Editor – Georgia Bellas | Photography – Stephanie Mitchell / Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

‘While Josh Sleeps’

6 min read

Briggs-Copeland Lecturer on English Josh Bell reads his poem

Read the full Gazette story on Josh Bell and hear “Hidden Lake.”

I am a system of oppression
and you’re a Scorpio, with Austin
coasting toward us as the shark, though all
we can really see from here
is a polar sheet of clouds, the world not round at all
like we’ve suspected, nor in possession
of the manufactured edge, but flat alone
and going on forever, nothing up here
to walk across or screw a headboard to,
and I fear we won’t be able
to maintain this level of honesty
with each other. People are listening. Depression
is the normal body, just the giant thing
strapped to G-forces, so hard
to lift one’s head, and in the final analysis
I hate a cup of tea: it always tastes
like roots to me, and roots
are so proud, headed for the hidden sources
like scholarly experts, moving always further
away from what they feed. You know
I didn’t want, along with the earthward
mermaids, to honor my way
onto the beach, pectoral fins evolving
toward the better flag
of hands. Rather than that earth,
if we should break into it, I’d like to fall into the sea
from here, grow tails with you, return
to where fish robs fish
and the big snails move
ponderously, alone as automobiles
and far from grace, as we were told,
the word salvation not invented yet
nor the forfeiture of sound. I don’t know
what I mean. Microbe and harness,
the ocean will not invent us, and 1) as I have said, honesty
is important; 2) in stature, yes, you are a very
tiny person, and yet, 3) you know how it is
with some sharks: younger
in testament, emergent conditions
in the water park, but never
leave a tooth behind. And so it is
I fantasize that I’m a smaller person
on airplanes, though history teaches us
that bodily confinements—
the tray stand, the void—sometimes lead to thought
and vision. Josh will tell you
if you ask him it was William Blake
who walked outside one day
and saw a tree, teeming with angels, and I think
Blake may have even thought
they were a pretty sight. I wouldn’t have been so sure: hard
to tell an angel from a ghost:
both of them repositioning chains
in high branches, both extremely dedicated
to craft, both with the heavenly light
streaming out of their mouths, both utterly
and horribly dead. In truth I don’t like flying at all
but not for the usual reasons: I think they should make flight
a more terrifying experience, the employment
of glass bottomed planes, or pilots
reciting the Lord’s Prayer, other bits
of inspirational verse, flight attendants
who pretend to hear me say
I have a bomb, come and live with me
inside this bomb
. But mostly I feel so vulnerable
with all these strangers looking
at the back of my head. I wish I had eyes
back there, but also a living nose, and a mouthful
of working teeth, though this of course
makes me wonder how it would feel
to kiss two women at once,
on both sides of my head, with the regular mouth
and the back-up. You would be
such a conduit, the women sending messages
to each other through your skull, and since
you were the implement, you would never know
if they were telling lies about you
or just speaking intimately, like sisters,
who dig their tunnels through a hill
from both directions, meet in the middle
where they hold hands and collect grubs
and earthworms in a Holly Hobby lunch-box.
But I like it best, with the single mouth,
when the woman misjudges the spacing a bit,
then cracks into your teeth
with her teeth, like a shark hitting the cage, and this all well before
the underpants and the nicotine patches
hit the floor, you and your partner the known center
of the named tradition, the body’s mystery unanswerable
(sweet, sweet lunch-box)
yet completely exhaustible, the male
still the taller of the species, and not a different
kind of animal. There’s an honesty, at least,
in these collisions, maybe just because
you get reminded of your skeleton, there beautiful
but hidden, so no one ever gets to see it
in the light, at least not during the parley
of affectionate conditions, its vision only sanctioned
by the body through a windshield
and later in the weird
flirtation of the trauma ward.  When you
were just a kid, I rocked Austin
on back into Mexico, afterwards walked the strip
without bodyguard, my tongue like a sheet of sand paper
working the roof of my mouth
into a vaulted proscenium, the angelic orders
inscribed into the fishscale patterns
of the hard palate, and I wished
to be small enough to stand
on the stage of my own tongue,
ping a couple of high notes off the new
acoustics, as it seemed sometimes—
like in the myth about the maiden changed to stone—
that my voice would never end,
and the man stamping hands outside
the club I wound up in (Austin), did he not hold my hand
a little longer than necessary? then look
into my eyes? He smelled like
a copy machine, the void rolling off of him
8 x 11, and in that way—and I mean this
as a compliment—you kind of remind me
of him. So when you finally take yourself away
to the other passengers, I’m going to hit
the call button, and you’ll come walking back to me
down the narrow aisle, and then we’ll head off
to the bathroom together, leave the occupied sign
unlit, so one by one the passengers
will have to look upon us, unawares,
but be forced to hold their disapproval in abeyance
since we will just be standing in there, clothed
and deciding where we’re going to stay
on our honeymoon, joking over how
we forced an entire wedding party
into wearing white, how down the aisle the best man wheeled
your ring to you on a tiny cart (thanks
Tommy), and all the cows sleeping below us
in the pastures as we fly over them, they will lay themselves down
and finally sleep like normal people, without fear
of the rubric of the wolf or the gallows
of their own untenable weight. The earth
is funny that way, not always the receptacle
of monoliths. In the mean time,
though, I’ll have a couple of aspirin
and whatever it was that William Blake
was having, and then I’d like to ask the pilot now
if I could be returned to this bit
of airspace again, this one, right there,
it’s gone now, so sad: it had that anonymous,
rectangular feeling to it, like a hotel room
or the top of a pool table, and for a just a couple
seconds there—remember?—right before we started dropping
through a bank of clouds topping off Austin
like a barrister’s wig, we were happy in it.