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By Heather Altfeld

This place can break your heart?says Phil Levine,
describing the soft light of eucalypti, the barking quail,

the overbearing odor of orange blossoms 
at his home in California.?When one has had many homes,

has had to have many homes,
the heart’s shards gather in the dark

to remember the dearest mornings,
evenings fine as sable, a favorite rain.?

A man on the corner of Sunset and National 
made an exact replica of an Athenian garden in miniature;

a lemon tree ringed by a stone wall, a thick purple rope
of bougainvillea, one small false bird he sang to in Greek

each morning as he poured water in its bath,
sponging a little on the blue feathers

the way that I was taught to bathe the dead.
It wasn’t what he remembered,

but the reinvention of what he wanted to remember,
that feeling of waking up next to singing

with his heart half breaking at the song.
At Lexington and 3rd, an office building 

wakes up one morning remembering
it was once a rock in Connecticut

that watched the arrival of wood ducks
and the departure of crickets

before it was chopped into pieces
and ground into particles

and quarried and carried away.
The beams of its ceiling

remember their lives as trees,
they remember wind as a kiss,

they remember strands of their language
although it grows more foreign each year,

a dialect hardened by the long nights spent
supporting walls and hearing the mutters

and spatters of human grief.
The earth beneath the foundation

remembers the view it once had of the sky,
the memory of sunrise stored beneath the city’s bones.

The warbler’s son looks for the precise branch ?
its birth nest roosted in, all he finds is a strand of yarn

blown to the ground.  He weaves his new home
of one part stolen mitten and one part confusion.?

The boy photographed in Salgado's Sahel
stands facing a distant village with his bony dog.

He wears the shreds of an old shirt
and a layer of fine dust.? He carries an empty cooking pot.

Unlike us, he has not confused farewell
with change.? He knows the mirage

of a mother or a safe place to sleep.?
One of your own children disappears

from your life for months.  She enters your home
like a ghost when you are gone, drinking cold tea

in the spot where she once slept,
listening for the sounds of childhood,

onions in a skillet on the stove
and a lullaby you sang to her but can no longer recall.

Is there one word anywhere that translates to
I am stranded, and lonely,

I miss the planet to which I belong,
this sunset does not look right,
this breeze does not graze my skin just so,
this night is wearing the wrong sized dress
and the stars hang poorly from its sleeves?

The history of fog and sidewalks
and hydraulic dams and broken hearts

is the history of eviction and departure.
Even the sea has long forgotten where its been

and what it knows, what it remembers
from its birth of rain and powdered light.

This evening the sunset was so gorgeous
that even the aliens were homesick for earth.

Tonight they’ll dream laundry hanging from rooftops
and socks that dangle in the golden sky.

They will imagine the smell of something delicious
and familiar that even you have forgotten how to remember,

a sponge cake, or the little meatballs they make 
in the land where your cells were born long ago,

before they were repackaged and manufactured
into the matter that is you, the residence you now inhabit

that, like a hermit crab or a snail or a red-eared slider, 
is the only one you can really count on,

the only one you can ever really call home.

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About Heather Altfeld

Heather Altfeld’s first book, The Disappearing Theatre, won the Poets at Work Book Prize, selected by poet Stephen Dunn. Her poems appear in Narrative Magazine, Pleiades, ZYZZYVA, and many other literary journals. 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. She teaches in the Honors Program as well as for the English and Humanities Departments at CSU Chico, and she is at work on two more collections of poetry as well as two books for children.

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