Invoking spiders and senators, physicists and aliens, Lauren Haldeman’s second book, Instead of Dying, decodes the world of death with a powerful mix of humor, epiphany, and agonizing grief. In the spirit of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, these poems compulsively imagine alternate realities for a lost sibling (“Instead of dying, they inject you with sunlight & you live” or “Instead of dying, you join a dog-sledding team in Quebec”), relentlessly recording the unlived possibilities that blossom from the purgative magical thinking of mourning. Whether she is channeling Google Maps Street View to visit a scene of murder (“Because / a picture of this place is / also a picture of you”) or investigating the origins of consciousness (“Yes, alien / life-forms exist / they are your thoughts”), Haldeman wrenches verse into new sublime forms, attempting to both translate the human experience as well as encrypt it, inviting readers into realms where we hover, plunge, rise again, and ascend.
About the Author
Lauren Haldeman is the author of the poetry collection Calenday and chapbook The Eccentricity Is Zero. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, Fence, the Iowa Review, and the Rumpus. A comic book artist, illustrator, and poet, she has taught in the United States as well as internationally. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Read an Excerpt
Instead of dying, you move in with us. We fix the basement up with a shower & a small area for your bed & you come to live. I help you carry boxes down the stairs. We set up your record player. We hang up your old poster from 5th grade that says "Save the Wolves." Once a week, you make grilled cheese for us in the upstairs kitchen. Instead of dying, instead of being stabbed on the street in Denver, instead of bleeding to death surrounded by strangers neither you nor I will ever meet, instead of all that, you get a job at the local grocery store, stocking the shelves, watering the produce: collards, endive, grapefruit. Your face stays your face & your pain gets better & you swim at the Rec Center in the early light of spring & you are so not not not dead.
Instead of dying, they inject you with sunlight & you live. It is a highly experimental process developed in the deep caverns of Luray, where a fluid from the crevices of the previous earth is found to contain a slow conglomerate of sunlight. Scientists discover they can separate the plasma into a medicinal dose, a shot of which can bring a boy back from death after being stabbed three times in the chest. The Belt of Orion, they call it. And it works. The moment the needle goes into your arm, you open your eyes. The bright light enters your bloodstream. And we thank the doctors and the ambulance drivers and even the man who did this to you, since he provided us with the opportunity to infuse you with infinite illumination.
Instead of dying, you adopt one hundred cats and then you adopt one more cat and then you adopt the next cat. You adopt all the cats. At night, your apartment rattles with claws & fur. On the back of each cat, you place a small monitor to measure their purring and then you synchronize their purring. Knowing full well that cats dream our lives, you also synchronize their sleep. You amass them all into a bevy of knowing, coaxing their alpha waves into clear veins of telepathy. When they are asleep, it is high consciousness, the grandest meditation. When they are awake, it is mostly chaos.
Instead of dying, you are born first, instead of third; you are firstborn, instead of me, and you live the fragile first years of your microintense existence inside the complete attention of our parents, fully moored in the ballast of their parent-eyes, being the baby of the golden-squared carpet & the window rainstorm & the song sewn from the sound of your sleep. You wear the first clothes. You set the first standards. You become that which would be compared to; watching from a solid place of self as the rest of us scream into your house, our hands smaller than yours, our mouths like Yukon drafts, filling with the air of your fully formed words.
Instead of dying, you adopt all the cats and distill their purring into a liquid. This takes weeks under the camouflage canopy in a forest of Kentucky, coaxing the vibration up from monitors on their fur and into the copper tubing, until it condenses into almost crystallized wavelengths. The cats are very happy. Their purring creates a tincture that soothes internal organs: it sings each organ's specific music. It is a spirit that changes by constellation, although the FDA claims that this statement has not been evaluated. As though evaluation always determines worth.
Instead of dying, Easter Island. Instead of dying, the Upper Peninsula. Instead of dying, Mongolia. South Africa. Machu Picchu. Ireland. Huge fields in Ireland where you keep sheep that slowly grow our sweaters. Where you walk like an old man through the crystal forest of your coastline farm and brush the wood clean with warm water in a glass bowl. One sheep in the field looks up, but not at you. The sheep looks past you, through the trees, through the paper, at me. I write that the sheep looks up at me.
Instead of dying, you watch as I write the sheep looks up at me. We picture it, the sheep. Despite the distance between the told and the experienced, we come to an agreement. The sheep will stay the sheep, stuck in the cairn-strewn bramble of your forestry, but I must become the person imagining you dually: as my brother, living, watching me write the sheep looks up at me, and also as my brother, living, in the story where the sheep looks up at me. In the story, you are much older, moving like a wire with work-glove hands toward the said sheep. Your gray hair long, tucked in the back of your shirt. Each of these stories placed inside another story, making an infinite mirror of stories, making the actual story, the story we don't want, seem a little less real.
Which side of this room am I on? I am on the inside. Which side of this body am I on?
Days I accept the bed 1.
1. I bed the accepting these days,
Maybe this spider loves me as 1.
1. I loved a spider this May, I
What does a plant do 1.
1. Do plants know what
Temperature is a product 1.
1. Produce a temperature
Yes. Alien life-forms exist 1.
1. Existing forms of life are alien; yes &
Hatching out of an egg was hard
A lot of rainbows came to me, and they hugged me
The flashlight kept getting into the woods, and it shot out a feather and a ball
Can you put a million minutes on the timer?
The prisms are making themselves
My hand is colors
The snow glitters are glowing
No one gets old in this house
Did the bubbles run out of batteries?
Is the internet box invisible?
How many dinosaurs is a diamond of dinosaurs?
What is the opposite of suffering —
My skin smells like the sun after I've been in the sun
That rainbow spelled seven days, the one that was floating
I love you for my life, for the day and night
I love you for my life
I'm going to wear a cough today
The cough will be printed on my shirt
I'm going to feel some old gravity today
I'm going to tell on myself
Maybe we need a new lamp since this lamp's ripples are standing up strange
Maybe those prisms are our wishes that we made when we came back from our moonwalk
Maybe we can catch water with a square & then the water can cool down & become fish
Maybe we can carry the water in our ears as we walk
How about when I was nine I married a panda?
How about my first word was mine?
How about we give these stones a bath in hot soil?
How about I turn into an electromagnet?
How about you
How about you
How about you listen to me as proof of me?
I had a dream last night that my body spoke to me!
Black holes are where the milk valley dies
The floor is stuck — it needs to let the rainbow in
Before the thinking is the knowing The thinking is added to the knowing
Did you see that? That was Saturn
Loops a cyclical / crystalline path Saturn chimes / a finished halo
Hangs the world / upon the earth-nothing Saturn a tone / of the looping halo
Makes a precise / spirograph spiral Saturn a candle crowned by a web
Did you see that? That was Saturn.
Crystalline epicycles predict your future behavior so it is super important
The crystalline spheres under the control of charts
The charts crystalline charts / The hands crystalline hands
All human behavior is set in crystalline cycles so it is super important
Crystalline spheres of unmoving stars
Past the moon is perfection / Past the moon is fixed
Past the moon there's a statue looking down with no pupils
A floating head projection
A super important floating head
the sun. Secret. Hid.
The whole revolution /
it's completely insane.
and move the sun.
What does it mean?
Lonely and neutral /
The gold on his face / tap the gold on his face An eyeball beam shooting up / out of a castle
He builds metal eyes / He gets everything Gets a castle of eyeballs / built onto an island
Call the clairvoyant helper / the mercurial nose Call the eyeball growing long / inside the dark hallway
Only Kepler is allowed / into this closeness Kepler brushing the soft metal nose
Pull the camera away now / from their tiny dark notebooks Pull the camera back slowly / through the window of stone
Tender his notes / into the brightness Math shining through / the manuscript's lace
See the long etched mane / on the immobile circle See the floating ellipses / around the flambeau
The math does not know / about all the stories Math does not think / the papacy thinks
Inside the math now is a whole power Neon ellipses formed out of the air
Inside the math now is a base power Powerful because it can wait
My daughter's ear is listening somewhere.
What is another word for the center?
The opposite is / we're on the outs.
I've moved the earth from the prized position.
They scared / the idea of themselves now feeling the death
Blind / Trapped / Old / Out
My daughter. My daughter. She was the only one
Yes, listener, I am still telling the truth but I'm telling it less.
Excerpted from "Instead of Dying"
Copyright © 2017 Lauren Haldeman.
Excerpted by permission of The Center for Literary Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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