The Last Poem I Loved: “To My Twenties” by Kenneth Koch

By

“Only this do you know for sure: time is an ellipsis until it is not.”

How lucky that I ran into you
When everything was possible
For my legs and arms, and with hope in my heart
And so happy to see any woman—
O woman! O my twentieth year!

You know that feeling, or you remember it: the feeling of endless possibility like an infinite highway on an 80-degree day in April. You know it and seek to harness it, calling it magic or potential and not yet knowing that the simple fact of it, what it’s really called, is youth. Do you remember who you loved when you were twenty? I do, and I remember how much.

It’s only a matter of time, you tell yourself. Before you’ve achieved all you sucked on like a hard candy, mulled over in your mouth and heart and cunt, which is to say dreamt. Have you ever wanted something so badly that it mapped itself out over your body itself, that it stirred you in the night and whoever you reached for within it? Have you ever wanted something so much that it became the world in which you lived? Have you ever wanted something so much enough that it created that world, a new world, your world? This is not delusion. This is the desire of which only people in their twenties are capable.

Basking in you, you
Oasis from both growing and decay
Fantastic unheard of nine- or ten-year oasis
A palm tree, hey!
And then another
And another—and water!
I’m still very impressed by you.

You move to New York. You pledge to die in New York. You fall in love in and with New York. New York is you: the lambency of soft alcoholism, the cigarettes crushed underfoot, the highs you sought before a long subway ride back to Brooklyn, all you keep stuffed in your purse because you don’t know for certain where you’ll be sleeping tonight. New York gives you a pleasant feeling of homelessness; you don’t yet know that to call yourself homeless, leggy white suburban-transplant college girl, is offensive.

One day, a girl you didn’t much like in college appears at the end of a corridor of bodies on 7th Avenue; as soon as you make to avoid her, she calls your name. You can’t fight the uncanny feeling of having been discovered, called out, smoked out, ratted out, and, most of all, found out. You offer little more than two pursed lips for her. Two things about this encounter disturb you: 1) you can no longer go anywhere in America’s most populous city without running into someone you know, and 2) your social poverty is now so dire that you couldn’t afford a smile? A blue-eyed man you love—in fact, a blue-eyed man you love more than you’ve ever loved anyone—suggests a change in your mutual coastal condition. You kiss him like you mean it, because you do mean it, and agree.

You move to San Francisco. The palm trees are there around every corner, new friends.

Whither,
Midst falling decades, have you gone? Oh in what lucky fellow,
Unsure of himself, upset, and unemployable
For the moment in any case, do you live now?

You take your first full-time office job, one involved with but not directly concerning the act of writing. You cry in the blue-eyed man’s arms in the mornings before you go. You cry online at work during marathon Gchat sessions with your best friends, who are now in different cities that you hate for having them when you can’t, and when a coworker notices, you blame the redness of your eyes on allergies. You come home and write in the evenings, knowing your good hours are limited. You write a 350-page paean to great friendships, wishing you still had any on your block. You feel tired. You feel lonely. You write because you have no other choice.

What the fuck is so fucking beautiful about this city? you wonder. You feel as though you’ve aged ten years just in the plane ride getting here: suddenly the bars close at 2 am and you don’t work in any of them, suddenly you’re no pseudo-pinko faux-boho grad student/bartender skipping the A train from Washington Heights to Prospect Heights in search of French fries and poetry, you’re just another office mope counting the minutes until 5 pm and coming home all blank-faced on the Muni. The recession hits. You begin to think you ought to feel grateful for the job you hate. You try.

You sell your book. You’re at work when you find out. You hold it together until you step outside to call your mother and she says over and over again, “This is your dream, Laura, your dream.”

From my window I drop a nickel
By mistake. With
You I race down to get it
But I find there on
The street instead, a good friend,
X— N—,

It happens slowly at first, such that you don’t totally notice or trust it: you make friends. Not just friends you see once every two months for the well-intentioned cocktail, but friends, homies, real friends, friends who know your middle name and why your mother gave it to you, friends who meet your mother at Thanksgiving. One day you meet a girl with an accent and a curious look about her, like she’s figuring you out as you’re talking. (She is.) You begin to tell her stories you’ve never told anyone. The relief you feel at telling her I don’t know what I did for 27 years without you is immense. Your Friday nights brighten. She reads the book you wrote about the other friends you love.

who says to me
Kenneth do you have a minute?
And I say yes! I am in my twenties!
I have plenty of time!

You’ve never been able to shake the persistent feeling of losing time, and your job feels like taking everything nourishing out of the cupboards and corners of your life and dumping them into a giant drain. You begin to permit yourself this thought: I could leave this job. You know you’ll have to explain this to your parents, who could hardly believe you got a job with health insurance attached to it in the first place. The blue-eyed man, God bless his sweet blue-eyed heart, tells you to do it: leave the job. For the first time in your life, you realize, you’ve fallen in love with someone who actually believes in you more than you believe in yourself. On a Sunday, you call your boss at home. She wishes you well as you finish your book.

In you I marry,
In you I first go to France; I make my best friends
In you, and a few enemies.

On a drive back to San Francisco from a weekend in Los Angeles, you are looking out the window, preoccupied with a fight you had with a friend you still love far more than you are currently willing to admit. Without warning, the blue-eyed man pulls off the highway; you see no gas station, no rest stop, no charming roadside restaurant. Overlooking the Pacific coastline, he reads you the first poem he’s ever written: a poem he wrote for you. He pulls out your grandmother’s ring. He does not get down on one knee; in fact, the whole encounter takes place in a borrowed Toyota Corolla. He does not ask you to say yes. He tells you the poem is meant to convey his acceptance of the proposal you, in fact, offered him two years ago by a bonfire at his mother’s college graduation party, after drinking a bottle of champagne by yourself.

Despite the fact that you are not a girl who has dreamt of this moment the way you imagine other girls might, you are surprised to discover this is the moment of which you have always dreamt. The day is wide and sunny, like an 80-degree day in April, even though it is now September. You say yes even though it is not required of you.

The next night, responding to the announcement of your engagement, the friend you still
love calls.

I
Write a lot and am living all the time
And thinking about living.

You finish your book. You have a drink. You start another. You have two.

I loved to frequent you
After my teens and before my thirties.

You three together in a bar
I always preferred you because you were midmost
Most lustrous apparently stronges
t

Through sleep early on a Friday morning in January, you hear your phone ring. When you check, you see it is the little sister of a friend who has been scourged by cancer for the better part of two years. It takes everything you have to call her back, knowing what she has to tell you. You hear the tears in her voice as you say, “Tell me.” She does. In this moment like no other before, you realize you don’t have as much time as you think you did.

A few months later, one of your favorite peacock-feather earrings—the ones you wore to the friend’s memorial service, the ones you wore in the video of the poem you wrote for him, the ones that recall his middle name—disappears into a windy night walking through the Castro. You feel like you’ve been punched in the gut, and can’t find the words to explain why, even though you know they’re there, lulling he’s gone.

Although now that I look back on you
What part have you played?
You never, ever, were stingy.
What you gave me you gave whole
But as for telling
Me how best to use it
You weren’t a genius at that.

Your bank account suffers and dwindles and languishes, bereft of the jobs you hated but that kept you secure. You remember that an older, wiser writer friend who knows you’re a little too responsible for your own debauched literary good once told you I’ve been trying to convince you for years to go broke, and you never do it. At least once a week, you reread the email he wrote you at exactly the moment you needed it, telling you to write, just write, do nothing but write for at least six months. You do. You let go of some of the facts that previously made you comfortable, or complacent. You write one film that will never be made and one that will, the latter ending with a clutch of girls banded in arms on a Brooklyn rooftop, howling at the moon.

Against your own obsessive-compulsive judgment, you spend the last money you have not already consigned to rent or food on a plane ticket to Europe, relying on sheer dumb faith that more money will materialize eventually. You’ll be gone for the month before your book comes out, the last month before everything changes again.

Twenties, my soul
Is yours for the asking
You know that, if you ever come back.

Is it strange, over-anticipatory, to reflect on a decade not yet fully departed? You are twenty-seven. In the fall, shortly after you marry the blue-eyed man just five days younger than you are, you will be twenty-eight. Soon you will hold the physical fact of your book in your hands, bound, gravid, and real. Do you have plenty of time, or never enough? Are your twenties still your bedfellow or a comely figure receding from view? Only this do you know for sure: time is an ellipsis until it is not.

There is one moment in which all seems coincident with itself. In a low murmur, on a bittersweet summer night around a campfire in Wisconsin, your best friend since you were both changelings of 18 begins to recite from memory: “How lucky I ran into you when everything was possible.”


Laura Goode is a novelist, essayist, poet, and screenwriter living in San Francisco. Her first novel for young adults, SISTER MISCHIEF, was released by Candlewick Press in 2011, and called a “Best Book You Haven’t Read of 2011” by Vanity Fair online, as well as “a provocative, authentic coming-of-age story…full of big ideas, big heart, and big poetry” by Booklist in its starred review, and a 2012 Best of the Bay pick by the SF Bay Guardian. She is the producer of the feature film FARAH GOES BANG, which she wrote with Meera Menon. Her poems and essays have appeared in New York Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, BOMB, The Rumpus, The Faster Times, Boston Review, Racialicious, Feministing, The New Inquiry, IndieWire, Denver Quarterly, Dossier, Fawlt, and other publications, and she is represented by Ted Malawer of Upstart Crow Literary. Laura was raised outside Minneapolis, where she was a spelling bee kid, and received her BA and MFA from Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter @lauragoode and visit her at www.lauragoode.com. More from this author →