Those who move toward death pull away—
as snow liquefies to leave a ring
of needles beside pine’s warm trunk.
Surprise calls for instinct—
pumas arch, bears rear. This other way:
stamina for the full course—
Skin knits our body of water to a whole.
Like learning to sew—
small hands pull yarn, focus on one
stitch, the other, until they run as one.
Marked with names
rows of tombstones.
At the entrance a water fountain
flows a steady clear stream of
earthy water drawn from
a well among buried bodies.
Water for the living who
cannot find shelter under
oaks’ thick leaves.
Dismiss images of flesh flaking
like halibut from bones, hair strands
webby on cranium, fingernails.
Don’t wonder whether
boxes are pine or walnut,
velveted or bare or
the poorest deceased
in winding sheet.
Sweep ears of sobs,
the plink of tears on shoe leather.
Taste on tongue.
Death’s arrival unites
this congregation, their
splintery mosaic of
It is like the moment you
don’t speak up and the weird girl’s
face falls; it’s when she tells you on another
occasion that her mother
walks the halls at night and her father
forbids shears near her hair. When
the Ouija board points to “yes,” you think “no.”
She is the girl who finds you
when you stink in audition, shares half
her sandwich, gives you the waxed
paper to use as a placemat
when you’ve no money
walking the beach when
a plover fakes a broken wing
to lure the killer in you
from its nest.
in Apple Valley when
you move your household
to a better place: winds kick like donkeys’ legs
and you are lost in grains
stop the car, roll windows tight
brace against the rocking chassis
as wind beats the windshield
whipping crystals (millions, eroded from stones)
and you squint against the sand
that can’t sting you through the glass—
Alexa Mergen’s writing appears in numerous journals and anthologies. She’s the author of two poetry chapbooks and a brief history of the National Zoo. In 2013, she participated in Pulitzer Remix, writing found poems from Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter. Scheduled for publication in 2015 by Salmon Poetry is a full-length collection, Dirt Hill. Alexa’s at work on a novel set in 1981 in her hometown of Washington, DC, featuring horses, punk rock, banjoes, bikes and canoes. She’s lived in California’s mountains and deserts, near the coast, and for the last dozen years in the Central Valley. alexamergen.com
Q: Your work often addresses the intersections between human and the natural world, human and the man-made world. These poems, however, seem to arrive at a different edge – between life and death, the accepted world and the one just across the border. What do you think draws you to these liminal spaces, and how do they inform your work?
A. I’m not sure what draws me to liminal spaces--thresholds between human and non-human species, life and death, here and there, within and without. Maybe because I slept poorly for most of my childhood and was often awake in the middle of the night while my parents and brother were sleeping. I’d sit in the window and watch the sky, or lie in bed and observe the shadows cast by street lamps outside. In my teens, I often stayed up all night. So, I got used to watching light change from darkness to dawn. I sleep solidly these days, but keep a notebook by the bed; it’s not unusual for phrases or images to arrive when I’m feeling muzzy. If you follow a string of words starting with your choice, “liminal” meaning “threshold,” “threshold” comes from the word for “tread” which is movement. Ultimately, I am interested in moments and momentum, in shifts in time and in people and places. I still love to witness the day waking up whether it’s listening to the first bird call or seeing shopkeepers roll back their storefront gratings.
Q: Do you have a poet outside the British/American canon who has been an inspiration or influence on your work? In what ways?
A. I started studying Spanish in grade school, and traveled in Spain, Mexico, and Central America as a child and an adult, so poets writing in Spanish have influenced me. For my MA thesis at University of California-Irvine, I translated a Pablo Neruda poem and compared that translation to two other versions; more recently, I experimented with translations of poems by Blas de Otero. Translation is the surest way to improve as a poet because as words move among languages the gains and losses highlighted are reminders of how we’re always, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, telling it slant. If I had to pick one poet as an influence it would be Federico Garcia Lorca. My high school Spanish teacher had us read Yerma and Blood Wedding, and “Romance de la luna, luna.” I am grateful to her for teaching us so much. Thanks, Jan!
Q: Poets once spent a good bit of time in cemeteries, pondering mortality – as do you. Do we miss this particular movement in contemporary poetry – does it still have significance in our time of mass death and genocide?
A. Humans have long perpetuated slaughters against each other and other species. We know from sociology and psychology that a person more easily empathizes with an individual than a group–that’s why organizations’ direct mail campaigns often feature one ill child or one rescued dog, who are named. By urging readers and listeners to pay attention and look for connections, poems can encourage wonder for the preciousness, joy, and sorrow of life. As homes of the particular–individualized headstones with inscriptions, names and dates that, combined, are a record of a unique individual who walked the earth–cemeteries epitomize the push-pull between one and many. How we honor the dead will always matter, I hope. Poets tend to have time to think about mortality; it’s our job.