Not because we are out of reach but because we are out of touch: four poems by Billy Merrell

To The Living

Listen, I am talking to you.
—William Bronk

I am afraid for each of us, daily,
and often in more than one way—
I am afraid for us all.

Not because we are not careful
but because we are not safe. Living:
heating leftovers, searching to match

that unmatched sock, letting the mail pile up.
I am scared for each of us as we separate
the egg white from the yolk. Not because

we are out of reach but because we are
out of touch— I press a shirt,
though I don’t know when I’ll wear it.
I print a second copy just in case,
never thinking of myself
as sensible. But I worry.

I would know if something were to happen
to you. Wouldn’t I? I would know
if you weren’t all right.

That makes it easier, somehow.
The world is much smaller and I am
glad you are still here— maybe not

around— but still with me.


Talking in the Dark

Before college, before high school, before my voice
finally cracked, before I could do my first pull-up,
and long before my first real kiss, you and I

held the same girls’ hands. First Karen, then Tiffany,
then Jessica. And by the time you kissed Amy, I knew
it wasn’t her I wanted to kiss. I spent the night at your house

and we talked in the dark until we fell asleep. Those years
were short ones, seem shorter now. I hated myself for lying
so still in the bed beside you, as awkward as a body

and as inarticulate. I have never wanted to kiss you,
only hold you now and then or be held. I know now
that you wouldn’t have cared and just wanted to be

trusted. I have pictures of us with girls at dances.
I’m wearing my father’s dress shirt. It balloons away
from my body. But you are right there next to me,

in my shirt’s reach. Later you won’t stand so close, and Amy
will have to pose us, pleading closer. No, no. Closer.


Histories

I look at pictures of an invasion, black and white
and blazing, despite how the blacks have gone gray.
I rip out photographs from an old issue
of National Geographic—or rather pieces of each:
Love carved into a park bench, a woman’s glove,
a swan, blurs of flags in the wind. The rivers
descending through the farm-green fields curve
like fractures of a jigsaw puzzle, bend back
toward themselves. The little poet I am
must be so angry. I don’t know what I’m writing,
but I write and write in journals without lines,
so that I can spin the pages any way I want.
One poem goes up the spine while another dribbles down
in lines intended to be tears. I love the impressionists,
make galleries among poems for Renoir, mostly
because I love his name.

I look at the photographs’ paused geography,
imagine how diligently the rivers must have worked
to curve back. We all want, in some way, to reach back,
to ourselves or where we descended, and whisper.
At one point, the caption explains, the Volturno River
nearly meets itself for a moment of reflection.

In my journal, I invent the rest: how hard earth is
for the waters to never mix, how at times
the tidewater rises, and the river swells as if to take over
that narrow margin. You can’t help, I write,
but hear the concatenation of a river or a history.
Where did I find that word? I wonder
if I even knew what it meant. But who wouldn’t love
the thought of standing in one place and drinking
from two generations of water? Reading it later,
I’ll know why I was upset and will want to cry again
where I did, in the margin, for the boy I was
when I was fifteen and didn’t know it was okay
to write or desire without metaphor. I dreamt I was nothing
but a kite’s anchor, collages of men’s faces,
makeshift buildings of paper. Years later
I’ll wonder how I didn’t know I was lonely
when everyone around me did.


Before

After I hear the rumor that you’re gay. After I steal your number
from the office at school. After I shake by the phone and after

I finally do call and your father answers
And you, Michael, say Come over.

After your dad walks in on us—thank God not touching
or even on the same bed. We’ve been talking.

You’ve shown me a calendar you bought at Structure,
men in their underwear but as good as naked.

Your favorite is July because there the men touch each other,
arms over and around tanned shoulders. I was once scared

as you are, your kiss like a little confession, the calendar
something to hide where no one will find it, hold it

against you. After you hear their door shut, you lean
over me, press your mouth against my mouth.

After I kiss you back, you show your body off like a kid
who brings a gun to school, not knowing what it is

or that it’s loaded. It’s easy to say our breaths rushed out
like the breaths of two men racing, because, to you, we are

racing. But I don’t know that. After your eyes roll back,
and you roll off me, and I roll onto you, you push me off,

saying that you aren’t gay, that I made you do it.

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Not because we are out of reach but because we are out of touch: four poems by Billy Merrell

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