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I Want to Believe We All are Full

of Sluices

for Hayley Brown



So maybe no one will ever ask

what I was doing when Notre Dame burned.

No one’s asked yet. It happened yesterday.

I was reading. I was reading a bad article.

Or a decent one that was making me feel bad.

One or the other. I could lie:

I don’t want to talk about it.

I could lie: I don’t remember.

Pretending not to know, the easiest

kind of lying. Strange we all knew

what to say—the people on the news,

the people on my Facebook feed. Oh, I was there,

once. Remember when. Recall the scene in movies

by him and him. Remember that summer you tried

to read Victor Hugo and gave up? We’ve all given up.

Or think we have. But then, all of a sudden, we know

what to say: It’s like we have these gated channels

we didn’t know about. Or maybe we’d forgotten,

on purpose. Partially filled. Or full enough. Our fingers wrapped

around the lever, the one that controls the gate,

even though we thought our fingers were up to something

else, like playing the piano or doing that intricate thing

of getting a half-inch piece of invisible tape

from the dispenser and onto the paper

hiding the gift. Brian Williams was persuasive:

Not just a France thing. Not just a Catholic thing.

A World Thing. A Culture Thing.

I drank up the casual elegance of an art historian,

a former Paris news bureau chief, a firefighter.

Three times a year I burn brush

on my basketball court. Holy moleskins! that sentence

put me at an angle

to myself. Why do I have a basketball court

in my backyard? How do I explain what I own?

Or claim to own? Or claim?

The article was “Four Signs You’re in a Healthy Relationship.”

I found something missing in every sign.

There’s a moment when I’m burning the brush pile,

which right now is everything I’ve collected

over the winter—the Christmas tree,

the branches that have fallen from the old trees,

from those trees I’ve neglected to trim

because it’s expensive (and I do know

it’s better to pay a man a thousand dollars today

than to watch a branch impale my two-year-old

tomorrow). There’s a moment when I’m burning

the brush pile when I know the fire

is in control. I’ve urged it along. I’ve created it,

I guess you could say. Then it takes over.

I’m holding the garden hose, thumb as gate,

spraying into the smoke, cooling the flyaways,

the floating embers. I’m trying

to be a good neighbor. I do not want

to set any house afire

or watch as the wind does.

Apparently my house once housed a youth group.

Or they met there. A former owner a pastor, maybe.

Young people. Christians. Basketball.

I don’t know. It’s just a story I heard.

But when the fire becomes itself, it’s like,

well, it’s like skiing,

or maybe drinking beer from a funnel,

or maybe getting the spine chills

when a certain person looks at you.

Oh my. Oh my new capaciousness.

Possibilities bloom—and then ask for more.

And in asking they’re telling me, too: Be afraid.

It’s all right to fear this. The light gets multiplied,

even as it’s refracted, another name for diminished.

Maybe it’s like a vegetarian going to the shooting range

with the husband of the woman

he’s only recently convinced himself

he’s not in love with. It’s like shooting his service revolver,

a Glock 9mm, at a target, and afterwards having a necessary drink.

It’s all the chemical pathways, all saying they’re ready.

It’s this police officer, wearing sweatpants, weeks later

dropping off his wife at the vegetarian’s apartment,

the gun in his waistband—but smiling,

it’s a joke, it’s a joke, it’s a joke, it’s a joke,

because the vegetarian’s driving her to Chicago for the weekend,

and nobody’s in love and there’s no threat, not even

the possibility of anything resembling anything anyone

might call a threat.

Or it’s all the openings

of all the pathways at once.                  Realizing: oh, a sluice.

                        It’s realizing your body

                        is full

                        of sluices.

            And they’re filling

            with everything

            you asked to forget

            you knew.



The other day Hayley was telling me about her brother. She’d written about him. Then I asked. She said her brother lived as if he didn’t have a future. A balloon expanded somewhere—I heard before I felt—and then I want to say, for the first time in a while, I could trust my understanding: I knew exactly what she meant and how she meant it. Or I believed that’s what the balloon meant. What it was asking to mean.


I don’t know a response that would have kept the spire from toppling, the one that, as it fell and fell apart, a commentator was pointing out wasn’t universally adored, wasn’t even 800 years old. There may not always be a sluice—for every future, for every past. I don’t know much about fire. I can’t even give a two-year-old a good definition. I don’t know much about rebuilding. I don’t even know if I can trust what I’ve said before, what I’m saying right now: The limits are usually built into the plans.


The four signs I tried to forget as I remembered. The skier through the sluice, the funnel dry. An empty chamber. Every silent minute on the long drive through Illinois. Which is to say now I can’t say what’s missing. What’s been missing for a while.

—Richard Sonnenmoser
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