Poem of the Week | January 12, 2015

This week we publish a new poem by Derek Mong. Mong is the author of Other Romes (Saturnalia Books, 2011), the poetry editor at Mantis: A Journal of Poetry, Criticism, & Translation, and a doctoral candidate at Stanford. A former Axton Fellow in Poetry at the University of Louisville and Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, he nows lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and young son. His poems, translations, and essays have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, Pleiades, Court Green, and (most recently) the anthology 99 Poems for the 99 Percent. He received the 2005 Jeffrey E. Smith Prize in Poetry from The Missouri Review.
Author’s note:

In the first paper I wrote after returning to graduate school—which also happened to be the first paper I wrote after becoming a dad—I took a long look at Mina Loy’s “The Dead” (1920). This was just one of many ironies from the fall of 2010: devoting my newly endangered time to a poet who’d twice abandoned her kids. “The Air” dates from around that autumn, if memory serves, the last poem I likely finished before a long silence set in. It is a careful lyric, written in short-line syllabics, a form that—at least for me—evokes calm. To look at it now is to peer back over the silence, but to do so with the pleasure of knowing what I didn’t know then: the silence would pass.
A note then on the poem’s trope: like Loy’s “The Dead,” or Jones Very’s “The Dead,” or Susan Mitchell’s “The Dead,” or—this list could go on—Frank Stanford’s “The Truth the Dead Know,” “The Air” extends sensory perceptions to an ineffable, collectivized group. Sensory perceptions, of course, are the poet’s bread and butter, and we return to the trope of “the dead” precisely because it allows us to reimagine ourselves or warn ourselves or judge ourselves from a numinous (and numerous) beyond. To flip the poetic focus—“The Air” imagines the unborn, not the dead, among us—is to explore that other set of shadows that bookend a life. In the fall of 2010, I had the unborn more on the mind, imagining how they, and not us, needed to be warned.


The Air


is warm with those still waiting
to be born. They flit past us


like mosquitoes, then scramble—
tenuous as the station


at the far end of the dial.
Bloodless, they’re blood to us all.


By winter they lift upward
slowly, through the grainy peaks


of snowdrifts or a streetlamp’s
conical glow. How small we


must seem then, how countable—
strolling home between headphones,


or desk bound, ballpoints locked in
crosswords or 1099s.


It’s only when we couple
that we too diffuse coolly,


and a voice peels from their whirl-
wind, convinced—if just briefly—


that flesh is not poured out in
small and divisible cups.


As for you—whom we address
now, though you waft through neon,


steam vents, and leaves—remember
this companionless whisper


and not our paired hands, entwined
still as we drift into sleep.


We’ll both wake to so many
solitary tomorrows,


believing—if just briefly—
in a world so beautiful


that you could be assembled
from its vaporous remains.