Saturday, February 14, 2015

Self-portrait as Nine Sisters

We wait for you in the empty field, pulling at the barbed wire, taking the soft white tips of grass into our mouths. We sit in the field, we knit, we sew, we make wings out of wheat for the baby, we make crowns of flowers for the cows. We write you letters – we try to see your face in the mailman's face. His horse limps by the time he gets to us. We talk to the horse, feed it beets and walnuts. When the mailman doesn't stop for us, we run after that horse and throw shoes. And marbles and balls for the dogs to chase. We fight over your letters, rip them into shreds and slap each other on the shoulder, the head. Paper is hard to sew back together, but we use sturdy red thread, hang them from wires above the sink and icebox. The pencil marks skew under our fingers: “Darling” or “Daring”, “Water” or “Weather”. The dogs are no substitute for your tongue. They are warm and quiet at night – sleeping between us, they sigh and scratch. We push them out before sunrise, hoping they will dig you up, that you will lead them back in.

*Accepted for publication in Nat Brut

Self-Portrait as a Series of Jobs and Horses (*Accepted for publication in Nat Brut)

Now I'm polishing my saddle with Murphy's Oil Soap on the floor of the living room, surrounded by newspapers, toothbrushes and jars. The TV shows a white clay figure falling down stairs. His eyes are blue thumb-prints.

Now you're picking up a wooden mallet, the meat tenderizer, from a kitchen drawer and going to my brother's bedroom to beat him.

Now my English teacher, Mrs. Ruby, is bending over me, her breasts looming in tie-dye. “Where did you get this?” she asks me. “Did someone write this for you?” I look at my poem in her hands, remember the pencil an awkward stone in my sweaty fist.

Now my first boyfriend is opening his mouth wide to kiss me, drooling all over my chin. I try not to think of slugs, close my eyes and concentrate on touching his arms.

Now my professor is asking the class, “when you say 'I', who exactly is speaking?”

Now the skeletal woman who left jail last week – after killing her husband and sleeping for decades with his corpse – trembles and twitches on one of the broken stacking chairs in the corner. She wears 25 metal bangles –her tics make a metronome.

Now you're telling me you're in a telephone booth next to a parking lot full of winter. The birds are throwing themselves against the glass, leaving smears like ketchup. You say they're not real, just puppets with beaks and feathers.

Now you're ugly crying, telling me how strong I am.

Now my supervisor and I are discussing how to finish my progress notes, which are two years behind, her voice honey-soft. Below us, some homeless women are singing “The Wind Beneath my Wings” for the 50th time in the dining hall.

Now you're chubby, half-naked, riding on my shoulders. You steer with my braids, whisper into my left ear, but that one's damaged by the fire-cracker you threw at me when I was 13.

Now my brother is yelling, “No,” and laughing as he slips and falls.

Now I'm riding my father around a dark room, the shag rug yellow and filthy, the curtains tangled with dimming Christmas lights. A girl with huge scornful eyes watches from a Picasso print. The dove in her hands is trying to sleep.

Now your words are faint over the noise of the rodeo: when I turn my head to the left, I don't have to hear you, only the carnies calling for players, the seagulls plucking and stealing from children.

The Hunters Enter the Woods

The woods are the same in the beginning and the end, small and large in the distance, small and larger under our hands. We hand each other quarters, caress our guns. Our poodles whine and slobber on our boots. These trees carry darkness up to the sky. My stockings match the red flowers caught in the branches -- his hair matches the feathers in his friend's hat. Our feet don't match in size. Our feet show perspective is failing. My chest and skirt are stained already. Our eyes wobble, never staring directly at what we fear. Our hands all handle weapons that look like paper, like balloon animals. Words follow us, we can't tell if they are spoken or painted. Our ropes twist in the air, spelling out the names of those we have to follow. Nothing has happened yet. We polish and breathe, and our breath disappears like distant car alarms.

*The title and some parts of the poem are based on the Unicorn tapestries.

The Unicorn in Captivity

That one was my cousin. She told me, No one ever listens to a talking animal.

When she laughed, it was high-pitched donkey's bray, and sea-turtles and rosemary

drifted from her nostrils. She had an aversion to being saddled by children. She only

let girls brush her coat in a counter-clockwise direction. To braid her mane for 4H,

they wore nothing but ragged bras and work boots. She glued sea-shells to barrettes

and made the girls stick them in her tail. A tattoo of a purple lotus decorated her ribs,

half-way hidden by the girth. She made me a necklace for my bachelorette party,

but I was infected, quarantined. Her heart, sitting on the shelf above my sink, was

a cracked jar of bear teeth. She liked to watch “Mr. Ed” through the stable boy's

window, liked to stand quietly by the mounting block, then side-step at the last possible moment.

*The title and some parts of the poem are based on the Unicorn tapestries.

The Water Horse

Captured at the fork of a stream, the unicorn is in the water, bucking like a cow with the eyes of the girl. He is no prettier than a goat. We stab and do not stab; we let the dogs do the work. It is rumored he has a glass heart – a looking glass that fastens into your eye sockets, so you can see the world upside down, as a plant sees. If you pry apart a girl, you will only find a handful of yellow snakes. Above the stream, men discuss the unicorn, carry flags and swords. The men change size – they float above and below each other, touching the blue earth. Beyond the unicorn's horn hangs a tree they called Madonna, whose sap was slathered on skin sores or marks on the face. I don't know what we call it now. The water is a light, light blue. Ophelia, this water. In patches, it is white or ivory, the same color as his skin. A pheasant the size of spearhead floats in a small puddle to the left. With his big flat eye, he is the only thing watching us.

*The title and some parts of the poem are based on the Unicorn tapestries.

The Unicorn is Found

Small-blossomed roses. Ducks wander back and forth. I don't know where he came from, only that he's here, surrounded by dog-faced stags and lions with the look of monkeys. He washes his horn in the stream. Dogs watch and do not interfere. What draws the wasp draws the humming bird. I will do anything to stop the sound of your unhappiness. You say, tell me what the meat tastes like. The water and the unicorn have the same color skin. The hatted men point and gossip. The animals leave their mouths open – the unicorn bears the same lidless eye. A brown dog pants; oranges weigh down a miniature tree. You say, don't let him out, that's rewarding him for crying. The unicorn's hooves are split like a cow's. The rabbit is divided in half by leaves. The water is nothing but ripped white canvas, stained in patches. A cheetah lays at our feet – his eyes wild, staring at our sky and gasping.

*The title and some parts of the poem are based on the Unicorn tapestries.

Year 15

Everyone shouting, bending to each other’s ears: a row of red plastic cups spilling onto piano keys. Her necklace as it fell in your face when she loomed above, reaching for a bottle on the bookshelf. Three fingered cartoon glove hands. A man who turned to you at the bureau, sighing he’s tired of you following him. Button your blouse, he said. How the spider made you drink the first three glasses of red wine. How you braided her hair as you sat behind her all through chemistry. How the strands stunk of horse and patchouli. The musical note on her check and the hair springing forth. How she made fun of your teeth. How the building collapsed on TV, then rebuilt itself in your dreams. How you slept all in a pile that first night, pretending you were Rottweiler puppies. The slow sounds in the dark by the bed. The grunts of the walrus king, his table full of half-finished kittens. You said you had nothing to say. He said, shut up already, and handed you your skirt.

The following poems were published in the Chapbook, A is for Absence, by New Orleans Review.

A is for Absence

Outside, a field bent by recent snow. A truck idles by the shed. Red, surrounded by a black wavering cloud. I have your necklace in my boot. The music of faulty tractors, the milking shed crying and bleating. Blackened egg shells by the tip of the hose. Our dog flings himself in the air, chasing the spray of water. One eye gone white. His breath rises blue in the cold, his bark a silent cough. The metal links of your chain warm under my toes. I hold the barb wire fence. Scraps of a pink coat, caught crossing over.

B is for Bouquet of Things Other Than Flowers

For example, buttons. For example, half-eaten persimmons. You kneel in front of me, claiming you don’t have lice. Verbs to fit into this sentence: hush, sweep, cough, man-handle, howl, water. For example, the color of your shoes.

We let go of our heads – they rise up to become head-shaped balloons, tethered to street lights. Their mouths open and become nectarines, let out the weather, light rain then a freeze, circa midnight. Clouds in the shape of drifting wigs. Blue moon, yellow, a street lamp, then a light bulb, a glint. You throw a baseball at my head , then apologize with a Mar’s Bar.

For example, electrodes, or breath sucked out with a hose. I don’t know what Canada you’re talking about, I’m talking about the one that falls. Okay, I say, Okay, then you only have dandruff with legs.

The scarf means you fell out the window. The hat on the floor means you’ve melted. Trace means left over, or to draw around, through. In my head, we’re holding hands, not paper or rock or scissors.

C is for Changeling

In five languages, I am trying to learn the word for orphan. It is easier than telling the truth. I miss you, Mother, although you were alcoholic and asthmatic and you cheated on everyone you touched. Although you never wanted me, and you would rather sing songs to your seals and fish, turning into a seagull and back under an overturned boat, humming about the saints and trains. In Polish, the word for orphan is the same as the word for tin cup. Would you never speak to me again if I told you I made that up? I collected small wild things in a blue plastic bucket, showed them to my not-mother. My not-mother shrieked like a cat with a stepped-on tail, demanded I dump them back in the forest. She quivered and laughed behind curtains. Could I help it if nothing had learned to run from me? Could I help it if a garter snake, pure muscle wiggling, felt good in my palm, and even better on my tongue? I never learned the difference between my inside and outside voices. At the Allen E. Crescent Middle School, I spent my recesses collecting frogs in the puddles in the soccer field. The frogs were the size of the first joint of my thumb, all click and glimmer, then all throat, panicking breath. The fourth graders threw spoiled milk on me -- I stunk like a sick cow all day. When I crawled home, my not-mother washed me off with a hose, and made me sleep in the garage for a week. I pinched spiders from the rafters into a jar, and nestled a nest of mice in the hood of my fur jacket. My chin on the garage floor, I watched a flower unfurl itself over the driveway every morning, then wrap itself away at night. I never found the name for this flower, its fine, electric-green vines, its pinkish face like an old ear trumpet, pointing at the sky to hear. I wanted to call it orphan, but my not-mother told me that's not right, that it has another name.

D is for Dodge

I’m watching my mother drive while she and my father argue. My father tells her, “Don’t think about it, it just makes you sad.” The girl in the backseat pushes herself forward and starts fiddling with the radio. Monster Mash comes on, much too loud. “The procedure’s not as complicated as you think,” my father yells as my mother swerves around a child in a spiderman costume. I’m not feeling anything yet, or maybe just a pinch. More children, dressed like pirates and insects, lurch into view.

The steering wheel has disappeared, and there’s a pumpkin on my mother’s lap. The pumpkin has fists over its face — my mother holds it with just the tips of her fingers. Children swarm into the car. My father snaps a space helmet over my mother’s head and adjusts the neckpiece.

The girl in the backseat starts crying again, but I remember she was always crying, messy tears the size of acorns, with a sound like a kitten caught in a sewer. “He says we don’t have enough,” my mother tries to say to the children as they open and lift her purse, her skirt, but the words are muffled through her plastic faceplate.

H is for Hypnagogia

You can see my ribs coming out my eyes. You can see. You can.

I once had a dog with a girl’s name. He took the name and he shook it, like a dog shakes a rat in a field. Listen, now. The floor bends and moans like an old hip. It’s called “creak” or “crick” to my grandma, who discusses fishes, even though she is dead. To most. She sits in her oversized chair with the rough pillows that hurt my knees so, oh, and the delicate insides of my elbows. Blue, draining from the edges. I curl up inside, as she hums about water temperature, about the paperclip hook, the feathers rubberbanded to something sharp that will not let go.

You can see something’s not right with my eyes – one wanders over to the corner, sulks. My sister told me, bone infection. Rubber words, tied back to my tubing. She had been chummy with the doctor while I dreamt on the metal table. Or she was the doctor’s alter. Chewing rubber words. The fish slithering from our greased hands, on to the lawn, the highway. I scratched her double for her stupid name-calling. She whacked me like a baseball, with the broom and then, the trees or two-fisted clouds. Feathers rubberbanded to my hair, and a fish hook, like a birthmark, right in the corner of my eye.

R is for Reading

your dream journal.  In it, a tree arches down to the sidewalk, spreads its branches, becomes a large Brown Recluse.  You continue sinking slowly into the river; you continue trying to light your stove with a slipper.  Your mother appears on the back of the spider, wearing a soiled housecoat and one slipper.  She sings some Billie Holiday song.  You let go of your stove, watch it float downstream.  A drowned lamb floats to you, catches on the cuff of your coat sleeve.  You worry that the water will stain your silk.  You poke the lamb with a fork, in case it wants to wake up.

I don’t want to wake up – if I hold completely still, the spider can’t see me.   It lumbers towards us, your mother fixing macaroni and cheese on its back, complaining again that the sink’s all backed up.  I feel the clotted silverware brushing my hooves, my body getting heavy, sinking like a stupid lead crown.

T is for Two Posies

Our nurse caps askew. Bobby pins trailing. Fake clouds, pulled from the insides of pillows, strewn between the replanted pines. The lawn glowing behind everything as we ran.

We left a piece of you behind on that hospital bed. The wrong kind of humour leaking from your ears. Thy knee. Thy wee finger. Still, you managed to pull my hair back when I hurled. Ashes, more ashes.

Thy twisty ankle. Bodkin. Like bodice. Like bustle. Dimity bleached at our busts, with a corset of mattress ticking. Brown locks flowing o'er our sickly brows. Like bristles. Rubber evening gloves sewn together at our tips. Bruises covered with white shoe polish. All our shoes matched, ivory-yellow, old-lady lace-ups with heavy crepe soles.

Two girls with matching brown locks, stuffed into the same white uniform. I tried not to breathe, you cinched the sewn-in belt tighter. We tried a cure, or rather, we tried a talking cure. Thy ring-around-the-rosie.

Leeches, applied with fingers and Q-tips. Bite marks, punctuation up your inner elbow. Still, you managed to lie still while I cupped you, red welts raised, nary a wince. Our nurse caps as pale as cat ears, white triangles above our bangs. Thy false wood tooth. Thy clatter.

You kept a wee beastie in your uniform pocket – he gnawed your nails while you stroked him. You told me such tales. Thy blood and bile in bowls. Thy eye-bones, swimming. Thy buboes.


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