Language Distilled

Doctoral candidates at FSU discuss the art of poetry

(page 4 of 5)

Barrier Islands

illustration by charles bakofsky

By Erin Hoover

Now and again, you order the steak dinner 
for yourself at the mahogany bar in this 
Jersey resort town where your grandparents 
courted. Here, in the only restaurant open 
among the shells of Victorian summer homes,

after Sandy’s apocalypse, you want to know
if “steak dinner” still means what you think
it does, sirloin and a side of potatoes, or did 
the hurricane change that, too. Most here 
wait on insurance money, the rare window lit, 

others gaping as skull’s eyes. It’s been so long
since you talked to anyone. It’s as if disaster 
has tuned you differently, into an ascetic 
with edges filed sharp enough to need 
the soft containers of others. So one night 

you try talking to the couple next to you,
a toned man you soon learn is a gym instructor
on the mainland, his frizzy, grinning girlfriend
who works for a bank. As you swipe through 
their phone snapshots, their concave roof, 

tempested balcony, they say they hate 
out-of-towners. Do they mean you? 
Your hurricane left you mostly untouched,
your beach cabin roof dinged, a few feet 
of carpet to replace, that’s all. How uneven

circumstance can be, even to people close 
as neighbors. There’s a TV show now about
Amish kids, where teens from farm towns
like yours try out being English—as if your 
coming up boiled down to bad dance music 

and abundant jello shots. On the show,
one kid stands in Times Square and says, 
I’m a sheep in a pigpen. Now, the bar declines
the couple’s credit while you’re off taking
a piss. You find they’ve emptied your purse

and gone. You left it because you believe in 
what academics call gemeinschaft—the notion 
of community ruled by unified desire,
where we depend on one another to survive.
But this is the horror show of individual will,

gesellschaft, each unto their own. It’s no use 
expecting more of any evening than 
to drink our gin, pay the check, and disappear 
to our cold rooms. He’d told you about
his first job here, a boy scooping ice cream

at the parlour where decades ago, you begged 
for a cone. She’d offered to buy your dinner,
flashing a wallet of prepaid cards won
in a raffle at work. How nice they were, good
at being nice. How they seemed like friends.

Erin Hoover’s poems are published or forthcoming in “The Bennington Review,” “Crab Orchard Review,” “Narrative,” “The Pinch” and “The Volta,” and her work has been anthologized in “The Best American Poetry 2016” and “Best New Poets 2013.” She lives in Tallahassee where, as a doctoral candidate at Florida State University, she served as editor-in-chief of “The Southeast Review.” She is originally from Pennsylvania.

Reprinted by permission of the poet. 
An earlier version of this poem appeared in “The Nassau Review.”

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