FIRST BOOKS ISSUE
THEORIES OF FALLING
After years of research, I can only
that if you go over Niagara in a kayak,
you will die.
A ball of chicken wire and quilts? You might make it.
Oak barrel? You'll walk away,
thought just to die in a poor house ten years later.
The odds drop above the eighth floor
even from 30,000 feet, a canopy of trees may catch you.
Luck comes to fighter pilots and Czech stewardesses.
Rotoscope cameras have captured the
cat as he swivels
first head, then spine, aligns his hind legs, arches
for impact. He turns this helix over and over
until the ground rises to meet him. He bounces.
We do not bounce.
Not that we don't have a knack for certain
kinds of falling:
bringing a man home after five rounds of bourbon
because the snow has piled up, and he has no coat.
Leaving three friends to try hailing a taxi to Virginia
while he burrows for warmth and says
You're so good, you're so good to
hands diagramming every curve, a kind
of sleepy, lustful mathematics. Swivel your head,
align your legs. See if you can land
on your feet.
Sometimes an elevator cable does snap—
there is an immediate heat,
the squeal of atoms torn away.
As you hurtle to the bottom you may think
If I time this right, I can be in the air when it hits.
From the outside we see this makes no
what matters is speed relative to the earth, not
the floor of the elevator. But you are not outside.
You're in the cage, bracing your knees,
blood coiling in your heels. So go ahead—
Jump, for God's sake.
Jump like your life depends on it.
You are the whole building on fire.
You are the voice of sirens. You are
the dumb crowd milling, the capture
of Weegee's lens. You are flames
licking up the escape. You're the hovering
of a mother at the cliff of her window ledge.
You are the choice to drop her baby.
You're the chance of a beckoning crowd,
six hands gripping a sooty raincoat. You
are the only option. You're a simple drop.
Ten stories below they pray you're like a cloud,
soft floating. You are like a cloud. Grey
and you don't hold anything. You are
that moment before a falling, the falling,
a whir of falling, a wail of falling, the sweet
thud. You are black blood flaring
across the concrete. You are a needle
in the groove of a very sad song.
The whole building burns with you.
mixed media on wood
80" x 36”
view more work by Richard Dana
Who doesn't love a small kingdom?
The lion has her pride, the mole
her starnosed tunnel. My mother
grows three kinds of basil, and I
collect movie stubs in a box marked
Memories. A whelk knows only
the golden ratio of its chambers,
the figure 8 of nerve endings—
drawbridge mantle, moat ocean.
Washed up, its perfect enclosure
reeks of salt. I sort by color.
I file by coast. I know a man
by the cans and coffee cups
he leaves in his car, the thick
puppy mess of him. Who doesn't
dream of cleaning out her small
kingdom, tilting the whole stable
on its Augean edge? Who doesn't love
the disaster of her own making?
Boy, give up your slow reach
before I try to fix your life, before
I let your shell jangle to dust
in my pocket, before I burn
your operculum gate for incense.
I don't know how to keep you
without killing you a little—the way
my mother pares down the rosemary
each year to keep its flavor bright.
The way we must make all loves smaller
before they can enter our kingdom.
Soon they will take the blue mask off
Soon they will unzip your thickening blood.
The only bible on hand is Reader's Digest
and I study, "The Latest Medicine" "Drama in Real Life":
A man walks forty miles after being
mauled by a bear.
I am Joe's Lungs. Caught
in her fractured car, a woman lasts a week on two potatoes.
I am Jane's Esophagus.
Soon they'll take to pricking your toe
with a ballpoint pen.
Then they'll hand me that pen and ask Sign here, please.
And here. Over and over
I read about Johnstown in 1889—ten inches of rain
dropped in one day. As a dam bulges,
there's always someone on duty to look to the valley.
He sees what will follow: the stone bridge that'll collapse
and pulverize rail cars, the ironworks fated
to crown people in barbed wire as they
Soon they will tell me We only receive what we can bear.
There's always someone whose job is to ring the alarm,
but be honest: there's no plan for sixty feet
of hungry water. There is only a line
heaping dirt on the breaking point. We try to fill
the belly of a flood with our little buckets.
Soon everything will be a swallowing.
They have two noses; six eyes in the
arch of each foot.
They never tire of blinking down at the Americans—
our surfboards, machine guns, our dancing
The way we shower every day, then rub more oil into our skin.
One notes There is no end to the
number of things
they can hydrogenate. Once checks the spaces in bubble wrap
to see if we store useful things inside.
two men create a thing; then the fruit flies start dying.
By each November one man has a button,
and four thousand men
have the job of making sure he does not push the button.
One angel notes There is no end
to the number of buttons.
One visits a hundred random bedrooms.
His third ear
records that Oh, God is still popular. He notes a rise
in couples sleeping side by side, holding
He calls this the Red Rover, Red Rover position.
Four are assigned to the homeless and
ten to schoolteachers,
who tend to jump from bridges more often. The one
in charge of soldiers sketches the long
beard of Mr. Maupin,
who swore he wouldn't shave until his son came home.
Mr. Maupin sleeps in a blue recliner,
still in his fishing vest:
one pocket stuffed with lures, the other with laminated
baseball cards of his son Matt's face.
show an angel, all cookie-cutter wings and halo,
yellow ribbons for hair, declaring Not
one left behind.
The angel sighs and goes to sip whiskey with the angel
of telemarketers. Every night they watch
across thousands of blue screens as if, they note, constellations.
Every night they listen to the click
of our million keyboards,
toasting the sound American souls make as they collide.
Sandra Beasley won the 2007 New Issues
Poetry Prize for Theories of Falling, selected by Marie Howe.
Awards for her work include the 2008 Poets & Writers Maureen
Egen Exchange Award, the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize, and fellowships
to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Millay Colony, and the
Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She lives in Washington, DC,
where she serves on the board of the Writer's Center and writes periodic
columns for the Washington Post Sunday Magazine's "XX
Files." She is working on Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl:
Tales from an Allergic Life, a nonfiction book forthcoming from
The poems here are reprinted from Theories of Falling,
with permission from New Issues Poetry & Prose, Western Michigan
University. For more information on the book, see: http://www.wmich.edu/newissues/.
Published in Volume
10:2, Spring 2009.