Aphelion & Aphasia

by DAN ALBERGOTTI

July, Virginia, one hundred degrees. A wall of wind has swept enormous trees off the face of the earth, and a sick man has killed twelve strangers in a theater, and I’m supposed to craft an art from air— make something here worth memory, worth speech— and I just want to make a confession: I can’t frame, form, or even find those words. Syllables stutter in my silent head while the distant sun spits its light at me eight minutes, twenty-five seconds ago. This morning I tried to articulate a rough definition of poetry to a table of strangers. I told them essentially nothing. It was mostly pauses, unfinished sentences, silence. One evening during a broadcast bombing of Baghdad in the nineties, my sister, whose mind had not yet completely fallen into madness, tried to describe for me the sound of a tremendous explosion I had missed while I was in the bathroom. Boom! she said, and her eyes grew wide, her head bobbed back a bit, and then she stared, confused, at the blank space before her, as if stunned by the percussive force of her own voice or baffled by its inability to make any meaning, to say it right. Wow, I said, trying to offer comfort. We’d each managed one simple syllable, and that’s the only real conversation I can recall over the void of years. When I was leaving the family slowly, my mother would call and ask, How are you? I would say, Fine, and we would both listen to the silence on the line, and I would listen to the silence of my bedroom in Greensboro after she had hung up in Florence, would imagine the silence of that house that I’d abandoned her to, the silence she would sleep in and wake to. In her last few years, she lost more and more the ability to speak. Right, right, right was almost all she could say in response to anything. Mother, I can’t come home. Right, right, right. Mother, I won’t be coming home ever again. I’m gone. Right, right, right. Mother, I wish it could have been different. Right. It could have been. Right. It couldn’t have. Right. The last time I saw her in this world, she’d been diagnosed with early stages of Alzheimer’s. I sat at a table with her and my father, not having seen either for months. I remember nothing of the conversation except for this: her slow struggle to construct one sentence. It’s only . . . going to get . . . worse. Right, right, right. Composers, painters, and sculptors waited patiently as I tried to find the words. But I was hearing the meter of words unsaid, the silence between my attempts feeling closer to poetry, to truth. I looked beyond them and out the window at the torn limbs that still littered the ground after the great storm of two weeks before. Dante’s suicides are denied the right to speak, transformed into small trees that sway in hell’s wind. They must be injured again to gain a momentary voice. They speak when Dante breaks their branches, and like most of the souls in that inferno they use their allotted time to express regret. My voice felt as wrong as the distant sun warming the earth when it’s farthest away as I stammered about form, refinement of the soul, the transformative power of metaphor, and the necessity of failure. I smiled and excused myself. I walked outside amidst the fallen limbs and listened hard to their silence, trying to imagine the sound of the great wind that passed two weeks before I’d arrived there, feeling the heat of the far sun, knowing it took eight minutes, twenty-five seconds to reach me, knowing that what’s in the past is unreachable now and all voices will be quiet forever soon, fading as they get farther and farther away.

DAN ALBERGOTTI is the author of The Boatloads (BOA Editions, 2008), selected by Edward Hirsch as the winner of the 2007 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, and The Use of the World (Unicorn Press, 2013). A new collection, Millennial Teeth, was selected by Rodney Jones as a winner of the Crab Orchard Series Open Competition in 2013 and will be published by Southern Illinois University Press in September 2014. Albergotti’s poems have appeared in Blackbird, The Cincinnati Review, Five Points, The Southern Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and Pushcart Prize XXXIII, as well as other journals and anthologies. A graduate of the MFA program at UNC Greensboro and former poetry editor of The Greensboro Review, he is a professor of English at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina.