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Contributing Editor Vievee Francis talks with the Los Angeles Review of Books.
“IN FOREST PRIMEVAL, winner of the 2017 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, Vievee Francis summons a wilderness — equal parts the wilderness of America and the wilderness of the interior — that takes us off center. I know and love that particular North Carolina wild that Vievee has described, having lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains myself for a stint, too. Vievee and I have both since left those mountains, and during our conversation, which took place during her weeklong residency at Claremont Graduate University, we laughed about living in a place where there might be snakes on the porch or stinkbugs nestled in the curtains. That is, a place where that wild thing in the world and in the self feels nakedly present and abundant; one has to face it. And it is so, in this book: a segue from Vievee’s vivid persona poems, those extraordinary masks, into an articulation of her own personhood — a speaking of the black female body, this marvelous, terrified, joyful assertion of her name in a broken country that would otherwise un-speak it.”
Read at LARB.
Posey woke me up that first morning in Jaconita. She stood next to the bed in her underpants, clutching her princess nightgown in one hand and her Mother Goose blanket in the other.
“Mommy. It’s hot.”
I reached out and touched her round face. Warm. Too warm? I couldn’t think. We’d gotten in late last night and I was sleepy.
I looked around at the pink walls, the ceiling fan whirring overhead, the French doors that opened out onto a patio. On the wall hung a print of Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Oriental Poppies,” their petals red and orange, their centers deep purple. There was an O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe and I wanted to go. I’d never been to New Mexico before and I wanted to see a kiva, I wanted to see everything.
“Where are Daddy and your sister?”
“Fleur is eating. Daddy is outside. Grandpa is grumpy. Grandpa got mad because I don’t have any clothes on.”
I felt a familiar thrum of anxiety. Fly eleven hundred miles to Albuquerque, rent a car, and drive an hour and a half in the pitch dark down unpaved roads, so that the child’s grandfather can get mad at her.
“Grandpa gets mad for no reason,” I told Posey. “You stay away from him, okay?” I got out of bed and she toddled after me into the bathroom, dragging her blanket. I was going to launch into an explanation of why Grandpa was so fucked-up, but thought better of it. She was only four.
When we came out of the bathroom there was Bernard in jeans and a black t-shirt. He was tossing the pillows off the bed. One by one they sailed and hit the floor with a thump.
“I lost my hat,” said Bernard. He reached under the covers and felt around for a moment, exclaiming “Aha” as he produced the offending red knit hat. Then with an air of triumph he placed the hat on his bald head.
This spectacle was for Posey’s amusement but she only gazed listlessly at the floor. Bernard looked at me for explanation.
“Fever,” I said. We had been married for six years and had mastered the shorthand required to deal with frequent child situations.
Bernard went to find the thermometer while I sat in a wing chair next to the French doors. I beckoned to Posey and she wilted into my lap. I thought I would melt from the heat of her. Her brown hair was damp. Her entire body was hot to the touch, as though the fever would consume her from the inside out.
Bernard knelt next to Posey and turned on the thermometer. He brought it to her ear, and in a moment we peered at the screen. It read 103.5.
I thought I must have read the numbers wrong. We had only just gotten to Jaconita. How could she be sick already?
“Well, look at that,” said Bernard. “You have a fever, little girl.” His voice was deep and soothing. It was a good voice for a father. You didn’t want the father of your child running around yelling hysterically when she had a fever. You wanted him calm, decisive.
I remembered something the pediatrician had told me. “Bernard, the fever is too high. Just Tylenol won’t bring it down. We have to give her Motrin, too.”
Bernard nodded. He disappeared into the bathroom and fumbled among the luggage. I sat there looking out the French doors and just then I saw Bernard’s father walk by. He was looking at the ground and muttering to himself. He had done the same thing at our own house in California just a few months ago: He paced up and down the sidewalk, around the backyard and the side yard. Sometimes he walked around the block, picking up trash off the street. He collected cans and bottles for recycling, too. He’d take a garbage bag with him, and only come back to the house when the bag was full. When he had amassed several of these bags he would drive to the giant recycling center in west Oakland and stand in line with the homeless and dispossessed, getting cash for his bottles and cans. I imagined that the other people in line looked more or less like him– unkempt, clothing dirty, shoes worn down at the sole – although his situation was completely different from theirs: He had a full bank account, investments, a paid-off house, and a veteran’s pension. I knew he found those dispossessed people contemptible, yet he was willing to stand among them for an hour or two. And when he came back to our house he would comment, pleased, that he’d made $50, sometimes as much as $75. He had been a child during the Great Depression, something that a person never got over.
I did not mind these excursions of his – I myself was better off when he stayed outside. Inside my house, he hovered, he micromanaged. When I left the refrigerator door open for ten seconds he ordered me to close it. “You’re wasting energy!” When I used a can opener, he told me I was doing it all wrong. When I dialed the telephone he demanded to know whether the call was local or long distance. And was I was dialing direct, or using a long-distance code? “Use my phone!” he yelled. “It’s cheaper!” Nothing escaped his notice. He behaved this way with everyone in the family, and they all tolerated it. I was the only one who resisted.
While Posey languished in my lap, I smoothed her damp hair off her forehead. From inside the bathroom I heard the sound of zippers, the rustling of plastic bags. When we traveled with the children, Bernard enthusiastically packed bottles of children’s cough syrup, antihistamines, fever reducers, wet wipes, Band-Aids in all shapes and sizes. He was the original Boy Scout, I would tease, and he would reply: “Eagle Scout, thank you very much.” I didn’t tease him now, though. I was glad we didn’t have to drive to Santa Fe hunting for a pharmacy.
Bernard emerged, shaking a plastic bottle. He poured a teaspoon of orange liquid into the plastic dosing cup. Posey watched suspiciously and then she arched her back and twisted away from me.
“No, Mommy!” she wailed. “I don’t like it!”
I held her tightly. “I know, sugar,” I murmured. “But the medicine will make the hot feeling go away. Now be a good girl and drink it.”
Posey gave me an evil look. Then she sighed. She took the cup and drank it down, wincing theatrically.
Outside, Bernard’s father stalked past the French doors. He appeared to be going in circles. In the stifling dry wind, around and around he walked.
In the kitchen, Bernard’s niece opened the refrigerator.
“Ooh,” she said. “Cookie dough.”
Maya was eighteen years old, and six months pregnant. She ate constantly. She was not married, and this was a scandal in the little world of the family. To the grandparents, what she had done was unthinkable. Hazel had told us that the baby’s father was from Mississippi. “We’ve never met him,” Hazel whispered. Then she added gleefully, “And I don’t think we ever will!”
Maya had flown to New Mexico alone; her father would arrive tomorrow. She was staying in a separate wing of this huge, rented house. It was so huge that we could all stay here for a week and tolerate each other. That was the idea, anyway. The adobe villa went on and on, with its sprawling courtyards, its five bedrooms and bathrooms, its two living rooms, its vast dining room whose table seated twenty. It was absurd.
Maya took the roll of cookie dough out of the refrigerator and slit the package open with a knife. She sliced off a hunk and took a big bite. Then she looked sheepish.
“Oh god, I’m so rude. Would you like some?” She held the roll out to me and Bernard.
“No, thanks,” I said.
“I’m good,” said Bernard. “But you enjoy that.”
Bernard’s father came into the kitchen as we were talking. A former Green Beret, his shoulders were broad, his arms huge. He saw Maya and recoiled visibly. Then he saw what she was doing and his eyes widened behind his thick glasses.
“Maya!” he sputtered. “Your grandmother bought the cookie dough for the children. The little children. You are not a child!” He waved his finger in the direction of her swollen belly. “You’re, you’re…Oh, crap.” He turned and rushed from the room.
Maya shrugged. “My mom says that grandpa is like really messed up because in the old-timey days his family didn’t have any money. You know, like he buys stale bread and stuff and his shoes are all old and gross?”
There were so many possible responses to this that I found myself unable to choose one. Also, I was wondering where Bernard’s father had gone. Maybe he’d resumed his patrolling of the perimeter of the house. Still, I reasoned, he would not have heard what Maya said even if he had been nearby, because he was quite deaf. He had to turn up his hearing aids or he missed the gist of most conversations.
“Maya,” Bernard said. “You’re eating for two so don’t worry. I’ll run to the store and replace that….what is it? Cookie dough?”
“Aww,” Maya cooed. “Thanks, Uncle Bernard! You’re so cool. I wish my dad were as cool as you. But that ship has sailed, right? Ha, ha. The cool ship.”
Hazel came into the kitchen then. She was a round woman in blue polyester, and it was she who had organized this family vacation, including the extravagant villa. She was determined to bring the family together.
Hazel eyed the open roll of cookie dough but, thankfully, ignored it.
“Well, I think your father is cool, Maya.”
Maya nodded. “You’re sweet, Grandma.”
Hazel turned to me then. “Baby Fleur is outside playing. Where is Posey?” Her tone was vaguely reproachful.
“She’s sleeping, Hazel. She has a fever.”
“Well bless her heart, isn’t that a shame.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Bernard’s father hovering near the doorway.
Hazel changed the subject now. “Whose turn is it to make dinner?” she asked brightly. “I’m not going to do it. I’m on vacation!”
Bernard’s father spoke from the doorway. “You’re always on vacation,” he scoffed. “You haven’t worked in twenty years.”
Hazel put on her most unnatural smile and I could see that she was gritting her teeth.
“We’ll make dinner,” offered Bernard. He was the peacemaker. I was just about to object when he pulled me aside.
“I’ll do everything,” he murmured. “Don’t worry. You just take care of Posey.”
Bernard and I retreated to our bedroom to check on Posey. She would awaken soon because the fever reducers were about to wear off. I lay on the bed, speculating about how much sicker she was going to get, and whether her sister would catch it, too. I mentioned this to Bernard.
“I think Posey has altitude sickness,” he said.
“I looked it up. Jaconita is at 5,728 feet. She is having a reaction to the elevation. It’s very common.”
“Our vacation is making her sick.”
Bernard snorted. “Yeah. But it’s not contagious. If Fleur was going to get it, it would have happened already.”
I made Bernard open his laptop and show me that altitude sickness was a real thing. Then we discussed calling a doctor, and we decided we probably didn’t need to do that as long as we could keep the fever down. We watched Posey sleeping. She lay peacefully on her back, looking beatific. She was always perfectly still when she slept, waking in the exact same position in which she fell asleep.
Bernard nudged me. “Listen,” he whispered. “I was thinking of going to the big flea market tomorrow. Saturday. It’s only on the weekend.” He watched me uncertainly. I would be the one to stay home with Posey. It went without saying.
“Okay,” I said. “You get tomorrow.”
Bernard looked surprised. Had I really folded so quickly? He looked at me cannily. He had made a selfish demand, and I had met it. Now the next move was mine.
“I want to go to the O’Keefe Museum.”
“Of course,” he said. “We could even go together. On Sunday.”
“If you can get Hazel to watch the children.”
“Done.” Another marital negotiation, concluded.
The doorknob turned and Fleur appeared, holding her stuffed otter. She was two years old.
“Posey is sleeping,” I whispered. “Close the door, baby.”
Fleur closed the door with exaggerated care. “Shhhhh, Mama,” she admonished.
Bernard opened one eye. “My mom might go to the flea market, too. And Maya.”
They would all go, then. And we did not talk about it, but it was understood that Bernard’s father would stay, too. He hated outings.
That evening Bernard made spaghetti. Hazel sat outside under an umbrella and read a romance novel. Maya watched a movie in the other wing of the house. Posey lay curled up in an armchair, watching cartoons. She was fully medicated, with only a slight fever, but she was too tired to run around. Meanwhile Fleur raced around the house and the outdoors, as healthy as ever.
I was applying a cold washcloth to Posey’s forehead when I heard Bernard’s father yelling at Fleur.
“Calm down! Go do something productive! Read a book! Goddamn kids are out of control.”
Furious, I dropped the washcloth and headed to the living room. Bernard emerged from the kitchen, holding a wooden spoon. He saw the tension on my face and the forward motion of my body and he raised one hand to stop me. “I’ll handle it,” he said. A moment later I heard him admonishing his father. “She’s two years old, Dad. She can’t read.”
“She is not hyperactive. She’s a toddler, and you can’t treat her that way. If I catch you doing that again, I’ll take my family and leave.”
While I was standing there listening, Fleur came flying into the room. She flung her arms around my legs, sobbing. I knelt and she buried her face in my neck. There was no end to the misery Bernard’s father could inflict. We had paid for our own airline tickets and rental car so that he could have the luxury of bullying his grandchild.
I remembered then something that had happened three years earlier, in Texas. Posey was fifteen months old. It was the day before Christmas and I’d just learned that I was pregnant. I told Bernard, but no one else. I didn’t know how I would handle another baby so soon. I felt overwhelmed. The five of us – Hazel, Bernard, Posey, my father-in-law, and I – were walking on a small pier, on a lake. The pier had no railings. Posey and I were holding hands, and she let go so that she could look at some ducks. She ran ahead of me toward the water. When my father-in-law saw that I did not restrain her, or even tell her to come back, he just about blew a gasket. “What is she doing?” he hissed loudly at Hazel. “She’s a terrible mother! The baby is going to drown!” But I knew my child. Posey wasn’t the type to run into traffic, or into a lake. She just wanted to look at the ducks. My father-in-law’s fury compounded upon itself as he waited for me to collar my daughter, to scream at her. Instead I approached her quietly and listened while she told me about the ducks. Inside I was seething. My father-in-law’s criticism was aimed at me alone. How dare he, I thought. He cannot tell me how to raise my child. But it was more than that. I had the awful realization that soon my child would be his target, too. My children, rather, for by this time next year I would be a mother of two. I took Posey and rushed back to the car.
Now here we were in Jaconita and my father-in-law had proved me right. Even baby Fleur had to watch out for him.
Before bed that night, Bernard took a Valium. “Really” he said, “there is not enough Valium on earth for this vacation.” Then he fell asleep and snored loudly all night. I lay awake worrying about the girls. I heard Posey moan in her sleep and I rocketed out of bed and laid a hand on her forehead. But the fever was lower and she was deeply asleep. Then I checked on Fleur. In the dark I had trouble finding her forehead because her feet were on the pillow.
By morning I was exhausted. I felt as though I hadn’t slept at all. Everything seemed fuzzy and hazy. Bernard gave Posey some Motrin, and he took both girls out to the kitchen for breakfast. Then everyone ran around getting ready to leave for the flea market, while I made a cup of coffee.
“It’s a bummer that you can’t come,” offered Maya.
“I know,” I said. “It’s killing me, actually.”
“A mother’s work is never done, Maya,” said Hazel pointedly, as if hoping to give Maya a glimpse of her own future. But Maya seemed not to hear. She was searching the refrigerator for cookie dough. Hazel put on her most disapproving look, her lips pursed, her brow furrowed, but the girl didn’t even notice.
Hazel tried again. “Maya, a young woman in your condition shouldn’t–”
Maya rolled her eyes. “Grandma. It’s a craving, okay?”
Posey came in, crying about why couldn’t she go to the flea market, too. Then she pitched a fit right there on the kitchen floor.
“I don’t want to stay home!” she shrieked. “I hate fevers! Fevers are mean!”
Bernard kissed me goodbye. “Take a nap,” he said. “Posey can watch a movie. And remember, we’ll go to the museum tomorrow.”
Everyone filed out to the car and I stood there watching, wishing I could go. Still, I had a plan for Posey that would get us both out of the house, if only briefly. How could a house that large make me feel so claustrophobic? I could hardly stand it.
Back in the kitchen I sat on the tile floor next to Posey. Her blanket was draped over her head. She was so small that I could see only her toes sticking out.
“Funny thing,” I said. “Did you know there is a swimming pool here?” I spoke casually, as though it were nothing.
Posey lifted up the blanket, revealing her tear-streaked face.
The pool was fifty yards from the villa, down a dirt road. It was near the safety of the house, but far away enough to qualify as an outing. Outside it was hot and windy but I didn’t care. I’d been stuck inside that dark room for two days. Posey was glad to be outside, too. She walked along the dirt road in her red swimsuit and sneakers, pointing at trees and the wide blue sky.
The pool was encircled by a low iron fence, with a gate. There was a sign that said “No Trespassers” in large red letters. Posey pointed at it, wondering, but I told her, as temporary denizens of the villa we were allowed to use the pool. Inside the gate we found pretty yellow flowers growing like weeds, pushing up through the cracks in the concrete. Paper flowers, Bernard had told me, native to New Mexico. They thrived under dry, harsh conditions.
The pool was small, not large enough for a real swim, but still we had it all to ourselves – we had seen no other people since the family had left. Leaves floated on the water, which we quickly discovered was very cold. The cold was made worse by the stiff wind. Still, Posey wanted to get in the pool and I let her. This was our paltry vacation, such as it was. Soon enough her fever would go back up, if this really was altitude sickness, and in five more days it would be back to preschool for her and Fleur, back to work for me and for Bernard. So I sat at the edge of the pool and watched Posey splashing. I tried to be optimistic. It was just as well that I had not gone to the flea market; I did not have to deal with the family and I had my daughter to myself. I shut my eyes against the sun and the wind, thinking of real vacations on tropical beaches. I imagined that I was reading a magazine and drinking a glass of white wine. I tried to relax.
Half an hour later we walked back to the house. Posey was happy now, but also wet and tired. She spotted a hill of red ants and screamed. She was sure that the ants were going to chase her so she ran, kicking up a huge cloud of dust. Then she tripped on her shoelace and fell into the dirt, weeping. I carried her the rest of the way to the house.
The house was silent and there was no sign of Bernard’s father. I kicked off my shoes and the tiles felt cool under my feet. In the bathroom I stripped off Posey’s dirty swimsuit and felt her forehead. It was a little warm, but I looked at the clock and knew I couldn’t give her Motrin yet. I had to wait another two hours. I ran a bath and Posey climbed in obediently and sat perfectly still while I washed her hair.
“I’m tired, Mommy.”
“Me too, baby doll. Let’s take a rest.”
When Posey was all combed and dried I dressed her in a clean t-shirt and underwear. We sank onto the huge bed and I watched her fall asleep. I felt exhausted. I closed my eyes.
I awakened suddenly to a high-pitched cry. Posey was not in the bed, but her t-shirt was there. I grabbed it; it felt damp. Her fever must have shot up while I was asleep. I stumbled out of the bedroom in a panic, thinking she must have done something to anger her grandfather.
I found Posey in the living room with the vaulted ceiling. She was wandering around the large room in her underwear, mumbling, her face flushed. My father-in-law followed close behind, wringing his hands.
“There’s something wrong with her!” he cried.
I rushed forward, gathering up Posey’s hot body. Jesus, she was hot. How could one small body contain so much heat and not burst into flames?
“We’re in the world,” she said. “Mommy, we’re in the world.”
I knew right away that medication wouldn’t bring down the fever fast enough. I rocked her gently, trying to think what to do. Then my eyes fell on my father-in-law, who was pacing anxiously.
Bernard had said for years that the only way to deal with his father was to give him a task. “He’s a military man,” Bernard would remind me. “He’s a soldier. He needs to be told what to do.”
“It’s the fever,” I told my father-in-law. “You’re going to help me. I want you to run a cold bath.”
He stared at me, uncomprehending. “What?”
It took me a moment to realize that he had turned down his hearing aids. The old man could not hear me. He lived among people, but could not stand to listen to their stupid talk. I pointed at my ear. “Your hearing aids,” I growled. I watched him comply clumsily and I hated him then. I hated his bullying ways and his obstinacy and I didn’t care if he knew it.
I repeated my instructions about the bath. I spoke clearly and loudly but he hesitated, looking helpless and afraid. I had an overwhelming urge to slap him. I didn’t have time for this. There was no time. “Go!” I shouted. “Now!”
He rushed away, startled into action. I looked down at Posey, lying inert in my arms. Her face was pink with fever. She gazed through me.
“Mommy, I see birds flying, little paper birds.”
“Birds,” I echoed. I carried her back through the dining room, feeling as though I was watching this scene from above. Like it was someone else’s life, but it wasn’t. It was my life. I’ll bring down the fever, I told myself. She’ll be fine.
I had never felt such fear.
First I retrieved the thermometer from the bedroom. In the bathroom the water was running in the tub – my father-in-law had done that much, at least. He stood there awkwardly and watched while I set Posey down and took her temperature. For once he did not instruct me or berate me.
The little screen read 104. I felt my stomach drop and a hollowness in my chest. I showed the thermometer to my father-in-law. “That’s pretty high,” he said.
“I need all the ice from the freezer. In a bowl. Find a big bowl.”
He left the bathroom and I pulled off Posey’s underpants and lifted her into the bathtub, my hands on her burning hot skin.
“I want you to sit down now, baby,” I murmured.
Posey looked down at the water doubtfully.
“The water is going to cool you off. You feel hot, don’t you?”
“I’m tired, Mommy.”
“I know, baby. But Mommy needs you to sit down.” I summoned all of my will. Get her to sit down first. Get her to sit down first. Jesus, if you bring the fever down I won’t complain ever again, I will be everlastingly patient with my children and my family.
Posey sighed. Then she held out a hand to me. I took it, and she eased herself into the water.
“Good girl. I want you to lie down now. Your body needs that cold water.”
Posey did not resist. She lay down and leaned against the end of the bathtub.
I turned off the tap and my father-in-law appeared, carrying a stainless steel mixing bowl. He looked at me expectantly. I had to tell him to do every little thing, he could figure out none of it for himself.
“Put the all the ice in the bath,” I said. “I’m going to find the medicine. But you have to stay here. Do you understand? Do not leave her.”
I was only going into the next room, but I was worried about how clueless he was.
“If you leave her, I’ll kill you. Do you understand? None of your theatrics now. ”
He nodded obediently, pushing his glasses up on his nose.
I stood up and backed toward the doorway.
In the bedroom I threw open the curtains and light flooded the room. She’ll be fine, I told myself. I just have to find the medicine.
The Tylenol was on a bedside table, but the bottle of Motrin had gotten knocked off and was under the bed, along with the plastic dosing cup. I couldn’t reach the cup, and had to go around to the other side of the bed. I’ll give her Motrin first, I told myself as I felt around in the darkness. Finally my fingers closed around the sticky cup.
Back inside the bathroom, Posey lay in several inches of water, ice cubes floating all around her. My father-in-law knelt next to the bathtub, watching her dutifully.
I took the bottle of Motrin and shook it hard and poured it into the plastic cup. My fingers trembled so much I almost couldn’t hold it. I wished that I had had the sense to call a doctor yesterday, when it first occurred to me. Now it was Saturday and I was stuck here with a sick child and a crazy old man and there was no one to give me sound advice.
I got down on my knees and my father-in-law moved over to make room for me. I felt no rancor toward him. As big a man as he was, he seemed so small now.
Posey lay in the water, her brown hair floating, her body perfectly still except for the slight rise and fall of her chest. I put my hands under her armpits and slid her up to a sitting position.
She gazed over my shoulder. “There are birds flying in this room, Mommy. The birds don’t have feathers. The birds are saying lie down, lie down in water. Yellow birds.”
My throat constricted and I thought I would cry. I swallowed hard. “I see the birds, too, sugar. Yellow birds.” I brought the cup to her lips. “Drink this.”
She tipped her head back and drank. I allowed myself a moment to feel relieved. Posey looked at her grandfather then, as if just noticing him. She smiled her most disarming smile and she seemed luminous, a creature from another world.
The old man gazed at her in wonderment, as if he had never seen his granddaughter before, as if she were an angel complete with wings and a halo. The mixing bowl sat on the floor, empty. I would give Posey some Tylenol in a few minutes, then take the bowl back to the kitchen. I would check to see that my father-in-law had refilled the ice cube trays and put them back in the freezer. I would sit here until the fever went down.
In the office, coworkers Sabine and Michael sat quietly at their cubicles. In the office, there was flux. For example, sometimes the temperature waffled between tropical and arctic, and the managerial staff also ran hot and cold. Sabine sat with Michael on her right and Melissa, who had been hired before her and always wore earbuds, on her left. Their collective boss, Heidi, was going through a divorce and sometimes had outbursts, and at these times Sabine and Michael turned toward their keyboards and screens. Melissa either did not hear or pretended not to.
Sabine had lied to get the job. She didn’t know anything about making slide presentations or spreadsheets.
“How are your pivot tables?” Heidi had asked in the interview.
“Well, I think they usually turn out beautifully,” Sabine had replied. Her response seemed to go over well, though she didn’t really know what a pivot table was. It had to do with spreadsheets, she knew that, but why or how? No clue.
It didn’t matter to her, lying. She’d lied to get her last job, at a coffee shop. It was just a job. In that interview, she had said, I prefer medium-body roasts with a strong finish, when in fact she had no idea what she preferred. None of it was life or death. It was not like she was pretending to be a doctor.
The coffee shop had taken her through college, roughly—she didn’t actually graduate—and she had enjoyed working there. She liked learning how to properly grind the beans and then tamp the grounds. She enjoyed negotiating the old, fussy espresso maker, and she enjoyed pulling the shots into warm mugs. She did not enjoy steaming milk because she believed her coffee was good enough not to need milk, but she still steamed with aplomb, until the foam coated the back of a spoon. Occasionally, if she was hungry, she could admit that milk-steaming be damned, she did enjoy a very dry cappuccino. Yet, usually she was not hungry.
After she dropped out and the semester turned and the coffee shop teemed with new freshmen, with their textbooks and their hope, bonking against the regulars at their usual tables, she understood she couldn’t stay because she wasn’t either of them. She was their barista, not their peer.
On a break one day, Sabine used the community computer to begin contriving a résumé, inventing nearly all of it. Besides the freshmen, she had two other groups of clientele: the consultants and the writers, and she drew her inspiration from them—from the consultants, a bullet-pointed skillset; from the writers, a sense of hope that if she could just get it down, the next line (always the next line) might be perfect enough to nudge her whole life forward.
Besides, it seemed like all the two groups ever did was type, and she could touch type. It was the writers she admired more. Some had a few published pieces, and all had books in various stages. She liked their dreaminess, the way they made it up as they went along, even if most of them tipped poorly.
And it was the writers who, when the city entertained zoning a chain coffee shop only a few blocks down, hosted a rally and showed up with pithy signs, and it seemed to work. The chain did not appear in the neighborhood. Maybe, even, Sabine’s job was saved.
The coffee shop had responded by opening up for more readings. Instead of just the Tuesday open mic that had been a standard since well before Sabine’s time, every other weeknight and alternating Fridays gave space to the writers, and so she heard the way they fabricated, and she heard the way they frequently could not separate these fabrications from their own lives.
She understood them a little more as she worked on the résumé, as the project stretched from just one break to two, to three, to a whole month of breaks. Sometimes she thought she was judging them a little harshly. At other times she thought if they would spend less time drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, they’d get more writing done.
At their readings, their abundant, repetitive readings, the short-shorts and prose poems would echo from the cheap, poorly adjusted microphone and ping against the espresso machine, so that no matter how carefully they had constructed their sentences and stanzas, it all sounded like clatter. Sometimes she recognized the stories from her customers’ lives, like the time Penelope (photo essays) and Raul (short-stories with an emphasis on temporalization) had ended their eight-year affair at the corner table, the best table, there by the window and overlooking the bay (slideshow by Penelope, captions by Raul). There was the time Jane (nonfiction) and her teenage daughter Chrysanthemum (free verse, contemporary haiku, and hybrid poetry) thought they had been evicted, but it turned out to be okay; it was only that they were both stoned and were at unit 401 instead of 501, and they didn’t understand right away, as their world filtered through a slow pot swirl, that the notice tacked to the door was not for them, because it was not their door, not their furniture inside when they jiggled the handle to get in so they could quickly round up what they could carry. The mauve sofa in 401 jolted them to realization—(verse and live gong by Chrysa, reading by Jane):
What a difference
Just one flight up those old stairs
Makes for us, Mother
She thought of them as she used one of the built-in templates from the word processing software. She had started by putting her name and address at the top, but sometimes she retyped it; in fact she had retyped it probably a hundred times, just so she could feel the action of her fingertips on the keyboard, feel like she was working.
Of course she had noticed the writers always changed what happened, trying for pith or drama. The consultants probably did too. She didn’t know what they did at their jobs, but she saw the spreadsheets, the charts, and she had taken enough statistics, worked her butt off for a B- even, to understand that there was as much interpretation in data as in trouble and love.
(Cool blue light under the door
My home. Mother’s home.)
And Penelope’s Polaroid photos, grainy and off-color because she bought old, unpredictable film to save money and then coated the prints in Mod Podge to seal them up and scanned batches at the library, paired with Raul’s minimalist narration, actually worked well, Sabine thought, but it was nothing like them as a couple. As a couple they did not have the gritty tension of mixed media. As a couple they were boring, and each had complicated coffee orders, and they argued about whether it was okay for Penelope to say she was vegetarian when she was actually pescatarian.
“Fish are animals too, Penelope,” Raul would say.
“But no one knows what it means,” Penelope would answer.
“I know what it means,” Raul said.
“But you’re vegan. Of course you know. Most people consider eating only fish to be vegetarian.”
In her time at the coffee shop, Sabine heard a hundred variations on this argument, and a hundred times she had assured Raul that she never put his almond milk into the dairy steamer, even though she did it all the time.
“Catholics maybe think this, the Lent thing,” Raul would say to P, “but don’t put your religious industrial complex in this space. Fish have eyeballs. Broccoli does not have eyeballs!”
And one series on their slides, during their reading/presentation, did address this. A corn with human ears. Eyes on potatoes, on beans. A radicchio styled to look like a vagina. P’s vagina. Kiwi fruit as Raul’s balls, avocado as another man’s larger balls.
By the time the readings started, the consultants were always gone. They finished work at two or three, snapping their laptop cases shut, packing up their messenger bags, and padding out into the street in their colored tennis shoes, headed to their condos for a night of Netflix or other Wi-Fi-enabled activities.
On the community computer, Sabine listed her college, and she listed her imaginary skillset.
Later, she would ask Raul to proofread it and P to offer some suggestions for design flair (lines at the side, Sabine’s name in cerulean blue). Chrysa changed her objective so it read:
Making coffee now
But looking for my big break
Call, not pull, the shots?
It took her longer to ask one of the more regular consultants to take a look, and while she didn’t know a thing about him but his coffee order (doppio) she believed that he would offer her the ruthless critique she needed.
“Too many words, too much color,” he said, while looking at his phone. “Sentences aren’t helpful. Just use bullets and tabs. Everything must have a result,” he said. “And listen, what’s your number? I’ll text you a list of words you have to work in.”
“I have a pen,” Sabine said.
“I’d rather text,” he said.
She recited her number, and he sent the text, and she stared at it for a while. Velocity. Synergy. Demonstrable. Actionable.
“Okay,” she said. “Thank you.”
At the community computer, she deleted Chrysa’s objective, P’s blue lines, and Raul’s semicolons. She did so a little guiltily, ignoring the advice of all the people she liked best.
Demonstrable experience in enabling synergy with actionable approach to departmental velocity.
“Good,” the consultant said.
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“That’s fine. Meaning isn’t really the point. It’s not art, it’s just a résumé. I’ll text you a couple of places I know are hiring.”
She submitted. Then she waited. Then she started getting calls.
At the first interview, she did very poorly. She was dressed wrong, and her hair looked messy.
For the second interview, Sabine blow-dried. Her head felt bouncy, and when paired with the gray twinset she’d found at a secondhand store, she thought she could pass for the type of person who held a desk job. Her boyfriend, who she shared the apartment with, said she looked like her mother.
“What’s your greatest weakness?” the second interviewer asked.
Sabine correctly recognized this as a place where she should tell a lie. “My greatest weakness is that I am sometimes too truthful,” she said.
“Can you relate that characteristic to this role?”
“No,” Sabine said. “I cannot.”
“Okay,” the interviewer said. “Well, that’s truthful, but not really what I’m looking for.”
On the third interview, with Heidi (nervous, distracted Heidi), Sabine wore the twinset, blow-dried, and texted the consultant. What do I do if I don’t know the answer to a question? Dodge, he replied.
“How are your pivot tables?” Heidi asked.
“Well, I think they usually turn out beautifully,” Sabine replied.
When she got the offer, she was shocked at the salary, at the number of vacation days. Health and dental and vision. She ran her tongue across her teeth and imagined how much smoother they would be with two annual cleanings. She squinted—she didn’t need glasses, but she could get some anyway.
Her boyfriend was not impressed.
Her boyfriend’s name was Ryan, but he preferred to go by Sebastian.
Sabine didn’t care what he went by, since she’d spent her whole life having the pronounced e of her name dropped.
He was still piddling at school, in a studio program. The program was actually competitive, but Sabine honestly could not pick out his installation art from any of his peers’. At the shows, there was string, a lot of string, and there were nails and scraps of denim; there was salt everywhere, salt making gallery floors slick and prematurely aging the finishes. Tempura paint. Oil paint. Paint from organic vegetable dyes. Once, just after the offer, her boyfriend needed a pint of blood, but he was scared of needles so he made it from boiled beets.
“It’s too purple,” Sabine said, peering into their only large pot, roiling on the stove. Now and then a hunk of tuber would pop to the surface. “Maybe add turmeric? The yellow might balance it out?”
“Purple and yellow make gray,” he said, and she could tell he was trying to keep his voice calm. “You’re selling out.”
“I’m not,” Sabine said. “I just can’t do the coffee thing anymore.”
“You used to make the most beautiful bird-scapes,” he said. He was wistful as he stirred the pot of desiccated beets. He threw in a handful of beet tops, a neutralizing green.
It was hard for her to describe to him why she’d quit the bird-scapes—her word, which she did not point out he was appropriating, for the canvasses she outlined nature scenes on and then filled in with feather. When she’d first started, in high school, the project had seemed very pure and she had spent hours collecting fallen feathers, but as time went on, it was easier to purchase in craft shops or on eBay. After one spin through the washer at the Laundromat, crammed into an old pillowcase and washed on hot, her bagged, store-bought feathers were ragged enough to pass for having been found on the forest floor.
And at first she’d only used pine tar or other kinds of pitch and sap to affix the feathers to her hand-stretched canvas boards she’d cut herself with a manual saw, but as time went on, she wielded a hot glue gun against whatever hangable surface she could find on sale. There just wasn’t time to do it all—work and school and scavenging. At the very beginning of her junior year, she’d landed a solo show, but the only piece that had sold was the worst of all of them—synthetic down pasted to a bed of rayon and glitter in a cheap attempt at Starry Night. She priced it at $2,345.67. The ascending numbers, simply a random way to price, were meant to be a marker to anyone who actually cared about art, because she was embarrassed of the piece, but the enormous eighteen-by-twenty-foot canvas filled the space for the other works she didn’t have. She was even more humiliated that someone wanted to buy it, and absolutely deflated when she cashed the check, even though it got her current on rent.
Still, her boyfriend had been impressed by her take, and he delighted in its irony.
Now that she had spent more time at a proper office, and more time with her coworker Michael, she thought about it differently. Consecutive pricing, she could have called it, the string of ascending numbers. It could even be a way to bid. Start with five, and go from there. $5.43; $54.31; $543.10.
Her boyfriend didn’t know Michael, but that didn’t stop him from not liking him.
He would never say his name, only “that guy.” That guy you sit with, that guy you work with, that guy—wait, why are you having lunch with that guy?
At the office, she and Michael didn’t talk about art so much, though Sabine thought about it as she worked through her slides, through her tables. At first, she knew so little, she was constantly at the help files, and she wished Raul and Penelope and Jane and Chrysa had a nicely tabled instruction set detailing exactly how to proceed.
She’d heard Penelope and Raul had patched things up, and Chrysa was doing a series of observations:
Oh, it’s so stable—
You at your screen. What about
The rest of your life?!
Sometimes she looked up and Michael would be looking at her, and then he would look away, though Sabine would not. Once, after a long weekend, the elevator opened to the twelfth floor and Michael was just outside the door. He’d been in early, was headed out for coffee.
And there was a pull there, in the way he looked at her, the way he touched her shoulder.
“Coffee?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she said, but she was not fine. The spot on her shoulder was burning. This was what Ryan/Sebastian had seen before she’d seen, the way she wanted to pull Michael to her. She wished she’d worn something different than her same rumpled twinset and black pants.
Then they were exchanging places, she stepping outside of the elevator and he stepping in, and then the doors were closing and he was whooshing through the building, past the debt collectors on floor ten, the engineers on six.
She imagined him descending, swiftly, away from her. She depressed the button on the elevator, to call the next car, but the elevator was taking forever, and she didn’t know where, exactly, he might get coffee from; there were many places and among many other things she didn’t know about Michael, she didn’t know which shop was his favorite.
Sabine turned from the elevator bank and headed for the stairs. At eleven, she passed Melissa, earbuds snug, slim thighs hiking the flights. At seven, a group of workers arguing. By the time she burst through the lobby and into the street of her downtown building, Michael was long gone. A light rain had started, and she spotted Heidi, sheltered by a polka-dot umbrella, crossing the street. Even though at home Sabine and Sebastian/Ryan talked a lot about feelings, she didn’t think she could explain this feeling to him, how all she’d really have to do was wait for Michael to come back, his latte steaming, but also how it seemed impossible to wait. How she liked Heidi but didn’t want to talk to her in this moment. How the way the steam rising from the manhole covers and the cars splattered with just a few sparse drops seemed inexplicably and terminally sad.
How, when she looked at the sidewalk, the concrete dark with dirt and damp, there was a single feather, and how, whether fallen from the sky or loosed from a scavenging pigeon’s wing, as much as she wanted it, Sabine simply could not bend, could not pick it up.
The night I try to kill myself a boy
is shot in the shoulders at the gas
station next to my apartment.
I don’t flinch. I lie
on the rubber of my bed that keeps
the bugs away and stare at the black
poles holding the bunk bed together.
The mice play sought and found
in the shoe closet filled with all size 10’s.
What miracle can I conjure tonight?
I sleep till dawn and the spirit that wants me gone
slaps my eyes to rise: Through the kitchen window,
the dark clouds are yoked with life.
I know the sharp knives in my home
but draw the thin butter knife because
I don’t want a mess for my mother to clean,
I don’t want her to weep as she dips
a rag in Clorox and stains the floor to reverse
its memory. My burial must be neat.
I trace the peak of the blade across the linea
negra on my stomach; the one to appear
only when I am pregnant. I am yet to meet
a man: how do I leave this earth with ease?
ODE ON MY UPSPEAK
“A lot of these really flamboyant things you hear are cute, and girls are supposed to be cute, but they’re not just using them because they’re girls. They’re using them to achieve some kind of interactional and stylistic end.” – Penny Eckert, New York Times
I admire its belligerent uncertainty, like:
I’ll know if I know when I please. Pointed
indecision as auto-prick that sticks my sentence-tip.
When my tongue spring-toes into a run, I vault
across silences sucking this tick like perpetual mint—
surprised but satisfied. I want all my action
rising, okay? While we’re at it, I dig my umms,
impervious little monks who squat
in well-spaced rows, their insistent vibrato
a hypno-chant that spins my speech to incantation.
I love how they punctuate, bead-like,
my vocal fry, that holey string to which I cling.
Its creak makes me speak like a crumb-scraper
savoring the linen tablecloth. I lick
the conversation down and shake
each glottal rattle at the sky, my diphthong
kernels popping in a thrum that sets me singing
like an optimist—I’ve got nowhere to go but up
to the roof of a high rising terminal.
Oh my voice, you are a wing tethered to a gender
like a brick—or a period—and you jump regardless.
I Want to Walk to McDonald’s Forever, Friend
I want to wade there with you on a snow day,
wheeze-winded & teary. I want to smash the ice
in your lashes, then let the oily steam breathe us
back to running blood. Or I want to walk there
in crop tops we’ll swap in the lime fluorescent
of the slime-tiled john so we can walk home as one
another. I want to wooze in your menthol-cherry
aura as we find every flickering arch in the city.
Delicate licker of grease-dipped French tips,
send me a Rite-Aid valentine that says be my bitch
& I’ll be yours. No take-backs, no joke, no jinx
when I answered that trick crush question with you,
you who then flipped & tramped the whole year solo.
But I swear on my mamaw’s spine we can walk
it all back with Big Macs & a thousand half-hug pats.
Please let’s just meet on the mouth of straw,
suck it up, crush only our cups, & let the year drip down
the sewer slats as we walk back & back & back.
by Jennifer Stern
Where is Liu Xia?
This is how you try to erase a person after he’s died: you delete all mentions of him. You ban the phrase R.I.P. on blogs. You arrest those who mourn him. You spread his ashes out in the ocean where no memorial can be built. You take his wife, the woman who now stands for him, and make her disappear.
This woman is the poet and artist Liu Xia.
The past few weeks have been devastating for her and for all of us who care about human rights in China. Liu Xia’s husband, Liu Xiaobo, died on July 13th from cancer he was diagnosed with in prison. He was an activist, Nobel Peace Prize winner, poet, deeply human in his writing, and deeply symbolic of the fight for democracy in China. He died of what many are calling “political murder” under guard, and unable to leave the hospital chosen for him, far from all of his friends and family, save Liu Xia. There in the hospital, it is believed, Liu Xia was allowed to touch her husband for the first time in seven years.
Liu Xia did not choose to be a political figure. She is an artist who fell in love with a poet she hung out with at salons she often hosted. She writes about Kafka and strange dreams and birds and smoking and her mother-in-law and Nijinsky and her brother and language and watching her beloved transform from man to figure and back again.
Liu Xia was placed under house arrest when Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize. Since then she’s been trapped in her home, barely allowed visitors or phone calls or guarded trips to the store. She hasn’t been able to sit with a friend and hear her own voice in response to another’s. Under house arrest, her health has deteriorated, and those few friends who’ve spoken with her say that the vibrant, specific woman they knew has become fragile, and is on the verge of breaking apart. Liu Xia was never accused of a crime. She was punished to punish her husband and as a lesson to a nation. And now no one knows where she is. No one knows where the Chinese government is hiding her.
Many of us here read and write poems to know that we exist and that we are entwined with others through an art form that exists all over the world. Liu Xia is one of us, a poet. I wish there was one way to stop the erasure of a human, but I don’t think there is. Yet we can do this: read Liu Xia’s poems. They exist. We can enjoy them, or not. We can argue with them. We can pass them on to a friend and say, “Read this, this poet exists.” We can teach her poems or keep them for ourselves. We exist. And because of that, Liu Xia’s poems can speak even when her voice can’t be heard. I want to believe that it’s harder to erase this person, specific in her words and life, when we’re in the middle of a conversation.
~ Jennifer Stern, co-translator of Liu Xia’s poems
Four Way Review is featuring Liu Xia’s work and this introduction alongside Bat City Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poetry Northwest, Scoundrel Time, Tupelo Quarterly, and other publications in an effort to draw attention to the life and writing of the poet Liu Xia at this critical moment. The poems, translated by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern, are reprinted from Empty Chairs: Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 2015) with the permission of the translators and Graywolf Press.
—for Xiaobo’s mother
Suddenly, you’re gone.
Two hours after entering
the hospital you took
your last breath.
This is the way you longed to die.
You did it, mother,
leaving us choking on blood.
When the call came with the news
we were drinking with friends,
and I was reading a poem by Kevin Hart
called “Praying for the Dead.”
I saw you for the last time at the funeral home.
You seemed tiny in the new clothes,
your face caked with makeup.
I was afraid you would turn into a doll,
one of the dolls possessed by rage
in my photographs.
I wanted to run out
but Xiaobo took my hand firmly.
I couldn’t even move.
I know you never liked me.
All along you suspected I had planned
everything: your son imprisoned,
his refusal to live with you in Dalian,
and even your illnesses—
all my fault.
You couldn’t stand my laugh.
You asked me to leave.
The first time I went to your house
it was full of plastic sheets and bags.
The sofa, mattress, carpet, heater, the drawers,
and even the cutting board and kettle
were covered or filled with plastic.
I couldn’t breathe.
You looked lonely in your plastic house
as a queen.
Every month during the three years
when Xiaobo was in that Dalian prison,
I had to bite my tongue
to enter your territory.
Each time, with a sawtooth voice,
you said to me, “You don’t need to come again.
I’m his mother. I will take care of everything.”
As for the things I brought from Beijing—you
didn’t bother to take a look.
I couldn’t make you soft.
The ocean of Dalian wore me down.
For a year and half
I couldn’t see Xiaobo,
so I asked you humbly
“Mother, how is Xiaobo doing?”
You said he lost weight
so I tried to find nutritious foods.
You said his face was terribly swollen
so I sought medical advice from everywhere.
You said he was getting too fat
so I told him in a letter
not to add sugar when making powdered milk.
Under your magic wand
I moved around desperately.
You were always right,
and I had to tolerate you.
I tried to be a well-behaved daughter-in-law.
I gave you new clothes, cotton socks,
and gold bracelets, but you put them aside,
When I offered to take you out to eat, you said
the food was poisoned.
There was one thing you didn’t reject,
the medicine I brought you.
You liked taking medicine
more than any food in the world.
Your pickled veggie pot
was full of worms.
so many plastic sheets separated us.
Love for the same man
split us apart.
We couldn’t get close to each other.
When we needed each other’s comfort
we became enemies.
One day you came back from the prison
and talked to yourself:
“Let Xiaobo die. Done with it.”
From that moment on I didn’t
need to hide my hate.
You are finally gone.
Those plastic bags are in the trash.
I don’t pray for reconciliation,
but you appear regularly
in the shadows.
Xiaobo was startled by you in his dreams—
you were moaning helplessly.
You’ve forgotten to take your dentures
which are biting me,
making me doubt
if this is the right ending.
please do not block the light
that illuminates my pen.
Let these words survive.
Let me finish reading
“Praying for the Dead.”
francine j. harris is the author of allegiance (2012), a finalist for both the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the PEN Open Book Award, and play dead (2016). She won the 2014 Boston Review Annual Poetry Prize and her poetry has appeared in many journals, including McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, Poetry, Meridian, Indiana Review, Callaloo, Rattle, Ninth Letter, and Boston Review. She was a 2008 Cave Canem fellow, and was awarded a NEA fellowship in 2015. She currently serves as the Writer in Residence at Washington University in St. Louis.
FWR: The “pink pigs” poems from your book Play Dead started as a personal essay for Tran(s)tudies. At what point did you decide to turn that essay into poems? Are the headers and footers in the poems a relic from the original essay, or were they something that came out as you worked on the poems?
fjh: I think it may have been the other way around. The poem began as a poem, and I used it in an essay I wrote for Tran(s)tudies; the essay was about code switching and I used it in this part where I was talking about speaking back to people that I grew up with, in kind of an indirect way into my writing. I can’t answer the question about ‘who you’re talking to in your poems or in writing in general’, but there are moments where talking back to folks that I couldn’t have certain conversations with. And in the essay, I believe I was talking back to some of the girls I grew up with and it was an example of one of those internal conversations turning into a piece. This piece was an amalgamation of a few specific people.
Actually when I wrote it, I had been reading Donald Barthelme; he has these little short narratives through dialogue and it just triggered something as I was reading it… But after I wrote it I realized that I was reaching even further back in terms of influence. It wasn’t exactly Barthelme who was triggering that voice, but Gayl Jones, who in the novel Eva’s Man has this very particular way of men and women talking, or not talking. There is a way in which their dialogue says and doesn’t say lots of things about consent and passiveness, and about things happening under the surface. I think all that stuff was playing into that, and when I originally wrote it, it was all one long piece but that didn’t quite work in the book, so I pulled it apart and let it intersperse throughout the whole collection.
FWR: Throughout the whole manuscript, there is this feeling that there’s this conversation happening between the past and present or imagined present and imagined past.
fjh: When you say imagined, what do you mean?
FWR: Looking back upon events that have happened, one tends to recreate them, but in that recreation they’re never quite the same as they were.
fjh: I think what I like about that conversation is that I don’t think it’s that idealistic, though. There’s just as much failure in that conversation as there might have been, or would have been, or was, in the relationships themselves. I think art allows a different kind of failure, a failure that can be productive. But I think, partly that’s what I gathered or what inspired me from Gayl Jones, that these imagined conversations are not any more romantic than the original. It just sits differently in the psyche, manifests differently. Does that make sense?
FWR: It does, and it speaks a little bit to that tension in the form and structure of your poems: between who is speaking, or when there’s an attempt to say or an inability to say. Is that fair?
fjh: Yeah, I think that’s fair. I’m definitely one of those poets who began writing because I didn’t know how to talk. I still don’t know how to talk. A lot of times I say things wrong, all the time. Ha! I think sometimes if I could just stop talking, and just do poems, everyone might be better off. Ha!
FWR: When you’re writing, do you see the poem ahead of time? For example, in “kara, you wild.andIdon’tknow” or “tatterdemalion,” were those the shapes you wanted because of the tension that you wanted that syntax to create? Or was it only through the playing through different forms that you realized that that’s the form you were hoping for?
fjh: I think that started– I get a lot of questions about this– I think I’ve realized, I don’t write towards visual structure. I’m interested in it, but maybe only in revision. I appreciate visual structure on the page. It’s not like I look at it and think it’s gratuitous or that I don’t find beauty in it, but I don’t think I come to it for that reason. It’s always something I’m thinking about in hindsight. So in answer to your question, no, I have no idea what shape it’s supposed to take.
I draw a little bit and sometimes if I’m drawing, I think, “what if this was text that looked this way?” I’ve tried that and it hardly ever works. It’s usually very forced. But I think because I do appreciate things visually, it’s become an editing point for me. It’s become a fun way to edit things. So those boxes, I started making those boxes and I didn’t know why I was making them, but it seemed to make sense because that’s what Kara Walker in “Cut”, which is an illustration she has of a girl figure with these really slashed off wrists, and so it just kind of made sense. But I was just doodling, and then I realized that this has a kind of resonance considering who I’m talking about and what I’m talking about in the poem. I guess I play with [visual structure] and if I like it, I’ll keep it.
FWR: Do you have a favorite poem to teach? How do you open up that conversation?
fjh: Every semester I gather things. And there are things that I come back to, and usually the poems I keep coming back to are because I can teach them for so many different reasons. Mary Ruefle’s “White Buttons” [for example]: I keep teaching this poem, because there are so many reasons to teach this poem. I can teach it to talk about how images reinforce themselves over a period of time because it’s a little bit longer, so these images just develop out of thin air– almost literally- there are these text pages, these book pages, like petals, and you don’t know how it happened, right? There’s a way that the images build, and I can teach it for that. I can teach it for the associative moves she makes, like that weird move she makes where she suddenly says:
(I am sorry I did not
go to your funeral
but like you said
on the phone
an insect cannot crawl
I can teach it as a second person address, that interrupts the speaker. I can teach it for so many different reasons. One of the poems I’ve been teaching on and off for years is Yusef Komunyakaa “You And I Are Disappearing” for almost all of the same reasons. There are so many reasons to teach that poem: listing, cataloguing, subtext, how you can read a poem have two entirely different experiences with the poems based on your experience with the subject matter, imagery. I’m always grabbing poems for imagery… The funny thing is, I feel like, and maybe this is an essentialist statement, I’ll say poems today that stay with me, stay with me for the same reasons– because there’s a lot going on in them. Every time I come back to them I’m thinking of something else, something else that makes it work.
The thing that– I hear it like dinging. This is the thing this time around that jumps.
FWR: Who or what is inspiring you right now? If you could recommend one piece of art to anyone in this world, who might it be?
fjh: You know, it’s funny when you asked me this question, I had a weird moment, because I think the question you actually asked me was, ‘is there an artwork or a poem that you would share with anybody?’ and the first thing I thought was, ‘what I’m supposed to say is if there’s a piece of art I could give to someone like Trump that would somehow change him, what would it be?’
I was thinking about the artworks that I like, thinking, would it make a difference for Trump to walk through a gallery of any of those artists, or would that matter? Would it make a difference for someone to read Dawn Lundy Martin into his ear while he slept? But I had this moment where I realized how personally I view art. I’m kind of selfish about it. I don’t want to share anything with someone I have so little respect for. So if I were to show art to someone, it wouldn’t be for the thought of changing them, it would be for the thought of giving them something.
Sometimes I just gather things to show friends at appropriate occasions. I was going to tell you about this artist I’ve just found, whose work I really love, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, just because I was so excited about her art and her process, and it is the kind of thing I would want to share just, over a moment, over coffee. That’s how I think of sharing artwork, not as changing the world.
DEATH OF A CHILD
This is how a child dies:
little by little. His breath
curdles. His hands
heavy on their branches.
I can’t explain it.
I can’t explain it.
On the walk back to the car
even the stones in the yards
are burning. Far overhead
in the dead orchard of space
a star explodes
and then collapses
into a black door.
This is the afterlife, but
I’m not dead. I’m just
here in this field.
The lambs I curled like twins
and lay into their boats. I stuffed their ears
with the wooly sound of sleep.
The pigs I showered with white carnations.
The cows I placed cut branches over, green parasols
fluttering on the stems. All the dead
becalmed in their vessels, sent onto the river.
The river was a murmur of many boats drifting.
Petals in the eddies, creak of prow against stern…
The parade grew large between the banks.
Then there were only boats, boats
and the sound of water beneath them.
Before the insects start to grind their million bodies,
before impulse scatters the deer into the trees,
there’s a rest.
The dawn and the day observe each other.
The herd begins to move over the field, one shared dream
of grass and wind.
The small stones of their hooves in the stony field.
I’ve exhausted my cruelty.
I’ve arrived at myself again.
The sun builds a slow house inside my house,
touching the stilled curtains, the bottoms of cups
left out on the table.
FOR ITS BLUE FLICKERING
If you take cobalt as a simple salt
and dissolve it—if you dip a small metal loop
in such a solution and place it in a standard
flame, it burns a brilliant blue,
the flame itself bluer than the richest of skies
in summer. I wanted to be that blue.
And so, I claimed that element as my own,
imagined that fire could make of me
something bluer than the bluest of blues.
But what does an eighteen-year-old boy know
of the blues? All I knew then of cobalt
was its stable isotope. I had no knowledge
of the radioactive one with its gamma rays
used for decades to treat cancer. I had yet
to be exposed to such a thing. I was hot
for cobalt, for its blue flickering. Chemistry
can be such an odd thing. When a teacher of mine
offered up that faggots doused in certain chemicals
burned blue, I saw it as a sign; how can we
not see such things as signs, as omens?
Blue the waters of the Caribbean Sea,
blue the skies over the high deserts,
and blue the passages I found in old Greek texts
that surprised my prudish sense
of what men could do with men. It always
came back to blue. But boyish ideas are just that.
They seem for all the world to be fixed things,
when all they are is merely fleeting. In the end,
my make up was none other than anthracite,
something cold, dark, and difficult to ignite.
It is dense, only semi-lustrous, and hardly
noticeable. One dreams in cobalt, but one lives
in anthracite. Yes, the analogy is that basic.
Anthracite, one of earth’s studies in difficulty:
once lit it burns and burns. Caught somewhere
between ordinary coal and extraordinary graphite,
anthracite surprises when it burns. It isn’t flashy—
it produces a short, blue, and smokeless flame
that reminds one of the heart more than the sky.
PORTRAIT IN AZURE AND TWINE UNRAVELLING
Sometimes what attracts us is nothing more
than a marker of what is wrong with us.
Ravel was heralded as a genius, a master
of Impressionism, for his use of highly repetitive
structures, his rhythmic and repetitive structures.
Who can deny the beauty of Bolero? Not me.
As a child, I asked my mother to listen to me
while I practiced words like cobalt, each one more
and more odd for their sounds, their structures,
something I was still figuring out. “Grant us
Peace,” we repeated at Mass. Everything was repetitive.
And that is how it started, me trying to master
the language, the very words, fearful they would master
me, instead. Azure, sinecure, the long u had me
so early, and then the hard t one finds in repetitive,
substantive, titillation. I always needed more and more
words. Debussy once described Ravel as a man just like us,
one who understands that repetition structures
the way we move through the world, structures
our very breath, breath being that thing necessary to master
song, language, the natural world around us.
The first time I took a lover, she took time to watch me
sitting on the edge of the bed mouthing the word more.
After four hours, she dressed and called me repetitive,
told me the fun of it had ended, had become repetitive.
Memory, even when about something painful, structures
our worlds, structures our hearts and minds and more.
Within years of writing Bolero, Ravel could no longer master
music. He even lost the ability to use language. Imagine me
hearing this story. We were still new to each other, not yet us
but still a me and you. When Ravel left this world, left us,
you told me, many thought him mad and madly repetitive
pouring the same cup of water over and over. “Listen to me,”
you said. “Music is more than the simple structures
one need master.” I chose language instead of music to master,
all 171,000 words in the English language and more.
This morning, you caught me mouthing something other than more.
Ravel was not a man like us. Really. I just needed a new word to master.
My love, I’m repetitive. I sit here saying: “structures, structures, structures.”
TIME SURE FLIES WHEN YOU’RE NOT LIVING UP TO YOUR POTENTIAL
So, everything failed. The jabbed-iron trees flamed out
in spectacular failure along the ragged range. Forecast
failed. The pollster that glistered turned huckster. And
the memory of that ex who called you petit bouchon
failed to reassure that you once loved wreckful and reckless
and in a foreign tongue. All around you now Florida fails pinkly
and by voracious flora. The lizard who burned or drowned
hot-tubbing in your hot coffee failed perfectly, curled into
an eternal question mark, little fingers clenched, dukes up.
If death is the body’s failure, it is also its final fuck you.
Which has to count for something. Which has to be a win.
LIGHTNING SUSPECTED IN DEATHS OF HORSES
I want to take you to the black-mud spring pasture
where six horses fell and did not get back up.
I don’t know if they were dark or dappled—
I wasn’t there. I read it in a newspaper in Vermont,
sitting at the counter of a diner that no longer
exists. Lightning Suspected in Deaths of Horses—
small article in a bottom corner, not much
more information than that. It struck me—
I’m not trying to be funny—I carried
that headline around until it became a slogan
although I’m not sure what I’d been sold.
Maybe this: the sky opens, you kneel
and beg its mercy and it doesn’t make
one lick of difference. Or, light appears
and your life is transformed. Finally getting
exactly what you’ve asked for all along:
a shift in luck, sudden brilliance, your body
lit, electric, your own enough to let it go.
Remember that time the ocean came in through my bedroom window? Remember that time I woke up choking on sea salt spray, my bed a boat on the sea that had replaced the stained gray carpet? Of course you don’t. You weren’t there any longer. But each night I heard you singing. Remember that tape you left—how quaint, I said when you slipped it in my player, like olden days!—the one I told my therapist I threw away? I didn’t. It was all I had of you left. You sang each night’s lullaby, sang me into a sleep so deep it bled into death. Whether you liked it or not. You probably did. You had a certain affinity for resurrection narratives. Remember that time I woke thick with sweat, salt dried on my skin like sand? Of course you don’t. You weren’t there any longer. How easily tapes break, their black film twisted like seaweed. There’s a reason no one uses them anymore.