Jacob Stratman's first collection of poems, What I Have I Offer With Two Hands,
was released in 2019 through the Poiema Poetry Series (Cascade Books). His most
recent poems can be found (or are forthcoming) in The Christian Century, Spoon
River Poetry Review
, Salt Hill, Moria, Glassworks, among others. He teaches in the
English department at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas (USA).

from the shell of things

He teaches here just below the prayer room,
hidden plainly on the roof where hymns
and chants and mystic paralanguage

mix with classroom lectures clanging
over hyper-amped microphones. In front
of the window he sees the Pacific,

the East Sea, a sliver of blue or gray,
less than an inch, when he winks and places
his thumb and forefinger in front of his face

as if holding a peanut before cracking
it or trying to measure the distance
of his discomfort, his awkwardness,

or like a god holding it all together
or attempting to as he breathes slowly
to contain his selves, but he knows that just

his forefinger covers the speck of ocean
between the two buildings and above
the dense woods beyond the window

where he stands three stories above the magpies
chattering and cackling at each other.
Job's Tears just poured too reminds him

that he is not home—reminds his students
that he is old. He knows that the silent
sliver is not imagination—it is the sea,

that winking or covering it up
with his finger does not affect the millions
of miles of water teeming with things

he has just begun to think of as food.
But he can, if he wishes, put a finger
on its entirety when it grows too big.


Walking around the market, he can't read
the air well. He asks too many questions,
he requests too many words, he always thinks

that one word is equal in weight to other
words—that language anchors everything.
He wants too much eye to eye contact.

To see is to love, he defends. To look
in the face is to recognize, to welcome,
he pleas. He can't read the air well enough

here. He smiles too much, his nods and bows
are too shallow, too deep, and his heart sleeps
each mid-day. He can only see the shell of things.


After the earthquake, after the after the after the shocks
of being displaced and playing refugee for a couple
of days on church floors and in tourist hotels,

he returns, clutching nothing tightly anymore, to the newly
cracked and cracking apartment. His boys relearn the paths,
walking around piles of bricks, away from bulging

walls, above, up the stairs, and into their rooms to make guns
out of Duplo bricks, to build rifles and several
pistols, even a sword or two and a cache of grenades,

and they run around the place dying and yelling and being
reborn and dying again, bricks willy-nilly across
the living room, bricks under the couch in the kitchen

and on all the beds, and she, still gripping metaphors,
says that despair, despite what the theologians may say,
is a mildewed tent, while she keeps track of the tremors

on her calendar, noting their seismic weight, the time of day,
the spaces in between. She counts days between the earth's
contractions. Each whisper of a tremor does not mean necessarily

that they will cease, that each rupture is a release of tension,
she has read and repeats, reads and repeats. She is like one
ready and frightened to be a mother, looking for patterns,

constructing ways out of fear out, of ignorance, out of
anxiety, away from the dumb show. She is building something
she hopes to understand. The bedroom door does not shut now,

not completely, not as it should, and the front door will not lock.
It is misaligned with its purpose, and she sweeps more dust
and plaster chips every day. Nothing is working as it should.

He reminds them this shaking should not surprise you,
but the boys are ready for complete fallout, while she waits
and calculates and records, waits and calculates and records.


The fields are now flooded, the rice planted.
He can only think of mosquitos, though,
that will come, the discomfort when he sits

for too long and collects red welts and bumps,
the limited time now to wander the wood's
paths and the rice roads, the lake's shores,

not the green of the young shoots, firm
but flexible in this late spring day breeze,
not the white crane in the stilled water

in the corner of the field statued there
against the blue sky, against the dark pine
forest like the pots he's seen in markets,

in museums, not the cuckoo birds' high
calling out of their trees to each other
like clocks telling time to begin—the cycle

again, not the rippling water performing
obedience to the wind, the rice
in unison with everything around

it soon to be hidden, covered
by flourishing stalks. He can't even see
what this scene will become later, the thickness

of the crop, the changing colors, the harvest.
He just knows what you get when water
pauses, stays still for too long—what it feels

like when air becomes hot and wet
and the buzzing keeps you inside.
when the stillness keeps you inside.


He looks for an estuary, stillness
between the river's roar and the ocean's
wide swallow. He knows where it is

on the map—the steel mill covers most
of the land here, the space that is both
and between. He desires to watch the water

birds moving inland from the vastness
of the Pacific, looking for the clams
and shrimp, nesting in the resting streams.

He knows from reading that this mixing
can be a volatile space, too much salt;
too much sediment. He will look

for life in abundance, the fragility
and the fertility, but, he knows
he can't see deep enough to notice

how the birds capture the small fish
or where the crabs hide. He only sees
what is there clearly in front of him.


He tries trying to forget what he knew—
what he shouldn't have read before he left:
now I know only in part,

then I will know fully even as I
have been fully known.
He can read
the alphabet now; he doesn't know

what he reads. He can speak one sentence;
he can't speak two. He can understand
how much to pay; he can't tell time. He can

identify a few birds in the tall pines
where he walks in the late afternoon;
he doesn't know their song, where their journeys

begin and end. He can greet his neighbors
each morning; he will never know their hearts
He can be polite; he can't love. He can't

more than he can. He doesn't know more
than he knows. And now that he returns,
how does he tell about a land he can't know

fully, when metaphors break quickly.
What muse does he invite to help him write
of the typhoon the redstart the kimchi pots.

Each utterance, each fragment must begin
and end, when he is wrong: shillyeh hamnida.
choesong hamnida. Excuse me I am sorry.

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