Forgive me today for not doing anything particularly useful,
I’ll do what I usually do when I feel particularly useless—
I’ll make something: a chicken stew, belated birthday card, a poem,
if I’m lucky, and I’m usually able to squeeze some juice
from a hard lemon for my tea. I can’t fix the clogged drain, the front step,
or I could, if I felt particularly called to, which is if it got really bad,
but no one will “get dead,” as my daughter says, from a slow drain.
For weeks now, the doctor’s bill sits unpaid on the desk,
and I pray for a ceasefire a world away, scan the faces I see everywhere,
be they animal or human for some glint of recognition.
How is it out there? I ask the sparrows huddled at the feeder.
I don’t understand their calls.
I don’t understand how the world doesn’t stop
on a dime to stop such immense suffering—that I went grocery shopping
while someone else was shot waiting in a bread line,
and I, forgive me, but I grumbled about going at all.
I can no longer start poems with “forgive me,”
though I’ve said it many times, most truthfully alone and in the dark,
which is everywhere now and not, and as far as words go,
they may not be particularly useful, but they also aren’t useless,
perhaps they point to a direction we’d like to be heading toward
but know we’ll come up short.
From the middle of a war, there are brave poets sending out
their brave poems, mothers and grandmothers who weave blankets
to cover tanks, a pianist who recalls her piano’s keys from memory
in exile, and a 5-year-old girl who sings Let It Go in a barely lit bunker.
We think of time as here and now but it scatters about us like seeds.
When my 5-year-old daughter asks me why I check my phone
when we’re supposed to be coloring together, I say I’m sorry, love,
the news is bad, a string of words I fling like a curtain over a mirror
as if it to say this world’s not ready yet—
if only later to fix like the step or the drain,
if only now to beg for mercy,
for any shred of human decency to pin our shredded hopes upon.
All of it is useless. None of it is useless.
How to sit with grief and know what great luck.
Maybe this a guilt poem, a useless poem, a prayer poem,
a poem with a safe-from-the-sidelines view, maybe all this is true—
sometimes we’re moved to make and sometimes we make to move.
This calling drives me, drives me until it’s something, something,
there must be something more to give. I push the full weight of my arm
into the lemon pinned beneath my palm. Forgive me, is there another way to mourn?
I couldn’t know that everything would change, or I do.
For a time, there was nothing but a few beetle-bored trees,
nothing but a few record-breaking years of drought and warming.
Mucking about in the garden today, where to plant
this grief? For a time, everything’s possible. Still trying
to save or stave away, I never know what to start or finish or when.
There is nothing but a bloom of vibrant tithonia
against a hard white November sky and rain.
Seeds I scattered late. For a time, everything’s trial.
I draw back the curtain in the nursery to show my son
its bright orange glow among the shriveled, browned beds
of corn, squash, and beans. And the buds not yet opened
at the ends of their stems reaching towards that emptiness above
which is why I can say it’s something like bliss to kiss his forehead.
what one writes in a condolence card;
no container for the immense grief of —
when my son, red-faced, burbling, says “it hurts,
inside,” then “hold chu,” gesturing for me to pick him up.
When I watched the footage of J-35, an orca mother, who carried
her dead calf for 17 days, balancing him on her forehead or her back,
clutching him in her mouth — there are no words for;
there was a song, a call, inscrutable to us, but definitely —
vibration of a plucked violin string in a concert hall; or
an empty shell held to an ear; or—
I don’t know why the radiant, young mother
died of a rare cancer — she taught me to crochet for my children on YouTube;
I can’t say I knew her — I know the cadence of her voice,
her quick hand, a mirror hand I study and play over again;
how threads between us touch without touching —
and if it is not a type of sadness, then why do I cry
when I see my daughter wrap an unfinished scarf
(of a pattern she designed) to bed tonight?
Some diseases are only ever rare except when —
a sudden gust of wind slams a door shut
and everyone in the room turns to look.
I listened to the scientist worried about J-35, also known as Tahlequah,
list the dangers threatening orca pods: the declining numbers
of salmon to feed on; or noise pollution interrupting their calls; or —
his voice cracked on the line —
I’ve imagined my own death too, maybe —
an errant side-swipe in the blind spot on the highway going 70; or
slick black ice under tires; or an undefined lump in my chest.
Then, a galaxy of blue-black cold, heart-stripped of feeling
but I can’t go farther than —
the children I’m tethered to.
Perhaps it will all tumble down in instant — a cliff cracked into the sea;
perhaps I’ll be absolved for all the immeasurable ways my living has meant —
for all the innumerable living beings who swam or walked or flew on this earth with me —
holding strings inside a labyrinth.
After 1,000 miles, Tahlequah dropped the weight of her lifeless calf
to the bottom of the Salish Sea to search for food.
When my daughter asks how babies are born, I tell her
about a tiny seed and an egg — I tell her
what she needs to know for now; in a few days, I’ll finish her scarf,
if it doesn’t come undone before — there are some holes
words will not fill up, like a force that circles and circles and circles,
it pulls us close without ever being closer to —
there’s so much I don’t have words for — how I’d know them anywhere,
the smell of her hair; the light bouncing off his eyes; the sound
their footsteps make scaling upstairs — trust me, my dearest ones
I swear I could be far from anywhere and know —
Sara R. Burnett is the author of Seed Celestial, winner of the 2021 Autumn House Press Poetry Prize, forthcoming in October 2022. She is also the chapbook author of Mother Tongue (Dancing Girl Press, 2018) and has published in Barrow Street, Copper Nickel, Matter, PANK and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of Maryland, and a MA in English Literature from the University of Vermont. Previously, Sara worked as a public high school English teacher. In addition to writing poetry and essays, she also writes picture books. She lives in Maryland with her family. Her website is: http://www.sararburnett.com