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As from a Great Height

                                    Lesley Jenike


          “Restored to my living room
          I looked at the tables, chairs, and pictures
          with something like delight,
          only pale, faint—as from a great height.”
                                             –Jane Kenyon

Its genes work in tandem to tie the pheasant to earth.
But I imagine it desires the gull’s girth and wingspan

and the petrel’s penchant for the dive, to hear surf shatter
once it’s thrust underwater. I came to this cold church

of an island for dissolution: first my family, next myself
like a wafer on the tongue. No TV, no booze. I told myself to rise

with the weekenders who unfold their easels by six,
and unwrap their paints gently, who fix their canvases

to dirt and draw. I told myself: work is the thing.
By five, pheasant cocks thrum their sex, singing

hens up from the tall grass. Toward them they fumble
their low-slung scuttle through the brush, then lay still.

I imagine the pheasant envies the auk that drops its shells
as from a great height—to see them smash apart on rock.

I think it must feel like hell. Carpenters drone their saws,
a sign the weather will hold. By seven, hikers are nearly home.

I start plotting my novel. In it, a father, a doctor,
drives home from saving a man, but he drives farther

than he means to. It’s three in the morning. He’s tired.
Roads are icy. His eyes are bad. The drifting snow is like a bird

rising silver from the road. He looks too long, believing
like snow he might dissolve: the wife he’s divorcing,

their house, its koi pond, his teenage daughter in her room.
He looks down at his hands, womanish, delicately boned.

In the dark they’re unlined. His work doesn’t show in them.
Now he hits a berm, is shattered, then slammed into the work

of becoming himself again. His daughter is forgiving,
his wife less so. The hearts he fixes have meaning now,

though he died to me as a character years ago. I reach
the flashback that leaches action from now by noon

when the island starts its decline, thick with gulls
wrenching flesh from shells, morning painters at a lull.

I hear the carpenters pause in their work. They laze
on the bundle of wood they brought and talk. One praises

the other; one demurs. One mentions his sister: “She’s
recovering.” I have a vision now of a woman apogee

prostrate on the floor of her apartment, door locked
from the outside, wood planks against her cheek shocking

in their coolness. Her vents are shut, windows blinded,
but she feels the laminar flow of multiple lives undermine

the single story she started. Now the carpenters are quiet.
I leave my novel and in my mind run to undermine it,

high up the headland to a silver saltbox that belonged
to an artist’s family once who as ghosts even now long

to watch the ocean from their window turn blood in the sun.
I’ll knock on the door, wet and ruddy, my legs aching.

The carpenter’s sister will answer, not my father. She’ll wear
her scars like charms. I can’t go any farther, I’ll tell her,

so she’ll invite me in. Her living room will be like the one
I knew as a girl, smashed as if from a great height onto stone.


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