When You Turn Twenty

by Emily Duggan, Contributor

When you turn twenty,
I want to give you       something that will linger
like you’ve proved you can.
I consider upending       the ancient Pyramids,       plunked down at Giza
like colossal party hats –
then, perhaps more realistically, I imagine
chalking up       your bedroom walls
with “Happy Birthday.”
And if chalk doesn’t last, well, neither do you
and I.
But worse is the redundancy:
a person       always       knows
when it’s this year-mark,       or the body knows,
lying in its cold bed, on its back
in practice.
So none of it would be news to you,
neither “Happy,” nor “birthday,”
because you  know       when you’re happy,
you just know things,
poems come apart like patterns,
like chalk       scrubbed at with half a heart.
And few others would benefit from
my soft-etched declaration, its command –
as the bedroom is private, so is a display therein –
I must know this by now,       at midnight, I become
your display:       shut off the lights       and play
my       tight-strung harp
with your       small       hot       artist’s fingers.
See how we glow,       though kept
away from the window       like a discreet menorah,
lighthouse on a secret shore,
a little wonder       of only our world,
admission charged.
You collect me in those hands       like coins,
what we pay        to lie here
between books and beakers
beside each other,       for  the
peaceful sadness       of secrets,
the privilege       of warm ones.       The sad, bright look
of your eyes, twenty years old
and full of what       I do not try to fathom, despoil,
your youth, your ancience,       your every-minute-again-and-newly       destroyed,
foundation       for what comes next,
then next, for as long as there is next,
inscrutable       as long it is your,
your eyes, your years,
your neck       the teak keystone       of
I am watching       build itself
by itself,       out of its very bones,
because you are.

Millions of sun-seared slaves are built
into the ancient pyramids – that is to say
the pyramids are shaped       out of their artisans.
when you turn twenty,       in lieu of
those futile hieroglyphs
of “Happy Birthday,”
I offer you sacrifice instead: my body
in tribute,       your hands
a scalpel, my heart        detachable.
You contain       twenty years
of such invisible offerings,
so never forget to show it.       Speaking as one,
I’m grateful:      you give my body purpose.
Hidden and insular,
I keep one wind out.       Or, I try.
I’m trying. I’ll keep trying.



  1. I want to highlight and quote almost every line of this poem. Your words are like a beacon into the sunlit room of fragile eternity

  2. Soft and lingering, beautiful slow

  3. Shoshana Margulis says:

    i want this framed

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LANDFILLS is a grassroots literary, arts and culture online collective based in Chicago. All work is original, except the featured images that accompany text posts (which are blatantly stolen from tumblr.com). Complaints should be directed to Po via Twitter.
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