Heather Altfeld

From the Republic of Sleep and Mercy | The Island to Remind You of Your Childhood
May 26, 2018 Heather Altfeld

From the Republic of Sleep and Mercy


All night I dreamt death
was a party to which I had been invited
but had to attend by proxy,
sending a periscope in my stead

down through the floor beams
beneath the bed.  From the sheath
of covers, I was a large god snoring
over the dead, limbs of stiff gingerbread

baked and cooling on the mortal racks above.
At first the room below was a revelry of laborers
freed from the mines, shined and cleaned
in Sunday overalls, toasting

the nation of death and beauty
with cherry cordials, singing cantadas
of the open sea to serenade
their lives to come.

Then a fleet of senators
arrived by yacht, the congress of high life
now the black trash of death, thrashing
in the arms of pistoled thugs who saved

clemency for little birds—
I could hear the pleady bribes
as they slipped on the river barge below,
their chipped nails raking the ceiling

of slumber.  From the highway
that runs beneath the bed, a fleet of trucks
with the carcasses of refugees,
a clatter of little bones, teeth

a river of hair—

all waiting to be refurbished
in death’s finishing line,
repurposed for the afterlife
as dolls, or snowshoe hares

something still and silent
as the last secret hours of their hiding.
Just before dawn, a mountain climber,
death borne of snow-blindness

and a mean wind, shook loose
the board beneath the bed
and begged me to return him

to the summit of life;
he pulled the periscope’s long throat
through the hole in the floor
and shivered me from sleep with his eye,

his glassy blue cornea
the cold bead of snow
I awakened to, its tiny angry
glacial lake, its demand,

its beckoning.




The Island to Remind You of Your Childhood


(Xin’anjiang Reservoir, Zhejiang, China)


I beg of you, do not disturb this.


The valley was all that was your world,
and you never suspected its doom.
Every day the sky opened and sunshine
or rain or the black light of stars poured in.
You and the rice and the trees grew tall
and your house stayed exactly the same size.
The river bloomed and withered, bloomed and withered
and the graves watched over you with green pleasure
and certainty.

The river is perilous, the officials said.
mindless as a snake.  They came to your door
in spats.  They promised a hillside of cement
shaped exactly like a cloud
and a lake full of water, blue as the sky,
a memorial stone for your ancestors
whose graves would be seaworthy
soon as the tap turned on.
They promised you a teacup boat of your own
and a island full of monkeys
and an island that would remind you of your childhood.

You could not imagine the island.
It must smell like your father’s waistcoat
full of pocketwatches, and sweeten your cheek
with the stern kisses your mother gave you each night.
It was a place that would want you in the way
that you knew you wanted to be wanted,
in the way every child wants to be wanted,
straight from the pocket of the womb.
You could hear it calling your name,
its trees swaying to the harp of your wishes.

Five was the lion who sank like a stone
Four was the island that grew from the foam
Three are the boats that looked for your bones
Two were the sounds of your grandmother’s groans
One is the sound of your stone on the sea
One was the sound of your stone on the sea
One was the sound of your lone little plea

Things will never be better!
they said as they did not help you load your chair
and your rucksack and your little brother
onto your back with ropes.  We’ll build
a fine bridge one day, they said, staring you down
like a man.  Your grandmother stayed behind.
She held your last kiss in her palm.
She pinned her brooch to her breast
so she would descend with dignity,
the brilliant little green scarab scouting its way
through the belly of the lake.

One was the sound of you, looking for me.
Two was the sound of your sad little plea
Three was the way that you wept at the rain
Four was the province where you had no name
Five was the boat that rocked on the sea
One was the sound of your stone on the sea
One is the sound of your stone on the sea

There is always melancholy to be found in progress they said
as you wept at the planet of concrete big as the sky.
Even the rain looked different, pocking the cement.
The man-made madeline
in the shifty center of the water
reminds you nothing of your childhood.
The boat is made of plastic.  The sail is no kite.
Even the rats and the fleas are gone.
Your sofa lies beneath, comforting
the crabs and the kelp,
and the rug you slept on, as the kettle
chirped in the morning sun,
carpets the golden lions
buried at their iron gates.

So now, it is just you, old thing,
floating by in your teacup boat,
swallowed by the round revolution of the oars.
Listen to the lap lap lap that gently strokes
the bright new water, the lap lap lap
that calms the fishies down below.

Heather Altfeld’s first book, “The Disappearing Theatre” won the Poets at Work Book Prize, selected by Stephen Dunn. Her poems appear in Narrative Magazine, Pleiades, ZYZZYVA, Poetry Northwest, and others. She won the 2015 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry with Nimrod International Magazine of Poetry and Prose. She lives in Northern California and teaches in the English Department and the Honors Program at California State University, Chico and is a longtime member of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley.