Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Lee Upton

"All The Wrong Numbers"

Isn’t this Linda? he asks.
This is the number I was given, he says.
You can detect his humiliation
emitting a high frequency sound
that, frankly, you’re good at hearing—
like you’re the dog of humiliation.
He repeats the number and repeats her name.
Now you’re an incompetent god
listening to a petition,
and unable to do the smallest thing to relieve
ordinary misery.
And maybe you think you could cooperate for a second
and say, This is Linda,
and then let him figure it out.
Although, face it, the man keeps
repeating the number,
and you say again, Yes,
that is this number,
until he fully realizes
that she’s stiffed him.
And he knows that you know too.
And a needle of pain vibrates
in his breathing.
The phone doesn’t click
as if the man still hopes
you’re Linda playing a trick
and at any moment will say,
in the strange intimacy that phones project,
you’ll say: Of course it’s Linda—I just can’t resist teasing you.
a consequence,
you have to be the first to hang up,
but of course he calls again thinking he misdialed earlier,
and he says, Linda?
and you want to tell the man:
You’ve made more than one mistake.
Dear God, stop bothering me.
Oh, but you won’t say that
because you feel like apologizing for Linda,
but that would be idiotic like
apologizing for Eve.
As if you believed in original sin.
Hasn’t unearned
guilt caused enough suffering?
And then the man
on the other end of the line
says again, Linda?
in this sad little bleat,
and you,
you say,
This isn’t Linda,
but what is your name?
And then he hangs up,
a bit terrified of you.
But that’s all right:
he won’t call again,
and he’s not thinking about Linda;
he’s thinking there’s something
wrong with you,
and evidently
something is.

-previously published in The Best American Poetry 2010

The Fish House

A smell of ammonia or aluminum
and you're here.
You've entered at the side door.

The place seems beaten with a mallet.
A cathedral fish
with weeping gills loiters

among bright things stuck in ice.
And the young person you had been
blinks at a table.

What have we learned since we sat
in just that position, leaning forward?
Now we know enough to leave?

Just saying so can't make that woman
stand from the table,
sick of betraying herself or anyone.

Tell her what we can.
The past is a fish
that cannot swim.

It is mounted on a wall
above a woman's head.
She does not have to admire it.

The Crying Room

The church had a crying room—
up at the opposite side of the altar.
Good for the baby.
It was glass on all sides like a tank.
A microphone brought in the priest’s voice.
From the crying room we could see
how things happened backstage:
someone coming to the priest
with a bell and a napkin.
We weren’t soundproof.
Every time the baby cried
a pewful turned to us.
But then, after a point,
the parishioners were almost used to
the intermittent little shrieks,
the baby wanting down,
wanting up.
This was in a town
with the sea just a block away
and remarkable sea winds,
winds to lift, to accost, to warn.
I was holding the crying baby
behind the glass doors.
I could look out at the parishioners
who had gone to the trouble
to make a place for the smallest
throats among them,
even though they were used
to being pushed by invisible forces.
They were right to put distractions
ahead of them in glass
as if to preserve and in
preserving to distort,
and yet not fail to see
exactly who made trouble for them.

The Table

To rise from the table
he put his hands upon it—
ate and drank
and played cards upon it.
Wrote to his mother,
blessed her,
made politics upon it,
pressed the fly leaf,
let poinsettias yellow upon it,
dropped the bread and killed the crust upon it,
read his Edgar Allan Poe upon it,
sponged the boards and tumblers,
wedged and split
the knife upon it

but when he turned the table over,
its four legs up in the air
like a dead horse,
that's when he ended our bargaining,
that's when he gripped more than the table
and took more than signals from across the table,
more than tappings, rustlings, eye blinks,
negotiation's soft wiring,
that's when he lunged over the legs of the table,
that's when at last—how long do I have to wait—
he turned over the precinct
and drafted his declaration and colonial address,
that's when nothing could go on under the table
and that's when he got the table to work.

-all three poems previously published at Poem Hunter

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