What’s the word for the sudden articulation of the ends of branches in early spring?
What’s the name of the bird that imitates the noises of other birds?
The word for a brass lamp in which you see your reflection?
The name of your reflection?
What’s the word for when you can speak but no one can understand what you want?
What’s the word for having only a few teeth?
The word for when they cut up your meat in bits too big to handle?
For fortune reversal?
–Mama, why does that woman just say “bails, bails”? No matter what you say, she says “bails.”
–She had a stroke. She lost all her words.
–What’s a stroke?
–Something happens in your brain. It’s like all her words are just locked up in her head, or they all left her head forever.
–But why “bails”?
–He rolled in something.
–Something that smells good to him and terrible to us.
What’s the name of a beautiful tree which blooms into flowery cups always before the last snowstorm of winter, in which it loses its cups and even a precious branch?
What’s the name of the last snowstorm of winter?
The sound of water being drawn into the thirsty field?
The thing that hisses in the grass, that terrifies your bathing-suited mother?
–Mama, I don’t mind sharing my room, but where is their home?
–They are refugees.
–What are refugees?
–People that lost their country.
–How do you lose a country?
What’s the word for the lone shoe, spotted in the morning on the side of the road, whose owner and pair are neither here nor there?
For the morning viewed from a car moving too fast to point out the shoe to your father?
Tying one’s laces without…………. ears?
A plot that never resolves or coheres?
What’s the name for accidental repetition that’s not accidental at all?
For creatures that become active only around twilight?
For the blank horror upon hearing of the death of someone you knew?
The word to share when you greet the grievers?
What’s the word for the pang that overwhelms the recesses of the mouth after chewing something unbearably sour?
For the fruit whose seeds are the only thing that’s eaten?
For seeds planted lower?
For an image you cannot see?
What’s the name of a black bird that’s not a blackbird whose black feathers glisten blue in the sun of late winter?
An instrument that creaks and squawks when the musician is learning to play a new tune?
What’s the name of an origami bird that looks like a frog, and becomes a harbinger of a change of season?
A tune just outside the reach of the musician?
–I don’t know how to say this, but…
–But what? WHAT?
What’s the word for the sort of shot that one is embarrassed to take, like a two-handed underhand free throw, but still goes in?
What’s the word for when you finally realize that you can beat your father at basketball?
What’s the word for when you let him win, and you can tell by his face that he knows?
–Next time, Pops. You still got it.
What do you call it when you’re in bed at night and you touch yourself, you know, down there, and if you do it, are you going to hell?
What’s the name of that smell?
What would get rid of that mess, so your mom doesn’t get a laundry surprise?
What do you look like when the feeling rises?
What’s the name for a system of musical notation that accounts for the facial expressions of the musician playing the song?
A song about facing death that makes life seem possible?
What’s the name for the impossibility of communicating?
–Hey, would you quit jerkin’ off over there and come talk to me for a sec?
So this is the waltzing
our mothers would warn us
would happen at nightfallthe alcohol coursingfrom tongue to our daring.
There’s always some reason
to drink or to protest
to hoist high some signagewe live and are readyto die for the language
of body and freedom—
those terrible beauties
we die in our minds for,those beautiful terrors we build and are borne by.
What’s the name for the part of the door that one frequently catches one’s coat on, thereby either tearing the coat while being jerked back toward the door, particularly when a certain member of the desired sex is looking on?
What’s the word for a coat that is significantly older than its current owner?
A person who owns clothes older than himself?
What’s the word for when a person’s a supplement to a thing?
What’s the word for when you introduce yourself twice to a pretty girl, because you don’t remember the first time?
What’s the word for when a curse word becomes just another adjective or verb, or conversely, when you realize that your diction is elevated in a way that makes everything that should be close as skin seem awkwardly distant?
For three months of a summer before college spent with a girl who knows a hell of a lot more about kissing than you do?
For the peculiar blend of happiness and sadness that accompanies graduation and moving out?
The wind of my face is tonic,
The breath of my stink is gin,
The turn of my mind is manic,
Time for the cut-out bin.
What’s the name for a pleasurable duty?
For the part of the violin that holds the strings to the body?
For the musician who waits for the absent conductor to begin?
The hole the music echoes in?
What’s the word for when you’re watching TV and the president comes on to say that we are going to war, and people cheer, high five, and then go back to their dorm room?
What’s the word for feeling the opposite of everyone around you, not out of a Romantic sense of superiority or self-righteousness, but out of a weird heaviness in your bones, as if at every moment you were carrying your own dying, and maybe the dying of others as well?
What’s the word for carrying those bones in such a way that you hope no one notices, but everyone notices?
What’s the word for when you play a certain song that is so full of anger it turns into joy, and all the weight you’ve been carrying melts into light?
What’s the name for fruit that could be described as a big apple?
What’s the word for the dizzy eroticism that overcomes one while sauntering through the Met, where everyone seems suddenly to be living art?
What’s the name of the fruit forbidden to eat in the Garden of Eden?
What’s the word for when you live through, by watching closely, someone else’s living?
What’s the word for the enormity of the sudden sinking feeling, that you may have been using a word incorrectly your entire life, such as “enormity”?
What’s the word for the mathematics of imaginary numbers, like dreaming what you would do if you had a hundred bucks?
The word for when the suspicion that you were right about something gets definitively confirmed, but you still don’t believe it?
For a doubt that relaxes into faith?
What’s the word for the little window that can open, set inside a bigger window that can’t open?
What’s the name for when you know you’re dreaming but still can’t change the dream?
For the kind of snow that falls all at once, and just as quickly, disappears?
For the feeling of secret ambivalence at someone’s good fortune?
–Do you have any fucking clue what you—
What’s the name of the housemate you barely know, in a city where you know almost no one, who chooses the half-finished, mold-thick, basement, and who only ventures upstairs to soil the toilet with beer shits, but who then teaches you, painstakingly, his note-by-note rendering of the Charlie Brown theme on electric guitar?
The name of the temporary agency that hires you to answer phones and stuff envelopes, at corporations all over the unknown city?
The office job where you were fired after three days because they deemed you a failure at answering phones and stuffing envelopes, and you didn’t know if you’d be able to cover the electrical bill?
When you fall asleep as soon as your head nestles the pillow and two hours later, you awaken in the middle of a dark night, and you get up, and walk the empty rooms, your mind flooded with angry light?
The null day spins around my spine,
Yet last night was sticky with stars.
Morning light socks me in both eyes,
Still dizzy from unbuttoned bars.
The all of sin has mulled my wine.
No waking up without a line.
Mouth now filthy with corpse and dung,
Yet my ear holds your breath, your tongue.
I tip a glass half ill with rye.
Each day a new day to die.
What’s the name for the note one plays when one reaches the unstable interval?
What’s the word for the note you write when you knows that you done seriously fucked up?
What’s the name for the sexual position that a couple has studied in books but makes them feel like they’re involved in an awkward game of Twister?
The position where you face away from each other, toward the same direction, as you arrive together at pleasure?
What’s the word for the desire not to leave the wedding, to let it last just a bit longer, even though it’s time to leave?
What’s the word for when you’re picnicking at the windy beach, and the grit of sand sneaks into the brie?
The place you wake to, at the edge of a quiet island, where you look out of the bedroom window and see only ocean?
The position where you face each other, gripping each other so close all you can see is your own hungry reflection?
What’s the name of creatures that become active at twilight?
What’s the word for repetition that belabors?
For the upwelling upon hearing of the death of someone you sort of disliked?
What’s the word to share when you greet the grievers?
Do you remember when we went out and replaced all the light bulbs in the hallway and the entrance of the apartment at ———- so that [illegible]? How afraid you were when you stepped into the black hallway and [illegible]?
What’s the word for the realization that you have spent your entire life pretending something doesn’t exist, all the while knowing it existed?
What’s the word for when a child writes something perfectly backward?
For looking back at old versions of the future?
–Come on, man, quit looking at your fucking phone and just drive!
What’s the word for what just happens to your body when you see a creature that is half yours, half your partner’s, and entirely no one’s at all?
The word for the awful cobweb of consciousness that one wakes to, when an infant needs to be rocked in the middle of the night, that somehow ends up feeling like the most important architecture of being?
For the realization you have the next morning that it was, in fact, the inner ravings of another sleepless night?
What’s a baby turning and looking at you, suddenly, after months of unfocused gazing, as if they’ve known you longer than you’ve been alive?
What’s the name of creatures without a hard backbone, such as the friend who can’t seem to ask for what he wants?
What’s the name of the malady that makes a bunch of children decide to run in the opposite direction at the most inopportune time, and then, all at once, like a murmuration of starlings, decide to alight on the blooming magnolia?
For a staircase to a bridge that was planned to be built, but, due to an inevitable chain of disruptions and carryings-on, never gets built?
For a musical note not on the score that is played by accident and yet nonetheless sounds as if it always belonged there?
What’s the word for a day before the end of winter and the beginning of spring that so clearly resembles both that it seizes you with whimsical undecidability?
What’s the word for the moment when everything changes in a person’s life, but that change is entirely invisible to everyone but the person, and nothing changes for anyone else?
What’s the word for a child’s love of a pet that has yet to exist?
What’s the word for a clock that one keeps that, nonetheless, does not keep time?
What’s the word for the kind of music that most resembles chicken fat?
What’s the word for what emerges from the bathroom sink when you pull out the drain snake?
For the residue of the past that keeps the apple of the present from shining?
For the glare on a computer screen that makes you see your profile shadowing in the screen?
–Love, I don’t know how to say this…
–Don’t tell me. Let me guess.
What’s the word for the choice employment of a curse word, as in, when your grandmother is asked where she is going, and she replies, “up the donkey’s ass”?
What’s the name for the distance between the pilot in a cubicle pressing a button and engaging a missile to eliminate a target, and the target?
What’s the name for music that’s more than music, that’s a way of breathing and moving the body, such that it’s not music being created or destroyed, but the person?
What’s the word for the pilot’s gnawing feeling, having left the grocery store, that he has forgotten something, and he stands there outside, everyone carting around him, looking like he’s lost?
What’s the word for the sudden alertness one attains, from a sound sleep, when one is asked a question that strikes into the heart of one’s defenses?
What’s the name for a bottle so large that, when it’s full, it’s fucking impossible to carry?
What’s the name for a wind so intermittent that it feels not like wind, but like invisible bullies pushing you…and…you wake and your face feels like, what, ground beef?
What’s the word for a bottle that, when dropped, disperses into glittering pieces so small and so dispersed that, months later, you keep finding the glittering?
What’s the word for the weird pleasure in loaning money to a farmer in an occupied country so that he can buy hens?
Or the weirder pleasure that occurs every few months, when you receive an email that he has made his quarterly repayment of that loan?
Or the stew of disconcertedness and paranoia that people are, perhaps, separated by a byzantine and seemingly-infinite set of procedures not visible to us, and that our very ability to click a small loan to a destitute third-generation-refugee egg farmer from the comfort of our air-conditioned two-story house is somehow connected to this gnarly matrix of procedures?
Or the sudden wonder about what would happen if you met him in person, sat down and shared some eggs?
What’s the word for the polite dance between people insisting that they host or pay, and that to refuse would be a sort of rudeness?
What’s the word for being undone or flustered by something you guess might be related to a cultural difference, as when a person presumes that you are rude because you always graciously accept their offer to host or pay for the meal?
What’s the word for the ritual of politely refusing a host’s offer of food twice, only to accept the third offer?
For postprandial shunt on a stranger’s suddenly-cozy couch?
What’s the name for the space between the privacy and the anus?
What’s the name you give to the man who drives the road like a total menace?
What’s the word for the sound of cabbage chopped on a cutting board?
What’s the word for carrying a person cut by a sword?
–Hey hon, 24 down, six letters, begins with C, can mean to connect or its opposite.
–Hah hah. No, the second letter is “l.”
What’s the word for the sort of melancholy that envelopes you in such a way that you first are penetrated as if walking into a cold wind, and then you find your whole body suddenly heated by its own mechanical motion?
What’s the word for the sort of happiness that, like a late-afternoon warmth, contains the foretaste of coming cold, like a couple white hairs on an all-black-thatched head?
The word for the sudden realization, having left the apartment, heading down the long stairs and into the night, of what would have been the right thing to say?
For what you actually said, when it is precisely the wrong thing to have said?
What’s the word for the relief you get climbing into bed with your beloved, a relief not only from the long day, but from the fucked-up shit you have to deal with from your beloved?
The name of the disease that overcomes one in the middle of life, as if they’ve been asleep for years, and suddenly awaken to the life that’s before them?
The disease that overcomes one in the middle of life, as if they’ve been awake for years, and suddenly fall asleep to the life that’s before them?
What’s the cure?
I gather together
this saving aphasia—
the odd amputationssurviving the decades,lamenting the absence
of sadness, rejoicing
in everyday bullshit—
my father got dressed ina paisley-inflectedor corduroy sportcoat
to face his unsolva-
ble patients, their daily
unbridled nightmarishtranslations of dreamlife—so how then am I what
he was then, awakened
from dreams by babies crying—
their need to be moving—committing to something,abandoning something—
–Hey, good to see you. Been a long time.
–Yeah, you too.
–Hey, this is really embarrassing, but for the life of me I can’t remember your name.
–Hey, don’t worry about it. I don’t remember yours either.
What the goddamn [expurgated] [expurgated] [expurgated]?
What’s the word for the moment when you feel, after a long sequence of events that have ground your spirit between the mortar and pestle of fate and bad decisions, like something still will happen and the gray sky will dissolve from the sheer force of hope?
What’s the name of the deodorant that reminds you of someone you once wanted to hold, but nonetheless remained a friend, and despite all evidence to the contrary, neither of you would admit the fact of your mutual attraction?
What’s the name a friend once gave you that you did not like, yet nonetheless you came to resemble?
What’s the word for the moment when you open the email, and it states that the thousands of pages of your life work, due to the malfunctioning of a second-floor office fire sprinkler, are now currently underwater?
–Will you be back soon?
–As soon as I can, Mom.
–Honey, you’ve been saying that your whole life.
What’s the word for how time speeds up as you age, such that not only does each year seem to be galloping faster and faster toward its finish, but the seasons seem to be mere punctuation in a sentence that must be the final sentence of some long poem?
What’s the word for when you hear a song that brings back a precise moment when you were still young, when everything was not yet decided, and you feel exactly as you did then, only covered in the hide of thirty years, and the voice you hear as you sing to that song is exactly as wobbly as you remember?
The word for the weekend in which the kids are at a sleepover and you have the whole house to yourselves, and you can walk around buck naked if you damned well please, and you do, until you get cold and realize that it sounds better than it actually feels?
For when you give up your bodies to each other in a way that reminds you of why you married in the first place?
Postcoital peace, a peace after the long war of conflicting desire?
What’s the word for the sudden piercing when you’ve said aloud, in a moment of weakness, the thing you’ve said to yourself about your child in the silence of your heart and promised you would never ever repeat, for fear that you would destroy the illusion you spent your entire life constructing around them?
Or the inexplicable mix of confusion and relief that bathes you when your child says they’ve known that for years?
Or the stuttering follow-up to clarify what’s just been said?
–Do you know anything, anything at all about me?
What’s the word for the sound that pervades a house where the children have left for good?
And what’s the word for the year that the magnolia steadfastly refused to bloom?
And what’s the word for the year the magnolia, as if repeating a happy mistake, blooms twice?
And the word for the year the magnolia blooms just before the last snowstorm, but holds on to its cups as if to its own children?
What’s the word for when you return to a place where you fought in a war, a war you did not understand then, and understood even less with each passing year, but now that you are back you discover that that place that haunted you with such intensity and terror and wonder now only lives in you?
And that the very name of the city, due to the revolution, has changed?
What’s the phrase for that sense that you were part of something immeasurably large, but that your part was so immeasurably small, that it no longer makes sense why you felt so strongly then about your duty, and so strongly afterward that you had been wrong?
Or the inability to recount any of this to your family when you return home, spending most of your time talking about the way the workers clipped the lawn outside the resort with tiny scissors?
What bonsai season?
What unzippered sword?
What elderly reason?
What words are toward?
–Hey honey, have you seen the thing?
–Did you look behind the curtain?
–No, the other thing.
–Behind the couch, then?
Into the simple day I wake, naked
branches hauling last night’s storm, the shrub heads
bowed like students hiding their faces—
they don’t know the answer, or deign to say.
What’s the name of a person who, after a long life of being impervious to the charms of reading, who has lived a life so full of hustling and angling, building and hauling, cleaning and ordering, that he often saw reading as a sort of pallid weakness, suddenly finds himself drawn into the flow of narrative and the predicament of a certain fallible character?
What’s the word for what happens when, after the rush of page-turning and speed-reading toward the inevitable climax, the story ends?
–Well, what kind of cancer is it?
–How the hell should I know? Cancer. She said the doctor said “you have cancer” and my brain sort of broke. I literally could not take another word in.
–I was sitting in the chair as she shaved my hair, and your father was holding my hand, and he was crying, and I was crying, and I kept thinking that, before that moment, I had never ever really been naked.
–Doc says it’s idiopathic.
–What does that mean?
–It means he don’t know shit.
What’s another word for cyclical blues?
What’s the word for creatures that hibernate each winter?
What’s the word for the weird familiarity that comes when you learn of the death of someone you knew?
What’s the word to share when you greet the grievers?
What’s the word for a day which begins in clouds and ends in sun, or the word for irregular bursts of wind, or the word for the sudden memory that had been long forgotten and now returns with such force because of a certain cast of sky suddenly shifting into sun, and the irregular bursts of wind?
I’m dreaming your body
undone of the bindings
of leather and thread—a thrumming vibrationthat stitches my mouth shut
and opens my eye—
the something that happens
when no one is watching,the urgent desireto spill all the blinds
and harness the friction
of body and body,
a silly convictionI have that you’re mine.This kind of music
reminds us of knocking,
of pressing and pressing
until something gets in.Just like in the dream, whenbeginning to fly
you think that you’re dreaming,
you know you lack wings,
but something inside youwill not stop beating,refusing to leave
the come-hithering sky.
What’s the word for when the person with whom you spent your entire adult life suddenly disappears from the face of the earth?
What’s the word for when everything hurts and it’s hard just to get out of bed?
What’s the name for a disease that is undiagnosable and therefore does not exist?
–I mean, I could tell by his eyes that he wanted to speak, but he just couldn’t say a word, you know?
–Like he was locked inside his head?
–Yes, locked inside his head. But you know, it’s like his eyes were barred windows, and I could see so much life moving behind them.
–So what was he telling you?
–Maybe he was telling me…that he was ready?
–Do not something something into that good night. Something something against the dying of the light. It’s the damndest thing. I can remember how the lines end but not how they begin.
What’s the word for the lone shoe with its tongue pulled out, spotted in the morning on the side of the road, as you drive to the cemetery?
The word for when your mouth suddenly feels completely out of your control, and your teeth and tongue and lips are at odds with each other, and certain syllables come out like whistling—so you say whatever the fuck you please while you still can?
For being unable to reach down to tie your laces without shooting pains down your legs and spine?
–What’s the word for when you mishear a person because of distraction or noise?
–For the sheer sun of lack shun annoys?
What’s the word for the sealed end of a shoelace that always frays, making it impossible to poke it through the hole, particularly because your hands never stop shaking?
What’s the word for when the power surges, and all the light bulbs grow unusually bright, right before everything goes out?
–I didn’t say anything.
–But what did you want to say?
What’s the name for everyone whose face you’ve forgotten or never known, and you don’t know how to tell the difference, so you call everyone honey, wanting to believe that everyone must be beloved by someone, because to think otherwise would be too much to bear?
To watch a great-grandson
insert his tongue mid-lips
and blow until it sends
its spray, its anti-kiss,
its vibrating cell phone’s
What’s the name of a beautiful tree which blooms into flowery cups always before the last snowstorm of winter, in which it loses another precious branch?
And the name of the last snowstorm of winter?
And the sound of water being drawn down, down, down into the thirsty field?
And the name of the thing that hissed in the grass, which you see in your mind’s eye some eighty years later, which once terrified your bathing-suited mother?
She runs her eyes over each line
exactly faithful to each length, arrives
to the end and turns the page—
those little head shakes we always make—
eating the language. She can’t read
more than the simple handful of words
she scrawls across the open leaves,
but her eyes and neck are ready to find.
–Brother, when I go, you’ll be the last one. So don’t ever forget where we came from.
–Where did we come from?
And the word for when you can speak but no one can understand what you want, and they go on cutting up your meat in bites too big to handle?
What’s the word for handles on a casket?
For the drive between the church and the cemetery?
The dirt you throw into the hole that hits the casket but doesn’t ever close the hole?
–My bones, my bones.
–What about your bones, Grandpa?
–How can something feel so light and so heavy at the same time?
What’s the word for when you leave the cemetery and grave is still open, and the birds still sit in the trees, still weaving their threads of song overhead, muffled now to your hard ears, but still planting their little music in the nest of your head?
The word for when you search for a word that you know must exist yet every word you find does not quite seem right?
And for when you search for a word and then find it and it still doesn’t seem right?
And when you search for a word but then find that it’s not words at all that you were searching for, that what you wanted was a sudden articulation, at the ends of your straining, something like a bud that unfurls into something like a hand?
Philip Metres is the author of Sand Opera (2015), Pictures at an Exhibition (2016), and I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (2015), among other books. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry and has garnered two NEA fellowships, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, the George W. Hunt, S.J. Prize, a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, five Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Beatrice Hawley Award, two Arab American Book Awards, the Cleveland Arts Prize, the Anne Halley Prize, the PEN/Heim Translation grant, and the Creative Workforce Fellowship. He is professor of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland.
You can read more from Metres on At Length here.