1 poem

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."

-ALOK

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.