What if the prettiest thing in the mirror
can’t be seen from any angle? I’m twist and turns,
I’m a set of interrogation, the techniques used
to get me talking are frowned upon
by the international community.
I’m not level with the moon.
Nothing much matters. I took my time
to 33,000 feet up and going nowhere.
This limbo—the designs by many philosophers—
warped. Why not just be a slight of misery?
A shriveled peel of citrus? The lime kisses the glass
and we all sweat a little from the contact.
Memories of touch project on the dark
landscape below, I don’t know how to answer
space or air—even though my lungs offer rebuttal
so long as I don’t choke. I accept
my fate of not having a fate, but there is
a constant surprise of ready joy,
like the moment before the elevator door opens.
Did its ascent root us to the floor
or did gravity keep its promise not to let us down?
We are cruising over the Atlantic,
the water lifts its head and we
canoe slice the sea. I’m not sitting
on the edge of sleep. I’m pointing
this way and that at a smiling dark.
Kody is the 5th grade class’s mouse. On the playground, already pubescent boys can swing him into the air and ball him up in their baseball-mitt hands. A storm blows a fence pole loose on the playground. During recess, Kody is the meat wrecking ball the boys throw into the fence until the pole becomes a spray of ripped earth.
It is only a dot in the line. The fence sags but stands. The kids still cheer, and Kody is a web of welts and slaps on the back. This is where Kody decides to become a human cannon ball. A decade later he does not make it across the Grand Canyon. But he does become a dot in the canyon’s line.
My mouth cannot close
around a grapefruit.
The door is stitched to the wall
and the effort to unlace
its mouth is too heavy.
what the back feels,
but its lost to the droning
climbing up the stairs.
The men whooping outside
the window make finger puppets
with their beer bottles.
I try to plug the bile
in my throat. Sour hard to swallow.
The moon apexes,
and I map where it settles
into the horizon of my eyelids—
finally drifting asleep.
Senior year of high school I recited Frost’s Birches in empty classrooms, libraries, stairwells, dark avenues, and vacant football bleachers. Checking my tongue in the mirror, how this sentimental poem of growing up and innocence lost reminded me of a model helicopter crashed in a tree, the rotary blades twirling wind chimes. At a state competition all 59 unrhyming lines come out more easily than my pulse. On stage lights bloom behind my eyes and I dream falling backwards, but really I tip into the mic for a kiss.
Backstage with a poem I wiggle into a cat’s cradle between my fingers. On stage Piano Man is pulverizing his audience with lightning crashes on the keys and thunder rolling off his sleeves. The translucent curtain cloaks me in red stage light, I’m close enough to see his fingers plunge like fencers. A voice blows in my ear, “You’re on in one minute.” They fasten a mic to my collar as a final note lingers, held until the ripples smooth to an ice-sheet gloss.
The coffee shop is called Fresh Brewed but the performers soured a long time ago. The open mic happens in the same place as the AA Meetings. Many go to both. Bad blues and tongue singing mochas. Me and Matt sit in the back and do our best Mystery Science Theater 3000 impressions. Our whispers dissolve into guitar chords and a Johnny Cash cover. Halfhearted choruses of “Down down in a burning ring of fire.” The slam poets come and go, then keep going and going. My sestina about my dead grandpa who is not actually dead gets applause, but I am not unwashed enough for people to congratulate me personally.
Mother distracts small child with a tablet. Professor is twisting and turning a camera, following trajectories of a sun turning over in the sky. The room is on the top floor of one of the city’s oldest buildings. The crow’s nest view announces itself in the tall windows but no one listens. A whole crowd of emoticon expressing faces. No laughter or smiles at the punch lines. The parenthesis keep from flexing when the poem closes on itself full stop.
Here is how I first made a woman fall in love with me:
Kid’s Halloween Night at the high school. I improvise a ghost story in a science room so I can leap table to table, stomping my feet, clapping my hands, and whooping loud enough to wake the dissected frogs. One boy tells me I am not scary. The story is about two boys being swallowed up by a haunted house. It is a true story—I just have not told my elder brother yet.
The woman would not confess her feelings for another year. It wasn’t until I dozed in the passenger seat of her jeep, listening to her recite poetry, that I felt a garden flower stir from sunlight.
Abraham Lincoln was hard gay. Do not google “Abraham Lincoln Hard Gay”. Instead read this poem he wrote:
For Reuben and Charles have married two girls,
But Billy has married a boy.
The girls he had tried on every side,
But none he could get to agree;
All was in vain, he went home again,
And since that he’s married to Natty.
Myrtle Beach has one of the strongest concentrations of mini-golf courses in the country. A city of small Dutch Windmills and rounded dinosaurs tossing golf balls down their tails. Some offer booze, pirate ships that dolphin spit water, or the shade of a pretty woman’s face on a billboard tattooed with “MISSING.” Myrtle Beach does not advertise on their website that they are 17th in the country for violent crimes per capita. Or the police report last year that read, “Both share a baby daddy. They locked horns like bulls on the stairs to the Aquarius.”
The Horry County Museum will tell you which dinosaurs buried their bones on the prehistoric land. The natives that scattered their arrowheads in the sand. The picture book landscape that sprung up then folded into the ground. The bright flora that thrives in the long, humid summers. The stuffed bear gives its history with the hawk and the fox tries to circle round both. The cannon was peeled out of the Civil War’s cold, stiff hand. The women of the county are represented as dolls, safe behind their glass cases. Charts and an old world cart tell the story of farming. There are no whips pegged on the walls beside them, or pictures of what the blisters might look like on the cotton picker’s hand, and the word “slave” can only be found etched into a bathroom stall.
I sanitize my history, too. Like a housekeeper in a hotel. I am keeping this home and making it over and over again for new visitors to mess. Water-spots on the glasses are shined and glossed, shower mold corroded and drowned, beds scalped and linens replaced. Even the dust, all the eyelashes and dead skin of the befores picked up and carried outside for the afters.
To everyone else “She” is “She” without the name Whitney. As if there were not moments where we kissed in the sunshine rinsed rain. That her absence when waking didn’t draw the air out of the room. That before I left her at her grandparents with a note and no warning, I tried to draw her in for one last embrace in their yard. That because I wasn’t honest with her she pulled away, thinking it needless affection. That moving halfway across the country wasn’t to escape her abuse, but my feelings for her.
The Farallon Slab is a left over lump of bedrock digging its toes into the mantle beneath North America. Its heyday came in Pangea when it cupped an ocean in its palms, watched sea dinosaurs splash and frolic or giant saw-toothed gods chomp on other Poseidons. The slab passes its time as Atlas to the America’s ass. A cold continent of rock—the head of a spoon beneath a bowl of grits.
Religion: bedrock and buckle of the Bible Belt. We’ve all eaten our amens. I was in the shadow of a Beaufort church, standing in for my best-friend’s wife and meeting his father, mother, and sister. The grave-markers raised Confederate and Union flags in battle lines. They pointed out Matt’s grave as if it is a tourist attraction. Me and him spend an hour alone together that night on his parent’s dock at the mouth of a bay. Then I unlaced the water with a kayak, and it sewed up behind me until the light from the shore was a needle prick. The moon’s neon smile for company and the sureness this was it. All I needed. All I thought about was how different everything might be if his parents owned a canoe. I pictured losing the oar and hand paddling in the nibbling dark. A text calls me back to shore. The shower I take to wash the mites off my skin smells like egg-soup.
A mass of water 100,000 times bigger than the sun swirls 12 billion light years away. By the time the light traveled to us it could have already been flushed down a black hole. Gone like ground water. Digging limestone caves below our plane of being. This is scientifically impossible. So are half of all human desires that flit through the brain, but they remain; cold stones sink deeper and push heat up to keep the moving parts in motion.
Philadelphia’s steel edge air. Frosted and pressed to the skin. Driving up a horizon of snow to be here. Quiet traffic sliding on the glazed lip of ice. The backlit light of a drugstore over my shoulder. He steps out of the dark, luggage bouncing on sidewalk cracks. That night we undress each other and lie together, cycling warmth. Binary stars mapping points in our orbit. Facing entropy together, hands clasped as constellations fade from our combined sky.
Two teens slurp their Icees by the road in the rain. A truck hydroplanes, ballet-spins off the road, scoops dirt into the air and scatters it like dandelion seeds. The teens are a few feet away. They know the driver and flip him off before walking back to class. So above it all. Their straws make throaty growls in the dregs of their cups.
A taste of steel biting your tongue. The vodka steeped in the metal flask under the bed, all of it on an empty stomach. Standing by the window and fingering the blinds, pictures of slamming the car door on your arm. The kiss of electricity when you press a metal prong into an outlet. The current of butterflies beating beneath the skin of your arm into your shoulder. Dinner is ready! You sit with them and when they leave the room you are surprised by joy. By how easy it is to run the knife over and over and over your arm. How good it feels to be slapped when you’re caught.
Traveling through time more like never getting off this freaking highway. Float for six hours, sing for sixteen more until the horizon at three in the morning resembles hammered steel. Slip into the furnace of the city at dawn. Wait out the sunrise at an Ihop, stacking the cups of half-and-half until it is a decent time to wake your family and have breakfast with them. The first time in a year. Father at the door tells you mother has been in the hospital the last two weeks. Oops.
The Tulsa Race Riots happened on May 31-June 1 in 1921. 6,000 African Americans were arrested, the rest corralled into holding pens. 35 blocks of buildings charred to the ground by fire. It is the first and only time U.S. aircraft bombed a U.S. city. Officially, 39 blacks died, but 300 were estimated missing. None of this is taught in the stifling, windowless room of my Oklahoma History class. The textbook spares a paragraph, a cute anecdote about the only remaining building from the riots, and the bullet holes outlining the memory of a man sleeping in the walls.
Strips of leather. All the eyelashes
in a classroom. Coffee stains.
The hem of a mother’s dress.
Fresh shavings off a block of balsa wood.
Shoes made of alligator skin.
The angry protests of PETA
clipped to the corners.
of the world’s impending doom
cut into a dress to hang
on your child’s music box shoulders.
So many birds are flying above my house it must mean
something or how could the Romans
have built their roads and cities based on the movement
of sparrows and falcons in the sky above
the Capitoline Hill, Caesars asking the augurs
when they should cross the Rubicon, poison their wives,
conquer Asia Minor, and as geese cut across my sky in a sharp V
or starlings swarm into the church tower at sunset
I can see how the Etruscans and later the Romans would look
to the clouds and these last remnants of the dinosaurs
to help them make their way in the world, so I believe in birds
as I believe in the mad woman on my street in Florence
who lifts her skirt to show her stuff to anyone
who won’t look away, or Merchino,
the tall gaunt man with a short torso who stalks down
the Borgo la Croce like a savage medieval prince covered
with tattoos, and when he passes me as I leave our apartment
or walk through the market, I feel as if he is pulling
the moment in a swirling tornado above his head,
lifting me in its wake like a magician, though Fabio
tells me he has done time for armed robbery, which is a kind
of sorcery in itself, evil magi of the passeggiata,
when Italians walk out before dinner arm in arm, boys with boys,
girls with girls, couples old and middle aged,
all in the dying light. Or think of last fall when the three oak trees
in our yard rained down a plague of acorns, pummeling
our roof all night as if a Nazi panzer division had popped through
the fabric of time, though their bullets less malign,
and the squirrels so roly-poly that the cats could finally dream
of catching them as Pharaoh dreamed of the seven fat cows
and the seven lean cows, foretelling the seven years of plenty
and the seven years of famine, so what do the acorns mean
in their mysterious plentitude, if anything, because the world
can trick you, as when I was driving toward New Orleans
on I-10, and in the gloaming the semis were bearing down
on my little white Toyota as if they were ogres
from a fairy tale-giant, muscular killing machines, gobbling
up everything in their path, though most of the drivers
were probably thinking about dinner or Kansas or turning the garage
into a sunroom, so maybe the sparrows and acorns
are just sparrows and acorns and the glorious inhabitants
of the streets around Santa Croce are not magis
and hag goddesses, though as I walk down the cobblestone
street and the light casts its spell over the city
I seem to see something on the edges of my vision,
a wolverine-masked earth sprite running
along the edges of any path I take as the sun sets in the dark
woods. There’s Leonardo trudging up Monte Cassine
to test his flying machine, Dante skulking away to Ravenna,
all our crashes and exiles tearing at our hearts
like wild animals reminding us how far we are from home.
By Barbara Hamby
Lately it seems that you and I
are trying to remember how to live without each other.
In the basement you warn yourself not to bump your head.
I wonder if I’m strong enough to till the garden.
Old habits slink out of their dens,
remaking themselves at home.
You scramble eggs and burn my favorite pan,
I go off to bed without a thought, the lights still blazing.
We keep seeing these unwelcome guests
as we glance over our shoulders at the dimming afternoons.
They chill the house with their feral weather,
chapping our lips.
We don sweaters, make room.
Our tongues taste metal and salt.
by Juditha Dowd
Locked in my parents’ closet at seven. We could hear the twister from a mile off. I was chewing gum and blowing bubbles and my brother smacked me and said, “I don’t want that to be the last thing I hear.”
The birds yelled from the eyeball sockets of trees. The clouds cracked open and the sun an excited kindergartner colored in the blue and ran over the lines. A canvas by Monet hanging in the air. On the ground people tip-toed over rooftop shingles and upturned nails. Kids already made a fort out of an overturned truck. Power lines let down their hair. The windows busy at picking themselves up off the lawn. Adults spoke to their scalped homes, to take stock of everything that needed doctoring.
A baby is found buried in the mud. Ten miles from the home it was plucked from. It is completely untouched, like the tornado rocked it to sleep and set it in its dirt crib.
The first rule of novel writing is don’t start with the weather. If it is raining say instead, “These characters are all wet and sad.” If it is sunny: “The opposite mood of a rainy day.” Never speak the wind’s name again, or any of its breezy nicknames, even if its knotted fist knocks the breath out of you.
Last year in May a storm went through South Carolina that was pleasant and soft. I opened the window to let its song soothe me to sleep. Seven hours before, my parents could not get into their neighborhood because it was destroyed. A reporter said, “People are walking around like zombies.” My friends’ homes were brushed aside. Twenty kids killed inside an elementary school. My sister’s grade school swept over. There is a video on youtube of a teacher recording the strike on her cellphone and in the background my sister is shouting, “I hate this.”
Oklahoma kids are tucked in and told bed times stories of squall lines and dips in barometric pressure. When they are out playing on Saturday they know exactly when to go in for lunch. At noon, the siren alert system is tested and all through the state the air is saturated with its ghostly aria.