Memory’s a still, a ruthless contraption.
You cannot work it backwards.
A trace, anemic limb within a sprawling wood,
A random pool of silt through a funnel.
It’s not alchemy, it’s not miracle.
It’s criticism. Winnowing.
From three hundred thousand spawn, five minnows.
That one brilliant salmon who flew out of the stream.
You lived somewhere for many days.
What can you retrieve?
High windows, white, with mullions,
The waving tops of aspen trees.
You lived somewhere for very long.
But the avenues by which you could recall it
Have been closed for new construction.
At some point your mind chose a few for you,
A lucky few among the millions.
It was a process, then process turned to dogma,
As cars in thick snow
Will do well to drive in tracks of other cars.
The same few pictures strand, and then again;
You rescue four, then three, then two.
High windows, the waving tops of aspen trees.
There’s no way to reverse the still,
No way to widen the path.
The silt in the cup won’t revert to its primary
Ingredients. You can’t save even half.
Windows, the very tops of trees.
Perhaps a scrap of linen curtain also.
But not the slab of wood marked “Birds Only”
By the field, the inexplicably sawed-in-half Bud Light cans
Strewn along the road, some pale wildflower,
The long grasshopper who genuflected at your doorstep,
And, least of all, how and when
Wind turned the iron arrow.
There had to be a house!
A house to hold the windows
(Worms threading through the seams),
And trunks to hold the trees (of an ilk
Your mind has long discarded),
And by the trees some kind of weather,
Like the wasps that flung themselves against the panes,
And all the moving, unpinnable rest,
The terrible rest you don’t name.
The first book of poetry from Sarah Hannah, Longing Distance, was published by Tupelo Press in 2004 and became a semifinalist for the Yale Younger Poets prize. “Alembic” is from her second collection, Inflorescence, to be released by Tupelo in 2008. Her poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Boulevard, Parnassus, Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She currently teaches poetry at Emerson College and is a contributing editor at Barrow Street. (updated 11/2006)