Always a Game of You
I spent summer breeding lilacs out of a dead land—
past forgetful snow, sex, and laughter, a doll
made out of smoke. I spent each night hiding
between the walls of my room—wasn’t the last time
I saw you in a dream? Wasn’t there an ivory door?
And don’t you remember the way I named myself
after flowers? I only cared about specifics then:
ghost orchid, hyacinth, marigold. Everywhere
the boundary between. Sometimes the center
of the underworld was also a marsh—in some ways,
I’m still bound to sleep. You said we couldn’t
be more than ourselves—I grew into a moonflower,
other times erratic. I clothed myself in August,
which is to say there wasn’t any more time to spend
drifting in the river nude, no time for forgetfulness—
at times, I’m afraid of myself. Didn’t you know?
Wasn’t it the house within the dream, the last time
I saw you? (This time, a different you.) Outside,
I dropped my feet in the river so the fish could eat
the dead skin—I watched you from the window
to my room. You were more beautiful this time,
either more beautiful or more fierce, and also
a famous clairvoyant. Of course you knew about
the library behind the mirror—I beckoned you
to carry me away. How did I end up like this,
a frame within a frame? Sometimes I forgot
your name and found another one instead:
a thousand ships, scurrilous, a deciduous tree.
You were also flowering, perennial, borrowed
from a forgotten tongue, but also the Greek,
which borrowed itself from the Old Persian
(Avestan, Parthian, etc.). Sometimes an orchard,
other times a car, all fogged up. You were a memory
I haven’t told anyone about before. Of course, I wanted
to keep you, just like that, my desire floating
between the ghost of us as if it were a reflection of me.
Witch hazel, lotus thief. I brewed a bitter drink.
This was after the suicide, of course, when one
of our friends died and I didn’t talk to anyone.
This was after I left Manhattan, before you left
Shanghai, after coming back from Paris, when I thought
you were never leaving the garden in Beirut.
You came back before I asked you to and left
for windy streets (a pair of chrysanthemums pressed
between a frame). Of course, you’re not the same person
every time I picture you in my head. Sometimes
you keep fennel in your hair and other times pitch pine,
three-faced, a key and a dagger, all the knowledge
of good in the world. “My nerves are bad tonight.
Yes, bad. Stay with me.” I keep waiting for you
to tell me everything’s not at world’s end. “I’m dying.”
“Is it blissful?” All of the nymphs have hidden
in the wood. The wind plays out into a nocturne—
for once, I convince myself that we’re alone.
Tonight you’re the philosopher: two stories, hardwood,
a balcony overlooking the yard. I ask about the god
of unrequited love while you’re carving a spear out of holly
or sometimes mistletoe. You don’t look surprised
when I tell you the basement is flooding—that’s where
I keep all of my impure thoughts. When I return,
we’ll play a game of you, apple blossom, secret love.
You change behind a curtain, crack one of the dishes
in the sink. In a different life (my current one),
you were perfect. So perfect that my loneliness
became a hallway made of trees, dryad, horned god,
fleet behind the scenes. Everything a fragment—
amaranth, green willow, pear blossom tongue.
Every version of you begins to blur together. Today
you taste like plum, yesterday a wreck. Your ribs
become the laurel tree, and naiads cross the river
to our house. You’re the one who knows the names of all
the nymphs—casually, I’m the one who waits for you
to tie a knot from the stem of a flower without thorns,
as if you were a magician. Maybe that’s wrong—
I’ll live my life again and again until I can erase
and start again. Isn’t a love letter always a prelude?
And isn’t a prelude the beginning to another way
of looking? Wednesday, yesterday, today. At night,
of course, I sleep without the light, but that too could change.
Each day, we’ll drink again and again (maybe from a river,
perhaps from a cup), and I’ll ask when it was that you became
the astronomer, queen of coins or maybe even cups.
Either way, I’ll place the costumes in the corner,
so they can look at us while we sleep.
Eric Stiefel is a graduate of the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis, where he also served as junior fellow in poetry. His work has appeared in A Clean, Well Lighted Place, The Adroit Journal, Menage, Communion, and elsewhere.