On Earth

Matthew Dickman

My little sister walks away
from the crash, the black ice, the crushed passenger
side, the eighteen-wheeler that destroyed
the car, and from a ditch on the side of the highway
a white plastic bag floating up
out of the grass
where the worms are working slow and blind beneath
the ants that march
in their single columns of grace like soldiers
before they’re shipped out, before war makes them human
again and scatters them across the fields
and the sands, across stretchers and bodies,
across the universe
of smoke and ash, makes them crouch down
in what’s left of a building
while a tank moves up the street towards the river
where it will stop, turn its engine off, the driver looking
through a window smaller than an envelope,
where he will sweat and think
about how beautiful Kentucky is. On earth
my twin brother gets his cancer cut out
of his forehead after a year of picking at it and me
always saying, ‘Hey! Don’t pick at your cancer!’
but joking because he can never be sick,
not if I want to stay on earth,
and my little sister can never be torn in half, a piece of her
used Subaru separating her torso
from her legs, not if I want to live, not if I want to walk
across the Hawthorne Bridge
with the city ahead of me, the buildings
full of light and elevators, the park full of maples
and benches, the police filling up
the streets like Novocain, numbing
China Town, numbing Old Town, the Willamette
running towards the wild
Pacific, the great hydro-adventure North
still pulling at the blood of New Yorkers and New Englanders,
the logging gone and the Indians gone
but for casinos and fireworks and dream-catchers,
my little sister has to rise from the dead
steel and broken headlights, my twin brother
has to get himself down from the operating table
if I’m going to be able to watch the rainclouds come in
like a family of hippos
from the warm waters of Africa
and dry off in the dust, they have to be here
if I’m going to write a letter
to Marie or Dorianne, Michael and Elizabeth
have to be in their bodies
for me not to cut them
out of my own. They have to answer
the phone when I call for me not to walk into the closet
for ever. Right now I am sitting
on the porch of the house I grew up in. The second place
I was on earth! The porch where Emily sat
in 1994, drinking licorice tea
and reading Rexroth’s translations of Li Po,
some Chinese poetry
in the curve of her foot, the Han River
spilling out of her hair, over the steps,
and into the driveway
where the dandelions grew like white blood
cells. I would pick them in Kelly Park
and I would walk along the street with them
on 92nd. All my wishes, all of them floating out
over a neighbourhood
where I wanted to be in love
with someone, drinking orange sodas on our backs
with the sky unbuttoning our jeans
and pulling off our shirts. There’s nothing
like walking through Northwest Portland
at night, even though it’s sick with money
and doesn’t look like itself. There’s nothing on earth
like the moonlight, lake at night
smell of tall grass and suntan lotion. It’s hard to imagine
not knowing the smell of gas stations or pine,
the smell of socks worn too long and the smell
of someone’s hands
after they have swum through a rosemary bush.
I want them all
and all the time. I need to walk
into Erika’s room, over the piles of clothes on the floor
which I love for their pyramid euphoria. I need to
smell her body on mine
days after we have destroyed the bed or ruined the carpet
she hates unless we are on it. On earth
my older sister can never open another bottle of beer, shoot
another glass of whiskey. She can’t have the monster
of her body go slouching through
the countryside of her family, killing the peasants,
burning the fields along the road to another sobriety
and then be hacked to death by her own pitchforks and spades,
not if I want to brush my teeth
without biting off my tongue. Not if I want to drink coffee
and read the paper and breathe. Oh to be on earth.
To walk barefoot on the cold stone
and know that the woman you love is also walking barefoot
on the cold tile in the kitchen
where you kissed her yesterday, to be standing in a bookstore
and smell the old paper and the glue
in the spines, to look at a map of a strange city
and be able to figure out
where it is you’re going. To swim in the ocean,
to swim in a lake and not know
what’s beneath you. To have two thousand
friends on Facebook you don’t know
but stare at every night because you’re lonely.
To walk through
Laurelhurst and see a blue heron
killing a bright orange fish, lifting it into the suffocating air
and then drowning it again, and then the air,
and back and forth until it feels
the fish is hers completely. To feel how the subway is racing
beneath an avenue
or how the plane that took off from New York is doing
well in the sky over Arizona. To know
how it feels after drinking whiskey or that secretly reading
romance novels has made you
into a kinder, gentler person, walking through
the grocery store in the middle of the night,
in love with avocados and carrots,
standing in front of the frozen fruit
with the glass door open
so the cold frozen-food air can cool your body down
before you walk through the cereal aisle
with its innumerable colours and kinds, how a box of cereal
feels in your hands
like an award you’ve received for some great service, to wait
in line at the checkout and not care that you
have to wait. The feeling of being on a boat
and the feeling of putting on new shoes
with a metal shoehorn. How you feel like you can run
faster than you ever have. To get on a bus in winter
and have your glasses steam up, the bus
taking you down the street you have known all your life
or only just found but love all the same. On earth
my mother is talking to her breasts
because they want to kill her, they have turned against her
like a senate, but in the end
she talks them out of it. She makes them behave like two dogs
or like children playing
too rough with the cat and the cat screaming, her tail almost
pulled off. She has to still be here, taking
the Lloyd Center exit to work
in the rain, if I’m going to live at all. On earth
I have a bed I can’t wait to get into, the clean smell of white
sheets, letting my head fall
onto the soft pillow and worry and pull
the blanket over, like a grave,
and in the morning watch the cold winter light
blowing in through the window. Every night the dark
and every morning the light
and you don’t think Jesus walked out
of his cave, crawled out of his Subaru
and stood on the side of the road for the ambulance to come
and cover him in a white shroud? On earth
I faint in the lobby of the multiplex, pee my pants, go into a seizure
like someone talking in tongues, wrapped
in the flames of belief, my body held in the hands of strangers
above the old shag carpet
while on earth the popcorn is popping wildly
and the licorice is bright red
beneath the glass counter, next to the M&Ms
where the most beautiful girl in the world is standing
in her stiff uniform, her name-tag
pinned tight, her name written on a piece of tape
that covers someone else’s name.
She will never kiss me, never lie in bed with August outside
and whisper my name. On earth
Joe has a heart attack, his pack of unfiltered cigarettes
resting like a hand near his books.
He rides his heart through the three acres of bypass
and then leads it to water. On earth
I steal flowers from the park, roses and star lilies,
I sleep too much. I’m always too slow
or arriving too early, before anything has opened. I keep
dreaming my older brother
has come back like a man returned from a long, exhausting
run. I can’t do this much longer!
And because I don’t have to, I cut an orange
the way athletes do, into perfect
half moons. I peel the pulp away, the skin that looks like
the surface of the moon. I put each one
inside my mouth
and let the sex of it burst into my throat, my lungs
like two black halves of a butterfly
trapped in the net of my chest, I read a poem
Zach wrote about a pond, I’m thinking
about the last time I saw Mike
before he moved into the Zion-air of Utah, I reread
a note Carl wrote that only says
beware. On earth Charlie is cut open
and put back together.
He goes on loving his friends and looking into the mirror,
and maybe the nerves have not grown back
over the river the scar has made, and maybe he is tired
but on earth! He has to get up in the morning
if I’m going to lie on my bed
listening to records with the window open
and the door open and wait
in my boxers for love to enter in her dirty feet
and sweaty hands, if I’m going to pull her near me, my mouth
over a knuckle, my hand beneath her knee, he has to
still be here. On earth
survival is built out of luck and treatment centres
or slow like a planet being born, before
there was anyone to survive,
the gases of the Big Bang just settling, or it’s built
like a skyscraper, by hand, some workmen
falling, and some safe on the scaffold, up above the earth,
unwrapping the sandwiches they have been waiting all day to eat.