The large, white-bearded man
in denim overalls
wipes his blade on a cloth
tucked into his apron string,
and hands me another paper plate
with three glistening oysters.
I drop another five-dollar bill
into the wicker basket at the end of the bar,
and return to my seat in the shade
of an old elm tree. Today
you can hear voices in the eddies of the wind,
and watch sunlight rippling on supple boughs.
Everyone alive bears witness to such sights;
each one of us has felt ourselves carried away
like a pile of leaves gathered in the wind, the sensation
of coming and departing in every breath.
The oyster-shucker sharpens his knife, wipes away
water, ice, and broken bits of shell from the counter
at his stall in the market.
He caresses life as much as any man.
How well he splits the shells in two,
separates the oyster’s foot from its hold,
so that the people in line, wearing sun hats,
baskets hanging from their arms,
can eat something still alive, savor
that briny taste of the sea’s affection for us.
I am enamored with men and women
who live among the taste of the ocean,
and of the woman who sells tamales from her truck,
of the welder and the winemaker and the beekeeper
(I love them, though I do not know them).
Comrade to the world, each one of us,
teachers, politicians, policemen, singers,
musicians and artists of all kinds, lawyers,
doctors, priests, a myriad of professions,
a multitude of experiences and perspectives,
changing and yet unchanged,
the thoughts of people in all times and places,
not original but unique, yours as much as mine,
they belong to no one, to nothing
but entropy. Yet I am perpetually astonished.
Somehow we continue. Who have we become?
How is it I can taste sunlight in the shellfish that I eat?
Unfazed by the amplitude of time,
knowing that one’s dissolution is a hallucination,
I recognize in myself all people,
and accept that all the good and bad I see in them I see in myself.
We each exists as we are, which is more than enough.
Recall the words of the poet of the Body and the poet of the Soul,
poet of the woman same as the man, whose words
are a convulsive sea—sea of the brine of life,
and of unshoveled yet always-ready graves:
You have tried to teach me to accept time absolutely,
to accept Reality and dare not question it—
but I cannot. Each breath in me is a question;
I am hollow, empty with unknowing.
I have followed your materialism to the edge
of scientific reason, but when I arrived I fell off the knife-edge
of nihilism, nearly drowning
in the turbulent, fleshy cosmos of your reason.
I want nothing more than to live in the knowledge of the senses,
to exist only in the realm of the sensual,
of eating, and drinking and love-making.
But time and time again I regress
to the unfeeling subjective space of thought
that tells me this is all I can ever truly know,
and this awareness of my own otherness separates me
from all, even as it unites me
with the subjective existence we all share.
The desire to see, hear, and feel is a miracle.
But is it the oyster or the idea of the oyster
that tugs at my appetite? Which is more deserving of praise?
The ephemeral radiance of a sunset satisfies me more
than the metaphysics of books;
but like an addict or intellectual masochist, I can’t stop
searching the diaphanous shadows of letters on the page
for some meaning
that will help me to understand
why the air tastes like salt on my palate,
how my ears go where my eyes can’t reach?
I hear the drone of planes, the whirr of cars driving by,
branches bending in the wind, African drums,
my own breath and heartbeat.
The sounds run together;
the sounds of the city fuse
with the sounds of the country,
the sounds of the day combine
with the sounds of the night,
the sounds of the living join the sounds of the dead,
the sounds of the silent unite
with the sounds of the voluminous
to proclaim what we’ve felt all along:
all truths wait in all things.
But what proves most important
to every man and woman is not truth
but meaning, that form truth takes when it’s interpreted,
when we turn another’s subjective reality into something objective
so that we may internalize it,
give birth to it anew from our own perspective,
re-forging the journey-work of the stars
in the space and time of consciousness.
There is no objective truth,
only the actual waiting to be found,
hoping to be liberated at any moment,
which is no truth at all, only the illusion of truth,
the façade of objectivity when subjectivity is seen from outside itself.
From our own vantage point the palling stars of morning seem to fade,
but we know that they still shine,
so we can say they fade and burn at once—a relativity of truth,
that dialectical property of an existence
in relation to itself.
Solitary, walking home at dusk, my thoughts stray.
I welcome all contradiction, each paradox and every ambiguity.
I am composed of such discrepancies;
our very being
deserves praise and condemnation.
Fishermen sail the Arctic Ocean;
brides and bridegrooms in bed
tighten to each others’ thighs and lips;
the medic counts the wounded;
the luckless pity the infirm;
every irretrievable life, observe the ash-colored faces that pass by you
and do not ask if they embody you, for you already know,
shame-faced and ragged with grief,
they are your brothers and sisters, your mothers and fathers.
That anyone could forget
they are embodied in you and you in them
leaves my mouth packed with snow,
my bones cracked and drained of marrow.
When we give we give ourselves.
What else of value do we have to offer?
What I know others strip away.
I follow their outstretched hands into the Unknown,
where the dead and undead alike
tell me that the human condition is a fallacy;
like the present, it’s always changing, and promulgates
what comes after and grows out of itself.
Only our dreams remain
a uniform hieroglyphic
(in a language we hardly recognize or understand).
When we look over our shoulders
we attempt to live in the past as much as the present,
but the past is hardly more real than the future.
What has transpired is almost as unknown as what will come.
My evidence is a stack of notebooks I barely remember filling.
I philosophize with the bravuras of birds
but have no philosophy.
I keep books but have no library.
I take ease but have no chair,
and pray but have no church.
I’ve been led up a knoll, a hand hooked around my waist,
the other pointing to the landscape,
tracing winding paths
with an outstretched finger…
and I’ve returned there to lead others:
my arm around another’s waist,
my legs guiding us home along the trail,
my voice that says only you
can decide why
you chose to travel this road.
I have been the tongue in another’s mouth,
the oyster sliding off the shell, raised to parted lips,
smooth and smelling like the ocean,
alive, but for how much longer?
I do not believe in God, yet I behold it in every object,
in you as much as in me.
I do not know what it is—
but if it is eternal
life and unavoidable death,
it is also form and chaos—
and then it must be happiness too.
And beauty. And love.
These things do not exist in the abstract;
I have filled every object I have come across with them.
I give form to you as much as you to me.
Of course we contradict ourselves.
We are the progenitors of logic.
We make our own moral equivalence.
If we contradict ourselves it is because the world contradicts itself.
After all, it is large, and we contain multitudes.
We cannot be easily explained away,
cannot fall into the numerical expression of a proof. I am
as transitory as air, as fluid as light effused in the eddies of the Nile.
Like the tide, I depart as I arrive.
If you look for me at the farmers’ market
and cannot find me, do not be discouraged;
I’ll be waiting for you under your boot-soles, beyond the grass,
in the shallows of the delta,
in the next oyster you raise to your lips.
Jake Young lives in Santa Cruz, California, and received his MFA from North Carolina State University. His most recent work appears or is forthcoming inMiramar, Fjords Review, Windfall: A Journal of Poetry of Place, Poecology, and Cloudbank. Last spring he attended the 2014 Djerassi Resident Artists Program. Jake is also the poetry editor for the Chicago Quarterly Review.