Poem of the Week | November 15, 2021

This week’s Poem of the Week is “Theories of Revenge” by Paul Guest.

Paul Guest is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Because Everything Is Terrible, and a memoir, One More Theory About Happiness. His writing has appeared in American Poetry Review, Poetry, The Paris Review, Tin House, Slate, New England Review, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, Western Humanities Review, Ploughshares, and numerous other publications. A Guggenheim Fellow and Whiting Award winner, he lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.


Theories of Revenge

I think about the man who must be dead
by now and his undifferentiated son
and how they sat beside one another
that morning I nearly died in their yard.
I never learned his name, hair color,
where he went to church if he did,
and this morning I’m thinking
about the ethics of giving him a minor limp.
Some old wound that healed
wrong in another life. Tendon
that snapped in a filthy alley in San Juan.
1967. The light was different,
then, because the sun was.
Everything was. Years before my birth.
Years before Elvis died
on the toilet, his body ruined and ruptured,
and even though I grew up
in Tennessee I’ve never been to Graceland.
There is so much in life to regret.
To desire unto pain. To ignore, also.
There I lay in the weeds
of the ditch like garbage,
my body harmed forever,
though nobody then would really believe it,
and I felt little: some ache,
but mostly nothing, a spooky lack of weight
on the summer-hot ground.
I think there was panic
in the air above me like a ghost
and I struggled to breathe.
Do not move me or pick me up or touch me,
I begged the old man.
Something is wrong. Something was
wrong with the bicycle
and now inside me was something terrible
and lasting and final
and I think I wanted it all to be a bad dream.
The way my head fell over
when they stood me up. The horror when I collapsed.
There was no blood anywhere.
No visible wound. Just a boy in yellow surrounded by strangers.


Author’s Note

For years following the bicycle accident in which I was paralyzed from my neck down, people assumed that a car must have struck me, so improbable was the injury to their minds. That happened to me all the time, they would slowly reply, vaguely terrified for their own kids, or maybe just disbelieving. I don’t know. In my poems, I don’t care much for the truth, for biography, and so I feel more than happy to write about anything else — there is so much. While the confessional poets have been, and continue to be, touchstones for me, I am mainly, I think, influenced by their approaches to voice, to syntax, to the creation of a speaker. I generally haven’t written much about that accident, that summer day in 1986. I have been thinking a lot about poems as pacts, if you will, between the poet and the reader, and I wanted to try, as best as I could, to write something explicit, literal, and I came close.