Poem of the Week | August 10, 2020

This week’s Poem of the Week is “No Punchlines for the Endangered” by Matthew Gavin Frank!

Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of the nonfiction books, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, Pot Farm, and Barolo; the poetry books, The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop, and two chapbooks. His forthcoming nonfiction book, A Brief Atmospheric Future, is due out in 2021 from W.W. Norton: Liveright. His work appears in The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, Guernica, The New Republic, Iowa Review, Salon, Conjunctions, The Believer, The Normal School, Field, AGNI, and others. He teaches at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction/Hybrids Editor of Passages North. He persevered through this past winter via the occasional one-handed cartwheel in his mind.


No Punchlines for the Endangered

Don’t joke. The cilantro is going
to seed. The dachshund has been
trying for months to couple
with every cucurbit. You are late
again, and it’s been time to eat
for over an hour. There are worms
in the eggplant, poison in the heirlooms.
Don’t tell me about the traffic,
the hospital being understaffed,
the family of rhinos who refused
to leave the highway until each
had sufficiently urinated, put out
a small barrel fire. Over the flames,
a mother warms her daughter’s
hands. The daughter roasts
her mother one final marshmallow.
I know because I still read
the newspapers. The paper
newspapers. I like how they
soften the light, dirty my fingers.
I dug up the oldest living new potato
today. The one you planted
so deep, you called it a capsule.
I peel it in one go, one spiral scabbing
on the cutting board, rub a little
salt and olive oil into the little moon,
and eat it in eight bites, pretending
it’s an apple. Outside, beyond the patio,
the fireflies ignite their asses
like heartbeat, looking for a mate.
My tongue feels furry, lukewarm, because
a raw potato is not an apple—it can’t be
if it has no core. It is, in fact, a core
unto itself. What does it mean
to take that inside of me? My body
such a generous aggregate
of some rosy sunsetting arithmetic.
Worse, I could have choked
on the stem, the seeds,
the oversalted topsoil
here, the first backyard in which
I’ve never felt such a consuming
sadness until now, waiting for you
to come home, watching not
a single insomniac bird feeding parts
of this earth to another.


Author’s Note

So, appropriately, I was feeling sad again, and one season was collapsing into another. Goodbye for now, cinderblock garden. Even the resident fox was ignoring the dead bird in my backyard, or, I read an article about a fox ignoring the dead bird in someone else’s backyard. Who remembers? So many of us are having trouble distinguishing that moment wherein dream crashes into reality.

So many of us are in a neighborhood waiting to remember, waiting for someone to come home. When I wrote this poem, the wind was too gentle to pluck the feathers from the dead bird’s body, but generous enough to make them dance. I sat on the chaise lounge, watched the feathers dance for a few minutes, and wrote a few lines in my notebook, then watched them dance again, then wrote a few more lines. Someplace deeper into this notebook, I knew, lurked the list of baby names who would become miscarriages. Lake Superior was roaring.

I began to imagine an excised wing, a wing without a body, a wing anchored into the beach sand, beyond the quaking aspens which bordered my backyard. The lake, of course, would threaten to take it, to turn wing into raft, into fish or fish carcass. In the atoms of the wing, does there lurk the desire, the code to swim rather than fly? Is the wing jealous of the fin sheened in lakewater and reflecting the sunlight—the role and performance of which compels me to associate said reflection with fire? But the lake today can’t quite reach this disembodied wing, because this wing is only imagined, and the wind—though strong—would not be strong enough to lift it from the sand. Only in death, is the wing too heavy to fly.

In her poem, “Edge,” Sylvia Plath writes, “Each dead child coiled, a white serpent/One at each little//Pitcher of milk, now empty…// The moon has nothing to be sad about,/Staring from her hood of bone.” In her poem, “Pigeon Post,” Plath writes, “I split my soul/into twin pigeons/and hurled them hard…//With homing spiral/one drops from heaven…//my other bird,/plump-fed, admired/from an elegant nest/in the fields of hell…”

What does it mean, I wrote in my notebook, to be both at once? To be here and there, neither here nor there? What does this generous aggregate mean to the body?

Anyhow, it’s been months since I wrote those things. Today, the microwave is dinging as if it’s some dollhouse church bell. Something is ready, and it’s not me. Here, in these fields, of hell or some other place, ready can mean desiccated, sapped of moisture, finished, dropped. Here, in trying to uncover beauty, and to take brief—if inadequate—comfort in it at this particular time, I, too, am overwhelmed.