Poem of the Week | September 11, 2017

Patti White is the author of three collections of poems, Tackle Box (2002), Yellow Jackets (2007), and Chain Link Fence (2013), all from Anhinga Press. Her fourth collection, Pink Motel, was published in Summer 2017. Her work has appeared in journals including Iowa Review, North American Review, River Styx, Nimrod, DIAGRAM, Forklift Ohio, and New Madrid. She teaches creative writing at the University of Alabama, and was co-founder of Slash Pine Press.

White was a finalist for the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. Enter this year’s contest here!
 
 

Immersion

 

In dreams you appear as a polar bear
mouthing a seal, the sun still bright at
midnight. Ice crystals glitter between
every strand of blond hair, in your eyes
rimmed with ocean. A northern tide, a
slick of desire, a seal furred with blood.
In the dream you are always the bear.
Or the ice or the time of the sun, the
night just a turn of the earth too far.

 

Is this what you remember? My head
illucent on your chest, a thin sheen of
ivory sweat in the mountain air already

 

icing over, the Bering Strait between us?
Morning brings the thaw, and the dream
melts away. I walk naked to the window,
eastern sky a magnet and clouds like lead,
rain against glass, tears on skin, raw metal
soaking into the earth. Molten, everything
in flux, and the sheets are ice floes waiting.
O the poles have shifted, the stars fallen,
natural magnetism fails us every time.

 

Most days I live empty and like it,
my heart like a cut-glass bowl, each
moment lost in a galaxy of clear air.

 

In that universe, the star-fields light
mirrors we shatter, gazing up from
moss-filled wells. See how it contains
everything we misplaced? The bowl
rimmed with sky, the sky edged with
silver, the loss deeper than you have
imagined. The life more invisible, so
obscure, something beneath the ice,
nothing above the surface, a pool of

 

methane at the edge of a solar system,
managing on the weakest light, faint
moonlets breaking apart, forming

 

isinglass rings around me. Once from
miles above the earth I saw the last
muslin shroud ripped away, the
ether siphoned off, the bare north
rammed hard by solar winds. The
sleekest of planets, then — polished,
immaculate, a pearl cut from the
oyster of space. I saw then the raw
need for love, the end of weather,

 

earth rolling in the sheeted cosmos,
equator unwound, a marble on the
enamel dish of endless night. What

 

if I told you that love is gravity, that
motion is a kind of faith, that moons
mediate between forces: the strong,
essential, the weak and charmed and
rueful particles. Here we are above
snow-capped seas, I would say: the
ice looks thick enough, bears heavy
on the tundra, an east wind, and the
north star holds true and steady as

 

ribbons of light flow around us,
reflecting in the lake of your eyes.
Remember: this is only a dream.

 

***

 

In the dream you are poisoned,
moaning with zinc oxide and
margarine, strange toxins, both
eyes purple with hawthorn. I
reach you just before death, a
solace in the enamel cup I offer.
I say: drink this sweet, anodyne,
olivine sea of my heart. We sit
novenas for your veins, wait

 

shaded by birch and willows,
sideways from a motel where
silver dollars buy silver keys.

 

I turn my head to the rain as it
mingles with leaf litter and sap.
Maybe love is like this: a mould,
earthy scent rising from fresh
runnels, pools forming, rapids
swelling and frothing, bodies
inhumed in the woods. Our
only hope: the sweetness, the
nape of the neck curving, wet

 

in the mist, the pulse at the
inner bend of the elbow, the
intoxicated sheets of a motel

 

inveigled by desire. If that is rain
mocking against the window, we
made it through the night. But
every hour, we woke to branches
rattling, sipped pure rainwater and
shared our secrets. That was love:
I caught your dreams as they fell,
offering them up to you again, a
noose of silken threads, a web

 

of sticky thoughts, a clattering
of scales from a mackerel, thin
opals in the palm of my hand,

 

in the bed beside us, the cheap
motel with neon flickering and
mongrel towels enfolding us,
each cup wrapped in plastic,
real as the hawthorn and zinc,
so I want to say: not real at all.
I spent silver dollars to buy the
one enamel cup, and love, I will
never drink that sweet poison.

 

***

 

Napalm orange, the sea at sunset.
Near the end of my days I swim a
novella in the dusky gulf; oh love,

 

I read the future in the currents:
man-o-war bloats and seaweed,
manatees in black caps, and me,
elated in the hot breath of water,
racked by a chill swipe of ice as
sudden as an octopus, tentacled,
itinerant. A week later, a storm,
old plot twist from Key Largo, a
nicotine cloud over my head.

 

(I wrote you a letter, remember?
Months too late — you said the
moment had passed, the moon
eclipsed, the tides rising fast, a
redfish drowning like a heart.
See how I can turn this? Make
intentions out of cut glass, and
oysters, and a puddle on the
neat tile floor of the bedroom?)

 

I refused to travel. So did you.
Mainly I wanted your eyes, the
milky white and seacoast blue,
envelopes of flesh, the lids open
red with sand blown hard and hot.
Sand, quartz and silica, bits of coral,
immense shores of need, and sun
overhead falling fast, the hurricane
nearly here and you so far away.

 

In the ocean time moves slowly,
marvels flourish, currents shift.
Minutes catch light and sink as
evening gathers in. I wait for a
riptide to carry me farther out,
some cool stream of thought. So
if this was love, I ask you, how?
Oysters on a bed of salt, lemon,
nothing goes down easier, love.

 
 

Author’s Note:

 
“Immersion” is one of several experiments with a long form called the kontakion. The poem reflects on a love lost long ago and moves dreamwise from the Arctic, to a rain-spattered motel, to the Gulf of Mexico, always coming back to images of water, to the nature of desire, to a sense of the vastness of love and loss. It also speaks to its form; in the end, the poem drowns itself in its own images, in a rush of language that just keeps flowing.

In Byzantine Rite liturgy, the kontakion is a praise poem of 18-24 acrostic stanzas linked by a refrain. Here, the acrostic is of course immersion and the shorter “refrain” stanzas continue that conceit (iiimmmmmm, etc.). I love this form because it is both expansive and constricted. It allows space for a narrative, but forces me to use words in ways that make crazy sense. For instance, zinc oxide and margarine would never be linked in my mind if I hadn’t needed that m word just there; the form pushed me outside of my normal image lexicon.

I have three other kontakions. Another one (“Immersion II”) about this same love — and the Rocky Mountains. One (“Lipstick”) about the life and death of Anna Nicole Smith (a very fleshy poem). And one (“The Air at That Moment”) about my relationship to weather, which ends with the tornado that struck my home in 2011. The last two were published as a chapbook called Kontakion, in The Chapbook Vol. 5.

SEE THE ISSUE

SUGGESTED CONTENT