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Prose from Poetry Magazine

Pink Ocean

"At the very least her poems were the work of a sophisticated reader, written in a current style: free verse in which the poet addressed herself as you."
Editor's Note: "Pink Ocean" is a work of fiction.

I dreamed in negative exposure, of a room where night and light sound nothing alike and so are not balanced in opposition. A room expelled from a children's story because its clock won't go ticktock and there's no hat for cat nor a spoon to reflect the moon. The only illumination, a levitating dress, a handkerchief bidding farewell from a steamer, the gossamer curtain suspended on the thermal of a hissing radiator.

Beyond the curtain, a window open onto outer space.

Beneath stars like those that Dante sees again—a riveder le stelle—when he emerges from the Inferno, she led the blindered horses of childhood from a burning barn and woke to a momentary scent of cigar smoke.

I've heard it defies the conventions of dreams to touch a ghost animal. Yet, when for one last time I was allowed to gather that beautiful contradiction called cat—twelve silky pounds of wildness—into my arms, I didn't want to let go. It was only a moment before I awoke from his familiar warmth, so maybe the restriction against touching ghost animals was enforced, only not quickly enough.

Freud said dreams are wishes. Once, I cut off my mother's hands.

Whatever else dreams may be, they're a kind of recollection. It doesn't matter that mostly they're forgotten, vanished like those theoretical elements conceived in a cyclotron whose existence is measured in nanoseconds.

Whatever else dreams may be, she said, they make for conversation.

We were trading dreams in a Jeep Cherokee that smelled of hay. Ours were the only cars left in a parking lot vanishing in a snowfall. When the neon sign blinked out, flakes went from pink to white. We'd met for a drink at a restaurant fittingly called, given the snow, the Chalet. It's been gone for years, but sometimes I'll still see it when I drive by if I ignore the seedy antique shop in its place. A mutual friend had mentioned to her that I might be of help in suggesting journals to which she could submit her poems. I was teaching Your Life As Poetry—not a title I'd chosen—at a community center for seniors. My students all wanted to know whatever became of rhyme. She taught riding to the blind, the friend told me, and lived on a horse farm. I don't know what I expected—cowboy poetry, greeting card verse about horses running free? At the very least her poems were the work of a sophisticated reader, written in a current style: free verse in which the poet addressed herself as you. Their subject, besides you, was abandoned barns—a sequence that explored old barns as photographers do, but the barns in her poems could have only been constructed out of language. Barns the horizon showed through, composed more of slatted light, motes, and cobwebs than warped siding, their tattered roofs askew beneath the frown of crows; barns like beds unmade by tornadoes, weather vanes still dizzy; washed-up barns, driftwood gray, flotsamed with rusted, mysterious tools; barns shingled in license plates, their only history a progression of dates—different colors, same state: decay. Unhinged doors gaping shadow and must, recurring hints about divorce and childlessness—a few would make it to the pages of literary magazines. Instead of real drinks, we both ordered tea, which at the Chalet was hot water and Lipton's with a wedge of lemon. And here we were, past midnight, in the front seat of her Jeep, a woolen horse blanket over our laps. I was telling her how I once woke with only a phrase in mind: primary play at binary speed.

Meaning what? she asked.

Maybe the motto for the way I've lived my life, or should live it.

Maybe you dreamed your epitaph, she said.

Barns in which a conflagration lurked, but where? Not in the stalls or the tack room. The faint whiff of cigar more threatening than an axe. Barns with rooms so secret not even their rodents knew where the keys were hidden.

* * *

In a hidden room, a room expelled from a children's story, the child who was myself wakes sweaty, needing to pee. A psychopath stalks the flat. His bare feet creak unevenly beneath the heft of the axe on his shoulder as he pads down the long hallway toward my room. Some nights his rolling eyes can see in the dark. On others he gropes along the walls, more terrifying still as he'll have to find me by touch.

3:00 am. The clock ticks but won't tock. No rhyme or reason, my mother used to say.

Meaning what? you ask.

Meaning my seniors miss more than rhyme's mnemonic power. In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust remarks on how the tyranny of rhyme forces poets into their greatest lines. Senior citizens are pro-tyrant. Rhyme is tactile to them. When absent it seems there's no other way to get from cat to hat, from spoon to moon.

From clock, ticktock, to the mad, homemade puppet of a sock named Frère Jacques, with the brain of a rock, that could blackjack the psychopath whose fingertips just brushed my face.

Shhh, it's only the touch of the curtain rising on the thermal of steam heat, a floating dress fluttering farewell. Sometimes the inanimate comes alive not to terrify, but to console.

Shhh, the smell of the inferno raging at the tip of a cigar may simply be the friction between the lilac bush beside your open window and the wild leeks that spike in spring from the pasture where a horse barn resonates in the wind, amplifying the twang of barbed wire and hum of electric fence.

A barn that a country song would rhyme with empty arms.

What's your favorite rhyme ever? Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Yeats, Cole Porter...It's a one-way question, she said, so don't answer, what's yours?

I guess the best questions are impossible to answer.

Give me the impossible.

Before we slip into unconsciousness/I'd like to have another kiss.

* * *

At the Monet exhibition a little girl reaches out and cries, Look! Pink ocean!

A guard rushes over and says, No one is allowed to touch the paintings and no photographs.

The You of the barn poems and I are at the exhibition. We leave Monet behind and browse through rooms of martyrs, Virgins, bloody Christs, and then along a corridor of gracefully muscled statues whose mutilation has over eons come to look as if it was forecasted in the original conception. Beheaded torsos that remain beautiful, shoulders no less perfect for their amputated arms, breasts still those of Venus despite chips where there presumably were nipples. Posed beside an uncastrated Apollo, she hands me the disposable camera she'd concealed in her purse.

Quick! before the guard comes, she says, take one of me kissing the cock of a god.

You must change your life.

Says who?

At what degree of dusk and dilapidation does a barn/pass from the temporal of architecture/to the eternal of sculpture? one of her poems asks before concluding: Sculpture is made to touch/careful, Love, splinters.

Ever notice the eyes that stare from the word look? she asks. Is that an accident or a reminder of how close language once was to pictures. Clay tablets, hieroglyphs, calligraphy—before computers, the act of writing, whether carving with a pen or chiseling with a typewriter, was physical, but now who except the blind touch language. Riding a horse blind is one thing, but reading blind—imagine, running your fingertips across a page like touching the unseen body of a lover, and suddenly: Look! Pink ocean!

Or a barn raised from parachuting dandelion seeds that as kids we called money-stealers, a levitating barn shimmering like the dragonflies we called ear-stingers, a ghost barn hammered out of swamp mist, raftered with fireflies.

That ghost cat and I were young together. Even asleep I can sense the curtain lifting. I can't dream him without remembering being happy. Beyond the curtain, on an island, I snorkel along our dock hoping for a fish for supper and the cat follows down the dock. Sometimes I'd spear a small fish for him, a squirrelfish or a sergeant major, toss it up, and he'd carry it in his mouth so the herons didn't get it. A dream is a kind of remembering. The curtain waves farewell. Gunning my old Triumph into a curve of highway beside the sea, my infant son, riding on my lap like a baguette, is flung by the momentum of my maniacal driving into the turquoise water and floats off like driftwood. Inconsolable, I kneel weeping beside my motorcycle, and a passerby stops to ask the trouble and I say I've lost my little son and the passerby, trying to be kind, says, don't worry you can have another.

But that was the one I wanted, I tell her.

The psycho has entered the barn, spooked the horses, violated the secret rooms. Eyeing her silhouette on the shade, he's caressed himself on a bale of sweet hay, and afterward lights a cigar. Where is he from, what brings him here repeatedly?—some Depression specter hobo cursed to travel endless freights? some tramp on the lam who has leapt from the train whose distant whistle I could hear from your window, Love, when I woke to you moaning in your sleep at 3:00 am. To your familiar warmth; I didn't want to let go. Shhh. It's only a train plowing through fields as if pulling its own wreckage, approaching in the dark the unmarked crossing of the country road I'd jounce over on the way to your farm. Owls and swallows, a barn of rhyming birds audible at the dead end of a dirt road. Red barn on the coast of a pink pond. Lilacs. A pasture where look lowers its lids and becomes the scent of wild leeks.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Poetry magazine


  • Poet and fiction writer Stuart Dybek was born in 1942 and raised on the South Side of Chicago. He attended Loyola University in Chicago and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His collections of poetry include Brass Knuckles (1979) and Streets in Their Own Ink (2004). His works of fiction, including the...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Pink Ocean


  • Poet and fiction writer Stuart Dybek was born in 1942 and raised on the South Side of Chicago. He attended Loyola University in Chicago and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His collections of poetry include Brass Knuckles (1979) and Streets in Their Own Ink (2004). His works of fiction, including the...

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