Don’t turn a scientific problem into a common love story. –Solaris (1972)
How can I fail outside and inside our home? I decay in our half-life.
How can I fail with my body? How do I stay alone in this half-life?
I started to write a ghazal about how my hope has a stress fracture.
I require rest from your unfocused eyes, my heat,
which is becoming objective and observable.
A friend asks, “What are you waiting for?
The straw that breaks the camel’s back?”
Maybe I am the straw.
Maybe I am hay. I made a list of rhyming words:
Bray, flay, array.
They all seemed to relate to farms, decaying things,
gray days, dismay.
I am recently reckless about making a display
of my unhappiness. Perhaps you may survey it.
Perhaps I may stray from it, go to the wrong home
by accident and say, “Oh! Here already?”
You know I’m fraying and just watch it.
You don’t even try to braid me together.
You don’t notice a tomcat wiggling his hind
ready to gather all my fabric under his paws,
hold his paws over my accidental tassels.
Flay was the last word on my list. I was using my rhymes
in order. I’ve learned how to be appropriate
sitting on my hands on the couch, not allowed to touch you.
“Sex?” you say, like I asked you to make
a carcass our shelter.
I can’t recount my dreams to you
because you’re insulted in most of them.
Remember when I asked you to break into a building?
“Let’s have an adventure, any.” I dreamed another man
was taking me into a locked school.
“Let’s go,” he said. No face, his hand straight behind him.
He was wearing a black pea coat. Many men
wear black wool coats. You have one. Hell, I have a one.
I may have been leading myself.
“How long will you live this half-life?”
My mother asks during a phone call when so absent
of any particular emotion, I couldn’t catch my breath.
She thought I was upset, losing my temper in the street.
It’s months later and when we talk, she says, “I was so happy
today. Does that make sense? And here I am, sleeping on a bed
older than your baby sister.” I’m not sure what bothers me
but my voice gets low and I keep repeating myself.
I raise and drop my palate without sound.
“Goodnight,” we say,
each with something unaddressed, without allay.
I try to remember half-lives, learned in science rooms
that smelled like earth, vinegar. The process of dating old bones,
old stones. Something about unstable nuclei,
decay by two or more processes. Exponential death,
exponential halving of a life.
My mother has given me something
to pursue and solve. I study the internet:
“The biological half-life of water in a human being is about
7 to 14 days, though this can be altered by his/her behavior.”
This makes me want to fall asleep in the bathtub.
In this house, it’s how we escape each other,
where we find another warm body, moisture,
a significant amount of sweat on the brow.
Now I look up doubling time, a related term
because I hate feeling fractioned.
Kitchens, bowls of water steaming under dough:
How long will it take to grow to twice its size?
Depends on rack placement, heat of the water,
type of bread, if the house is humid.
This house is only humid in the bathroom,
after a long soak with the door closed. Or else,
in summer. But it’s winter and a long time
before our flesh can rise and get sticky
in hands, on counters, in a proper resting place.
Sympathy for Satan
He’s just a man, my mother would say,
no clear prompt.
Now that men have come,
verb-shifting, evading contexts,
covering themselves with ash
then calling themselves dark,
calling themselves devils—
they begin flowery discourses,
they sometimes enter a garden
disguised as ferns,
they petition for possibilities beyond ease—
Satan asked questions he couldn’t answer.
He unmoored himself, maybe forever
because he dealt in knowledge, not rhetoric.
Silence, confinement to the subjunctive
“If only, if only,” he says.
If only, if only leads to the devil.
A miniature man, vibrating in spit,
on my molars,
destroying silicone sealants
while I sleep, ashy palette sleep,
he’s a man, not capable of encouraging
honey palettes, not a sun that favors a window,
not even a great mirror
that bounces my own light onto my crown,
just a man.
In court, you submit to other humans:
WHEREFORE, the petitioner prays:
I asked to dissolve the bonds now existing.
A miniature woman had worried the marrow
of my heart-bone: How long
will you live a half-life,
half-life? He’s a man.
Only 8 months older than you.
I believe in God’s bounty.
He calls Himself The Grateful.
It lengthens the mind, to jump over narcissism
and find simple recognition: your self in a great mirror
of your own construction.
I believe in God’s bounty,
trust I’ll ask Satan how it feels to court beings
who chose distance from ease,
with no rhetorical intent,
how he abides by such stupid curiosity.
He must talk through his teeth,
his spit must vibrate between his teeth.
How it feels to deal entirely in regret.
It was the only humility God offered him.
The original arrogance, an attempt
to reject the first subjunctive construction:
I ask myself what you ask yourself. Incredulous
is the only word that works:
What does it mean to pray for paradise now?
We don’t wonder at our distance from greenness.
We could stand knee-deep in ferns,
and sob for another forest.
Is it possible God isn’t even angry?
Bewildered is the only word that works.
Certainly God could choose
to go astray from Himself,
and we’d ask: What is your relationship
A few good words with Ladan
BVS: “Half-life” opens with an epigraph from the 1972 Russian sci-fi film, Solaris, which focuses on how communication can fail between humans and other life forms. What about this film, and the line you chose to quote, spoke to you in the drafting of this poem?
LO: I appreciate that the force of regret is most powerful in Solaris. The greatest horror the characters grapple with is their inability to escape their memories, to disregard their desires. I chose that quote because I thought it was cruel when I heard it but laughed because I recognized its truth. There may be observable properties in sound connection and communication, and we don’t have to treat discord like fantasy, like mystery. I had various heartaches at the time, and decided to approach them conceptually, without losing everyday details. A friend later asked if this pain was worth new drafts. It wasn’t. All complex systems break apart and reconfigure. This draft signaled the beginning of things breaking open in my life.
BVS: In “Sympathy for Satan,” I was struck by the two different spaces of the poem: the garden/forest and the courtroom; the “wild” and the “ordered,” so to speak. What sort of juxtaposition were you thinking of in placing this fleshy, just-a-man Satan within them?
LO: The legal language in this poem references divorce paperwork. You are asked to pray to a fellow human, to a human court, to approach as a petitioner. This was amusing and disturbing. The courtroom and the forest are ceremonial spaces, perfect for initiating or dissolving ritual. This was the best setting for looking at the dissolution of a relationship and warding off future troubles.
There is a husband in this poem, non-specific men, a miniature man, and there is Satan, who is not a man. The idea that a being can become so distant from God, from peace, is terrible. One of Satan’s first crimes is arguing against his place in a hierarchy of beings, via questions. Why him, he asks about Adam. I often think any one of us, in our fallibility, could be the allegorical great evil, the most arrogant. I was also noting a melodramatic human tendency to acknowledge fault by calling ourselves devils/devilish.
PDS: There is a mother character in both of your poems. What book(s) do you consider your “mother” books? What collections helped to birth your poet self?
LO: The works of Lucille Clifton and Mahmoud Darwish, Pablo Neruda, The Book of Questions. These are not collections but Jamaica Kincaid’s Mr. Potter and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
Ladan Osman earned a BA at Otterbein University and an MFA at the University of Texas at Austin. Her chapbook, Ordinary Heaven, appears in Seven New Generation African Poets (Slapering Hol Press, 2014). The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony (University of Nebraska Press, 2015) is the winner of the 2014 Sillerman First Book Prize. Her work has appeared in Apogee, The Normal School, Prairie Schooner, Transition Magazine, and Waxwing. Osman has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, Cave Canem, and the Michener Center for Writers. She is a contributing editor at The Offing and lives in Chicago.