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

hysterical light

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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