Pastoral, with terror
The most beautiful is the object which does not exist,
Zbigniew Herbert whispers as you pull your mother’s
first lost tooth from a low-lying cloud.
But you feel now that you need some other object that has already landed
unbound, within reach.
No comma makes a long enough pause,
and yet, here you are, stopping, starting,
swinging the searchlights at the ends of your hands.
But you are also bound to the land now. You are growing into the dirt.
How much earth can fill your mouth before you can’t breathe.
How long a year takes, or an afternoon.
And what you need is livestock to keep this pasture clean,
but it seems everything you have is up in the air.
Like your mother’s brass beaded necklace,
the one she wore even as her throat closed
around her voice box, her lullabies
becoming shadowy vowels, her thinning body:
clavicle in high relief.
Cancer, Herbert could have said instead, but he did not.
Instead, he sent you the study for you to find what would be beautiful
if only marked by its absence.
To sink uncontrollably:
this is the first lesson in swimming.
You must come to know
that only you can break the water,
even though your father must have stood
tall above the surface
as you plummeted into the pool,
the liner bright blue against his outline,
the tree limbs behind him
creating dark lines
near where he threw your dead kitten
over the fence.
Lord, that was a parade of bells,
a breakfast of smoke, wasn’t it?
(Distinguished faculty: rise now
& accept your knowledge of sinister reasoning.)
To flail. To move upward into the shallow-sip
of divinity. Grains of history rolled out of your
hair. Here then is a lesson, also: inhale any liquid
& know no net nor hand can reach you.
The pines behind your father: swimming, too,
in unison. A voice pouring into you
like something dead but still moving,
like something dead still making shadows.
Erin J. Mullikin is the author of the chapbooks, Strategies for the Bromidic (dancing girl press) and When You Approach Me at the Lake of Tomorrow (Slash Pine Press). Her work can be found in alice blue review, ILK, Best New Poets 2014, and elsewhere. She is a founding editor of NightBlock and Midnight City Books.