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essay /nicole callihan

Updated: Apr 2, 2023


Things I’ve googled today: bardo, anemia, syllogism, Stephen Crane, bitter heart, animals that sleep the least. Did you know alpine swifts have been documented to fly 200-days nonstop? Two hundred days from now will be May 20, 2022. Two hundred days ago was April 15, 2021.

And then I thought to fact-check myself. That surely the birds do not stay in flight for two hundred days, but what I found was the common swift which has been known to stay aloft for ten months; to eat, sleep, and mate in the air. The common swift, so very uncommon. A neighbor writes to tell me it’s cold, to wear a hat. I chuckle a little, flattered he’s thought of me. How impossible to match up inner lives.

The oncologist concerns herself with my chest wall. I’ve been waiting for an hour, but the clock is broken so it’s as if I’ve just arrived. I’ve just arrived. Soon, I’ll be leaving, and the clock will remain unchanged. I’ll have just arrived and be just leaving. Simultaneously, I receive this information from the internet: not every bird is eaten whole by a cat.

For context, I somehow “created a room,” and when I couldn’t “uncreate” the “room,” I sat “alone” in the “room” and stared at “my face.” Every time I picked up my “little computer,” it told me I was “waiting” for you “to join.” For context, “birds” became “domesticated” around 5000 BC. In China. Probably for “cockfighting.” Later, food. See: “other” human uses for “birds.”

Flora. I wanted to send Holly flowers. I googled a good florist. The “best” in her “town.” I asked her twin sister where to send them. Her twin sister said, “Holly is in a room where you can’t send flowers, Nicole.” I pestered her. This was around eleven hundred days ago. I stared at pigeons through a window. What were they eating? “How about now?” I asked. “Stop, Nicole,” her twin sister said. “You can’t send Holly flowers. Holly’s dead.”

It is too dark to walk to the river, and I am too regular to drown myself in it.

Woman with lampshade as head. Woman with sheep. Woman with rake. Embarrassed woman. Bored woman. Cold woman. The witch’s tit. Woman with male peacock feathers stapled to her shoulder blades.

Thought by the ancients to be a type of swallow with no feet, the swift never settles voluntarily onto the ground where it could be vulnerable to accidents or predators. It is 9:35 am. Twenty-four hours from now it will be 8:35 am. Two hours ago, at 7:43, I took a photo in which the sun looked exactly like the moon. This is what I mean by arbitrary.

Because the moon had moved into Scorpio, none of the inhabitants slept.

I sent the twin sister flowers instead and got on an airplane. The time was changing then too. Not that time actually changes. It is the clock that changes. The clock being our agreed upon tool. When I was little, I had the number to Time & Temperature memorized. I’d call and it would tell me what I wanted to know. It is 10:01 am and 34 degrees.

It is too soon to walk to the river, and I am too bright to drown myself in it.

Overnight, each of the tools I use to measure time, becomes wrong. I wander around in a torn nightgown recalibrating each. I tell the children about the change. They ask why I call them the children. Why do I call them the children?

Also, there is bee pollen, which the doctor recommends. She says if I do not wish to feel like I’m on fire, bee pollen might work. I recall a story about bee excrement, yellow rain, a whole country of people made infertile and/ or in pain and/ or what is this feeling? Insecure. Inert. I thank the doctor; order the bee pollen on my phone before we finish speaking.

The inscrutable. The desire for accurate representation or making. In the room I made I placed an invisible couch on which we might make invisible love or I might take an invisible nap. That night, Kristin slept in the bed with me. In the morning she asked if I slept okay. I said yes. Very well. She asked again when we were drinking licorice tea. Again, I said, yes. She said, you don’t remember any dreams? I said, not one. She said, you were fighting something. You were terrified. I said, oh. She said, but I think you beat it, I really do. And yet: some relief. To dream is to sleep.

Listening to the radio later, or earlier, I guess I should say now, I became afraid of the dissolution of the world. Salt in a glass of water. The stirring.

It is too late to walk to the river, and I am too heavy to drown myself in it.

Scientists, for their part, secured the common swifts with tiny backpacks which weighed less than half an ounce. Inside each backpack were a light sensor and an accelerometer to detect and measure vibrations. Sleep detectors were too heavy for the bird to bear. At least this was true in 2017, alongside a finite number of other disarticulations.

One year ago on this very day, the doctor ran a scalpel alongside the underside of my breasts then up through the axes and around the nipples. When I woke, my mother was playing Words with Friends in the corner. She looked small and tired, her legs folded up under her. For several days she tried to get me to hold a feather pillow at my chest and cough. “Nicole, you have to cough.”

There is the if then structure but also other structures and while I can’t say I’m most interested in the other structures I’m most interested in the other structures and the ways in which they shape what is probably not the body but what might as well be.

It is appropriate here to review very briefly the aerial life begun by the swift at fledgling time. Often the nest is too cramped for it to exercise its wings fully before it actually leaves. Lack describes how in such confined conditions it does “press-up” exercises, the wings pushing downwards so that the body is lifted from the nest-floor. Perhaps this is how my eldest daughter describes her childhood to her therapist.

If the river has a bed, and I sleep in a bed, then I must sleep in the river. But what of the birds who can’t fly? The penguins and steamer ducks and kiwis. It’s like when you stare at a word for so long it begins to lose its meaning.

I admit I’m dependent on clauses, the heft and weight between commas, the curve—and though I’ve sworn to Zoë I’ll stop using the word “ache”—the fucking ache in the spaces, in the words themselves, in the if, the then, the of, in the what are you of, in the where have you been and where are you going, the cardboard box, the cage, the silt between your toes, how you once said you’d like to kiss the tip of my nose, but truly, I’m dependent on clauses even more than on the body, how the body was one thing, how the body became another, is becoming another, will become other yet, but the clauses, these units of grammatical organization, this is soul-making.

To splay and unsplay. Display. A speckled egg in a glass case on a fireplace mantel.

Do I mistrust the body which betrayed me, continues to betray me? And me? Who’s me. Or two who’s. The sound an owl makes.

We do know, Lockey continues, that the parents, returning with food to the nest and finding the young bird gone, are for a while at a loss: they behave in a frustrated manner, make no attempt to go forth again. Eventually, though, they swallow the food-ball they are carrying. They may sleep at the nest for one or more nights, before soon abandoning it, and joining the migrating flocks.

I might have appreciated more that I didn’t have two feet of scars holding me together, or that I had enough energy to write the letters which I had enough energy to carry to the mailbox, or that the dog sleeping at my feet was no one’s dog but mine, or that once, so in love with the ice cream was my daughter that she licked her bowl clean.

Which is to say I meant to wash my hair today but after running my fingers through the nest of it I decided it wasn’t as bad as it might have been. There’s no one to blame but me.

And now it is the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the twenty second year of the twenty first century. I mention this because I get such a thrill when I stumble into a piece of writing with a specific date. A specific day where a specific mind gathered specific words in a specific way.

The specificity! The grace!

Or the grave, to which my phone autocorrected me. The predictive text following; the cat who dragged her in; her feathers, that little rubber-banded beak.

Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the meerkats. Blessed be this A-train, this stop which is not mine. This moan which is mostly of my mother’s mothers’ mothers, but also of my own weak throat.

And I dreamed yet another dream, and told it to my mother, and said, Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars, and my mother said, the shade of some dreams is the shade in which you might rest, but these dreams are of the sort made from stainless steel and secured around your ankle. See also: very nice gifts for parrot lovers.

It is too cold to walk to the river, and I am too numb to drown myself in it.

In this version, you have come into the room. It is remarkable that in your pocket is the key which fit the lock. In this way I know I’m dreaming. Thirdly, my thirst. And fourthly, what is forthcoming is merely the ilk of the visible.

O agile aerial athlete. Screaming sky sprite. My urban summer. Swooping and wheeling between beakfuls of airborne plankton. The commonness of numbers. When I cannot sleep, I count backwards from thirty-three, and if I think of anything besides the preceding number, I make myself begin again. I have never gotten to one.

The weekend Jim died we were supposed to drink beer and play poker. Though none of us much liked beer or could remember, without googling, the rules of poker, and his wife said, “Jim’s dead.” And I said, “But what about the game?” And she said, “There’s no poker game, Nicole. Jim’s dead.” This seems to be the way things are playing out.

My aunt’s sour flowered blouse. The yeasty bread rising. And once, how the whole house smelled of maple syrup, how it made us not exactly hopeful, but at least a little drunk, so pungent and sweet, a politic of pleasure until we discovered there was a leakage in the air conditioning coils.

The quill. Primarily a primary-wing feather. Long and hollow. I have cured the shaft to harden it. Now I will tell the story I always tell. The seagull feather I found outside the Sanitary Fish Market in Morehead City. How my mother told me it was nasty. How I hid it from her and, in the dark, sucked the salt of it. How shame is a sort of rheum. The scale of it. What’s quelled.

It is not my intention to lick your face, but if your face is near, and my tongue is out. If, then. If, then, yes. If yes, then.

And what of the ouch, the touch, the you on my invisible couch, perched up on my invisible pillows, my invisible feet on your invisible legs, your invisible fingers rubbing my invisible arches, my invisible socks balled up on the invisible floor. The shaft of afternoon light through the window.

But to be parsed. What is my syntactical role? Here, I am the subject of the sentence, or my I is, my I with the space heater and the elephant mug. It is not lost on me (predicate subject) that I long for company and so I lock myself alone in this room and seek a single moment of terminal punctuation.

It is too pointless to walk to the river, and I am too gentle to drown myself in it.

To be pantiless, penniless, penile. Juvenile. To be frank. In the 80’s, my mother’s best friend Jan was married to Wallace but having an affair with Frank. “Frank—” she yelled out one night to Wallace, and then “—ly.” Frankly, I couldn’t love you more.

In order to communicate with each other common swifts scream. They often form ‘screaming parties’ during summer evenings, gathering in flight around their nesting area, calling out and being answered. Larger ‘screaming parties’ are formed at higher altitudes, especially late in the breeding season. It’s a little like the Christmas party at work, how every year I wear my sequined J Crew T.

On the eighteenth of November, men stood on tall ladders and wrapped lights around a tree in downtown Brooklyn. It was surprisingly warm. “I” got “that song” in my “head.” It’s beginning to look. “It” being the world, I suppose. “I” was “feeling” sorta “normal,” like a “person” might “feel.” “Later,” “I” would “meet” a “friend” at a “museum.” For “now,” I’d “write.”

Dawn texts to say that she is a “big grieving baby.” I imagine a diaper and tears, then think of swollen ice caps, of the black eyes I got several summers ago, of the bill that has come in from the insurance company, of how, at some point, we are all “big grieving babies,” but “in the end,” we’re all “just dead.”

It is too beautiful to walk to the river, and I am too kind to drown myself in it.

And then, evenings like this, I wipe the marble countertop and put hummus in a little glass bowl and pour Xhardonnay and pet my dog and tell the children insightful tales about my childhood and wonder if I am this woman or just a parody of this woman, if either matters, if one is any better than the other.

I keep meaning to look up more scientific information regarding the common swift. Being that I am employed at a major university, I have been granted access to the deepest web. There is no paywall, and yet, I keep returning to the easy thing. What’s free.

The word was intimacy, and the woman said the word several times, like how you might hold saltwater in your mouth to try to rid yourself of a canker sore; tongue the molar; stand too close. I hadn’t meant to like anything, or even give any indication I was alive. Thumb as operative in betrayal of self.

Let me be clear: I’ve only swam in a river a handful of times (waded thrice); a lake twice (remember?!?); the ocean maybe 6-8 times. I’d rather be burned alive, possibly on a stake, maybe just in this pretty home. Succumb to cancer. Get hit by that famous bus. And much, much more than any of those, if I had to choose, I’d rather just fall from the sky.

It is too easy to walk to the river, and I am too chickenshit to drown myself in it.

Let me be clear. Let me be. Clear. Let me. Be clear. The clearing, the being. The exhaustible exhausted. Let me be. Leave me be. My horoscope says that letting go of what was makes room for what is. Deep.

The past perfect. [Had] plus [past participle]. Past perfect negative. I hadn’t known until I knew. That one had been a child. Candy cigarettes. Pussy willow. A little red flag on the back of a bicycle. If time is a Bobo Doll. Then. See also: my grandmother’s pecan tree.

Which is to say: it has to be a bird which can sustain flight before it becomes a “bird which can sustain flight;” it has to be an empty room before it can become an “empty room;” a poker game before a “poker game;” flowers before “flowers;” life, “life;” river, “river;” an I for an “I.”

And now, two hundred days from now will be July. Remember July? Neither do I.


Nicole Callihan‘s This Strange Garment will be published by Terrapin Books in 2023. Her other books include SuperLoop and the poetry chapbooks The Deeply Flawed Human, Downtown, and ELSEWHERE (with Zoë Ryder White), as well as a novella, The Couples. Her work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Colorado Review, Conduit, The American Poetry Review, and as a Poem-a-Day selection from the Academy of American Poets. Find out more at

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