12:23 A.M.: I tried to swallow a handful of tacks.
1:54 A.M.: I’ve poured kerosene over myself.
Tell me why I shouldn’t light the match.
2:08 A.M.: I’ve got a banana stuck up my rectum.
It’s not a joke. Trust me.
4:32 A.M.: I’ve just found my father. He’s hanging
from a rafter in the garage, cold
to the touch. My mom’s been gone for days.
My brother’s still sleeping.
I just want to go out the door and keep running.

You’re trained to speak slowly, as if all of it were perfectly natural;
to treat scrubbing kerosene from your body
or pulling a piece of fruit out of your asshole
as no different from any of the other nearly impossible tasks
life asks of us. So you wait
till the young woman’s washed the kerosene from her hair
and has come back on the line.
You persuade the young man that there are worse fates
than getting fruit stuck in your rectum
and get him laughing till he’s relaxed
enough to let his body solve the problem on its own.
For the boy whose father’s hung himself,
you make your voice stern,
you take his address, you keep him talking
till there’s someone at the door.
You tell the girl with the tack caught at the back of her throat
that she is not to move any more than is necessary.
You make your voice
as steady
as a flashlight shone into a dark place.

A boy dresses in his mother’s lingerie,
or a girl can’t keep down any of the meals
her mother spends so much time cooking.
Maybe to eat them
would be to subscribe to your mother’s version
of what a woman should be?
You make everything you say sound like a guess.
Maybe you’re not crazy. Maybe we are, the men
who are so afraid of trying on something sheer,
something so silky
the belly and buttocks fall in love with it.
Yeah, he laughs. Yes, she says with a sigh
that means she didn’t believe there was anyone
who had a clue how she felt.
How many of us spend our lives
traveling back and forth between the harm
we inflict and the good we want to do? Between the words we hope
will heal and the hurtful words
that felt so right we had no intention
of taking them back?

As soon as I say what I want to do,
you’re going to think me a monster,
even if it’s your job not to. It’s the very thing I can’t bear
to imagine, so it’s all I can imagine. I think of it so often
I’m afraid I’ve actually done it.

There was no mistaking the voice. It woke up the city
every morning with banter, trivia, quizzes
that everybody won, weather reports told with a sweet irony,
ball scores turned into verse,
songs so intelligent in their good cheer
it was hard for even a cynic to dismiss them.
Turn to 850 on the AM dial, and there he’d be, singing
so off-key, inviting everyone once again to laugh at themselves
no matter what crises they faced that day.
The whole metropolitan area had changed diapers and drunk coffee
and ridden to work
with this man. What they needed to hear
in the midst of traffic
he had said. How to comfort a man
who’d brought comfort to millions?
Words can only do so much.

A girl’s dressing her dolls
and then she’s picking glass out of her hair
and a man is telling her to shut up,
the very same man who just gave her the dolls.
Or maybe a boy gets up the nerve
to take a chance on love, as the song says,
and a year later he’s so sick
no one dares drink from the glass he puts down.
A woman, a good mother, is singing her child to sleep
and the next day her child is dead.
The woman hadn’t been drinking; she’d just happened
not to look back, one time only.
Something is on fire:
that’s how you felt, all day at your teaching job,
no matter how many times you phoned home,
no matter how annoyed your son got or
how patiently your daughter checked the stove,
the fuse box, the hair dryer.
You could smell the world burning,
as if its brakes had been ridden too hard,
or there were a dump so huge that
no matter where you drove, you couldn’t escape
the fumes, the burning plastic.
As if the wrong wires had been crossed
in the universe, or the whole planet
were spinning out of control
from all its inhabitants’ wanting too much,
the sheer combustible energy
of just being alive. What had you ever learned
that would help you now?

The Mutilator, the Havoc Wreaker,
the names you give your regulars
so their pain doesn’t swallow you up.
After a day of bad jokes and pointless remarks,
of taking messages and giving instructions,
of teaching what you’ve taught a hundred times before,
it’s a relief, on the phone, at 2 A.M.,
to say as little as possible, to be nothing
more than the shade of a tree,
a brook making small comforting sounds
under all your callers’ words.
Mr. What’s The Use.
Ms. Why Shouldn’t I Kill Myself.
The voice like someone trying to open a stuck window,
or the voice like a car that keeps
conking out. Words.
Silence. Words. The girl who’s like a bird flinging herself
into song and then shutting up
as if she’s suddenly thought twice about trusting the air.
Think of the burden
the air has to bear, all the words broadcast
over it, all the high frequencies
required for people to say what they need
to say, all the silence
necessary for them to say it, all
that cannot be said.