Poetry by Susanna Lang from Tracing the Lines
What has kept the world safe…[has]been memory.
But we forget, don’t we?
Not what happened, but the thickness of it.
The rough edges of the table
on the café terrace, moisture
beading on your glass. The way the woman
who would become your wife
kept pushing her hair off her forehead.
The sound of a cicada spinning to its death on the sidewalk,
a papery sound, like someone thumbing through a book.
Think of the man who returns
a year after the five-day war
in which his house was burned.
What’s left of it
still stands on the corner, so he can search
among the black and crumbled stones,
the splintered table legs, for the photo
he didn’t expect to find—
photo of a woman, her hair swept back
in a style no one wears anymore. He’d forgotten
that she used to wear her hair that way,
as he’s forgotten the stretched feel of his skin
in the heat of the flames he watched from across the street,
though he’d tell you that’s the one thing
he would remember forever.
I cannot tell if the day
is ending, or the world, or if
the secret of secrets is inside me again.
Written on the undersides of leaves, along their veins;
written on the thin sheet of water laid over stones in the creek;
laid down with the saxophone track on the album
Sonny named for those telegrams with the special
night rate, 50 words for the price of 10—
the news you waited all night to read, or the news
you dreaded each time you answered the door.
Written on the back of an envelope returned as undeliverable
and then folded and forgotten in a pocket, sent to the wash.
Nailed to the door, for you to find in the morning,
when you finally understand what woke you in the night
and what could come pounding at your door another night.
What he wrote in response, what she revised and copied herself,
what someone left in the mailboxes of those who would know
what to do with it, who would know to recopy what had been written
and pass it on, mailbox to mailbox through an unbroken series of nights:
I’ve written down the words that I’ve not dared to speak.
Left as a clue to the location of what was buried
decades ago, so that someone else can brush the light crumbly soil
from these bones, reconstructing what happened at the very end,
what was nearly disappeared.
…cries like dead letters sent
to dearest him that lives alas! away.
—Gerard Manley Hopkins
Marked Recipient Unknown—
the numbers reversed, or if the numbers were correct
the street was wrong, someone wrote West instead of North.
Sent to an address misheard, misunderstood,
impossible to imagine from the other side of the globe—
Sterite or Stiejt instead of Street.
Addressed but not delivered, not deliverable,
sent to the Dead Letter Office to be destroyed
after any items of value had been removed from the envelope,
the paper (smudged, edges crinkled, saturated with ink
and with the words someone had rehearsed
for days before committing to them) sold for scrap.
Addressed in a dead language, a language no one speaks anymore,
though a few remember hearing it spoken when they were young:
Apalachee, Galice dialect, Miami-Illinois, Nooksack,
or the Aka-Bo known only by an old woman in India
who died this year, who survived the tsunami in 2004
because she understood when the earth spoke to her
and so knew to climb a tree high above the floods.
Mailed to a son gone silent, his exact location unknown:
The lost are like this.
His last place of employment written carefully
on the outside of the envelope.
That letter did arrive at Number 4 Barrington Street
and the prodigal son wrote back to his mother,
a resurrection chronicled, with a great deal of satisfaction,
at the Dead and Revived Letter Office.
Tracing the Lines
There are lines you can trace like rivers in a geography,
those faint blue lines that wander back and forth across borders,
Dnister, “the close river,” and Dnieper, “the river on the far side,”
rising in one country and draining in another. The line
of my son’s jaw, so much like his uncle’s jaw, or his great grandfather
who died while my mother was still a child, who rarely enters her stories
but sits squarely before the camera in his wedding photo,
his wife’s hand resting on his shoulder, his jaw lifted in pride.
They left their river, a story told too often, to escape the soldiers—
not what you would expect to read in my son’s English
Dissenter blue eyes, legacy of another set of ancestors, another
line on the map. We do not come from mud, a caption
beneath the photo of a family bringing the long dead
out from their crypts, narrow bundles tied with strips of cloth,
raised up so they can dance and offer advice and join
in the feast before they are wrapped in new cloths
and returned: we come from these bodies. My son
comes from these bodies, dressed in their most formal clothes
for the photo, the embroidered bodice, the starched collar, the tie
with a sheen to it, the string of pearls. Their lips are closed,
their eyes focused on the camera with its slow shutter,
but in a moment the photographer will turn away, and these bodies
Swallows in Normandy
My son says, I’m waiting for the bread to rise.
He’s still asleep, never baked a loaf of bread.
When I open his shutters, the swallows
fly in and out of the stones around his window.
They sit on the wires and sing, their rosy throats
throbbing, tails marking the rhythm.
Yesterday at Omaha Beach, he climbed into the German bunker
and the swallows flew in after him, flew out before him.
I’m waiting, he says,
I don’t know what I’m waiting for.
Daylight Saving Time
Yesterday the field stretched away from the road,
empty except for the broken stalks of last year’s crop.
Today it is filled with arrivals and departures.
For now, the light stays later, but so does the dark.
Yesterday the tree was silent; today it sings.
High in the branches, an abandoned wasp nest peels back its layers.
A car pulls up to the stoplight, corner of Randall and Big Timber Road.
On its bumper: Lithuania in NATO.
In six years, the driver has not seen another issue
worth the effort to clean his bumper and replace the sticker.
He remembers late winter lingering in that other place,
the same dry stalks, the same blur of wings;
but the farmhouse was of stone, the barn still in use.
When the light changes, the line of traffic moves forward
and the geese stir and rise, stir and rise.
This may not be the right field.
It may not be the right time.