Keep What You Have

By giving it away. When I first learned that the line was not my lover’s—that it was, instead, a Narcotics Anonymous platitude which I might have as easily read on a proselytic tee shirt—I was, I admit, let down. When we’d first met, he claimed to be a poet: a self-conscious one, anyway, and a bad one; and it was for that reason, he’d told me, that he never shared his work. Since we’d been teenagers—me, a young fourteen; him, an old seventeen—he had been stashing his writing away as if it were its own kind of felony, as if he meant to insulate me from some further poison. Call it 2012. His Rottweiler whining at my knee. When I first read those words in his hand, in the chicken-scratched letter telling me he meant to get clean, I was all but overcome with an urge to assure him that he wasn’t dirty. When I found, rifling through his drawers after the third overdose—call it 2015—the pamphlet from which he’d excised them, an otherwise bland and featureless, anonymous phrasebook for the prodigal junkie, I kept it. Not because I saw in it anything that might help me, but because there among its occasional underscores and sparse marginalia I thought I could intuit his shadow. Not so much a ghost, nothing half-animate winking in and out of my peripheral vision, but a shadow, static. Something of him—if not original and true to his interior, a close facsimile at least—at last pinned down. I had found no papers in his desk but our rolling papers. There was no secret book of poems, no journal, no literary debris, no accumulated backlog of holiday cards, not one of my own belabored and overzealous love letters—only that thin, lonely book. Call it a relic, an artifact; call me his archaeologist. My first lover, my subcutaneous lover, my subterranean lover, my lover in the dirt—my lover to whom that book would also offer little help.

Call it 2019. The anniversary. Whenever his absence grows too large and heavy to ignore, I get this paradoxical sense that I should be losing something new, as someone on a boat might heave their belongings overboard to counterweigh water seeping in through a puncture in its hull. Octobers tend to be purgative this way. Old stuffed animals, tea bags evaporated down to husks, books long left unread clutter the underbeds and low shelves of my room. When an instructor at my university mentions in passing that a Little Free Library—leave a book, take a book—was just set up across the street from our department, in the basement of a church, an irony I can’t help but indulge crystallizes in the back of my mind. When I come home to my apartment, the NA phrasebook is leering up at me from the bottom of my bookshelf, beneath the animal coat of its dust. Keep what you have by giving it away. My lover, the boy of few words. Of them, all he may or may not have once written down is lost to the world now, lost to me; he locked them away from his only would-be keeper, his hesitant curator or into this future which denies him and preserves me. On this, the fourth anniversary, he remains silent. I find that I can no longer recall the pitch of his voice, precisely, only those words on which it halted. I am clean; he is in the dirt. I suspect it’s the poet in me who desires some greater, more literary sense in that line, who finds herself doing whatever it is that I’m doing in the guts of this strange, blandly ecclesiastical building. But, as the part of my lover that he let me know was not a poet, neither is the part of me he left behind a poet. That part of me knows that, in practice, the “giving it away” is more evangelical than metaphysical—a charge to hawk the Program, to proselytize whenever and indeed wherever opportunity comes knocking. With that thought, I become all too conscious of the empty, Presbyterian dullness arcing up around me, of how truly out of place a body like mine is, has always been, in a building like this. The staggering beige of it, as wide and overtaking, almost, as the opiate.

However much I’d been drawn to the Little Free Library—under whatever ironic, poetic, or ascetic compulsion—I find it is, equally, not a metaphysical place. Instead, it is an ecru hutch, stocked mainly with young adult fantasy and prayer books for the pubescent and troubled of heart. Opening the door, I too am again a teenager—I know nothing about my body, save that for years I pushed into it any substance I thought might deliver me from it, any person; I know nothing about what I need, save that I shouldn’t find it here. My lover, incised into me like a second person or, perhaps, like the Second Person: my you. I open the hutch and nestle the NA pamphlet between a hard cover nautical novel—a historical fiction—and a King James Bible annotated for pre-teens. Beige book in a beige hutch, in a beige building for a beige god. Yet, as I withdraw my hand from the hutch, a little green Pocket Book of Prayer for Teens tumbles out with it. And, when I open it on impulse to a random page, something like my lover’s ghost flickers through me in the silence of the basement—a four-line prayer from another man’s faith, that renews in my mind a certain photograph of him, also lost: shirtless and beaming, too skinny and unshaved, Rottweiler puppy draped across his bare arms. His obsession with birds. His chicken-scratch. The prayer’s title, blotted across the page in an overzealous typewriter font: “For the Animals”.

Dear Father, hear and bless

the beasts and singing birds

and guard with tenderness,

small things that have no words.

Photo Credit: Shir Kehila

About the author

Leyla Çolpan is the co-creator of What Passes & What Passes Through (Ghost City Press, 2020), a chapbook of poetry and visual art, with artist Sasha Barile. Ze was an inaugural Creative Arts Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh, where hir work on multiethnicity and bilinguality was awarded an Academy of American Poets Undergraduate Prize and shortlisted for the 2019 Frontier Open. Ze is the winner of the 2020 Gulf Coast Prize for Poetry, judged by Kazim Ali, and hir work appears recently in The Adroit Journal and Homology Lit.

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