Ryan G. Van Cleave is the Anastasia C. Hoffman Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Institute for Creative Writing. His work has appeared in recent issues of Southern Humanities Review, Quarterly West, and American Literary Review. His most recent books are Say Hello (Pecan Grove Press, 2000) and the anthology American Diaspora: Poetry of Exile (University of Iowa Press, 2001).
Psalm of Sleeping In
This October day half spent,
my hand drops unnoticed
to the floor, proof that shadows
yank apart from night like breath,
or so it seems as the conversation
of myself with myself punctuates
the bedroom air, hanging right there,
words I might pluck like green apples
had I the energy or inclination for movement.
The hours pile atop the nightstand
like old scissors, darkness rolled
into a tight little ball, a felt fedora.
In the distance, church bells tolling?
A window-shadow shaped like a star?
I cannot feel my arms. I do not know
how long I slept, how ancient I've become.
There are moments when, in both sunlight
and shadow, I listen to my breathing,
re-fuse myself into a whole, one song
out of a thousand tangled voices.
Telesthesia—n. the supposed perception of distant occurrences or objects otherwise than by the recognized sense.
How loyal are the fingers,
the print-whorls so faithful
in their acquisition of knowledge,
of texture and temperature:
scalding, bumpy, slimy.
My grandmother was born
without nerves in her hands.
She could poke a needle
through the web of skin
between thumb and index
finger, saying See? I just
don't feel a thing. But stranger
still to me, at age eight,
was the way she'd say Mom's
home twelve seconds before
we heard the car grind up
the gravel driveway, or how
grandma would know her cousin
Lou had cancer before the call,
that Uncle Gene's heart was
creaking down rusty tracks
before even the cardiologist knew.
Some nights, I put myself to sleep
with the idea that I don't have
this gift, always knowing I won't
ever win Lotto, that one slippery
August afternoon, I'll be mowed
down by a bearded old man named
Theodore who is preoccupied with
his daughter's troubled pregnancy,
which will turn out okay in the end.
I rub my fingers together, little boats
of flesh grinding together, and try
to envision what it'd be like not to feel
my own skin, but I can't—I feel it too surely,
like I know some things just are. I tell
myself it's only my hyperactive imagination,
an odd knack for dreaming things up.
But still I hear my grandma's words
the night before she died. You take good
care of your mother, now. You hear?
Arms Thin as Broomsticks
So much like my mother's, lean and without
the knotted, thick muscles my father had.
Unlike him, I never busted through the line
of scrimmage for a 38 yard touchdown,
bench-pressed 300 pounds, or punched out
the bully who took my lunch money in fifth
grade; but when Jenny's boyfriend dumped
her for the blonde exchange student from
Norway with the hourglass figure 15 year old
boys and girls had only seen in magazines,
Jenny's green-eyed tears wet my arms, the salt
accepting my embracing flesh without hesitation.
Now, with a flashlight, these arms also make
snake-shadows on the wall of our daughter's
bedroom, serpents that slithered across the
pages of Hercules and his many Labors,
the story she insists on hearing every night before bed.
It's been ages since I've found peace anywhere
other than in my wife's ever-constant green
eyes, but as I look at my slender, blue-veined
Arms this night, I realize that my mother isn't
as far away as I'd suspected. So this is forgiveness.