Editor’s Note: This poem is part of Strange Horizons’ twentieth anniversary special issue. From 2010 to 2016, Strange Horizons held annual readers’ polls; R.B. Lemberg poems won in 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2015. During the same timeframe, R.B. founded the influential mythic poetry magazine Stone Telling, and used Stone Bird Press to back other important speculative poetry projects—helping launch the careers of many poets who appear in our pages.
for Ursula, Sonya, and Corey
The world burns, the residue of ash
staining my hands with snow
that melted before I remembered
my name, my shape, my purpose,
if ever it was so singular.
I tell myself that it’s too late now
to remember, to walk
through the library of my lives, through all the years
in which I wrote what no longer is written, in which
in language of stone and rock, the long pedigree of the rivers
that made me before they flowed,
that spoke themselves into being while I stood
on their banks, listening
to the language of muck and exultation
before casting my stones, before
their concentric circles
told a story.
What use is there of stones that fall into rivers
as brittle as the world’s burning, what memory
shall I shape from this ash? Only this:
that as sure as the ice is melting, the flame’s
reign too will be quenched one day, and the stones
speak again. Until then, I listen.
The Old Craft
I wish I knew this earlier in life:
each healing creates a debt.
who walks between people, asking for no recompense,
not even a song, becomes sinister.
I did not want their money, so some paid
lesser healers for lesser healings.
Others turned from me once they were well —
refusing that I still existed
after sickness was gone from their world. After all, I was
that sickness still lingered somewhere,
always too close. I took it away — perhaps I also brought it.
There were yet others who survived the sharpest edge of a knife,
the red heart-tide or the sharpshoot of a stroke,
they knew the debt could never be repaid
with money — only with their lives after
which they would offer to me,
often with resentment.
It felt heavy and yet I kept working,
kept piling the debts on
like stones on the riverbank, a monument
to my pride, my folly, my own
deep wounds that I could not touch.
I stopped at last, and started attending deaths.
There was no debt there. Only listening.
The New Craft
Like river breaks
past its banks of ash,
flooding flooding flooding
Like fire outflung
past the confines of the body’s house,
So I’ve grown old before I bloomed,
I’ve chosen silence over speech
and made a waiting place.
It’s not over yet
and there’s nothing to do
— though, some say, a great mystery —
but there’s nothing to do
except be present, except be
like stones that fear no flood, no heat,
the stones that hear no steps and see no light,
the stones that do not look beyond:
the stones, attending.
I am geode, I think,
turned inward. Satisfied
that I am owed no debt
and fear no mending for my breakage.
Inside my stone shell is a crystal cavern
that hasn’t seen a light
since stones were born. Between the crystals
in the geode, a hollow cavity.
A breath as ancient as the world
is captive there.
The world that burns imagines its rebirth,
a day that’s sung, outflung, a day that dawns through muck and exultation,
a dawn that cracks my stone, the dawn
— the mortal light, revealed —
that opens my geode
and frees its breath.
All world is breath, and when the breath is gone,
it melds into the world. The breath
of words, of trees, of cities, even the geode
is whole and broken, flooded, burned, victorious, given up, and still.
It’s not a linear story.
It never was.
I listen to the breath.