Jason Labbe

from Dear Photographer

That Ache, That Echo, You Can’t Put a Thumb on It

We never bothered with parties because we set out to remember. Those graffiti kids, they put that lie up their noses, but you and I were born with stars for teeth, a night sky more like dyed cotton than burnt foil and foul residue. Nights I stayed home and you came back to Brooklyn after openings and one-point-five Manhattans, I knew better than to ask the impossible with only my hands. But I wanted to know everything! (It would be years before I’d realize that the answer depends on how you phrase the question: a fistful of blonde, hand around a wrist, teeth on a shoulder.) We’d lie side by side on my futon and I’d listen to you stuff your thin mouth with greasy hotfries and grow wistful. Once, you asked me to tell you about my most uninhibited lover, and I lamented the graffiti girl, riddled with piercings like it was still fucking ’97, who dressed like a petty thief from upstate. She didn’t do lines and lie like the other kids, synthetic and raggy, but smoked opium alone and spoke purely in abstractions. It was too much to want to remember. But yours, he was an architect, old enough to be my father, who found the softest part of your throat when he swallowed your whisper, back in San Francisco. I still always picture myself with someone older, you said, and streetlight snuck through the gap between the curtains and cut a line up the floor. Call me jealous, or just young and poor. From the wrong coast I accused the architect of being too old to even know the bands of the day, imagined him in a pleated suit and grey. It would take me a decade to assemble what I really meant to ask: If you stay twenty-six until I’m twenty-seven, will you stay.


A Night Sky More Like Dyed Cotton Than Burnt Foil and Foul Residue

Have you ever played White Light/White Heat for the other name on your mortgage and they just didn’t get it? Talking over the dirty fuzz—the whole A-side—blather so boring you don’t hear a word. Not even interesting as the weather. Waldo Jeffers shakes his head, not yet stabbed.


The great anti-beauty lies in all the ways the Light and the Heat take a two-ton tympani mallet to the most banal thing: freshly buttered toast, the inexplicably high phone bill, pajamas and coffee on Sunday morning. Volume and distortion take over, and the buzz of brokenness belies the fresh sage paint on the cedar siding, brand new rubber on the Subaru, the grass freshly cut in exacting lines. Sometimes you just want lightning to strike all of it, over and over. 


And straight lines are vacuumed into the shag rug, unless I splinter the Danish coffee table—sleek on tapered legs, rare—and fill the fireplace. I lie on the floor, alone in the light of the flames, orange glow burning whiter, pop and crackle of this record I borrowed from my hometown library and never returned. As a boy, I didn’t get it. But sometimes you hold on to something because your gut tells you it has potential, can develop over decades into true love. That time, I wasn’t wrong. After all, these were the ballads that drew Nan Goldin from suburbia to the Lower East Side. But me? I followed a girl from my hometown who dumped me ten minutes after we got off the train, leaving me to spend two years memorizing the subway lines before I could appreciate a good skull tattoo on a drag queen, her long and vulgar cigarette. Dressed in silk, Latin lace and envy . . . Lady Godiva neatly pumps air. 


Last month I looked for you in a small theater in MoMA. I watched The Ballad of Sexual Dependency two times in a row, the first time struggling not to weep, the second time in a murderous rage as the boy sitting next to me looked at his phone through the first half of the slideshow. His digital glow, white and terrible, corrupted the gorgeous analog grain—every bedroom off kilter, the syringes not quite perpendicular to the vein, the cocks at acute angles in unforgiving lighting. I told the boy, get the fuck out now or I’m going to kiss you.


I will never finish your sentences because I want to hear you say them. We both know at least half will end with New York, or younger, or the nine million other words laced with nostalgia, a trace of regret. That ache, that echo, you can’t put a thumb on it. 


The needle catches the runout groove, the living room goes dark, and my landline doesn’t ring. I want the version of you that is on my wall—not your long skirt, social graces, or bottle-blonde, but the desire appearances protect. Desire that beams through a lens, the window; prismatic and neatly scattered in the morning, then as blue moonlight and silence washing over our separate, distant back yards. 


Driving to the Airport and Picked Up Speed

With a continent between us, 

I will type a totally California 

sentence: Blonde is the hardest 

color to wear. Yellow, even more so. 

To want a handful of one 

is to say every lude thing about the other. 

Stars are for the mouth, too bright 

to be just yellow, if you feel 

summer go dark. Once, paying 

the cashier with my belt buckle 

against the counter, in a Starbucks

or whatever, you slipped 

a ten spot in my back pocket. Then,

at the little table, I watched 

you push out the melting centers 

of peanut butter cups with your slender 

middle finger, neither in my mouth. 

Our iced teas were sweating 

the same Northeastern sentence.

Later, in my truck in a random lot near 

the airport, your flight was delayed 

and there was only realism: 

the rainbow façade of the vintage 

bowling alley, two lollipop shaped 

trees at the edge of the parking lot, 

and the shabby hotel next door 

where nobody ever falls asleep.  

I could hardly stand how bad 

I wanted to untie your yellow 

sundress, afternoon concealing stars 

with sun, relentless. Maybe you noticed 

the sweat I deserved, on my brow.

What image could ever represent 

your lowering ache, the year spent alone 

suddenly desiring my greasy hand, 

how bad I wanted to suck the trace 

of chocolate from your finger? 

(No one cut the tension, I still can’t 

sleep.) Even if you could stoop to another 

medium, say video, we’d still be left 

with that breeze barely turning over the leaves 

on the skinny young trees, all the jet wings 

above but never their gleam. Then, 

fever dreams of the exploding fuselage. 

I’d rather have you wave down from the plane

farewell, forever—than live anywhere 

outside the frame, the future picture, 

a yellow field above a promise of stars.



Author Bio

Jason Labbe is the author of a recent collection of poems, Spleen Elegy (BlazeVOX), and his work appears in A Public Space, Boston Review, Poetry, Conjunctions, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. He is a drummer and recording engineer and splits his time between Bethany, Connecticut and Brooklyn, New York.