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!”

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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.

Mary enters the clinic

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Mary enters the clinic like it’s a cathedral and she is has been away from god for too long
she has the slow repentant walk and the surrendered gaze of the returning sinner
praying that salvation is still being offered
she has no face
just wild hair, just dark eye liner, just scars covering faintly bruised arms and knees covered in dirt
her confession is to the front desk clerk
“I think it’s time I came back
I’ve been a needle looking for a haystack to lose myself in,
well I’m gone now.”
She gets a packet of paperwork to fill out – intake forms – financial application –
proof of insurance
When the clerk asks for proof of identity, she hands her a faded polaroid of a girl smiling, squinting into the sun
says “I used to be her.”
The clerk asks for a drivers license
says ma’am, we don’t process dreams here, just the data
Mary sighs
says I haven’t slept in four days and that’s a fact
I stay up each night trying to track down a map that will take me back to a time before the trauma existed, back when I still believed in the resistance
I take my mothers Xanax from her medicine cabinet because I want to forget
when it rains the voices get louder and I cut because I never learned how to ignore an itch
I can’t feel my face anymore, I can’t force my lips to curve in the direction of a smile,
I can’t decipher my affliction but I know I haven’t been here in a while”
The clerk schedules her with a counselor,
advises her to take a seat and wait.

it’s not the best way to process a person who walks in crying crisis in a common language
but it’s the only way we know how to help
Name, age, social security card.
If you have insurance you will have a copay
If you have a god, now will be the time to pray
if you have a loved one, ask them to hold on and stay

In the counselor’s office, she asks for holy water to drink
when asked if she is taking anything she says yes, I take anything
but nothing seems to quench this angry burn around my heart, I am on fire from the inside, hell is behind gate of my ribs and I’ve been trying to crack each one to get out.
The counselor continues with questions
Do you drink?
Do you feel depressed or blue more days than not?
Do you ever feel like you would be better off dead?
She says only on the days I can’t get out of bed
Do you have a plan for killing yourself?
she says does living count

She waits for the police escort to the hospital like they are the sons of god
they seem just as rational and twice as kind
Days have gone by that god has been the only man that will answer her
he has thrown shadows against her bedroom wall and had her guess which ones were indications of her impending doom and which ones were just reflections of the trees outside
she has found signs in her cereal – measured her life by the number of cheerios she poured
she knows the news anchor on the tv is talking to her
she knows she shouldn’t have stopped taking her medicine again
– but there was a blank spot between her eyes where her wit used to live
her hands refused to fly, became fallen birds in her lap
her eyes were vaguely smiling, her heart was kind of trying
she thought she could handle it this time

The police say shackles are not a reflection of their regard for her but a matter of policy
she accepts them willingly
they wonder why she is smiling
she wonders why they are not acknowledging Jesus, since he is standing so close behind them
beckoning her with one hand
she goes willingly

When the clinic doors close behind her, the sanitized hum resumes in the waiting room
the tv is set to Andy Griffith reruns,
the clerk files paperwork grown large with numbers – 1013, 911
295.90 schizophrenia with at least two of the following – delusions, hallucinations, grossly disorganized speech, an inability to interact with daily life without being wounded by the incongruent affect and behavior of so-called normal people
the counselor finds the razor blades in the back pack she left behind
the manager stores them in the safe beneath her desk
The clerk looks up as the next client approaches the front desk