• Ian McCluskey

20 YEARS LATER


You promise yourself you’ll never settle.

And then you do.

And you promise yourself, not again.

And you do, again.

And again,

as if the bottom is not there, and the top

no longer in sight.

Is it like being deep in deep water?

Is this what drowning is like?


I cannot ask my friend Ben, who drown,

age 20, home from college, drinking

around a beach bonfire, and then

setting off by canoe into dark water

made silver in moonlight.


When he heard laughter trailing from the far shore

what regret came back?


He talked of a boyhood dog, grown weak in the hips,

so when it pissed, it fell over, and pissed on itself,

and the spots of blood he found, in the snow

that New Hampshire winter.


I talked of a grandfather with tubes in his nose

and liver spots across skin, and thick hands

that once swung a hammer, aimed a rifle,

touched a newborn.


And we watched the Blackfoot river slide past, tugging

ice clunks off the shore.


And we rattled another can of cheap beer from cardboard

case not because we were thirsty, but that each sip

was our breathing, and somehow it felt brave

to break deadfall and stoke our campfire, and let the stars spin,

and witness the grey of pre-dawn fade up, and the first birds

resume their stories.


“It is better to be bravely foolish,” said Ben,

“than foolishly brave.”


We wanted to feel the dawn frost etching each orange leaf,

and the dew bend down the sedge grass,

and make our noses drip but eyes clear.


We wanted to walk into in the Milltown café

where the first shift would fire up the grill

and sling scrambled eggs and hashbrowns,

and serve up bottomless mugs of watery coffee.

We wanted the waitress to call us “hon,” and notice

that we were up as early as she, and that

those who know sunrise share a secret.


But the waitress saw only two college boys, perhaps,

with twisted hair, and paperback books in mackinaw pockets,

and shook her head to herself, and knew that these two boys

knew nothing of settling, nothing of regret.

At least, not yet.


What is this feeling of falling,

with no bottom to catch, and

above a retreating flicker?


What would Ben have told me, had he made it

back to shore?


I would ask if drowning, as I have been told,

feels like euphoria the moment you let go.


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