Poem of the Week | December 05, 2022

This week’s Poem of the Week is “For my nephew counting to zero” by Jane Zwart.

Jane Zwart teaches at Calvin University, where she also co-directs the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, Threepenny Review, TriQuarterly, and Ploughshares, as well as other journals and magazines.


For my nephew counting to zero

He does not say Drink enough
and you, too, will believe you can jerk
the cloths from set tables.
He does not
tell us how easy it is to burn your tongue
on haze, on a dare, on a roach, the torch
you tip back to hide inside your mouth.
But he could.

                            Leased the release
of not doubting oneself, how simple
an unpracticed parlor trick seems.
Of course the pie-eyed think they can drive

as anyone who has seen a ballet let out
should know. Consider those soused
on the dregs of Swan Lake–how they
cannot walk straight either: not the kids
making merry assays at jetés, not the old
dizzied by a nip of grace. And not us
wearing flats, feeling maudlin, forcing
our unwilling heels to sidewalks.

He does not say So much of intoxication
is incantation: let me be suggestible.

But it is.
                  Having given up drink, still
again and again I come home besotted.
I hear Ravel and my hands, delirious
and trembling, arpeggio like tarantulas
in my lap.

                        Tippling on wonder,
I wonder when tumbling from a wagon
he must toast into a chariot, into a stunt car
will hurt my nephew enough. I wonder
when he will swig nothing but beauty
and nothing will leave him numb.


Author’s Note

One of my nephews struggles with addiction. There is a great deal about its iron hold on him that I cannot understand. But I can understand the desire to be invincible, healed of self-consciousness and anxiety. I can also understand the desire to be vulnerable: open to new things, carried by something we cannot steer. My nephew has tried, more than once, to get sober, but I don’t think he has ever started the twelve steps from zero. Partly, this poem is an accompaniment to my prayer that he keeps trying. Partly, this poem hums with my fear about the zero to which he will have to count before he can begin again.