The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


Heather Altfeld

The Glymphatic System


First it was just matter, and what wasn’t matter—
sky, wind, memories, arrowheads,
rocks to grind in, rocks to throw,
and tenderness, which existed mostly at night,
while it rained.

No, first it was sky, wind,
memory, fire, and anger—tenderness
arrived when the first baby fell
into a dream that she was still in the womb,
and never learned how to wake up.
After some time, we found the ocean,
and boats, and greed, still in its infancy,
guarded by a few primordial thugs.
Then, a handful of wheat,

some villages, a strong desire to
control water and darkness.
Someone ground grains of sand into glass
and peered inside—and it was as though
all the while a curtain that had existed
between us and the circus of cells
that partied and drank as we sang

or jumped off boulders into the cold lake
dissolved, and for the first time,
we studied the tiny truths of things.
Protons, electrons, neutrons,
all in an invisible symmetric vaudeville,

made up the lake and the songs and the sky
and the cradle of earth that held the dead;
even their bones and hair and teeth
were just a matter of mitochondria,
leptons, neutrinos, quarks, top quarks,
tetraquarks, charm quarks, bottom quarks,
strange quarks, the subanatomical nature of the universe

particles and anti-particles undressing
to reveal themselves like thermodynamic matryoshkot
so that even wind can never just be wind
and the blue in the sky comes under permanent surveillance.
It’s like when you are falling in love
and all you can see are the lips of the one you want so badly to kiss
and the curve of their ass in the seat in front of you,
all you hear is the line of verse they quote
as they lick frosting off your neck
and pull you back into bed to sip for a while
at the straw of your heart. It will be years
before you figure out that no matter how hard you try,
you will be eluded by the dark manner of their love.

Science has just now revealed
that the brain holds an entire universe
previously only suspected by medicine;
inside the bends of grey matter,
the wires and the coils,
the tripswitches and the clockwork
that whirrs and ticks as we putz and fuck,
a shadowy system of vessels in the meninges
takes out the trash for us each night;

sorting the recycled memories from the bad dreams,
the work-crush from the soft hand of the one you married,
buzzing the vacuum, cruising the piping with a wire brush,
running the tunnels of our minds with a lymphatic canister of Pledge.
Even sleep is not just sleep anymore.
Even the dream you had last night
about being lost in a foreign city is just a tidy byproduct

of a picture you saw of Phuket while you waited
for an allergy shot, billions of tiny cat hairs
and particles of mold blasting into in your right arm
as you chatted on about the strange weather
with the Shot Lady. What else might lie

just beyond the rim? What other invisible planets
hum and chirr unseen while we are making love or dinner?
What particulate compels you to get in your car
late at night, driving the crooked roads,
your ghostly piddidle too weak to navigate
toward what you cannot even see or name,
somewhere you need to be,
between Pompeii and Antarctica,
disappearance and death?
Even the babies must know it exists;
they cry all day long at some invisible madness
only to curl against you right now
in deep sleep. Look at her,
something between a visage
and a passerby, a dreamer
contrived to fit into the hollow of your arm,
who you will love at the atomic and the subatomic level,
someone you would chase
all the way back to the womb if she tried to return
in that recurring dream where she gives up
and lets you breathe each particle of air for her
as you did all those long months from now,

until she is twenty, crumpled on the sidewalk
beneath the streetlight like a dollar bill.
Oh come, charm quark, beautiful neutrino!
Can you hear us down here, dizzy and largely helpless,
from inside your tiny rackets of light,
training ourselves to dance in a way
that denies the elements of loss?




HEATHER ALTFELD's  first book, The Disappearing Theatre won the Poets at Work Book Prize, selected by Stephen Dunn. Her poems appear in Narrative Magazine, Pleiades, ZYZZYVA, Poetry Northwest, and others. She won the 2015 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry with Nimrod International Magazine of Poetry and Prose. She lives in Northern California and is a member of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley.



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