On the day after Hazel died – it was a Tuesday afternoon in early March – George stood at his woodworking bench, whittling a bowl. He pressed the piece of yew down, and used a bowl gouge to scoop a smooth sliver of the pinkish-white wood so that it curled upwards and away, falling to the bench. He did this repeatedly – he tried not to think of anything else, not Hazel, not the empty house – and then, tired of that singular motion, he reached for sandpaper and ran it over the burrs and birds-eyes until the wood was warm and smooth to the touch.
George looked through the window, out on to the loch, where the water was as flat and as grey as slate. On the loch’s far shore, lying low across the hills Beinn Bheàrnach, Beinn a’ Bhainne, and Beinn Taladh, was a bank of cloud that made the hills seem like stubs that ended only a few hundred feet up. These were the hills that George and Hazel had looked at every day of the 43 years that they had been married. Peat and granite and died-back bracken were George and Hazel’s winter-time palate; these were the hues that stayed with them through the darkest months of the year, until April when the first of the dog violets reared their purple nodding heads.
Hazel hadn’t been well, but despite the pains that tore at her bones, and then the operation just before Christmas, she had been out in her garden every day. A few weeks after the operation, even, she had pulled on her wellies, got her gardening gloves down from the hall shelf and wrapped her purple rain jacket about her. Concerned, George had watched her through the long window at the back of the house climb carefully up the steps, clutching at the wooden rail, and enter her labyrinthine vegetable garden. He had watched as she had become smaller and smaller, eventually disappearing behind the poly-tunnel, just a purple speck on the hillside, a trowel in her hand.
Now white wood shavings curled on George’s fleece jacket, and flecks of wood dust sprinkled his arms and shoulders. He didn’t bother to brush himself off. When the light grew dim, he switched on the overhead strips, which flickered and growled to life. He would stay out here until he saw his tools in double; only then would he go inside the empty house.
The next afternoon, the minister called in to visit. George watched him drive up the road in his faded Ford Cortina, and then they sat in the living room where the stove glowed with coals. George served him tea and some Ginger Nut biscuits which Hazel had bought at the Spar Shop just Saturday. The minister had mild Parkinson’s disease, and his hands shook, the tea cup rattling on the saucer. He spilled a little of the milky tea on the beige carpet, both of them pretending not to notice. George didn’t mind; he just wanted the minister to leave. He wasn’t ready to talk about Hazel.
The minister offered his condolences. “Thank you,” George said, and then looked at the spot on the carpet where the tea stained brown. He asked if Hazel had left any wishes for her funeral, any specific requests – cremation, burial, that kind of thing. “We hadn’t expected her to die,” George said, thinking how cruel to be taken, after everything they had been through, by a stroke. He got up to stand at the window.
From there he looked out onto the edge of Hazel’s vegetable garden, which staggered in wild, overgrown terraces up the hillside behind the house. Neither George nor Hazel knew exactly how many acres the garden covered, because as demand for Hazel’s produce across the island had increased, so the garden had stretched out into their land at the back of the house. From the outside, the garden looked nothing more than untamed gorse bushes and rowan trees, trees that Hazel had planted when they had first moved to the house because in local lore they were thought to ward off witches. But on entering, and following the muddy path up the hill, the garden stretched out into large areas planted with every kind of vegetable that could grow in the island’s short season.
Raised beds were planted with leeks, spinach, kale, squash and kohlrabi, beds that sat alongside fruit cages, potting sheds, and a poly-tunnel which in late spring brimmed with sweet peas and, in summer, with strawberries, runner beans, trailing tomatoes. Up higher were whole sections reserved for root vegetables – crops that in summer burst their green tops through the rich loamy earth, and in autumn delivered creamy white offerings of parsnip, potato, turnip, Jerusalem artichoke, roots that kept them going through the cold dark months of winter.
From up here, Hazel had often told George at the end of a long day of work, she could look out across the house, the fields that surrounded them, and beyond to the loch, the hills, and the islands beyond theirs. From here she could be reminded that they lived on an island, because it was so easy to forget, an island that they had chosen randomly off the map all those years ago, its very virtue being that it was disconnected from the rest of Britain. She said that she felt reassured, when she was looking out on the sea that kept them apart from the mainland, that this would stop the rest of the world from encroaching upon theirs.
George now stared out at the rowan trees that bordered the garden, clasping his hands behind his back, his fingers picking at an old woodworking cut on his thumb. Behind him, the minister fidgeted and shook. George wondered what he was going to do about the garden. Keeping it up had been Hazel’s job, not his.
“You’ve been standing there for five minutes,” the minister said kindly, and George turned to find him still sitting there.
“The garden,” George said, then trailed off. The settee springs creaked as the minister prepared to get up. “If it’s cremation you choose, it will have to be a mainland service,” the minister said. “Or there’s burial in the village, of course. It’s a lot to think about, and so soon. Perhaps you will call me when you’ve had time to consider?”
George nodded heavily, his mind darting to when he had seen Hazel in the hospital, just two days ago, after the doctors had said she was gone. He blinked the image away, and right then, through the window, he thought he saw a movement through the trees. He looked closer, squinting his eyes, straining to see through the silvery branches if what he thought he had seen was real. A pair of eyes looked back at him, white and wide, and then another pair, and then another. He saw a flash of tawny hide, a glimpse of cream, the sharp points of antlers. Deer, George started, and the Minister looked at him quizzically.
“Never mind,” George said, and then rushed the Minister to the door, hoping he hadn’t been rude.
“You’ll be in touch about things?” the minister said, “and of course, if there’s anything.”
When the minister had set off in his car, down the steep driveway towards the sea, George went upwards, towards the garden. There, he saw how the deer had got in: a fallen strut had left a gaping entrance to Hazel’s garden, and the fence had been trampled. The deer might come out on their own, but it was unlikely. He would need to fix the fence, and he would need help to get the deer out. He couldn’t do it alone.
Early the next morning, frost glinted on the tufts of shoreline grass, and herons stood still and long-legged at the water’s edge. George looked out from the window in the living room, and then picked up the phone to call his neighbour, Karl the farmer, and ask if he had time to come over.
The deer were still in the garden. George had watched them from the living room window as they destroyed an elderflower bush, the bush shaking in great waves as it succumbed to the violent nibbling of teeth. Now George felt a kind of weariness that two cups of coffee hadn’t shaken, a deep tiredness that had lain with him all throughout the sleepless, cold night and had risen with him at the blue hued dawn. It was a tiredness that loomed over him so that he felt if he didn’t keep working, it would crush him.
He was finishing up a slice of Hazel’s sourdough bread when Karl’s truck pulled up outside the house, his two sheepdogs, Ailsa and Aidan, turning circles in the truck bed.
“Hello, mate,” said Karl, eyeing him cautiously. He held out his hand, across the pile of condolence letters that littered the doorstep.
“Karl,” said George, shaking his hand, looking down at the letters. “I’m okay.”
“Whatever you need,” said Karl, and George nodded.
Karl was younger and taller than George, broad-backed, big-boned, carrying a head of bright blond hair. His face glowed red above the neck of the Guernsey sweater he always wore. George and Karl had been neighbors for going on 25 years, when Karl had taken over managing the farm on the Ashworth estate, and had moved to the cottage four miles along the road. The Ashworth estate stretched as far as George and Hazel’s house, and continued on the other side, so George had seen Karl come down on his quad bike, or in the truck if it was blowing a hoolie, twice a day, every day for the last two and a half decades.
George stepped outside and pulled the door closed behind him. The cold air stung his nostrils. Hazel loved this kind of weather, the ground still hard but spring somewhere nearby. She loved the white stillness of frost and the long evenings when a stew simmered on the stove, when she and George would play Scrabble together, which Hazel usually won. Hazel had always been good with words, ever since school where she had won the spelling competition. That was when George had first noticed her; they had both been thirteen.
George led Karl around the side of the house to the garden.
“Part of the fence fell,” said George, pointing to the gap. “This was her department. I haven’t been round here since,” he paused, “the operation. Before Christmas.”
“I see,” said Karl. “Can you get a new section of fence up?”
“I can get some posts,” he said. “And some new wire fencing.”
“When do you think you’ll have it ready?”
“Tomorrow, maybe. By the weekend for sure. I’ll have to go to the town for supplies.”
“Okay,” said Karl.
“But the deer,” said George. “There must be five of them at least. They’ve been watching me.”
Karl nodded. Over the years, Karl had become a feature in George’s life, if not quite a friend then someone George could count on. Hazel had sold her produce every week at the market, sixteen miles away in town, so she knew nearly everyone. But George rarely went away from the house, unless to fit a door he had made or sell his turned wooden objects. He was fine without friends; he had Hazel, and he had his work.
But when Hazel had got sick at the start of the winter, Karl had begun dropping in every now and again after he’d fed the sheep, offering Hazel and George lifts to the ferry for hospital appointments in Glasgow, picking up medicine for them from the town. Karl’s wife, Mandy, might send along a cake or some bread, and recently Karl had shown up on his quad bike with a fallen branch of rowan wood from the estate. He had asked Mr Ashworth’s permission to take it to George to turn bowls with, and Mr Ashworth had said, given the circumstances, that this would be fine.
These were little things, but where they lived, they made all the difference. During Hazel’s sickness, George realized, he had come to rely on Karl and Mandy in a way that made him feel uncomfortable. He didn’t want to be a burden on anyone.
Karl and George stood now, looking into the garden, until they saw movement, a swaying of branches, the snap of twigs and the flash of red between the shades of greens and greys.
“I see them,” said Karl. “Little pests.”
“I don’t know how long they’ve been in there,” said George. “Hazel, she hasn’t been out here since, well – ” His shoulders hunched and his chest caved, as if he were folding in on himself.
“It’s okay, mate,” said Karl, reaching out a hand and placing it gingerly on George’s shoulder. George raised his forehead, pulled back his neck, sucked in a little air.
“Since Saturday. She was fine on Saturday. She was out here on Saturday.”
“Well, it sounds like they’ve had enough of a feed,” said Karl. “What say we get these rascals out of there? I’ll get Ailsa and Aidan from the truck and see what we can do. How does that sound?”
While George and Karl were out in the garden trying to get the deer out, the minister left a message on George’s answering machine.
“It’s Reverend Paul,” said the message, which George listened to later on that night. “From the church.” He asked if George might call him, or if he might come round again, to discuss the arrangements. George had listened to the beeps that followed the message and then had pressed the delete button.
George and Karl were unsuccessful with the deer. The sheepdogs did their best to round them up but every time one of the dogs cornered one, the deer leapt away into some further reach of the garden. Karl and George stayed with it until around lunch time, when Karl said he had to go and see about the cows.
“Of course,” George said. “You be getting along.” He tried to say it in a way that didn’t make Karl feel bad. Even so, Karl shifted awkwardly from one rubber-booted foot to the other and offered to come back another day if the deer still hadn’t left.
“If it’s no bother,” George replied, trying not to sound relieved.
“It’s nae bother to me at all, I want to help,” Karl said. “You’d do the same for me, right, mate?” George dipped his head, a heavy nod of agreement.
As darkness fell that Thursday afternoon, George went out to his workshop. He pressed the light switch on the wall, and the caged strips flickered to life. The bowl he was working on lay on the bench, its corners cut, its insides gouged, its surface rough with the scoops and turns of his tools.
George had been woodturning for as long as he had been married to Hazel, 43 happy years as a husband and a woodturner. You couldn’t rush either one if you wanted to do them right. George had learned about wood from his father, growing up in the New Forest, where his father had taken George on his wood-seeking trips around their house. By the time George had left school, at fifteen, he had learned to love wood with the same passion that his own father had.
George earned his money from making doors and gates for people, kitchen cabinets, those sorts of useful things. But what he rose for every day, was to turn discarded, forgotten pieces of wood into beautiful bowls, platters, vases, objects that would live in people’s houses for years, maybe even be passed on to the next generation. He wasn’t good with books, or words, or spelling, like Hazel had been, but he was good with his hands and he had the love of wood buried deep within him.
George looked out of the dark window at his own reflection staring back, and then at the row of tools clipped in hooks along the wall. There was the red handled chisel his uncle had bought him when he had turned his first bowl, the saw, 40 years old, a new blade bought on Amazon just one month ago. A bradawl, the rubber grip long since turned sticky but the blade still up to the job, which he had bought in an old man’s yard sale on their first holiday together in 1976. A jack plane that Hazel had bought him for his twenty-second birthday, the same year she briefly went to work at the Clydesdale before deciding an office life wasn’t for her and took to gardening full-time. A sliding bevel square, one of many tools left to him by Jack, who used to farm next door. The froe that George had bought himself, the gimlet he had found. The rasp, the spokeshave, the twybil; a brace, a broadaxe, a bucksaw.
George ran his hand over the blades and handles now, ending with the set of Sheffield steel bowl gouges his father had left him when he’d died. George had spent nearly his whole life with these tools, each one so precise, existing for one single purpose only. He looked once again up at the window out of which he could see nothing, only his own ghostly reflection. What would his purpose be, now that she was gone? What would he be?
Lying on one end of the bench was the piece of rowan that Karl had brought to him from the estate. It had been sitting there, gnarled and knobbled, waiting for him to do something with it, but with everything that had happened – the operation, the slow recovery, and then, this, Hazel’s death – George hadn’t got around to even splitting it open. He had no idea, and could not tell from looking at it, what was inside, what colours and patterns he would find when he eventually laid it out and cut it through with the saw.
But he had the urge to touch it now, to rub his fingers over the bark, and then he wanted to take the branch in his hands, and he did, feeling the weight of it pull on his arms. Then, it were as if his body were acting on its own, and the deer, Karl, the minister’s visits, even the fact that Hazel wasn’t inside cooking dinner, all of that became a kind of haze to which George was now numb. He took the branch over to the saw table and laid it down in front of the circular blade. He pulled on his safety glasses, stretched his fingers into some gloves, and flicked the switch on the side of the saw. The jagged mouth of the blade roared, a blast of sawdust-speckled air gushed upwards onto his face. The teeth began to pierce the rough skin of the wood and the noise drowned out the darkness that had permeated George’s mind. Just the rowan, the blade, and the devastating cut of metal on wood.
George shut off the saw and laid the two pieces of wood down on the workbench, blinking the dust from his eyes and taking in the colours before him. Cream and copper, tan and taupe, specks of auburn and swirls of russet, freckles of chestnut and honey and peach. He swept off the dust, and then licked the tip of one of his fingers and rubbed a little saliva into the wood. Along with the growth rings that he expected, the wood also contained patterns that snaked in one direction and then in the other, the lighter-colored sapwood on the outside spiralling inwards towards the deep treacle-tinged heartwood at its core.
George ran his hand over the wood once more, taking in the brightness of the colors, and then he watched as they began to fade, as the air in the workshop oxidized the wood. It was as if their lights were going out. The colors lost their brightness, the wood lost its shine. It would never be the same piece of wood again.
The week lumbered on, bringing with it an entourage of lady-callers, women who lived on the island, many of whom people George had never even met. He had made the mistake of letting one of them through the door, early on in the week, and then they had talked on Facebook, probably, or at the post-office, and before he knew it, they all wanted to come in.
They brought cakes, mostly, but also soups, stews, trays of flapjacks, an apple strudel, a multi-coloured chilli plant from the village shop, all of which lay abandoned on the shelf inside the porch where in April, Hazel would have been laying out trays planted with seeds, ready for outside sowing in June. When the women knocked at the house, he didn’t answer, and so they cupped their hands to the window and then pressed their faces into the aperture their hands created. Then they would decide he wasn’t there and back away, leaving their offerings inside the porch.
Eventually, someone brought George a bottle of Famous Grouse whisky, even though he hadn’t had a drink in God knows how many years. The bearer was new to the island – a blow-in, locals called these people – and had no idea that George had promised Hazel a long time ago that he would never touch another drop. George snaffled the whisky into the pocket of his woodworking jacket and took it out to the workshop. He didn’t bother with a glass.
There was an old leather armchair in his workshop, and he sank back into it, rested the bottle on his knee, and looked up at the rafters. He let out a sigh. Then George twisted the top off the bottle, put it to his lips, and glugged at the amber liquid, wincing and enjoying the pain as it slipped down his throat. The whisky burned the back of his tongue, and gouged tears of surprise from his eyes because he had not tasted whisky in so many years and now he remembered how disgusting and how delicious it was.
He thought of Hazel, and of her garden, and of her windowsill which should be covered in trays of seeds but instead was covered in trays of brownies and other things he would never eat. He tugged at the neck of that bottle and forced himself to swallow the whisky, and after a few minutes of drinking his arms felt light, as if they might lift of their own accord, and his head was woozy, and then he couldn’t remember why he was sitting in his workshop at all. With the confusion came a momentary, welcome relief.
But the feeling that had been plaguing him since Hazel had died, the weight that hung around his shoulders, that dogged him in the house and followed him when he went to bed and when he got up in the night to go to the toilet and when he finally rose to deal with the day, the immense and stupefying weight of her absence still clung to him, and even though he was drunk and he felt like throwing up everything that was inside him, still it was there. And the thought that it would never leave, that Hazel’s absence might for ever hang around his neck, was, even in his drunken discomfort, also a strange kind of relief, because at least that meant that he would always feel her close by.
When George woke up to a hand on his shoulder nudging him awake and Karl looming over him, he didn’t know where he was. But by the light coming through the windows, he could see that it was morning. His head was raging.
“You okay, George?” said Karl.
“Just give me a second,” said George, who felt sick and mortified by what Karl had seen. “I was just…”
“Yes,” said Karl, who ran his finger along a knotted branch of ash that lay drying on the racks, looking away so that George could gather himself, straighten his jacket and kick the bottle underneath the chair. “I came about the deer,” said Karl.
George had forgotten about not getting the deer out yesterday, and felt immense gratitude for Karl having come round. They went outside to Karl’s truck, where the sheep dogs snapped and twisted in the back.
“You okay, mate?” Karl said, eyeing him closely.
“I’m getting there,” said George, who had now been without Hazel for four whole days, the longest they had been apart for twenty or more years. “I’m not really sleeping,” he ventured. His head felt as if it were bursting.
“Is there anything we can do?” asked Karl “Mandy says do you want to come over for tea?”
“Aye, maybe one of these days,” said George, who would have loved to eat a meal at a table with someone else. He had been surviving off sourdough bread and cheese, which he nibbled at while standing up at the kitchen counter, too afraid to sit down alone. “Maybe later,” he said, worried that too much warmth would crack him. “I’ll let you know,” he said, knowing he probably wouldn’t.
The sheep dogs, Ailsa and Aidan, pressed their muzzles against the grill at the back of Karl’s truck.
“How about them deer?” said Karl, “are they still up there in your garden?”
“They’ve taken out the rowans,” said George.
“Oh dear,” said Karl, knowing Hazel had planted them. He twisted the handle on the tail gate and the dogs piled out of the truck, panting and dangling their long pink tongues around the rims of George’s boots. “Come,” Karl snapped at the dogs. To George he said, “let’s see what we can do, shall we?”
The deer took fright when the dogs appeared, and scattered to every corner of the garden. “You stay by the gate,” Karl shouted, following the dogs with his whistles and clicks up through the paths that wound from each part of the garden to the other. “They might come out,” he shouted, his voice fading as he went further away. Then Karl was gone, only his red jacket visible in flashes.
In actual fact, Hazel had told George when she had gone for her operation before Christmas that, should anything happen to her, she wished to be cremated. She wanted her ashes to be scattered in the garden, Hazel had said, underneath the rowan trees. George hadn’t wanted to talk about it but Hazel had insisted. “Just in case,” she had said, holding his hand in bed the night before she was due at the hospital. “I just want to know that we talked about it.”
George’s head was still thick with the whisky that he wished to God he hadn’t touched. The feeling of having broken his promise to Hazel was enough to make him realize that it was the last time he would ever drink again. He heard a shout from the top part of the garden, somewhere up near the brassicas, then he heard the dogs barking, and then a scuffle of hooves around the perimeter fence as two white-faced stags came trampling down the hill towards him.
“Look out!” shouted Karl, whose head was just visible above a clump of gorse bushes. George was momentarily fixated by the way the animals leapt towards him. One of the stags had just a small pair of antlers but the other was an eight-pointer, maybe a ten. Its haunches undulated as it ran. A fine drizzle had begun to fall on George’s face and it seemed as if the drops were falling on someone else’s skin entirely. The two stags were nearly upon him, undeterred by his presence.
“Let them through, George,” Karl shouted, “stand back.” The stags made directly for the opening in the fence. All George had to do was to let them pass. They streaked by in a flurry of fur and bone and hoof.
“Well done, mate,” said Karl, who had come down the hill towards him. “I’m afraid we’ve got trouble with that young fallow, though,” he said. “She’s tried to get through the deer fence, and I think her leg may be broken.” A fine layer of mist had settled on Karl’s face too, and the two of them, bedraggled and damp, look out at one another beneath rain-soaked hair.
Karl came back that afternoon after milking and shot the injured deer. It had been a young one, its leg mangled by trying to jump over the fence, its antlers small but perfectly formed. They laid the deer on plastic sheeting in the garage, split it open from end to end and removed the gralloch which Karl plopped into a bucket, the kidneys and intestines trying their best to slip through his fingers. He left the head on a tarpaulin, and took the feet for his sheep dogs to chew on. Together they hoisted the body up onto a hook in the roof beam, put there for such a purpose. George would skin it for its meat once it had bled dry.
Afterwards, they sat in the house and George lit the wood-burning stove, resisting the urge to ask Karl if he wanted to play Scrabble. George produced the apple strudel, and together they ate it and drank a pot of tea. “Have you decided what you’re going to do about the – ” Karl paused, “about Hazel. About the funeral?”
George sipped at his tea, and said, finally, “Yes.” He knew what had to be done, and tomorrow he would call the minister. “Hazel wanted to be cremated,” said George. “She wanted her ashes scattered underneath the rowans. They’ll grow back, won’t they?” he asked.
When they had gone up to free the deer from the fence, and found its leg broken and the deer weak having wrangled all night, they had found the garden in a state of destruction. The beech trees’ lower branches had been bitten to the core, the purple sprouting, kale and other winter greens were flattened and snapped, stems bleeding white, open to the sky. The potato patch was churned with cloven-hoofed prints, and the rowans were naked, stripped of their bark, the sapwood within shredded and torn as if an angry clawed animal had been trying to get its guts out.
George had run his hand along the trunk of one of the trees, once smooth and silvery, now rough against his palm, like strands of old rope. George didn’t know if the rowans would survive another year, but Karl had suggested he call James the farrier, who was good with trees, to see if he had any advice. When Karl finished his tea, George didn’t offer him any more. They said goodnight at the door, and George heard the truck bounce down the lane to the road, the dogs whining from their cage in the back.
In the garage, the deer hung from the hook. In the stark glow of the strip lights, the deer’s hide shone bright, tawny with patches of cream, specks of brown, hazy spots of auburn faintly visible. The head lay on the tarp still, and the deer’s eyes were closed now, its lids pressed shut against its face. But when Karl had taken a rifle and nuzzled it up against its struggling head, its eyes had been wide open, bright with fear and pain, the eyeballs engorged, straining through its own scull. George had hardly been able to bear it, though he knew that this was the kindest thing to do.
“Best to put it out of its misery,” Karl had said, and then he had pulled the trigger. The fawn was killed immediately, its body slumping against the fence where its leg had been caught, but for a few seconds, its muscles had twitched and its eyes had gone on blinking, the nervous system firing impulses even though its heart had stopped. George wasn’t religious, or even spiritual, but he thought, for a moment, that he might have been able to see something pass from its eyes, something fade, before the eyes stopped blinking and the muscles ceased to shiver.
George closed the door to the garage, turning his back on the deer. It would still be there in the morning, and a few days later when George would skin it and carve up the meat for the freezer, taking a parcel along to Karl and Mandy. George went back inside the house, past the trays of cakes, to the table where the phone lived. Holding the receiver, he dialed the minister’s number, and waited for him to pick up on the other end.
Born and raised in Detroit, Tommye Blount now calls Novi home. A graduate from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers, he has been the recipient of fellowships and scholarships from Cave Canem and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. His work can be found in various journals and anthologies. His full-length collection is forthcoming from Four Way Books.
FWR: How do you protect your time and foster your writing?
TB: Like many poets now, and throughout history, I work a demanding weekday job, so writing can sometimes feel nearly impossible for me. With that said, I do dedicate early Saturday and Sunday mornings (or any off days) as “writing” time. Writing is in quotes, because in these sessions, I make no promises to myself that I have to write anything at all—and, to be frank, sometimes I don’t write. There may be times where I do nothing but read essays or books by other poets or fiction writers. (Oh! One of my obsessions as of late are essays on fashion—have you read The Battle of Versailles by Robin Givhan?) If you were to pop in on me, you might even see me looking at YouTube videos of other artists—either performing or talking about their disciplines. Where I am getting at is this: the act of writing for me encompasses a lot more than the physical act of writing.
Right now, I am in New York for a theater run—something I do often. Yes, I am gaga over musicals and plays, and get gooseflesh anytime someone starts talking about Audra McDonald, but all of this too is a part of my process. Watching other artistic disciplines feeds me. Not so much the subject matter of their work—although that is fair game for me as well—but I am more interested in their materials. For the past couple of years, I have been going to Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. Here, the plays and musicals are performed in repertory—so many shows are going on at once. You will see one actor playing two, or three, different roles in different shows. I love this, because to me, and my poet brain, it always leads me to rhyme and the shapes of rhyme. When I am watching occurrences like this happening, something seemingly minor to most of the audience, I am thinking how can I translate this into a poem. Of course, I can’t ever pull it off when I mean to pull it off—I’m too slow for that. Ha! It takes a while for the idea to sink into my body and, it always seems, out of nowhere I pull it off without thinking about it—or maybe I am thinking about it? I don’t know.
FWR: I’m struck by this image of actors playing multiple rows in multiple shows. It makes me think of the moving between forms and personas, how the self can be fractured and recast (in a poem like “The Bug”, for instance).
TB: Bifurcation is a frequent kind of transformation that takes place in my work. Many of my poems are in first person singular, so I often challenge myself to see what happens when that gets split off into two entities sharing the same space. “The Bug” complicates the first person by allowing that other man to speak through him halfway through the poem. What better way to explore a kind of love than through possession? And going back to your mention of form—in my chapbook there are many received forms that resist the conventions of those forms. These too act as a kind of fracture and recast, but moreover it goes back to my love of bodily transformation and how that allows me to divorce a body from its intent.
FWR: Can you speak further to finding inspiration in different art forms? (and considering those explorations part of the act of writing!)
TB: Of course, as writers we should first be lovers of reading, but other art forms too have much to teach us. In 2017, I was one of 18 recipients of a Kresge Arts in Detroit fellowship. Each year, there are two groups of nine artists chosen from two rotating categories. This time around the categories are Literary and Visual Arts, but everyone is doing all kinds of work: art criticism, sculpture, mural painting, collage, quilting, dance, and more. The fellowship comes with a pretty large amount of money with no-strings-attached, but that has not been the highlight of my tenure. The best part has been getting to dig into the work of the other fellows and, in one case, getting to sit in on a session. I just think writers limit themselves if they are only looking toward their own discipline for techniques or new ways of thinking about stuff. The dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones teaches me just as much as the poet Carl Phillips.
FWR: I’m drawn to the way you play with syntax in many of your poems (“The Black Umbrella”, for example). It seems to not only allow for a reveal and revision of information, but also to suggest greater possibility in the memory of a poem. Along the lines of structure, I’d love to hear what you were thinking while arranging this manuscript. How did you decide when to echo back to a previous poem or image, or when to expand upon an idea?
TB: Matthew Olzmann, the killer poet and a dear friend of mine, was—thank goodness—my editor for What Are We Not For. The manuscript I submitted to Bull City Press, structurally speaking, was close to the final arrangement, but Matthew encouraged me to meddle with the linearity of the structure. I mean, the narrative of the collection is pretty linear right now, but some of that echoing you are hearing is due to Matt’s suggestions. One of the most obvious examples is what happened with what I call my doggie suite of poems—poems for which you all graciously gave a first home: “Bareback Aubade with the Dog,” “And the Dog Comes Back,” “The Runts,” and “Lycanthropy.” In my mind, that was the order of these poems and that is how they appeared in the initial manuscript. Matthew and I decided to break up the suite and rearrange them, so that they call out to each other across the book while informing the poems immediately around them.
Another choice I should talk about is where the title poem falls in the collection—it’s the penultimate poem. Matt deserves credit for this choice as well. At first, I had this poem so obviously seated at the center of the book. Poems, when putting a manuscript together, are really fractals building toward a single larger version of themselves—that’s what this chapbook is up to as well. Just as each poem is aware of where its volta sits, so too does this collection. “What Are We Not For,” the title poem, acts as a turn of revelation in the collection. “What are we not for,” that phrase, because it is the title of the book, gets teased out for much of the book—it is at once: a dare; a mandate; a question; a resignation. It is not until the penultimate poem that the collection realizes what it has been up to all along.
FWR: Speakers are bodied and performed in a way that responds to assumptions about race and gender (“the black boy/lurking in our imagination” from “There is Always a Face to Tend To”). Yet, there is also this movement away from the body, both as a means of protection (“Our bodies are museums/ Our bodies are objects in a museum A thing a thing” from “The Lynching of Frank Embree”) and a refusal to be limited to the body’s confines. I was wondering if you could speak a bit to this.
TB: The bodies in these poems are always in danger—or at least I mean them to appear that way. These gestures of transformation, or the botched attempts at transformations, are markers of a larger exploration (I think—how can one really be sure) that my work as a whole seeks. Transformation, to my mind, allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent. My poems mean to explore the breakdown between a body’s intent and the gesture that intent manifests. It’s why the poems in this collection are interested in race, gender, and sexuality. Well—all of that and the fact that I am a Black gay man negotiating all of this stuff. In the case of Frank Embree, I mean the speaker to be victim and assailant at once. He, and his kind, has suffered at the hands of men who look like Frank Embree, so he is enraged. He is also troubled by this rage, because it is, also, directed to himself—inheritor of Embree’s body. I like to think that no one, not even me as creator, is protected in my poems.
FWR: When you say, “the bodies in these poems are always in danger… transformation, to my mind, allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent” —firstly, I love this. And, I think it speaks to two correlated ideas, the first being that destruction can allow for transformation (the cliché of the butterfly and all that), even if that transformation is happening in the witness. The second thing I think of is the push between identity and the gesture, how performance might codify identity— for better or worse.
TB: When I say transformation allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent, I’m thinking in terms of how, at last, a body can reveal itself to be meant for another way of being than one those outside of that body anticipate.
As a Black gay man living in Michigan, I often get the silly phrase “You don’t read as gay.” When, in my mind, I am so very gay. There is a disconnect happening between my choreography and how my postures are being seen. And look at all of the police murders of Black folks that are happening: blackness being seen as a threat that must be stomped out. Little Trayvon in his hoodie being gunned down by Zimmerman, because he thought the boy looked suspicious. Or, in my neck of the woods, Renisha McBride, a Black woman shot while knocking on a door for help. It should not be a surprise that my poems want to sit inside of that disconnect between gesture and intent.
FWR: The play between sensuality and sexuality, particularly with regards to expressions of masculinity/manhood, is threaded throughout the text. I see the movement as poems ease from inertia (the experience or suggestion of pleasure) to urgency (wanting, acting on sex). I read it as a desire to reclaim space, in spite of the stereotypes and violence associated with having a “body/dark and big as history”.
TB: Yeah, okay, sure: that is one way one might look at that patterning—it is there of course. But, I must say, I’m not sure if that reclamation of a Black space, or that redefinition of some view of Blackness, was at the fore in my mind. I’m probably repeating myself, but I’m really interested in this breakdown between intent and the gesture that intent brings forth. This misfiring between intent and gesture is how we arrive, often, at points of pleasure and violence. So, yes, I am thinking about this Black body I have inherited, but I am also thinking about this gay body I have inherited at the same time. This is why, for example, right after “The Lynching of Frank Embree” there is “Aaron McKinney Cleans His Magnum”—a poem around Matthew Shepard (whose death scared me further into the closet in undergrad). And in the reference to Shepard’s murder you are to hear echoes of Pinocchio (another “wicked” boy) and his plight. This is not to say that the book is an erasure of Blackness—you are right; it is there—but it is complicated a bit (or at least I mean it to be).
FWR: When you say “he [the speaker] is troubled by this rage”, is there also the element of society’s denial or suppression of Black anger? An awareness that whiteness expects a Black body to hold his/her feelings without release?
TB: That self-inflicted rage of which I speak comes from a kind of shame. The conversation that is happening in this poem has to do with the speaker and his relation to his own black maleness—and the inherent history with which that comes. Any conversations about the role of whiteness is in the periphery or gets superseded by what is happening between the speaker and the image of Frank Embree. That is why, for example, the admission “yes, white” appears in parenthesis; why the speaker’s thumb tip print sits over the image of the lyncher’s brim. The speaker in the poem is challenging what he can say and do and in what space—the boundary between the room of the gallery and the private room in which a porn film is playing is fractured.
FWR: To shift gears, is there a poem you love to teach or share?
TB: C. Dale Young introduced me to Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s book The Orchard while at Warren Wilson. Now, I am not going to lie, I bought that book a couple of years before getting into Warren Wilson and it sat unread on my bookshelf. (Bad poet, I know.) Let me tell you: when I finally read that book for the first time it unhooked something in me. It’s hard to just tell people to only read one BPK poem, so I often suggest they read The Orchard, but then I tell them to pay close attention to the title poem of that book. The images in all of her poems, but in that poem especially, fidget; they refuse to remain static on the page. Specifically, she does this with similes that I always have a hard time explaining to people, because they think I am talking mixed metaphors or something. (It’s not—I swear!) Watch out for the fucking dog in that poem! Just in the first few lines, the dog is said to be like a horse. Then, without warning, the poem calls it “the horse.” I hate poems, including mine, when there are gestures toward figuration that are only a means of comparison or ornamentation. No, figuration should and can do more. In “The Orchard,” and many other of BPK’s poems, figuration is how the poems keep pushing forward. I was so sad when I heard she passed away. What a loss.
FWR: Thinking ahead to when Four Way Books will publish your full length (and congratulations!) and considering what you say about the ordering of your poems, I was wondering if you might speak to what the process is like moving from a chapbook to a full-length manuscript. Will you be pulling many (or any!) poems from What Are We Not For over? How does the process of revisiting those poems change the way you see them working in conversation with each other?
TB: Thanks—it’s all exciting and scary for me at the same time. Actually, that is my everyday temperament; excited and scared. Ha! Martha Rhodes has been such a huge champion of my work and then there I am like, “Who? Me?” It’s still very early in the process, but I am told things are going to get a little crazy in the next few months for me. At first, I did not want to pull anything from the chapbook, but as the concept for the new book is working itself out, I am seeing that a few poems will be making cameos. Then there are these new poems that will totally recast (there is that word again) those old poems in new ways. That is probably my favorite part of this process is seeing how the old poems gossip with the new poems.
When I was at Andy’s house he looked at me and said, “I want to stone that place to the ground.” We were getting high on the basement couch, and he was behind a thin mist of smoke. He was talking about the tobacco warehouse his dad inherited, now dilapidated. Or, his dad called it a warehouse, and so did the granddad before him. Giving it that title was generous though. A joke, really. It was more like a shack. Andy tapped his foot up and down in saggy sweats like he was going to jump out of himself, waiting for a response. I was pretty sure he was looking to me and not my friend, Nick next to me. Nick was silent because I could tell he was hardly paying attention. I heard every word and was silent because I kept noticing the scar creased above Andy’s mouth, which I wanted to kiss since before he knew me.
“Let’s do it,” I said to impress him.
“Come on,” he said and got up, which meant we needed to follow.
He led me upstairs. Nick trailed behind Andy, and I trailed behind Nick. I creaked through the house, careful of the floorboard squeaks my feet could ignite. This was a hushed thrill for me, something covert I didn’t know the consequences of. Andy strutted ahead, taking us past the living room where his dad was in a Wild Turkey pass out, with no care of waking him. I caught some flickering light from the TV emitting onto Andy. He wore his pants down low, and so did Nick: Andy imitating music video rappers, Nick imitating Andy, me in my coupon purchased Penny jeans from a shopping trip with my mom. I was the tagalong.
“Oh shit, look at those tits,” Nick said and halted in front of me so quickly I almost ran into him. He was peering into the living room where Andy’s dad had on a porno. Andy was in the kitchen now, and I would lose him if we didn’t continue.
“Hey, be quiet,” I said.
“The old man’s out cold. Geez. When did you get to be such a pussy?” Nick had never called me that before and began using it recently since we started hanging out with Andy. I had been friends with Nick since middle school because in middle school you needed to call someone a friend. His face was drenched in freckles that hadn’t faded with ears his head hadn’t caught up with: puppet-mouthed – a ventriloquist dummy. I tried to imagine this face more clearly in the dark, sneering at me, assessing me based on our three years of friendship in which we couldn’t have really known each other. It was hard to pity him, because he was the reason I was there in the first place. He had somehow made friends with Andy. He could make that initiation of friendship I couldn’t – if friendship was what you wanted to call it. He had started buying weed from Andy, probably because he was desperate for a sense of rebellion, and desperate to distance himself from me. He was there to get high. I was there because it was Andy.
“Let’s go. Come on. You can fuckin’ watch porn anytime,” I said and passed him.
Andy was already outside, and the footsteps in the sparkly dusting of snow tracked him to the middle of the farm behind the house. I began running to catch up, placing my feet in his indentions on the wasted land, hopscotch jumping to match his stride. The Oldsmobile was parked a yard away from the house, looking abandoned. Andy picked me up in it earlier with a supped up sound system rattling out any words I thought to say to him. His dad lived in the boonies, and I forgot where this tobacco shack was. I knew it was on the outskirts of a tree patch people in town called a forest. I also knew it was right before Mike Kilroy’s land – an eighty year-old legend who owned part of the long-gone farm with Andy’s granddad. Kids called him Ol’ Kil because rumors went around about him on a constant stake-out for anyone trying to cross the wire fencing onto his acreage. He’d shoot you down or sick his Rottweiler depending on whose story it was. A week ago, the last time I was at Andy’s, we stepped over and smoked right in the middle of Ol’ Kil’s yard.
I looked behind me and couldn’t see the house anymore. It was either out of sight or the dark and snow mixed with its white chipped paneling and three lopsided black shutters. Ahead of me, Andy had stopped. The only reason I could see him was from the flood light’s faulty bulb, flashing him like a signal. He was standing in front of the shack.
“So, this is it, huh?” I said and immediately regretted it. Obviously, it was.
Andy shoved his hands in his jacket pockets with head cocked up like he was trying to solve a complex puzzle. I tried to match his line of vision instead of looking directly at him. His newly buzzed head was caught in the wind chill. “Do you want this?” I said and held out an extra cap.
“No, man. I’m good.”
“So, what now?” I asked.
Nick was finally crunching his way to where we were. “It’s freezing out here,” he said while sniffing a runny nose
“I told you,” Andy said. “Find as many rocks around here as you can and throw all of them at this place.” The shack was ash covered from a previous fire and stood on black molded wood. If any tobacco residue was left, it was rotting like algae – dead and sickening. I could smell it from where I stood next to Andy – in the right radius to catch both the faintness of decay and his drugstore cologne masking body odor. He picked up a stone, tossing it from one hand to the other in a single juggle and then launched it against the building. Ash grafted off and hit the snow as it shook. He ran closer and found another rock, larger this time, and threw it against the wood, the sound making the cry he couldn’t, in place for his silence. “Like this,” he said to me. “Come on, Patrick. Let’s see how hard you can throw. Help me take it down.”
About a month ago when I had told my dad where Nick and I were going, he said, “You’re not going around that kid.” It was a Friday night when he was behind the local paper over a chicken fried steak dinner.
“Why?” I asked.
“Not over to that house. Not around that dad of his.”
“Why?” I asked again.
“No good trash is why,” he said, a man indignant that Andy’s dad loused around all day on inherited tobacco money and let the land stay ruined. “A damn shame,” he had said. Andy’s mom had been part of the town rumor mill since I had known – took up with some man she had been cheating with who worked at my dad’s construction site. She worked at the drive thru Dairy Dip, and some girls from my school used to go through and make fun of her, and wives in town made jokes about how their husbands weren’t allowed to go there if she was working. I also knew his dad was probably squandering the granddad’s money, and it had an expiration date. “I don’t want you around a good for nothing shit,” my dad said.
“But Andy’s not his dad,” I had said.
I overturned rocks, trying to find the right size. I threw one, and it made a pathetic smack, hardly moving anything. “Give me a break,” Andy said. “That was a pebble. Get a big one and get some heat on it.” He launched another that pelted a snap into the air. A few boards fell. He was laughing, almost manically. “Or like this,” he said, and he hauled out a huge rock from a ditch. He cradled it with both arms, swinging it to get momentum, counting to himself. I saw how big this one was, and I looked at the shack.
“Andy, wait. Are you sure you want to do this?” I said. He pretended not to hear me the same way I pretended not to know about the bruises on his side, bruises I saw a few weeks ago when his shirt lifted as he leaned into his dad’s fridge to get me my first beer, bruises I wanted to curl inside of and absorb so I could make them better. The rock hit the shack, taking it out. All of the boards on the left gave way and caved in on themselves. I crouched for cover, and Andy towered over the debris as it fell.
All that remained was a frame against a thumbnail moon, and after a distant dog bark, quiet. Nick kept saying “Holy shit,” surveying the damage. Andy paced like he didn’t know what to do. I looked toward the house to see a porch light turned on. There was no way Andy’s dad heard. Not with how drunk he was. Not with how far away we were. Or was it that far away? Or was he really out cold like Nick said? There was no way to know. I didn’t want to imagine what Andy’s dad would do to him – not tonight or the next day.
“We need to get out of here,” I said to him.
His face was still. “Where?”
“Come on,” I said and started toward the trees.
Andy was following me now, and we came to an enclosed area. I was panting, and he was barely out of breath. He leaned against a trunk. “Damn,” he said. “That was great.”
“Yeah, for sure,” I said and sat down on a stump. Andy put one foot against the tree with his thigh flexed out like he wanted me to see it. I allowed myself and then looked up to him.
“Why do you always do that?”
“What?” I asked, scared.
“Look at me, like, I don’t know. Like you know something I don’t.” Back before all of this, back before Andy dropped out of high school, we had a class together. I sat three rows back from him. He used to slink his feet into the front desk’s book cage and coast, sometimes giving one word or smartass answers to the teacher, bragging each month about a new girlfriend, or cocky about a move he made on the JV basketball team he eventually got kicked off of. He was the kind of guy who was all confidence but didn’t know how beautiful he was. He was looking at me pointedly now like maybe he knew I noticed.
“I don’t know anything,” I said.
He squinted at me. “You’re all right, Patrick.” He pulled out a joint, which is what he did when he didn’t want to confront something. We passed it back and forth until he said, “Hey, come here and shot gun with me.” I didn’t know what that was, and he explained. He had the thin strip in the gap of his teeth, and he said to get closer, so I stepped forward with my lips inches from his and pretended to suck in the smoke correctly. The diamond studs he wore seemed to be carved out of the frozen stream ahead of us and pinpricked into his cold-red ears. I exhaled and kissed him. He let out a moan like I should stop or continue or both, so I let him decide, and we kept going. When I put myself against his upper body, the material of his jacket swished, and I imagined what he looked like underneath. He pulled me in closer, our torsos touching, bodies pulsing to shed our clothes, but the cold contained them. I felt him hard against my leg like he wanted me to.
I pulled back. He looked at me with a mouth raw in chapped flakes. Time to say something. Time to acknowledge what he maybe didn’t want to acknowledge. I put my hands on his sides, trying to keep him warm. “Do you want me to…” I said, trailing off, and I squatted down.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said and started undoing his pants. “But hey,” he said among belt buckle chimes. “This doesn’t mean anything.” I took him into my mouth, and it was like the wind stopped from the wet heat. I wanted to take in all of him: his stained sweatpants, the waffled long johns underneath, the musky sweat clinging to them, his wife beater, his stomach hair. Somewhere in the distance Nick was shouting about where we were. Somewhere Andy’s dad was either raging in anger or still asleep. Somewhere was what I thought I was protecting Andy from. Somewhere was the collapsed wreckage of everything I helped him leave behind.
The first time I met Andy’s dad, their house was a mansion by my standards, because it had two stories and was bigger than a shotgun. Andy pulled up in the driveway and led me and Nick past the full porch. A swing was to the right with half the chain broken off, so it sat on the ground lopsided. Next to it were metal chairs with tarnished rust eating the spray paint. Miller cans lined the handrails like targets at a shooting range. Andy took me and Nick hot-boxing through town, and it felt like I was treadmill walking – feet moving but in one place, and Andy’s house was shifting around me.
Andy introduced me to his dad in the living room, who got up from a recliner, his recliner, that didn’t want to let him go. He shook my hand tighter than a bear trap and said, “You Frank’s boy, aren’t you?” My hands were probably still grazed in yellow dust from Dorito scarfing in the car. He let go and wiped his hand on his cutoffs.
“Yeah, that’s my dad,” I said.
“Runs firsts and thirds at Lester’s Construction. Right?”
I nodded, and he eyed me, then sipped from his Bourbon tumbler, the ice clanking his teeth, his finger-squeezing gold ring clanking the glass. The guy his wife ran off with – the guy who worked at my dad’s company – his name was either Gus or Russ or it may have been a different guy now.
When Andy’s dad pulled his drink away from his mouth, he sucked his front teeth against his lips in a lemon pucker – a ferret squinched face. “What’s wrong? Can’t speak to me?” he said.
“Dad, come on. Leave him alone,” Andy said.
Taxidermy animal heads ran along the paneled walls, and Andy’s dad was in the middle of them. He looked Andy over for a long time, examining, sizing up. “Boys, can you go into the kitchen for a minute?” he said, which was pointless because we could hear everything from there. He gave me another once over and didn’t acknowledge Nick.
In the kitchen, Nick and I sat at a table with congealed Dinty Moore Stew and stacks of unopened bills. We listened to Andy’s dad booming, berating. I only caught pieces like snippets of hunting entrails. “Why are you such a worthless fuck up? I told you to have that cleared from the back yard today.” I could see sharp hunks of hardwood through a window. They were wrapped in frayed tarp. I learned later of half-ass plans to build a new toolshed. Even if Andy had brought in that hardwood like his dad asked, it wouldn’t have mattered, because the wood had set outside too long and was damaged by rain and rot. “What have you done all day?” Andy’s dad said, which was bull, because he hadn’t done much himself other than recline and drink. “You’re a goddamn good-for-nothing,” he added. I thought of the bruises. They were purpled like a gooey plum smeared on concrete, patched into Andy’s skin. Fragile. I heard his dad say, “A useless condom rip, and you know it.” One time Andy told me his mom probably wasn’t his mom. He thought maybe his aunt but wasn’t sure.
I dared to lean around the corner and saw Andy’s head hung low and belittled. Beneath that though, below a blushed face was a smirk, or a slight resemblance to a smirk, as much of one as he could give standing in front of his dad. And, he said, “Right,” like he was agreeing because he had to but was really saying, Just you wait, and I will get you back. For all the pain. Whatever way he decided to do it, I wanted to be there.
I sat with Nick while Andy hauled the pile of wood from outside and into the basement. He had to do it by himself. His dad’s orders. At one point, I looked to Nick like we should help, but he didn’t want to say anything to me. It took Andy an hour. Nick sighed but was only annoyed because this was preventing him from getting stoned, ruining his fun. I watched Andy follow his dad’s instructions piece by piece.
When he was finished, Nick and I made our way into the living room with him. His dad was snoring with gasps like the gurgling of a clogged drain, inhaling deeply like he was about to suffocate. Andy sat in the chair next to him, and I sat on the couch. The deer and raccoon heads loomed over us, petrified with mouths that would drip slobber if they were alive. Dead things filling empty space. Andy pulled the lounger’s handle and went back with legs in the air, resting, aligned with his dad. He closed his eyes and breathed heavily in a slow rhythm. His face was skeletal and defeated, hollowed out like he wasn’t his own person. Just like me.
ELEGY FOR FALLEN PALMS
–after Hurricane Irma
I learn the facts about what we’ve lost:
palm trees don’t form annual rings.
You’d find their age in the Bible or Quran, old as Oil
Palm, Fan Palm, or Windmill Palm:
I learn these descendants of a common line.
Assyrians believed the sign of eternal life
was a palm beside a stream, but what if the men
who poison rivers are always the last to drink?
Yellowed fronds mean too much rain.
It’s hard to start over after a great change,
but if they’re not cut for tables or sold as seeds,
palms can outlive a home. And I’m so tired
of Midwesterners in boat shoes
who tweet, Why would anyone live there?
from their Puritanical woods that expire
in annual gray. Because people who reside
in paradise deserve to suffer sometimes—
oh, but they’ll vacation here! It’s unnatural for you to live
where you’re supposed to unwind. Queen Palm,
Wild Date Palm, Sugar Palm or Wine:
I learn the five hands of palmistry.
My hand is a Wood Hand, its knuckles thick
and fingers long, my mind stubborn and heart
often wrong. What scares me most is the idea
of deep time, or everwhen—which is a breath
away from evergreen—though not at all the same.
The Earth remembers our sins, for time is not
a tree trunk pushing forward but the wheel
within that churns and scars,
like how when I was thirteen the junior high
librarian stopped me in the hallway and insisted,
But your family was in the basement once the tornado hit
your house, and I had to shake my head, no.
How teens drove to my neighborhood, parked
next to the Red Cross. They wanted to see roots
gutted from soil, brick chimney that smashed a car.
They brought popcorn for themselves.
And I’m not easy to move to tears, but still I cried
for the maples and oaks that fell in my backyard.
What I mean is, trees take the wind
to spare the walls. Bottle Palm, Spindle Palm—
in a garden on Mauritius there grows
the Loneliest Palm, single specimen
of a single species, most solitary of any kingdom.
It’s enclosed in a box of metal wire,
a dot on a dot on a map of the world that’s strewn
with broken palms. I learn flowers once glowed
on this last palm in the colors of white
and cream. Humans tried to intervene.
It hasn’t bloomed in years.
I ALWAYS WANTED TO SAVE THE RAINFOREST
but now I live in a rainforest
and the thing I can’t save
is me. Let’s get to that later on.
A rainforest should be studied
in fours: emergent layer, canopy,
understory, forest floor. Self-watering.
Oldest ecosystem. My doctor explains
that the brain speaks to gland hormones
which speak to the ovaries
which speak to the uterus—or something
along those lines. I try to write
it down as fast as my hand can move.
An osprey flies above me with a fish
caught in its talons. The fish still looks
me in the eye. What is it they say
about a bird of prey overhead?
I’m afraid to Google my fortune.
I know I sound paranoid, but the rainforest
is a cutthroat environment.
One must innovate
in order to survive. They tell me
nine vials of blood is less
than it seems, but if my bad
numbers are from stress, I plan
to sue Paul Ryan for damages.
Just don’t write about
climate change! The word
cervix is polarizing, and no one wants
to hear about your pelvic floor,
complex though it may be.
What is it they say about women
and our bodies? Sometimes we feel
an unconscious reflex to guard
ourselves against a world hell-
bent on taking everything away.
And sometimes when I sleep
I wake up to teeth
that no longer fit in my jaw
or hips that ache from aggressive
curling into a creature of the soil.
The forest floor is the most intricate
layer of the four. Light can’t reach
me forever. What is it they say
about sympathetic overload? I have
my students write a research paper
in which there’s a solution
for every problem. I ask them why
did I structure the assignment
this way, and they don’t know
enough about despair to answer.
I could list all those who poison
and seize, but the rainforest works
to rebalance the numbers. My God.
Do women and rainforests
have to do everything?
I don’t live in a real rainforest.
It’s just a forest that’s humid,
dark, and tropical, so dense
I could find my way inside
and you might never see me return.
“Teo, Teo, Teo,” Álvaro sings into the phone. “You’re not going to believe what I did today. Even after I tell you you’re still not going to believe it.” His voice is all keyed up, like he’s calling to tell me it’s my turn to collect on la tanda.
Chingao, I think. Now what?
“You remember Lupe? Chick with the green eyes, used to live over on Flamenco?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“You think so, güey? Don’t even try that shit with me, Tadeo! You know exactly who I’m talking about. You lusted after her for literally years of your life.”
“So what about her, güey?”
“What about her? What about her? Just that she lives in Campestre. And her hijo de papi husband had a new dishwasher delivered this morning. And because he was at work and couldn’t let the delivery guy in himself, he left the key at the guardhouse Left it, as a matter of fact, in the filthy brown hand of one Álvaro Hernán Rodriguez Mendoza.”
“How come you’re just now telling me she lives in Campestre, culero?”
“That’s beside the point.”
“What is the point?”
“The poooint,” he says slowly and emphatically, like Father Juan when he’s about to crack a joke and wants to make sure the congregation’s listening, “is that right at this moment I happen to be holding a copy of your girl Lupe’s patio key that nobody but you and me even knows exists. Sometimes,” he finishes expansively, “life is too beautiful to be believed.” He takes a hard drag off his cigarette, then adds, “You’re welcome.”
“Piss off,” I say. I imagine him sitting in the guardhouse, the white shirt of his uniform all wilted in the heat, greasy smudges around his lips, and his fingertips stained Dorito-orange. Then, because these are our last few weeks together, I add, “And thanks,” before I hang up.
In point of fact, Álvaro was wrong about one thing. It was never lust with Lupe. It went deeper than that, so deep that when she married her rich lawyer and got the hell out of Tepeyac, I was glad. I felt nothing but happiness for her. You don’t envy the angels.
Later, when Álvaro brings over the key, I pat him on the head and tell him what a good boy he’s been.
“Chinga tu madre,” he grins, his silver tooth gleaming under the naked lightbulb.
“Sit down,” I tell him. “Want a cheve?” I’ve already bought the beers; they’re waiting, cold and golden, in the fridge.
“Need you ask?”
I spit through the bars of the rusty front gate into the patch of sand where the sidewalk’s broken. My chair creaks grudgingly when I stand up. One day, I think, this thing is going to fall to pieces when someone sits on it. I step onto the cement block and through the open doorway of the kitchen.
By the time the beer’s converted itself into a humming tingle that stretches its way outward from my stomach to my limbs, I’ve got it all worked out: what the key means, why fate brought it to me. Muñeca watches, her ears up, eyes shifting from me to Álvaro. I swear, sometimes it’s like she’s reading my mind. I look away.
When we’re alone again I turn off the patio light and slide down onto the cool concrete floor beside her. For an instant an image leaps into my mind: the bloody, moaning ball of fur I pulled from a tangle of barbed wire up at the goat farm. You saved her life, the vet said, once he’d finished sewing her back together.
“Muñeca,” I whisper, my eyes closed. I push my face against her neck and breathe in the close, doggy smell of her flesh. “It’s our lucky day, chica.”
For two weeks I wear the key on a red string around my neck, right over my heart. Then, on October 28th, I light a candle for Saint Jude and call Álvaro.
“Today,” I tell him.
It’s like slicing warm butter: Álvaro in his uniform, official, unassailable. The silent house and patio. We’re in and out before you can say Campestre. In Tepeyac there would have been forty witnesses, but los riquillos like their space. They want to feel like they live in the middle of a fucking forest.
When it’s over, Álvaro throws an arm around my shoulder and pats his wallet pocket. “I got the cheves tonight, güey.”
I want to say something, to thank him—for this, and for everything—but my throat’s too tight to speak.
I wait two more weeks, then, when I know she’ll be home alone, I put on my best pair of jeans and stuff my curls under a cap. Not a baseball cap, mind you, a golf cap—I found the thing for thirty pesos in el mercado, probably once belonged to a rich old gringo. It’s like a limp animal on top of my head, but at least I don’t look like me. I even put on Tío Eugenio’s reading glasses, but the ground tilts under me, so I take them back off. Not that Lupe would know me if I went as myself. Those luscious green eyes have never lit on me, even for a split second. But I figure it’s better not to take chances.
I take out the sheet I typed up at the ciber on Avenida Cinco de Mayo last night. I’ve got it on an old clipboard of Tío Eugenio’s, with a clean manila folder stuck behind to cover the mess of stray ink marks and Wite-Out.
“Buenos días, señorita,” I say in a crisp, professional voice when she comes to the door. “I’m with the Purina company, research division, and I’d like to ask you a few questions this morning, for marketing purposes. It won’t take two minutes of your time.”
She looks hesitant but pulls the door shut behind her and comes down the stone steps. She’s plumper now than when I saw her last, but it becomes her, like a rounding off of sharp corners. She moistens her lips with her tongue and I get a glimpse of her straight white teeth, so perfect it hurts me. The only thing between us now are the wrought-iron bars of the gate. Her cool green eyes rest on me, expectant.
I clear my throat. “Do you have any pets?” I read from the paper.
“One dog,” I repeat as I write. “Age?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “We’ve only had her a couple of weeks.”
I look up. “Is that right?”
“Did you buy or adopt from the perrera?”
“Neither,” she says, and I can see that it’s a story she’s told before, a story she enjoys telling. “She came to us. I came home one afternoon and here she was, in the patio. It was the strangest thing. She’s too big to fit through the bars, and I don’t see how anyone could have lowered her in over the wall. The neighbors didn’t see anyone. It was like, a miracle.”
“A miracle,” I repeat. I have to fight the temptation to reach through the bars and rub my hand along the milky skin of her jawline.
“Well, I had just been telling my husband that I wanted a dog.”
“No kidding,” I laugh.
“And it was the feast day of Saint Jude.”
“Saint Jude, huh? Hopeless cases.” I scratch the back of my head, under the cap. “Maybe the dog needed you.”
“That’s what I think, too,” she says, and the look she gives me is something I’d like to hang on a red string and keep next to my heart until I die.
“Well, I only have one more question. Are you familiar with these?” I pull a bag of dog treats from my backpack. Muñeca’s favorites.
I pass the bag to her through the bars. “Here’s a free sample for you. I think your dog—what’s her name?”
“I think Gema will love them.”
“Thanks.” She stretches her hand out, so close to me that I can make out every pale star in the constellation of freckles on her arm.
“No problem,” I say.
It’s the big bag, the 70 peso one. She sets it down at her feet.
“So… that’s it,” I tell her, slipping the clipboard into my backpack. “As a matter of fact, you’re my last survey… ever. In a couple of days I’m leaving for el norte, going to make my way in the big wide world.”
“That sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale,” she says.
“Yeah, it does.” Then I laugh. “I guess that makes me one of the pigs.”
She laughs too. “Well, you’d better build your house out of bricks then.”
“I’ll do that,” I tell her. “Good luck to you and Gema.”
I walk the long way back, along the malecón, where the water’s so clear and rippled it looks pixelated. When I get home I’ll empty my backpack and pack a couple of changes of clothes and my birth certificate, sealed in a zip-loc bag so it won’t get wet. I’ll write a letter to the great-uncle who gave me a home after my mother died, and a second one, to Álvaro—things I could never say in person. Finally, I’ll count out the money for the coyote who’s going to take me, like old Charon in reverse, to a new life. I’ll be like Lupe, who made it from Tepeyac to Campestre. She’s a border-crosser too.
“Gema,” I say aloud, savoring the feel of the syllables in my mouth. Gema. Lupe’s gem. With a sudden whoop, I snatch off the golf cap and throw it, frisbee-like, into the malecón. For as long as I can see it, it floats there, on top of the water, as if that was exactly what it was made to do.
What’s that story about the blackbird
visiting a man, or, more accurately,
his depression? Making him recognize it,
I mean. It was often like that
with birds, reminding you of your flightlessness.
It was like that, then more so, then only that.
I’m doing as much as I can these days
despite thinking about what ails me—
going on walks, slipping into bathroom stalls
with strange men who become not-so-strange
when they pull down their pants—without wanting more
from absence, if a thing can even be considered absent
not having been there to begin with.
If not a blackbird, something that was blackened
by blackness, with an animal understanding,
was in his room. Above. It had wings. No, it didn’t.
My father taught me feet are something to care for, cradle.
He never talks about anything else. I remind people
my Dad’s age too much of hot, sticky, high green foliage
flapping in their faces, or steam rising up from
the rice paddies the platoons waded through
all morning, crossing in the open, barrels loaded, sighted,
ready for a fight. Yellow. Roses. That is what they sent home
to their wives to dry in glass vases. My face is a big yellow moon
rising in their nightmares, my face a howling monkey,
a ripe watermelon rind, grinning back at them.
Or perhaps it’s my hair that troubles them: black braid
bouncing up and down with the rocking, with the movements
of the swing. Whose hand can make its own shape on my skin?
My skin will turn to crisp brown under any sun. My eyes
will holster any loaded rifle. My father is an ant moving
through the tall grass, boots filling with mud and muck. He
never talks about anything else. He’s the slap of the wind
hitting my face. His yellow balloon silence is what fills
the room, but I’m the hot air taking up the space
in-between his ribcage. Did he ever pull any trigger?
Sear metal into someone else’s flesh? Will someone ever
ask what freedom means to me? I know how to sip
strong tea, place the cup back on the saucer, blood
dripping down its sides pooling onto the painted saucer.
There is a man you will learn
to call uncle. He will teach you
the answer to many questions
is land bridge. There will be truth
in what he says. He will call you
something other than your name
no matter what your name is.
No matter what your name is
you might not like it. It is likely
you will have lots of hair,
likely in places you would not
expect. I have always tried
to play up my love
for bears so even body fat seems
tribute to mothers who kill
to protect their young. I hope
I would do the same. Let us
see what happens. Whatever happens,
most of us feel we were born
too late but really there are
no good old days. Some days
there will be only swallowed silence
and sobbing: the world is
not always kind and rarely makes sense
so when the sun goes down
we will sing our songs and talk
about morning. Mountain ranges
rise from valleys and forests
make them look green, but mountains are
mostly gray underneath, stone
we will sometimes climb simply
to stand on top of. Sometimes
at sunset it looks like mountain
and cloud are the same. When it does
please sit with me and watch.
Lakes are best for swimming
and rivers for fishing but oceans
wash away feelings you cannot find
names for. No matter what,
drying your feet of cold water
will make them feel better
than you can imagine,
especially after a day spent
walking uneven ground. Reaching
the end of days, it is common
to ask, “Why are we here? Where
are we going? How do we get there?”
There are lots of answers.
You will have to find most of them
yourself. It will involve lots
of walking on uneven ground.
It might involve trying
to walk across water. You could do
worse than wet feet. There will be
sobbing and silence, unkindness,
love, and laughter. You could do
lots worse. You could do lots. Do lots.
I used to call boys
after my parents
my lethal friend Meredith
to phone Patrick or Michael
and ask what they were wearing.
One boy, Joey,
for me, for hours,
while I lay with the phone tucked
like a pillow
against my red-hot ear.
I called my mother from college
nightly to try and detect
how drunk she might be,
whether or not she loved me
more from longing.
One blizzard, she let me
watch When a Stranger Calls, the sick
moment when the police at last
call Carol Kane back,
cry the call is coming
from inside the house.
Ted Kennedy called
Mary Jo Kopechne
baby and sugar lips, likely
the same names he used
on his wife because
bad love is always
lazy. That night,
the police stayed
uncalled. I’ve called
twice: once when I saw
a drunk I thought was dead
on 14th Street, once from the floor
of a seaside B&B
after you’d held your boot
so hard against my throat the tread
left behind its diamonds. The cops
could’ve dusted my neck
like dirt. When you
called me from
the seaside jail, you said baby
they’re recording us
which I much later understood
as a plea
not to incriminate you further.
I can’t remember
what I did say
instead, I can’t remember
how I responded
when either dispatcher
asked flatly what
is your emergency. On TV,
in these recordings,
the caller is always
upset. When Watson
answered the first phone call,
Bell didn’t celebrate,
instead he beckoned
his friend, said come here I need you.
~after Jamaal May
My father’s voice after the cancer
has spread. A flip phone. A flag.
George Bush’s hands, as he pauses
his vacation briefly for thoughts and prayers.
My body next to the potted plant
after my father throws the wooden chair.
A cheaply made chair. A small stack
of clothes. A birthday card.
Milvirtha Hendricks under the American
flag 5 days after Hurricane Katrina.
Her face from the crease
made in her
obituary photo as we use
the newspaper to eat crawfish.
The wrinkles in her forehead.
through a broken levee.
My uncle’s hands
retaping the attic windows
after the flood water rises.
My cousins sleeping
in the attic because
no neighbor has a rescue boat.
Black people in distress.
They lay prostrate and call it
prayer. The blankets on my cousins’
shoulders days later, when rescued.
The National Guard’s smile as he carries
the neighbor’s dog from the flooded
living room. The dog’s body around
an upside down flag.
ON THE ONE HAND, IN THE OTHER
Sometimes when you are born from an abundance of love
you, yourself, do not know the proper ways in which to love.
Your house guests are always at odds with your house ghosts.
The stairwell constantly littered with tin cans and lynched cats.
Obvious death threats, but from the guests or the ghosts
you have yet to determine. Soon the people in your life
will become too real to write about. Making poetry a suitable
space only for your strangers. The woman at the cemetery
missed by seconds, whose lipstick kisses are still fresh
on the marble stone next to your grandfather’s. The girl
met in group therapy whose dealer, named Temple, blesses every
batch of shrooms he sells. You’ve folded these phantoms into
talismans, time and time again. Still, each year presents itself
like a small tight coin. A fountain of fish you’ve mistaken for silver.
Here is the beautiful lie: there is nothing ugly about surviving.
This life will ask you more than once to make the choice
between starfish or worm. One animal growing
back what was lost, the other learning to live without.
Seconds before the storm, and all
that’s left outside are the horses
tied to their posts. When the floods
recede will we line up the dead
in neat rows, the way we did
in Ypres? The last children
are leaving their homes now.
Soon only loose fur, aglets without
laces, shores of nothing more
than the dismantled spines
of jellyfish. Riddance swelling
among the barren fruit flies, their
kingdom of peels and pits.
The girls will swat, no use. Pierce
their tongues instead. Their fathers
well toward retiring now, if only
those jack asses in office. It is
now legal to hunt boar by hot air
balloon so it should reason we too
were once abused animals
scratching at doors while
water rose over us. Haven’t
we all hid from the rainbow
giant in the sky who wants us
dead by rifle. Who’s to say
any one of us hasn’t already died,
isn’t right now covered
by white linens, puddles of Stallions
with the whole weight of ourselves
piled atop our own limbs, leaving
cracks in the metal soles. It is natural
for disasters to beget more disaster.
If you haven’t already, set fire
to something while it’s raining.
The juxtaposition will feel
like an orgasm followed by a small
god, as you watch the flames meet
each drop. Not sure, when you inhale
if you are breathing in smoke or steam.
True, it’s always difficult to have a body. But think of all
the nice things we can wear. That yeast can develop
in the mouth, is no reason to stop inching ourselves
away from death. Toward fancy tailored suits. Mints
on the pillow. No need to be anything but, the comedian
at the fashion show, if you can’t say anything nice, say
“I’m not convinced you exist. But there’s a lovely
fragrance in the air.” So what you can’t give blood
because of mad cow, you don’t even have it. Just exposed
once. The mad came close, you took a tennis racket
to its face. Country-club-finest. How about a real world
example of pain that doesn’t belong to you? How about
the depth of a lake unmoved by the presence of stones? Ample
evidence suggests that nothing sans dark can do
good. Gandhi would sleep naked side by side his niece.
A test of temptation. He never was, tempted.
You wonder about the girl. Was she able to sleep any
of those nights? All your bruises happen without you noticing.
If your spouse kills you, do the caretakers know better
than to bury you in your wedding ring? This doesn’t apply
to your bruises specifically, but you feel it should still be asked.
Back in the body, they are cleaning the church bells.
How else to sound the angels, how else to prepare fear
for a feast? Chiffon on every guest, iced over every cake.
More than once, your throat has become a funhouse
tunnel where the ground stays still but the walls spin
and spin. This too will pass. You wonder about the girl.
Never mind the girl. She doesn’t belong to you.
I’ve crawled in the deep
grooves of man’s thumbprint –
My crescent roll smile peaking
up over their canyon begging
to be devoured. Be nice
Mama said, be welcoming –
His hand up my skirt,
he wore me
like a secret trophy
behind the glass case
of his pupils. I scrape
my remains into a velvet abyss
of another plane to exist,
to hide from how he grabbed me
too, how men imprint on all of us
invisible ink –
A finger here, a thumb between
our lips, whole hands
over our whole face. Pull out
the black light and watch
our bodies glow. We are the sea
of fireflies you ignore by day
but when we float in the heavy night air
you grab your mason jar, scoop up our light,
close the lid, and screw it on tight.
ON BEING EMPTY
I am a cicada husk clinging
crisp & dry & stuck
in his bed,
his heaving chest
on my back –
A silhouette of a body
with meat inside. My pumping
pulse must find a new skin to reside
in. Between finger and thumb
I am weightless. I am the lack
of friction found in still legs,
void of desire I crumble
in his palm, my chirp in the night
chorus is over,
the song of my limbs
a cadence for the coming light –
I am the moment you miss
when you blink. I am silent.
I watch him escape.
No can’t you hear
I can hear your brothers in the hall
tennis shoes on linoleum
your tongue a pillow
Suffocating me now
No I was waiting the water
stain on your ceiling is a
mushroom cloud I dive in to
and you’re out of me and pulling my straps
up after you tell me
I can go now
bare feet on linoleum