Williamson Brasfield, Open Sea, Stromboli, from Cathedrals in the Desert, 2016 (photograph)


Climb into a boat and the lake turns cold.
A lake is a man turned inside out.

For a matter of minutes, we can see
his organs flopping on the surface,

like the red and white bobbers on blue line,
weights below, holding them down. Then calm.

Like a body after you cut it open
to pull out a child. They place the child

on another table like the one you lie on,
unable to move except your arms.

Sometimes your child kicks, her face is red.
Sometimes your child lies still, his mouth is blue.

Sometimes they take him to another room
and you sit in your boat. You row the lake,

looking for a loose heart. You row the lake,
scanning for a hungry stomach. For a baby.

You can hear the waves shushing against each other,
you can hear your heart, deep in the lake.

I was in that boat on my birthday, love,
and our friend brought me yellow flowers.

He said, “I wanted you to know someone
remembered your birthday.” I had forgotten,

except for the boat I was rowing
to the blue shore of our son’s body.

We know when our friend is depressed
he might kill himself, so we monitor

him, or you do, or rather, someone does,
and it’s not us. We’ve failed again, like a captain

that never steps on the deck. The crew must go on
without him. Remember when stories of ships

felt romantic? Remember when anything
was romantic? Like the fingers of

a stranger. Like they were made of wood,
like something Whitman wrote could actually

be true. Next month is my birthday again;
I’ll be 37. I’ve been trying to plan a party.

Our friend is getting divorced, though,
and so many people have died. It’s hard

to celebrate and sing anything, even this lovely
grass. Is the grass even lovely in this large

shadow? Our son will be four. His mouth is pink.
He doesn’t know yet about depression, or divorce,

and he has a birthday the day before mine,
like Thoreau. Another person who believed

beyond his body, beyond what each year meant,
beyond a day of birth. Yours was yesterday,

but I forgot your present, so I bought you a Sonicare
at Costco for $79, which felt like enough.

It vibrates and shakes out all the bad things.
And I bought you a metal mug for your coffee,

I wanted to keep it hot and your teeth clean.
That felt like love. Like this lake we’re still on.

Is it the one you swam in as a child?
Thousands of feet deep? Our friend was happy

then, or so you say, floating, splashing.
Was it that lake with the smooth surface,

everything still under the skin? Or the more
shallow one we all swim in now, spring-fed,

filled with fish, easy? The fish open
their mouths to me again, their invasive

teeth. I thought they were someone I knew once,
but they’re all from another part of the country.


Maya Jewell Zeller