By Susan Dickman


There are, naturally, feelings that one cannot render.

And their hearts, through not clinging, were liberated from taints.
Typical ending for the early Buddha stories

Begun as mountains of ice and tundra gathering force
at the top of the range, Sierras move north
and south over eons, pulling glaciers, tarring
everything in their path.

The precious-jeweled twigs of trees
in the rain, forgotten lipstick tube
on the glittering tar and granite curb, moss-covered bark
of tree trunks leading to pools of water
collected at their bases
in the bare-trimmed winter grass, early spring.

The child looks up and says the sky eats clouds for breakfast.

She said for their tenth anniversary
they’d almost gone Splitsville. The kids
were okay, of course, and she had
stopped seeing him but he was only
blocks away from her and she just
wanted not to feel dead inside.

He said gravy boat and she said
I don’t care. He said television, antique armoire,
c.d. collection and she said just don’t ask me to
pay the bill, I never used
the telephone, there was no one to talk to.

She wrote him in a quiet moment
saying perhaps she was in the Buddhist state
of bardo she had once read about, the time
of no time, the waiting period before being born
again into this world. And she knew that harder
than the birthing was the being reborn.

The baby sleeps
in the tangled sweep
of bedclothes: a poem,
dusk of apricot, twig in the rain.

The pale blue light
of early morning, the silent street that lies
beyond the window, the stillness of trees, of air: a hush.
Then the riot of spring,
pink and magenta apple blossoms,
deep purple, pale blue, white and rose
and double-petaled lilacs, tulips, bluebells,
daffodils, everything blooming
all at once. Then rain and the humid
lake air filling the streets.

The woman who used to live
on their old block, she had discovered,
had left her husband. Had often seemed
remote, lost in thought, her Maine accent
soft and broad. They used to sit on lawn chairs
in good weather, each reading a different
section of the newspaper. She saw her again,
this time walking the sons back
to the father’s house, and noticed she had colored
her hair. A bright shade of red:
the color of life, happiness.

She said she had heard rumors
of prisoners of war held in mobile units
deep underground, that perhaps her husband,
a doctor who’d remained
beyond the war, could be found somewhere
inside those shreds of talk. She said
that when she tried to speak about it
no one wanted to hear it. There existed
only a wall of silence.

Questions for the masses:

does he dream of his dead mother
does he imagine her in sleep
if he had the language, would he speak to her
can love last
would she know his touch from a stranger’s
does he dream of her
can he see the moon from his bedroom window
what was his first memory
would he know her touch from a stranger’s
can love last

He said, you never let me in and she said
the door was always ajar. He said
this life is so hard, and she said
we’re all of us tired and tired
of trying. He said at least you
have had friends to talk to
and she said, that’s not my fault too, is it?

Green leaves fresh from their slow
unfurling, buds that appeared months before
and survived a brief February thaw.
Then ice storm, late spring and the ravages
of crows who build their nests high in trees
and whose nestlings echo the noise of newborn babies.
The first cardinal to break the morning silence
and pierce the air when the world
is still dark, then retreat as if aware
of a faux pas. And then the day she went flying
and the sky opened up between the buildings,
the clouds, swift and changing, swept
the world past her, pigeons keeping watch
from rooftops and footholds in the fallen red brick.

She wanted to tell him the birds
filled the air with sound that winter, that their songs,
so dense and green-leafed, left little room
for breathing. The one bird she could not imitate,
another like a cell-phone ringing. He said he knew one
that mimicked a donkey, another
his typewriter, and his stories were just another way
for her to give herself over
to imagining him in the bright stillness
of his desert, which he dreamed of often.

Once in the desert on reserve duty
alone for hours at a stretch
he said he would pass the time
pissing into empty ammunition cartridges
to see how long it took
to fill one up. That, and feeding animals
that wandered through, and watching the paths
of birds in the empty sky.

She tells him her stories and he tells her his
and in this way over time they become
immersed in each other’s history. She will never
know his childhood, only the vague mention
of a cruel father. But she will learn
his dreams, become well-versed in his desires
and the landscape of his memories: salt
and heat, the sun burning him
into submission. So that the memory
of his desert, its sands and washes
its birds and strange shy creatures becomes
her memory too, stolen. She decides, she
knows from where she resides in the flat
and cold place in which she has always
considered herself an adopted
daughter, she will be his desert.

The child says, I don’t love anybody in this world anymore.

In the pocket of his bathrobe, the one
he knew she liked to wear because
it smelled of him she found a small strip
of paper, the fortune from a Chinese buffet
left for her to read and on which was typed,
it’s not too late to turn back
from the path you are on.

A man in the back seat of a car making eyes
at her in the bank teller line,

a couple on a park bench keeping watch on their child
with binoculars that they pass back and forth between them.

The rain makes a shelter of its steady sound
late into the night, the light from downtown streets
reflected in the clouds, fading as the hours grow.
The rain’s shelter is its own color. Train horn,
cat complaining into the silent grey air.
Drops hitting awnings and neglected air-
conditioners, an airplane plowing through
the swollen skies: what the air makes
of the fragile space
of breathing, deep in the hours
when the children lay dreaming.

She hears the cashier ask the girl before her
if she’s still with her boyfriend
and she replies in an angry
low tone, no. Why not? Abusive, she spits out,
then adds, verbally. He says, I called you. How come
you don’t call me back? Because he wouldn’t
let me, she answers. His soft eyes, his island
lilt. I’ll call you, okay? Take care, baby.

The fact was that she missed him whether or not
she wanted to, knew that some evenings she could
free her thoughts, unchain the proscribed way
she’d come to think of him, the distance between
stretching cartoon-like, oceans and continents
the hours lag that told her he was
sleeping while the snow in her world
fell to cover evergreens and carpet the pale
thin sidewalks: beach glass, stones, rotting pumpkins
left from other seasons. The winter air filled with scent,
an iron scent, the absence of scent, the air and snow, the hush
of snow falling beneath streetlamps, silence to measure
the burning stars. Some nights she wanted to stand
on the steps of her house and shout
his name into the cold wind that arrived at nightfall,
rain turning to snow, let its syllables fall,
get swallowed up in the absence of the world
they had briefly thought but not built or inhabited
and which had remained regardless
a silence in the star-filled
snow of here and now.

Traveling south on Clark Street
in East Rogers, the sign
for elotes in script on a hand-
driven cart near the panaderia.
Young men standing in doorways,
on corners, the summer night and car
exhaust. She is on her way
to therapy; the taxi driver gestures wildly.

The child says, everyday we’re always in the world.

Winter sun on her face through the bedroom
window, fingers on her face
in the dark, reading it as if blind.

He said, we bought the house so we could 
make love before the fire, remember?
and she said, but you stopped 
touching me years ago. He said you don’t know
what it’s like not knowing
who you are and she said, if you’d not
buried your head in the sand. He said, but 
how could you? I just needed a bit more time
and she said, none of us have that.

She remembered a picture she had once taken
during the long years that she needed a camera
at her eye to view the world. They were in Amsterdam
on a cold New Years deciding between
a hot meal or the art museum. She wanted
to choose art, but turning a corner she came upon
a wall on which was scrawled the dripping words, i don’t 
love you enemore. She pulled him to her,
lowered her camera and they began
walking to the pancake house near the canal.

Stones beneath the blanket on the grass,
an airplane coursing through the tunnel of sky that shields us
from the deep mysterious scrawl
of space. And the birds in their summer nesting,
squirrels running to catch the breeze, cicada nymphs emerging
from holes in the dirt after years underground
to climb the rough bark of trees whose limbs
stretch out to touch the others on the far
side of the street.

She had overheard three women speaking Russian above the swell
of music, a man and a woman speaking below the music.
He said that even when he and his brother were in London
his brother did not call him. Why? She asks. I don’t
know, a grudge perhaps. Quiet people, rather 
all people but especially quiet ones probably
hold grudges. They stop and sip.

Because they were both hungry
and wanted to feed each other.

Orange and white clouds striped against
a moving sky and the twittering of birds
high in the trees, the far-off roar
of a train. The world unmasks itself
drains the color from its face, begins anew
each morning. What tales await, what
bravery, the mere fact of opening
one’s eyes? The stilted song
of birds, the poverty of sparrows?

It was a regular weekend with the vegetables chopped
and garlic sliced into a pan and children to punctuate thoughts
with cries of where’s this? who said that? their brief forays
into the world of adults a kind of wish fulfillment
they would never ask for if they knew. And in between
the huge soft flakes of snow leaking from a winter
sky first darkened and then bright blue,
she conjured him, hours ahead where the air
turned chilled but rarely froze. In his own mundane
slice of living, hands immersed
beneath water in the kitchen sink, voice raised
in response to the one who cannot hear him.

The split-second glances of people in other cars,
the spring air touching her skin at night.

The window left open, late spring, the air
damp and hot, a thousand tiny seeds blown in
and strewn across the bed.

He had never been good with words,
he said, didn’t possess the proper language and when asked
could not respond or deliver, the responsibility
was too much. She understood that feeling, that to give
what was desired or requested might mean
there would be more to ask for and then she would
have to admit that there was still
something between them.

The drone of cicadas high in the trees,
boys with skateboards, prepubescent girls
wrestling in the grass, caught in a moment. A walk
around the neighborhood to smoke
two cigarettes, one from another, crows cawing, dogs
meeting on the street and barking,
the neighbor’s rabbit sitting dully in its pen.

For a time there was only
him and the spare filmy
sheath of the world, and sometimes
on dark days when the sun moved impassively
behind the face of the clouds
there was only him. Him and her weak
heart squeezed into the imagined
illusive wealth of adventure that reached
Tyrolean peaks of near madness. And to turn off
the dark reel of dream, the memory of fingertips
on skin, words floating beneath the many unheard voices.

The defiant child says of the new-found
airplane friend minutes before landing, I’m not ever 
going to see him again, am I?

She was sitting and listening to the sermon
about love, about Eliezer, Isaac’s servant, finding
Rebecca for him at the well, about how staring
into the face of the beloved was a little like staring
into the face of God. And the endless
boundless feeling of love and God’s
love in the empty universe. Her friend leaned over
to her and said, what’s with all this
existentialism? Did you hear him before, quoting Sartre, 
Kafka? And she answered, maybe
like everyone else in the world he is lonely.

When she thought about it later she realized
it was as if she’d unearthed in him a rare
and beautiful place that he had not discovered
or had awareness of. And because it was
a stranger to him he wavered and could not
accept it. It was far too great
a gift; it would mean he would have to know
something more of who he was.

She was walking alone in the rain and the rain
colored her and the world that autumn and even
the crushed wrappers and beer bottles
at her feet were transformed, shining
and lovely. It all reminded her at once, with every
drop of rain falling and the wet cars slick and
moving past her, their horns like the cries
of birds, that she truly had arrived
from somewhere, that even without
her knowing it she had always been herself,
whoever she was in that momentary
silver glimpse of light falling, a treasure
dampening her skin, her eyes.


SUSAN DICKMAN is a poet and writer living in the Chicago area. She is, as far as she knows, not related to Matthew or Michael Dickman, but if sharing the same uncomfortable last name will get people to notice and read her work, then so be it. She graduated from the University of California-Irvine's MFA program in Poetry and has published work in Lilith, Best American Poetry 2003, Intellectual Refuge, Religion & Poetry, Zocalo Public Square, Rhino, as well as in other publications. She also has a poem forthcoming in Best of Best American Poetry 2013. Additionally, she is the recipient of Illinois Arts Council awards and fellowships as well as a Pushcart nomination for her poem, "Skin." She is currently working on a poetry manuscript, a short-story collection and a young adult novel. In her other life, she is a mother, teacher and beekeeper.

One response to “Stream”

  1. Monty Johnston says:


    It makes me want to send you my book, “The House of Trees,” which maybe I’ll do.

    Take care.

    Monty Johnston

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