The challenges of translating from one language to another are well discussed and lamented. These challenges increase when poetry is involved: not only must the meaning emerge, but the product must SOUND like something that could count as a poem.

Marcia Haag, "On Translating Choctaw Poems" from issue 14

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Sarah Lindsay

Sarah Lindsay is a recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship and author of Primate Behavior (1997), Mount Clutter (2002), and Twigs and Knucklebones (2008). She works as a copy editor in Greensboro, North Carolina.


Aunt Lydia Tries to Explain the "Many Worlds" Theory

At every decisive moment—and every one is decisive—
the universe frays.
Though naturally it seems wide enough
to us to be exclusive,
it’s merely the latest bit of the thread
we’re following through a maze,
and whereas its time seems linear to us,
every point explodes,
blossoming like fireworks, or fuzz.
It’s only a theory, “many worlds,” but if it’s true,
in some worlds you’re driving a red convertible,
in some you play French horn—
brilliantly, in one.
In quite a lot you don’t even have
the bother of existence.
Elsewhere you’re the only son,
elsewhere identical twins.
Perhaps in twenty-two of the many,
you and Paul Newman are best friends,
and talk about life and love and fast cars.
In three hundred fifty-four you have his autograph.
In nine he has yours.
Multiple yous might be right now in your favorite spot,
rubbing your favorite beast behind the ears,
thinking “This is perfect contentment,” although of course
inevitably in some other wheres
your selves feel quite the reverse.
True, the you here can’t visit that world
where humans live without back pain,
or the two or three without mosquitoes, or mold,
but then, you don’t have to sample the versions
lacking in mangos, or memory, or rain.
In any case, so to speak, this world alone
is stocked with enough to keep most of us entertained—
supernovas, living fossils, nephews and nieces,
fillips like two species of worm
that feed upon whales’ bones—
but what a 21st-century sort of comfort to believe
in infinite secret alternatives.
Add the many worlds together
and you have the time you need.
The lost are found, the lost are alive
and the living whole, diseases are cured,
missteps corrected, untried paths tried,
you take in strays, make bread.
No limit to the things that are.
Here you still walk the wire,
but put your hand just a second or two ahead
and you’d feel it split so many times
it’s soft, like fuzz, like fur.


Carnivorous Sponges of the Antarctic Ocean

We are adequately nourished or dead.
We are near the optimum temperature or dead.
Currents feed us. Shadows pass between us
and the light when there is light.
We are clustered in a suitable place or dead.


Faceless, gourd-shaped animals clamped
to the floor of a frigid sea,
they wait for the sway of water to introduce
a sea louse, a worm, an ostracod,
then snag it with spiny teeth, or toothlike spines.
Sponge-flesh grows slowly
around the prey impaled.


Our family is repeated self.
Our house is columns of water.
Our spectrum of color is dark and less dark,
our music, water against itself,
continuous fizz and percussion. We are
enveloped in movement or dead.
Firm in our grip or dead.


The populations of the abyss
have no business with the charismatic
megafauna fathoms higher—orca, penguin, albatross—
nor even with ice. Occasionally
a castle berg gores a ship
whose wallowing body, releasing plumes of oil,
settles where it will.


We are washed in brine but not preserved.
We do not shiver or complain, admire
or even see ourselves, cry out
or grimace with our many shallow mouths,
pockets in which we keep nothing.
We hold to life as though it is dear to us.


Radium

His gifts to her were theory, patience,
equilibrium, and a pile of dirt—
industrial waste. He loved to watch his wife
aglow with determination, pursuing
discovery of a hidden element, past uranium,
by the light of her hunger. “I should
like it to have a beautiful color,” he said.
He would buy her boots to wipe at the Sorbonne.


Heated, she leaned over a boiling vat,
stirring her dirt reduction, hour on hour.
She looked like any skinny hausfrau
bent to her bubbling sauerkraut.
She looked like the first woman who would be
awarded a Nobel Prize, as well as
the first to fall on her knees before
a hill of brown dust shot through with pine needles
and press her filled hands to her face.


She boiled her tons of pitchblende down
to a scraping of radium nearly the size
of their baby’s smallest fingernail—just the white.
Proof of its existence, and hers.
It permeated their clothes, their papers,
peeled their fingers,
entered their marrow and slowly burned.
He mildly alluded to rheumatism.
He stroked her radioactive hair
with a radioactive hand.


Colorless, shining radium darkened
in contact with air. Chemically
much like calcium, it could stream
like calcium through her brain cells
in her later years alone
and make memories glow in the dark:
Illegal schooling, unheated rooms,
subsistence on tea and chocolate. Lying
with her husband for a few hours’ sleep,
cracked hands and weakened legs entwined,
united gaze resting on the vial
of radium salts they kept beside them every night
for the lovely light it shed.