Thursday Poem: The Place Where Clouds Are Formed by Ofelia Zepeda

I have always loved the sky.

Any writer who has been writing for longer than a few months will come to recognise that there are some constants in his or her work, some elements which sneak into every narrative. One of mine is the sky, and my obsession with it goes beyond rationality. A few years ago I had to get up around 5am to get to work at a reasonable hour, and I remember shuffling up the winding wave of road that led from my house to the bus stop, bundled up against the cold, and stopping every few feet to look up at the sunrise, at the symphony of colours. I fucking loved it.

It wasn’t just a matter of timing, however; even when I came home in the afternoon, I would still be inclined to stop and look up, and after a while, I became convinced that this particular patch of sky was better than any other I’d laid eyes on. It makes no sense, I know, but it’s as if in my mind each eyeful of sky I see has been assigned to an artist and this particular patch in the suburbs of Western Sydney was just lucky enough to be the product of a maestro. I imagine there have to be some dull vistas out there, but I have yet to see it, and I could quite honestly spend an entire day simply staring upward.

It took me a while to understand why, but I have since traced it back to boyhood noontimes, idling flat on my back with grass prickling my shoulder blades, pointing at the fluffy oddness of clouds and describing what they liked like, to great debate among friends. A debate which was meaningless of course because the clouds were always shifting, drifting, falling apart, being remade by the wind into smaller iterations of their former self, reduced to nothing, and then back in a breath (it seemed), bigger and blacker and badder than ever. See, that’s what I love about the sky – it is constantly changing. Even on a bright sunny day absent of white, spend just a few moments staring at the sky and you will notice the gradient of blue slowly changing.

I am addicted to that change – it is for the same reason I can become captivated by a river, even one as dull and littered with garbage barges as the Hudson; the rippling waters, the shivering surface, the ceaseless forward motion will forever capture my attention. No doubt my addiction to change is influenced by inclement weather, terrifying thunder and storms occurring only when the clouds stopped moving fast enough and instead merged into the one huge block of bulging wetness and murk. No doubt the fact I didn’t have a stable home and moved dozens of times as a child also had a part to play; my point is simply that I am absolutely fascinated by the curvature of the world above us. So when I saw the title of this poem, The Place Where Clouds Are Formed, I knew I was in for a treat. It begins:

Every day it is the same.
He comes home.
He tells her about it.
As he speaks, his breath condenses in front of his face.

I love this opening; it’s simple, to the point, utterly ordinary and totally fucking weird all at once. It’s an evocative image, clouds bubbling out of lips, ballooning in front of his face. It would be comical and cartoonish if not for the sparseness of language, the almost-dread it evokes. I’m just wildly in love with the concept. Simply having clouds in the house would have been enough for me, but that it’s internalised entirely within him, and is emerging only when he comes home, when he is not in fact outside or in view of clouds and even then only when he speaks of this place, all of that makes it so much better, heightens the surreal nature of it.

She sees the soft fog that continues to form a halo.
She knows he is still talking about that place.
He never tires of it like she does.
Only on summer days when the air is hot
and moisture is still a long time in coming,
she asks him to tell her about that place.

Ambiguity is a lovely thing employed with enough skill, and it proves to be the case here. There are two points of it moving in opposition to each other, meeting in the middle; the first is that he has seen The Place Where Clouds Are Formed and he likes telling her of it, and the second is that when he does his breath becomes clouds. The magic realism of it is bewitching, and it is left up to you to decide, really, if there is in fact a place from which clouds come, and if they are emerging from his lips, or if she is simply imagining them. Both experiences seem very real to each of them, for different reasons.

He begins, “The first time I saw the place
where clouds are formed was from
the window of a train . . .”
Another time was in a mirage
in the heat outside Tucson.
Once he thought he saw it
in the dry light of stars.

This poem shines brightest when simple language and simple images like these are used to such great effect, with the short sharp lines having the dual effect of driving you through the poem and emphasising the power of the moments highlighted. There are one or two moments where the poem stretches to accommodate not-so-simple words which aren’t in keeping with the rest, but that’s a minor quibble. We learn that this mythical place of cloud-origin shifts, disappearing and reappearing like, well, you guessed it — but maybe not in places you would expect, like in people, as he comes to find it in the eyes of a woman.

Like a child, he rushed to look
into her eyes at every opportunity.
If he could, he would hang on her eye socket,
peering inside,
marveling at her displays.

And in turn, the woman narrating the poem sees that the place is actually in him, issuing forth when he speaks of it, and so when she is in need of shade and moisture, she prods him like he was her very own weather machine and so changes the world around her by delving into the depths of him. This is, quite simply, a gorgeous poem, and I could talk about it at much greater length but I’m already running late for a thing outside, where the sky waits, so I’ll leave you to discover its wonders for yourself.

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