The Poem of the Little House at the Corner of Misapprehension and Marvel

By Albert Goldbarth b. 1948 Albert Goldbarth

During Napoleon iii’s coup d’état one of  his officers, Count de Saint-Arnaud, on being informed that a mob was approaching the Imperial Guard, coughed and exclaimed, with his hand across his throat, “Ma sacrée toux! (my damned cough).” But his lieutenant, understanding him to say “Massacrez tous! (massacre them all),” gave the order to fire, killing thousands—needlessly.
                   —Guy Murchie

“He was mortared to death.”
A pity, how we misspeak and mishear.

—Or “martyred”? Not that/coin-flip/either
makes a difference to the increasingly cooler

downtick of a corpse’s cells. “We heard the crazy mating joy
of the loon across the water.” Yes, but what

do we know, amateurs that we are? Loon, shmoon.
It might have been dying, announcing

its pain in those trilling pennants. It might
have been the girl who was lost in these woods last week

and never found by the volunteer searchers,
it might have been her ghost

with an admonishment. The truth is,
even among ourselves we often can’t distinguish pain

from pleasure, not in our beds, our hearts, the tone
of a poem on the final exam (a coin-toss). A pity, because

we know the urgency of some utterance;
and the intended goodwill of our listening; and

the marvelous basic mechanics of speech,
of lung: 300 million alveoli that, “if spread out flat,”

as my eighth-grade science teacher preened, “would come to
750 square feet, the entire floor space of an average house,”

and she added that tired magic about how atoms
of Julius Caesar and Napoleon and Beethoven did

their fleet anachronistic dance in every inhalation
of ours, although at thirteen I preferred to think

that the atoms of Cleopatra’s body—my Cleopatra,
inflating her see-through empresswear

with husky breaths—commingled with my blood, and also
realized in my own dim way it wasn’t only Einstein,

Shakespeare, Madame Curie populating my oxygen,
but also the smelly and scabby old man

from across the street who’d died last year
when the late-shift ward nurse heard (as she said in her testimony)
“med injection” instead of (as the outgoing
ward nurse told her) “bed inspection”—altogether

an unfortunate example of my theme . . . although
exempla abound, misapprehension

also dancing inside us at the atomic level.
Someone thought the gate was locked, she always locked

the gate in the late afternoon when the haze set down
and the sun for a moment seemed to carmelize the lake top,

so the gate was locked; except that it wasn’t,
and seven days into it nobody’s found the girl

or a scraggle of hair or a single ribbon. I tell you
we’re amateurs, we’re sometimes bungling amateurs,

of the minutiae of our own lives. When I heard the sounds
that gurgled from my chest as my wife was leaving

into the dense, conspiratorial Austin, Texas night,
I couldn’t have said if it was defeat

or relief. She couldn’t have said which one
she’d have been happiest to cause. We only knew

that I’d been wrong at times, and she’d been wrong at times,
and that our total errors, if spread out flat,

become the house we live in. They’re another system
inside us, along with the cardiac and the pulmonary,

they’re moving us toward the horizon line. And when
enough errors accumulate there, that’s what

we call the future. Even now, as you read this,
someone in that unknowable distance

is breathing you in.

Source: Poetry (July/August 2009).

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This poem originally appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

July/August 2009
 Albert  Goldbarth

Biography

Acclaimed for its dense, expansive form and linguistic energy, Albert Goldbarth’s poetry covers everything from historical and scientific concerns to private and ordinary matters. His numerous, highly-regarded collections are often filled with long poems which range in style from playful and conversational to serious and philosophical. Goldbarth’s unique style is a mix of complex ideas and detailed descriptions woven together . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Relationships, Men & Women, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, War & Conflict

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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