Editor’s note: Boston Review first published this poem from Claudia Rankine’s That Were Once Beautiful Children in 2012. That project was eventually renamed Citizen and was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award.
Yesterday called to say we were together and I was bloodshot but it carried my wound across a field of hours, deep into dawn, back to now, where I thank it for carrying
what faces me, the storm, red sky at morning. It says, be grateful; and I am grateful day shifts its leaves, the wind, a prompt against the calm. It says, you can’t digest
blue ceiling walling you in, putting a body into the midst of azure, oceanic, as ocean blushes the blues it can’t absorb, reflecting back the day
in the way, the cerulean frays, night, not night, this fright passes through the eye crashing into me, is it you?
Yes, it’s me, clear the way, then hold me clear of this that faces, the storm, red sky at morning carrying me though dawn.
I don’t know if I climb down or up into its eye—day, hearing my breath shiver,
whose are you?
Guard rail, spotlight, safety lock, airbag, fire lane, slip guard, night watch, far into this day are the days this day was meant to take out of its way. An obstacle
to surrender, dusk in dawn, the eye held open, then closing, then opening, a red-tailed hawk, out of proportion, taking over blue, surveying movement, against the calm, red sky at morning,
whose are you?
• • •
And, of course, you want the days to add up to something more than I came in out of the sun and drank the potable water of our developed world—
but because plot hangs in the air like pollen, the throat closes. You hack away.
That time the outside blistered the inside of you, the details between your thighs outmaneuvered the years, had you in a chokehold, every part roughed up, the eyes dripping.
That’s the bruise the ice in the heart was meant to ice.
You were derailed though no piece of you resembled a train. You couldn’t cart.
You couldn’t carry.
To have arrived like this everyday for it to be like this to have so many memories and still no other memory than this for as long as this can be remembered to remember this.
But a share of all remembering, a measure of all memory is the breath and to breathe you had to create a truce—a truce with the patience of a stethoscope waiting for an answer.
• • •
A breeze lifts the leaves; they fall, then lift to fall to lift.
Where have you been, I ask myself.
The child sings in the shower.
The man on the wide sofa sips his coffee,
His free hand stroking the white fur of the dog.
The tea’s warmth radiates through skin,
The eyes close and sight sinks into the earth.
You don’t have to close to keep I tell myself.
Couldn’t you make yesterday unfamiliar?
But I have forgotten and still the heaviness
In the limbs, the sudden, searing ache.
You made you up not to want to leave
And still you want to leave. Don’t leave.
I would surrender if I knew what to surrender.
Without the luxury of another life
There is the luxury of luck around this one.
The child sings in the shower.
The man on the wide sofa sips his coffee,
His free hand stroking the white fur of the dog.
A breeze lifts the leaves; they fall, then lift to fall to lift.
In these times, day in, day out, enough feels like enough.
• • •
I lived the childhood like an animal. Sometimes I would moan like wounded deer. Sometimes I would sigh. The mother would say, stop that. Another sigh. Another stop that. The moaning elicited laughter but the sighing upset her. She believed each sigh was drawn into existence to pull her in, pull her under, who knows; but truth be told, I could no more control those sighs than that which brought the sighs about.
The sigh was the pathway to breath; it allowed breathing. That’s just self-preservation. No one fabricates that. I sat down, I sighed. I stood up, I sighed. Still the sighing was a worrying exhale of an ache. I wouldn’t call it an illness but it was not the iteration of a free person. I should say well person but over the years I have come to see it is free I mean. That is why I liken myself to an animal, the surrounded kind, the kind that waits, awaits freedom.
Maybe the headaches began then. I like to think my memory goes that far back though remembering was never recommended. Empty your pockets of memories, she would say. She’s had a lot of practice. No one should adhere to the facts that contribute to narrative, the facts that create the biography. In my head feelings are what create a person, something unwilling, something wild, locked in below the right eye, vandalizing whatever the skull holds in. Those sensations form a someone. Don’t wear sunglasses in the house, she would say, though they soothe, soothe my eyes, soothe me.
At first I would lay down the young body. I’m sick. Eventually the headache would evaporate into a state of numbness, a cave of sighs. Over the years one loses the melodrama of seeing oneself as a patient. I stopped sighing but the headaches remain. I hold my head in my hands. I sit still. Rarely do I lie down. I ask myself, how can I help you? A cold glass of tap water? Sunglasses? The enteric-coated tablets, I know better than to take a step without, live in my purse next to my id. The single action is to turn on tennis matches without the sound. And though watching tennis isn’t a cure for the pain it is a clean displacement of effort, will and disappointment.
She was wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. You can bury it in you, turn your flesh into its own cupboard. There is a lot of bullshit in the body. Who did what to whom on which day . . . who dumped the contents of a room out the window . . . who threw whom down the stairs . . . the living room mirror flung from the wall broke into remembrances on the living room floor. Do you remember when you would sigh? No, I don’t.
Memory is a tough place. Yes, I was there, I say. If this is not the truth it is also not a lie. There are benefits to being without nostalgia. Certainly it relieves the past. Sitting here, there are no memories to remember, just the ball going back and forth. Shored up by this external net, the problem is not one of a lack of memories; the problem is simply a lack, a lack before, during and after. The right eye and its cheek fit into the palm of the hand. Feeling better? The ball isn’t being returned. Someone is approaching the umpire. Someone is upset now.
I fumble around for the remote to cancel mute. The player says something and the formerly professional umpire looks down from his high chair as if regarding an unreasonable child, a small animal. The commentator wonders if the player will be able to put this incident aside. No one can get behind the feeling that caused a pause in the match, not even the player trying to put her feelings behind her, dumping ball after ball into the net. You can retire with an injury but you can’t walk away because you feel bad.
Feel good. Feel better. Move forward. Let it go. Come on. Come on. Come on. What results eventually is a return to the ball going back and forth over the net. Now the sound can be turned back down. My fingers cover my eyes, press them deep into their sockets—too much commotion, too much emotion for this head remembering to ache like a wounded animal muting its moaning. Move on. Let it go. Come on.