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Eighteen

By Lauren K. Alleyne

              With thanks to Frances Driscoll for the word


Tonight you are full of small rivers:
your eyes’ salty runoff, the rust-bright
trickle staining your thigh, the unnamable,
undammed flooding in your chest—
you are drowning in all of them. Sweet girl,
of course you do not have the words—
it will take you almost ten years to find them;
they are both more powerful, and less
useful than you can believe in this night
when your hands and faith have failed you,
when your mouth is an absence of screams.
Some rivers are wider than any courage.
I give you nothing as you sink, alone
under those waters. This is how I am born.

                               *

Under those waters, you labor to birth me:
For days, you are dead to alarms, knocks, rings,
messages with their battery of concern
and questions you have no answer for.
You have made yourself impenetrable
to insistence with sleep’s shadowy armor,
with a silence that consumes all sound
whole. You are beyond the world’s reach,
which is one kind of safety. I can only imagine
that bodiless place, its darkness like a sweetness
in the mouth. The secrets you learned there
delivered me—your miracle scream, your dark
voice. Together, we left that realm of smoke,
returned to this country of blood, awoke.

                               *

You wake up, but you can never return.
No matter what country you burden
with dreams of home, if there are rivers,
if blood or tears or time flow there, if memory
lives or is buried there, if leaving was your own
doing, if you were captured or borrowed or lost,
if the doors were cast wide, or if you pried
them open, if there are doors, or doorways—
your name is not a key. Return has no means
in any language, no lines around it on any map;
To go back is a verb conjugated in dreams,
that dissolves on your tongue when you wake up
reaching for it. You seek a different debt,
choose a different peace: your verb, to forget

                               *

And you forgot. You moved though your days
easy, with lightness that was not untrue.
You lifted weights and danced; you biked and ran—
you moved and moved, never still long enough
for your shadow to settle. You visited
familiar countries (not quite the same
as returning), made home the body’s wild
contours. You wore short skirts and spiky heels.
You held bottles to your mouth, sparked fire
to your face, learned to suck the smoke in
and feel it swirling there next to your heart.
You defied sleep, worked the late shift at bars
instead of dreaming. You kept your eyes open,
your gaze fixed ahead on the slippery horizon.

                               *

O slippery horizon, seeming fixed,
just within reach is your most perfect trick.
You keep us going by it—hang your dazzle
like the perfect carrot; we chomp and chomp
toward you. When you’re bright enough we need
never look behind; who wants to reach back
when the future beckons—a kept promise?
Eighteen, you know everything is at stake:
your possible life, hopes of making good
you long to realize, some nagging truth,
your sanity, pride. It is not a choice,
this horizon, but a bearable path.
We have faith in the signs saying this way
to happiness: you are closer each day.


                               *

You believe happiness is the bearable
vision of yourself: the woman who lives
certain in her skin; the woman who walks
unafraid, whose throat out-thunders thunder.
Each day she unwinds the bright rope of her
will, harnesses the hours for her pleasure.
Her laughter is an open door. Happy,
her heart empty of longing; happy is
her dreamless and unvisited sleep.
She is a bullet, a bird—all things swift
and light that ride on wind. She will not turn.
She will answer to no name but her own.
She is entire. She makes herself wide
so nothing can hold her; she holds all inside.

                               *

We hold all, 18. But not everything
dies because we believe burial an end:
Something waits to make gardens of us,
to wreath us with quiet thorns. It grows fat
and bursts its skin in us, thrives on our rivers;
it waits in our dark. It sets down roots, long
fingers probing the earth of us. It breaks
free and breathes the air of us. It reaches
for our light. 18, it creeps along our paths;
it thickens; it clings. Inside our bodies
something always waits to disappear, to burn,
or to startle us with bloom.
It unfolds
obscene flowers: a doom of petals litters
us, our breath—their fragrance— heavy, bitter.

                               *

For years they scent our daily air, heavy;
breath after breath, we press on. The story
ripening in us, its eyes looking through ours
in the mirror. We have not seen our face
without its shadow for almost ten years,
and now this. In a class on Violence
Against Women,
the professor prophesies
this moment— it will come for anyone
who has suffered trauma.
We do not believe
we are anyone until we are sobbing
for the night that the boy you liked held you
down and made you bleed. Again, the rivers.
But this time I come bearing a word: rape.
We cling to the raft of it, begin our escape.

                               *

In the raft of language, we begin our escape:
We hold ourselves tightly inside it, whisper
its single syllable like a spell. The word
means it was not your fault for liking him,
for kissing him, for leaning into the touch
he pressed against your shoulders. Despite
your desire, despite the first thrill, the word
means you said no, too, and that matters.
The word tells us you were not being punished
by God. The word means you were not weak,
not stupid, not damned; you were a victim—
not a tease, not a cautionary tale or a moral
lesson. This is what a word can give: definition,
meaning – the closest we can get to salvation.

                               *

Meaning is the closest we get to salvation,
which is to say the word changes nothing
—it does not unmake the rivers, cannot
erase them from the landscape of us—spells
have their limits. Which is to say return
means too-late-to-be-saved in any language.
The longing is to be pure; what you get is to be
changed.
18, we will carry our dark, we will
birth ourselves again and again; we will
tend our gardens, harvest the difficult fruit;
we will apprentice ourselves to the work,
and learn the language that will allow us
to summon our own angels. We survive;
we go on; we cross those rivers—we live.

Added: Monday, July 21, 2014  /  Alleyne's poem tied for Third Place in the Split This Rock 2013 Poetry Contest. We are grateful to Mark Doty, judge of the 2013 contest.
Lauren K. Alleyne
Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

Lauren K. Alleyne is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014). Alleyne’s fiction, non-fiction, interviews, and poetry have been widely published in journals and anthologies such as Women’s Studies Quarterly, Guernica, The Caribbean Writer, Black Arts Quarterly, The Cimarron Review, Crab Orchard Review, Gathering Ground, and Growing Up Girl, among others. Her work has earned several honors and awards, most recently the Picador Guest Professorship in Literature at the University of Leipzig, Germany, a 2014 Iowa Arts Council Fellowship, and first place in the 2016 Split This Rock Poetry Contest. She is a Cave Canem graduate, and is originally from Trinidad and Tobago. Alleyne is currently the assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and an associate professor of English at James Madison University.

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