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Two Poems
The Return

“Yet there were intervals when the whole scene, in which she was the most conspicuous object, seemed to vanish from her eyes, or, at least, glimmered indistinctly before them, like a mass of imperfectly shaped and spectral images.”

How dark it is she was 
reproducing darkness of the dream its
occult shadow spear-like lancing her side as the 
wire could be pulled back from her mouth 
labial muted cry when she saw its steel lip 
moving into her a tether blackening steel line of its 
retracted end. Yesterday I wanted to 
speak of it I wanted to tell you I was 
not going to make it the train was already 
late I was sleeping outside in the pool of city 
light when you found me like a dream I was 
not able to keep content to keep the facts clear

What was it led up to the instant 
she returned to him in the dream 
querulous black night shirt she was high 
inside its tent the tether was a black stencil 
across her chest when he pulled her back from it
less manhood than child bleakly calling out 
to its mother a portal opening she said 
time is drifting through my hands the storage 
of it love and children sleeping you wrote
moon and love and children sleeping 
I can’t sleep here I can’t stay the night is 
black crust can I eat it can you break my hand in half
with your face that now turns away end-
lessly turns away
 the fictive presence of a 
father who comes & goes bleak as light that comes
& goes—

“I am just trying to survive today” 
when there were so many levels of anger 
as if rage had become porous the richness of its 
folds around them she was carrying water 
back to her bedroom when he stared 
into it a longitudinal gaze across the 
distance between where he stood where she 
felt the edge of its wall & lay down on its 
sheets said “Now can you let me can you 
let me have some peace I am at the end 
of it you are at the end go away” 
when no one was conscious who 
was awake the stream of days she was
collecting mementos hidden pieces of wire wax 
synecdochdotal language scraps she placed
behind the bookcase when he came back and 
heard him scraping back the pasteboard notebook 
I can’t tell you what it will mean I can’t 
say I led you back to it like a source in the cracked
canvas you said it was ruined the pictures
you held in mind of who I was 17 years ago
I was barely awake to it your hands on me pushing
me against the door I said you can stop it’s ok you 
can stop—

I am just trying to survive today
yesterday I came back and it was the same 
person I was entering the room he was 
leaving taking my book with him 
in which I’d underlined sentences for you I’ve got 
too much, don’t know what I want, you’ve 
overwhelmed me and you’ve spoiled me, I keep
asking harder and harder questions, I expect
you to accomplish miracles—
against the 
baseboard written down in pieces to my
self I am loaded down do you see with
their language & ours can you keep 
this between us?



                                    The sea as she 
remembered it she was 6 or 7 the 
days without color in her dreams 
they had gathered conch shells along the 
coast. He was father to her
they were coming back from the shoreline
when the sun darkened midday 
his eyes on them on her body she was
aware lithe moving through light 
only that he needed to take his 
daughters back into the waves 
green over green she was standing by their
side waves cresting foam breaking the 
space they had once inhabited 
now the spires of water jetted out
finding a force for them interior 
the emitted sidereal movement of their
bodies twisted from position 
relinquishing movement 
of arms and hands extended into the shadows

             so that when she shouted for him 
             to return he was with them beneath the last wave
             in partial form arising from its green light



“I can’t remember what you said when you came into the room
summertime my father was dying in his bed I held a weak 
light up to his face astonished you were astonished to find 
us still there my broken pencil stabbed into the page beneath.”

Can desire be a mistake? If language 
fails to clarify its intent—
       how do we claim a part of what 
was said until another stands by our side
her body noticeably younger at a loss
for words we said we’re at a loss can you help me
our bodies together imaged in shaded
hill and mountain 
a renewal of vows 
I was dead and you woke me
a vow to renew what was discarded
Now you are gone I am dead
a map of loneliness spread out before us. 
I cannot separate nor want a way
out from her spell I am 
without defense I tell her 
“I am yours there is no other” 
graphite pressed between the thumbs 
the heartlessness of words
that travel back to claim us 
not so much disbelieving 
as protective at a remove
from what we can give
I came back to find you when you turned
your back to me fled back to a corner of the room

             “your words shattered me with their
             intensity … I cannot forget
             the words you used … I cannot allow
             you to see me this way … How is
             it you see me and no other?” 

Am I to blame? What did I 
ask that she might not ask 
of me the same: in a wave of language cast against her
bodily until she said “you hit me hard … I’m 
just barely able to get through christ I’m barely able
to get through” 
like a doll figure gathered up thrown down 
again & again against the wall she shows me 
marks I have made I am so tired
to the core I am not able to say anything more—

               Her anguished face 
her hands extended to receive 



When one thinks he has encountered
permanence—the inability to say 
anything of consequence 
it all falls short the hands at your side
yesterday they were another’s hands
    no way to trace back where they 
fall are falling again
apoplectic or without purpose 
a body is situated just so 
it gathers itself up the city day 
is black then grey what half do 
you consider important 
what half do you
need to see again? 

             “Not so much cruelty it’s not that I felt your meanness & that is what I hold most dear to me now, that you are in some ways without forgiveness—so that if I stand here long enough I too will fall under the spell of your gaze—and lose my person within it.



   Being dead who can
tell you what it was that came 
again not stunned not barren
or bare—the seed of it
  steel in mind unable to act.

I made of thee a pact in wood …

Central to the “intersection of the timeless moment”
A woman coming into the scene late 
in its action she is perhaps 35 
sits at the table 
draws it in her notebook a little 
bit at a time there is what she says 
she has noticed—its creased marble 
surface the way it gestures toward some 
unremarkable event—walking toward him
in daylight
this was years later she couldn’t have 
placed him she couldn’t have said it was 
him or another she saw 
but the cast of light its impression on her
hands lifted to reach back fold the 
pages down where she’d stopped—
… a hotel fifty francs he had sneaked out like 
a convict in some veiled act of violence he tore out
the pages when she smiled up at him & he struck
her across her face then turned her away from him 

    to hear him in the park where they 
met again in daylight then its 
literal disappearance as if 
she were walking into a cell of pure ether
and standing there saw no one 
not him not the children he’d fathered 
no one
and at once understood 
what it meant to live 
under the surface 
away from that pitched uneven
trail of voices—

             at the edge of the bitter river
             underneath a sky without stars. 



In ascent 
assenting assuaged 
I am common with him in marriage
there is no sin no virtue there are only 
these acts …

as she saw herself 
eased back into it 
a sister with eyes 
half a lifetime 
partly gone to say it was 
half a life spent in this 
inquiry or was it
injury as she couldn’t say
it spell the word 
back again the vertical 
transistent phrasing
I miss the emphasis you placed on nouns
your finger un-ringed finger habit to see it
gone to eat near you again

remarks held back in some captive 
dream of them at once 
neutralized and prosthetic
I am beyond what you knew of me 
I am not her

when she was lured again 
by the insistent creation 
put before her 
a city hollowed underneath 
she came to know him 
within its walls
like an onslaught of verbal damage
like a truncated message reviled
held in her hands again
as she passed where
he was once standing 
the light lifted to receive
who they had become 
partly emerged 
partly disappeared …

                         And what you meant to say to me 
                         I gave it back to you again so you could
                         understand its meaning—in new 
                         light of day you said I am shifting 
                         when the light is what is 
                         shifted & the weight in my 
                         hands of what I have yet
                         to give you.


—To Lee Charleston
August 11, 2008



“The child talks outside time for the time when he will finally be able to talk, that is to say, hear his words among those of others.’
—Edmond Jabès, The Book of Resemblances

Lair and line. 
Canopy and carapace. 
There is this running through thought’s torsions: 
offer nothing that cannot one day be found among ruins
and restored there lifted back to reveal 
“the retuning of children … the returning of bodies” 
deposited in loam and pale water. 

The well run dry, the woman’s hands 
placed on the cistern to break down the separation
between thought & hunger, between thirst & intention. 
Hear it—nomad threadbare song 
“in poases of charred witness in blank re-
                                   cursive song settle on banks of river” 

Movement is worn. Wail of the white
woven tallit, fringed ragged Atarah
say its blessing under breath—
turn fringed matter to dust 
for the palms are turned “in lovely 
blue” incipient 
bolts of vertical light. 

A seal—seed—
             spread evenly in blotted layers 
                         imprinted across the page. 

One is helpless before 
“pillars of cedar and laurel support” 
“palms of the hands cut by nails”
“sudden entrance of the father ghost” 

The face
is faceless. To this day
we can’t recall what it was that drew
us there: hidden, lucent, veiled—
arguably dead. A meeting
inside the room where it was taken
in quick effective movements of the palm
and middle finger, the way 
one is allowed to far-flung familiarity
bone & trestle smashed together.



Affinities of imperfect flesh / incidental mind. 
Spring stones, sorrel & jonquils 
in yellow haze of sun.
The body affirmed by what it
touches, at once refused and touched by 
“a world where accident is rule” 
and the hand that passes over its linen
surface, firm inmost space 
of Being. 

Yet was this its carapace, space 
of upheaval, to which now the words
labor inexorably, blind, partitioned, enabled only
by shrifts of grief? 

                         “The face is devoured fruit ready for eating. 
                                      This face is a lifeboat journeying out to sea.”

Or proposing its equal, auratic emblem: the square
knot under the jaw, its lariat like a 
signature burnt into flesh.



Salto mortale …“Too exhausted with pain and the lack of language
to notice that something has entered”
The child’s writing hand is suspended—before the goodnight kiss—
in the scaffolding of lines, the giddy-making 
wall-bars of the arena … Mouse, hat, house, twig, bear, ice
and egg fill the arena—a pale glacial audience 
watches our dangerous tricks.

What is accounted for. Who is present, gifted 
at the outset, a chaste figure, unharmed, the speedy 
recall that drops hands, seeks the place on the page
where it should be, the threshold
before writing 

“angular ancient
having traveled distances” 

When no one has entered & no one has gone

Seamless debit, iris opens 
its ridged palm again & again to virtual rain
simulacras of experienced shelter.
Under white skies
the child learns to leave itself behind
pared-back & ignoble
draws a head on white paper
a line through it another 
line passing over the left pieces of red
paper stapled together to form a book
like the pattern of a shaped text made for 
unknowable ends, attributable cloth 
blue & grey marble cover.



And what is laughter
when the abject presents itself 
like a small shrine of unattributed value 
handed over again and again. All
this you said was worth so little there was 
no point in gesturing brushwood
the clouds’ passage could as easily be found 
burning against the lower fields
beginning back of them the creased ligature
of one less known than others
still harsh in his assimilated nature. 

Death could be in this way
anticipated, sought after even. Below
it was clear the line meant to divide one half of the picture
from the other, the rigid introspection of crayoned
purple that let smears resemble pieces of
a body laid to rest underneath
white leaves blades of grass 
nearly fertile then muted. And each blend of red 
or blue or brown placed just above 
the saturated surface: pockets of imperfect 
possible belief: 

                         “so much unsparingly drawn … assimilated & retraced”



Everything pre-dates. 
Everything is in readiness for something about to happen. 

“To become old the innocence
of the insulted in the challenged blood 
of childhood” as if this too 
provided document of their having 
existed inside the genetics of a song 
that had no force in the present 
becoming both limit and breaking point
permanently rendered in child script 
as a pairing of white and red trees 
separated by a border of grey figures—

             “Now we feel surges of the unseen unsaid the glass smashed 
             against the brick face of the post office wall …”

And one beneath the fended-after sought-before 
otherwise deadly voice 
a cataract of imperfect phrasing 
unspeakably hard literally 
unable to pass through 

             Saying, The heart song rock & ridge revealed 
             as pity goes wingless tongueless, unwilled & gone 
             out, the human sign, spoken at the extremes of language—
             And the bird has flown out to sea, launched in arias 
             of surreptitious pleading, denials of pluralist love, dragged
             over the sea, into rain & earth …

Who absorbs this brokenness 
when it is out of place in this world. There
the face is upended, the boat like 
a rapid faltering spray of color 
that hits the empty screen—
reflecting coronas of blank empathy. 



The hand brought into light this place 
that consumes 
softens the flesh where it 
spreads against linen into which 
its faded portrait is just 

“all you know all
you are all 
that has happened” 

Cauterized by a bolt of lightning

Shroud line of the singly marked seam

Laid to rest within 

A rising tide: blue jet stream

Errant shower beams of southern light

Impossible to live out
their days without number 
their eyes passing back to note 
our passing—

             “o our elderly daughters … human & remote …” 

We have more to 
say we have so little to say to one another
under the cypress we have said nothing we can
believe or saying again reveal what came between us
in a garden of shadows. 

And the figures pass exactly as drawn. 

And what’s drawn forward is drawn away. 

If there is no hatred in mind wind can never tear them apart. 


—To Robert Kelly


“The retuning of children … the returning of bodies” is from Rachel Tzvia Back, On Ruins and Return. Hölderlin is the source for “pillars of cedar and laurel support” and “palms of the hands cut by nails.” “The face is devoured fruit ready for eating” is from Whitman. Walter Benjamin’s “Notes (II),” in Selected Writings (Vol. 2.1, 1927–1930), is the source for the section beginning: “The child’s writing hand is suspended.” The lines, “To become old the innocence / of the insulted in the challenged blood” and “all you know all / you are all / that has happened” are borrowed from George Oppen. The lines “We have more to / say we have so little to say to one another” are adapted from Allen Grossman, “Song of the Constant Nymph.”

Andrew Mossin has published seven collections of poetry, the most recent of which is North & East: Daybooks (Spuyten Duyvil). His new collection, Black Trees, is forthcoming in 2023, and he has recently completed another, A Common World. “The Day After the Day After,” from Conjunctions:70, Sanctuary: The Preservation Issue, is excerpted from a book-length memoir, A Son from the Mountains (Spuyten Duyvil). He is currently editing a book-length collection of essays, Thinking with the Poem: Essays on the Poetry and Poetics of Rachel Blau DuPlessis. He is an Associate Professor at Temple University, where he teaches in the Intellectual Heritage Program.