IMAGE: Julian Kucera
Alexander Long's fourth book of poems, On Distance, was published in 2018 by Stephen F. Austin State University Press. He is a professor of English at John Jay College at the City University of New York, and is writing a biography of Larry Levis. More information can be found at alexbasspoem.com.
Day 87–Saturday, November 7, 2020
Fog thick, dawn shoulders itself from dark, freighter train half mile away rumbles on time, the robin resumes his rambling ontologies regarding the origins of hunger & I’m hungry, too, for something I should be able to name by now, like having the thought salvation become a feeling; but, no, the day’s begun to sprawl itself across the arctic desert behind my eyes filled with all that will & can’t happen & the only thing my mind latches itself to appears as all those impossibilities, clear as a rag-wiped tumbler placed before me at the bar once again upon a time & I begin again unearthing a synonym for time.
Day 90–Tuesday, November 10, 2020
It used to be what I’d see at the beginning was the end. Lately, I’m thinking it will be the
smell of grass, some of it freshly sheared, some giraffe-high & today, I’m thinking, it will be blue grass, the kind from Kentucky, but actually blue, indigo patches, navy with tiny flowers, some sky blue on a hill fading into something just shy of lavender & all the blues Miles Davis makes so full of greens that Whitman surely taps his foot in gleeful approval of the sad & bouncing sounds. But none of this comes into focus until that scent of grass charts its course from this life into the next one, as it did last night or earlier this morning when the plush musk of moss floated through a scene in a dream whose characters & voices & gestures & faces & actions & motives I can no longer recall. What carried me was the endlessly lush & thick absence of everything but grass.
Day 106–Wednesday, November 25, 2020
Like a city emptied, my eyes open slowly & for a few moments I’m nothing in the world. The earth positions itself so the sun persists in its steady gaze upon it, but no clock-tick, bird-song, tree-creak, house-groan. For a few moments, a glimpse into what might be the next life, which may happen during this one. Or after. A whole life all at once would obliterate that life before it began. I had a friend—before I was in the rooms, he drank, died at thirty-eight—who worked for the township as a landscaper & most of his job was mowing the grass of cemeteries. Painstaking work, from how he described it. The trimming was what got to him. He’d have to be precise, careful around the stones, some of them glazed & shiny like a mahogany table. He’d have to be mindful not to stare too long at the names & dates until they became indecipherable characters & figures, meaningless sounds; mindful not to think, not to think at all, especially about the simple dash between the dates. He’d tell me about the neighborhoods—he called them neighborhoods—the cemeteries were often cordoned into. In one, the Italians were to the west, the African Americans to the south, the Jewish to the east, the Irish & the Polish to the north & in the southern-most, western-most corner, the infants. Some stones, he’d say, had a year. Others, a month. Some, no marker of time at all, existing as nothing.
Day 139–Monday, December 28, 2020
Story goes, one of the sharpest, funniest, most honest among us hadn’t been around for a little bit. Story goes, he slipped after nearly eight months—the first consecutive eight months since coming into the rooms—of not picking up. A self-proclaimed non-crier & for eight months, nearly, he walked the talk. Went through all sorts of shit, but didn’t pick up & didn’t cry, at least in a meeting, for eight months. A meeting is where you’re going to cry, especially early on. Doesn’t matter who you are, what you think you are or aren’t. Then, a couple weeks before the holidays, goes out, picks up, fucks up, breaks God’s heart into a million pieces, scorches heaven to the ground, shacks up with Satan. . . all that. Came back, fessed up, started counting the days again. About halfway through a meeting, he started wiping his nose, reached for some tissues, rubbed the backs of his hands across his eyes. That one drink—likely followed by a whole slew of drinks—broke him into someone, something he fought hard not to be. Already knew he was alcoholic, accepted that long ago. That was actually a relief. But a crier? No way. Not that. Alcoholism’s a disease, a physiological, neuropsychiatric, spiritual affliction bestowed at birth. It’s a Doctrine of Predestination. But crying? No way. Not that. That can be controlled. And, of course, the more it’s fought, the more un-valved the tears come. Crying’s the weather, which means it gives you a whole lifetime to fight it, guarantees failure for which the consolation prize is picking up. Story goes now, it’s been about two weeks since he’s been to a meeting. I think I know where he’s been & it’s not real, not in any physical sense. But it’s there. He’s staring into a distance, just missing the clear moments all the time, reciting The Serenity Prayer a couple hundred times a day & forgetting how it goes, falling in & out of love with everything & everyone a word at a time, arranging his personal effects in the second-to-bottom dresser drawer. Just in case. The quiet in his mind is absolute. His right hand begins to tremble a little. The left, too. He goes outside to smoke. It’s freezing & windy. He’s wearing that faded Led Zeppelin t-shirt & blue running shorts. He’s crying. It’s the cold doing it. And the wind. Always that goddamn wind.
Day–160 Friday, January 15, 2021
Word came down yesterday that one more within our rooms has been lost. Accidental. Or not. If one truly believes in a higher power, then accidents don’t exist. These rooms are fragile. Some days, indestructible. Some days, we could get shelled during The Serenity Prayer & before one of us was done coughing & another of us was somewhere between screaming & hyperventilating, someone would start laughing, “coffee ain’t that bad. . .” & “looks like somebody’s gotta do Steps 4 & 5 again,” & another would chime in, “make that Step 9 while you’re at it” & “that bomb was fucking big, but my ego is bigger!” But, not yesterday & not today. Word is she had been doing pretty well, hadn’t drugged or drank for nearly three years. She’d made it so far through COVID-19 & quarantine & furlough after furlough & finally being let go & an ex overdosing—accidental, or not—near the beginning of quarantine & moving back in with her sister & never once, she said at a meeting last week, wanting to drink or drug, which, if you asked me four months ago whether I’d call that a lie or a miracle, I’d laugh at your question, the answer’s so obvious. Today, there’s no laughter in me & this, right now, is everything. Right now, I believe her not using for that long is a miracle. Right now, I believe her not wanting to is a miracle & a lie. “Ain’t none of us wanna die. . .” the nameless character in the schoolyard in Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” says. I believe that, too, is a miracle laced with lies. What I believe matters as much as the weather.
Day–1 Monday, January 18, 2021
I ask the window sprayed with frozen rain that, by the looks of it, flew & fell sideways for
hours: Missed it again, didn’t I? The glass, the screen, the sill, the floor, the pile of books now damp & drying into their new wrinkles & old smells in due time & I missed it. Missed opening it, too. I was there. I did it. And missed it. Another one of those nights that unraveled for reasons that do & don’t make much sense, some vague & overwhelming urge to feed what will destroy everyone dear to me. Another one of those nights I grew tired, grew bored, grew. . . something. Grief has too many masks, almost as many as fear. Don’t ask. I don’t, but I keep responding anyway. And here you are, deaf audience, blind poet, window. You saw it all, fought the storm more than anything & even if you could talk, you wouldn’t share what you saw. Not in a way I could grasp. No. You’re open. Your being here like this & my being here like this, that’s all.
Day–8 Tuesday, January 26, 2021
Guilt has gathered in the corner of my eyes, crusty as burnt gristle, shame clogs my nose & the back of my throat, self-recrimination scours my voice & scratches my eyes & all overwhat? As much as last week is a blur, today begins with rumblings of revenge, righteous & undefined & relentless. Nothing’s happened. Nothing will happen. I swat away the idea before it fully forms & bully myself into another apology for everything, for being. Of course. Of course, another drink, just now, just one? Why not? No. This question instead: is it better or worse if a scarf is wrapped around the neck before the noose tightens & gravity gives?
Day–33 Monday, March 1, 2021
Something’s happened to Time. It hasn’t stopped, but it’s not passing either. There’s no motion, but it moves. It’s there when I think of it & have forgotten about it. It’s got my back while it steals my breath. The other day, a woman sitting next to me said, “Time takes Time. ”Maybe it was last year. Either way, I’d tallied a couple days without picking up. She said, “A couple days is a long time.” I thought she was being supportive to the point of lying. But, no. She wasn’t even being kind. She turned from me to the group, apologized for not being around as much as she’d like, that her brother had committed suicide two weeks back. Her voice didn’t crack, waver. She didn’t clear her throat, take a long pause to compose herself, reach for a tissue. She was entirely present & shared the fact of it. Then, she thanked the group, especially, she said, “the newcomers, like this one here, the most important person in this room. Time takes Time. "It makes sense to me sometimes, like when I’m unable to think clearly, when whatever feelings I’m having obliterate the facts that caused them. She handed me a tissue, patted my shoulder. “Keep coming,” she said. Time is God.
Day–55 Friday, March 6, 2021
Because I didn’t want it to be true, it was. Not just the whole mess of picking up a drink one day at a time for a very long time & not being able not to do it the next day, but last night’s dream again. Not only was I back with my ex & not only had I left the woman I love to make it so & not only were we drinking—lots of good, top-shelf stuff, too—we also moved back to the country to live with her parents. Not only does “back to the country” mean all the bucolic, elysian usual suspects; it also means gas stations selling confederate flags, white guys hanging around gas stations leaning on their gun-racked Fords with Trump bumper stickers & All Lives Matter bumper stickers & all kinds of bumper stickers that pass for reading in that part of the country known as “the country.” All of dreams to recur, this one. I hated those fuckers & even in the dream I knew how idiotic that was. How am I any different if I hate them? Still, not only did I mouth off, I scraped it up with them, too & didn’t they kick the shit out of me & didn’t I come to handcuffed to a hospital bed as a priest doled out last rites like an auctioneer & wasn’t he the only other person in the room? None of that matters now, but for the fact it keeps coming back whenever it wants: while I’m slicing a tomato, tying a shoelace, clicking a pen over & over, pulling a weed, crushing a can of seltzer or Diet Coke, making a U-turn. . .there it is again, all of it & in the center of it all, goddamn it all, the good, top-shelf stuff on the topmost shelf with all those mirrors around it.
Day–74 Wednesday, April 14th, 2021
The language of it all. . .maybe it lasts because it can’t stop failing.
Committed & what’s attached to it: to memory, to you, a crime, to an institution, suicide, to the program.
Took & what’s fastened it to: vows, a drink, advantage of, her time, his life & sometimes his own life.
Suffers from & what’s been assigned to it: addiction, depression, migraines. There’s also suffers
with, which is a parallel universe. And there’s what sometimes brackets suffer: never &
Bears & what gets tethered to it: witness to, the brunt of, the burden of.
Why? Any of it?
Because we can’t say. Because words fail us & there are no words.
Because silence—to sit in it, to listen to the sound of it—seems cruel, a blank canvas of
when all I want, all I need are just a few words to make it all go away, as if my life has never been.
Yeah. That. Sure.
Day–90 Friday, April 30, 2021
Looking back as much as I can now, I’ve been too much in the middle of Time to realize I am, have been all along, here. Right here. Just right here. All the time. Drinking soaks up the moment & leaves its husks on a doorstep, windowsill, kitchen floor. Sometimes it’s an actual husk—a beetle, a cicada—but usually it drapes everything in something difficult to see. It makes breathing tricky, interrupted. It floats in pillars of sunlight. It’s who I am, what I’ve been, what I’ve become. Yeah, yeah, yeah, all that. Thing is, I’m surrounded by my return each moment, too. It’s difficult to see myself shrouded in so much dust. Amazing I move at all.
Day–100 Monday, May 10, 2021
I’ve seen the sun rise how many times? I’ve seen its light land on grass, clematis, gladiola & lilac, how they return that light in kind. I’ve seen its beams reach through the long branches of the elm & the curled ones of the Japanese maple. How they return that light is the soundless benediction of the tree. I’ve heard how its light wakes the robin & I’ve heard how he calls back & sings to it in notes the light registers. I’ve felt this light carry me back from sleep & bring to my ear my own beating heart & some days I’ve learned how to give thanks. I’ve seen the sun rise how many times? And how many more? How many more?
Day–103 Thursday, May 13, 2021
It’s like something pulled from Beatitudes, this morning that descends like a flock of butterflies, like a team of nurses laughing & smiling with good news, as if sunlight itself were a shawl wrapped around the coldest places behind my eyes, the barren stretches beneath my shoulders, the furtive corners of my ribs & all are opened & widened the way the day lily & hydrangea widen & reach toward what has opened them & there is no end to their opening.
Day–111 Friday, May 21, 2021
I’d sit in class & if there was a window, my attention would drift toward it before it was stolen. Those classes I failed or barely passed. There were many. It made no difference.
Once my attention was stolen, I was beyond thinking about getting back to my room, beyond imagining it. There, I could pull the blinds, sit on the bed, put my head into my
hands & begin to cry. If I knew why, I wouldn’t be writing this. Quietly at first & as I’d begin to lose my breath, I’d pause to catch it. That’s when it grew louder. Hearing myself like this, I’d be washed with shame. This intensified the crying in tenor & substance. My body would stop, gasp, gather as much air as it could, resume. It was as though some part of me was doing this & a few moments behind it, the rest of me would follow. It still feels this way. That’s when I know I’m beyond myself within myself. My stomach begins to hurt, as though I’ve done too many sit-ups & pulled something. Still, the pain is outside. I notice my hands & arms shaking. They feel borrowed, tried on. The first time I can remember I was twelve. I hadn’t started my drinking in earnest yet. The latest was last year & I was well beyond earnestness in my drinking. I carry this around. Even when I put it down, I carry it. I want to say we: even when we carry it. . . . It feels wrong. When we write it down, we shed it a little while. It comes back. And we write it down some more. We talk to someone, maybe. A friend, a doctor, a stranger on the platform waiting for a train. We shed it. It comes back. There’s no simile for this. We dream it & wake up forgetting. We share it in the rooms. We analyze what’s there & not there in the light of wakefulness. We shed it. It comes back. We take medicines. We meditate. We say prayers. Sometimes we pray without knowing it. This is when the prayers are genuine. We shed those prayers & everything else we carry & they all come back. Me, sitting in class, drifting toward a window if there was one, for example. I hadn’t thought of that breakdown in a very long time. I’ve shed it many times. It comes back. Whether I drink or don’t. This morning, I woke, turned my face toward a clean page & this came back. These words in this arrangement, I’ve been carrying them. All sorts of other arrangements, too. They’ll leave when they’re ready. That feels a certain way, too. Whether I know it or not, their weight is there. I shed it. It comes back. Outside my window, a robin has been calling & calling, despite the rain, this whole time.
Day–116 Wednesday, May 26, 2021
Headache grinding like the cicada’s drilling whir. From what? Bloodstream clean all these days called weeks called, barely, months now. Legs restless & were I a cicada I’d have ground my wings raw by now, would’ve blasted my ears useless. How come? Knuckles, ankles, shoulders stiff as winter wheat barely bending. For how long? Mouth & guts feelclean, are clean, flush with a rest as deep as glaciers, as calm as a pond adorned with lily pads. Christ, those mornings when my mouth burned & my guts blazed. Christ, the nights before there & not there for how many years? To be hollow like the cicada. To be hollow like the cicada.
Day–120 Sunday, May 30, 2021
It turns out that tossing dusty seeds of sunflower & safflower, millet & corn, thistle, sorghum & milo provide all the spiritual guidance one needs. Toss & be still. The flutter of wings is a hymn. The flurry of reds & blues & yellows & blacks & browns is a visitation. When the robin flies away, it’s still there. Even the squirrel gazes amazed. Even today, there is something graceful falling into the world that’s known, into the world that’s not.