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The Ache Poem

The split hairs of lightning, you
know how it goes: a peek, a point
of view, you fall over. Dust the lungs
for a release of lanterns. A centrifugal baby
or banshee in a shopping cart. Somehow
we’re here to open up. Between library pencils
& a cabin of flush cosmos. Summer screens
grate the rain. Nice bicycle-boat. I want to
avoid something like the allure of that
golf course green, then the toxic ticking sprinklers.
I’ll greet you with a smoking umbrella, wishful.
An open vowel. I skim regret from the lake, fling it
through the tire-swing so nothing stains.
My dress is soaked, like your handlebars are
meant to hold me up
against all the falling apple heirs.

Julia Cohen

levelheaded: The Ache Poem

This poem doesn’t work in only one mode. There are moments of description: in “the split hairs of lightning” we can see the thin, divergent bolts (strands?) of lightning within the loaded phrase “split hairs.” There are moments of murky metonym: in the final lines of the poem as our speaker rides along on the handlebars of a bike, we are all made “heirs” to Isaac Newton’s famous “falling apple” in that we are all pulled toward the earth by the same constant force, gravity. Then there are moments of outright mystery: What are “library pencils[,]” “a cabin of flush cosmos[,]” “a smoking umbrella[,]” a “centrifugal baby”?

It’s tough to claim definitively that these phrases have no concrete root in the real world. “[F]alling apple heirs” takes a winding course to “those affected by gravity.” Even the “centrifugal baby” is explained some by “banshee in a shopping cart.” We all know what that might look like. So we can’t be 100% sure “a cabin flush of cosmos” doesn’t refer to something real, like an outhouse in outerspace. But when some moments describe real things and some perhaps do not, the sensation we get when reading the poem is one of uncertainty. In part, this uncertainty is what makes an “ache” poem compelling. A real physical or emotional ache can’t always be traced back to a particular spate of exercise or a precise spot of longing, and in this poem’s ache, we find traces of memory, exertion, emotion, pain, yearning and hope without knowing much about why they’re all twisted up together in the first place.

Through any of the poem’s movement and muddlement, through a reluctance or inability to describe a scene, or tell a story, or do whatever we sometimes misremember a poem should do, the speaker does reveal a plain desire. That is, she wants to “avoid something like the allure of that / golf course green, then the toxic ticking sprinklers.” She wants to avoid appearing over-cultivated and crisp, to avoid certain things that attract certain people. This desire finds root in the poem’s “you,” addressed at the beginning and end of the poem. This is the “you” the speaker greets, “wishful.” This is the “you” for whom regret is hidden “so nothing stains.” It is the “you” who is meant “to hold me up” against the rest of the world. And voila, we have a love poem. Or an ache poem. We won’t split hairs.

-The Editors