Sara Blake
Collected poems
The Sax on Fifth

In Manhattan, rain on a Friday
is hardly different from
rain on a Tuesday.
(When I last saw you, the pavement
was slick and reflective then too.)
My morning march down Fifth Avenue
wields a collapsing umbrella,
a weak and flapping beacon
saluting the scaffolds,
and remarking without words
that I belong to this circuitry
as much as it belongs to me.

At the north corner of 17th Street
a human levee juts through
a current of blank faces
and I can hear him before I see.
A man plays a saxophone
to himself, to no one,
and to everyone, of course, too—
so clear to him today
what he was meant to do.
The rest of us—
can we be so sure?

His music’s question
stings like an old pain
you’d long ago learned to forget
to notice,
and knowing this,
he’s chosen such a gentle song,
and his choice of timing so kind—
a grey morning with a mist of rain
to soothe our aching bodies
like a salve.
Today his vocation is not
to serenade these living ghosts,
but interrupt.

The faces that frown,
stretch down to boots,
or latch to glowing screens
(today, at least) cannot be reached.
The deft vibrations from his sax
an abrasion to the bodies
with no soft place to land,
and I watch their sound ricochet off
the backs of armored coats and hats
as I feel my left lip curl
into something like a smile.

A few steps further,
and without understanding why
my anatomy feels loose
and ready to listen
and meet the eyes
of any strangers
also willing to meet mine.

Battlement

It could have been
an invitation,
but best to pace circles
with a flat face
in stoic formation.
Wiser to stage a standoff
to be won,
A siege of spirits to find out
who will begin
with the upper hand
and end with it too.
Don’t they call this
something else?
Something more tender.
But that’s the
trouble with glances
over your trench,
and so easy to give
away your soft spots
before you’ve seen
the white flag.

The Fall

Too heated or fast,
and its edges would ignite,
creeping embers that could eat
clean through its still young
and unstable structure,
slowly and unnoticed
until your outstretched hand
met only ash.

Too cool and its surface
would be slick
and hostile—
black ice that had
no vested interest in your
sincere wish to remain
on your two feet.

But then again,
too many engineers
on the case
paid no respect
to its wild nature.
And it soon became clear
the only thing to do
was watch it become
what it would.

Nor were the scientists
of any remarkable favor
with the shades of its language.
Their proscriptions, though many,
seemed unable to apply
to this particular current.

It was not tidy either,
making a hypocrisy of patience
requesting pause and space
with words, but demanding
closeness and now
with all the beats


between



the



lines.

The Ventriloquist

On 13th Street she becomes wise
with drink and fashions
new dummies
from the same fleshy scraps
as before.
“There is no future
in ventriloquism,”
she thought, her eyes
pointed down to her right hand
at all the scars from
too much puppeteering.

She finds her marionettes
over the smell of whiskey
against chipped and yellowed plaster
walls moving with wide shapes
painted by tea candles,
their wicks burnt down low
to their silver plates.
All the wax has turned liquid.
The show is ready.

Her performance requires all five
senses of her audience,
her hands gesticulating
fluently to her own diction,
kneading the air and
testing her own collarbone
with the pads of her fingers
as she searches for a word.

Her scented lip gloss
make the air around her head
feel pink and edible.
Her voice is falsetto,
sometimes almost too
soft to even hear
like a small music box
without adequate surface
to vibrate and mature
to its full volume.

The vacuousness of her words
is only a trap—
their very emptiness
a ditch you stumble
into without even noticing
but then cannot escape.

She watches a wild
vine unfurl in the dark that
traces the path of the words
she’ll make you say next
without making you at all.

The Film Between

It wasn’t sorrow or
defeat or hopelessness.
It wasn’t even exasperation.
It was distinct, sharp,
and bubbling rage.
not so different
from screaming
underwater—muffled and
blunted by the film between
the dreamplace and waking,
like being trapped in phone booth
made of warped plexi,
the sound reverberating
in nearly visible waves,
slithering all over the walls.

The release started
deep in my belly,
fired up through my
diaphragm, and growled
all the way up through my face,
my blood building with the sound
as the scream-air billowed
out in the slow-motion
aftershock loping behind.

The heat in my cheeks
was all that remained
after the sound had
spilled over my lips.
Just the heat and
a sort of gravel in my throat
like leftover gunpowder.

The body can only
overtake the mind
in bursts and gulps,
by the time I knew
the scream was here,
it had already left me,
and was outside of me,
a ghost I now knew was real
but could not hear or see.

When you're only dreaming,
a scream never feels finished.
The sound is not real,
so neither is
its catharsis—
only a proxy from real life
to transmit and
repay in sleep.

The sound can never escape—
just ricochet and
vibrate back again,
or shoot straight out,
then freeze and drop
flat like a pin.
An impotent impulse—
wild but unfulfilled
arriving all the way to the
edge but never leaping,
reabsorbed—trapped in the
dream shell,
which is also
my body.

I was grateful
for the rage
and it’s child, the scream—
my child too—
a sort of birth
to prove
at least I was
not dead.

When I woke the dream was already
miles behind me,
and the rage was gone,
replaced with relief—
and a new feeling too,
trailing behind like a slinking ellipsis.

Some feral hunger for
that self-made fire.
If not rage, give me
any other flavor.
Love or lust, a Picasso,
a da Vinci, drums that
match the frequency
of my heartbeat
and make me topple like
a high-rise in an
earthquake.

The mountains, the sea,
the full moon, the fuck.
And if those are all out,
well, I’ll take the rage again too.

Why do I feel so deep
in a canyon with
no shelter or food,
but no will to get home?

The Song

The creases of its music
had always been a reliable
place to think,
climbing and dipping scales,
a trusted enough current
to carry my thoughts along
when my body had finally
refused to obey.
Not too tired.
Not too broken.
Not too anything.
Just still, maybe.
Just still.

Night Hymn

Night is best for thinking
about beginnings,
not morning,
like they’ll try and tell you.

I’m braver with my
notions of what could be
with sleep so close to rescue me
when old Fear get his claws
around too tight.

I’ll need a runway afforded
only in dreams
long enough to let the guts of
the thing shake out
so I can see what it’s all for.

By the time the sun hits,
I’m ready.
The amnesia of sleep
is a convenient armor
that greets me
fresh each day.

The hard part
is done, I say.
Morning is just the
other side of the door.

A New Question

Only one letter removed
and three added in its place,
but the new question was
now unrecognizable.

The clean “yes” or “no”
that before had suited
well enough as punctuation
had lost their footholds.
Only after could she see
how the subtleties of phrasing
had been a sufficient trammel
to keep the contents of the
real question hidden within
from spilling out,
from breaking the language
that had once felt so reliable
and familiar.

“Are you satisfied?”
she had asked herself
at the end of each day
for more years than
she’d noticed to count.

She heard a woman’s voice
she did not recognize
but tried hard to place—
warm taffy pulled apart
or olive oil poured slowly on a clean plate,
something decadent and rich—
but a sound instead.

“Are you satisfiable?”
Her breathe had let the words hang
in the place where an answer
had once always rushed in
to dam up the empty space.

Love. Have You Seen Him?

I feel heartbroken.
But don’t you need love first
for a heart to break?
Is love some shellac that
must be painted in thick strokes,
hardened to a sheen, ripened to a patina
to look like time and something shared?
You need only as much
as the back of a spoon,
and a tiny tap at just the right
spot to crack it wide open.

But what then if you
have none of that?
Not time. Nothing shared.
Just some tragedy of possibility.
A lamentation for a love imagined,
for someone real and raw,
and who reminds me to see
those things in myself too.

Is that what I mourn?
Is he some portal to seeing myself
the way I want to be seen?
Courage to let the ugly
parts that hurt show?

But I’m up at night with some
notion that we squandered truth.
How often do we find truth
in human form?
Truth is so big.
Truth fills up the whole room.
And it will stink
before it’s sweet.
But when it finally
turns and turns again,
you’ll understand why
you can never
palette anything else.

I chide myself that I even
let it hurt.
I only know the idea of him.
But ideas—aren’t they
everything?
Aren’t they impressionism
and quantum gravity?
Stoicism and the zodiac?
Isn’t love just another
name we give
that thing we all suspect,
but no one can touch
or measure?

And love is more common
than you think.
Love is no Bigfoot.
Love is not mere lore
that a meager few
will swear by their
ancestors that they’ve
encountered, maybe even
corroborate in blurry
creased photos
procured from wallets
as proof.

Love is not so shy.
Love is no beast.
Love has his arm draped around
the flower vendor only
just downstairs,
and he’ll drape his arm
around you too,
you just have to notice him.
And if you have to stop
to ask yourself,
“Was that love?”
the answer is, “yes.”

The List

Butcher paper meant
for a different lamb
was her clean white slab.
Commandments all her own
to chisel in the blueprint
for the new architecture
of her hours.
Each line was too
perfect of a brick
to support the mortar
of the one after
or the one before.


She knew this, but
her pen did not,
so her hand kept
moving, nonetheless.
If you can draw out the shape
of the ghost that haunts your den,
are you less afraid?

If you name the peaks
and trails
outside your door,
does that make them
your backyard?
If you can count the times
you almost leapt
but didn’t,
will you know the number
that becomes too much?

When the ink ran out,
and what had felt
so formless  
now took up space,
she wondered what
all this industry,
all this fury had been for.

The list was long
and so well kempt,
in clean, squared
engineer handwriting
that was not her own.
Is it not true that when a storm
rolls over the canyon,
all that matters is
that it’s here?
Or if you strike a match
and let it really burn,
you’ll find what’s
truly yours
in the ashes?

The Moon and You

The moon is full tonight
so I think about you.
I think about how I’d like to tell you
that the moon made me
think about you,
(just like the milk in my coffee,
and my hands turning over the dirty plate
under the warm water,
and my keys making
that satisfying clunk
as they unlatch the padlock in my door,
and the joke I heard
about Australia,
and how I’d like to
save it for you for later—
that, and most every other
moment of the day too,
which all have mostly
nothing to do with you—
only that both you and it
share the same
space in my mind.)

How nice it must feel
to hear another say,
“I had only to look up
at her majesty the moon
and was reminded
of you.”

The Minimalist

At first, she believed,
if only there was more
to look at,
the empty places
could not catch cold
and feel so menacing
for no other reason
than their vacancy.
But after long enough
of plugging holes
the drafts made their way in
nonetheless.

If the walls were filled
from edge to edge
with picture frames,
and trinkets,
and curious objects
from far away,
the visitors were easily
distracted from
the absence of framing
or insulation
underneath.

And while it took longer
than she knew to wait,
with repetition
she learned to
square the edges
and lay foundations deep,
select only the materials
that were made to last,
and with enough practice
it became self evident
that the beauty
was the structure itself.

The lack of adornment
was not so much asceticism
as it was a confidence
in making choices,
a hard learned lesson
that it’s easy to add
but much more difficult
to take away
and still keep
the edifice
intact.

The Choice

There’s that place—
you know it too—
or not so much a place
but an edge
between two places
where I can’t stand
(because after all,
feet need a place.)
Feet can’t float or fracture
the way I’m floating
and fractured now.

If I can divide myself cleanly,
straight down the middle
with a blade,
like two halves of a plum,
then maybe I can stand
in both places.
But I don’t know how
a heart beats
without the rest of
its parts.

I’ll have to be bigger, then.
Take up the whole space.
And swallow up both
halves inside me
so that instead of moving
to this room, or to that,
I'll become the whole house.

When I need to, I might
turn down all the lights,
not budge from the
same worn chair
that still holds me like a womb.

But other times, like now,
I might climb all the way to the roof
to get a better look
at the stars.
The shingled pitch is so steep
that it makes my heart
leap with fear, not because
I might fall, but because
I’m free in the open air
to chose.