Island of Opposites
after a child’s drawing
Somewhere in the Ocean of Truth and the Sea of Lies
On carefully labeled tracing paper
Under unlabelled skies,
Equipped, as is proper, with both legend and scale
Lies the island where we unfold our tale.
To the east, the double-rivers of Upper and Lower Youth,
Flow in blue magic marker—
To the west, twin Death
Rivers, too. And a tiny Stream of Disgust
On Withered Hill, amid the shrubs and dust.
Two faces, Janus-like, a pretty girl and a crone,
Appear in the contour intervals,
As if age and ugliness alone
Define what oppositions matter most—
The swampy brow across from the Wisdom Coast.
The labels are written with curlicue flourishes—
A trilling B and C for the Bay of Crime—
That nothing harder oppose us than time?
The tracing paper has yellowed to a shade I’m
Fond of, just as I am of those silly magic markers
(Two shades each of green and blue!),
Neither one so dark as
A rebuke or a threat.
Words: the world’s detritus, instant’s ash,
Mere human spit and sweat, dust into dust,
The literal body, flesh worn out on flesh,
The faithless ricocheting gutter-blast;
A mighty engine’s burps, the good man’s gas
Backfiring, and the hungry gut’s great chord,
The universe reduced to something less,
Cacophony unmarked, unheard, unfeared;
Hardness, and strife, and woe, and hate, all curst,
Debased offal, sadness of the worst,
Hell tricked out in costume, whores undressed,
The murky way, the bawd of Paradise,
Sirens in the cross-walk, blood on blood,
A sea of stench; and nothing understood.
This high won’t wear off till late afternoon.
In the drift of drowsiness, in the silt: sweet sift.
It’s as if we’d been fired by fantasies
and these first flakes were the foreshadowings,
the fault-lines of an underground unease
we can’t ward off for all the salt
in the deep blue sea or butterflies in China.
This high sizzles on the skin, as if the mind
weren’t flicking its jaded switches behind the screen.
Let cool be cool, and then let dry run dry.
You don’t forget the heartache in the high—it turns
us on, then turns its back on us. No idea escapes
itself, which is to say, we don’t escape.
So each night’s drought may dry our tears to salt,
but day breaks nonchalant toward the next high.
“Island of Opposites,” “Words,” “High Time” from Counter-Amores by Jennifer Clarvoe, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press. © 2010 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
Jennifer Clarvoe is professor of English at Kenyon College. Her first book of poems, Invisible Tender, won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Poets Out Loud Prize.