Paul Guest
All I Know

The Statue of Liberty was packed in crates of lentils

and there is a species of catfish with scales

so tough that piranhas can’t chew through

to red softness. I’m thinking of what is vital,

today. The willow tree in my dreams that sways

and a little girl singing quiet approximations of hymns.

To the night. To the flames which are

tragic and kinetic and aren’t ever receding.

I was the other day looking out over

what I believe is a river—forgive me

for not knowing the vague taxonomies of water—

and it was all noise, which is good

for some who struggle to sleep

or forget or change or learn or have any time

that isn’t quilted by pain.

I was attempting to memorize the wet folds going by,

imagining the smoothness of rock

that was hidden beneath it all,

and composing another version of this poem.

One which has no complaint

inside its sour heart. No unanswered questions.

No bitterness for how it’s turned out,

this life. My own. In the news this morning:

the death of a very great baseball player

and I shouldn’t be so sad, I know.

Not when I’m agreeing with the girl in the elevator

that we have decades left, maybe,

before the world becomes even more of an irredeemable hellscape.

Before we’re nostalgic for the Kardashians.

Before it wasn’t so bad, then,

when nobody was heaving up

the bloody rags of their lungs

and nobody had figured out how to clone Henry Kissinger.

I have never figured out

what happiness is

or how to be in it. Never learned what is behind

door number three, if I want

a better life. If at this point one is even possible.

If this desperation is viral. If my name is good before any door.

I don’t think so, not tonight, when

I’m trying to pretend that winter isn’t real

and there are trees which glow

in the night and insects that sing beneath the bone light

of the moon. O alternate heart:

who could I be in another life,

and upon whom could I visit harm

like a storm? To dream of potency

is to write this poem and feel no pain whatsoever.

Remember me, I’m always saying

to the air as if it were listening,

sympathetic, capable of the idea of mercy.

One summer I taught myself

how to announce in Latin

to the world that I wanted nothing at all

when, in truth, I was desperate

to be heard, understood, loved, my name a warm memory.

There was the wind and the ocean

and in it there were whales

that lowed in the darkness like the onset of collapse.

There was this dark will

and what could I say but my name and what hurt?

Found In Volume 51, No. 04
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Paul Guest
About the Author

Paul Guest is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Because Everything Is Terrible, and a memoir, One More Theory About Happiness. His writing has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, Tin House, Slate, New England Review, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and numerous other publications. A Guggenheim Fellow and Whiting Award winner, he lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.