Features Poetry

Jonathan Fink

The Passing World

All winter I have been worrying the loss,
in line at the grocery store, the bank, or jogging
in the evening beneath the flicker of the neon sign
outside the gray brick chapel on Cervantes Street,
a route I cannot bring myself to change, though every time
I think of my student, his two boys holding
to their mother’s legs, peering from behind her skirt
as she accepts the folded flag, and four Marines
raise rifles in the parking lot, the blanks fired crisp
in the October air as across the street at a used-car dealership
an inflatable puppet undulates and bows,
its stenciled face and nylon shell rippling beside
the business’s frontier-themed marque while his ex-wife
does not speak, her lips pursed to a line firm as the division
in their lives, the divide, he wrote, he was trying to mend,
his trips to Mary Esther every weekend, motorcycle weaving
in and out of cars, the reflection of the passing world
warping across his helmet’s tinted visor, the helmet
he would carry to class tucked under his arm,
then laid beside his chair, his leather jacket also removed
as he transformed into a young man, skinny, shy,
never the first to speak but, when called upon, fierce,
unwavering, the military bearing that his mother and his father,
at the funeral, said gave their son direction, strength,
his father, a small-town preacher from the Midwest,
relaying to the mourners that even though his son
had left the church many years ago, he still returned
each summer to his mother’s side, marching children
up and down the hall from sanctuary to classroom,
vacation bible school, his assistance of his mother a kind
of unbeliever’s faith, a pragmatist, perhaps, in war and life,
but still unknown, unreachable, so much so that what his mother
and his father wanted most were stories, memories,
of how their son still lived, they said, in the lives of others,
and I told them all I knew from class, searched my emails,
forwarded his writing, heard nothing back, and proceeded
on my way, the great wheel of obligation always in motion,
though from what I know of grief, I imagine the mother
and father settling in, the way a childhood room becomes
a kind of mausoleum, or how his sons must grow into that loss,
their father’s death like a movie on a reel run out
to whiteness, the final frames of the film slapping
the projector over and over as the wheel turns freely,
spinning like the motorcycle’s spokes, the instantaneous
death, though no less an affront than death prolonged,
how that same month the department faculty and I
also attended the funeral of a second student, twenty-five,
never married, his sister greeting us at the blue door
of the chapel, her hand quivering, tentative,
as if she were in class again answering a question
on Frost or Joyce, her voice catching, saying that in some ways
teachers knew her brother best, his love of books, debate,
though her statement wasn’t fully true, and I wanted
to interrupt, to correct, and say we knew him at his best,
that every action in a classroom is predicated on a contract,
a shared belief in the future, which, I imagine, was why
he withdrew, his last six months spent out of sight
from everyone but his closest friends and family
while the tumors spread and hardened into fists,
and when his sister spoke to the crowd, to him,
she said simply, through tears, I miss you now,
and I will miss you forever, before we exited
past the casket and through a side door that opened
to the cemetery, the sun already fading, and in the distance
I could see the mound of earth beside the headstone,
the white folding chairs at the graveside, a small tent for shade,
and the family’s limousine driver restless, fidgeting,
checking his watch, one foot on the fender.

Google Searching “America Is”

—This poem utilizes predictive text generated by Google for the following searches: “America is,” “America was,” and “America never.”

“America is an oligarchy,” or so the digital engine claims,
this suggestion rising above all others
like a child’s face lifting from a trough of bobbing apples,
the boy wet and grinning, his teeth holding fast
to the red wax flesh, and though I am over forty,
I double-check the meaning of the word, that America
is governed by a privileged few who frequently inherit
their roles, and, more often than not, are wealthy,
that Aristotle was perhaps the first to use the term,
saying that those who are unequal in one respect are unequal
in all, as, even now, protesters shout at politicians,
“A plague on both your houses,” the future as ephemeral
as the slips of paper tossed in the air on the trading floor
or at the horse track, perhaps rising on an updraft,
which, after all, is the second-most-popular search,
that “America is rising,” but from what or to where the engine
does not say, which likely increases the popularity
of the phrase, just as pollsters will ask, “Do you believe
the country is moving in the right or wrong direction?”
and a majority of respondents choose “wrong,”
although no context is given for what might be “right,”
as if one respondent believes that progress has been made,
but not enough, and another respondent believes
the stream has reversed, that, like a competitive kayaker,
the respondent must now paddle backwards, having missed
a qualifying gate upstream while America is rising
in temperature and obesity, or so say graphs from the CDC,
which are flanked by ads for two new flavors
of Lay’s potato chips (espresso and cheddar-bacon
mac and cheese), yet America is also rising,
the images reveal, like a boxer from the canvas, his shorts
and gloves emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes,
or rising like an eagle, the ubiquitous poster image,
and even America’s virility is rising as a man spirals
a football through a swinging tire, and a model lounges
on the hood of a pinstriped Camaro, which also mirrors
a third suggestion, that “America is all about speed,”
a quote misattributed to Eleanor Roosevelt by Ricky Bobby,
Will Farrell’s character in Talladega Nights,
the movie a parody of both the present and the past,
just as the suggestion for “America was” after “was named after”
and “was discovered” is “was never America to me,”
which is perhaps the last true search for clarity, a definition
by attrition, the possibilities of “America never”
from “America never existed” to “America never lost a war”
leading, as all things seem to do, to conspiracy,
to “America never landed on the moon,” the mission filmed
in Hollywood as a hoax, sponsored by Disney and the government,
directed by Kubrick, incontrovertible evidence abounding
(the impossibility of a flag waving on the surface of the moon,
no impact crater, shadows cast from multiple sources of light,
a rock engraved with a distinctive “C,” the photos betraying
an absence of stars), though none of this diminished
my adolescent dream of launch, telescope pointed each night
at the sky from an outpost somewhere in suburbia, in America.

Something Useful

When the sound returns, faint at first,
          more pulse than pitch, my wife’s left hand
                    on my chest, not shaking me awake,

but still as a ship at sea, becalmed
          on my heart without wind or waves,
                    I do not hesitate, but rise, already dressed

in shirt and shorts, and shuffle downstairs,
          scooping the neighbor’s key from the foyer
                    table just as I have the previous two times

tonight, the moon, not so much rising
          in the sky, but passing among the tops
                    of the pines, as if it too were peering out

to find the source of the shrieking bird,
          my neighbors gone for a month for the late
                    marriage of their youngest son, asking

my wife and me to keep an eye on things,
          none of us expecting the faulty alarm,
                    unfixable until Monday, and wailing

every four hours, reminding me,
          in a small way, of my daughters
                    as newborns and those first fitful months,

my wife waking again and again as I do
          tonight, though an alarm of course
                    is also not like a newborn at all,

a newborn needing to be nursed
          and consoled, to be sung to and held,
                    just as anger, Buddhist monks believe,

needs to be soothed when it wakes
          like a crying child, though I don’t feel
                    anger tonight, crossing the street

to my neighbor’s home, only puzzlement
          as I key in, again, the alarm’s code to disarm
                    while triggered floodlights flash in the hall,

and recorded hounds bark at my back,
          a bit of overkill, I know, my neighbor said
                    when we spoke earlier this evening by phone,

this grandfather whom I’ve seen return
          fallen eggs to their nests, one hand cupped
                    and held out as he climbed the ladder,

his face rising and setting over the limb,
          I imagined, like the sun on the bayou to the west
                    of our homes, my neighbor a retired internist

who for decades considered how organs
          interlink in the body’s dark caverns,
                    who shyly brought me medical journals

he’d saved, something useful, maybe,
          for your students, he said, something
                    about which to write, and though I couldn’t

make heads or tails of the texts, I appreciated
          the gesture, his instincts on subject matter
                    and the interrelation of systems and art,

which brings me back to his request
          on the phone, that I inspect, each time,
                    every room of his house, the alarm service

detecting a fire, most likely a glitch,
          though one never knows, and I pass again
                    from room to room, placing my hand

on the doors, testing for warmth
          as I was taught as a child, each doorknob
                    cold to the touch, like the hands of the dead,

I can’t help but think, around me the mechanized
          dogs refusing to heel, the dogs not immortal,
                    of course, but reflexive, residual, having no

will of their own, no attentive master,
          only design, like the stories of planes
                    that continue their course after cabin

pressure has somehow been breached,
          like ghost ships rising out of the fog,
                    or clock chimes winding down in the night,

and, of course and again, there is no fire,
          the dogs only calmed when I reenter the night,
                    click once more the deadbolt closed,

and step back into the street and my yard,
          my form held again in the light of the moon,
                    its brilliance less than the scorch of the sun,

solitary, unlike somewhere tonight that new groom
          and bride, given away as in the turn of phrase,
                    walking hand in hand on a distant beach,

all futures before them, their pasts behind,
          and the only sound the churn of waves
                    as the sea smooths their steps from the sand.

Author’s Note

“The Passing World,” “Google Searching ‘America Is,’” and “Something Useful” were each written separately over several years, and in each poem my hope was to write more expansively and inclusively with a focus on pushing the boundaries of long sentences and investigating and exploring the world around me and my role as a citizen and participant in the communities of the poems. The initial draft of “The Passing World” was written many years ago, and I came back to it over time in revision to try to honor the lives of the students who were lost and to attempt to speak to the implicit contract between students and teachers that their work and time together is in service to the students’ burgeoning lives and their potential futures. The deep grief of loss of these humane and generous students is magnified by the loss of their futures as well, and I hope that my poem honors that grief and the lives of the individuals. The initial drafts of “Google Searching ‘America Is’” were written before the onset of generative AI programs, yet the use of predictive text seemed to me to provide a touchstone to the algorithms, both literal and metaphorical, of American culture. “Something Useful” reflects a shift in my writing since becoming a parent where, especially as my children are young (and during the pandemic when the poem was first drafted), I am more housebound and less geographically mobile. As a result, I hope my writing has transitioned to a deepening of inquiry in situations like the one described in the poem where the discovery of the recorded barking dogs as a security device in my neighbors’ home seemed like a great potential metaphor and verisimilitude to explore one’s personal devotions and sense of what constitutes safety and/or security.

Jonathan Fink is Professor and Coordinator of Creative Writing at University of West Florida. He has published two books of poetry: The Crossing (Dzanc, 2015) and Barbarossa: The German Invasion of the Soviet Union and the Siege of Leningrad (Dzanc, 2016). He has also received the Editors’ Prize in Poetry from The Missouri Review, the McGinnis-Ritchie Prize for Nonfiction/Essay from Southwest Review, the Porter Fleming Award in Poetry, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and Emory University, among other institutions. His poems and essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Poetry, Narrative, New England Review, TriQuarterly, The Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Slate, and Witness, among other journals.

*Header image free from Pexels

About dMo

Darren Morris received an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and a fellowship from Virginia Commission for the Arts. His poems have appeared in Poetry Ireland Review, The American Poetry Review, North American Review, The Southern Review, New England Review, The Missouri Review, Best New Poets, and others. His fiction has appeared at Passages North, The Pinch, and The Legendary, among others. He lives in Richmond, Virginia.

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