There is no sweetness that doesn’t leave a stain: four poems by Stephen Dunn

Each From Different Heights

That time I thought I was in love
and calmly said so
was not much different from the time
I was truly in love
and slept poorly and spoke out loud
to the wall
and discovered the hidden genius
of my hands

And the times I felt less in love,
less than someone
were, to be honest, not so different
either.

Each was ridiculous in its own way
and each was tender, yes,
sometimes even the false is tender.

I am astounded
by the various kisses we’re capable of.
Each from different heights
diminished, which is simply the law.

And the big bruise
from the longer fall looked perfectly white
in a few years.
That astounded me most of all.


Tenderness

Back then when so much was clear
and I hadn’t learned
young men learn from women

what it feels like to feel just right,
I was twenty-three,
she thirty-four, two children, and husband

in prison for breaking someone’s head.
Yelled at, slapped
around, all she knew of tenderness

was how much she wanted it, and all
I knew
were backseats and a night or two

in a sleeping bag in the furtive dark.
We worked
in the same office, banter and loneliness

leading to the shared secret
that to help
National Biscuit sell biscuits

was wildly comic, which lead to my body
existing with hers
like rain that’s found its way underground

to water it naturally joins.
I can’t remember
ever saying the word, tenderness,

though she did.  It’s a word I see now
you must be older to use,
you must have experienced the absence of it

often enough to know what silk and deep balm
it is
when at last it comes. I think it was terror

at first that drove me to touch her
so softly,
then selfishness, the clear benefit

of doing something that would come back
to me twofold,
and finally, sometime later, it became

reflective and motiveless in the high
ignorance of love.
Oh abstractions are just abstract

until they have an ache in them. I met
a woman never touched
gently, and when it ended between us

I had new hands and new sorrow,
everything it meant
to be a man changed, unheroic, floating.


The Answers

Why did you leave me?

We had grown tired together. Don’t you remember?
We’d grown tired together, were going through the motions.

Why did you leave me?

I don’t know, really. There was comfort in that tiredness.
There was love.

Why did you leave me?

You began to correct my embellishments in public.
You wouldn’t let me tell my stories.

Why did you leave me?

She is… I don’t wish to be
any more cruel than I’ve been

You son-of-a-bitch.

Why did you leave me?

I was already gone.
I just brought my body with me.

Why did you leave me?

You found out and I found I couldn’t give her up.
I was as shocked as you were.

Why didn’t you lie to me?

I was already lying to you. It was hard work.
All of it suddenly felt like hard work.

Why did you leave me?

I wanted to try monogamy again.
I wanted the freedom to be monogamous.

You fucker. You fucking son-of-a-bitch.

Why did you leave me?

I wanted you both. I thought I could be faithful
to each of you. You shouldn’t have made me choose.

Don’t you know what betrayal is?

I never thought of it as betrayal. More like one pleasure
of mine you should never have known.

You really are quite an awful man.

Why did you leave me?

It was time to leave.
The hour of leaving had come.

Why did you leave me?

It would take too long to explain. Please
don’t ask me to explain.

Will you not explain it to me?

No, I will not explain it to you. I’ll say anything
rather than explain it to you. Even things that sound true.


Sweetness

Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear
   one more friend

waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
   has come

and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it,
   for a while lost

in the ignorance of loving

someone or something, the world shrunk
   to mouth-size,

hand-size, and never seeming small.

I acknowledge there is no sweetness
   that doesn’t leave a stain,

no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet ….

Tonight a friend called to say his lover
   was killed in a car

he was driving. His voice was low

and guttural, he repeated what he needed
   to repeat, and I repeated

the one or two words we have for such grief

until we were speaking only in tones.
   Often a sweetness comes

as if on loan, stays just long enough

to make sense of what it means to be alive,
   then returns to its dark

source. As for me, I don’t care

where it’s been, or what bitter road
   it’s traveled
to come so far, to taste so good.
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There is no sweetness that doesn’t leave a stain: four poems by Stephen Dunn

Our thoughts get laced with strange aches: four poems by Julia Kasdorf

Years From Now When You Are Weary

and worn out, wondering how you’ll pay
a bill or make the rent or meet a deadline

set by some thoughtless boss—and kid,
such days will come—remember yourself

at five: hair light from the sun or just from
being young, new lunchbox pasted

with butterflies, how you hung your backpack
on a hook, then wouldn’t let me take your picture

on the first day of school, sending me
out of that classroom, to the car, to my job

where a pair of bats flapped in the hallway.
Bats may be just bats, but one darted

into my office, quick as the boxer’s head
that bobs and weaves and never gets hit.

It landed and hung from the drapes, upside
down, as you hung in my body for a while.

Bats are not the only flying mammals.
That afternoon in line for the bus, you cried,

so tired you thought you’d fall asleep
and miss your stop. Years from now, child,

in some helpless dusk, remember that fatigue
but how you made it home to me anyway

in the care of a kind farmer—bus driver.
Recall that once I arrived late, your bus

gone, and when I found you, carefully seated
by a coffeepot in a corner of a dim garage

at the school bus lot, you just said, Let’s go,
Mama. Don’t tell anyone about this.


What I Learned From My Mother

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewing even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.


First Gestures

Among the first we learn is good-bye,
your tiny wrist between Dad’s forefinger
and thumb forced to wave bye-bye to Mom,
whose hand sails brightly behind a windshield.
Then it’s done to make us follow:
in a crowded mall, a woman waves, “Bye,
we’re leaving,” and her son stands firm
sobbing, until at last he runs after her,
among shoppers drifting like sharks
who must drag their great hulks
underwater, even in sleep, or drown.

Living, we cover vast territories;
imagine your life drawn on a map–
a scribble on the town where you grew up,
each bus trip traced between school
and home, or a clean line across the sea
to a place you flew once. Think of the time
and things we accumulate, all the while growing
more conscious of losing and leaving. Aging,
our bodies collect wrinkles and scars
for each place the world would not give
under our weight. Our thoughts get laced
with strange aches, sweet as the final chord
that hangs in a guitar’s blond torso.

Think how a particular ridge of hills
from a summer of your childhood grows
in significance, or one hour of light–
late afternoon, say, when thick sun flings
the shadow of Virginia creeper vines
across the wall of a tiny, white room
where a girl makes love for the first time.
Its leaves tremble like small hands
against the screen while she weeps
in the arms of her bewildered lover.
She’s too young to see that as we gather
losses, we may also grow in love;
as in passion, the body shudders
and clutches what it must release.


A Family History

At dusk the girl who will become my mom
must trudge through the snow, her legs
cold under skirts, a bandanna tight on her braids.
In the henhouse, a klook pecks her chapped hand
as she pulls a warm egg from under its breast.
This girl will always hate hens,
and she already knows she won’t marry a farmer.
In a dim barn, my father, a boy, forks hay
under the holsteins’ steaming noses.
They sway on their hooves and swat dangerous tails,
but he is thinking of snow, how it blows
across the gray pond scribbled with skate tracks,
of the small blaze on its shore, and the boys
in black coats who skate hand-in-hand
round and round, building up speed
until the leader cracks that whip
of mittens and arms, and it jerks around
fast, flinging off the last boy.
He’d be that one- flung like a spark
trailing only his scarf.

Our thoughts get laced with strange aches: four poems by Julia Kasdorf