The Thirteenth Labor

Jonathan Wells

For Hercules, the thirteenth labor,        is allowing the mortal lovers to goback to their separate beds unreconciled,        to leave well enough alone,                to let their oaths uncouple        from their stars, to abandon the                            strange planets            to the idiosyncrasies of their orbits.        To shun the power that Zeushad given, Hercules searches for fortitude        along an ordinary shore where all wavesreach their breaking point, some staring        with demonic eyes                        while others lapthe beach rhapsodically.        Recovering, he asksthe heavens for extra strength, not sleight                        of hand or muscles he’d flexed beforecleaning or slaughtering or filching        the golden apples of the nymphs.                    He prays fora mind that would leave the lovers                    alone with their distrust.        But that is another fantasyof self-possession, of holding himself in check,                    letting love be love; love refused, or        breathing lightly or unloved                    like unpicked apples. The lovers’ slurs,staccato, strike the night and he is                    certain that turning away        is his one impossible labor.

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Photo:
Juliet Wells

Jonathan Wells is the author of three collections of poetry with Four Way Books: Debris (2021), The Man with Many Pens (2015), and Train Dance (2011). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, AGNI, Bennington Review, and many other journals. He is a co-editor of the New World Translation Series with Christopher Merrill and lives in New York.

“At a moment in history when simply breathing is fraught with social and political implications, to be inspired, that is, to breathe in, implies a new metaphysics. Debris, Jonathan Wells’s third poetry collection, invites us to ‘inhale the page’s fragrance and complete the scene,’ as Wells does throughout this most inspired work. And in so doing, he breathes in a rich archive of literary culture, the debris of late capitalism, the emotional debris of human relationships, and the glorious debris of lived experience. Wells makes himself vulnerable to the world to remind us that the personal is political, yes, but the political takes up residence in the body in much the way these poems do, at a cellular and most intimate level.”
—Gregory Pardlo

“The sense of timelessness one finds in Jonathan Wells’s Debris typically comes to us through translation, often from the position of exile, as if we require perspectives shot through the prism of another language to better see the lives we are in. As his speaker describes, ‘An unexpected story moves me / toward the window. Is it mine / or the one about how the pylons / crumbled and the planks fell.’This book provides a mirror to the country in which we now reside, that has for so long been unrecognizable.”
—Cate Marvin

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