Augustus Gwynn: Gus Gwynn, drop-dead handsome, running on hot. When he was forty, wrecked and ruined, he was irresistible.
The problem, he said, is I’m in my head all the time.
Women loved that. And he always looked like he’d just killed somebody. They loved that too.
So, his mother. When he was forty, they started talking. She laughed a lot. Her teeth were jewels in her head.
You get older, she said, your style changes. I didn’t exactly go in the direction of truth and beauty. Your father was unfaithful, and I went to one of them and cut off her finger.
They were peeling potatoes for soup.
Ha ha, she said. Is this enough?
It’s enough, he said.
There’s something of the Italian ice-seller in you. That black hair. It’s my side of the family. Gus?
When you were young, we lived in the woods. We were starving. Remember?
It was when your sister was a girl. Your father set a trap to catch an animal, but he caught a person instead. And we ate him and burned his clothes. You don’t remember?
I told you I don’t.
The potato soup was ready, boiling on the stove. She poured it into bowls.
Going out, he said and plunged out into the alley.
Steep cobblestoned streets, strings of white lights twined in the nighttime trees, some festival going on. Part of the city was for show: crenellated towers, alligator pits. He didn’t remember much about his sister before she’d become a boy. He’d known his father was a rogue. A total rogue, his mother used to say.
Why not? Why not a tattoo?
It hurt—needles, caustic ink. The artist got as far as M O T H and was leaning in to sting an E on him when memory struck like a mudslide. He leaped off the reclining chair and ran pell-mell into the street. Sprinted uphill to the house where his mother was washing the dishes. Panting in the doorway, he gripped his bloody arm.
I remember living somewhere it was always dark and there were hippies next door, he said.
That was it, his mother said. We ate a hippie.
He married one of the women who used to love him, and their house was like everybody else’s, with money hidden so well they’d never find it, and their heads bursting with passwords.
I was a man on fire, he liked to say.
Gus, people said. Gus, finish it. You only need two more letters. Turn Moth into Mother.
I can’t, he said. It hurts too much.
All the women, the back-and-forth of love, had caused some deterioration. Still the tigery tensile spirit was alive in him. All over town, women raged at their men because those men weren’t him.
Things reminded him of things.
I felt like, he said.
Like what? his wife said.
I just . . .
The story was set in his heart. If he made it into a movie, it wouldn’t need sound. He thought about that sometimes.
She wanted to be like Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8, beautiful and world-weary, but it seemed that Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was more her style: half in the bag and walking around the kitchen late at night eating a cold chicken leg with the refrigerator door hanging open. She, too, had gained weight for the role of a lifetime, and her husband, like Richard Burton, was bitter and past his prime. They continuously circled each other, competing for the upper hand.
It was a mistake, she’d always thought, to marry someone from the same department. They’d both been tenure-track when they met, but they’d gotten full professorships a year apart, and it had almost destroyed their marriage. Still, they’d powered through. Now they lived in a gorgeous red-brick townhouse with bay windows, an enviable record collection, and a pair of chocolate sable standard poodles called Faust and Tosca.
It was late fall, when the outstretched arms of the trees were bleak and naked and the wind was audible even indoors. Leslie had been languishing at home all night, nursing a cold, while Lionel spent the evening at the university, carting around a guest lecturer from Bucharest whom they’d managed to coax out of Romania. Leslie was furious. It had been her idea to invite him in the first place, and it had taken months to get Lionel on board. She was the one who’d made the phone calls, written the letters, gotten the funding. All so she could spend the evening holed up in bed with a box of tissues and a book she felt too sick to read.
The doorbell rang. The dogs careened from the bedroom as if they’d been shot out of a cannon. Lionel must have forgotten his keys again.
Leslie sighed, a long-suffering sigh. She left her wineglass on the bedside table and took her time getting up. Let him wait.
The dogs were at the door, quivering, barking like maniacs. Lionel had promised to train them, or at least to have them trained, but he never had. He was out on the front porch, champagne bottle in hand.
The Romanian scholar had been taken out for drinks and deposited safely back in his hotel room, but Lionel wasn’t ready to call it a night. He’d brought home a pair of graduate students he’d taken on a study trip to London the previous spring. He introduced them with his free hand: Lithe Something and Tall and Gorgeous Somethingelse. They were both in their twenties and wearing short, tight dresses that showed off their long legs and impressive cleavage, and when faced with their professor’s wife at home in her pajamas, they at least had the decency to look sheepish, even if Lionel didn’t.
Lionel sat the students down on the couch and disappeared into the kitchen, and Leslie put on a record to cover the silence. Before they knew it, he was back with champagne flutes and a box of water crackers. He pushed the magazines fanned across the coffee table out of the way and set everything down. Leslie was the one who always roasted the figs and arranged the cheese board, so she wasn’t surprised. Without her, Lionel was utterly helpless. She perched on the arm of a chair and shook her head, amused. He hadn’t even remembered a plate.
No matter. He removed the foil from the champagne bottle and tossed it aside. The dogs batted it across the floor. He eased off the wire cage and theatrically popped the cork, making the girls squeal. Champagne foamed out onto his hand and across a copy of Architectural Digest before he could reach the glasses. He’d had too much to drink already, Leslie could tell, but he was handing out flutes of champagne one second and going back to the kitchen for a bottle of Riesling the next. He was nothing if not an overachiever.
This time, at least, he brought back a corkscrew. “Are you the single mom?” Leslie asked one of the girls. “Or are you the one who’s pregnant now?”
She was only asking to be mean, but the taller girl said, “Janell is the one who’s pregnant. She couldn’t make it tonight. I’m the mom.” She looked pleased, as if Leslie’s questions meant that Lionel had singled her out. This somehow made it worse. The girl pulled a cell phone out of her bra and started scrolling through photos of her little boy, angling the phone so that Leslie and the other girl could see.
Leslie didn’t get up from the arm of the chair. Her cold medicine had finally kicked in, but she pulled a tissue out of her pajama pocket and dabbed her nose delicately. “I shouldn’t get too close,” she said.
“Don’t mind her,” Lionel said to the girls. “She’s not really sick. She just likes the attention.” He poured each girl a glass of wine and sat down on the couch in between them.
“That’s absurd,” Leslie said. She raised her hand and turned it over to reveal the ball of tissue in her palm. A magic trick. Evidence.
The single mom tucked the phone back against her breast and took a sip of wine.
Lionel leaned back against the couch. “Would you like to see my first editions?” he asked—his idea of a come-on—and Leslie narrowed her eyes. Neither girl took the bait.
“They don’t care about that,” Leslie said. “Look.” She whistled, and the dogs did a trick. Dutifully, the girls clapped. Faust and Tosca returned to their posts next to the couch, bookending Lionel and his devotees.
From the kitchen, the tea kettle whistled. Leslie rose hospitably and brought back glasses filled with ice cubes and tea bags and arranged them in a circle on the coffee table. When she tipped the kettle each time, the water was so hot that the ice cracked in the glass.
The record wound down, and Leslie didn’t replace it. She sipped her drink, relishing the silence.
One of the girls asked to use the restroom. She walked down the dark hallway and left Lionel sitting next to the tall girl with the little boy at home.
“Hello, Mother,” Leslie said from her perch on the arm of the chair. She leaned toward the couch, and Lionel and the tall girl shrank back a little. Leslie felt woozy from the combination of cold medicine and too much wine. She sank into the empty spot next to the tall girl, pushing them both over a little.
The tall girl, caught in between, blushed. From the other side of the couch, Lionel shifted, putting his hand on her knee.
He bent toward the girl, breathing what Leslie knew was his hot, boozy breath onto her, pretending that he was merely accentuating a point. He squeezed her leg emphatically.
Leslie leaned in as well, smiling, and put her hand on the girl’s other knee. “Isn’t he bright?” she asked. “I’ve always thought so.”
The girl leapt to her feet, pulling down the hem of her dress. She stammered as she made an excuse and fled. Hastily, on her way out the door, she whipped her coat from the hall closet. It took a moment for the empty hangers to stopped clicking against each other.
“Well, bless her heart,” Leslie said. She shrugged and drank more of her tea. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, and it wouldn’t be the last.
When the other girl emerged from the restroom, Leslie offered to drive her home. The buzz from the wine had worn off, and she was no longer enjoying herself. She left Lionel to entertain this one while she went into the bedroom and stripped off her pajamas. At the university, she was famous for her clothes: every day last semester, she had worn vintage party dresses and heels.
On her teaching evaluations, a student had written, “I can always hear her coming.”
She put on a coat of lipstick and brushed her hair.
They were already waiting at the front door when Leslie returned. The girl looked startled, unhappy, and she stood meekly as Lionel retrieved first his coat, then both of theirs.
Leslie took her time with the buttons and smoothed her hair over the collar. “Ready?” Lionel asked. He twirled a ring of keys around his finger.
They took their places in the car, with Lionel and Leslie in front and the girl buckled in the back seat as if she were their child. Lionel started out strong but then he grazed a mailbox and lost his momentum. He was the ice skater who falls in competition and can’t quite regain his confidence. He hit another mailbox, then a tree.
“Just a minute, now,” Lionel said, but the girl already had her door open. She was halfway out of the car when he threw it into reverse and tapped the gas. The girl fell onto the grass. Lionel braked. “Are you all right?” he asked, easy as you please, but the girl didn’t answer—she was limping and in heels, but still, she ran away as best she could, a wounded deer.
“Well, you’ve lost another student,” Leslie said. Lionel didn’t answer. He wasn’t interested in learning any lessons.
The wind blew against the windows of the car. Leaves swirled around them. Leslie unbuckled her seatbelt and got out to close the girl’s door again. When she returned to her seat, they backed away from the tree and drove home.
Lionel unlocked the front door. Inside, the dogs were on their cushions, and they raised their heads but didn’t get up. The lights were still blazing in the living room. Lionel surveyed the wreckage. “We should open another bottle of wine,” he said. “What do you think?”
It was late, and Leslie had grown weary of playing Elizabeth Taylor. She wasn’t in the mood, tonight, to lose her mind or drive off a cliff.
Coyly, she turned the pockets of her coat inside out to show him that they were empty: no tricks. She tucked them back in and then produced from the empty pockets two clean white tissues. She waved them in his direction like flags.
Lionel shook his head, bored. He parodied a mocking clap. But then, at last, he surrendered, too. He sighed and rolled his eyes and kissed her, and turned off the living room lights and took her to bed.
Kyle Dargan is the author of five collections of poetry: Anagnorisis (TriQuarterly/Northwestern UP, 2018). Honest Engine (University of Georgia Press, 2015), Logorrhea Dementia (University of Georgia Press, 2010), Bouquet of Hungers (University of Georgia Press, 2007) and The Listening (University of Georgia Press, 2003). He is the recipient of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works, writes, and edits POST NO ILLS Magazine. Originally from Newark, New Jersey, Dargan is a graduate of Saint Benedict’s Prep, The University of Virginia, and Indiana University.
FWR: “Anagnorisis” is the moment in a tragedy where a character realizes his or her (or another’s) true nature. I was struck that your poems consider not only your realization of yourself, but also your realization of America, and what America thinks it knows about you. The first section of Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination came to mind as a possible influence, but I wonder what other works you turned to in the shaping of this manuscript.
Along that thought, you’ve said that this is a work expressing “the freedom of speak”. Can we hope that America, the idea with the capital A, is listening?
KD: I appreciate your picking up on the multiple “recognition” moments throughout the text. I know the term anagnorisis leads one to look for one such moment, but the idea is at play in different parts of the book’s journey. If I can interpret text loosely enough to include more than books, I would definitely say Solange Knowles’ album SEAT AT THE TABLE (which was, interesting enough, inspired in part by Claudia Rankine’s CITIZEN). Whether or not America is listening doesn’t matter. I had to accept, as did Solange, that making art that clearly and unabashed depicts blk disdain and exhaustion –– and not as a function of either rage or woundedness –– will likely not be embraced by the popular critical and awards entities. (The lack of critical acknowledgement for A SEAT AT THE TABLE remains egregious to me.) But you have to do that sometimes to move the popular American consciousness towards being open to and able to process righteous, necessary and crisply articulated blk indignation. Or even just the belief that “white” America is not doing the best job at exorcising its own demons. This is not a book that was in my existing creative plan, and some days it really does feel like a “service” to me –– one that I am more likely to get tacitly maligned for by the artistic gatekeeping class.
FWR: In structuring the manuscript, how did you find balance between shorter and longer works? You’ve said that this wasn’t a ‘planned’ manuscript, like your other books had been. At what point did you realize what you had could, and needed, to stand on its own?
KD: Well, there was a point where I thought “In 2016, the African-American Poet Kyle Dargan Is Asked to Consider Writing More Like the African-American Poet Ross Gay” was the centerpiece of the manuscript (that was probably more of an emotional truth than a craft truth). So I knew that piece –– running about six pages –– needed space to function, somewhat as “Always a Rose” does in the center of Li-Young Lee’s ROSE. That aside, though, these poems are, on average, a lot longer than the poems in my previous four collections. I think that is related to my push towards a new depth of candor in my voice. There is a relentlessness to the opening section –– a weight –– that I wanted to be unavoidable, to go back to that idea of “training” readers’ consciousness. You have to deal with the first section just as I, and many other people of color, have had to live it over the past five years. I do let in more “air” as the book/journey progresses.
FWR: The “China Cycle” poems seemed to serve two purposes. The preceding poems were cast in a new light, as the speaker (and audience) consider the way both China and the United States are continually editing and creating the myths and history of each nation, while also establishing a new angle on the succeeding poems by bringing in more fully concerns of humanity’s impact on the natural world. When you wrote those poems, had you envisioned them as their own manuscript? If not, what was the act of joining them with the rest of poems like?
KD: There was a lot about my travels to China that, until recently, I was still processing. Even just the decision to write things that I would potentially publish, for as much as I am extremely appreciative of how I was hosted and treated as an American by the Chinese Writers Association (which is an arm of the ruling Communist party), I also was very aware of how the government was surveilling and detaining their own dissident writers and artists. To not say anything felt disrespectful to those silenced writers, and to speak candidly felt disrespectful to those who’d hosted me. But once I got over that, it was clear that China was the “bridge” for me and the book. It was both the place I escaped to in a psychically trying time as a blk American, and the place that showed me my American privilege and my inability to escape global colorism and its political ramifications. So what you stated about the “reconsidering” those poems encourage in the manuscript, that is exactly what I experienced in thinking about and having to explain my life in America to others as I traveled abroad.
FWR: Within the “China Cycle”, the idea of being ‘other’ takes on new meaning. While a poem like “A Progressive Mile” points with one hand to the act of being visibly a “dark/spectacle” in China, it also recalls the lines “I’m still trying to buy/ the same stitch of citizenship/ you take for granted” from “In 2016, The African-American Poet Kyle Dargan is Asked to Consider Writing More Like the African-American Poet Ross Gay” or “I think of race as something akin to climate change, / a force we don’t have to believe in for it to undo us” from “Daily Conscription”.
How do you see your poems speaking to the role of “the other” and the act of being made visible or invisible?
KD: So I honestly think that writing about feeling racially othered in a general way has reached the limits of its rhetorical usefulness. (And I may be totally off in thinking that.) There are many experiences of otherness from China I did not bother to attempt to render as poetry because, am I wrong, of course in 2018 the reality of a blk man in Tianjin China who speaks a little Mandarin is going to register as an oddity. What is more interesting to me at the moment is not what the “other” feels but what desires and anxieties fuel the actions of those doing the othering. That is what is happening at the end of “Progressive Mile.” It is quasi erotic, or maybe fetishistic the way in which he is staring at me. And only he really knows what’s up, so how do I get in there –– into his head? That is what I am examining now. I’d say that dynamic is true domestically as well.
FWR: Thinking of the performance of the body, I was struck by your use and manipulation of pop culture references, such as the opening epigram to “Dark Humor”, which quotes Richard Pryor, or “Avenger”, when you write:
Somewhere is the negro’s imagined America,
where we have Iron Man on our side,
though it does not matter if the hero is “black”
so long as the body inside is.
That poem, in particular, which contains Ferguson, Obama, and Tony Stark, struck me as an attempt to answer the multiple ways people of color are called upon to adjust to the expectations of whiteness, without the release that whiteness grants itself. Would you be able to speak further to this?
KD: Well, it is really an imagined Eric Holder cast as a Tony Stark figure, but yes. I think the sentiment you mention is present in that poem, but I think it is more –– or more interestingly to me –– present in “Poem Resisting Arrest.” I remember when I showed the book to a mentor, one not raised in America, he did not understand the poem because he could not identify the resistance, but that is the point. That blk people bend themselves backwards often to avoid abuse by the police, wind up abused or even dead, and are then further abused or criticized for asking why they have suffered this fate. (“Why” is one of the most dangerous questions a blk person can ask an officer.) But I think that goes back to Iron Man and the “negro’s imagined America.” Even there, the police, the State, is too corrupt to be imagined as a benevolent force so it has to be a superhero that fulfills the duty the State should fulfill –– i.e. protecting the innocent.
FWR: I know you teach writing across several genres. How does that influence your own writing?
KD: I think of myself as a learned unlearner, which puts me in a weird position as a teacher in the creative writing classroom. I think my way into craft through martial arts because I appreciate the clarity of high stakes arts (i.e. in some instances you live or you die depending on your craft decisions). That is, I believe, actually freeing because if your main goal is to fight to live, your cannot be stiffly, strictly beholden to styles and forms. It is the ability to transition between forms as needed which lead to success. Because, as they say in NARUTO, every jutsu (technique) has a weakness. So I teach, as Bruce Lee suggests, not knowledge of form but lived performance of fluidity. And I think that is something that one models more than one teaches to others. Thus I need to be continually striving for that –– and getting freer in my necessary formal transitions –– in my own work. One of my former students wrote me to say that reading ANAGNORISIS was like taking an intensive on lineation / line breaks. While flattered, what I really hope they see are the ways I am trying (and failing and trying) to achieve more effective fluidity when it comes to form.
FWR: Is there a poet (or poems) you love to teach or share?
KD: I’d say, to the above idea of moving as freely or as purely as the poem needs, pieces like Lucille Clifton’s “Won’t You Celebrate with Me” or Larry Levis’ “Picking Grapes in an Abandoned Vineyard” or Etheridge Knight’s “Belly Song.” There is really little for me to even teach with those works. You just need to internalize them and allow them to inform your own instinct.
FWR: (this is purely a NJ question, as someone else from that great, maligned place that I’ll never live in): Can we call Walt Whitman a New Jersey poet, as we’ve named a rest stop in his honor?
KD: I don’t think any one place can comfortably or wholly claim Mr. Multitudes. (The bridge even is operated by the Delaware River Port Authority––a Delaware/Jersey collaboration. And Jersey’s turnpike is one of its most hated aspects, so I don’t know how much of an honor the rest stop is.) Maybe Brooklyn can. And D.C. I’d rather New Jersey reconcile its relationship to Amiri Baraka than make space for Whitman. I think that is the problem, poetically with Jersey––and why so many of us don’t or cannot go back: it is often looking elsewhere for the genius when it is already right there going ignored in its own garden.
This is how the whole holy mess
went down: cue the girl in tone-deaf
gold, drama thick in her blood. Their
love always caught in the underworld
or the other world. All vendetta and Vedas.
She woke from dreams silted with arrows,
broken teeth, the man-smell still sharp
and human on her. The birds nearsighted
with melancholy. Her heart wintering
over some god she’ll probably never
see again. He tells her to play dead, that
no one will notice— just another girl
from some hill town with her lotus-petal
eyes walking into a forest on fire.
SELF PORTRAIT AS A GIRL, ONLY PART MIRACLE
This air full of birdsong and chatter,
this girl only part miracle. He as the god
with many heads whose tongues swell
from all the lies pulled from them—
one thorn and nettle at a time.
He as a reminder that sweetness
is only a prelude to pain: what he
couldn’t love, he sent back out
into the jungle, let the animals
have at it. This: the price of freedom.
This: the remnants of love. Your mother
tells you over and over — don’t be just a girl.
You wish she’d teach you something
that would make you belong to this world.
Everyday I build the little boat,
my body boat, hold for the unique one,
the formless soul, the blue fire
that coaxes my being into being.
Yes, there was music in the woods, and
I was in love with the trees, and a beautiful man
grew my heartbeat in his hands, and there
was my mother’s regret that I slept with.
To live there is pointless. I’m building the boat,
the same way I’d build a new love—
looking ahead at the terrain. And the water
is rising, and the generous ones are moving on.
O New Day, I get to build the boat!
I tell myself to live again.
Somehow I made it out of being 15
and wanting to jump off the roof
of my attic room. Somehow I survived
my loneliness and throwing up in a jail cell.
O New Day, I’ve broken my own heart. The boat
is still here, is fortified in my brokeness.
I’ve picked up the hammer everyday
and forgiven myself. There is a new
language I’m learning by speaking it.
I’m a blind cartographer, I know the way
fearing the distance. O New Day,
there isn’t a part of you I don’t love
to fear. I’m holding hands with
the poet speaking of light, saying I made it up
I made it up.
You live in a high fort above a blue city. The rooftops below
speckled with laundry. At night the distant echoes
of a hundred brass bands, a hundred weddings. The blue
of the city is not quite robin’s egg, not exactly
the blue of chicory. Outside the city is the desert.
Don’t tell it like a story. It will sound too beautiful.
You stand on a high parapet, in the rustle and coo
of pigeons, under filigreed eaves. When you step over red
velvet ropes, leaving the museum behind, you find rooms
empty as the moon, floors carpeted in desert silt.
In one bedchamber-turned-cave, you hold your breath, you bow
before a rank hill of bat guano. You touch niches
for the ghosts of little lamps, and frescoed girls dance
with gods along the wall. Plaster dusts your fingertips.
Stained glass windows turn your thin skin rainbow. You take
a photo of a white hallway: Mughal arches echo, fade into
light. Not a story, not an image. It is a map. At the end of the hallway,
a balcony—the ground hazily distant—the wide-winged
turkey vultures gliding so close—hold tight
the railing, notice how soft the sandstone carved
into curling vines. Notice it is crumbling. Mehrangarh means
Sun Citadel. Sheesh Mahal means Mirror Palace, or else
Hall of Mirrors, but it is just a tiny space, dim, claustrophobic
with reflections: wild, intimate room, it wants an audience.
Here you are, alone with your ten thousand selves.
Alumnae of the Void,
we measure our loyalty
in clicks and non-fungible
We measure our loyalty
against our guilt of never
never opening email.
Against our guilt of never
showing up, or as we say
in today’s culture,
making ourselves visible.
Showing up, or as we say
meaning a world
we are like stars
to become markers of night.
We are like stars
whose arrival designates
the time of comparison
between priests and beggars.
Whose arrival is called “Creation”
and requires a red carpet
or no carpet at all.
And requires a red carpet
at how such terms formed
an encyclopedia of misdirection.
we are but a satellite,
an off-shore account
waiting to be dissolved.
We are but a satellite
and yet are we not also a center
whose periphery is wonder?
Waiting to be dissolved
an encyclopedia of misdirection
or no carpet at all
between priests and beggars
to become markers of night
making ourselves visible
never opening email
who can say
we are not loyal alumnae
clicking, donating our being
to some Void
some Egypt of guilt and wonder.
ONE WAY IN—ONE WAY OUT
during the fire, i thought only of closed roads—
lines of cars redirected to find another way
in or out. while the mountain above them burned,
a couple jumped into their water tank to save themselves.
i turned on every sprinkler & placed a few on the roof.
i sat on top of my house, dry terrain on all sides,
breathing the ash-rain & smoke. perhaps i should have
been more concerned. perhaps i should have packed
my letters & left. perhaps i was too cavalier.
i thought myself willing to go down with the house.
it was in fact, not bravado, but a life that did not know loss.
on an old ranch, when the stables caught fire
& there was no chance of rescuing them, all the horses
were loosened. i imagined them wild eyed & panicked.
a stampede emerging from a smoke cloud. the sound
of hooves—an unsaddled stream rushing out
in a single direction with nothing but their lives.
my eyes were bloodshot
from finding spare hours
in the curve of your
you drove me to a flight
& said you hadn’t seen
a sunrise in months.
the sky—a pool
of crushed hibiscus.
i wanted to swim in it
with you. we were quiet
the way anything that leaves
is quiet. you promised
to find me
& i closed the door.
parting is never
the ceremony we wish
it were—someone is there
& then they’re not.
i sat in a terminal
& felt the sun
through large windows.
i thought of your hand
squeezing mine in sleep.
how one night you turned
away from me so that
i wouldn’t see you cry.
& later beneath a blanket
we hummed lullabies
to one another.
you placed me
in a cold empty sky not
because you wanted to,
but because i asked you to.
When it was too hot
to smoke cigarettes we drowned
ants in gasoline
until they curled. Upstream,
in a trailer, your mother, drunk
on hand sanitizer cut with water,
called each kid
It’s April. You are dying
among the poplars
among blueberry fields and farmhands
beating chickens with pipes.
When we travel
the dead travel too.
That is the law
and the law is full of dreams.
The news says
wildfires are burning
all over the county.
from the couch I’ve been sleeping on
for weeks. I put
cold water to my face,
blow ash off the deck
with a hose. I sit
in the yard and close my eyes.
When I left that town
I left for good. I dreamed,
rarely, of streams, of blackbirds. I drew
everything we did to the trees, everything the trees
did to us. I drew it badly
and spent years trying
to draw it well. Eventually
after Linette Reeman and torrin a. greathouse
The body is a betrayal you are forced to carry
Don’t say the word father
OR become a slow crawl of thigh highs
OR let each be your god
Divide all possible solutions by Remember this was your idea
Theoretical Math Problem – TRUE OR FALSE
When solving for y the answer to diet pills is more diet pills
The word genetics is a mean hammer
The difference between shame and guilt is showing your work
MATH PROBLEM AS MAP=
You are the smallest place you know.
Possible steps to solving for y (you)
1. Give back the rib
2. Eat every apple until you are fat with orchards
3. Dress in snake and dig a grave
(there no use for girls who think themselves vessel. They should never expect to float)
MATH PROBLEM, v. 2.0=
Russian nesting doll
Find the lowest common denominator.
Divide the fractions among many mouths
Tell the junior at UCLA you have the answers + use words like better now + walk her to her car.
(Do not say the hunter never sleeps) x (Do not tell her, like you, she will always be hungry)
= Do not tell her there is no X = Or worse, that each of you are cause.
Your mother laughed when you disappeared + you are still suspect + so is she
you have not finished disappearing + you are still thirsty for bones
MATH PROBLEM IN REVERSE
Unbuild the boat
Write letters to kerosene
Have X solve for you
There is nothing special about a body
AND You keep on carrying
A TOAST TO THE DESTRUCTION OF SODOM AND GOMORRAH
The waitress tending our party of three dips her tanned
torso over the table as she grabs the menus from us men. Well,
men minus one, since it appears that I’m the only guy
not looking. Not looking at women anyway. The gold
crucifix on her necklace rubs against my brother’s straw
as she withdraws and Jesus ascends again to the heaven
of her breasts. The Motorboat is what I order, described
as something between a porter and a stout—now that’s
my kind of cross. My father says there’s no such thing as sin
that’s large and sin that’s small. Drinking too much, he says,
is the sin, not the drinking, as he peers through our waitress’
knapsack crop-top. There’s no such thing as small or large
sizes here, the waitress says, man size is large, girl is small.
Do you really want to order the girl size? Fine, I want the girl
size. My brother laughs and my father looks away. It’s stupid,
my brother says. But are you really telling me her body
did nothing for you? My father looks at me like God
looking for the smallest redemption in Gomorrah, looking
for any reason in Sodom not to raze it. There is no reason
for how things are sometimes—better to accept. My father
didn’t raise me to be a girly man, a fact that might bother him,
except for the other fact: he didn’t raise me. It bothers him.
Some people are beyond saving. Me, I tell my brother, as I look
over his shoulder at the bearded roughneck going gaga
for our waitress as he sips from his bottle, there is nothing
straight about me, except maybe my hair, and even that
has gotten kinky with age. I drink beer because I’m thirsty
when I eat pretzels. I don’t have a prayer when I say amen.
REASONS FOR ABOLISHING ICE
with a first line by Bei Dao
because you say we can’t use our voice to launch an avalanche ice
because if you want papers then we’ll crush you like booklice thumbed into paper
As if you could dig it up like a carrot
or shake it loose from the branches.
As if you could thwack it in half
like a coconut, could drink the milk
sloshing inside and be revived, as if you could command it
onto your tongue, as if it had a taste,
as if it could be poured or caught or captured or held
or worried loose like a tooth, a knot, a nail, as if it were an eye
fixed on a snake bisecting the path.
As if it could be summoned and hooded,
cut and partitioned: this: meat. This: poison. Many times
there was only the bright smell of gin
on my mouth and the butterscotch glow
of stupid I must have been haloed in, the sudden
seizure of my bitter orange and juniper tongue. Desire,
yes, also, urgency. But I could be
caught, I could be lightning
directed, flash inanimate. Out beyond
these walls, a ferocious wind
makes love to the trees in a yard,
pine needles scattering all over
the green, green ground. I want to say
I never assented to any role I was not fully certain I could sell,
but I, too, am susceptible to the suspicion I should be
dumb and grateful, like a cow or a potted plant.