Void and Compensation (Poem as Aporia Between Lighthouses)

Are you lonely there?                             Yes, I want you here.


Welcome, day of hearts on paper, night of
lights that punctuate and propagate the dark.

Honor the boats coming in and going out:

As for reefs and shoals I am as they are, fearful-making
and terrifying if all the maps can say is position doubtful.

Love’s wick floats in a bowl of oil, nightly lit.
Its first light asks one question: anyone there?

if not of ships or me than perhaps one another.
One would like to think of oneself as landed gentry,

making in the night air beams as sizzle sticks
that shake and stir the dark drink of the evening.

Overhead and overheard: Light shot out
loses itself in something greater by the second.

Not quite mid if middling, I’m a distance between
points, half-way undecided by my choices.

Of lookouts, the whaling captains asked their men to sing
out at the tops of their voices—there is music in it.

There she white waters, there she black skins,
there she breaches, blows, or flukes.

So many trinities where water meets the landed,
crying out to one about an other. Third world.

The lighthouse only suggests an autonomy:
part warning, part bearing, it projects that we need others.

To know where you are in relations.
To know that others are thinking of you, even in the abstract.

It is what children realize their parents have
done for them as long as they can remember.

Boats will come so far, no closer.

A mother says to her child, in order to help him
learn to do on his own, pretend I’m not here.

She says it when she’s tired of answering questions.
She says it so that he might see his independence.

It is a crushing and cursory tutorial.
It is his heart’s preparation for memory

I love the lighthouse because it is not human:
it must bear both sides of the relationship.

I don’t have to manufacture answers for my beloved,
but I do it in my head all the time. It is a wager, a hedge.

I am trying to open up for what my love says and stands for
when I assume she’ll leave me for a younger volunteer.

I have grown up thinking that knowing means trouble:
If I can stay not knowing, it calls to the competent for help.

Of love I always ask: but will it work—
I speak of the world as if it merely happens to me:

Weather reflected in windows. Colorless bay waves
that adopt blue light and its orphaned molecules.

What amazes me, god-given or random grant,
are the things of this world that color themselves

with what lies outside of and settles on them.

I love the lighthouse mind: forever colonized by others
and assessments made on behalf of their bearings.

How dear of them to lose all sense of self.
Once manned. Now, no human heart, no human error.

Tonight, I’m here because I need to know myself as not at sea,
more grounded in a light shone out towards others.

I am a little fearful: am I between two houses
or am I one looking at and talking to the other?

Might I lend myself a locomotion they can’t have?

It is equally plausible that I must choose one light over another.
It is equally plausible that I am one light and my beloved another.

My indigenous name: Little wool-over-his-eyes.
These are choices and I have reservations.

Doubt made Pascal hedge his bets. He bet with his head, not over it.
He made of his worry some expressions. I joined that club.

I will begin by admitting that I’m lost.
Which means I’ve been here before as someone else.

I am not obliged to feign confusion.
It is heartfelt, what wears easily, rubs away at a touch.

Meno asks, how will you find what remains unknown to you?
I will ask questions. I will pursue knowing

that the darkness is what we bridge despite ourselves.
It is what we’re made for. So to speak. To articulate.


Here, beached in the stumbling dusk, are ribs, a wreck,
a heart-cage or hull washed up and bleached clean;

No mariner, foreigner, or Jonah to
be found, rescued, or lost—perhaps I’m him

wrecking myself and my imagined children into being,
a skeletal certainty as driftwood recompense.

In my atrium head I articulate ribs;
I make of them a whaling museum.

Look at how suspended bones above us
kept largesse intact in a fluid home—

how each bone suggests enormity and finite solitude
on which school kids might peg their thoughts like coats—

rest them upon the infrastructure of what
was living and writhing, a doppelganger faith

of kinder execution in its having and being held.
Lost and pure, a saint’s articulation of some heaven sent.

This was a mother carrying her calf
that met her maker in the shipping lanes.

The museum of small compensations has possession
of the fetal bones—they will be part of the final display.

The relic bones are out for our betterment, the actual
and what we dream both in and out of it:

The students with their brown-bag lunches fawning
skyward underneath the skeletal whales.

Little Pascals, they tuck ecstatic notes
inside their innermost coat pockets.

Or maybe they don’t know what to say
or how to articulate what’s been put before them.


When I was a child I needed someone to teach me how to talk.
There were noises I could not make. I needed help.

I asked for many things, craved allowance,
sought permission in a winter household

but kept turning the word can into tan,
could only make of want a language of summer.

I would like to speak better to others,
my articulation still an errancy.

My omissions are meaningful sounds:
Instead of stick (as in stay), I get sick (as in love).

I make ridiculous substitutions:
With my beloved, run is pronounced as won.

there’s fronting, too—a distant consonant
replaced by a more frontal other.

The love of which I speak is not completely accurate—
the sounds from its mouth we’d call distortions

in the form of words that give me difficulty:
circumstantial distance, others, providence.

the history of love has a stutter:
b-bucket’s got a ho-hole in it.


Tonight, between the houses, I’ve brought a child in my head
not yet articulated: he could be my past or my future

or the child I overheard in the library today,
let’s call him Nico (as his mother does),

thrilled and shrill among the prospects
of volumes, all words unspoken and bound,

a beauty impossible to bear—and his mom,
articulator, said to him and his noise,

his kicking of blocks in the kid’s section
out of their stacks and behind radiators,

We don’t do that. You can’t, you can’t, thank you.
Little Nico, your mother’s intentions are best,

meant to make of your strange world a Damascus,
market stalled, that you might navigate on your own.

So when your mother says you should apologize
for kicking blocks in the hall of texts-in-waiting,

where do you find yourself? On the shores of apology
with a stutter, in speech or in thinking, s-sorry?

“Nico, you’re not listening.” I would like to.
“You’re not cooperating.” I would like to.

The mother love is unbearable, isn’t it, Nico?
You’re giving her the Heisman, it’s too much

so here’s the push-pull that Hoffman says is paint
that makes of love some province-lands better

discovered and let go, a turning off
provided there’s a resting place, a child’s pose.

A love vindictive when our benefactors
wake us from our selfish ways: if love calls

the I to attention, we turn our cheek
from the beloved, her eyes too much to bear.

It is a distance warranted by knowing
only that they are not fully gone.


Nico, ours is a space with privileges
that can and will be taken away from us.

Your sibilant mother wishes to help you figure time.
She talks about how the hands of the clock move.

She will ask you, tucking you in later,
about your morning, your afternoon, and your evening.

She’s asking you about sequences: do we pay for groceries
before we buy them? Do you put your socks on after your shoes?

Do we read a story after we go to sleep?

It’s what these houses do for us, Nico.
They read us nightly even when we’re gone.

A fourth-order Fresnel lens
manufactured by the brothers Chase:

Would Plato call them pessimists or poets,
or would he see them more as ideal forms?

I love the history of their close attention—
hopes from a promontory born of pessimism

that yields in warning a better than dead-reckoning
sense of where the sea-weary sit, how they might dream

of home and their beds that can rock and lie still,
in motion from the rise and fall of ribs, not waves.

Nico, I’m trying to pretend you’re here
so that we might save each other

the way these solitary houses do, distant
but diligent in their need of others.

Shhhhh, said your mother, people are thinking.
Their voices are in their heads and behind the covers of books.

Someone had a hammer and a saw. Someone saw through
the forest for the trees and where their absence might lead us.

They built a church and it became a library.
Some foreign mariners called themselves saints

of arrivals and departures, imagined
and articulated both a future grace

that walked quietly behind their will and
a plan to unfold where once was nothing.

We call them parents


For the next few years, Nico, it is your job
to play, to pretend you are not here.

Simone says uproot yourself and
see a landscape as if you are not there.

Soon enough you’ll navigate Damascus
and walk its stalls without the bag lunch,

without the field trip, a Tunis,
or perhaps more local, a Providence.

This could be a coast for Aeneas and
his bone-weary men, Mercury a kind

of lighthouse making Carthage open up
its arms for those who’d hurt, who’d love and leave.

It’s sad but true that every bridge suggests
its own burning, Nico: we all take leaves.

The poet Kinnell called love the wages of dying,
but you invest that feeling, more wager than wages:

I’ve felt that love and let it go, have
only approached the clerks at the windows

with my program and my penciled hunches.
You’ll wager one day, little man,

little prince of the para-mutuel window,
you’ll have your stakes and your downs and your derby.

Think of Pascal. These bets are the notes that sow and sew;
Keep them close to your heart in your little pea coat.

Love is pitch and tar and twine for your boats
of consolation and compensation.

Try not to fill the emptiness in yourself
by creating one in someone else.

Someone foreign. Some beloved.

One day you’ll leave, and they’ll live in your absence.
In your future present-tense, be a little less gone


Half-ready and half-baked, the terra firma in between these houses:
The cedars are somewhat stunted by their preacher winds.

These houses barter small talk on floes of big thinking;
it’s beautiful in the way that the fallen recognize each other.

My beloved sends me a zebra finch
whose composed notes are both ransom and demand,

a lyric of hesitation and full feeling,
quarter notes, half time, full benefits—maybe

the way a winter cardinal encounters
the gray cloud and gray scale of the cold front

and cracks it with its chip, a stepped-on glass
and the blood-red feather saying mazel tov and

making of suffering something known and acknowledged.
Then comes the blue at the back end of the front.

It is our touching of the temple doors and not our entering
that makes us feel churchlike. Flightless yet winged.

Pretend I’m not here—terrifying as
a few words between parent and child

or between landmarks. It’s what we should say
to ourselves for our children imagined into being

in and amongst ourselves no matter how boatless
these seas, no matter how fogged or fucked up.

Some are landlocked who come to water’s edge
each day, who love the water yet go no farther.

When it storms they go home, another story with views.
That kind of darkness, a medium that’s otherwise,

a land wind-blanched between two points of light,
a sand bar with its gnarled and stunted trees—

Is it pity or guilt you feel with these trees
and the orchard in your head that has sown them?

Call that darkness between houses Fort Useless and Fort Harmless.
What listens now in unmanned buildings is my godhead—

My loss, my errancy, and my dunes
becoming larger than my knowledge of them.

Pretend I’m not here: easy for the beacons by day,
but dusk scares them into necessary speech.

Think of an articulationist teaching
a mute to utter what can be understood,

the dental plaster cast conveying
a desire for more perfect occlusion:

as in, you need to close off and shut down
in order to be understood.

The looks and gestures into darkness have radical lenses
which fan out and fire, go silent under larger suns.

These are all the bones washing up on the beach,
picked clean by gull, decreated by Kittiwake.

What of wings articulated to a body? How to teach oneself
and one’s child that rot is what happens in a chrysalis.

How can I say that to a beloved who’s flown?

Can a couple articulate ribs around themselves,
or will the finch’s wings inside turn into static

aflutter and banging on the bars as would a warden,
fearful yet expectant of departures?

Lighthouses, holdovers lovely in your obsolescence,
we use our own stars which we find despite cloud cover:

idols for idolaters, unmanned yet functioning,
your spoken oath our brightest apparition.


If the sea could sing itself a Providence,
some citizens unschooled in drifting

would hang onto their cargo of dusk
and look for promissory notes of light.

It is a wishful thinking, how petals
and not seeds might articulate the rootstock.

This running with the hare and hunting with the hounds,
are these infidelities acoustic or spoken?

Such is the gap and faith in loss as loam
out of which the wind-ripped trees seem to curl

whose fingers either rise up in prayer
or aim the blame like plosives through the beach grass.


If I may speak as the houses, I will say
the stuttered word and repeat it; I

assure you that the word is dangerous
but can be spoken fluently: love.

We have put our hearts on paper and are left with
good cusps down the long axis of the teeth.

We have a mouthful of tools for occlusion,
the stalled front bringing rain when the speeches fail.

Between the houses the wind makes jargon
through the gnarled and stunted cedars.

I was once told it would be great if you could come here,
but I told myself to stay put. I would not ride.

There are myths and idolatry and not showing up.
Ways of seeing more clearly. Of hurting


If I have come to find my faith in loss,
this fierce commitment to absence, presence

and its complicated aftermath,
I still have thoughts of reconciliation.

The hope of interiors as seen from a distance.
A memory of beloveds as a Passover,

no longer recollection and its distances
but re-enactments, cups and plates and rituals.

Here is where these houses faithfully
address distance and its lack of compassion:

there is a distance between ants and horses;
We step on the former and bet on the latter.


What would I tell an older Nico who wants
to man the houses, a superintendent of lights?

To keep the wicks trimmed, the chandeliers dusted,
the clean glass chimneys fitted free from smoky points?

For fresh air, keep the leeward vents open
and for memory keep a journal of ships passing?

I would tell the younger man that
it’s okay to be a little blue.

It means he’s filled with scattered light,
what hasn’t finished its trip, disperses

or gets lost, perhaps separated from us
down here between these two lighthouses.

Like Patinir’s Saint Jerome, from a distance
his blues in the very backs of his horizons

and also in his heart, worn on his sleeve,
as if he were draped in his own distance.

Hello, Jerome. Thank you, Nico, but now
I need to say this to myself and my beloved:

If I’m considered accountable for my distance
I don’t know if I should apologize

or think of compensation, reparations—
a beacon as prefatory apology.

I’m sorry that I keep you at bay:

the monotony of what if? beamed or aired out
as a broadside for the living. You and me,

even if you and I are impossible,
mere lights that reach out from our anchorage.

I was a child with best intentions standing
between my parents with their separate lamps.

But now I am here. Trying to be here.
Idealization has rendered me disappointed.

If I speak now I’m not confident whether
I’m for myself or from confusion.

By day a lighthouse part of bigger pictures,
at night online and speaking in threads.


A wish: to lie in bed and listen to a broadcast in Providence
The singers something of an abstraction

or an imagination in which what is remote comes near.
By night a star by day made human by our smoke.

No solid objects here refuse to declare themselves,
the brotherly fog horns and their droning moan,

the eider sisters and their coats of down:
Theirs is a will that rattles out against absence,

even in the space between two lights—
They speak to each other in changing weather,

like a man who makes himself a boy again
so as to speak gently and contemplate

the darkness between beacons, what it’s like
to enter the presence of the fixed and lit.

Articulator of bone, occlusions of speech,
I bear my coats and layers, half deed, half dream.

I’m still here; buck in the headlights.
It must mean that I have accepted that

the very thing that is my hallowed ground
is what might rise up and wreck me.

It must mean without end, unlike me.


Are you lonely there?                             Yes, I want you here.



Cover of TLR's "Emo, Meet Hole" issue Michael Morse has published poems in The Lumberyard, Ploughshares, Spinning Jenny, and in the anthology Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days. He was a fellow at The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown from 2008–2010 and currently lives in Brooklyn.

“Void and Compensation (Poem as Aporia Between Lighthouses)” was originally published in Emo, Meet Hole (TLR Spring 2011).