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Andrew Grace

One day I wrote a prose poem that was exactly seventy words long. Then I wrote a second and third, eventually settling on writing one every day. It became an obsession, I and went on to write upwards of ninety poems that were exactly seventy words long. Seventy is numerologically meaningless to me, just an arbitrary cap on the word count. These poems began to announce a voice and a setting to me—a man who has come to a cabin in the woods along a lake in order to heal himself from a breakup and a mid-life crises. He finds himself in a purgatorial situation, with only the natural world to compare his life to.

from Sancta

The brambles rule. They have claimed the west lakefront. A chorus of snared plastic bags hisses with the wind. The thorns clutch Nehi cans, newspapers whose emergencies the light has stolen, semblances of nests looted of their young, rags of post-prom degeneration and other acts of barbs’ thievery. The shoe orphans are going nowhere. And neither am I, locked into what catches and doesn’t, and which is among the destitute.

If I can rise from the dust, I cannot answer. If I can move, a single body, as if I were in a large group, and I the tour guide to this myrtled bog thinned by the bezel of fall light, and someone who is not there asked me a question about where the others in the group had gone, I cannot answer. If I can answer, I cannot sleep.

Moth morning, maelstrom of mothwing at the window, fog-dulled sun trundled like a cart of moths across the aspirin sky, I stay in bed. Deer dance the bolero across the path. I used to count moths to sleep, each chewed-through cocoon an act not of transformation, but of violence against the past. The history of a moth is my history. Mesh-like, the world held me. I escaped. Or it did.

I keep expecting a small, feral animal to be in the cabin with me. To stare at me with the soft, terrible eyes in which there is always snow. To be as still as I am. In this cabin it is always September. A penultimate fall, only aware of itself by what it spills. (Flour and hair). Only articulated in burnt grammar. (Sorry and ash). I keep expecting to be.

I read: “Have I become my senses, all else gone?” That’s how it feels this morning in the woods, my pulse like a rag on a nail in an intermittent wind, air the fragrance of smoke and someone’s hair, the dog-crushed ice at lake’s edge unspooling like a baroque motif down the beach, where my vision fails and abstractions melt into the undifferentiated blue I’ve always wanted to call home.

Four teens form a circle behind this cabin. They must assume it is empty. They sit in a worm-drilled patch of moss and take in four inches of milky smoke from a glass pipe they heat with a blow torch. They let their burnt laughter rise up as if they have invented this form of pleasure. Sucking desperately, they seem to be trying to nurse sustenance from their own ghosts.

Look, is all. The cabin. Look. The lake. Flies like quarter-carats of Hell festoon the curtain. Slipped fires take to the sky. Sweet pine strewn with nude opal birds at its base. O if only my attention led to something besides more attention. A reward beyond what’s there: cloud, stone, rust, black seeds, silence. At least the darkening wood seems to answer me. “All right. But quietly. Into your coat.”

One regret settles like a moth on my knuckle. I am in a room whose wallpaper is thin rain. This is a dream or what is found in the mind’s channel zero. The moth scans its head back and forth mechanically. It seems to be searching for the next place to land. Be quiet. The future is making a decision. It lifts, nestles in my ear. It says forgive me.

All is raw edges. The cement plant’s single claw of smoke arcs over the lake. Puddles are blitzed by the blood fly hatch. Without sleep, my eyes have gnats in front of them where there are none. I stayed up watching the only badger I have ever seen ransack my trashcan. I win victories over the ordinary eye. I’ve learned: these days will never end if I don’t let them.

My father took off his glasses with the same slowness he used to clean blood off his knife. He proceeded to tell me stories about whaling fleets. I thought of the whale’s voice, its sick-on-a-journey blues. Its death like a burning ship. And father’s moral: essentially the ship was on fire when the cook’s boy fell asleep on duty. My father always smiled like a knife was between his teeth.

As if for art’s sake, the vultures freeze over the blue ditch festooned with killed booze and black squirrel rag dolls. I read: “In Southern Africa, vultures are synonymous with lovers, as they always travel in pairs.” Give your lady a hand as she cleanses bodies on the Parsi’s Towers of Silence. Understand your man has a belly full of anthrax and pine needles and will love you to death.

Wind is the anxiety attack of Time, someone said. You and I test our breath underwater. Ululation of wave, prostration of kelp. Hard zip of outboard. Brownout and countdown. Then emergence into air, in which apparently Time is wracking its brain for something terrible it once did over a slate lake like this one that insomnia has stolen from it. The wind pushes two fingers down my throat. You win.

From 3 in the Morning Part 1: The fish jerk shad-flies from the lake’s surface. I sit by a fire and eat fish that tastes like a brown paper bag salted. You are on the end of someone’s dock in the wind. Your hair is like a shredded flag. One night—remember?—you traded places with your sadness. You were absolute. You shook, exhilarated. You haven’t asked for permission since.

From 3 in the Morning Part 2: When you don’t want to be consoled, the shell of a country music song drifts across the lake. When I confess to you, a woman in white appears at an open window. When the clouds come to a dead stop, I am quickened into clay. When the iron shadows hunker down, you unload the little boat of your sorrow and we climb aboard.

From 3 in the Morning Part 3: The cabin irks and repents us. We drink the dust of trying to solve each other. Maybe it was you and that boy in a room of charred paint. Maybe it was my silence. You call your childhood My Mother Says Don’t Stare. I call mine A Screen Door Slams Shut. We give up, find that a scream is better than a thesis.

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