Dangerous invitations, packed flat:
six sky lanterns, for my birthday,
rice paper sack glued at the seams,
a thin bamboo ring at bottom for a mouth,
a wire armature holding a deck-of-cards stack
of paper soaked in wax. "Frail, illegal,"
we know, but this birthday ends in zero,
a turn I'm not so inclined to celebrate,
and who could resist a lantern lifted
by its own flame, sailing out
over an August night's black bay?
At land's end, no other car or citizen in sight,
only the deep unfractioned evening,
a sheen of overcast bent immensely down
toward a horizon it erased,
and here in our flash-lit circle
a blonde-grass shoulder-edge of dune,
a bit of pavement and --- just in case –
a fire extinguisher. We huddle
around the first -- one for each decade
passed, one for the one to come –
unfold the paper shell, steady the base,
hold the opening level, touch a lighter to the wick
and feel in our four hands
the thing swell, tugging upward, a bucking
saffron lung we couldn't hold back a moment longer.
Who knew, till that first one rose,
how gorgeous that token could be,
lit from within?
If you turned, on a train racing its way
into the longest tunnel, and looked back at the shrinking point
daylight was, while it was…
And there were still five more
to come, restless in our hands: my life wanted
to be born another time between us,
to tear upward and become animal,
winking fire, and ghost its arcs, and make in air
the shape it would make: this,
and no other.
Write the night enormous.
Is that what souls are for?
Drunk on my birthday wine,
and maybe having smoked a little too,
and hadn't brought one more
for the years ahead. Thank you,
love, for that. You'd meant to,
but some guiding -- instinct, wisdom? –
stayed your hand, and left the last lantern
folded and waiting on a shelf,
the better part of your gift.
Mark Doty is the author of several collections of poetry, most recently Deep Lane (W. W. Norton, 2015); A Swarm, A Flock, A Host: A Compendium of Creatures (Prestel, 2013); Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems(HarperCollins, 2008), which received the National Book Award;School of the Arts (HarperCollins, 2005); Source (HarperCollins, 2002); and Sweet Machine (HarperCollins, 1998).
Other collections include Atlantis (HarperCollins, 1995), which received the Ambassador Book Award, the Bingham Poetry Prize, and a Lambda Literary Award; My Alexandria (University of Illinois Press, 1993), chosen by Philip Levine for the National Poetry Series, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and Britain’s T. S. Eliot Prize, and was also a National Book Award finalist; Bethlehem in Broad Daylight (D.R. Godine, 1991); andTurtle, Swan (D.R. Godine, 1987).