CALLING FOR HELP
It’s a shame you can’t outlaw language
or license the users. Sometimes
you can choke on words. After dialing for help
you wheeze and pass out on the floor.
It happens as you read a letter
that unleashes volatile language into the air.
Help arrives; they break down the door,
administer oxygen until you breathe on your own,
astonished and grateful.
You stare in amazement at the passel
of nouns and verbs the med guys dislodge,
sharp ones, sweet ones, the barbed, the chewy.
Caught off guard, you get waylaid
by a phrase, slammed by a paragraph.
Once there was a woman overwrought
by a herd of adjectives, she became
a deep-sea diver, content in a soundless world
with its visible, palpable eels and stingrays.
Just remember, if you call for aid, the guys
will ask were the culprits your own words,
shoving and stampeding in their eagerness
to be known, or were they someone else’s,
which you swallowed whole.
You don’t always know, it happens that fast.
ABOUT THE POSTCARD ABOVE MY DESK
I’m sure it was meant to get me writing,
but I don’t think Mr. Samuel Beckett cares
if another word gets written. He makes me
want to break every pen in the house, put on
a hat, and walk. For years. Until my shoes
wear out, until everyone I know has died,
until the world is completely unrecognizable.
I didn’t give him this power. He took it word
by word. I tell him, Look at your funny ears,
your coat’s too big, your hair’s a wreck.
Some days I call him Sam, or Monsieur. Or to get
his goat, which someone’s got to do, Macushla,
the Irish for dear, but mostly it’s Beckett.
I like the coldness. And the echo of Peter
O’Toole bowing his head at the altar. Knowing
they’re coming to get him. Of course I could
remove the card, but this guy would haunt me
from any drawer or pocket. This character
thinks he runs the show. He stares down,
bemused, unmoved if I read a cheesy magazine
or go to the window to mourn the robin’s egg
crushed on the pavement. I tell him the sky
is blue, but what’s a sky to a guy in eternity.
Look at the world you left, old man. We’re here,
your lost children, listening for a sign.
AFTER THE ANCIENT MARINER IS GONE
About that poor wedding guest, what happens next?
Does he shrug and say, Oh, just some local nut
unraveling his yarn at me? Or, as if infected
with a disease—not terminal, but a nuisance—
it becomes his suffering; contaminated by that story—
not his story, though now it is—is he condemned
to find who will swallow every word? First tries,
his listeners slink away, so failure teaches him
how to milk the subjects, use his eyes to captivate
his quarry, use his voice to cage with hypnotically
orchestrated words, slipping so sharp-bladed
through the air, his listeners don’t know
what cut them, and he is thrilled to breathe,
for good, for the moment, no matter, free to look
for his other life, the one he left behind.
She’s headed for the Lighthouse, he is sunk
deep into Proust, she perfects the peach crumble,
he acquires an iPad, she dallies in Dalloway,
he’s thick with Marcel, weathering the storms
of Albertine, grieving for Swann. Zucchini’s a bust,
rotty from fog. Someone is shot across the street.
He pays his bills, tells her to count her pills, she
ignores her bills and pills. She gladly flails
the waters of Poldy and Stephen, he’s down home
with Siegfried, Mime, and that loud lady who’s,
oh God, taken over the house; someone else shot
around the corner, roses mewling from said fog,
door lock broken, faucets dripping, helicopters
wupwupping overhead, standing still in space,
small piece of the sky, late afternoon, meaning, yes—
another bad guy afoot. She wants Stephen to sober up,
find a place to call home. Crappy gardenia a goner,
sulked its five years. He’s thick with Shostakovich,
obsessed with recipes for cacio i pepe. She wants
Poldy and Molly to enjoy their years. She’s got
her Racing Form—ninth at Saratoga—the fave’s
a bust, hankers for the trail up to Winnemucca,
where she hauls her old body through the forest,
up the mountain, to the water, long as life allows.
TRANSIT OF MERCURY
That little-guy planet crossing the sun today,
invisible to the, what they call, naked eye,
so you get the apparatus to keep blindness
at bay, or better still, set loose your imagining
of what’s out there
hurtling through space,
though also through human time, while you
huddle on the BART train, your fellow peeps
loud, troubled, troubling—so many of us
are outliers—then trudging home, the cop car
edging along. Space-time,
Mr. Einstein, we’re working it out,
not always well, so back to you, Brother Mercury,
you spilled and poisonous magnificence
from the broken thermometer, teasing your way
through droplets of slinky meanderings,
but then here’s also to you,
dapper little god of messages, parlaying
your all into heritage and glory, you fast dude
on the medicine labels, with your winged feet
and hat, live on, small wonder, keep it going.
Cattails in Sheep Canyon
Flick sharply on the shells,
and the cottony insides come flying,
so much packed in, eager to be freed
from the casings, a gossamer filament cloud mass
of soft-spun seed stuff. There’s an explosion,
a quiet one, and what’s released—
slow-sifting, too fine for gathering,
but alive, most definitely alive.
Other things impinge—that one who died
by his own hand, the other who overdosed—
but with cattails, rattling in hot wind,
it’s impossible to not be present,
opening one, another—temporary midwife
at the willow marsh, Coyote Creek, north fork,
alone, in March, eastern San Diego County—
charged with sending this dream fluff
pouring aloft, as if it had all day,
which it does, to rise above cottonwood
and smoke tree—anonymous, precise,
finite—to float toward Mexico
or cross the mountains to Indio.
Pray it finds water to set down roots.
Helen Wickes is the author of four books of poetry: In Search of Landscape, Sixteen Rivers Press, 2007; Moon over Zabriskie and Dowser’s Apprentice, both from Glass Lyre Press, 2014; World as You Left It, Sixteen Rivers Press, 2015. All six poems published in this article are from an unpublished manuscript titled “Transit of Mercury”. She grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, has lived in Oakland, California for many years, and used to work as a psychotherapist. She is a member of Sixteen Rivers Press, which has recently released the anthology America, I Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience.
Cover image: Collage by Basseck Mankabu.