The Unseen Line
Hills cut diagonal across the sky
and on the hills another line, grief-sharp,
where dark firs end and empty branches start,
denotes some shift of wind, seedfall, supply,
invisible and straight as rain. As dry
and clear a border runs between the stark
forsaken and the saved: a precise mark
of the wave’s bite, the point at which it died.
Which traces to a portent flaw of stone
and charts from which substratum tautened thread
the heft and volume of the water thrown
combined with speed and depth and coastal bed
will carve another line as yet unknown
between the living and the sudden dead.
We were quietly enough in class
examining Stevens’s “Examination of the Hero
in a Time of War.”
The professor, spare and amiable, and everything was distant
as he explained Stevens’s
“difficulty of imagining a plausible version of the hero
in an age of disillusionment”—
such as his, I suppose.
Outside the list went on.
Students were dozing in a ten o’clock class
with comfortable seats,
and others debated
the fine points of fine language.
Outside a voice reading.
It was a fine humid day,
presaging a spring storm.
The windows were open for the breeze, and outside
words in the wet air.
Students at a microphone read a long list of deaths,
names, dates, restraining orders, sentences,
In stanzas XIV–XV it is overdoing itself
“deliberately trying to make you uncomfortable
with its assertion.”
With microscopes we read the war poem.
Death is my / Master and, without light, I dwell.
Only when the wind is right we hear:
“. . . fatally shot to the head. . .”
good common man, what / Of that angelic sword
“. . . ember third, nineteen ninety. . .”
Captain, the man of skill, the expert / Leader
“. . . sentenced to life without parole. . .”
They are sick of each old romance, returning
and I am sick as I walk across the courtyard,
withdrawing further and further so as not to hear
“. . . bludgeoned to death by a blunt object. . .”
The hero / Glides to his meeting like a
“. . . breaking a restraining order she had against him. . .”
Professor says stanza VI is
I would make my own hero but for our age of disillusionment.
A man might happen
You would think the world would end
when something so terrible happens to a person
except that it happens every day.
the familiar / Man makes the hero artificial.
The litany continues steadily unfaltering
falling darkly on the overcast sky and people walking quickly by.
Each false thing ends
But the words continue as the acts continue
The hero / Acts in reality, adds nothing / To what he does.
And the pain I cannot grasp swells in all of us,
suffering until I cry even though I can’t feel the pain
weep as I hide from it.
That night rain falls and we have a hard time keeping candles alight.
Lit, relit, I tip the wick, relight
from the flames of strangers, and still withdraw
I don’t want to hear it, even though I’m there to hear.
The hero is not a person
I don’t know how a person can do these things.
I don’t know what I can hit, and screaming won’t make it better.
Women stand in the darkness behind the microphone,
voices flickering like the candles.
Their words are pale and partially absorbed by the listeners,
but their reverberations stretch into empty space.
Their speech is surrounded by silence:
You don’t clap when someone coughs up blood,
no matter how difficult or brave it is.
The highest man with nothing
higher / Than himself, his self
They tell their stories and their friends’ stories: how they were
raped, abused, fucked over, attacked, sexually assaulted.
It is surreally dark. I can only guess which of the women
I would recognize in the light of day, when they seemed whole.
How could there be an image, an outline / A design
a marble soiled by pigeons.
Are they whole? I can’t cry enough. The listeners
are a hole into which the pain falls and keeps falling.
the penetrating / Pure eye. I?
If you’ve never thought about it, think now.
Rain falling, hands shaking, candles shaking, voices shaking.
I can’t tell the stories they threw to an invisible audience that night.
His arms are heavy. . .
Ineffable became inescapable in that
space locked in the falling pain outside of
everything that clings to reality.
seems / To stand taller than a person stands. . .
The words that came out of the night
can’t come out of that night, and every time
those words come out they are pain.
Ten times ten times dynamite,
convulsive / Angel, convulsive shatterer, gun, / Click, click
We are pain
and we are war.
I walk home alone, my fists ready as rocks
for each shadow and passerby, to destroy.
But no one attacks me, which is good, because if they did
something would die. Something attacking me,
or something in myself.
Or more likely both.
Or more likely both are already dying or dead
in this my age of disillusionment.
Sonnets Google-Translated from the Japanese
Your skin hue like the wood-smoke smell [incense],
like roasted maron savor sweet. Watching
eyelashes flutter like black velvet wings
of dragonflies, I raise a false defense
of your slipped gaze. Just drunk, you lean against
[intoxicated by] a body. Sing
old tragic songs too loud, find me sitting
unseemly near. Night slips liquid intense,
and I intense will search your lips. Moon glow,
walk slow, way home, unsteady we persist,
footsteps like thousand birds. I feel a ghost
chill future follows. But now is your gift:
A dagger-cut persimmon, skin peeled slow
slow, segments each bow-shaped, bright. You insist.
Malka Older is a writer, humanitarian and development worker, and PhD candidate specializing in disaster and governance. Her poetry can be found at LEVELER and in the Meerkat Press anthology My Cruel Invention. Her fiction has appeared in Bengal Lights, Capricious, and at Tor.com, and her nonfiction in Chasing Misery, an anthology of writing by female aid workers. Her science-fiction political thriller Infomocracy will be published in June 2016 by Tor.com.