Natural State

I’m sitting at Nathan’s, reading a biography of Darwin
who, right now, is dissecting a barnacle

“no bigger than a pinhead (and with two penises)”:
he’ll work like this on barnacles, his wrists supported

by rigged-up blocks of workshop wood, for eight years.
Nathan is reading too, in the worn-down banged-up “daddy chair”:

those philosophical poems of William Bronk’s. What’s
most delightful is that Tristan, eleven, and Aidan, ten,

are reading, each of them enmazed in a fantasy novel
that squeezes them by the attention-bone behind the eyes

in its thimble pool of pineal juice and drizzled endorphins.
Tristan cared enough to cry when he finished his previous book

and its battle of shadow and radiance was over.
Each of us: his individual book; and yet

the silence is communal. This is a natural state
at Nathan’s. Holly, however, is reading the Sunday paper

and so serves, without saying a word, to remind us
how natural it was for Raeshawn Nelson, seven,

to fall while running and burn out his eye
on the disregarded meth pipe, or for Anna Rietta, nine,

to have come home from school and excitedly been
the **!star!**, each day, of the homemade porn her parents

peddled as “young fun” over the Internet. This
was what they knew, and all they knew, and so they entered it

as comfortably as Tristan does his opened world
of sorcerors and valiant knights and fancy-talking beasts, since use

x frequency = familiarity. That’s the strict, imperious math
of everybody’s insular subuniverse. Sherena asked me what

this thing “vermouth” was (she pronounced it “mouth”) and ordered
quiche as if it were the brother of “touché”; but then

she needed to explain to me why C-C was the “bottom bitch”
and what a “T-girl” is and how to put down money

on Ice’s book at “the county,” by which
she meant jail. And those years when Darwin parsed

the slimy fiber of his barnacles (discovering the species
where “the female has no anus” and the one with “tiny parasitic

males [that were] embedded in one female’s flesh like blackheads”),
“squinty . . . laborious,” were among the final decades of hundreds of years

when a woman in China would suffer ritual foot binding,
at five, the bandages limiting growth until the toes

were bent and curled (the toenails growing into the balls of the feet)
and the arches broken. This resulted in the desirable

“shrunken plums” and “three-inch golden lilies” sought
by marriage brokers. Traditionally, a prospective mother-in-law

would check below the hem, and reject any feet
over four inches long. Entire generations of women could only

mince and hobble. And this was natural, this was the air
and the light and “the-way-of-things-forever” that

you woke up to every day . . . as natural as the implicit laws
in Aidan’s book, by which a bear converses

with a girl in growly mutual-speak, and a boy
of sturdy heart and his wingéd horse ascend

their sky with the unremarkable grace of birds
in ours. That’s ordinary Newtonian physics there, and Aidan

subjects himself to the rules of flying horsemanship,
and the code of those of innocent spirit

about to war with wyverns and the wormfolk, and
the governing instructions of gods with the heads

of wide-eyed animals . . . and even now, Sherena texts
my phone to say that WEATHER GOOD and SHINE

these two reports were equally weighted. There’s

that famous and charming anecdote in which Darwin’s
second son George is at the house of a playfriend,

looking around, and casually asks him
“Where does your father do his barnacles?”

More Poems by Albert Goldbarth