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.
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.
Darling Nova, Melissa Cundieff’s full-length debut, won the 2017 Autumn House poetry prize. She earned her MFA in poetry from Vanderbilt University, where she received an Academy of American Poets Prize. Her poem Hurt Music was published in Issue 10.
FWR: Your poems seem to be interested in the limits and constraints of language, whether the closing stanzas of “Paradox” –– “when the heart is just a lonely muscle/and language/just a tongue not knowing, not even touching/another tongue” –– or “In Media Res” –– “I once imagined my life differently/ but no one hears, so I say it again, and again/ until the words turn to ice, clear and contained”. These seem to speak to the desire of many women (myself included) to be heard, to feel as if their voices matter. Could you expand on this?
MC: I think of language as the holiest muscle, because it enacts and performs transformation — private, political, creative. That no one is necessarily listening, though, is an important reality. It’s important to remember that I’m sometimes my only company. And I don’t mean to sound severe, but I suspect this is so important because when something needs to change, when it’s truly time, the words to start that change must be heard. They should be as plain as still objects on a table.
FWR: I’m struck by how the places you describe in your poems then informs the conversation about each poem. “Romance at the Abandoned Mine”, for instance, enacts the echoing of tunnels (and the lines “Sometimes, even God wants to say yes/ before he says no” have reverberated in me for weeks). How does place influence your work?
MC: I think the God line I wrote in “Romance at the Abandoned Mine” tries to speak to the ethics of wanting to not only linger in a relationship or a meaningful sexual experience, but to also linger in the earthly place where it took place. I wonder if some version of myself and of that person I was with are still there, continuing on. I hope so, because we were happy, and we didn’t yet know what would happen to us.
So, place influences my work because of whatever my experience of it was. I think place or landscape serve as our most significant hauntings — in particular, the specifics of the light or the air do. Perhaps my most complicated grief is the one I feel for my childhood home. Not for my childhood but my childhood home. I like to imagine that it still exists exactly as it once did, and I’m there, inside my own life’s prologue, and my young mother and father are as well, and we’re all immortal in our orange kitchen, Winston cigarette air, encased by the greenery and wet air of Irving, Texas. I wonder if that house, which still stands but I’m sure no longer resembles the interior of my childhood home, is as haunted by me and my young, beautiful parents as I am by it. It certainly wasn’t always a perfect place, but its walls mean to me that I was born and ferried first via a car and then by my mother’s arms to the rooms that would shelter me for eighteen years – which is not everything, but it is profoundly mysterious and somewhat excruciating, especially now that I’ve grown older and made many mistakes, now that my mother’s bones hurt her and my father will die soon, now that I have children who live inside their own childhoods.
FWR: Several poems are elegiac, particularly “Remainder”, while still resisting any attempt to aggrandize or idolize a loss. Matt Rasmussen’s collection Black Aperture comes to mind, but did you look to other poems or poets for guidance on those poems?
MC: I admire Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture very much. It’s a beautiful book. Proper elegies are foundational to me; I think a lot about death and its metaphors. And you’re right, I try not to idolize loss. I do try to talk to my disappeared. I try to impart that I survey what’s left behind and sometimes feel consumed by it. Larry Levis is a person I turn to when I write those poems. I don’t understand how he wrote the poems he did. Each and every one of them is of another world. The way he travels so distantly to return to something as bare and reduced as, “My father is beginning to die. Something/ Inside him is slowly taking back/ Every word it ever gave him” (from “Winter Stars”). His poems taught me to (try to) push language into the tall weeds, to borrow its limitlessness, but they also taught me to exhale (inside a poem) — those moments that floodlight the inflexible truth that some of us are alive and some of us are not.
Larry Levis’s Elegies and the poems for his father in Winter Stars don’t only grieve the dead or dying but make something like primordial leaps to communicate with and through them. I try to do the same — it’s a way of not idolizing loss and death but certainly a way of confronting it and even giving it a heartbeat. But yeah, it’s consuming work, a consuming process, to stare at a landscape emptying itself of the people we love. The quiet, exhaustive energy that goes into doing so needs to be communicated and offered up like a currency.
FWR: I’m drawn to the way you work with the mutability of time, such as the poem “The Conqueror, 1956″, or “Burning Hair”. To me, the folding and play of time reinforce the destruction and creation associated with cycles: “when the vase breaks against the driveway the shards will reflect the blue/ scattered eye that sees clearly when one thing shatters into many”.
I was hoping you might speak further to this?
MC: Forgive me for quoting the musician Joanna Newsom now when the epigraph to my book is also a Joanna Newsom song lyric, but: stand brave/time moves both ways (from “Time, As a Symptom”). I guess I think of time as a thing that we must intellectually, physically, and creatively endure, and, like Newsom suggests, that endurance involves courage.
Maybe more significant to me, though, is memory as the fruition and uniquely private demonstration of time, and what I think requires (almost parasitically!) fortitude. I think this because it makes us feel and confront very potently our lives thus far lived. Nostalgia, too, is powerful in its great difficulty to be stymied, and it’s through nostalgia and memory (to my mind) that “time moves both ways.”
Memory, in this case my memories of childhood, is wonderful and vivid though not without trauma. Memory, more so than time, reminds me simply that time is passing. And we all know what that leads to. So, when I allow myself to sink into remembering, it’s a way of confronting the past and future, my beginning and then my end — whatever that will be, whenever it happens. And maybe memory isn’t a parasite, maybe I’m a parasite to it. I think it must be one or other though, right? All that energy of remembering or being remembered must drain from a great source.
Furthermore, memory isn’t even remotely reliable; it both guards and abandons the past; it entails multiple versions of and revises what has and has not exactly happened; its nature is to be both vivid and scattered; it always enters the room with a knife in its teeth. It’s so fractured and multitudinous that I often feel consumed by it, and so writing about memory requires writing about time, as well. Drawing often unexpected connections between the past, present, and future is to exist in all directions, is to both create and destroy our own ghosts, is to make living memories, which is what I hope my poems partly are.
FWR: Is there a poem you love to teach or share?
MC: To name a few: Adrienne Rich’s “Power”, Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s “Salvation”, Trey Moody’s “Dream with Gun and Five-Year-Old Daughter”, Hayan Charara’s “Mother and Daughter”, Norman Dubie’s “Oration: Half-Moon in Vermont”, Roger Reeve’s “Cymothoa Exigua”, Ocean Vuong’s “Aubade with Burning City”, and Cara Dees’ “Vigil Hemming In”.