The tracks got ripped up like a busted zipper,
thrown down, piles of tar and broken ties,
into the dead grass on the bayouside.

You have to understand: only time tears things
down here. Long after you quit a house, pack
up and leave, that house stands

Catalogued, under sheets of rust, paneless,
porchless, for years. Cast-iron kettles
won't move, won't be moved,

The air above their bellies, still and sharp.
No one remembers the cane they boiled
or how they came to kill grass

Where they do. Half an old bridge
makes a sweet fishing spot—but taking
the rails away, it was an insult, really,

A theft. I saw how one loss collapses
into another, the rings between them,
almost indistinguishable.

But then, to the right of the road,
the shoulder leapt with sunflowers,
the blue sky dangled like a scarf,

And the part of me that was buried
came back like the dead after hard rain,
just pushed up the glass lid

And stepped onto solid ground. Backwater rises
to its own schedule, covers the highways,
you can't tell the bayou's banks

From the road's edge, and then there's no question
of staving off conversion.
Even the dead won't be held down.

Hell, Late Twentieth Century
            after Canto XI, Dante's Inferno

In the second ring, called despondence,
we sit cross-legged and turn our gloomy
hearts on a spit. The change is luminous:

We find figures of joy in blue flames,
hold the forearms we'd scarred to our chests,
and count embers like falling grains.

When ice flows to reverse
our pain, we breathe in cool fog
until our flesh grays. It could be worse.

Memories of the lost world surface,
as palm-shaped bruises on cheekbones:
beaches we walked, steely and gazeless,

bright fruit we ignored or ate with no taste,
sharp winter days we groped past, or slept
through, and that retriever who chased

us from bed to bath, carrying
ball then bone in adoration—we reach
into yellow vapor, touch nothing,
and scratch the air of her head and ears.

As If There Were Only One

In the morning God pulled me onto the porch,
a rain-washed gray and brilliant shore.

I sat in my orange pajamas and waited.
God said, "Look at the tree." And I did.

Its leaves were newly yellow and green,
slick and bright, and so alive it hurt

to take the colors in. My pupils grew
hungry and wide against my will.

God said, "Listen to the tree."
And I did. It said, "Live!"

And it opened itself wider, not with desire,
but the way I imagine a surgeon spreads

the ribs of a patient in distress and rubs
her paralyzed heart, only this tree parted

its own limbs toward the sky—I was the light in that sky.
I reached in to the thick, sweet core

and I lifted it to my mouth and held it there
for a long time until I tasted the word

tree (because I had forgotten its name).
Then I said my own name twice softly.

Augustine said, God loves each of us as if
there were only one of us
, but I hadn't believed him.

And God put me down on the steps with my coffee
and my cigarettes. And, although I still

could not eat nor sleep, that evening
and that morning were my first day back.

I'll Try to Tell You What I Know

Sometimes it's so hot the thistle bends
to the morning dew and the limbs of trees
seem so weighted they won't hold up moss
anymore. The women sit and swell
with the backwash of old family pain
and won't leave the house to walk across
the neighbor's yard. One man takes up a shotgun
over the shit hosed from a pen of dogs.
One boy takes a fist of rings and slams the face
of a kid throwing shells at his car.
That shiny car is all the love his father
has to give. And his mother cooks
the best shrimp étouffée and every day
smokes three packs down to their mustard-colored ends.

One night the finest woman I ever
knew pulled a cocktail waitress by the hair
out of the backseat of her husband's new
Eldorado Cadillac and knocked her
down between the cars at the Queen Bee Lounge.
She drove the man slumped and snoring with his hand
in his pants home and not a word was said.
I'll try to tell you what I know
about people who love each other
and the fear of losing that cuts a path
as wide as a tropical storm through the marsh
and gets closer each year
to falling at the foot of your door.

Martha Serpas's most recent poetry collection is Double Effect. She is a hospital chaplain and teaches at the University of Houston.