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  • Paul Guest

catapult: velocity and danger and exquisite impatience

There was nothing special about the morning — in fact, thirty-two years later I remember only a little of it: how the sun was bright and hot and it was the last day of May and I had just graduated from the sixth grade the day before. I hadn’t slept well, the kind of deficit that would crush me today then was merely the blurred excitement at a life opening up. In my mind, in my imagination, the future was vague but important, weighty, and in that midnight narrative I lived a whole other life. What is surprising about that? Nothing. I was years away from writing my first terrible poems in high school, years from my life making a profound sense, years from love and some successes and scalding heartbreaks and this afternoon, writing these words at my desk while outside it’s cold and there is a semblance of winter all around.

It was summer, the end of May, 1986, and in a few hours I would nearly die. I have told this story many times and long ago I lost most of the interest in it that I ever had. On street corners and in book stores and on elevators slowly rising up inside antiseptic malls I have told the story because someone asked. Because curiosity is often nearly impossible to resist. Because fear is stronger still, and who can ever shut up their voice when it has begun rushing out? I’ve fashioned condensed versions of how I broke my neck because it’s easier to tell and easier to hear and then easier to be blessed and prayed for and given money and released back into the current of that day’s errand.

I have no gift for painting or drawing or photography — words are difficult enough for me. But back then, I dreamed of being a writer even though all I read were comic books (about which I am still unreasonably excited — if you saw the breakdown of my search history, it would be more about Batman and less about John Berryman) and Hardy Boys novels in which the boys traveled around the world, wandering through strange bazaars and drinking milk and referring to their friends as chums. That world sounds pretty good today. Then, I thought a lot less about the president, about the receding future, about evil.

Today I am thinking about the body. My body. I am frustrated. I can imagine an alternate timeline deliciously absent of Donald Trump and Elon Musk and everything on Netflix I will never get around to watching and in that other, softer light, that light that fell down on the world so long ago, I looked forward to a career in the NFL. The sensation of speed and impact and the romance of eternity. Maybe I was a champion bicyclist. Again, velocity and danger and exquisite impatience.

I said I was frustrated. I am. No new poem today. Nothing much new of any sort. Just a long list of old grievances. My left knee aches and yesterday I sat in a coffee shop in Washington and everywhere in the news the world seemed to be burning down to stupid ash. There are still leaves on the trees and mosquitoes that haunt the air buzzing and buzzing and buzzing.

What do I want out of writing? Not exactly the truth because it is boring, and, really, I want to be entertained or provoked or lied to.

Once upon a time I won the game in the final seconds and on my legs I stood in the long shadows of the day. Once upon a time I discovered an ancient wreck in the blue-green brine of a warm ocean and all around were glittering fish. Once upon a time I was a pilot. A surgeon. A bird, once, coded with a song that, right now, I pretend to understand.


Paul Guest has published three collections of poetry: The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of the World (winner of the 2002 New Issues Poetry Prize), Notes for My Body Double (winner of the 2006 Prairie Schooner Book Prize), and My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2008). His poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. His memoir, One More Theory About Happiness (Ecco), was selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program. A Guggenheim Fellow and recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award, Guest teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Virginia. Read the entire CATAPULT series here.

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