THE DANCER'S ARMS AND LEGS
Imagine glowing birds fathered her.
Twenty-one floors off the ground
this thought flies and swims
through her from distances beyond
the Coast Range, the Pacific.
Through window glass, she's uttering
something like a litany, something
like supplication, as though all
she wished to say, ever,
has emerged at once, rippling
like ten thousand cottonwood leaves
whose tree anchors a river's
swerve: one stays, one goes,
one's stillness borders the other's
perpetual vanishing. Where they touch,
the world marries something infinite
to something mortal, a moment
where each leaf becomes birdwing
and the river stops time
long enough for this girl
talking through her high window
to make its transparency part
of herself, shield and wing,
tree and river dancing goodbye
to every word that kept
her human, frail, unwilling to
take this next step. Gods
take form in rivers, clouds,
swans, herds of horses, dolphins,
through the window they're assembling
around the distant blue place
standing empty for her ascent.
No one in the room
will say, Impossible. No one
like her is there today.
She is poised to dance
with her body, the spell
of language is nearly exhausted,
the spell of imagining womanhood.
She will not even have
to break the immense window,
a swan flies toward it
from the other side, black
force grown huge with velocity.
After a moment when glass
displaces her bones, she'll fly—
a dolphin midair, winged horse,
cottonwood tree wrenching roots loose
from the river, and rising.
There is no falling left.
It was the twenty-first floor,
her twenty-first year. She meets
the swan's pas de deux
in a burst of black
feathers, glassy leaves, clamor of
a glacier calving inside her,
of river ice breaking up.
She's a million invisible droplets
congealing to compose a cloud.
Beneath, behind her, the swan
changes—first raven, then crow
following the river that runs
backward past the house where
her mother and father still sleep,
cherishing the tireless girl who
maintains her port de bras
in a bedside photo, transfixed
en pointe for the camera.
All night this crow roosts,
considering how to wake them
shortly after dawn with word
that she is no longer
anything like them, no longer
mortal, that if they wish
to behold her they must
go down to the river
and step in and be
instructed by the cold current
undermining their balance, be shown
how little they believed remains
in that cloud dissolving overhead,
backlit by a sky altering
blue to black to blue,
until in this chilly theater
for two they understand night
is the swan whose feathers
are diamonded with the dew
of constellations and there, see?
that glitter of ice shaken
from one wing? her name.
The women I balanced on my hips come back all
at once, a ghost the size of a handkerchief.
I reach up in the dark where a face should be
and find nothing but a scrap of linen
that spasms in my hands. I want to fall
asleep under women who sleep inside me
and grow wings when I go for a week with no wife.
When she's gone, my wife, too, joins these women:
there's a penciled nude of her on the far wall,
longhaired, slender, smiling the way she first stepped free
of clothes in that shrinking beach house and changed my life.
The man who drew her began to be a ghost when
she came to me. Some nights she looks for him
and finds me, bright among her ghosts, pushing through them.
The dancer poem began when I was taking
my last University of Oregon workshop to the UO Museum of Art for a writing
soiree—while they looked at serious art to write (I hoped), visually
descriptive poems meant to improve their connection between perception
& I went to the museum's kiddie corner, full of hands-on interactive
stuff (and no kids). There some vanished kid had written most of that
first line—"Imagine glowing birds father[ed] her"—with
bigsize magnetic-poetry words on a piece of tin. Off I went on that, because
1/it was a 5-word line, and I have been working with a line of "five
words any length" for the past year, and 2/I was remembering the
last young woman to jump to her death out of the building where I taught
that poetry workshop (and many others). She died a dozen years ago, and
I knew little about her, but I never walked past the place where she landed
without a thought for her. The actual building isn't half as tall as the
needs explaining? Woody Allen: Don't knock masturbation, it's sex with
someone I love. This concerns incubi and succubi, I suppose, and the notion
that we rarely reveal and are rarely told in turn what's imagined during
sex, except when it's solo. I was also thinking of a late Philip Larkin
poem—"Love Again" is its title, I think—that manages
to mix bluntness and tact, drollery and mortal tenderness, which is an
appealing range of feeling to me.