Back in the late nineties when a place called Borders Outlet still existed and Amazon was only a few years old, that was about the only store I could find – and afford – to buy brand new poetry books by that elusive species, The Poet Who Wasn’t Long Dead. Of all the books I found, James Merrill’s Changing Light at Sandover, and Laurie Sheck’s 1996 collection The Willow Grove are the only ones to have left any lasting impression: Merrill’s for being a book-length poem written with the help of a Ouija Board, and Sheck’s for always being (it still is now) one of the best single collections of poems I’ve ever read. Here’s just one from that book, with more to come I’m sure:
I watch the boy shoot up.
His head woozes back, eyes fluttering lightly
into what land, what dreamy repetition, separateness, deferment,
grainy lack and white of this sleep that is not sleep?
He closes his eyes but I still watch. I am a child, I don’t know who he is,
or how he’s wandered back
into the stockroom of this store. I am supposed to be up front
where it is light, helping to sell buttons, pencils, keys.
I am supposed to walk around in the safe glare,
the sharp-edged present tense.
But here in this dim room behind the aisles
the boy crawls toward a wall
that used to be part of the bakery next door – brick ovens three feet deep
with rounded tops like quaint old-fashioned doorways,
crumbling now, and damp, his head swaying like a scattered stalk.
He leans back into the oven-dark and shivers,
scratches his cheek with one hand and then the other;
he smooths his itchy skin, scaly, purplish-red.
What tense is it he drifts in? What tense in which memories rise up
disguised so they won’t stun, mixing with this musty air,
these towers of cardboard boxes held in the eerie sway
of so much want? What tense in which we sit,
the boy and I, and do not speak, the dark like a god
and our small bodies like errors
the god wants to take back again, out of his created world?
And what tense in which the musty dampness holds the ovens
like moldy unrocked cradles, eye-holes, graves,
and street-cries skip and flare above our listening, but they are muffled
from back here, as if they could not touch us, yet still here?
The drawers are of the cash registers open again and again
like solved equations, while the boy breathes so softly,
his hands clutched into fists now
as if trying to protect something hidden, keep it safe.
There is the dark of his closed hands, there is the oven-dark,
and then the larger stockroom dark. I think there is no tense for this –
how he rubs his palms into his eyes
then slides his bony shoulders and thin face toward the light
of the narrow doorway, the long aisles
just out of sight, and then turns slowly back.
Land of transactions, of tactics, sirens, cries –
it is what waits outside this dark that doesn’t want to know this dark.
Aisles of clocks, of kitchenware, venetian blinds.
He looks up from the dimness and damp brick, his eyes drifting – where? –
before me, into what abrogation, what refusal
of earthly terror, earthly place?