Poetry by Charles Herbert: “I cannot feel/your ocean, but I jump/from your boat”

Lessons for the New Millennium

Have a seat and listen
to what tourists say.
Keep your ears open
for sickness–wherever it may hide.
Listen to her yawn in bed
next to you. Always
listen to Arrau’s take
on Chopin’s Nocturnes.
Listen to your shoes squeak,
as well as those of others.
Overhear neighbors bearing
bouquets of Fentanyl.
Listen for the trader cleaving
to pluses and minuses as his
god denies the equal sign.
Listen to me; I’m talking to you.
Secretariat taking the Belmont
is something you should always listen to–
as is the bioavailability of Duane Allman.
Listen to the frequency
of Naomi Watts’s nipples in 21 Grams.
In fact, always keep tuned
to the prices of grams.
Listen to your friend say
“I do”, when he should say
“Please stay away.”
Listen for the Trojan’s burst.
Hear the Sig’s leaden casing clink
against your door’s crumple-zone steel.
Listen to the burn; Plan B;
the choir of the deep, haloed
in the starshine of bent-grass dreams.
Listen: I might just be
the placebo for advice.
Listen to the anesthesiologist
whisper to count
from 10 to 0, and listen
to yourself think zero.


The Humidity

When the crape myrtles burst
open, sending you into the air
high above Charleston. And then, when

you splat back down in the city’s fecund bathtub.
When you can’t get the plaintive voice
of a slide guitar virtuoso out of your head

and you watch the clip on YouTube until it
infects you for days, so that you step
from a morning shower of song and sorrow.

When you get the pills and slump into your car’s seat.
When you finally realize it’s not the humidity,
it’s the heat wrapping a blanket around you,

which is something you’re quite used to. This
is when your arms feel like fresh bedding from the dryer.
You’d be sly if you heard that when you wrap

yourself in me, there’s a 40% chance I’m higher
than the F-18s insultingly bansheed
from Joint Base Charleston.

When you feel your nerves itch.
When you inhale your hands’ twitch.
When you inspect the stitch on your mended jeans

and everything, for a second, feels clean. When the back-
burn exhales its kerosene. Hey, I’m not saying
I’m responsible for the drought, but I am the rain

that fled California. As always, when I rain, I
fall thick, heavy: I become the drops that assault,
and my condensation is never my fault.

Letter in a Haystack

Dear Standard America, you’ve often doled
me advice even though I haven’t always wanted it–

I never really needed it, and something about that
should make you shake. I always was the epicenter

of earthquakes. When I wake, I sing
the first of my maydays, and Mission Control

doesn’t always hear me; many of them
are in thrall of the shape-shifter Dow.

(Some of them frequently do blow.)
All of my televisions have turned to snow.

Build us a pool of nonsense where we can drown.
Mayday, America: someone has exchanged

strategic command for the bottom line, and the plutonium
in their warheads still glows like a phalanx

straight from neon Romans. Every cinema is 3-D.
Bankers caused my Jetta’s birth in Mexico,

and there’s a black hole between my seat and console.
I’m recently exposed brick, gentle to the touch

after years of hiding, so pack me up and store
me away; a broken person is right two times a day.

Insomnia Fantasia

In the distance
the heat-lightning
flutters as flickering
bulbs behind
a curtain, and through
it all I remain
solvent in the world.
Somehow sleep
should arrive
almost pleasurably–
a scar tightening,
supple red skin
a berm to shield
the mar.
Supposing there’s
no space to fight,
I conjure
two pills
and a tumbler
of sunlight.


This was how mornings
came: dullness tracked
by meteorologists of hurt.

My nerves, layovers
of comfort. I cannot feel

your ocean, but I jump
from your boat to drown

in it. In my dream, highways
unspool and gas stations

shoot me across the country,
a rover traversing empty Montanas.

If you enlist me in studies
of numb, I’ll evaporate and rush
through vents as a gas. Don’t

be in the room.
This is my life as hotel:
an agent of the temporary
who’ll make you blink.
Charles Herbert lives in Charleston, South Carolina. His poems have appeared in The Spoon River Poetry Review, Yemassee, Coldfront, The Tulane Review, and Epigraph. He was the Featured Poet in the Fall 2014 issue of East Coast Literary Review, and was selected to contribute to the Tin House and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences.

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