After James Schuyler
I heard a rooster crow three times this morning.
What does it mean, whom have I betrayed?
Each day I walk toward something with a shore,
or else, with a clearing. Humans use trees
to surround their emptiness, their viscous need
for each other. I think I may still be a human.
In the forest, no tree will ever accuse me
of being myself. Am I not desperate enough?
The young dogwood, whose blossoms are
as large as my palm, doesn’t answer. I cradle
a fallen petal—it weighs less than all those
minuscule angels dancing on the head of a pin.
The dogwood gets busy with the bees and
ignores the wind, its long whistle, its hurried
impatience. The wind comes from places
where it’s still cold, perhaps the mountains
across the lake, perhaps the North Pole.
At the North Pole, despair must be white.
Do polar bears ever get dispirited? This is one
bleak human thought that doesn’t do me
any good. Humans delude themselves
with impossible tasks on a daily basis. Clearly,
I am still a human. In fairy tales, the adults
are always the weaklings or the monsters.
The wind tears at the dogwood’s bridal veil
like a groom kept at bay far too long. Even here,
in this budded and bee-buzzed forest, despair
is white. Patterns, designs, constellations.
I see too much, then, for a long time, don’t.
The forest’s voice, liquid green, lights up a flame.
It’s starting to rain. I walk down to the river
to watch it get high with water from the sky.
The riverbed is an open vein, its bloodstream
so low, all the fish must be dead. I used to cry
for the dead fish my father brought home.
Now, I must steel myself to get through the day.
But not here, where the stones speak of stillness
with moss. The pebbles, of movement, with glint.
The shrouded sun, with a slant of light—
a blade that carves only air. Unlike the blades
humans wield to take someone’s life. Even I,
who barely resemble a human, have done it.
How many times must we kill and go unpunished?
We are already paying for it with our air.
What made us has found a way to stifle
our intake, human eyes emulating the terror
a fish must feel when we pick it up by the gills,
lay it open on the cutting board, look into
that limpid eye as it grows opaque by the minute
and feel nothing. The truth is, humans cannot
run away from themselves. This tells me I am,
at least partially, human. As much as I like
to sit in a dark, quiet room with the sounds of rain
trickling in my ear, I have yet to abandon
loud, invasive worm-thoughts behind. I have
already tried the mythical wide-open spaces:
forlorn mountain trails, winter beaches,
the sprawling plazas of all those big cities
I passed through in my youth. Now I’m here,
in this rain-blurred forest, among weeping trees
I love better than myself—and here, truth
is less than a dream. The rooster was right.
I have betrayed someone, I must do so again.
Must take the human child I’ve always been
by the hand. Point her toward the gleaming,
leaf-clogged heart of the thicket. Promise
a gingerbread house. And watch her go.
Fear emerges from her habitat on the back of a giant purpose. Fear is busy, she has righteous work to do. Her blood-red pen is ready to sign a nonaggression pact with death. Fear and Death have been in touch. They’ve decided to live in a symbiotic relationship, as in, where Death ends, Fear begins. Death arrives on a bicycle, hair greasy with sweat, the smell of a freshly dug grave on her breath. Fear and Death divide the map of all maps. The map of earthquakes and tsunamis. The map of famine, illness, and war, but also of sunsets and strange bumps in the night. Of things that don’t end well if you think about them too long. Of things that don’t end well no matter whether you think about them. Like invasive species and insect extinction. Volcano eruptions, tornadoes, lightning strikes. The plague, excuse me, the plagues. Neighbors who smoke on their balconies or curse out loud when you’re trying to sleep. You take this, I take that, says Fear. We both go home happy. Where’s home, asks Death. (Death is homeless.) Huh, I didn’t know that, says Fear. Fear has multiple homes, she can live wherever she wants, in whomever she wants. She travels at the speed of thought, inhabits in a split second. Death takes longer—lifetimes, in fact. She likes to announce herself. To be courted. To be given the best possible accommodations. After all, she inhabits that single moment in time when soul and body go their separate ways. She lives on the threshold. When Death waxes poetic, she always mentions the threshold. How it carries so much baggage. How no one can take their baggage beyond the threshold, so they leave it there to rot. And that’s where I live, in a dump, says Death. Fear sucks her teeth. She’s not much for compassion. It messes with her digestive system, prevents her from doing her job. Imagine not having a bed, Death laments. Never getting enough sleep. I can only lie down for a wink, a blink, a sneeze, and I must walk toward that sneeze my whole life. I mean, their whole life. You know what I mean. Fear rolls her eyes. Fear rolls her eyes so hard, they are now facing the back of her skull. Death is so dramatic. It’s understandable, given all that doom and gloom, but still. Have you ever thought of retirement, asks Fear. Her eyes have little cryptocurrency signs in them. Fear has a vivid imagination. She sees herself for an instant as the mistress of the universe, inhabiting bodies forever without losing them to this morbid partner. Can’t say that I have, drawls Death, what about you. Death’s eyes have little cryptocurrency signs in them. Death has an even more vivid imagination, she is almost a poet. A sleepless, overworked scribe, the mother of oblivion. What wouldn’t she give to become Fear, to be able to stretch her tired bones inside someone’s body without having to usher them into the beyond. Oh the thrill of that possible life! And quite within reach. All I have to do is squeeze the life out of Fear, thinks Death. All I have to do is kill Death, thinks Fear. Fear, fear Death. Death, fear Fear. Reader, don’t ask me who won. Wake up, smell the stench of immortally entangled Death and Fear. They are still at it, my friend. They are coming. They are here.
Originally from Chisinau, Moldova, Romana Iorga lives in Switzerland. She is the author of two poetry collections in Romanian. Her work in English has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals, including New England Review, Rust + Moth, Tupelo Quarterly, as well as on her poetry blog at clayandbranches.com.
Image: The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Nuremberg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel, wikipedia.org