Poems, by Elizabeth Willis

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and what my species did

A woman who cries is not essential personnel. Salt water conducts her to the brink.

The first sign of illness is a dry mouth. My mouth has been dry for XXX days.

Endless as an ocean. Is. Is not.

That was the day I crossed the railroad to buy the fabric for your shirt. That was when I breathed in the open air and all our chambers.

That was the day the birds appeared from everywhere, cedar waxwings a few feet from my hand. I lived in their habitat. You shared my room. I made a delicious soup. It snowed.

Against the crooked imperfection of the word, this happened. We ate carelessly. I stitched this in the lining of your coat. Essential to whom. Essential to me.

It was not the same stream, it was not America, not the same America, not the same twice. Not the same again.

A hundred times, a hundred days, it was not the same. We crossed the tracks from 6 feet down with the ghost dogs and the deer. We floated off and returned.

This is how we sing as the ship goes down, said my species.

This is what my species said.

This is what we did until indifference left us. This is what we did when we were alive. We rationed what was left. It was Tuesday and then it was not.

This is how we thought in the sweet cool wake of what came next.

 

lying down in my species

One spring a large bird was beating and I was beneath it, in the kind of precarious air an actor breathes when playing a corpse so as not to appear too alive. I am trying not to play a corpse and I am trying not to trigger the pain for which I am no longer given opiates.

The space beneath the wing is vast and cool and welcoming. I can feel the easiest thing is to walk into its breeze, to rest under its great tent and lay my fever on a marble surface where I can finally lie weightless, wrapped in down and linen. The choice, as I see it, is to let go into this comfort or to find my way back into the mud. To maintain a curiosity more powerful than pain. To surrender to the experiment.

Lie down in the snow where someone will close your eyes for you, and cut off your rings, and trade them for passage.

On this side, I watch the clothes dry. I walk across the dew and wander in the law.

I’m looking to the book for a different clock. I’m tagging you here. You’re it.

I feel my mouth open and close. I write for pages what I believe to be an account of my suffering, my insights. But when I leave the hospital and am kicking every drug that flowed through me, I see that there are no words on the page at all, only lines, a kind of handwritten fringe against the ruled page.

I try to say her words. Water in one form or another. The shell as it dries. I’m stopped with my mother on a cloverleaf trying to read the map. She is younger than I am.

I wait for you to come to me in order not to kill your delicate bloom, I wait over here, in the cool.

The art of the irreversible is the art of dying. The yes or no of light against a screen.

You won’t get anywhere without a broken heart, said the heartbroken. A poem cannot unwrite itself into a tree. It can only be forgotten, thrown into the wind.

I am walking my hooves across the page on which I bleed out. The meadow into which all the stolen time has moved.

I wanted to live among you here, forever. This is what every poem says.

To watch the leaf unfold, left over right. To say this is my art. If I’m going to die. I am going to die. Let me do this first.

The crack uncurls. The rag is shaken and a letter falls out with your name on it.

The tunnel isn’t white. Your eyes aren’t used to it. God is vast and black and art.

 is the author of six books of poetry. She teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.



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