Three Poems

Joshua Rivkin


Almost. Almost is the shortest version of this story. That doesn’t say how at that moment, handed over from his arms to my father’s, then gently brought down to the sand, I didn’t feel gratitude. Saved from the riptide pulling me toward open water, or saved from the breakwall of concrete terrible with splash, I knew just shame. I am less than the water, foolish and careless. I am unable to save myself from the tide’s strong motion. hame too is a gravitational system, a bloodline, a godhead, a grammar, a vowel in the alphabet of my body, the complication of perfection—or wanting to be. Is perfection to be flawless or is it to be complete? I write this moment again and again. The boy in the ocean sees a jellyfish and follows it as far as his arms will take him, past blue light buoys and the seagulls, squawking, picking at the water’s surface. The boy learns to swim with the water, and is rescued by himself. He is rescued and runs back into the surf, never afraid again to be carried away by force. The boy returns to his family, grateful to be alive. Almost, almost. He presses his two naked feet into the sand, and lets the towel they wrap around his small frame press into, then under, skin. He shouts to the rocks and they call back. He swims past shallows and is caught by the current below the current. He loves its strength. The boy in the ocean drinks enough saltwater to become a wave.


You. The waves belly up to sand. No You. The ducks dive. You. City kids. They kick a starfish between them. Bravado, wrote a friend, is the work of the gods. We’re fickle as coastlines. A woman with gray hair and binoculars walks over and picks up the sea star—she knows about these things—her fingers fit neatly in the space between the animal’s body and arms. She shows them what they couldn’t know by looking at the topside, its curve and spike, defense and shimmer: nothing is alive inside. Here, you can hold it if you want. Hollow as wind off the bay. Empty vessel, empty room. Cavafy: rooms inside rooms, left vacant by bodies and left full by time: three wicker chairs, two yellow vases, the mirrored wardrobe, the lover’s bed, and the afternoon light slipping from wall to wall to wall—all gone, all here. Past the waves, more waves. The woman leaves the kids to argue over their treasure: take it home or leave it. He holds the sea to his ear. An arriving surf, a bird’s wanting call, a world beyond this one. How lush this absence, how full is this room. Cavafy: They must still be around somewhere, these old things. How we try to leave them. How they call us back: You. You. You.


I love your refusal to talk too long about the hawks kiting above us. We’ve got serious business here. On the foot-worn path, green spikes of coastal greenery neither of us can name. We have a vocabulary for so much of the world—headlands, missile battery, decommission, coastline—but we can’t get to the given name of those jagged plant fronds. Call them hope. Or rage. Call them motherless. Call them longing. You say, there can be a loss so profound, a missing so true it creates a space inside of us we can never fill. We look down the cliff face. Water breaks white over the rocks like fire catching paper, quick rush and then stillness. Serious business here. Some believe that what’s lost to us can be brought back by us, to us, with our remembering. Memory made flesh. If there is a space within us, I don’t know if I want to seal it. I’ve come to trust this longing, how it hawks—noun and verb, circle and call—from somewhere within me. What lighthouse would fill the sawtooth space with its illumination? At the trail’s end, families walk along the old bunkers, take photos of each other climbing, skipping, arguing, on the ledges where soldiers smoked cigarettes and told stories and watched for submarines approaching the city. All gone. The ‘disappearing guns’ finally fulfill their promise. The empty silos fill with rain. We get it—there’s intersection and overlap. Look, the grass is growing inside the fort’s crumbling quarters. Look, the rusting iron doors open to sky. Beer bottles smashed in the corners, walls brightly spray painted. Says one girl to her father—I hate the graffiti; yellow namesakes and pink designs cover concrete walls with their curving versions of Me and I and We, insisting on this day—this day, like a ripe apple cut from a branch, quartered and eaten in the orchard’s shade—this day, and no other.

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