Soon into the night with him.
There are bulbs made now to match the light of 1900,
7-watt filament barely a flame, soft as a fever’s ear,
where sepia is made, where milk is drawn by cloth
and whale, and moths turn their brief heads from the woolens.
Dark was different then—pure, indivisible, a nothingness
moving toward us out of the stars. Afternoon came
unbroken, July in the trees, tallow and beeswax, nothing
the dark couldn’t handle. Twilight is what hurt the most,
when the soul pulled the body to the low sky
and every good thing looked inward, belonging
not to itself, but to another older province,
early owl, open field, children in the foliage,
briar and rust. It was a time when lamp blisters
were healed with a round of butter or boiled jewelweed
rended from sewer-banks. Little puck lamp burning
lavendar and clove, 90 cents. Library lamp
bright as 75 candles, $6.50.
The century lends its light to the evening
so that it might have substance, or sight.
The little white throats of pigeons lined up
in the eaves, the new gaslights on 25th Street
imitating the old gaslights, our faces young
in the warmth, something I might already believe.
It’s amazing sometimes to find I’m still not dead
here. The gunshots have become almost friendly,
talkative neighbors building a new tongue,
and the shotgun shells dropped outside the market
roll unspent and certain in the wind. I moved into my life
to take it apart, stars dismissed like years
and two fireflies above the crepe myrtle.
Where my house was built a grave was found,
grave of another house, and under that, another grave.
Louis Kahn asked What do you want, brick?
Less grave, more house. Houses live and die,
and to speak of light is a human thing, all the while
the air changes it, creates and re-creates, moves across
the river, cinders of moonlight corroding
the abandoned house down the alley.
From my backyard I can see a sapling growing
on its tin roof, and I know I’m supposed
to look past this, to recognize the syringes and pipes,
condoms and plaster, plate of chicken bones
on a mattress in the gutted kitchen, as a living ruin,
monument to a plague gone courteous at dusk,
but I’ve seen mud wasps circling the old parlor chandelier,
wary, as if a flame would appear. They knew something
I didn’t, so I sat on the mattress to feel the body
of the last century beside me, and there was something
familiar, something lonesome and tired in the design
of mold on the half-eaten walls, wallpaper faded
to powder, and graffiti like veins on the ceiling
spelling out exactly what history has always said:
fuck all y’all this my house. We just weren’t listening.
We invent what we need and what we needed
was to see, one frog slurring the night grass,
one sycamore sifting color from the spotted hearts.
This is still the same night, though, the same dew
settled on the bricks, same sorrow, same signal
from them to us: keep the story straight.
The centuries will float to me, out of the darkness,
light flooding a mattress, maybe there were wings.
Take my word for it, bats falling through
the street’s unlit rooms, ghost bird, ghost hand,
pale ghost of mouse and bulb brought from the hollow oak
that is now only a stump with a sidewalk built around it.
That much I can give of those days.
Because we were infinite then, the night bore us up,
all the ghosts of men and animals headless, dun-kept,
swinging their lanterns against the other world.
By Joshua Poteat
Recipient of the 2015 Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize
Reprinted by permission of HarperPerennial
from The Regret Histories by Joshua Poteat.
Copyright © 2015 by Joshua Poteat.