For The Harder Days

I called California. It’s raining.
Today it was more difficult to get
through. The connection is always
a bit strained, with you up in the
hills and me by the ocean on the
other side of the country. A student,
I heard you say, called me a bitch
today. I asked him to apologize.
He said “Sorry, bitch,” then he
ran away. I said I am really sorry.
It’s alright, I’m ok. Then we talked
about me for a while, and you said,
Young poets who mention great poets
by name feel cheap. Mostly, though,
I could hear how hard you’re working—
the soft defensive exhaust in your voice,
the voice in which I hear my own name.
I can never make that voice sound real.
Things come too clear, trying so hard
to be brave. No one would believe
something so decisive could come
from me. They are not wrong. Mine
must sound a little shallow and still,
distant, underwater, maybe—rain?
(We have not yet developed a code
for listlessness, as we have for pain.)
Here is my plan for the day today:
maybe make some eggs and coffee,
then try to rewrite lines by Milosz.
A man when he talks should not use words that are dear to him,
or split open a seed to find out what is inside.
But those are great lines. It’s easy
for them to say what words to use.
And you’re right—it is easy to say,
Milosz would say, and have it be
said and done with. When words are
all he has, though, a man when he talks
can’t help but use words so dear to him—
words for practice, words for you, hollow
in any other circumstance. He is less real
to himself now, too. Also he is thinner,
which you don’t like because it reminds
you that we are two bodies, inevitably;
and proud and weary, we feel things more
simply these days, but we are not willing
to go back. We used these words separately once.
Now together, they straddle the country, and more
than ever we need them. They are not prayers.
We run out of them. And when we do, we run
outside, and it is still raining, but at least
it rains here as it rains there, in California.

This poem is the winner of the Francis Bergen Prize for Poetry