In my high school physics class,
I learned about quarks and tau leptons,
how nothing ever really touches –
the world is empty space filled with electric
fields and the electrons around my atoms
repel the electrons circling the atoms of the world.
I wonder if death is like a white spark of lightning,
if all the negative forces pushing me away
and pulling me down in a constant dance
with gravity will converge as a singularity, a black hole
where time passes faster as I reach the moment
when I am without covalent bonds. I am afraid
my life will be inert. I wonder how many oranges
I could slice open, how closely they would match.
Is the orange aware its rind has been split
and its bitter pith lies forgotten on my counter?
I don’t want to be made from rib,
let me be made from sun-kissed syrup
dripping down a broken orchard branch.
Let me be equal in the empty space
of oxygen and carbon and hydrogen.
I have forgotten the Spanish word
for tin and I search my memory
for the periodic table’s letters
and say Sn. Essay n-ay.
Like a snail’s shell or Nautilus,
first there was zero, then one,
then one, then two, then three.
As I think in a borrowed language,
I find another way of being.
How the vowels of dime shift
to become dime. How I am obsessed
with the roots of words like varicose veins
in my memory. How some words
are masculine and feminine. If I think
in French my fork is female
and in Spanish male, but I wrap
my tongue around both and taste
the tines in English. I see a fork. Metal.
The only German I know was passed down
like subatomic particles. I say Gesundheit
and my children repeat the elementary
parts of words without the components
or substructures of their father’s Portuguese.
Every night before bed, I say
“I don’t want to die,
I don’t want to have to die.”
If there is a God,
why doesn’t it look like me?
If there is only one true God,
does that mean others exist?
What does death feel like,
is it like when the lights go out
in a thunder storm, is it a moment
of darkness and not knowing
if there will be light again?
I cut a green apple in half, then in half again,
each division one step closer to atomos.
Dipping each section into sodium
and chloride and water, I sob and say
Why do I have to die?
Why do my parents have to die?
Why do I know I’m going to die?
Bones break like hearts.
Then there were five,
then eight, then thirteen.
I feel the ground,
but I am not touching it.
In a cloud of leaves; all that was Daphne bowed
In the stirring of the wind, the glittering green
Leaf twined within her hair and she was laurel.
“Apollo and Daphne” from Ovid’s Metamorphosis
Apollo stalked her. He followed her every which way – he swept through the tree line while she took her dog for a walk. The dog turned toward the brush, growled. (The dog didn’t make it to the myth because what kind of a hero threatens to kill a woman’s dog to get what he wants?) She gripped her keys tighter, wound the leash around her wrist as Apollo emerged. There wasn’t any river by where he kicked her dog away. There was a yelp. Did she drop the leash? It doesn’t matter, didn’t matter, what she did – if she dated him for two years, if she had one cup of coffee with him after work, or if the Apollo who smashed into her like a wave was a complete stranger, she would still hear If she hadn’t wanted this to happen, she shouldn’t have been alone. Hasn’t she heard of the buddy system? If she was so afraid, why didn’t she call the police right away? Did she even yell for help? I didn’t see any bruises. I bet she’s doing this, I bet she’s saying this, for the attention. Sometimes people scream and sometimes they don’t – some freeze like mice or rabbits or feel their breasts become bark, their ears drowning with tears. Maybe there was a whisper or plea of no or stop or please – she’ll think of which word she said over and over, she will wish to forget the sensation of the deluge of thrusts she remembers when her own hair brushes against her lips like leaves. Her body was his victory crown. She became rooted, stiff, unmoving – a story used to tell women to plead to be turned into laurels, to shred the intestines of those who swallowed them whole.
Rachel Anna Neff has written poetry since elementary school and has notebooks full of half-written novels. She earned her doctorate in Spanish literature and is currently working on her MFA thesis. Her work has been published in Dirty Chai magazine and is forthcoming in anthologies from Dos Gatos Press and Hyacinth Girl Press.