by Kayleb Rae Candrilli
POEM FOR THE START OF A NEW DECADE
Kayleb Rae Candrilli is a 2019 Whiting Award Winner in Poetry and the author of Water I Won’t Touch (Copper Canyon Press, 2021), All the Gay Saints (Saturnalia, 2020), and What Runs Over (YesYes Books, 2017). You can read more of their work here.
This poem was awarded the 2020 Peach Gold in Poetry by guest judge ALOK.
"here i am: yet another beautiful, surprised face, recently gutted by this poem. i thought i knew how to write, and then i read this poem. i thought i knew how to love, and then i read this poem. i thought i knew what poetry was, and then this poem it taught me that writing is only part of it, it’s mostly about the living. it’s about being there, saying the words, going through the motions on the surface, all the while writing the poem underneath. this world, it is our field work. in other words: we live so that we can write poems and we write poems so that we can live. my favorite poems, like this one, involve growing a branch, teaching it how to saw, and then chopping yourself down, just so you can show the world your tree rings on the other side. it’s that lethal, and that loving, that tender, and that terrifying. look: i don’t know the answer to the proverbial question about a tree falling alone in a forest. but what i do know is that i heard this poem, loud and clear. and that i will never be the same because of it."
It’s 2020 and the pandemic is roaring through
the world as I head to work at the fish-market,
to slice the heads off porgies, and snappers,
and bass—just to drop their beautiful, scaly,
surprised faces into the trash can. I do this
for too delicate customers, that don’t want
to see any eyes in their meals. I have never
understood this, or fully understood the speed
of a virus—the sheer sprint of it, as it trucks
through New York, to Hoboken, to Camden,
to Philly. I am worried for my smoker’s lungs,
of course, but mainly worried for my grandmothers,
and the next-door neighbors, and everyone else.
The fragility of the world has always astounded me.
Off my veranda, I hear violin practice all day,
and even some piano—when the neighbor slides
open their backdoor. We aren’t singing to one
another yet, but hopefully there will be more time
for that. The kids in the courtyard play hide and seek,
rather than smear the queer, for which I am thankful.
My rural town always preferred to shoulder check
the queer right out of you. If I concentrate, I can
still feel the very gay wind rushing from my solar
plexus. I can still feel the red-hot Peat Moss shoved
into my mouth. But I can also still feel the very first
kiss with the very first girl I ever loved—hidden
behind her above ground pool. Not all memories
are painful. Some feel just the same as they did
a decade ago—important and revelatory and sweet.
We understand our lives with that which we are given.
When both my sibling and I started smoking
too soon, they laid the ember of their Grape
Swisher Sweet on the petals of a Dame’s Rocket
wildflower, and found the ember turned the violet
into a violent, unnatural teal. Beautiful and chemical.
When we returned to the flowers the next day,
the petals had shriveled, curled into small, dead
things. I spent five years estranged from my paternal
grandmother, because I cried too hard over a bleach
stain on my favorite Harry Potter shirt. Neither of us
can get those years back, though we really are trying—
each phone call feels like a little less sand slipped
through our fingers. My grandfather and I used to
go bottle hunting in the woods behind his home.
Pull the smooth green glass of an old 7-Up out
of the soft dirt like a weed. Sometimes Aspirin
bottles, sometimes the amber glass of morphine.
Sometimes heroin. We’d drop the bottles all over
my grandmother’s coffee table, and pill bugs would
crawl out, scuttle between the Styrofoam cups
filled with grinds. Five years after the message
is sent, on November 15th, 2015, I find it
in my filtered messages on Facebook. Rita
Knight, who I have never known, wrote,
“Your grandfather Kenny is very sick. Please
call your grandmother.” We have all missed
so much, that we should not have missed.
Sometimes, my partner and I look over books
without reading a word. Our eyes seeing it all
but hearing nothing. It’s 2020, and though
I was taught to write poems that ignore technology,
I am still shuffling my last twenty dollars around
on Venmo, to some friends who need it more.
And I am re-listening to YouTube mixes that got
me through my early twenties—all electronica and
glitch step. It really doesn’t matter how, or even if,
you survive, only that you tried. I send mix CDs
to my friends every new season, even though
no one really has a disk drive anymore. I’m told
it is the thought that counts most. Everyone I know
pitched in to help me remove my breasts
with a scalpel. And as the hospitals cancel all
surgeries to make room for what is coming,
I can’t help but think about all the beautiful trans
people left to float in their bodies a little while
longer. Though the grocery store I work for
is mostly out of food, they still have some tulips,
so, I take those home in lieu of ground beef
and cucumbers. They sustain us, not the same,
but they brighten the place just enough. In Venice,
the water has cleared, and folks can see, from
their windows above, straight to the bottom
of the canal. I don’t know a lot about the world,
but I could have predicted as much. Take humans
out of the water and watch it run clear. My best
friend is both a nurse and HIV positive. He’s never
seen himself the hero type, but I imagine Autumn
will bring him a new language for himself. Have you
noticed yet, that the clouds move so much faster
when you watch them from your window? I want
to quit smoking, not so much for my health, but
because it’s the only thing I’ve ever done to hurt
my partner. It’s 2020, and most of my friends
are laid off, and the unusually clear water is rising
on all of us. What would you like me to say? I can’t
internalize it all. Instead, I’ll find some use for our
lemon rinds, I’ll leave every violet flower untouched.
I’ll think so much about the small and perfect shape
of my partner’s engagement ring—upstairs in the filing
cabinet, just waiting for a calm, untroubling, day.