Cento for the Night I Said, “I Love You”
This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features a poem by Nicole Sealey.
Cento for the Night I Said, “I Love You”
Today, gentle reader,
is as good a place to start.
But you knew that, didn’t you? Then let us
give ourselves over to the noise
of a great scheme that included everything.
That indicts everything.
Let us roam the night together
in an attempt to catch the stars that drop.
White clouds against sky
come humming toward me.
One closely resembling the beginning
of a miracle. There’s
the moonlight on a curved path
lighting the purple flowers of fragrant June.
I dreamed him and there he was
silent as destiny,
lit by a momentary match.
Men are so clueless sometimes,
like startled fish
living just to live.
We are dying quickly
but behave as good guests should:
patiently allowing the night
to have the last word.
And I just don’t know,
you know? I never had a whole lot to say
while talking to strange men.
What allows some strangers to go past strangeness? Exchanging
yearning for permanence. And who wouldn’t
come back to bed? Love—
How free we are; how bound. Put here in love’s name:
called John. A name so common as
a name sung quietly from somewhere.
Like a cry abandoned someplace
in a city about which I know.
Like black birds pushing against glass,
I didn’t hold myself back. I gave in completely and went
all the way to the vague influence of the distant stars.
I saw something like an angel
spread across the horizon like some dreadful prophecy
refusing to be contained, to accept limits.
She said, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
I love you, I say, desperate
to admit that
the flesh extends its vanity
to an unknown land
where all the wild swarm.
This is not death. It is something safer,
almost made of air—
I think they call it god.
Some say we’re lucky to be alive, to have
a sky that stays there. Above.
And I suppose I would have to agree…
but the hell with that.
It isn’t ordinary. The way the world unravels,
from a distance, can look like pain
eager as penned-in horses.
And it came to pass that meaning faltered, came detached.
I learned my name was not my name.
I was not myself. Myself
resembles something else
that had nothing to do with me, except
I am again the child with too many questions
as old as light. I am always learning the same thing:
one day all this will only be memory.
One day soon. For no good reason.
Dying is simple—
the body relaxes inside
as someone drafts an elegy
in a body too much alive.
Love is like this;
not a heartbeat, but a moan.
Can you see me
sinking out of sight
in the middle of our life?
Should I be ashamed of myself
for something I didn’t know I—
(He walks by. He walks by
laughing at me.)
“What else did you expect
from this day forward?” For better. Or worse.
One life is not enough
to remember all the things
marriage is. This town at dawn
can will away my lust
to suck honey from the sunlight,
so why am I out here trying
to make men tremble who never weep?
After all’s said and after all’s done
and all arrogance dismissed,
the distance rumbles in
sparing only stars.
The moon, like a flower,
survives as opinion
making it almost transparent.
The pieces of heavy sky
heavy as sleep.
I close my eyes
and this is my life now.
** “Cento for the Night I Said, ‘I Love You’” is comprised entirely of lines borrowed from the following poets (in order of appearance): C.D. Wright, Mary Jo Salter, Patricia Smith, Toi Derricotte, Philip Levine, Lynda Hull, Langston Hughes, Malachi Black, Kimberly Blaeser, Maxine Kumine, Afaa Michael Weaver, Hédi Kaddour, dg nanouk okpik, Claude McKay, Deborah Landau, Sharkmeat Blue, George Bradley, Yona Harvey, Federico García Lorca, June Jordan, Kwame Dawes, W.H. Auden, Ana Castillo, Erica Hunt, Muriel Rukeyser, Ed Roberson, Ruth Madievsky, Thylias Moss, Gregory Orr, Yusef Komunyakaa, Elizabeth Spires, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Tim Seibles, Nathalie Handal, Wisława Szymborska, Lucille Clifton, C.P. Cavafy, Rainer Maria Rilke, Raúl Zurita, August Kleinzahler, Louise Glück, Victoria Redel, Adélia Prado, Sonia Sanchez, Jean Sénac, Claribel Alegría, Remica L. Bingham-Risher, Sylvia Plath, Harryette Mullen, Emily Dickinson, Sharon Strange, Larry Levis, Sherman Alexie, Franz Wright, Marianne Boruch, Andrea Cohen, Linda Susan Jackson, Carl Phillips, Robert Hayden, Eavan Boland, Anne Waldman, Dorianne Laux, Natasha Trethewey, Eric Gamalinda, Galway Kinnell, John Murillo, Yves Bonnefoy, Tina Chang, David Wojahn, Nick Laird, Simone White, Catherine Barnett, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Brenda Shaughnessy, Kazim Ali, Brenda Hillman, Valzhyna Mort, Blas Falconer, Theodore Roethke, Kahlil Gibran, Rita Dove, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Khaled Mattawa, Tracy K. Smith, Ed Skoog, Alice Walker, Pablo Neruda, Adrienne Rich, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Aimé Césaire, Jake Adam York, Bob Kaufman, William Blake, Frank Bidart, Marilyn Nelson, Polina Barskova, Santee Frazier, Suheir Hammad and Cornelius Eady.
Sections from this poem have been previously published in Harvard Review, No Tokens, Pinwheel, Ploughshares, Provincetown Arts Magazine, and Washington Square Review
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