where i’m at

where i’m at is disarray,
a winter without snow,
a question mark on the compass.
leaves of ink bind me to
this world;
if it wasn’t for the stories
seeping off paper
i’d know no due north.

“patience is a virtue” is a cliche
i want to crumple
up like the tissue in my palms,
throw it out into the refuse
of scattered thought.
if there’s anything i’ve gleaned
from our fractured mythologies

the sweetest words are the ones
we ought to avoid
the most. surely the bitterness
only means my taste buds
still work.

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something else must be true

“and I go out to walk.
The bare blue trees and bleached wooden sky of April
carve into me with knives of light. […]

“Crops of ice are changing to mud all around me
as I push on across the moor
warmed by drifts from the pale blue sun.” + Anne Carson

And I go out to walk.
And I go out to walk.
And I go out to walk…

I’m supposed to write a poem for my students, about hoodies, and how hoodies are not just hoodies, they act as barriers from one world to the next, placed between the visible and the invisible, the heart and the matter, are in fact mark of somebody dangerous, somebody slick, somebody not to be trusted, somebody to be silenced because the head covered is a relinquishing of voice, like Ariel drifting from sea to earth, there is no fair or equal trade off, ever, and this slightly thicker cut of cloth denotes me murderer, and therefore, fit to be murdered by weaponry ignited by words. I’m supposed to believe in a “better” where death does not exist, is not sewn or cross-hatched into the fabric of the garment I threw on to face off against the cold on my walk into the outside, the street-wise intensity of sound and light and smaller lives enough to make my spirit want to bleed out onto the sidewalk, the tiled floor, your hands as you tear it in half and call me no good SOB unladylike slob go back to the gutter where you came out of —

I’m supposed to write a poem for my students, and let them know, the story’s messed up, this is all wrong, these are the places in the hearts and minds of humankind that are false, the real untrustworthy, the real murderers, those who go out into the street without the protective mask (or hood), faces raw against the winter frost, uncaring, unfeeling, constantly feeding on the grief and harm done to the teenagers in our cities such as yourselves.

The hoodie, is no easy matter. The hoodie, is a risk. The hoodie, hides and bandages the wounds
that leave a history of red and black silhouettes etched into the memory of our youth, wounds that proclaim a dangerous day where the two are inseparable, and we believe nothing else but death to be true.

Hive Mind

Below noon, the sky bright and clear, and I am coaxing sunlight through plank and glass with the trill of my tongue when Mother Hive approaches, muting my separate song with the Drone of Legion. It buzzes and clogs my sunlight, turning it sour, and Her one-thousandth eye fastens on me, clicking incessantly. I know She does not mean to ruin my only voice, but I feel loss all the same.

“What do you do, Honey?” The Legion thrum pounds through my eye sockets and jaw, reverberating against the goldenrod comb-house, making the windowpanes shake with a grind of their own. In Her skull, the eye is whirling, taking in or trying to avoid the light, and behind Her voice are more chattering and bickering.

I wince. I hate Hive’s default name for us. Me. How uttering that name and the echoes it creates can destroy so much good light. Despite what it means.

The triangular comb we float in seems to constrict when I reply. Sweetly:

“Goodness. I am participating in the below noon Goodness. Emptying my eyes…”

Legion rises with a blackening roar, forcing my tongue blind. The sunlight becomes crystal, plummeting through the air about us, shattering on the slanted planks of silver, sliding out of reach.

Outside, (outside), the sky remains pristine, blue and high overhead, untainted by the angry hum of Mother catching my lie and crushing it into tiny, yellow-bright pieces. There are no angles to the sea of above, no sharp lines quelling song.

“What do you do, Honey?” One click, singular, sweetly smooth. They are all listening in now.

I turn back to the window, stare up at the deaf sky, a muted sun, and feel nothing.

Nothing and all.

Entering the new year

“She wants to know what is true —
not partly true, or sometimes true,
or almost true. She wants to see
Truth itself, face to face.” + Amanda Bible Williams

“And I can’t keep from wondering
Why nothing good could ever stay
Why faith feels like a fistful of sand” + THRICE

The weather on the river (and here in the northeast) can’t decide what it wants to be. Sunlight, rain, snow, ice. My mood and spirit are no different as we sprawl out into the new life of 2019. Uncertain, afraid of what will be next, the work to be done by unworthy, unpracticed hands.

In two weeks I’ll be (gulp) student teaching. Me, who once shrank back against any and all available walls whenever speaking in front of others, let alone teaching others, was mentioned or part of “the deal”; me, the quiet/shy girl that no one knew, but no one had a problem with. The one who balked at the idea of becoming a teacher because… I was a whole lot of not enough.

I have spent too much of my life in that headspace, and my spirit continues to linger in the graveyard of who I once was, afraid to step into the new body of who I can and should be.

This spring the first book I will be teaching is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s timely, really. At first I was ready to approach the novel from an ethics point of view, focusing on the question of what makes a monster, a monster — but as I actually began rereading the novel, I couldn’t ignore one of the larger themes of the story, all too present in Frankenstein’s narrative.

Grief. Grief, and what it does to the (human) mind and spirit.

We grieve often during the course of our lives. Not just after losing a loved one, but also after disappointing somebody important to us. After making a decision that cost us a scholarship, a better grade, a relationship. We grieve and regret when we realize things could have, and should have, been different. We get stuck. We don’t know what to do, if it would be better to quit all together then continue on the twisted, rocky path that seems to be leading to terrible places. Who do we turn to for directions? Who wants to be around our failed selves, dirty with our shame, our secrets, our mistakes? How do we respond to those who are in the midst of this grieving? This sense of doom, dread, loss of the better?

How do we turn back, get off the wrong road?

… These are questions I have for myself this new year, questions I will, undoubtedly, bring into the classroom with me as I question: why do I want to become a teacher? Am I doing the right thing? Am I following God’s call on my life? Am I honoring these young men and women, who are going to graduate in June and go on to careers and colleges in September? What discussions can we have before they head off into adulthood that will have meaning and purpose in their lives?

What drives people to do the things they do, in the end?

“It is over. It is winter and the new year.
The meek are hauling their skins into heaven.
The hopeless are suffering the cold with those who have nothing to
hide.
It is over and nobody knows you.
There is starlight drifting on the black water.
There are stones in the sea no one has seen.
There is a shore and people are waiting.
And nothing comes back.
Because it is over.
Because there is silence instead of a name.
Because it is winter and the new year.” + Mark Strand

A Giving of Palms

a turning over of lilies, preparing the dirt
for new rows of white. Teeth in the hillside,
cut on family lines and blood. Gaze

a drop of rain in the sinking pool of memory.
I did not want to return to this place.
Avoiding eye contact with the headstone

so dead set on sinking into mud,
I was.

II.

Nights out west, breath coating my mouth
like tiny fractures of starlight overhead, I gave pause
handed over a moment to the God
who took away so much more from one I loved,
not understanding, not comprehending
“the work” being “wrought.” Bullshit

and hoof stomps reverberated in the dark, opening
my mind to the possibility that yes, sure,
each and every one of us might one day die —
but what does that have to do with me?
Then: it is all too close, take away the stench

of death. Horses can’t be near it too long, and I am
drowning in it. Our legacy

will be one of plum trees that never bloomed,
coated in first-fruit’s blood. A mark to
pass over.

III.

I imagine those rolling skies to be
the handiwork of infantile hands, no regard
for the life that stirs and snaps and breaks

with each sweet pang of ignorance, the laws far removed.
A baby playing on a piano bench,

shrill joy curdling in our ears down below. Not music,
much less symphonic genius. Just dissonance. Havoc
and distance. I wanted to go away

become deaf to what the passing of autumn dropped
so unconcerned at my feet walking through pasture,
to a hopeless nowhere, a “fly over zone,” where
bodies go missing under mountains of snow. Anywhere

but in the moment I got the call. The prayers must
have been all mechanics, because they didn’t work.
My palms folded into fists and cracked

against earth, trying to create a fire that even God
couldn’t ignore.

IV.

“Nothing but hair and nails is left when the body
is laid in the ground. Two, three years. All
it takes. The flesh and eyes shrivels up. Eaten.
The worms get hungry.”

A glance of a disgust, then the tentative question —

“What about the teeth?” Thinking of lilies. And unspoken,

Since this would be the year your body disappeared,

is there the chance for resurrection if the body is taken away
by God’s own creation?

V.

“We are walking. A small mini-you, clutching your hand,
wearing pink that matches the tulips flanking
our sides, my hand grips yours, holding on for
“dear life,” afraid of getting lost without you —

a hand that, years later,
would almost blind you in a fit of rage, knocking
your glasses against your face, scratching it, all because
you told me not to be stupid, not to go —

a hand that reached out when I found you cowering
in the dark of your secrets, afraid of being caught,
but more afraid of how you got there in the first place —

a hand that clasped your back when I was spit out
by the cruelty of the east, and departed
for the black hills, searching for —

a hand that held yours when you laid, unconscious
or asleep in the hospital bed while I read you Psalms, trying
to ignore the sound of your last breaths, the knowing
I would never see your blue eyes again –” STOP

The tape comes to a screeching halt–

V.

Death is the only experience you cannot prepare for.
After, it is like living on one side
where everything is as if nothing occurred all while

your hand is still in that other place, reaching out,
flailing helplessly. And you pray incessantly

that no one finds out just how defeated you are inside,
because you know that no matter what,
the smiles disappear like crescent moons into black,
our bodies unravel into dust, that we are not
invincible, no matter how much we do or know

and the only hope you have from now on,
is that your palm, extending out to receive
on the other side, is met

not with teeth, honed on familial regret
and desperation

but an olive branch given freely
from the hands of those we lost.

Rest

“Loneliness is a science—
consider the taxidermist’s
tender hands
trying to keep from losing
skin, the bobcat grin
of the living.” + Kevin Young

Two weeks ago I dreamt of my mom. This New Year’s Day, she will have departed the earth for three years. The absence of her life, and what led up to her losing it, is like a stone that hangs around my neck that I swivel around until it presses against the wings of my back where I cannot see it. But every now and then things happen, I am rocked this way or that, and the stone crashes back against my heart. Heavy and huge and demanding, almost knocking my own life out of me.

That is not to say that her memory is cumbersome, unwanted. It just so easily slides into the background, out of the frame, a blur in the (otherwise) focused lens of the timeline that stretches on still.

In my dream, she was still alive. In my dream, she was in immense pain. I read her a story from a children’s book and she fell asleep, and I promptly woke up here on earth, where she is no longer.

I cried and cried on my way to school that day.

Right now I’m in the middle of practicum, co-teaching a senior class on creative writing and the creative nonfiction genre, and this dream, the weeks that followed, I keep returning to. I keep wanting to say something — but I don’t know how to articulate all the strange and miniature connections between this class and our life stories and my mom’s death and how I had to stop last week, sick, to actually rest, and yesterday, had to purposely turn off and leave my phone at home while running errands because I wanted to be alone…

… but then remembered the hole where my mom’s life should be, and what that loneliness feels like. Awful and gaping and easily hidden behind racing through traffic to get to the high school, playing Nintendo DS to take my mind off the readings for class that are starting to pile up on our coffee table, clacking away at the keyboard at work ringing somebody out.

I am taking the time to write this because I didn’t write it then, when it was all happening and then swift like a crash of thunder shattering glass it happened. And a good deal of the time, I try to go on as if nothing ever had, like it’s a footnote in the pages of my life.

There is something more to be done here, but I can’t quite… articulate it, put my finger on what’s wrong. Maybe it’s the refusal to stop and grieve, like a ghost of a sob that hasn’t made its way out of my gut and throat and mouth all the way yet. Maybe it’s a cautioning, a “hey, slow down, don’t run the red light… hey, you just broke the law.” Maybe it’s just me and I’m making all this sad stuff up.

I meant to write about changes in my life, but I came here instead, to the intersection of life and death, reality and dream. Trying to retrieve what shouldn’t have been lost in the first place.

Morning writing from riwp OAI

Beside me lay the river, ‘lay’ as if it were passive, not trickling like a vein through the city, expanding and retracting with season, alive. Bound to the land as a circle of salt that washes up memory every time you cross the boundary of pipe marking it separate, different. Cars whittle through the street on a mission, headed toward a bright fluorescent future. The river remains in the shade.

The consequence of growth is that we forget what dwells in the former, so transfixed as we are on the latter, the what could be, the farthest point away from here, anywhere but here. In a distant lifetime farmland existed in this place. Whispers of stone crushed like oyster shells grip the now pummeled landscape of the empty lot staring at me from across the road. We think, the farm disappeared, vanished like fog, died out like a creature gone extinct, barely hanging on. We must bring it back, revive its DNA.

But we’re the ones who turned, continued down a road that changed from dirt to stone to tar to paint. Trying to retreat into the hollow spaces beneath the trees lining the riverbed, I stumble, realizing that I share more in common with the fabricated cylinder fence than I do the dirt, the scraggly leafy growth. I ingest data and numerical code, information in bits and pixels, work on their rhythms, permit and willingly allow them to soothe my haywire mind.

We talk of the future, of robots and clones, but we are here, aren’t we? And I see now that growth can imply static, a wall of white noise to silence the truth of real living, emboldening us to continue in a dream of comfortable ease, where people and answers are a click away, where the problems of the world do not start with the reflection staring back at each of us from the riverbank.

Minor things: an essay poem

I.

A tree branch cracks gently, a wind pulling it this way and that. Night has fallen. Somebody, an old friend, reaches out for the first time in years. ‘Hope all is well,’ the sanitary notes we attach at the end of each message following a ‘happy birthday’ or ‘congratulations’ like citations. They’re stale like communion wafers. We know this. But still I wonder,

Should I respond? Continue the dialogue and hope the formality drops?

Say, my father saw you in town. Wearing a black dress. What have you been up to? What is your name now? (Because of social media, I know a little, or a whole lot, of the ‘well.’)

Mention: I keep running into your mother. She never looks happy to see me. Her body turns away even as she staples those same empty sayings to the ends of her sentences. ‘Nice to see you. Take care. Be well’ trailing behind her silhouette stepping neatly into the faceless crowd, anywhere but where the two of us crossed paths.

Do you think it means something, is a sign? (And should I say this to her next time?)

Or should I say nothing at all, and carry on with the easy, lukewarm peace of not involved?

II.

There is nothing more pleasant than the not dissimilar smells of molasses and cow shit wafting on a lemonade breeze (curried with sun and salt from our sweat). ‘True work,’ hung out to dry.

We are heaving vegetables from the dirt and the vine. We are hefting larger produce from our hearts. Healthy, rotten, soured, and ripe. Blossoming red like a tomato, round in our palm, easily smashed to pulp that leaves stains you wish it wouldn’t on clothes you shouldn’t have worn.

It’s kind of our fault, in the end. I write this and hate myself for it.

I don’t know what to think when a farmer, a woman two years my senior, says, ‘You know, it’s never too late to go back.’ I’m still swallowing, digesting the knowledge that she knows my family business and I have just outed our sad situation, thinking it sacred, safe, hidden in the reeds (or rows of squash and potatoes and cucumbers) among strangers.

In the heat of the day, I want to cry and tell her that I’m sorry. And that I understand, the desire to regain like sand sifting between fingertips as we claw into the earth the legacies those before us carved out of the land.

III.

I just want to be plucking that stupid red fruit from those pollen-saturated vines and ruining my good gym shirts with their guts.

I just want to be beneath the blue sky again.

I just want to be able to laugh and cry normally again.

I just want, to stop the wanting.

To take hold of all I have.
And to love it with every measure of my being.

And to be covered in its guts, too. Thanks.

IV.

“It is a horrible fact that we can read in the daily paper, without interrupting our breakfast, numerical reckonings of death and destruction that ought to break our hearts or scare us out of our wits.”

Wendell Berry

V.

In the future, I will be able to walk a few hundred feet to a river and not be afraid of its depths, the presence of it so comfortably situated in my everyday existence.

I find this striking, the ease with which we settle into new country, unfamiliar territory,

even as we raise our fists against what is wrong or bad with our land, the people around us, who is in power, cursing it all with the same ill will we despise so greatly in these different, not entirely separate, climates.

In the future, I will be able to walk a few hundred feet to river and not be afraid of its depths, and instead

will look closely at who it is that is staring back,
and observe
how the stones cast in her reflection
affect the whole riverbed.

Undine

Brackish, the uneven edges
of salt and purity, a category that sticks
wrong on the back of my tongue.
I swim the narrow without thought
Of what lay in the muck of sea and spring
what silver-white scales of fish
shimmying beneath my feet
like the eyes of God

What terrible unknowing, what strikes
like stone against sight

What leviathan shame slices into our bodies
floating in sun-bleached amnesia
with rows and rows of teeth like pews
stark and proud, ready for meat
asking our senses are you willing
to forsake everything?

This word is clay and jumbles my mouth
dragging my speech to the dark blue
outer orbit away from beach line, a command
to behave, sink quietly, be good
give
up
the earth
and never

These echoes, cast down like lead
I peel off in scales, no longer
filling my ears with an end

The white pulp
of this heart is bare in the black river
and the salt tells it to let go

binding me back to land.

Poem: widow

Maybe we can’t go back to our former lives
curled up in excess of absence

[Retreat to the windowsill, eyes
spliced by moon and moth
-eaten shadow, remember your hands

in that place, waiting to touch
whatever swam in a night
outside of mirrored glass . . . ]

The scene is dissection. A glance of a knife

against the rock of our emptiness. Chipping away

at the rotted wood, the peeling green paint
(hands once young)

now vapor at dawn, chasing memory like dust.
and I’ve lingered too long. The knot
does not come undone in the darkness that
pools all around

the darkness that swallows it and us whole.