at Length

from Shadow-feast

—Joan Houlihan


IS ANYONE hurting you?Leave me. I am work. I am legs.
I am horse shackled to cart.

Do you know what year it is?Yes. It is lung. It is pump.
It is high hiss and squeal.

How do you feel?Each part of me feels for floor.
I am floor and cough.
I am father in a long coat dragging.

Do you know who you are?Fist-gripped onto wheels I am
Made of what makes my voice.
You are hurting me.

WOULD BE MY ARMS, my trunk.
My age and all I came from.
No page as thumbed as I am.
And what was farther north,
the latitudes I loved—up in smoke.
Lean me on you, I am rid of wish.
The earth is worthless.
The earth is beneath me.
Heard my head say hollow. No.
Heard my head say hole, and then
the cold air through.
They say I cannot speak.
They say it’s winter and I have another name.
Call it moaning, call it melting.
I’m gone as soon as you arrive.

YOU WERE RIGHT. I couldn’t climb
the stairs. Breath was all I wore
and what bolted my body together,
poor meat, was a small will—smaller than me.
But I’ll prove I live. I am mute but thought-loud:
look at me, this freight I am.
No air I don’t choke on. No bed I don’t drown in.
I need to rise but my legs are away.
Then my bone split, spoke: what night is this?

A LATE WASH and I looked a parch.
A part of me began to leak. Whose body rains
like that, tethered to a grunt, inched and shifted, tugged
and rolled? The man we saw was me.
The mouth we made, the name I tried to form
of you, the hand we held, our own,
the bandaged book we read from, ours too.

WHEN THE COUGH had burnt enough,
they used the soot to coat my throat.
It isn’t sleep I get
but rest. Remember him?
The gentle man who tore the air
and would not quiet?
When I sleep I’ll lay my head
where his head once lay.


ON THE OTHER SIDE of our body        things jingle, drop
through the wall. Curtains        rush, a slow splash
and sticky squares dab.        Time came in and stranded us here.
We creaked open, listening.        The past stacked high on us,
day looked into us.        Clarity without remedy. To rescind,
to wind back clean as wind,        I would give anything.
Beneath our lids, other eyes.

SEWN INTO SHADOW, he looked out older.
Urge ghosted him. She sat him up to sip
a bowl of broth—
maple at the window, each leaf lit—
when to lie down was all he wanted.

AWOKE out from inside
Coughed sideways
Look into me
Touch my side
My throat, choked
It is I It is I

STICK FIGURE, knee-boned, you
step off the scale—
Almost to my high school weight!
Your smile so fake it breaks me.
We count, withhold, endure.
Skin without mind, tissue-
timed, blood and detritus—
slow murder. What ate you away
keeps on eating.

IN THE SNOW OF having found him
listening to the cold that is him
as he froze in a gesture of no and said
the man I no longer am—
She waited to hear the rest. There was no rest
and nothing but ice on the window.
She is her own history now.
Caught in a storm born of his last breath,
she heard the bottom of the world crack.

IN THE SHIRT YOU WORE, that you never wore,
the hours, ponderous, stopped. Now you are sensate in me—
you, only whole, who altered earth away from me.
Once-blunt footsteps put your walk here again,
but quiet, quiet. And loose in this room
undoctored, a cranial arc and glow,
your forehead, face, leonine and kind.

WHO IS YOUR NAME, what is your home—
two years gone and your jacket still hung
at the end of my endless day.
And I know better than to call for you,
know better than to reach for you,
not in a grave, not intact,
but bedded in a burning, blacked.

Joan Houlihan is the author of five books of poetry including Shadow-feast, forthcoming in March, 2018 from Four Way Books. She is Professor of Practice in Poetry at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts and also serves on the faculty of Lesley University’s Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Houlihan founded and directs the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference.