by Sean Nevin
By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth:
I sought him, but I found him not.
—Song of Solomon 3:1
IIf we are truly the sum of our memories, tonight you are not my husband but a young soldier in Korea, whispering across a mud trench in snow. You warn me about the unpredictable motions of saw grass, about tripwires and crickets that seem to answer each other across a field, about the wind, how it will always bend a reed the way a catfish curls a can pole. You warn me about the full moon hung out like a flare descending beneath a night-cloud's silver canopy, about shadows, about the way one branch moving without the others means trouble— it almost always means trouble.
IISometimes, I'll find you sitting upright in bed bereft as a boy who has lost himself among the fire-eaters and drunken barkers of the Midway. Sometimes I'll find you twitching like a hound in sleep, and I pray you are somewhere, howling in the furious fanglight of a moon. Once, as I woke, you were simply standing naked beside the bed: a shameless body that glowed. Your eyes were fixed to a bare corner of room, your head cocked, tracking the low gnaw of wood grubs fattening in the weight-bearing walls.
IIIMovement like this becomes a strange calligraphy, subtle as the familiar alphabet of branch shadow swept from ceiling to wall and back to ceiling. The grayscale of a fine ink opening beneath a horsehair brush, the Korean character left drying on the page. Its message becomes your insomnia, your paper madness.
IVThe moon is the rice-paper lantern left burning in the garden Long after the last house light is put down. Wind sweeps its circles across the empty lawn and back again. All night I search you for signs of recognition— Solomon? Solomon? I float your name out into the darkness: a word, a flame, A silver prayer kite rising, rice paper, balsa, twine for the rigging, remember this. Remember.
VYou are startled and swear, the goddamn house is lousy with bugs! Weevils, termites, the carpenter bee, the suckers* just burrow and breed. Yet somehow you knew about the slow tangles and plaques, about the snarled web that blossoms beneath the crown molding, about the Louisiana weevils gorging the sweet potato's orange meat. You knew about the perforated baseboards, about the bees that bore like iridescent drill bits through porch, about the pelt of black mold alive as a wall rat between jack studs. You knew about the dry rot in the eaves and about the palsied signature of a worm etched across the rotted sill. You could hear the steady gnash of mandibles buried in walls like grunts in laced boots marching through a frozen field, like the quick electric spill of a stroke, like wood dust, and the strange sleep that sifts down through stars steady as snow forgetting every path we've ever walked.
VIYou smiled and said, there are so many dreams it's hard to pick the right ones, and I knew you were back, for now, in the infested body of this house. You cupped my face and kissed me there in our bed like a husband, like a man on his knees gulping after a thaw of river water, the mouth unable to swallow anything fast enough.
VIIThe mind will sometimes turn on itself, the way a stomach will devour its own walls in hunger. Gradually, you become an exposed colony of termites, writhing in the split log of sleep, and memory is nothing more than a star-pocked darkness that sidles up like a wife with a toothy smile who daubs a damp cloth at your forehead, who calls to you down half-lit corridors and guides you back to the familiar wicker chair, the lampshade, the pillow. The Korean landscape you hung above our bed is electric with moonlight and fever, and somewhere in the pasture just beyond reason, a line of stout poplars drills holes through heavy snow: a battalion of foot soldiers assembles in the tree line, bellies through nightwheat and frost.
* Changed from the original poem due to sensitive language.
(© 2008 by Sean Nevin. Reprinted from Oblivio Gate with permission from Southern Illinois University Press.)