You Can’t Have It All by Barbara Ras
MARGINALIA • SKIP TO THE POEM
I know what you mean by life being intolerable. It is a weight you carry. It comes and goes. I have had times of euphoria though, which is a goddamn jolt of joy to the system, but it is quite painful once you’ve come down from it. It’s all just…emptiness, after. I try to keep afloat.
Oh, to explore the interior life. I think there is just so much in there, maybe even a bigger universe than outside our bodies, you know? To think about what we hold inside us, and how. And one day, we will be gone. I often think about how everything is fleeting, and nothing ever really lasts. This wounds me deeply.
The unfortunate thing about people like us is that we think about things too much. I know I live in my head too much. Sometimes I wonder about having someone come find me before I am well and truly lost, because I tend to disappear, to go so deep inside myself that I can’t find my way out.
Don’t worry too much about what you will do. It doesn’t really matter. You will end up doing what you have to do, or what you want to do. The best situation would be the latter, but if I’m realistic it would be a compromise of the two, with the promise of getting to What You Want in time. For years, I wasn’t so sure what I wanted actually. I thought I did, but a lot of things have changed. I changed, too, without my knowing it. So I was lost for awhile there. I suppose we lose and find ourselves a thousand times in our lifetime.
Death does something irreparable to a human being because it can touch who we love. In as much as love is a powerful emotion it renders us helpless against devastating loss. Physically there are no wounds, but you arrive at one moment, out of the blue, all of a sudden, like when you are riding a cab, or brushing your teeth, or turning to glance at someone—and suddenly the pain is there, the emptiness, the bleeding. And there is only so much you can do, so much you can hold on to.
Nothing makes sense, and there is just aching aching aching inside me. I can’t even see the future, and if that’s so, then what is the point? But I am thinking: day by day. Until we are alright again. Until then: anchors. We’ll do the best we can, yes? We can’t have it all, but some days we need very little. Maybe just even a poem.
You Can’t Have It All
But you can have the fig tree and its fat leaves like clown hands
gloved with green. You can have the touch of a single eleven-year-old finger
on your cheek, waking you at one a.m. to say the hamster is back.
You can have the purr of the cat and the soulful look
of the black dog, the look that says, If I could I would bite
every sorrow until it fled, and when it is August,
you can have it August and abundantly so. You can have love,
though often it will be mysterious, like the white foam
that bubbles up at the top of the bean pot over the red kidneys
until you realize foam’s twin is blood.
You can have the skin at the center between a man’s legs,
so solid, so doll-like. You can have the life of the mind,
glowing occasionally in priestly vestments, never admitting pettiness,
never stooping to bribe the sullen guard who’ll tell you
all roads narrow at the border.
You can speak a foreign language, sometimes,
and it can mean something. You can visit the marker on the grave
where your father wept openly. You can’t bring back the dead,
but you can have the words forgive and forget hold hands
as if they meant to spend a lifetime together. And you can be grateful
for makeup, the way it kisses your face, half spice, half amnesia, grateful
for Mozart, his many notes racing one another towards joy, for towels
sucking up the drops on your clean skin, and for deeper thirsts,
for passion fruit, for saliva. You can have the dream,
the dream of Egypt, the horses of Egypt and you riding in the hot sand.
You can have your grandfather sitting on the side of your bed,
at least for a while, you can have clouds and letters, the leaping
of distances, and Indian food with yellow sauce like sunrise.
You can’t count on grace to pick you out of a crowd
but here is your friend to teach you how to high jump,
how to throw yourself over the bar, backwards,
until you learn about love, about sweet surrender,
and here are periwinkles, buses that kneel, farms in the mind
as real as Africa. And when adulthood fails you,
you can still summon the memory of the black swan on the pond
of your childhood, the rye bread with peanut butter and bananas
your grandmother gave you while the rest of the family slept.
There is the voice you can still summon at will, like your mother’s,
it will always whisper, you can’t have it all,
but there is this.
[expand title=”Endnotes” tag=”h6″ expanded=”true”]
This poem appeared in Bite Every Sorrow by Barbara Ras, published by Louisiana State University Press, 1998. Shared here with profound gratitude.
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