June 7, 2023
After we immersed your ashes in the river Ganga, I wrote a letter to my friends back home: “Our journey began in North India,” I wrote, “but this story really begins in South India in Tamil Nadu, in a place called Kallakurichi, where my father was born.” It was where your father, my Thatha, became a spinner of cotton and a diviner of water.
May 31, 2023
Ice worms first start communing with me in Forlandsundet, a miles-deep sound north of the Greenland Sea. I don’t speak Norwegian, but I can parse: For. Land. Sun. It’s completely black outside. Det means “that or it.” Det, that’s easy, I’ve been one all my life.
The KV Svalbard is an icebreaker. From the foredeck, the rocky screes sweeping west are the planet’s emptiest place. No one between us and the North Pole.
“Det,” I hear, “Oi Det.” I can’t locate the strange, oblong voice, more of a nose whistle. Near me? but not inside me. I soon give up.
May 24, 2023
Of course the book she writes—the lesser book, the book about nothing—becomes a popular text, one that readers adore. When they ask her what she will write next, she says she is going to write the book over. Over? they ask her.
Again, she says. She isn’t really a writer, she tells them, she’s a transcriber. She transcribes stories.
Across languages? they ask.
No, she says. That would be translation. I used to do that but stopped, she says. Now I transcribe. I take texts and transcribe them into another version of the same language.
So you rewrite, they say.
No, she says. You’ll see.
May 18, 2023
For thousands of years, the peoples of the Marshall Islands have entertained a bustling interisland travel by canoe and small sailing craft without any of the tools—compass, sextant, nautical charts, and, these days, GPS—on which the rest of the world has depended. Within a purely oral tradition, Marshallese navigators developed a highly refined system of voyaging, relying entirely on their senses to decipher the subtlest of codes in the aqueous environment. Theirs has always been a world of waves.
May 10, 2023
With photographs by the author
I’ve been snorkeling in this river for sixteen years now and documenting a small stretch of it for about thirteen. Once a week, year ‘round, regardless of the weather, I will swim for several hours, picking up trash as I go, but mostly photographing what I find—fish and turtles, plants and rocks, even the contours of the riverbed, which change depending on the flow. Based on John Burroughs’ maxim—“To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday”—I decided a long time ago to focus on the half-mile reach that runs from City Park, through Sewell Park, and on to the spillway below Spring Lake.
May 3, 2023
I dream the master tells me: for poetry
you need meter, meaning
This sounds plausible enough I am attentive
to the master
I write her dictum
in my small black notebook
But all the informal pronouns have been discarded littering the streets
March 29, 2023
He had understood marriage as a way for people to be close together by maximizing their respective, individual isolation. He suspected that people got married so that the mirror of blame and excuses could point away from their respective selves, a way of blindly dismissing their own accountability. Had they been alone, they would have been forced to face their own terrors and demons. They would, at least, have tried to tackle some of their weaknesses instead of directing the velocity of their failure toward their “seemingly” innocent spouse. Zeaz understood this on a fundamental level and so, in the Year of the Tiger, he prepared legal papers to divorce his white wife and faced what he feared the most: himself, a biracial man with intermittent epileptic episodes, who was less dominant than a leaf.
March 22, 2023
To survive sadly is still.
At a boat’s bottom, allegedly a boat.
Allegedly an anchor. Allegations of a law.
Oh splinters that split us, oh those who spit on our black gaberdine.
The skin rolls the water off. That is what ash is, actually.
Accumulation of spittoons and the water’s detritus.
Hump day is a whale, freer than us even in capture, even in tallow.
No one said: this isn’t a whale, even as they strung it up to cut its meat.
No one said: this is something tbd. They said: mammal, leviathan, child of god, named by Adam.
We got a new name. Something made up. We managed to live. In that hole name.
March 15, 2023
He’s been coming around a lot but I’ve only recently started calling the dog Jesus because if Jesus were to return, this is how he would do it. In this shape, in this form, in these times. I’m sure of it. My best and only friend, Holy Amy, who thinks of herself as a kind of very powerful and sexually budding nun, disagrees. She says Jesus would return in the form of a handsome kisser, not some ugly mutt. Someone with a beautiful face, so we would know it was him. I say he’s not ugly. She says I am “vexed,” “cursed,” and that I am doomed to repeat the mistakes of those before me, though I’m not sure whom she’s talking about. All I know is it’s true: he’s not ugly. The dog suit he wears isn’t even a dog suit.
March 8, 2023
When the Reverend Houston was seventy he was retired from the ministry with a pension, paid by the national church organization, that was slightly in excess of the salary he had been receiving for nearly fifty years from his parish at New Babylon, Missouri. There were no strings attached to this pension. He could do with it and with himself, thereafter, practically anything that pleased his rational fancy. Naturally enough, he quit preaching. He had been preaching for nearly fifty years and he was getting just as tired of it as his congregation was. One Sunday morning during the summer of his seventieth year he shook hands with his successor, a vigorous young man who would attract plenty of spinsters to the Sunday-school faculty, walked calmly out of the church and never returned.
March 1, 2023
He walked for two years across the putrid surface of the solid crust: he learned how not to die by gnawing on it and how not to dissolve in its salt at night; he healed his own bones when the wind whipped him through the air like a rag and flung him onto the stiff waves.
He was perpetually dazzled by the glare, but every once in a while he glimpsed shadows beneath the crust, brooding their bodies from one side to another and bashing themselves against the surface.
Once he caught sight of an old man, inexplicably gleeful, jigging from one little plastic islet to the next. They waved at each other, arms aloft; he managed to make out the other man’s silhouette, stretched tall against the glare of the crust, and at that precise moment an enormous, jagged mouth rose up around the old man’s feet and carried him down to the depths of that filthy chowder.
February 22, 2023
Definitive Edition with Previously Unpublished Material
At dawn, as police made plans to arrest Father Marek, a pilot whale washed up on a nearby beach. The priest himself was the first person to come upon the stranded animal, its sleek black skin glistening in the surf, its huge body writhing and flopping, its mouth pressed into what looked like a carefree smile.
Another passerby might have been alarmed by the discovery, but Father Marek’s whole adult life had been a series of sudden arrivals and departures. His name, for instance, was a fabrication, though he had grown to like the sound of it on parishioners’ lips. Nor was the priesthood his actual profession, though he had briefly studied at a seminary many years ago. His only occupation, one that took many forms, was convincing other people to place their trust in him.
February 15, 2023
Fairies perform five crucial functions for our planet, Herbst told me. They provide food for our dreams; they consume the stagnant waste of our inhibitions; they devour the pestilential cares that would otherwise overwhelm us; they pollinate the illusions on which our happiness depends; and they aerate and enrich the sources of our creativity, without which we might as well throw ourselves under a subway train this instant.
February 8, 2023
He’s been down under five times today, taking his turn, searching for the sailboat, believing he might be the one to find a child inside, skin violet, nerves tremoring, alive in the sweet torpor of hypothermia, fluttery heart almost but not yet still, breathing slowly, hushed, floating face up, a bliss of air trapped above her—
In the last minutes of twilight at the surface, in swirling silt underwater, Nic Kateri risks a final dive into the murky cabin of the sailboat, finds her with his hands, not his eyes: yes, where her mother left her, the child curled into herself, lungs full of water, pressed high above the bed in the tightest corner of the berth where yes, it’s true: there might have been bubbles of air once upon a time, hours earlier—
February 1, 2023
Recently, your wife has left you. She’s reading Frankenstein, and there’s nothing in the world she’d rather do. You’d think talking about the book would be an option, but no. Books lose their power when she tries to speak about them. So do movies, songs, news articles, and most of what she does with Nathaniel. Only in passing did you hear her call him Nightingale, and then you learned he was reading an alphabet book of birds.
You adopted the nickname.
You find him on the pink couch, whispering to an Ernie figurine.
Where’s Bert? you ask.
Birch in the vent.
Time for dinner, Nightingale.
Time for dinner, he sings.
January 25, 2023
The birth of color begins in the entanglement
of water. Color is the birth of light.
Low clouds morning visitation, the words are
forming separable from their origins. Stars
crease the heavens. I have been moving
into their stream, heavenly bodies, the architecture
loose and ungainly. I’m not one but two, the occupancy
of a system, here in the apparel of another’s
light, to come down these stairs, dawn
weighted with silver, a perimeter that hooks
sky, bleeds our nights into day. There is this
sanctuary, intricate respite, cut-out, here on the floor
January 18, 2023
A second-growth forest is not the same as a first, and a third is not the same as a second. Those old dying oak and chestnut trees saved a century ago from axe and saw to shade the grazing livestock are surrounded now by all the wrong progeny—birches and popple in one case, pine trees in the other. Absent a mature overstory’s broad canopy, the understory receives too much unfiltered light, and low thickets and dense copses of trees and shrubs all the same age spring up.
In ancient times a carpet of fallen leaves and ferny ground cover was lit by long beams of sunlight descending from openings in the treetops as if from the clerestory windows of a great cathedral. Humans and other animals walked easily among the tall, straight trunks and had unobstructed views from glen to vernal pond and stream to the glacial moraine beyond. That was a forest, not a woods. But the forest was not replaced by itself. It was displaced and replaced by these woods, which is a different and lesser thing.
My dog darted through the brush ahead of me, tracing the lingering spoor of a deer or bear or coyote, led by his nose instead of our man-made trail. And as I walked I remembered again a story from the village, part of which I saw, part of which I heard from witnesses, and part of which I imagined.
January 11, 2023
A brick-shaped piece of architectural rubbish. A brick of someone’s missing place. My brick, but only because I’ve taken it as my own, to collect, among my menageries, set alongside small shoes made of mottled glass and rusted railway spikes and silver-clad icons sold to me by aging nuns in old-world churches I’ve visited. I have shelves full of this stuff, little artifacts of the beautiful/not beautiful city. I collect glass and tarnished things. I collect memories too, all kinds, some that might fall into the category of demolition garbage, what might be too sharp and embarrassing to keep out in the light.
I learned in AA to call these kinds of inmost collections my inventory. I haven’t been to AA recently, but when I used to go every week I loved the inventory step meetings. Step Four is to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Step Ten is to continue “to take personal inventory” and when we are wrong to promptly admit. My inventory/my me-ventory/our we-ventory, one might say—an everyday assessment of the invisible collections residing beneath and within.
I don’t believe in the Christian version of God but I do believe in the spiritual wonder located in material presence. Like my brick. Any cubic space in the world is a brick of multiple histories. I interrogate all of what feels like mine.
January 4, 2023
If only the waters were still this blue,
the boats this innocent. The sea,
the clouds, the cliff faces: blue, blue, blue.
And me in a red dress with a blue mantle
draped over my lap to keep my legs warm.
It’s true, I’m sitting on a coffin
with the lid down. The lid
is called a crown. The coffin is filled
with what happens when evil takes over
the world and says yes to giving
the lost unlimited hate
and all the weapons they want. You’ll say,
“That wasn’t my fault, I’m like you, Mary,
I was only ever being fabric
and two hands, harmless arms and a mind
filled with maxims—only ever on my way
to tomorrow, my right foot at rest
on the head of a cherub.” Do you hear