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In Sarah V. Schweig’s poems any gesture extended to create a narrative or abbreviated to form an image of stillness can form the foundation of a lyric, as her poem “Stories” demonstrates. It effortlessly enacts the ways in which stories lay claim to our attention, even as the actual story—the one embedded in the poem—keeps on “breaking again and again.” The manipulation of events and insights that makes her poems both irresistible and harrowing is accomplished with extraordinarily skill. The rueful litany of losses that animates “After Catullus” is a case in point. The music of romance is exhausted, the life of love is turned into the words of a message that may or may not be delivered. For the reader, however, who does get the message, its bleak elegance is piercing in its implications. The disasters recounted in “Sonnet” form the subject matter of what must be one of the most bizarre love poems in the language. The casual listing of sickness and derangement that the speaker, in establishing her unusual pedigree, brings to her lover, is so far beyond the macabre that it is actually humorous. Others, such as “Café Sappho” and “Garment District,” are disarmingly brief and masterfully poised hymns to dissatisfaction, its beauty and necessity. What we have in Schweig’s poems—full of dark panache and a cool, even murderous, wit—is an auspicious debut.
You and I arrived at the station and went into the city.
It had been midday. We’d held street maps, amazed. We walked north.
Stores sold reams of silk and lace. Men carried diamonds
locked in briefcases. I still remember a thousand gowns hanging
behind windowglass, spot-lit and bodiless. What I’ve meant to say is
I’d dreamt of a city and you brought me to that city.
I forget the year. We were poor and happy then. It had been November.
I should tell you about my family, strange, estranged,
about M, the psychoanalyst, who lives in a house
he calls ‘heaven’ that reeks of dog urine, about
J, her over-eating disorder and extensively arranged
cheap antiques and oil lamps, who won’t speak to R
because he’s never held a job and just turned fifty,
and his mom, Grandma A, calls me B who lived near C
in California. Then there’s my long-gone father’s mother,
divorced from M, loves Renoir, pathological, keeps dolls
and had tried keeping her sister-in-law, the schizophrenic,
who didn’t want to be kept, so swallowed a sewing needle.
You should know about my lineage of heartsickness,
of mental illness, disease, abuse, cancer of the brain.
That’s just the beginning, Love. I’d tell you everything.
Tell the man I loved how this city will not miss him,
how its districts of flowers and painted women,
worthless now, will not grieve him, how the prophets
and palm-readers, how they wander his street empty-handed,
indifferent to the building where he lived, long since
derelict, long gone forbidden. The looters came and left,
crossed bridges with citizens, walked from ill-lit avenues
littered with wineglasses over the river in thousands, leaving town,
gorgeous in falling light, their heads turned down,
hauling away their hoards. When you find the man I loved
languishing in some remote city, screwing woman after woman,
loving none, tell him how I gave the looters all his books
scrawled in dead languages, how I gave them our shoreline,
piers and river, now engorged with drowned horses still hitched
to carriages, gave them the evenings we spent, and the year,
and the ferries that took tourists homesick into distances,
how I gave away the night, those dark sails filled with stars
hoisted into the sky above the west side, and how
I gave them the stars, and how I gave them the west side.
When you find the man I loved, tell him to fathom
these dismal rooflines, this bereft horizon, our fragile views
long gone, and to imagine me, the woman he once loved,
the last one left, now sleeping nights in cut flowers,
dismantling by day all our tired violins.
Have you heard the one about the man gone missing?
It goes something like, Once upon a time, something like,
The man left and left them with nothing. As it happens,
they lost the house that was never theirs. As it happens, they moved
away, changed their names and planned to visit the sea. Sometimes,
they’d go driving, nighttime, north to the airport to glimpse
the lights that took flight departing, something like foolhardy stars,
and they named the lights The Floating City. One time,
they drove out, at last, to the sea, traced in sand their new names,
they’d seen how the water couldn’t help but darken, wave
and, at last, recede. But in The Floating City, they always knew
all lights were lilies luminous in bloom, nothing wilted or
went to waste, no story was erased and no one would want to leave.
Once upon a time, there was a man. And then there wasn’t.
Then there was The Floating City only they could see,
something else they loved, as it happened, but couldn’t reach.
They’d tried, bound on land, writing their story in tenuous sand
and it came back to them, breaking again and again. Someone said,
Nothing lasts, someone said, Something must happen. At dusk
they watched their mother planting poppies in the garden
then cover her face with her hands. This one goes out
to the mother in the garden. This one goes out to the brother
driving far from the fleeting sea. This one goes out to
the three of us together. This one goes out to The Floating City.
The waiters fill glasses. Water and wine.
The waiters bring baskets. Butter and bread.
Another cloudless evening, another
spring in the city.
This is what they don’t tell you when you’re young:
You’ll live and live, always wanting your life
to be full. But your life only wants
to go on wanting.
S, in her dream, to Lee Harvey, “What is the opposite
of a gun?” Lee leans in. He & S breathe together
one breath. “Sodium Pentothal, I guess,
& a magic wand.” S stares back, squarely, leveling
but tender. Lee looks down at his hands, “We all want
—don’t we?—to be remembered.”
The tortoise had been, back then, the emblem of what
we’d always been told: Take your home with you,
she said, wherever you go. And that’s what we did—
what we had to do—back then when everything
disassembled, our belongings scattered in the yard.
We gathered, you remember. But that was elsewhere
and long ago. Now you’re packing and moving on
to the Midwest, a thousand miles from the ocean
and these days I walk into the New York morning
and carry a past I know by heart exactly but cannot find
the words to tell. In the dream, I walk the sands
of San Francisco and little Alcatrazes, slow-clawed
and cracked-shelled, wash onto the shoreline at night.
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