Poetry Is A Sickness

By Ed Bok Lee

You write not what you want,
but what flaws flower from rust
You want to write about the universe,
how the stars are really tiny palpitating ancestor hearts
watching over us
and instead what you get on the page
is that car crash on Fourth and Broadway—
the wails of the girlfriend or widow,
her long lamentation so sensuous
in terrible harmony with sirens in the distance
Poetry is a sickness
You want to write about Adoration,
the glistening sweat on your honey’s chest
in which you’ve tasted the sun’s caress,
and instead what you get
is a poem about the first of four times
your mother and father split up
Want to write about the perfection of God
of a uniquely lonely childhood
If I had a dime for every happy poem I wrote
I’d be dead
Want to write about the war, oppression, injustice,
and look here, see, what got left behind
when all the sand and dust cleared
is the puke-green carpet in the Harbor Lights Salvation Army treatment center
A skinny Native girl no older than seventeen
braids the reddish hair
of her little four- or five-year-old Down’s Syndrome daughter
Outside, no blinking stars
No holy kiss’s approach
Only a vague antiseptic odor and Christian crest on the wall staring back at you
I didn’t say all this to that dude who sent me his poems
from prison
You want everyone to feel empowered
Want them to believe there is beauty locked in amber
inside each of us, and you chip away at that shit
one word at a time
You stampede with verbs, nouns, and scalpel adjectives
Middle-finger your literalist boss
Blow grocery cash on library fines
Sprain your left knee loading pallets all day for Labor Ready
You live in an attic for nine years
You go bankrupt
You smoke too much
Drink too much
Alienate family and friends
Say yes, poetry is a sickness, but f*ck it
Do it long enough, and I promise like an anti-superhero
your secret power will become loss
Loss like only old people must know
when the last red maple on the block goes
and the drizzle turns to snow
Maybe the best poem is always the one you shouldn’t have written
The ghazal that bled your index finger
Or caused your sister to reject your calls for a year
The sonnet that made the woman you loved fear
That slam poem you’re still paying for
The triolet that smiled to violate you
through both ears
But Poet, Sucker, Fool
It’s your job
to find meaning in all this because
you are delusional enough to believe
that, yes, poetry is a sickness,
but somehow if you can just scrape together enough beauty and truth
to recall, yes, that Broadway car crash was f*cked up,
but the way the rain fell to wash away the blood
not ten minutes after the ambulance left
was gorgeous
Or how maybe your mother and father would sometimes scream,
but also wrapped never-before-seen tropical
fruit for one another every Xmas Eve
How in the morning before opting out I watched
that tiny Native girl fumbling
to braid her own and her now-
snoring mother’s long black hair
                   in a single cornrow—
If I can just always squiggle
down like this:
                                even half as much
as what I’d otherwise need
to forget
maybe these scales
really will one day tip
to find each flaw that made us

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