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The Bell System
Adam O. Davis

Goodnight—Mary, Jane, Pat.
Sleep tight, you sweet operators

of America, your voices strung
like laundry across this nation

drowsy with a full century’s worth
of light. There’s nothing you

can’t tell me that I haven’t already
heard gift-wrapped in your General

American grace, but still I wonder
in what chamber of a horse’s ant-

eaten skull I’ll recover my youth.
Our human garden grows rich

in these green suburbs and what I feel
is not so much loss as a lessening,

as if the self was nothing more
than a late-model sedan crossing

the city limit in search of a better
resale value. It’s funny, this franchise

of molecules that fizzes up in each
of us, like motels viral along the interstate:

some full while others flicker and die.
When will the stars rain down

like cheap plaster? When will language
be little more than a dandruff shaken

from our heads? Ladies, you tell me
the number I’ve been calling has been

disconnected, but where did the person
it belonged to go? Alone on the line

I find only a prairie alive with funneled
wind, a nation heavy with wheat and light,

its chorus of dim voices locked in a kind
of pharmaceutical sleep. I find a system

unchanged, charged with electrical pulses
that send the receiver scurrying in its cradle,

the longhand breath of ghosts rising
through switchboards to ask Who’s there?

Well, tell me. Who is there? Who goes?
Ladies, please wake up. I want to try again.
from the book INDEX OF HAUNTED HOUSES / Sarabande Book

sREAD ABOUT TODAY’S POEM
The Mary, Jane, and Pat referenced are Mary Moore, Jane Barbe, and Pat Fleet, whose voices were used for The Bell System’s automated messages. Given my book’s focus on communicating with the economically and supernaturally displaced, these women’s soothing, spectral omnipresence in the world of disconnected numbers proved irresistible in exploring how we approach loss, so much so that they serve as a Greek chorus—or spirit guides—throughout my collection.

Adam O. Davis on “The Bell System”