This Little Island


Outside the room where you have lived a long time
Are other rooms, another building, just like yours.

Each night a ship sails past, wider than the building, taller than the highest church.
And though the passengers would like to visit the city,
No one in the city ever boards the ship. Would you?

Each night this spectacle is seen by you.
The street surveyed,
The air inhaled.

Grapes from the west,
Cinnamon from the east — 

If I’ve employed too liberally the passive voice,
Remember it’s the thoughts,
The feelings that are of consequence here,
Not the one who feels them.


Shall we walk to the market?
You could walk there blind, like Gloucester, smelling your way.

Shall we stop for coffee? Which café?
The one that’s commandeered by women, delicate cups?
Or the one where men preside, baristas in tuxedos, the coffee rich enough for rainy days?

A window, the desk, a lamp, and a chair — 
You’ve liked the room, you like to rearrange it for winter,
Put things back for spring.

But you’ve been young for a long time,
An embarrassingly long time.
Look what you wrote!
Remember how much, despite
Your ridiculous behavior, you’ve been loved.


The city never changes, it’s never the same.
Sometimes the inhabitants restore a building, patch it up,
But in a generation they’re dissatisfied, they try again,
Expose the old parts so you see them
Plainly, ruined or not.

Who schooled you?
What made you scared of change?

Vividly you remember a child’s body; likewise you remember a man’s.
You woke up one morning,
There you were, a stinking adult.

What happened between? What will it be like,
You’ve seen the images, to watch your body spoiling
From the inside out, your lungs, your arms,
The muscles in your face — 

Look out the window,
Choose a single brick.
Once, a long time ago, the city was old.


Clouds desire the sky, the sky the sun. The wave
Desires the land on which it trembles,
Repeating the same question, day after day — 
Am I allowed to ask for what I want?

And every day the land responds,
Of course you’re allowed.
You’re allowed to be angry, to rail,
You’re allowed to curse the God who put you here.

I’ve buried many people, old people, young people.
I’ve buried children while their parents wept beside the grave.

But I’ve also seen miracles.
Remember when they told you
You might die? You didn’t, you’re alive.
And every month since then, each minute, every second is a miracle.

What happens next you cannot know.
Is it better or worse to live longer?
Really the words better and worse do not obtain.

And when the land stops speaking
The wave flows out to sea.


Close your eyes, unclench your hands.
Relax each muscle in your body, first your forehead, then your neck,
Your chest, your arms, how young you are, you’ve never
Done this before, you’ve done it a thousand times — 

Outside, the walls of San Trovaso are streaked with gold.
Boats are knocking against the Giudecca.
If you stand on tiptoes you can see, above the chimney pots, its glistening rim.

Look at all the people, look at their dogs! They’re nothing like you,
And they’re here.
Who brought you here, who made the bed?

That gasp of pleasure when you entered the room,
First touched the walls,
Whose was it, if it wasn’t yours?
More Poems by James Longenbach