“What I See When I Stare Long Enough into Nothing” by Jeremy Michael Clark
(With a line borrowed from Ada Limón)
A screen door easing shut:
the only way I can describe
this creaking in my knees.
It’s when I’m alone that this pain
is easy to hear. I haven’t been
a child in years yet here I go,
discussing the past again.
I’ve been told what happened to me
doesn’t define me, matters less
than the narrative I tell. At night
I rub coconut oil into my skin,
over the scar on my arm
in the shape of a garden
snake. I can tell it
disappoints you, how I can’t recall
its origin, but trust me, it doesn’t
matter now. Seeping through my fingers
the oil reminds me of rain,
how at first it gently settles
into soil. Unless there’s a storm,
at which point picture a child,
ignoring what they’ve been told,
who finds a way to ruin
their shoes. And picture a mother,
relieved when finally her child
returns. Even if he leaves
the door ajar. Even if he leaves
footprints on the floor.
I came across “What I See When I Stare Long Enough Into Nothing” while searching for poems to feature during National Poetry Month under a search for “Ada Limon.” What a happy accident for me.
Isn’t it strange how aging can sneak up on you? How the wear and tear accumulates on this body carrying you through the world? I have had what would be called “bad knees” for a while now. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned it on the blog but my mom and I were hit by a van in 2013–it backed into us while we were waiting to hail a cab (in front of a hospital, because of course). I landed on my knees and while they don’t hurt every day anymore, they always know when it’s going to rain. It’s a weird experience. One that I think about more than I’d like to and more than I need to, but also one that in many ways is key to me being the person I am now. The idea that these things that happen shouldn’t define a person, that you should be able to choose the story you tell speaks to me and speaks the way you can parse the information you share about yourself; the way you can curate the way you share yourself with the world.
I love the subtlety of Clark’s lines here and the way the narrative shifts from creaking knees to a scar and the quiet question of whether he really can’t recall the origin of the scar or simply chooses not to. And then the narrative of the poem shifts again to a contemplation of memory and time.
I have always had a soft spot for poems that shine a light on nostalgia. I especially like this one for the way it explores the specific ache of a moment passing while you watch. You can feel the narrator’s wistful remembering in every word here and the way it’s emphasized with linguistic choices “Seeping through fingers” as time passes. But most of all here I love the imagery and the way that, by the end of the poem, you feel like you really can see those footprints on the floor.
Check back every Friday in April for a new Poetically Speaking post. Until then, you can also browse older posts (and guest posts) for more poetry.