‘In/Retrograde’ and other poems by Sarah Lao
By: Sarah Lao
Say it is night, and outside, there is a man
lying dead under the streetlamp. Skin tight
jaundice stretched over tissue/socket/bone
like the dried pulp of paper-mache, there’s
hyacinth blooming from skull—an expired
milk carton evaporating to salt—a flock of
geese migrating north. He is dead/dormant/
antithesis until he is not. The weatherman’s
forecast has the moon in retrograde motion
tonight—its maria swinging inwards in an
attempt to mine water, the earth’s high tide
receding to drought. This is not an illusion.
He chains his frame together and looks up:
sees the moon’s glory in glow. They like to
call it moonsickness/mania/lunacy—when
all the world oscillates between technicolor
and grayscale as children wade into the sea
while the men on motorcycles crumple in a
heap. The Law of Attraction will tell you
“like attracts to like,” that positive doctrine
will be a divine salvation, that desires will
meet reality. Now say you’ve dialed 911,
and after a short jaunt of off-key elevator
music, the operator on the line will pick up
to tell you it’s fine, that the quarantine team
is already on the scene.
But say it is dawn/and there is no body/Say
he was never dead/Or alive/Say you are safe
in bed/snipping at strings and/unhitching
your jaw/and still, dying/and too scared/to
want to be saved.
Last November, I found myself running lost
through the forest—pine trees spearing open the sky,
the heavens splitting and collapsing like a
puddle over soil. I was alone.
And it started as something only to pass the time:
Me, whittling the tree-bark crusting over my sides,
Me, carving out a loop of tongue
with a toenail, Me, shaving the
ridges of my spine for something to fill my quiver.
And before I knew it, hunting came to me as naturally
as prayer to the forsaken.
Rabbit feet stranded across my neck, I silvered my hair
to shards and drew switchblades in the space
between antlers. Suppertime, and my teeth pierced the soft
pinkness of tendon and cut blessings one by one
from the marrow. Every hunt was a sacrifice,
a sacrament. A sin.
And once, after I nocked arrows at a birdflock,
sinking well past a dozen, my body coughed feathers
in a fever, before shrinking light and free.
I’ll confess: every funeral was ritual.
At night I was stuffing squirrels and robins into little
makeshift coffins but the truth is,
I was never a good hunter, and
all I ever wanted was to cover my face,
all alone, lying buried and forgotten,
somewhere in the grave’s empty gullet.
A Study in Chiaroscuro
In the firelight, mother twists in her
edges something dark. Something
lost & feral. There’s a half opened
bottle oxidizing in the spill of her
palm, & when she corkscrews the
rim, liquid murk swishes & climbs
up the curve of the neck. Something
viscous, vicious. She is all stringent
& brittle, glass blown to a breaking
point, a hot iron welding over the
cracks. Her hands shake, sweat-slick,
crowded over the fire for something
like warmth, & outside, the wind is
still beating the window & the clock
on the mantelpiece is still ticking &
the fire is burning something so hot
I feel cold.
Come spring tide, & in my
mind I’m watching time
Camera fogs in a
fist of stillbreath
& pans down.
I piscator. I calcify.
I blow dart nightfin blue.
At night, every ship
runs hull-less against
the dark, sails fanned to
white flags mouthing
open the sky for
rain. Oh, write me a shipwreck
narrative where I am both maiden
& crone, the soft flesh
of sea urchin
& the gritted pearl of
oyster. I mariner.
I broken-necked pelican.
I leakey message in a
bottle. Scene cut, flash jump—
hands shaking on screen,
my body sprouts scales
running the spine, sheds
exoskeleton on the scales.
Call me stormbound. Call
Call me the seaglass
beneath your feet, the
monsoon squall breaking
the lull. I sealost,
& all of a sudden, I
see myself back at the beginning
whirling in the