Years ago, I did a reading in a gallery. The owner wanted to keep the main lights off. She liked it better that way (“More atmosphere”) and thought the cans in the ceiling and the spotlights on the art would be enough, and she was right. But it also meant some in the audience were more visible than others, and one of them had tears running down his face.
I hadn’t expected that, although the poem I was reciting, “After the End,” is definitely sad. How could it not be? It’s about being extinct while you’re still alive because if you’re the last one left of your species, then there can’t any more; you’re the end already. And in the meantime, you’re also all alone. I knew that was coming, but the man in the audience didn’t, and it hit him hard.
Grief is like that, I guess. It gusts in fast, and it’s unexpected, and sometimes when that happens, we say we’re “at a loss for words,” so it’s probably a good thing that sad poems get written. They’re places to keep the words for when someone need the words.
Still, sadness wasn’t my intention with this poem. Actually, when I started it, I didn’t have intentions; I just like old-fashioned letterpress work. Where I went to college, Pacific Lutheran University, they have a studio devoted to book arts (The Elliott Press), and I got to take a class there: flat-bed Vandercook and treadle-wheel presses, dozens of typeface drawers, compositor sticks, handmade papers, a hellbox, you name it. So, yes, I knew about typesetting, but I didn’t know who this typesetter was, and then a line popped into my head, and it caught me off guard: “He was a widower now, which he’d never imagined.” Like loss just gusting in from nowhere. So I decided to follow that line and see where it would go…
The Typesetter’s Story
When he started in the typesetting business,
his hands were still new, not darkened from the ink yet.
And his eyes, which hadn’t had to strain yet
sorting millions of letters into words,
could still see the ridge
and even tell the mountain goats from snow.
He was a widower now, which he’d never imagined:
her closet so permanently empty;
and around town, or coming through his doorway,
no one in her coat—not blue, more azure or ocean.
He always used that color for the title page.
Never cut the folios clean.
And readers would find two pages
with no words at all.
Some wrote it off as a man’s odd habit.
Others said, “The paper just got stuck.”
But a few looked forward to those blank spots
as places to rest,
to let themselves drift awhile,
let the words so far roll back from wherever they’d come.
The typesetter had his own reasons, of course,
though he liked people saying, “They’re a gift.”
On one blank page, he thought about
how she’d fill it up with conversation.
And the other was the shape of her absence
each night in their bed.
Sadness wasn’t my intention with this next poem either. But current events—the news, we call it, despite it being more of the same so often—current events stepped in and became the poem’s antagonist. And if the antagonist doesn’t wind up losing in the end, what then?
The Story of the Girl
After the girl had thought of everything, she started again, keeping only the good thoughts this time, the ones she could share like snow from town to town, or like sun since it wasn’t the weather that mattered.
But a man still got in a plane, and flew low, and shot thirty-two wolves from the air. And a woman ran for governor and won. Her message was that immigrants are evil.
So the girl tried again. She thought about her Nana, all the walks they used to go on, choosing sticks to strum some music from the chain-link fence, yet the president of Haiti was assassinated.
She thought about time—an open envelope—and each day a letter we were writing to the future. But still, someone painted swastikas downtown.
It wasn’t working. Perhaps she needed to simplify: As you’ve done it, she thought, unto the least of these2—but no; a guy rammed his car through a Peace March.
Not all stories have a happy ending. Even less if the stories are true.