Days of 1979
When we slid into her dad’s four by four,
we were smart as anything. Slim,
long-limbed, we oiled our bodies
as much as the truck—hands lingering
over each curve, fender, each slender hip.
Camels, unfiltered, were the only things
we’d smoke, flicking the ashes, then our hair,
blown the color of hay dried and raked
all summer. She shifted gears,
grinding from first to fourth,
pushing the polished red Ford forward,
an eight horse engine out of the gate,
revving past the Bar-B-Que, the Sunoco,
and onto the two-lane highway, running
from town. In those days of 1979,
we were racing toward the lives we knew
existed somewhere beyond the cornfield’s horizon,
beyond the dust, beyond our town’s dimming lights.
At night, we would ignite with whiskey,
rock n’ roll, and boys on the seat.
She always said, the faster we drove,
the better it got, until the familiar oaks,
wheat, corn, bluebells and sweet williams finally dropped
away. Her lips red, her nails pale enameled pink,
she talked of skyscrapers, elevators, neon signs,
of the way the nights stayed bright in a city—-
as if we could see cities, as if we knew
what lives those cities might hold.
We hardly knew of death or the absences
that solidify into endless presences.
Our lives were all flux, rapid as a wild fire--
lost in the illumination, we never guessed
that those days of beginnings were also
days of endings; and I never dreamed
that her lips, her cat-green eyes, ponytailed hair,
her hands tapping the vinyl steering wheel,
would be the loss that sleeps
beside me nightly.
My Last Poem ☊
I am the perfect poem; I am so
well-behaved. Look at how my
lines line up like a gentle, even
path through the forest. My
tone's cultivated, gently assertive.
My meaning well tended.
I do not want to startle the
reader. No sudden bloated
opossum corpses lurking around
the corner, no stumble
into tangled thickets, chiggers,
thorns. No strange rashes
or itches, just a gentle stroll
until...of course, there's an until,
there always is. Sudden wind.
A drop in temperature.
Lightning strikes have been
detected 2.1 miles from this poem.
Take shelter. Lightning strikes now
detected .1 mile from this poem.
Severe weather has been pinpointed
exactly where you are.
Hail breaks through the lines'
canopy. A wind sheer carries
off your best thoughts. A mistake
has been made. Fatal errors have
occurred. There is too much
muchness in these woods.
Time to bushwhack your way
out. Poison ivy, ticks, copperheads,
everywhere. No matter. They
are you. This is
what you grew up with;
this is what you know.
A fellow hiker shouts over
the gale: you appear to be struggling.
Perhaps you should turn back.
To what? The melancholy of my bed,
the nursing of failing limbs,
the encroaching immobility,
a pillar of salt. Give me
what you've got. In this poem,
I will walk until I die,
I will crawl on all fours
until I expire. I will
go out as I came in.
Naked. Howling. Hole.
The surgeon has straightened
me out as best he can, my bones
fused, twined with stainless steel.
Pins harness my skittish vertebrae,
ball bearings support my questionable
spine, my sideways being.
I am myself, but a new construction,
too. People treat you different
when you are no longer bent.
I see it in their face, the absence
of dismissal. The lack of quick
and fulsome pity, the small smile.
I fear my spine, leaning, listing,
going slant again. I fear the return
to what I was. I have become an expert
on curvature. I’ve learned a world of new terms,
acquired fluency in deformity’s language.
Kyphosis. Stenosis. Scoliosis.
Hunchback. Call my misshape what you will. I could say
that’s gone, the titanium rods are all
inside, my crooked’s my secret.
But one can only hide so much. The defects are always .....there,
like the flaws in a weakened bridge,
the mending plates in a rehabbed house.
Straight’s been way overrated; the cripple lurks
inside. And she comes out, whenever there’s
something I don’t like. I tilt,
I stumble, I shuffle down the corridors. I remind
you of what you’re not. I shoulder myself
against walls. I keep the center off.
Childhood of the Storyteller
When I was seven, I told
my mother the kids at school
called me names, pushed frogs
in my face, made me put my lips
on the soft, amphibious skin.
I was an awkward child.
They did things. I placed my
version in gravel lots’ dark corners--not
the locker room's showers.
I spelled out my suffering in forked
tongue; I hissed and croaked.
The playground was a monstrosity.
I crawled into my reptile skin; I slid
into the swamp.
My parents and teachers
wondered what was wrong.
Why couldn't I tell the truth?
I twisted my hands.
For show and tell, I opened my palm:
See this polished stone; it turns
you to something Other.
Our second chance.
They washed my mouth out
with soap, set me in the corner--
red chair on black and white
linoleum squares. Liar, liar,
pants on fire.
Memory will cover the mess;
you tell yourself what you need to.
I was a lovely child. I had lots of friends.
What they lacked in imagination,
they made up for with fists.
My nose bent, broke. My mouth
burbled blood and spit. Every
crowd needs a scapegoat.
We hold the group together.
Why me? —one of childhood's oldest
stories. I made do with what I had.
I leaned into the words;
I bit down hard.
If you had to reflect princesses
all day long, you'd get tired, too.
Go ahead, they simper, tell me
I'm the fairest, the grandest,
the prize. Always, I whisper,
you wash in the looks of men,
towel dry with the leftovers.
That prince never stood a chance.
Valiant, Magnificent, Harry, Handsome,
Dick; all the same. I get weary. My words,
never enough. These girls want more.
Silvered reflection, shadowed truths.
I cast their beauty back at them---
their breasts, lips, hips, cheeks still plump
as the orchard's freshest peach.
Later comes the drying out, the collapse.
Wrinkles, sags, erasure.
And then, dear girls,
nothing will save you. No mud tinctures,
pharmacy grade ointments, holy water, snake oil,
botox or filler will stop the desiccation.
Then you’ll break me into thirteen jagged pieces,
but each shard will still tell a tale: once upon a time,
this princess was beauty, now she is revelation.
Am I the wickedest? Look into my tarnished eyes.
I was you; I paid the price. Every girl has to.
The-it-can't-happen becomes the-happened,
age's impossible black shoe squarely on one’s foot.
Here, on the other side, we become something
different, crone-shaped and powerful. The blue skies
no longer thrill us, we want storms descending.
Winter's cold winds, the loss of permanence--
oh, we plan to sing and dance in the subtraction.
With each loss we grow, until finally, we are nothing,
and everything—the sum at the end,
the sheet covered mirror.
How to Leave Yourself
Wait until the day rubs against you
like transparent silk and your skin
feels as smooth as an extended nap,
the only disturbance the coming dusk.
Stare at the diminished light, the place
where orange sky sinks into field.
Walk to that exact spot and step
through, not as though entering water,
but cautiously climbing—
right leg followed by left
as though lifting yourself over the last
Whatever you do, don’t look back.
The wheat shimmers in the moonlight;
the rustling of the elms’ leaves
sound out your name.
It’s so much easier
than you ever would have guessed.
Behind you the shadows of a girl with raven hair
sink into mud, manure, cornfields, dust.
What you walk toward is vaster
than the solar system and smaller
than a single pore upon your body.
What you walk toward reeks with a honeysuckle
scent. It’s as tall and persistent
as the Johnson grass you once knew.
It’s as dizzying as the top of the tallest
white oak, shaking in lightning storm’s wind.
It is the culmination of every night
slept beneath a red-starred quilt—-
dreaming of the rutted paths the cows take
when they never come home.
She cocks her head with its long brown
hair, and talks down to me.
She’s like an ice queen, a princess.
In my house.
The world revolves around her.
I am humbled by my new
insignificance. My minor role
in this tale.
I provide shelter, food,
I provide something to ignore.
While wolves didn’t leave her
at my door, they might as well
have for all the affinity she has
for me. The mammal smell I emit is faintly
musky. We both scent female.
We both use our mouth to eat.
Here the similarities end. She’s
in this story because she has to be.
Until she finds her exit
which she’s steadily sniffing for.
I didn’t bring her into this world,
but I still feel guilt. She
doesn't care how she got here,
what it took. What she would like
is Out. And my middle aged body
is so blocking the way. She'll
study me, she'll watch how
I maneuver. And then she'll
mimic my words, my tone,
my clothes, my gifts.
She's a brilliant impostor.
All survivors are.
Like me. When they brought me in,
I was bloodied and torn.
I might be her mother.
Or the hag with the apple.
And what about love?
If we could just insert a red
thread of warmth, a yellow
strand of care, then we might
have a better story. One that
doesn't have to end
with the body in the well.
One that opens in a new direction.
I fed her milk. I warmed her
hands. Death went to
a different door.
The Princess and the Pea
I opened the window, started throwing
things out. Goodbye love, so long typewriter, flowered
flounce chair, whiskey tumbler,
full ashtray, unsmoked cigarettes.
There goes ambition, bounce,
bounce. Next comes love, the pink and red
starred quilt, the delicately stitched moon patterns.
No more having to lie in what I've made.
I keep looking for that tiny pea of disturbance,
that one word if erased, whited out, rephrased,
would let me rest. But nothing comes; I am blankness.
Cover my wounds; shroud my sorrows.
Out go the photos, out goes the phone, out all
the maimed writings that refuse to add up.
Soon it will be me flying through the window. Down,
down goes the princess. How did I
get this so wrong? I just wanted a little quiet
rest. A pea safe inside a pod. I wanted to crawl
down deep into the heart of everything, a seed snug
in layered dirt. I wanted the world to cushion me,
like layers and layers of inflatable bedding. I wanted
Costco sized security. No wonder it was never
enough. The entire world is my disturbance---niggling,
needling, the stone in my shoe.