Group Therapy

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On Monday, in group, Brandon says
“I just don’t think I can go my entire life without drinking”
he says “some days I’m thinking obliteration is a rational
that when the world is this fucked up, why is it so bad
to drown our sorrows every so often, every Friday, every Thursday, every – Day
in  tequila, why’s it so wicked to warm what’s left of our bodies
with wine and the familiar feel of a stranger”
I remind him that in group, we don’t use the F word
I tell him that today we’re talking about powerlessness
that maybe he could contribute to the conversation
since clearly his power is a reflection of his reaction to apathy
Brandon  shrugs
says group is bullshit, but he’s mandated to treatment, so he’ll stay,

On Wednesday in group, Brandon says.
“sometimes? I think maybe heroin is the only way in, the only entrance to my head that doesn’t hurt
this is the price I pay for comfort
and that seems fair.”
I ask him  can we
take it one day at a time
stay in the moment
do the next right thing.
he says “last night I thought about how hard it is to live
how awareness brings responsibility bring weight that I am not strong enough to carry, brings social interaction and it is not a sign of health to be well adjusted to a fucked up world.”
I remind him again that swearing is not allowed in group, ask him
can you express one real emotion without quoting someone else
He says quotes make sense
that he can’t articulate or understand this world
so this is the oppressor’s language but he needs it to speak to me
I say, I know that quote too
I say what are you actually feeling right now
He says sometimes I want explode,
like I’m disappearing,
a black hole
sometimes I want to die
I say sometimes we all do
welcome to early sobriety
he says fuck group
and leaves

On Friday in group, Brandon doesn’t say anything
group is quiet, soothing
and it’s not until he doesn’t come back after break that I realize to us
silence is how we begin to die
silence is the first gasp of the last act
so I call his PO after group, I try to get someone to talk to me
I leave a message on his voicemail that starts out
with I’m not mad
and ends with please come back
and in the middle somewhere I remind him that we all have those days
I promise him that I’ll carry his thirst in my throat
that if he hangs on, some day he will be asked to hold someone else’s wrists closed
that his thumbs will count heart beats, that he will understand the rhythm then
that he just needs to believe that I believe

On Monday, in group, I say the first person who can scream the loudest wins
and they look back at me with puzzle piece faces
I say today? maybe fuck those self help therapy enthusiasts that teach us acceptance and
maybe fuck me for being one of them
maybe you should accept nothing
because nothing is what we are promised
I say first one to disagree with me out loud wins
and they say nothing
I say tell me one true thing even if it doesn’t belong to you
and they say nothing
I say prove to me that that you’re here
they say Ms. Emily, you’re acting weird today
I say then tell me
anything
can’t you see how easy it is to disappear
and they say
Ms. Emily speak up, we can’t even hear

For my parents; on journeys

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I put off writing this poem
I kept waiting for the perfect words to arrive
words I could gather in my cupped hands like minnows, hold them out to you,
splashing and sparkling and say “look!”
And then I would gently lower them back into the stream
and we would watch them swim off into the sunset
our ankles getting wet, water lapping the sides of the river bed.
We’d say nothing,
just watch the waves part, as they swam toward them.

Mom and Dad: you sent me off with a blessing, three springs ago
you watched my sister and I pack her Subaru until it literally sagged
the car literally almost touched the ground
you must have thought “wow
they sure have a lot of baggage”
We thought we needed every piece of it, every article of clothing, every pillow,
every notebook and chair, every memory, every fear.
We thought it was so good to get out of town, point the car toward the sun
and just start driving south
but we only got three miles down the road before I had to pee
And we couldn’t turn back
our goodbyes were too fresh in our throats
so my sister pulled the car over and I crouched between two doors and accidentally peed on my sandal
It was the first time on our journey that we both laughed until we cried
“I feel funny”, my sister said
“I feel floaty” I said
Then we turned the radio up, hit the gas and kept on driving.

We stopped half way, in Virginia, at a shitty motel
but there was a pool and hot sunshine and I sat outside at a warped picnic table as the sun set down around me
insects buzzed a patchwork in the dark, my body hummed with a kind of electricity
It was then I realized I didn’t need everything I had brought with me.
We went swimming that night in our clothes
the warm chlorine leached the dust from our eyelids, washed away the imprint of all the mistakes we had to make, in order to get to this point
and when we got back in the car the next day,
we were each two pounds lighter
My sister asked me “will we float away if we keep going like this?”
“No”, I said, “we can learn to curve our arms like anchors
and we’ll take turns flying and holding it down”.

We hit the border of Georgia that day, around 3pm
we were both wearing sundresses, in some kind of salute to the south
when we picked up the keys from our new landlord he asked us if we were both students
when we said no, he asked us if we were both single
when we said yes
he said “southern gentlemen are real and a lot of women mover here to find husbands”
we both thought he was hitting on us.
The key turned the lock to a pre-fabricated duplex, that looked just like the every other one on the block
but to us, it looked like a kept promise
and at first the air conditioning didn’t work and we thought surely we would die in the July heat and I put the ice cream in the bathtub in a sublime effort to save our sweets
and when the AC finally kicked on,
we realized how the rooms echoed
how bare the walls were
how accommodating the emptiness was
and we began splashing laughter across the floor and cooking up new traditions in the tiny kitchen.

My sister left after one year
she said returning home was the most necessary mistake she needed to make
and now she points her face south again
says she’s ready to pack up the car again.
Me, I’ve held down the spot we decided to make our mark on for three years
But now, I have a decision in my pocket and kite string in my wallet
I’m going to pull it out any minute now, attach all my dreams to it
and then run like hell
I haven’t figured out in which direction yet
but I know the wind will lead me

I put off writing this poem for weeks, kept waiting for the perfect one to arrive
one I could hold out to you as proof that you did everything right
as evidence that you raised us with the right convictions, that you put a compass in my heart and a map in my hands
I know we both remember the times you asked me to unlock the door to my cage from the inside
so that you could crawl in with me
I know we both have blasting caps in our pockets and shotgun shells in our shoes, yes, we kept souvenirs
or maybe they kept us
yes, we know how good oxygen feels in our chests
because we still remember learning how to hold our breath.
I put off writing this poem, waiting for it to come to me like an angel
but nothing can deliver me from the work I know I need to do.
And I have stood by the river for hours now, fingers stretched out wide in the water
shin deep in memory, squinting my eyes at the sunset, trying to catch glimpses of my future

Mom and dad, tonight you saw me get on stage for the first time
you are hearing me say the words to the people and I am not saying them all perfectly
but I am saying all of them
I am patting my pockets, checking for the notes you wrote me,
I am putting gas in the car and making lists of all the goodbyes I need to say
I am burning with the memory of the sun through the car windows,
as my sister and I set off on new adventures
I am hammering my heartbeat across the mountain peaks
I am echoing with reverberations of love
I am holding my palms out to you
holding these words like broken arrows, like feathers, like water that still sparkles, even as it slips through my fingers and I am ready now, river current in my blood stream,
I am headed toward the ocean, I am learning how to hold my breath under water
I am pointing in the direction of the current, I am saying “look!”

We Will Be Shelter

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My sister bought me Andrea Gibson’s anthology, “We Will Be Shelter” for Christmas.  It’s a beautiful collection of poems that reflect social justice themes, paired with organizations that support social justice causes. It got me thinking – how can I be shelter?  And thus, I arrived at this poem 

We Will Be Shelter

*inspired by Andrea Gibson’s anthology, by the same title

1. The day my mother told me there are some things I shouldn’t tell her
I became a woman.
She said some things were too painful and the sharing of them only made her worry
and then made me worry about her worrying and it was a cycle we could forget
with closed mouths and throats that hummed instead of sang.
I didn’t stop telling her things.
But I stopped being oblivious to effect of my words

2. They say you will step over many bodies if you walk this road,
they say at first it won’t get better, but it might get different,
that if you can believe in change, even for 5 minutes at a time, you have a chance.
I remember standing in a circle of held hands the day I had 102 days clean
my face uplifted like a received blessing
the press of calloused flesh to my tender palm a benediction
I remember the first time I could go to the laundromat without being afraid of running
into my past
and the way my name began to fall from other mouths like it was welcome there
and not just a bad taste
I will never forget my unrelated brother and the day he died,
the wind whipped up from the lake so fast it could be felt from NY to Georgia
His smile is a wrinkle on my heart now

3. There are easy rules to follow too, if easy is what you are looking for
– don’t google your symptoms. ever
– don’t weigh yourself, your body is more than the sweet tug of gravity and anyway, God, doesn’t it feel good to be anchored to the world now?
– sing in the shower, in the car, while making dinner – give your throat every chance to practice forming sound and rhythm so that when you need it, your voice will ring out like a true bell
– and never give up
– just don’t

4. When I was 17, I wrote a list of ways I would stop apologizing for my presence
I didn’t know then that my body was already forming question marks over every word
that to stop saying sorry meant learning a new language
putting these bones to new use, digging these bones into the ground like tent poles
staking out my territory in the flesh landscape I was given
and learning to be grateful for every hill and valley that can be used to shelter you
I didn’t know that you needed refuge too
I didn’t know refuge could be a ship setting sail for new lands
look, we have come up to the top deck and even now, I can see the future spread out
like shiny lights in the distance

5. These are the ways I can be shelter
This woman that I am, this stitched together tongue, this humming throat
rubbed raw from finding harmony in the silence
This square hand I have, linked like a circuit breaker to my heart
go ahead, grab it
let this be rule 6: there is never a wrong time to reach out
no reason too good or bad, big or small.
These are the ways I can be shelter
the way I remember my brother who didn’t get to live to see the disease shaken
the stories I still tell about my chosen sons, that I gave freely back to the world
the poems I have written for my unborn daughter
and the way I have strung hope like Christmas lights around the entrance to my heart
and written messages to the future saying “be better’
This is how I am shelter
how I have swung the doors wide open, sifted sunlight through my ribs
built a safe room out of my arms and put them around you
sang every lullaby I knew into the phone until even the static on the other end of the line
hummed along
laid my body in the shape of a comma next to yours,
so that you didn’t have an excuse to end the sentence
told you “don’t you ever stop telling me things.”

Snapshot

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He held her face like a bowl of water, both hands
cupped around her cheeks, tilted her lips skyward
and drank deeply

Around them the dusty chaos of a summer music festival swirled
Beer, boys and bare chests
the strutting and preening of young bodies
the cocaine made temporary gods of us all
our tattoos were compasses pointing the way to our transparent hearts
our shouts shook the tent poles
and the bass from the distant stage thudded like welcome thunder.

She was not beautiful
but this is irrelevant
In the sun shining down, he turned toward her
An exhale, a pause, a split second before lip met lip
Intentions stood like sweet soldiers behind their eyes
Squinting, she became a fountain, a waterfall, a spring brook
and he, in the Polaroid snap of summer, turned from granite to dry throat
sand trickling from the steel toes of his boots.

He must have been so thirsty, for so long.

The Poem I don’t want to write – a working draft

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The poem I don’t want to write is sitting on the couch, looking smug, sipping her third cup of coffee at 5pm
Go on, she says, I dare you
I raise my eyes a bit, but it’s like staring at the sun – too hot, too bright, to close to searing my retinas
I blink away after-images of tiger lilies, look at her knees instead
They are bare, dust in the creases of her skin – her knee caps are maps of my childhood,
all bikes and bruises and hunting down imaginary wild things in the woods out back
Her knees are boney and strong – they don’t need my helping hands to push them off the earth and allow her to stand.

The poem I don’t want to write reads the news over my shoulder in the morning
I turn to her, a challenge, but she just laughs
tells me there’s not a enough time before work and I’m not saying anything the BBC or NPR won’t say anyway.
she says you can’t, you will sound too country, too white, too privileged, too young, to have any real knowledge of the world
She says my doubt is infectious, best to hide it away, isolate the sickness
She says “you’re voice isn’t strong enough and when you raise it, you’re not raising an army, you’re just shouting.”
I finish my coffee, put the mug in the sink and head into the office

The poem I don’t want to write watches me put on makeup in the evening, pre-date
She has indelible red lipstick, she says this is vital, this color
she says red is blood, and red is power and red is dominance
and surely I must need some power painted on me,
because if I was really strong, I would practice the principles I preach, go out
naked face and flat shoes and fall into the open arms of the world, sure they will be there to catch me
But since I tiptoe a tightrope, stretching between my city sky-scraper-self and a man I hope is an architect, with building plans in his heart and masonry in his blood –
obviously I need some false convictions to believe in
obviously I need this make-up mask to hide behind
obviously I can’t hold her finger-polished hand to the page and force out the anger like hot steam congealing into words – I feel it constricting my middle, at the idea I have to smile
at the idea I have to “not be such a bitch”
at the idea I should take it as a compliment
at the idea that I do take it as a compliment

the poem I don’t want to write is looming shadows, nights I can’t sleep, words stopped up in my throat, looking for signs in the wrinkles of the sheets, hot face warming the pillow, praying for a prayer to appear in a language I don’t speak – but will try like hell to learn
She listens
She is not always smiling
she holds my hand
rest, she says
she’ll stay here with me, she says
steady back against my bedroom wall,
until I’m ready to write her down

An Apology

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You, yet unclassified, sat up for hours while the others slept.
The conversation we were always on the verge of having echoing in my head on the drive home,
In the morning, with fresh light and strong, cheap coffee
we held it shyly between us
We balanced our weight to hold unspoken words between us, big as clouds
big like a fragile beach ball, touching both of our bellies.
Silence, I thought, was just another way we were special
but sweet anticipation never spilled into words.

You are easily remembered
The hug of your ribs holding fast to your heart, clenched shut.
In the morning, you ran circles around the big old house
while the others swept, cleaned toilets and served up breakfast
In the cold air you gasped into your lungs, like swallowing glaciers
you must have felt peace –or something close to it
cold breath met numb skin
we never touched.

The conversation we were always about to have
sleeps in the white stones of the building we both have left
You, with your history and your family
Me, with my future and my choices
I am still holding the end of a long rope
it moves in my hand
a tug from the other end?
Or just the wind, knocking it back against the empty bricks?

ATHENA

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ATHENA

My father’s heart is a house that is never locked and I am outside fumbling with a ring of useless keys.
She sprang from her father’s head fully armored and ready for battle.
We walk to the bus stop after dark with car keys held in spikey fists for makeshift brass knuckles.
We duck our heads to avoid cat calls from frat boys in SUV’s designed to run down villagers in middle eastern cities where the women are too dark of skin to make the news here.
But they are here, under the skin of our faces as we flush to the sound of bitch, whore, and invitations to participate in unspeakable sexual acts because humiliation feeds the egos of the weak
My father’s heart is house that is never locked and I wander from room to room, looking for a sign in the sun reflecting off end tables, in the sound of the wind against the eaves, the sleep tucked in the corner with the cat, curled like a baby against the solid western wall, dandelion fluff blowing against the screen door.
Her father raped swans, commanded armies and gave orders to the sun.
She had no choice but to burst forth fully armored against his wish to swallow her back down, make her come out again different, stronger, weaker, better suited for the world of gods and heroes where even in folklore the women are threatened with rape
and Aphrodite only exists by way beauty and naked need
what choice did she have but to become a warrior?
We still wear heels to work, by choice now, we say, it’s about power, we are still outnumbered in staff meetings, I am a new manager and my supervisor tells me “we eat what we kill” and the women I am in charge of sniff out weakness like blood hounds and I am a fresh pup with a soft nose and they know it.
We seek shelter in the refuge of routine, we pretend we don’t care about the way in which we are turning on one another, because we have a decent pay check and a power suit and shiny car in the driveway and if we just pipe down about the patriarchy we have a decent shot at love.
We ignore the women in the congo, the women in Afghanistan, the women in Ferguson losing sons to a war they were drafted into by the color of their skin.
But they are here, beneath our shrill finger nails that crack and pop as we learn to hold on tighter and make it look effortless.
My father’s heart is an open field and I am wondering when he will cut the grass – there are women starving and I don’t know how to make this long stemmed wheat into bread to feed the children of my sisters, I don’t know how to weave this cotton into clothes to hold their bodies like the arms I don’t know how to stretch out to them.
She sprang forth from her fathers head fully armored with a shield and a battle cry.
We sit huddled over newspapers praying violence stays in the dark reaches of the world, praying our children are still a choice we can make, praying that one day we won’t need gods.
We are not alone.
Our sisters are here, beneath our knees that pop as we get off them, beneath our knuckles that clench pens in fists because we have to find other weapons than brute strength – we have to, we did not spring forth fully armored, we arrived slowly, if we arrived at all, we arrived shaken, we arrived afraid, we arrived silent and cut into pieces, with pleasure torn out of our bodies, by knives and words and systems designed to keep us soft and small.
My fathers heart is a fire place and I am warm and I am not worthy of being born of such a luxury of love.
She sprang forth fully armored with a battle cry and a strategy to master the brute horror of war, to nudge men into becoming heroes, to weave a pattern out of destruction and to bring her mortal daughters home.
And I don’t have the skill to light the candle beside the bed of my sister who kneels in prayer, a thousand miles away in a town that I can’t pronounce or find. It is dark and she is weeping and I can’t find a match.
And I don’t have enough matches for the women who are standing silent, arms outstretched with haystacks and dry kindling beneath their prisons and a crackling need to be free.
She sprang from her fathers head fully armored with no other way to exist than to fight.
My fathers heart is a poem, he wrote the lines in fresh tears when he said with a cracking voice
“I’m just so glad you’re still here.”
She sprang forth from her fathers head fully armored, his brain splitting in pain
my fathers heart splits in pain when I turn this gravity of the world on my body
and you and I and her and all my sisters are worthy of a room in my fathers house
and I will spring forth fully armored to visit strategy and justice upon you with my own weapons until you all know
I’m just so glad you’re still here.