April 8, 2020

Kimberly Kemler


after William Empson

The sink is clogged. We brush our teeth and wait
for it to drain, our conversation stalled
until, the water low, we spit. It’s late,

but I want to find a line I’ve just recalled
where a woman cleans her teeth into a lake.
My love is patient. He watches me search sprawled

on the floor among the masters, Donne and Blake
and Pope not having written of the sky
a woman made in morning, half-awake,

her toothpaste stars slow orbiting each thigh.
A picture, stored between pages years ago,
falls to the floor and catches my lover’s eye:

me, bathing in a river in Tokyo.
Instead of verse, I’ve unearthed memory—
six lost friends, a forgotten language, the photo

itself forgotten until now. We see,
of course, the poem in the suds, though there’s
no mist, no dawn, but day and younger me

washing her hair in the passing current. She wears
my swimsuit, holds my hairbrush, smiles back
at someone on the shore it’s clear she cares

for, even loves. Who was he, then, whose backpack
spills into the frame? Too many years
have passed. I’ve lost his name. The things I lack

confound, so the poet I can’t find appears
behind the camera, in his open bag
the poem, extra film, a couple beers,

and the summer blanket we’ll hang like a flag
to mark our cabin. William, was it you
who knew me then, who watched my wet skin brag

with stars? The river carried them out of view
before they could pool to mimic the coming night,
leaving a trail of white soap residue.

Another woman, then, appears in the bright
red of a darkroom, where my film is dipped
into developer. She lifts the campsite

from the stop bath. The negatives are clipped
to dry in even rows and she surveys
all the photographs that weren’t slipped

between the pages of a book, her gaze
following chemical drops that seem to freeze
each separate tress forever where it lays.

What does she know who pulls my memories
from oblivious waters, who brings light to every frame?
The face of someone I loved. The startling peace

in the stills. On a sign, the river’s name.
She trims the film to where the pictures start.
The world is water, a woman at its heart.

from Rattle #66, Winter 2019
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist


Kimberly Kemler: “I wanted for a while to write about that river in Tokyo, but I let too much time pass. When I got around to it, all the narrative details were gone—instead, there was this incantatory Empson poem, and my newfound love for film photography, and on top of that I’d been reading a lot of Schnackenberg, whose music informed my own. To be honest, this poem isn’t what I set out to write, which is, ultimately, why I write: to arrive at truths I may not have otherwise.” (web)

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