The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Lisa Birman’s “How To Walk Away”



     Only the sky is big enough for numbers:
     Only the sky is big enough for names. So even when I can’t get to it, I get to it in my head. I place the clouds exactly where I need them. One less thing to navigate. One more thing to take in hand.
     I note the new names of the hospital and file them in with my collection. The nurses and therapists. The doctors and volunteers. Some of the drugs could be people. Especially in another language.
     With the clouds exactly so, I punctuate the names. I place one after each movement through the alphabet. When I was walking, the clouds were in control. I might still have six great J names and have to move on. It led to a certain inexactness. Or incompleteness. I used to wonder if I might have gotten there without the cloud cover. If the skies had been more open. It would work the other way too. I’d be all out of M’s and not a cloud in sight. I’d try to move to the N’s, but some part of me would stay behind. Wondering what the clouds were trying to tell me. If I wasn’t meant to go quite yet. If there was more to know.
     The exact spot in the sky was always changing and always steady. I wouldn’t look at it but it was always in my sight. Which isn’t to say it was peripheral. A cloud could move right next to it and it didn’t matter. I didn’t even have to think about it. I knew the patch that mattered. The one that triggered change. It was maybe the size of my outstretched thumbs and forefingers making a circle.
     It’s strange that the sky is more mine in its absence. I can see the smallest slit of it from the window. Mostly I see roofs and walls. But there’s the smallest patch of sky. Too small to rely on. The clouds move through too quickly. I’m lucky to get three names per letter and I never get to five. I learn to turn away. To use what’s inside me. Maybe the other space was bigger than thumbs and forefingers. It must have been more like an open circle. Like I was holding a beach ball.
     It helps if I focus on a space. My eyes aren’t exactly closed. There’s a gaze they teach in the meditation class. Where you’re kind of looking down your nose but not at anything in particular. It works better than eyes closed. It lets me make things up. Which I think is the opposite of what it’s meant to do. I look down into nothing and I see the open blue and let the clouds pass when they pass and I go through my names.
     It’s easier when I’m alone. Which is the same as walking. I don’t like to lose my place. Which happens in conversation. Or attempted conversation. I don’t like to get interrupted by anything but clouds. There are always people in and out of the room. If I close my eyes sometimes they think I’m sleeping. They still do what they do but at least they don’t talk to me. If it’s not too long I can keep the sky going. Keep the clouds moving across. Even while they’re checking the chart. Changing an IV. I just keep my eyes closed. Keep going through the names. Some of them probably know I’m faking but they let me do it anyway. Maybe it’s easier for them too.
     I think about how it will work later. It probably doesn’t do much good, but there’s a lot of time here. Time enough to go through the options. Imagine the scenarios. Whether the imagined sky will work on the outside. Whether I’ll be able to do it when I’m actually walking instead of walking in my head. The imagined world is eyes down. The beach ball is up. It seems that might matter. I try the imagined world eyes up. I try it for three days and can’t make it to five. It’s distracting in a nonspecific way. I can make most things work, but not that. The imagined world is down. There’s nothing I can do about it. I try shifting it up just a little each day. But there’s a way of looking down the line of the nose that just works. I get what I get from it. All of the sky. The clouds. The numbers and the names. But I know that there’s more. I know that there’s also a calming that can come. With the not looking. I know I’m not doing it right. I’m not even trying.
     There will be months of inside before I get out. And now I can walk without walking. That’s something I can keep. Even when I’m back on my feet. All of those nights trying to let Cat sleep. I’ll be able to pace them out. I’ll have the night sky. Maybe that’s what I need to find the names.

This selection comes from Lisa Birman’s novel How To Walk Away, available now from Spuyten Duyvil Press. Purchase your copy here!

Lisa Birman is a poet and novelist. She has just published her first novel, How To Walk Away (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2015).

Lisa is the author of the poetry collection For That Return Passage – a Valentine for the United States of America (Hollowdeck Press), and co-editor of the anthology Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action (Coffee House Press). Her work has appeared in a wide range of well-respected poetry journals and she has published several chapbooks of poetry, including deportation poems and a trilogy of chapbooks in collaboration with Berlin-based singer/songwriter Josepha Conrad.

Lisa has been teaching writing in the United States, Australia, and the Czech Republic for the past fifteen years. She served as the Director of the prestigious Summer Writing Program at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics for twelve years and continues to teach for the MFA in Creative Writing.

Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Lisa moved to New York via Seattle in 1995. She moved to Boulder, Colorado in 1997 to pursue her MFA in Writing and Poetics. Now a dual citizen, she’s still Australian at heart and often trades the Colorado winter for a few months of Melbourne summer to spend time with her family.

Lisa resides in Boulder, Colorado, where she works as a freelance writer and editor. She is the editor of a forthcoming collection of letters from Frances LeFevre Waldman to poet Anne Waldman, Dearest Annie, You wanted a report on Berkson’s class (Hanging Loose Press), and is currently completing her second novel.



Beth Couture‘s work can be found in a number of journals and anthologies, including Gargoyle, Drunken Boat, The Southeast Review, Ragazine, and Thirty Under Thirty from Starcherone Books. She is currently working on her MSS at Bryn Mawr in Philadelphia.

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