J. T. Whitehead

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The beginnings 

When I was a 5-year-old poet

I got a Vietnam War bracelet 

with a guy’s name on it.

          That’s the way it worked.

My sister, Ellen, she got a Captain.

When the Captain came home, 

she removed her bracelet.

           That’s the way it worked.

My bracelet belonged to a Corporal.

When I was a 10-year-old poet that bracelet broke

right straight through his name, now forgotten.

I didn’t know, then, that Corporal meant life.

I only remember knowing – just knowing then – 

this guy is never coming home . . .

           That’s the way it worked.

A bridge made of wood and rope

For Kit; who taught me the art of what is “only different.”

Sometimes, like right now,
I think of those flimsy bridges made of rope and wood.

They feature prominently in some movies.
There is a scene, someone is crossing this bridge.

It sways in the wind.  Its planks are wood, rails rope.
Sometimes it seems it is made of bamboo.

This reminds me – these movie scenes often happen
in what is known as the “Third World.”

This reminds me, in turn, that I hate, can and do hate.
I hate the phrase “Third World.”

It is just . . . the World.  No first.  No second.  No third,
But I digress.  To get back to this bridge –

The planks often have gaps in them. 
The knotted ropes are gripped desperately by the lead.

This is the way it works in the movies, sometimes.
Someone is leaving a great danger.

The danger is so great that they are willing –
I mean that their act is an act of will –

They are willing to risk plummeting into this abyss,
They cannot fathom what is down there.

They cannot see down there, not all the way.
They know that they can fall into it, die, end.

They risk their own end, crossing this flimsy bridge.
We all do this.  At least once in life.  Cross this bridge.

It overwhelms us, but we do it.  What we leave behind
Is so terrible, so awful, so threatening to our well-being,

To our health, our safety, our very survival as human,
As living and breathing and human, that we risk this.

And it sways.  So when we do it – I mean, metaphorically –
It makes perfect sense that we feel this sway.

I feel it right now.  I am spinning inside with vertigo.
If I was writing this poem to the woman I once loved,

I would say, in this poem, to its reader, “I leave you.”
I would say that I am willing to sway.

I would say or write that I am willing to risk.
To risk death, to risk falling into a mysterious chasm.

But I am not writing this poem to that person.
I am writing it to whoever reads it.

If I was writing this poem to the woman I am falling
In love with, instead of falling with, into the abyss,

I would say, or write, “you are on my other side.”
I would say, or write, “I am walking towards you.”

And while she would read this, and love me for it,
She is so worth reaching out for that I don’t have to

Write this poem for her.  Instead, I just sway.
I am leaving something.  It is threatening.

I am holding on.  The space underneath my feet,
This is something that has never felt so deep as now.

The fall I could fall – this has never felt so far as now.
The bridge seems very flimsy to me.

When I was younger, I managed a video store.
Part of my job involved reviewing allegedly defective films.

Customers would bring in a rental, say it was defective.
I would watch it, and find the defect.

It was kind of like life.  But just for people who are
Good at self-diagnosis.  Not for people you leave.

Like when it feels like walking away, on a rope bridge.
Anyway, I was able to see movies where people

Leave dangerous situations by walking these bridges,
Flimsy, rope and bamboo, or wood from rotten trees.

It was always very suspenseful.
This is where the metaphor ends of course.

There is nothing very suspenseful about this move.
I am not in suspense.  Only suspended.

I am just leaving, and afraid of falling.
But anyway, to get back to the point, which I left,

I am glad to have seen all those movies
With all those protagonists walking those flimsy bridges.

They all made it across, of course.  And it is
Of course.  It is of the course.  And –

Just like in the movies.  Only different.


J.T. Whitehead is a Pushcart Prize-nominated short story author, a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet, and was winner of the Margaret Randall Poetry Prize in 2015.  Whitehead’s poetry has appeared in over 100 publications, and his book The Table of the Elements was nominated for the National Book Award in 2015.  Whitehead lives in Indianapolis with his two sons, Daniel and Joseph.