The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


Elizabeth Jacobson

Here is a Pilgrim on a Waterless Shore


                        A month before spring,
the first day of spring arrives.
            She cannot stop breathing in the scent of cold fresh water
                                                where there isn’t any water,
            the smell of flowers
that haven’t appeared.

She takes off her arms,
                                    her legs,
unwinds her head,
            tucks them into the compost with her breath.
Within minutes she can see the star-shaped leaves of the delphinium
                        stir under the mulch,
                                    their shoots coiling around her wrists,
                                                            pulling her in.

A woman practicing for death
                        in the waking green undergrass of her life.
She has never lost an eye or a finger,
                                    or even much bone.
She has not been splayed and sliced open,
                                    arranged on a giant Styrofoam tray
                                                            by a man whose bathroom is strung with human heads.

Now a buttery swallowtail lands on her arm,
            the sleek black V at the end of its body a pulse
that offers her a shudder.
                        How possible it is to speak of something treasured
as we watch it appear.

An eagle is silent while it circles its prey,
                        as it pulls apart a rabbit under the moonlight
leaving the insides, leaving the white tail on the earth.

                        The liquid bark of her runs down her throat,
                                                            out a hole at the bottom of a foot.

            It is the way of things to empty what is too full.
In a month, honeybees will drink from her neck,
                        the plump yellow part of their bodies
                                                hidden under furry black pollen from oriental poppies.




Each night a battle
                                   a wail
            one owl screeching from its same
and different self
            uuuuup uuuuup uuuuup.

Just after daybreak rain pours down from the sky in the distance
            as if it were lengths of long gray hair at the back of a woman’s head,
                                                          while I am opening throat for muggy breath,
facing forward into a sliding door that is not closed,
            waiting for the sky to shake its head over my little plot of comfort.

At the top of the ponderosa
            a gift of tail feathers,
more orange-tipped than red-tailed hawk,
                                                                                  spiral down
            while in the garden a yellow breasted finch hooks feet
into the top of a finished sunflower head,
                        bobs for seeds as the sunflower head sways back and forth.

            The finch’s mate lands on her back,
jumps up and down as the flower head wrenches frantically,
                        forward and back, back and forward,
                                                loses his balance and quickly
            flies off,

                        his little drip of seed seeping like a nap into the layers of her down.

How long does it take to wreck the good things we are given?

                                  Not long, it turns out.
A dog dies in a few days without water,
we can go on longer,

            eat grass like a horse without throwing it up,
scratch in the dirt for grubs,
                                    fold the giant gilded self in half like a piece of paper,
            and then into quarters,
            and then into eighths

all the time praying
                       open, open
                                  another soft word for you will disintegrate anyway


Sometimes when things come fast,
                                              they are at their best,
            though you don’t know this until later.

There are just twenty elements that make up who we are,
                                               and if I were to list them all,
some of you would stop reading,
                     while others would go on with great interest.
            Four elements are composed from the air and sixteen from the earth.

Like a stray dog, a dragonfly followed me home from the pond today,
           and now he is circling overheard,
the extra-large size of this one casting dragonfly shadows on the driveway like an aircraft.

                        If you were propelled into the center of the galaxy
                                                                                  and your sense of smell was still intact,
            it would be familiar;
the scent of the universe is a raspberry and rum cocktail!

I would like to see the rare Cockerell bumblebees,
            that have appeared in the White Mountains after 58 years.
if not in the tall pine forest,
then inside my breast.

I cannot explain the brown spotted moth
                                    with the fin on its back like a shark,
or pale blue flowers blooming from sideways stalks,

                                             stunning in their strange mutative quality.
                      The heat of the world feels good on my arms as I hold them out for hours,
          a dead branch in one hand --
                      a calmcrow,
                                  a bird perch.
                                              A black phoebe sidesteps almost to my wrist,
as I watch what is alone in this world turn into a ring of stones
                                                                      around a single flowering desert daisy.



Do you know what’s going on in there
                                         deep down in the earth of the liver,
                                  the canyons of the gut?

             This world,
                        we call it world, but it is no world,
             no realm of gold –
                                                just red dirt,
             dust existing as particles of light.

Early this morning, I couldn’t help but touch the two mating earthworms
                                                            as thick as my thumb.
             Entwined, the end of one pumping its juice
                                                into the gonadal opening of the other.
But my finger ruined their ecstasy,
             and they sucked themselves back into their holes,
                                                                      each one male and female,
each one soft and wide
                                    from so much rain,
                                    from so much sex.

It takes courage to be still,
            to wait in the dark for nothing.
                        I pluck my hairs and shine my breasts,
sit in the center of the green spring lawn without moving a finger or a toe.

           The magpies shriek at each other
high above in the ancient cherry tree,

           a long married couple,
                                   fighting over the few remaining cherries.
One of their blue feathers,
            dislodged in this squabble,
lands on my knee.
Most species on this planet don’t even see us,
                                              or know that we are here.
           And when they disappear
we easily find something else to hunt.

There is white fur from a rabbit’s tail
           caught in the splintery pine border of the vegetable bed,
                                                          meaning the hawk has had its way again.

            I couldn’t help but touch the mating earthworms.
                                    This has to do with bliss,
which for me is the tips of my fingers on something more porous than myself.



I woke early this morning to the screams of a terrified cat
            as it was being pulled apart
                        by a pack of coyotes,
howling with glee as they wolfed it down.

The crickets, who had been up all night,
            were still rubbing their wings against each other,
                        exploding with want.

Later, on the nature hike,
            we are told that every part of the daylily is edible,
            and handed a freshly pulled petal to eat.
Some bees are territorial and nudge
            other bees away but they don’t fight.

Some bees live in hives and work together,
            while others are solitary,
                                    wall-papering their nests with the petals of flowers.

At the edge of the hummingbird feeder,
             which hangs from a thin crabapple branch,
a praying mantis lies in wait just above the spout,
                                  attacks the next ruby throated
                                                                                 that comes to drink,
wrapping its long front arms
            around the hummingbird’s neck like two mini pythons.

            The bird whines like a puppy
as the praying mantis takes bites out of the flesh
from the side of its head.

The mantis would have eaten the entire hummingbird alive,
            as he batted his lime green wings futilely,
                        or died of a heart attack,
but the nature guide flicked the insect off the bird with his rolled-up hat.

In the copper birdbath,
            tiny hoverflies are sucking the head of a drowned white moth.
                       I bend down close,
their shiny orange bodies almost to my lips.
                                               We call it sky, I say to them,
                                                          but to itself it is an interminable beginning.



A hawk leaves the wet clay insides of its prey on the soil,
                       also the nails of a foot,
                                               a small rat’s nose.

Here is a pilgrim on a waterless shore looking toward the ground for reflection.
            What rises up are the countless things
                                    that have come together to produce this giant radish,
or a row of corn planted 18 inches into the earth.

To wake each day not knowing where I will go
                                   not knowing where I have been

                                                is the prayer we each walk with.

Plea of hummingbird basket
            open sphere of moss and bits of lichen, every strand tucked in with precision,
a chalice growing out of the thin branch of a Russian olive,
                                                                        brimming this morning with dew
                                  wrung from a moonless night sky.

A common whitetail dragonfly
                       his abdomen dipped in liquid chalk,
                                                                     sunlight passing through the gossamer wings
                                                           turns the black lattice work to orange,

a female on a dead pine branch warms herself in the sun
                                   is taken unaware by this aggressive male
their bodies curling into a heart
                        as they stretch and bend toward instinct.

Above a black-chinned hummingbird flies in a horizontal line
                                                                     the violet patina around his throat
shimmers as he dives toward the mating pair,
                                              snatches the male in his beak.

                                              Busy with its own longing, a desert honeysuckle
stretches its vine toward the sun
                        its flaming petals shrivel in the heat
                                                                     as desire rushes through the sandy loam
                        but not into the blossoms and not into the air.



Ecstasy comes in lengthier moments now,
            comes when it’s called,
and comes when it’s not.

                       A single thinning cloud disintegrating across this steely sphere of sky.
The one tree standing

            a little higher than the rest on the ridge of a mountain,
                                    in the distance.

Last night a clothes moth landed in my hair
           and laid her web of eggs close to my scalp.
                                  By morning, her body, a golden powder,
                                             had spread across one of my eyelids like shadow.

Most of the time there is a the non-linearity of things,
            but still I sense a line trying to draw me in,
                        tempting me as if it were the snake charmer and I its curving form;
            but so curious to go against its nature,
                                                           so wanting to straighten out.

Here is a finger pushing itself into hot wax.
Here is a tongue putting its tip
            on a gritty stone.
Here is a sharp knife cutting ever so slightly
            into the thinnest part of a wrist.

What I continue to count on is flux;
            still, there is something that does not move.

Every night a
hawk. Every day,
            another set of rabbit innards
left behind on the ground.

            I can’t help myself,
            like a child
I find the nearest stick and turn them over,
the prize being a slithering nest of maggots,
            the flesh eaten through until the larvae on the bare grass become flies.

I thought it would be harder,
            to break the identity with the body,
                        with the mind,
but as it turns out, all I have to do is open my eyes,
                                                                      and keep them empty.


The night the moon came for me she was not her usual womanly self,
            but rather a mannish intensity in a navy suit,
                                   taking a firm grip on my wrist.
If you wake and come with me now, he said, you will have a taste of what is enough.

            Still, I knew I might want more,
and then more:
            that enigmatic joy of aloneness

I understood I would not be going back to sleep.
            By the door, the red bucket was full of water
                       and a black lizard filled the space with its swimming form.

I have seen a garter snake giving birth in the yard.
            The eggshells had dissolved already in her body
                                   six writhing and wet licorice whip babies came out.

            If you fall asleep curled around the hole of a black-tailed prairie dog
                        you will wake craving such broadleaf forbs as wild petunia, and sunflower.

If you fall asleep in a culvert under a narrow dirt highway
            your body will vanish by morning.

The night the moon came for me I was ready to go.
            I touched the long antennae of the pine sawyer,
and fed it drops of spit from my fingertip while it sat on the edge of the silver porch chair,
            a vagabond at rest.
Words, I told him, are what I had been given to gnaw on,
            but they aren’t enough
                                They just are not enough.

So I open my mouth for timber and steel,
            and those jagged pieces of mountain that tumble down onto the road
                                                                                                          and block the way.




ELIZABETH JACOBSON's second book, Not into the Blossoms and Not into the Air, winner of the 2017 New Measure Poetry Prize, is forthcoming from Parlor Press in 2018. A chapbook, Are the Children Make Believe?, will be published in 2017 by Dancing Girl Press. Her recent work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Hinchas de Poesia, Juxtaprose, Orion, Plume, Ploughshares, Poet Lore, The Miami Rail, Women’s Studies, and others.



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