A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
The sound of box fans in a house without air conditioning
is the memory of clean wet hair, of a red pleated skirt floating
in a slim wind, of cotton sheets smelling of bird song,
but the day is a cast-iron pan, steam licking from its cocked lid.
In the maples the cicadas rattle: first, a crescendo stutter, a pause, and then
they start all over again, like bored children practicing finger runs on the violin.
I never see them. In my life they are noise, only noise; in their
lives I am nothing at all. But not even the whirring fans can dampen
their ardor, not the stinking garbage trucks banging alongside the curbs,
not gunshots or car crashes or Metallica. Sunlight, earth’s moody beloved,
glowers through the humid haze; somewhere, nearby, the sea flickers and chops
against a blurred horizon; the insects insist and sigh, insist and sigh, and I
don’t know what to do with myself, don’t know how to fidget the hours
till nightfall, don’t know how to conquer my restless clammy body.
Even the paperbacks quarrel with me, their covers curling in protest.
I stick to my vinyl chair, staring from my dim study window down into the weary
flowerbeds, for some reason imagining myself as a buzz-cut Rapunzel, trapped
in my torrid keep while the prince wanders off to a movie or a bowling lane.
Comedy is the last refuge of the hot but, truly, all I want to do is write angry poems
about disappointment—mine, yours, anyone’s—and every one of them I make is terrible.
Unkindness doesn’t track well in art; we’re supposed to be the empathetic ones,
observing the world from all sides, perched in our word-webs like big friendly spiders,
even if what we really feel is Bitterness. A crude burst, ugly as a splayed foot, a sudden,
gut-shot hatred of our dreams: oh, why did we believe we had a chance? And then,
in the same instant, shame, that we should be so green and unforgiving, puncturing
our own spleen; remembering that once, somewhere, we’d read a tabloid tale
about the day when Richard Wilbur won a big award and John Berryman sent him
a terrible letter, maybe the story isn’t even true, but we think it is, because we recognize
why Berryman couldn’t help himself, we despise ourselves for knowing why.
Though we’ve become indifferent, too—hope clogged like a drain, hardening into
a nothing-matters crust; as if caring too much was our crime and now, finally,
we can shrug, can pretend that what we always wanted was to be left alone.
You can see why the heat is getting me down.
These are the poems that nobody wants to read—graffiti-screeds of self-pitying schlock,
when I should be channeling the noble indifference of The Poet, framed in winter firelight,
poring over an ancient translation of Homer as The Helpmeet fries chops at the stove.
It’s the conundrum of my life: how to embody The Poet and The Helpmeet at the same
but how is such an act even plausible? She loved children and cats and spent her waning years
researching the history of laundry. Comedy: last refuge of the disheartened.
Ah, well. I stare out my window into late-summer shade, thinning and yellowed.
From the shed roof a squirrel is hurling insults, and beneath his screeches the cicadas
insist and sigh, insist and sigh, unmoved by his grandiloquent snit.
I imagine writing an entire collection about bad behavior—not extravagant bad behavior
like stealing Picassos or having sex with a daughter-in-law, but the everyday sort:
petty jealousies, and princess eye rolling, and household cold shoulders,
little ires The Poet can ignore, but they keep smacking The Helpmeet upside the head,
mostly when she’s on her knees trying to figure out why the kitchen sink is leaking.
The puddle of water feels good, though, in its own way, when the weather’s like this.
Copyright 2021 Dawn Potter.
Dawn Potter’s many books include Chestnut Ridge (Deerbrook, 2019). She directs the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, held each summer at Robert Frost’s home in Franconia, New Hampshire.