After the infestation, after we sprayed the apartment with chemicals smelling like gasoline and semen, we drove west. Allow the stuff to take effect. Get some breath. Found a motel at the desert’s edge, not the nice kind of desert just God’s emptiness – a driving range set behind the motel parking lot where patrons hit golf balls into the distance. At night, biding our time, waiting for every last flea to die, we watched the desert and smoked carefully behind the motel as men whacked golf balls like executioners. I thought of the fleas, felt bad about their deaths. They too are God’s tenants. The last day of our sojourn, I walked alone deep into the desert behind the parking lot gathering golf balls from years back. Animals had gnawed them down to piths. The balls so light in my hands, as if an extraterrestrial substance holding sun’s oblivions. I cradled them for mercy. That evening, we drove back to the apartment, swept up dead fleas, and I laid the luminous golf balls on the shelf, tenants in this world of endless broken light.
I want to speak and hear only the language of afternoon, not morning with its too bright cuffs, or evening’s last-chance hunger, not night with startled waking and remembering but afternoon, where we can buy a story and tell that story and drink light that isn’t strong enough to harm the theater of our reasons. I want to tell a story that isn’t true or false but at the edge, the place of almost, where my mother almost saved me and I almost ran away and saved myself. But that’s another story. It goes way back. Afternoon gives up nothing much, takes so little, a bite of apple, sweet and bitter rose. Go through with it now, go all the way – afternoon waits for no other time, isn’t paying attention to supper even if we’re already in the kitchen washing collards, even if the kitchen’s already there by the garden with the door open and voices from some other season slip through pinewoods and roses and no one meant for it to get this bad. At the edge, speak only the mother tongue of afternoon, it’s almost time, speak lightly of it, like salt in the mouth, the waves of shifting grass.
This Beautiful World
Leaning against a gravestone in sunlight a girl in a tank top reads a book. Grass, partitioned mirror of sky, shifts its brightness. The men living by the highway exit-ramp, how fierce the light along their shoulders as they try to sleep at midday. My mother cannot sleep these days without calling her doctor for some kind of medicine that no one human can give. What’s broken doesn’t much change, light leaning through doorways, transpicuous in the crossing of streets, the crossing of lives. I am a witness of this world that holds too many divisions to mend. Men sleeping by the roadside aren’t considered holy but maybe they should be. Stones singed in sunlight, a thousand driving by.
The flame burning in the stone monument for the Confederate dead stood at that crossroads where we’d turn to great-aunt’s house late at night, seeking a bed to sleep in. At four-years-old, I thought the monument was a nightlight, not understanding for whom the flame burned, not understanding what war was, or for what the dead of Georgia had fought. I’d heard great-aunt call those soldiers boys, and I wanted to be a boy, cutting my hair short, taking off my shirt, naming myself Charles. It was the 1970s but could have been a century before. That monument flame burning in its stone helm, someone must’ve tended it, because fire doesn’t burn by itself in a controlled way, it either dies or destroys. I had nightmares as a child, in the great and terrible house, waking screaming, grabbing my older sister’s hand across our bed, begging her to save me, as if I saw all the way through to the fire, the open place in the mind where you know what you’ve been offered as a guiding light is worse than darkness.
Claire Millikin is the author of nine books of poetry, including Dolls (2Leaf Press 2021), a semifinalist for the Poetry Society of Virginia Poetry Book Award for North American Writers and Publishers, Transitional Objects (Unicorn Press 2022) and Elegiaca Americana (Littoral Books 2022). Millikin’s poetry books Motels Where We Lived (Unicorn Press 2014), Television (Unicorn Press 2016) and State Fair Animals (Unicorn Press 2018) were all named finalists for the Maine Literary Award for a book of poetry. Claire Millikin teaches American Studies and art history at Bates College and at the University of Maine, and lives in Maine.