Monday, July 30, 2012

Monday Poems: "Incubus" -- by Craig Arnold

The chain uncouples, and his jacket hangs
on the peg over hers, and he's inside.  

She stalls in the kitchen, putting the kettle on,  
buys herself a minute looking for two  
matching cups for the lime-flower tea,  
not really lime but linden, heart-shaped leaves  
and sticky flowers that smell of antifreeze.  
She talks a wall around her, twists the string  
tighter around the tea bag in her spoon.  
But every conversation has to break  
somewhere, and at the far end of the sofa  
he sits, warming his hands around the cup  
he hasn't tasted yet, and listens on  
with such an exasperating show of patience  
it's almost a relief to hear him ask it:  
If you're not using your body right now
maybe you'd let me borrow it for a while?

It isn't what you're thinking. No, it's worse.  

Why on earth did she find him so attractive  
the first time she met him, propping the wall  
at an awkward party, clearly trying to drink  
himself into some sort of conversation?  
Was it the dark uncomfortable reserve  
she took upon herself to tease him out of,  
asking, Are you a vampire? That depends,  
he stammered, are you a virgin? No, not funny,  
but why did she laugh at him? What made her think  
that he needed her, that she could teach him something?  
Why did she let him believe she was drunk  
and needed a ride home? Why did she let him  
take her shirt off, fumble around a bit  
on the spare futon, passing back and forth  
the warm breath of a half-hearted kiss  
they kept falling asleep in the middle of?  
And when he asked her, why did she not object?  
I'd like to try something. I need you to trust me.  

Younger and given to daydreams, she imagined  
trading bodies with someone, a best friend,  
the boy she had a crush on. But the fact  
was more fantastic, a fairy-tale adventure  
where the wolf wins, and hides in the girl's red hood.  
How it happens she doesn't really remember,  
drifting off with a vague sense of being  
drawn out through a single point of her skin,  
like a bedsheet threaded through a needle's eye,
and bundled into a body that must be his.  

Sometimes she startles, as on the verge of sleep  
you can feel yourself fall backward over a brink,  
and snaps her eyelids open, to catch herself  
slipping out of the bed, her legs swinging  
over the edge, and feels the sudden sick  
split-screen impression of being for a second  
both she and her.  
                              What he does with her  
while she's asleep, she never really knows,  
flickers, only, conducted back in dreams:  
Walking in neighborhoods she doesn't know  
and wouldn't go to, overpasses, ragweed,  
cars dry-docked on cinderblocks, wolf-whistles,  
wanting to run away and yet her steps  
planted sure and defiant. Performing tasks  
too odd to recognize and too mundane  
to have made up, like fixing a green salad  
with the sunflower seeds and peppers that she hates,  
pouring on twice the oil and vinegar  
that she would like, and being unable to stop.  
Her hands feel but are somehow not her own,  
running over the racks of stacked fabric  
in a clothing store, stroking the slick silk,  
teased cotton and polar fleece, as if her fingers  
each were a tongue tasting the knits and weaves.  
Harmless enough.  
                              It's what she doesn't dream  
that scares her, panic she can't account for, faces  
familiar but not known, déjà vu  
making a mess of memory, coming to  
with a fresh love-bite on her left breast  
and the aftershock of granting another's flesh,  
of having gripped, slipped in and fluttered tender  
mmm, unbraided, and spent the whole slow day  
clutching her thighs to keep the chafe from fading,  
and furious at being joyful, less  
at the violation, less the danger, than the sense  
he'd taken her enjoyment for his own.  
That was the time before, the time she swore  
would be the last—returning to her senses,  
she'd grabbed his throat and hit him around the face  
and threw him out, and sat there on the floor  
shaking. She hadn't known how hard it was  
to throw a punch without pulling it back.  

Now, as they sit together on her couch  
with the liquid cooling in the stained chipped cups  
that would never match, no matter how hard  
she stared at them, he seems the same as ever,  
a quiet clumsy self-effacing ghost  
with the gray-circled eyes that she once wanted  
so badly to defy, that seemed to see her  
seeing him—and she has to admit, she's missed him.  
Why? She scrolls back through their conversations,  
searching for any reason not to hate him.  
She'd ask him, What's it like being a girl  
when you're not a girl? His answers, when he gave them,  
weren't helpful, so evasively poetic:  
It's like a sponge somebody else is squeezing.
A radio tuned to all stations at once.
Like having skin that's softer but more thick.

Then she remembers the morning she awoke  
with the smear of tears still raw across her cheeks  
and the spent feeling of having cried herself  
down to the bottom of something. Why was I crying?  
she asked, and he looked back blankly, with that little  
curve of a lip that served him for a smile.  
Because I can't.
                              And that would be their secret.  
The power to feel another appetite  
pass through her, like a shudder, like a cold  
lungful of oxygen or hot sweet smoke,  
fill her and then be stilled. The freedom to fall  
asleep behind the blinds of his dark body  
and wake cleanly. And when she swings her legs  
over the edge of the bed, to trust her feet  
to hit the carpet, and know as not before  
how she never quite trusted the floor  
to be there, no, not since she was a girl  
first learning to swim, hugging her skinny  
breastless body close to the pool-gutter,  
skirting along the dark and darker blue  
of the bottom dropping out—
                              Now she can stand,  
and take the cup out of his giving hand,  
and feel what they have learned inside each other  
fair and enough, and not without a kind  
of satisfaction, that she can put her foot  
down, clear to the bottom of desire,  
and find that it can stop, and go no deeper.

*     *     *     *     *

Craig Arnold taught poetry at the University of Wyoming and published two books of poetry--Shells (1999) and Made Flesh (2008)--before his untimely death in 2009. He earned his BA from Yale University and his PhD in creative writing from the University of Utah.

Arnold won the 2005 Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize Fellowship in literature, The Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship, an Alfred Hodder Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, an NEA fellowship, and a MacDowell Fellowship. 

While traveling in Japan, Arnold went missing on a solo hike. His body was never recovered and he was assumed to have died from a fatal fall.


  1. Sometimes and economy of words makes a poem succeed but this extravagance was well worth the reading! Luxury, it is.

  2. This was a very deep well full of so many secrets we all thought were our own. Now we are exposed.
    A beautiful write, worthy of the length.