Incubus, a poem by Arnold:
The chain uncouples, and his jacket hangs
on the peg over hers, and he’s inside.
She stalls in the kitchen, putting the kettle on,
buys herself a minute looking for two
matching cups for the lime-flower tea,
not really lime but linden, heart-shaped leaves
and sticky flowers that smell of antifreeze.
She talks a wall around her, twists the string
tighter around the teabag in her spoon.
But every conversation has to break
somewhere, and at the far end of the sofa
he sits, warming his hands around the cup
he hasn’t tasted yet, and listens on
with such an exasperating show of patience
it’s almost a relief to hear him ask it:
If you’re not using your body right now
maybe you’d let me borrow it for a while?
It isn’t what you’re thinking. No, it’s worse.
Why on earth did she find him so attractive
the first time she met him, propping the wall
at an awkward party, clearly trying to drink
himself into some sort of conversation?
Was it the dark uncomfortable reserve
she took upon herself to tease him out of,
asking, Are you a vampire? That depends,
he stammered, are you a virgin? No, not funny,
but why did she laugh at him? What made her think
that he needed her, that she could teach him something?
Why did she let him believe she was drunk
and needed a ride home? Why did she let him
take her shirt off, fumble around a bit
on the spare futon, passing back and forth
the warm breath of a half-hearted kiss
they kept falling asleep in the middle of?
And when he asked her, why did she not object?
I’d like to try something. I need you to trust me.
Younger and given to daydreams, she imagined
trading bodies with someone, a best friend,
the boy she had a crush on. But the fact
was more fantastic, a fairy-tale adventure
where the wolf wins, and hides in the girl’s red hood.
How it happens she doesn’t really remember,
drifting off with a vague sense of being
drawn out through a single point of her skin
(a bedsheet threaded through a needle’s eye)
and bundled into a body that must be his.
Sometimes she startles, as on the verge of sleep
you can feel yourself fall backward over a brink,
and snaps her eyelids open, to catch herself
slipping out of the bed, her legs swinging
over the edge, and feels the sudden sick
split-screen impression of being for a second
both she and her.
What he does with her
while she’s asleep, she never really knows,
flickers, only, conducted back in dreams:
Walking in neighborhoods she doesn’t know
and wouldn’t go to, overpasses, ragweed,
cars dry-docked on cinderblocks, wolf-whistles,
wanting to run away and yet her steps
planted sure and defiant. Performing tasks
too odd to recognize and too mundane
to have made up, like fixing a green salad
with the sunflower seeds and peppers that she hates,
pouring on twice the oil and vinegar
that she would like, and being unable to stop.
Her hands feel but are somehow not her own,
running over the racks of stacked fabric
in a clothing store, stroking the slick silk,
teased cotton and polar fleece, as if her fingers
each were a tongue tasting the knits and weaves.
It’s what she doesn’t dream
that scares her, panic she can’t account for, faces
familiar but not known, déjà vu
making a mess of memory, coming to
with a fresh love-bite on her left breast
and the aftershock of granting another’s flesh,
of having gripped, slipped in and fluttered tender
mmm, unbraided, and spent the whole slow day
clutching her thighs to keep the chafe from fading,
and furious at being joyful, less
at the violation, less the danger, than the sense
he’d taken her enjoyment for his own.
That was the time before, the time she swore
would be the last-returning to her senses,
she’d grabbed his throat and hit him around the face
and threw him out, and sat there on the floor
shaking. She hadn’t known how hard it was
to throw a punch without pulling it back.
Now, as they sit together on her couch
with the liquid cooling in the stained chipped cups
that would never match, no matter how hard
she stared at them, he seems the same as ever,
a quiet clumsy self-effacing ghost
with the gray-circled eyes that she once wanted
so badly to defy, that seemed to see her
seeing him-and she has to admit, she’s missed him.
Why? She scrolls back through their conversations,
searching for any reason not to hate him,
She’d ask him, What’s it like being a girl
when you’re not a girl? His answers, when he gave them,
weren’t helpful, so evasively poetic:
It’s like a sponge somebody else is squeezing.
A radio tuned to all stations at once.
Like having skin that’s softer but more thick.
Then she remembers the morning she awoke
with the smear of tears still raw across her cheeks
and the spent feeling of having cried herself
down to the bottom of something. Why was I crying?
she asked, and he looked back blankly, with that little
curve of a lip that served him for a smile.
Because I can’t.
And that would be their secret.
The power to feel another appetite
pass through her, like a shudder, like a cold
lungful of oxygen or hot sweet smoke,
fill her and then be stilled. The freedom to fall
asleep behind the blinds of his dark body
and wake cleanly. And when she swings her legs
over the edge of the bed, to trust her feet
to hit the carpet, and know as not before
how she never quite trusted the floor
to be there, no, not since she was a girl
first learning to swim, hugging her skinny
breastless body close to the pool-gutter,
skirting along the dark and darker blue
of the bottom dropping out –
Now she can stand,
and take the cup out of his giving hand,
and feel what they have learned inside each other
fair and enough, and not without a kind
of satisfaction, that she can put her foot
down, clear to the bottom of desire,
and find that it can stop, and go no deeper.
Arnold’s own biographical sketch of himself:
“Craig Arnold grew up in the United States, Europe and Asia. He graduated from Yale in 1990 with a BA in English, and received his PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Utah in 2001. W. S. Merwin chose his first book, Shells, as the 1998 volume of the Yale Series of Younger Poets. His writing has appeared in three volumes of Best American Poetry (1998, 2004, and 2006), as well as in Poetry, the New Republic, Paris Review, Yale Review, Denver Quarterly, Open City, Barrow Street, American Literary Review and Poetry Northwest. Among his numerous awards and honors are the Rome Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the Hodder Fellowship from Princeton, the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, and a residency at the MacDowell Colony. His second collection, Made Flesh, was a finalist for the New Criterion Prize and the Pitt Poetry Series, and will now be published by Ausable Press in the spring of 2009.” He is currently working on a book of lyric essays about volcanoes and the end of the world as we know it. In real life, he teaches poetry at the University of Wyoming MFA Program, where he also directs the Visiting Writers Series. He lives in Laramie with his son.”
[via steve silberman]