Poem of the Week

This Long Distance

Jesse Nathan

  Sunday, in his grandmother’s time, had been the day
You went visiting. Noontime news, topped with beet borsht
  And pickled pigs’ feet, cottage cheese stuffed in pancakes—
And schputting, silly talk—and coffee. His art
            With his hopes had conspired to conduct him
              Many states away, but even now when
            Sunday’s here he calls his kin.

  And when he’d call his parents, his dad would begin
With weather—“Five inches since Friday,
  Seven and three-tenths since Monday, it may even
Hock up more, and lightning”—and his mother would inveigh
            Or other times dial up other composings—
              “First frost came so we picked up the hoses,
            Slid the barn doors closed,

  Any minute now we’ll get fresh straw for the stalls”—
Or she’d log how they “butchered the hens, one had a clot
  Of new eggs in her, ready to lay”—or she might tell
Stories of Aunt Larrie who never married and carried a snuffbox,
            Or dad would describe his having recycled
              Faxes that had blankened,
            Each message returned

  To the ether, and then the son might describe a minus tide or tell
How his shoulder—tattooed—has haired over, as if his swallow
  Flies in a thicket, or he’d ask “how low is the well?”
Or “which kind of locust, again, is the swing tree?”—and so
            Forth, they’d sneeze, cough, mention the soaphouse
              Had had to be razed, or that the catamaran was trounced
            In a squall, or how their bodies were giving out—

  An organ recital, they called it, and he, drinking coffee, might offer
As balm the lights up the hills in the night in his city
  Described as the winkings of prodigious piles of embers,
And his mother would report on emerald leaves, emerald wheat,
            “High leaning cloudbanks,” or his father
              Might note that the starlings were
            Mustering the pasture, they could murder

  If they wanted. And the son, not really sure what then to say,
Says an iconic radio tower, from where he sits, presents
  Like a comb jelly. And they, who in his imagination
Are in the dining room he knows well, hold up their phone, up against
            The back window to let him hear
              The call—so personal and clear—
            Of the train out there.

Jesse Nathan is a lecturer in the English department at UC Berkeley. His poems appear in The Paris Review, Kenyon Review, and other publications, and he lives in San Francisco.
Originally published:
September 1, 2021

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