DISPATCH FROM THE FUTURE, four poems by Leigh Stein
BASED ON A BOOK OF THE SAME TITLE
By definition of vicious infinite regression
I don’t like to talk to philosophy majors.
They have found the truth and the truth is
that there isn’t one, so on Saturdays they
wear overalls and stare at their reflections
and try to guess whose childhood was worse,
but in the end they realize they all share
the same dream of having a reason
to join the Witness Protection Program,
which disappoints at least one person, who
thought his dream was so uniquely his.
Last night I got a fortune cookie that said
I don’t get along with basically anyone,
and from the back I learned the Chinese word
for grape: putao, and it made me wonder how each
informs the other. To find out, turn to page 117.
I wonder how much longer I can live here
before I do something irresponsible like7
meet a teenage boy on a Ferris wheel in 1941
or lie in the street and watch the stoplights
change from green to yellow or sit on a porch
swing at dusk and listen to Leaves of Grass
read by someone who has just worked all day
with his hands. Already on page 56 I love you
so much I just want to steal your clothes
when you’re asleep and wash them. I want us
to communicate telepathically until I am old
and suffering from dementia and can’t even
remember I know how to play piano until
a nurse tells me I do and still I’ll deny it
until she puts my hands on the keys and then
there’ll be Chopin so quickly, as the light
spills in the leaded windows and the lilies
lean in closer. By definition of vicious
infinite regression I am in front of a mirror
holding a copy of the movie based on the book
you wrote based on the parts of our life
together that I no longer remember and
looking back at me is a woman holding8
a movie based on a book based on her life
and she wonders if the woman she sees
wants to die as much as she does. I keep
staring at this bruise on my leg and drawing
a blank. Last night when you called I told you
I was happy, which was true, but thinking ahead
I could be unhappy, too, if that’s what you
wanted. I could be any of a lot of things:
a wrist, a ghost, a harbor, a rope. I could
be the one who doesn’t know the language.
I could be the reason they take you first.
I could be the last person to see you alive.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN CANADIAN WILDERNESS
My favorite book is the one with the woman
who wears a balaclava every time she goes
under the viaduct because it’s Canada, and
because she’s married to a man who loves
her sister, and because if her family found her
under the viaduct, she would lose everything;
more than that, she would lose the end of the story
he began. Il était une fois, he said, there are rugs
made by children who go blind and turn
to crime, and/or rescuing sacrificial virgins
from the palace the night before the sacrifice.
Turn one page if you want to be the woman,
listening to the story, but you’ll have to
keep the hat on. Turn three if you’d rather
be a girl alone in a bed, waiting. I was
always that girl: you’re alone and
they’ve already cut out your tongue
and in the morning they’ll take you
to the top of a high hill, so what can you
do but follow the blind boy, watch
as he puts the body of the strangled guard
in your bed, in your place, follow as he leads
you through the air ventilation system and over
the palace walls? I never chose any other way
because what could the woman do but love him46
and listen to a story that wasn’t about her.
After you get over the walls you run
through the darkness, the darkness that isn’t
darkness to the blind boy because of his blindness,
the silent darkness to you who can’t describe it,
you run until you turn the page, but then instead
of safety, a valley, the woman under the viaduct
puts her skirt on and goes back home and you think
you’ve ended up in the wrong story, but months later
she gets a phone call saying the man was killed
in the Spanish Civil War and that’s the end
because the only person who knows
what happened to you is dead.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF MY LIFE PART XXVI
I can’t go to the east village anymore
because that’s where all the ghosts are.
Yes, I went and got older again.
I made the mistake of having a birthday
and taking it to the mansion
where birthdays fall down stairs
and break their necks. Be careful.
I’ve never been comfortable before
and you should know that.
You should know I’ve outlived
everyone in my family, and now
I’m your guide to the haunted
universe. Watch out for pianos.
Take my picture if you want
to see what color my energy is.
In the dark I’m either pretty or sad
colored, and my silhouette might exceed
your expectations. Out with the old,
in with the nude, as they say.
Say you want a ghost to stay.
Say you light some candles. Say
you lure her with sadness because
ghosts are hungry for palpitations.
Say you try to hold her but you’re never sure
if it’s tight enough. We’re the ghosts
and we’re here to tell you:
it’s never tight enough. You’ll never
keep us from floating up
and down the staircase like memories
you didn’t even know you’d lost.
No one wants to watch me break
my neck, so watch me disappear.
I can’t go to the east village anymore
because I’m already here in the dark.
DISPATCH FROM THE FUTURE
In the future, we are tender.
We temper our irreverence
It’s, like, slightly wonderful.
We pronounce magic
like we’re from Michigan,
and all our mothers continue
mothering, like harbors,
There’s a sense of indeterminacy
with mothering and we take
turns standing like breakwaters.
Life is dangerous, wild, and yet
we welcome it.
We’re in therapy.
It’s called water.
LEIGH STEIN’S first novel, The Fallback Plan, was hailed as “beautiful, funny, thrilling, and true” by Gary Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story). A former New Yorker staffer and frequent contributor to its “Book Bench” blog, Stein lives in Brooklyn. Get DISPATCH FROM THE FUTURE here.