Issue > Poetry
Heather Altfeld

Heather Altfeld

Heather Altfeld is a poet and essayist. Her first book of poetry, The Disappearing Theatre, won the Poets at Work Prize, selected by Stephen Dunn. She is the recipient of the 2017 Robert H. Winner Award with the Poetry Society of America and the 2015 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry. Her poems and essays appear in Narrative Magazine, Pleiades, The Los Angeles Review and other literary journals.  She currently teaches in the Humanities Department and the Honors Program at California State University, Chico.   

Late Atonement, Lower Sierra

By the nineteenth hour
your discussion with god grows hazy,

like a midnight argument
with someone you love but plan to leave

when you work up the nerve,
so it's all barbs and accusations,

a strange frost that grows
between your bodies on the bed.

Now it is just you, the angel,
and the sandwich.

A feast without crumbs,
water without a glass.

Like your neck, your belly
can be snapped back anytime.

A saltine, a grape, the chocolate buttons
in your pack, all ornamental,

decorative, until the mountain swallows
the last bit of sun. Near dusk,

the light begins to look strange,
the creek darkens, winding through the gorge,

a diorama of Hades, the scattered seeds,
the mistake. Look at Persephone,

one bite and the crops freeze forever,
the cold birds drop from their nests.

Try to imagine the emptiness is suffering.
Try to imagine the suffering is holy.

The breath escaping you now
is a trial attempt at ascension.

Practice the long climb up
with wool in your ears,

Nothing god asks could keep you
from that fruit. No one knows

where he hides the Book of Life—
perhaps behind the photo albums;

one snapshot of each of us, a mug
of the terrible animals he has reared.

Dark arrives and a bit of death
escapes you. In the last minutes

before breaking you see the hand
and the pen, the gold ink

and the page, something being written
next to your name. It might be Life,

Admit One or Drowning, late next August,
beneath the Pleiades, on a hot summer night

but you cannot see
the scattering of letters

or read the language
in which they are written.

You drink a sip of wine, nibble
an apple, dip a slice of bread

in honey. Don't turn around.
Try to imagine your name

being whispered in your ear,
over and over, by an angel

standing behind you, kissing your neck,
entering your feast.


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