Sydney Rifkin

Autumn Remnants


I love the light in autumn, clar­i­fied and redeemed.
The cobalt sky naked, not a blue humans know
but the blue of tapes­tries, epics, cities still bear­ing
their ancient names like Syracuse and Thebes.

This must be like the last breath of a heart seizure.
A sud­den descent into puri­fied blue. A sin­gu­lar pause.
In that instant you under­stand the skin of yel­low
leaves on ponds are stained glass por­tals
from European cathe­drals, pan­els strain­ing the sun
like colan­ders. There’s an archi­tec­ture to fall
an anato­my of edges and peb­bles.
Gravel mouth thun­der­storms.
Abandoned nests finch­es left.


Don’t dare me with that slide
into char­treuse and lime like cam­ou­flage


We are iso­lat­ed in these Allegheny Mountains.
Where are October’s maple leaves?
You ate them? Crushed them with your teeth
the way a starv­ing dog would?

Lamplight, there’s nev­er enough light.
Do you call that baby’s cof­fin hole
stained like nico­tine 100 watts?
Is this your idea of illu­mi­na­tion?

It’s a sim­ple world. Enamel and bone.
Random man­i­fes­ta­tions, a branch,
a piaz­za, your grandmother’s rhine­stones.

You thought bells would make you deaf.
You thought the riv­er want­ed to drown you. Idiot.
Rivers think only of bridges, barges, trout.
Why would a riv­er know your name?


Is this the tra­di­tion­al numer­i­cal for mor­phine?


The moon is nev­er in remis­sion.
It rains relent­less­ly and I have no clothes.
I lack the con­cepts to express my anguish.

In November nights I read Neruda
out loud in Spanish, kneel on tiles cold
and hard like an ocean of teeth.
I won’t meet him in Isla Negra.
He’s dead and I can’t get to Chile.
I don’t have charts or num­bers.
I shed the expend­able, cal­en­dars,
din­ner par­ties, recipes, foot­ball and saints.

I vowed to live as a poem lives,
naked as ruins, not breath­ing,
but gasp­ing in elec­tric spasms,
cap­tur­ing air that stings. Our mouths

are mesh­es for trap­ping the odd ele­ments
of this world you take for grant­ed.
Oxygen makes me nau­seous.
Water makes me sick.
Every day is hunt­ing sea­son.


You burned your boat? You mur­dered
your lover, desert­ed your hus­band?
Your daugh­ter loathes you, calls you hye­na
and spits on the flat patch­es of your face?

Autumn women are soli­tary in tow­ers
of light, in stuc­co and brick ten­e­ments,
in trail­ers and barns and sheds with rats.
Then dusk. They trace the out­lines
of their bruis­es with an inti­ma­cy
of inten­si­ty reserved for a loved face.

This is their pre­cious car­go, the cameo,
the first and only mouth wait­ing to be
opened like oys­ters or night bloom­ing
orchids bel­ly up drunk on white moon.


Tell them you’ve gone mad, cer­ti­fi­ably insane.
You’re a dan­ger to your­self and oth­ers.
You ter­ri­fy even the veg­e­ta­tion. I’ll tes­ti­fy.

They gave you a phone num­ber for an office
that closed last year? Now you sleep
in hall­ways and alleys and cough blood?
You say the drapes in a stranger’s bay win­dow
can be a friend? The bus bench is a punc­tu­a­tion
you can count on? You’re off anti­de­pres­sants?

Well, it’s great talk­ing to you, too.
Don’t call me back. Promise


I said a poem doesn’t need waves or wind
in wild grass­es. A poem trans­lates con­scious­ness
the way fos­sils in amber per­sist with unas­sail­able
grace, details intact, each bone, feath­er, scale.

There are no uncom­fort­able junc­tures.
No hypocrisy or failed prayers.
All skies are Maui and Amalfi blue.
I wash my chewed up hands
in the Nile and Amazon. I won’t not jump
in eyes first and beg­ging for blind­ness.
I’d be sat­is­fied with ordi­nary alche­my.
I’ll divest myself of unnat­ur­al ambi­tions,
the night fly­ing, the month of silence require­ment.

I’ll give up my obit­u­ar­ies of mur­dered women col­lec­tion
I’m wall­pa­per­ing the bed­room in. And stop
howl­ing for eleven con­sec­u­tive days.
Sure I’ll take respon­si­bil­i­ty. I was lying.


Listen. This is a true sto­ry. Pay atten­tion.
Moments can stall with the puri­ty of a woman
tak­ing six rounds of exper­i­men­tal chemother­a­py.
(I know this for a fact. I was there.)
She was a smok­er with a mas­sive metas­ta­sis.
The scans showed her brain like a clear night
sky with con­stel­la­tions. Each glow­ing star
was a can­cer cell. Her mem­o­ries were des­e­crat­ed.
She was flu­ent in four lan­guages but could not speak
or read. It was like swal­low­ing a hand grenade.
She sensed the chem­i­cal treat­ments weren’t work­ing.
Her doc­tor advised she stop.

But her spouse insist­ed she per­sist.
He liked to watch her vom­it. It fed him.
She was his lure, how he cast
into the vil­lage, rav­en­ous.
And she had wit and charm. Her hair
fell out and he found that reas­sur­ing.
He had rea­son to call the grand­chil­dren.
Neighbors brought cook­ies on trays,
straw­ber­ries in bas­kets with rib­bons.
He final­ly had a rea­son to live
and some­thing to talk about.

If I was a good enough poet.
If I could shed mass and cut the barbed
wire of maps and bor­ders, the rules
men call laws. If I had the tools
I would kill that man with a glance.


It’s anoth­er shab­by Allegheny autumn.
The women go under­ground, under water.
There’s a lan­guage for this, flu­id syl­la­bles,
sen­tences of rain and thun­der and chimes.
It’s a local dialect of tin­ny trin­kets
and obscene bells in cor­ri­dors of mir­rors
with light bulbs that sting and all of it repeat­ed
in glass, in glass, in glass until you are lost
and must nav­i­gate by the shape of your welts.

Another post-har­vest bloat­ed moon. Your body
is a Braille, your bruis­es a map. Your residue
of devi­a­tions is a blue­print. Your scars are high­ways.

I don’t bake. I don’t quilt or make bowls from clay.
I take the pulse of thun­der and mem­o­rize
vari­eties of gray, antique pewter, tin,
the sly sil­ver of a bread knife.
and peb­bles lost beneath a rot of fog.
I can recite the incar­na­tions of era­sure
like a litany in six lan­guages.
I don’t know what the men do.


Sidney Rifkin was born in Indonesia to Peace Corp par­ents and is cur­rent­ly work­ing as cook on a ship a few days out from Australia.