- Featured, Poetry, Reading, Writing

Crusoe’s Islands, by Jess Yuan



The first wave that would
swallow our harbor
swept both dead and crawling
onto the raft of islands
he had shot and skinned
and woven together
with great care
these many years,
announcing over sirens:

If we don’t survive this,
then nobody will.

Through foam on our shoreline,
Crusoe gathered the bodies
who begged him,
all the creatures
human and brutal.
My hands he insured
against my failures
and shook firmly
though staring
to the left of me,
like a flashlight beam
in the star-dead sky:

Sign here, citizen,

beneath the spongy astroturf,
whose membrane I stitched
with my cousins,
like folds of bloated intestine
against the lukewarm sea.
My floating hands preening
the moist mesentery wall
I hardly recognized
as my body.



I was the brightest girl
of the island. I was born
emitting sunlight
when my mouth opened.
I took count of my bones,
all I possessed
between glowing organs
to rehearse within me
all possible outcomes
of speech:

The future of this life is mine only,

and Crusoe closed his doors
behind me as he answered:

I agree—we disagree.

That is how I found myself
bound to Crusoe’s house,
which is raised fifty feet
in the mast-light, which is clad
in ten inches of kevlar
to insulate against
the heat. Hail drums
dull and thudding above us
while sweat-salt and cresols
soften in what he would name:

This is your sitting-place.

There was nothing to do then,
though I intend to appeal
to my embryos, who are
each arm of the law.
They will be happy then
and within their rights,
for I was not idle
and had spared nothing.



When water first rose
above my childhood,
we lay rope
between the mountains
melting softly to the ground
and swam between one
and another tracing
their proper names.
I could not imagine
the continent
Crusoe would heap
upon me, his reserve
of humming hollow steel
and his language
pouring into whichever
glutted channel
might resemble speech:

I will name you the last day,

his writing hand
warm with permission.

What nations remain
went floating past our barge
crying for assistance
like an implacable cat
at night. I would steer
my fevered hands in darkness
between shipwrecked mounds,
which lit up their warning
with blackened trees
sprouting mid-waist
from the water, scattering
their burning leaves.



Through heavy silver mud,
the council raised their eyes
to Crusoe’s idle motor
docked out of reach
from the lice-picked hillsides
his drilling burned into.
Slow bending cranes
swept water
from the asphalt below,
like tablecloth
clinging to the empty laps
of those he kept
under his advisement:

Even when I had nothing,
I knew better.

He stood to impress
the prickling mass,
his ledger, his audience,
the hemisphere’s
last living herons
circling overhead.
That is another field
that remains hidden,
my fidelity to his speech
the disaster
I could have told him
but instead
stared into the cliffside
marking its discontinuities
to myself,
while Crusoe decided:

Not a culture worth saving.



When the governor
turned his lighthouse to us
through blackened rain
next morning,
I stood over his crescent
of white grade-A sand
and turned windward
to his ventilator
blossoming, pulling
ice-clear cloud cover
into the gentle caldera
funnel where he sat
with a silver tray of
real frozen sugar
waiting for Crusoe’s
highest praise:

I hear you, but—

was the most he
extended to me. I felt
the upper reaches
of what I had promised myself
descending slowly,
beside the heavy
golden storm,
buoyant above
each jurisdiction:

though lastly,
to manage expectations—

the governor whispered,
Crusoe leaning in.
Everyone wanted an island
to be an island,
though no man sat beside me
to cast trembling nets
of human hair
into the coming era.



For all the drowning summer,
my cousins refused
to touch ground,
though Crusoe would sail
along the traffic island
between six-lane streets
of rotted clinging tar
ramping up the sunken
terminal dock,
marching toward
the shining plateau,
where he had lain fields
of his inventory
rammed into the soil,
like flags. This was how
he claimed his generosity:

A good problem to have.

Above pockmarked landfills,
Crusoe hid his salvage
from the wreck,
anything useful
from any nation,
his diving watch and diplomas
and the crumbling rust
of hybrid cars,
mammalian and reeking:

Survival is a well-kept ledger.

He held my shoulders.
It was difficult
to imagine the beginning,
when there was only
one heap for each year
of our future to endure.
And now there were
many years.



Before Crusoe’s arrival,
when only the meadow
would float ankle-deep,
I would hide with my cousins
in a circle of trees
keeping chickens
in a round patch of sunlight.
The clouds would not
move over us or
blow away a worse season
until wind-storms nudged
Crusoe’s battalion
to our yard and my animals,
who had once so politely
expelled their lonely eggs
now slunk down to lay sideways
and cry through weeks
of quilt-batting rain:

Tomorrow is an other other day,

we believed, although
the land was not
so narrow then
or humming with Crusoe’s
turbine fields.
I would go up
on the hillside
blasted by jetstream
that now in these days
all the sunburnt men
with snowmobiles
have chewed up:

Buy me a mountain
I can feel something for.

Slamming papers
on the receptionist’s desk,
frothing for a meeting
with Crusoe.



Crusoe marched
past the cemetery
and plague ditch,
past my cousins
peeking over the walls,
past puddles barely dry
of blister-burn water,
where we waded
past the knees
in the parking lot
of a sinking atoll.
A circle of men
strung around Crusoe
on their last soggy
dimple of hillside,
while thick-gloved women
hovered on the crumpled
sheet-metal hood
of their rafts:

Are my only powers powers of refusal?

How I miss
those other moments
of strange, quick grief in my life
when I had known already
what it would take
to undo this and when
I was not sorry for myself:

There’s nothing to be sorry about,

Crusoe said,
plucking snails
off the silicone storm skirt
to dissolve in the water below.



Crusoe passed the archipelago’s
only three-story house,
shifting his weight
from one pillar to another,
while the wooden
sidewalk creaked above
tepid cloud-pale water
kissing away each wet crumb
from the scaffolding
above the hemisphere’s
last remaining
daytime market:

Do you know how lucky you are?

He said to three women
eating real fruit
with skin smooth as crayon,
on a balcony lined
with rust-free railing
across the street
from the city’s
only open window,
where children line up
for their month’s ration
of oxygen and fumigant:

There is no space for all of you.

I clutched at my organs
to hear myself unthink.
I kept dry in a staircase
with my last surviving cousin,
above the waterlogged
two hundred square feet
of air-rights parcel
the city sold off
to anyone who could watch
over its abandonment.



Our last island was
hedged in by an ocean
so tiny I had to stand
on the lower rung
of Crusoe’s chair,
dodging rippled froth
of boiling water
lapping at his steel-toed boots,
refusing to extend
my hand to the minister
and clutching his papers
to my chest. The price
of each island dock
was sliding down my body
when Crusoe announced:

Only then will our work be finished.

I saw the general admiration
for Crusoe’s dry temple,
the shine of his mouth,
the gleam of refrigerant
circling like veins
over his shoulders.
I emptied my ears to imagine,
tracing each step
I could have taken aside
before falling
to Crusoe’s conclusion:

It is time.

His hands rested on one
ten-thousandth scale sea-wall
modelled in real cement,
meant to span miles
of the globe’s luckiest state.



I did not win the lottery
this year, the only one
remaining. Crusoe’s
smaller hundreds sat in rows
on the tarmac huddled
into the smallest shadow
of his den and palisade,
as if waiting for
the king’s motorcade,
with his golden stamped visa
to the highest continent,
while Crusoe disembarked
shrugging his pearls.

Even afterward,
when I was made
sensible, I could not believe
this squint of the mainland
with its golden telephone poles
and glass obelisks
cold as ice and hollow
enough to stand in,
spraying mist on sunbathers
in medium-length queues
eating real tomatoes
among ferns that grow
when no one’s watching,
what I read to my embryos
every night:

We each survive our own way.

So I tell them my fears,
like a tourist. I tell them
the worst thing
I can imagine
as if it were far away
and only passing through.



So much life wavered
squirming between
heavy smoke and turpentine
sludge, which when rubbed
between two fingers,
was absorbed into skin,
distended, punctured, like film
over a steaming
microwave dinner:

That is my body

I am describing,
the womb that was
brittle, skin
nearly transparent
when Crusoe’s sons
snapped forth fully grown
and abandoned my carcass
to find asylum
on the mountain,
the last blue sheet of glass,
the only floor remaining
level and dry.

What remained of me
floundered with shellfish
between heat-shrunken pines,
large stones and small
voices, and the eyes
of Crusoe’s sons
tracking hunger
on the burning slope,
small gelatinous spheres
that once stared
at me living. As if
I could pull them
from the coming days
and return to the ocean
and they would watch me:

clean and whole.


(Image: Gerhard Richter’s 6.2.96, 1996)

  • Jess Yuan is author of the Slow Render (winner of the Airlie Prize) and Threshold Amnesia (winner of the Yemassee Chapbook Contest). Yuan has received fellowships from Kundiman and Miami Writers Institute. Her poems have appeared in Best New Poets, jubilat, Tupelo Quarterly Review, Pleiades, Ninth Letter, The Journal, and elsewhere.

Leave a Reply