The First Woman

My parents are from the snowy, muggy midwest, but I grew up in sunny California and was so unaware of prolonged gloomy weather that I did not understand what “Seasonal Affective Disorder” meant until I moved to Ireland in my 20s. But my earliest travel memories are of road trips to the desert, my dad driving our crayon-blue Datsun. Some weekends, we’d drive from Glendale, California to see the Cabazon dinosaur structures (pictured above) and then to Banning for date shakes. (My parents used to be into health food desserts.) I think it was my mother who loved the desert so much. Whenever I think of our trips, I remember these three images: my pretty, young mother, approaching me while sipping a date shake and wearing 70s-style macrame sandals and a Bodhi Tree t-shirt; a view from inside the T-Rex head; and across the pink desert, among the palm trees—the dinosaurs of Cabazon.

Photo Family trip
My parents and I on a road trip, circa ’79.

In my mid-twenties, I began Northern Arizona University’s MA program in Flagstaff. The town is 7,000 feet above sea level, so the weather and terrain are much different than Cabazon. There are forests of ponderosa pines and aspens that turn gold in autumn, and the whole town is covered in powdery white snow for several months of the year. However, the sun still shines on  most days, which was a welcomed sight for this California girl. One of the most beautiful natural scenes I’ve ever witnessed is snowflakes glistening through sunlight, all the trees, bejeweled. I often walked in the woods when it snowed. The whole world went silent under white blankets. Every now and then, I’d hear a muffled crash and turn to see a pine tree unburden itself of top-heavy snow drifts. I have never felt more wonderfully alone than I did in the desert.

As you drive south from Flagstaff, you pass through central Arizona, where pine trees and snow turn to shrubs and red mountains. Further still, shrubs give way to tall cacti that always looked friendly to me, as though they’re waving toward the passing cars with their arm-like branches.

Even in the parts of Arizona where it does not snow, there is a quietness to nature, probably because most animals and insects hideout during the day, as do many humans. Also, the dry heat makes you more aware of your body, and in that way, it can focus the mind. I often hiked alone back then. Unlike in the deep south, where insects and frogs sing a happy heralding, the utter silence of the desert made me feel like the only person in the world, a feeling that has always comforted me. Even desert rocks feel different to me. In the south, rocks are highways for every bug, reptile, and amphibian; but in the desert, rocks invite you to sit and to be alone with them, and you are.

As I wrote Sister Nun, I found many desert images popping up in my stanzas. I lived (collectively) in Flagstaff for only four years and have (collectively) spent thirteen years in the south, but the feeling of the desert has never left me. While the south’s nature is teeming with loud and aromatic life, the desert feels like the very beginning of life, quiet and red and prehistoric.

In “Sister Nun Faces a Sidewinder,” the first few lines set a tone of loneliness, enhanced by the mention of a chain motel, which has always seemed to me the perfect setting for any lonely story: “Sister would say that she had lived / a lonely life, if pressed now in / this chain motel parking lot.” In the next line, “Scales bright as her own / bald head” likens Sister to part of nature herself as well as reminds the reader of her appearance. (When she leaves the Buddhist convent, earlier in the book, she keeps her head shaved.) The next few lines give the reader further description of the setting: “The cacti, fuzzy and / soft from a distance, wave / at the cars, taking them / for suns.” The cacti’s appearance from a distance is much different than its sharpness up close, and the cars’ appearance from a distance confuses the cacti, who see the glare on metal as passing suns. This image provides contrast and foreshadows later imagery that pertains to the brightness of early creation.

In the next stanza, the speaker qualifies Sister’s loneliness: “If she said she was only alone / when she asked to be, that, too, / would be true.” Although Sister is lonely, she often chooses to be alone. In the next line, however, she must put aside human concerns of loneliness and remain completely present in the face of potential danger: “but today she faces / a sidewinder, and she stills / like red rock.” The last line again reflects the low desert setting.

I separated the next section of the poem with a set of asterisks. Although stanzas themselves are a pause in language (and often a shift in topic) using asterisks helps the reader know that there is a rather large shift ahead. In this case, the poem shifts from Sister Nun in contemporary times to the creation of women during the Mesozoic Era. I wanted to invent a creation myth that reflects Sister’s loneliness and offers a hereditary loneliness that links all women. In my creation myth, the first woman was created toward the end of the reign of dinosaurs:

“Here’s a little known fact: Women
were created by accident. As
dinosaurs lay dying, giving up
on their offspring, lightning
struck a stone, and a giant
woman appeared. Her physical sight
was slight at first, and she hopped
around lava and ducked
from Pterodactyls on
gut alone.”

I liked the idea of the first woman appearing by accident as opposed to the structured Biblical creation myth: a male god intentionally creates a woman from part of a man and then prescribes her a subservient role. In my myth, the first woman emerges from a natural, assertive act: “lightning / struck a stone, and a giant / woman appeared.” I remember eating at a restaurant in Phoenix and watching fat strobes of lightning smack the sand outside. I wanted the woman to exist from electricity’s force. Yet, when she first materializes “Her physical sight / was slight at first.” As with most beginnings (including Sister Nun’s own travels) the first woman had to find her footing with little experience and few defenses. Although the dinosaurs “laying dying,” unable to care for their children, there is still threat: “she hopped / around lava and ducked / from Pterodactyls on / gut alone.”

The first woman feels a maternal urge and nurses “baby Brontos when / their mothers passed. Held their / long necks gently across her lap.” As she finds connection with the world around her, she must also watch it deteriorate: “But soon, the comets made them / so sad that they lifted their big, baby / legs into tar pits, and positioned themselves / to the sun.” I’m not sure if the scientific community has determined certainly why the dinosaurs went extinct, but for my poem, I wanted to reference different schools of thought that the reader may remember learning in class. One theory I’ve heard is that Earth was hit by a meteor. I also read that some dinosaurs died because they got stuck in tar pits. I wanted to play with that latter idea by having the young Brontos (I know, the Brontosaurus never existed) intentionally entering the tar pits, knowing that the end for all the dinosaurs is near. They position themselves to the sun to see the last beauty the world has to offer them.

In the last stanza of this poem, there is, again, a contrast between beginnings and endings: “The woman painted her body with wet / sand and opened her eyes for / the first time as she sank into the salty Earth, and / waited.” As an act of mourning, she paints her body and lets herself sink into the Earth as the dinosaurs allowed themselves to sink into tar pits. At the same time that she surrenders to grief, her eyes open for the first time. The last word “waited” implies that she does not find death but will rise again when she is stronger. Since she opens her eyes before she sinks, one might assume that she will be wiser upon return.

The last stanza provides a frame to the first narrative about Sister’s encounter with the sidewinder and connects her situation with the first woman’s: “Sister has learned to wait.”  The snake “finally returns to / her cold nest” and “Sister thinks of the / woman she left this morning, wrapped / in sky, blue sheets, her naked body / heated in the dark room.” First, the snake’s threat is softened when the reader learns that she is protecting her nest, which also echoes the first woman’s attempt to protect the young Brontos. There is contrast in language and imagery between the cold nest and the hot desert. The image of the hotel room that Sister leaves behind (along with the woman) is cold and dark. When I was living in the desert, the dark, air conditioned interior of my home, or hotel rooms I stayed in, felt like caves. The motor of the air conditioner both numbs loneliness and exaggerates it. But when you step outside—you can barely see at first—the sun is so bright. The whole sky is against you. Little by little, you can feel the air around you. You spot an animal diving under a rock for shelter. You cannot leave your cave in the desert without feeling that you are on some kind of quest.

In contrast to Sister’s intense and frightening moment with a venomous snake in the harsh sun, I gave the woman Sister leaves in the hotel room darkness and quiet. She is “wrapped in sky, blue sheets” but is in a “dark room,” and she has “the / look of our first mother” (again referring to the first woman in the creation myth) both “loving and / astonished.” The first woman has become “mother,” a far more personal description, and there is a sense of inheritance: with love comes pain.

 

Sister Nun Faces A Sidewinder 

Sister would say that she had lived
a lonely life, if pressed now in
this chain motel parking lot.
Scales as bright as her own
bald head. The cacti, fuzzy and
soft from a distance, wave
at the cars, taking them
for suns.

If she said she was only alone
when she asked to be, that, too,
would be true, but today she faces
a sidewinder, and she stills
like red rock.

* * *

Here’s a little known fact: Women
were created by accident. As
dinosaurs lay dying, giving up
on their offspring, lightning
struck a stone, and a giant
woman appeared. Her physical sight
was slight at first, and she hopped
around lava and ducked
from Pterodactyls on
gut alone.

She nursed baby Brontos when
their mothers passed. Held their
long necks gently across her
lap. But soon, the comets made them
so sad that they lifted their big, baby
legs into tar pits, and positioned themselves
to the sun.

The woman painted her body with wet
sand and opened her eyes for
the first time as she sank
into the salty Earth, and
waited.

* * *

Sister has learned to wait.
And as the snake finally returns to
her cold nest, Sister thinks of the
woman she left this morning, wrapped
in sky, blue sheets, her naked body
heated in the dark room, and with the
look of our first mother, loving and
astonished.

Sister Wolf

Sister Nun is a character who suffers, as most people do, from the pain of duality. Sequestering herself from the world does not heal her broken heart; rather, living in the convent exasperates it. She must strike out, dramatically, in order to hunt for the connection she craves. It is by leaving seclusion that Sister finds connection with herself, and in doing so, reconciles her inner diversities. She longs for others but often prefers to be alone. She wants to understand the universe but enjoys mystery. She loves both men and women. Later in the book, we learn that she is also a werewolf.

Sister Nun often uses the surreal as a lens through which to understand life’s realities differently. In the case of “Werewolf,” the reader can immediately understand Sister’s duality, on one level. Werewolves are usually portrayed as humans who can (or are cursed to) turn into wolves or wolf-type creatures. Many tales portray werewolves as tortured: they turn into grizzly beasts against their will and become conscious again only after it’s too late, their wild instincts already satiated. However, I wanted Sister Nun to accept this transformation, especially since she is in the process of finding peace with her dualities.

In the first stanza, the speaker reveals a dark incident from Sister’s past. She becomes a werewolf after someone “pierced her back with dirty / claws, infecting her with the urge.” There is an idea of transference, that someone else’s “dirty claws” can change another person’s future. However, “Sister Nun does not mind that / she’s a werewolf. It doesn’t / bother her” to think of how she became one. At the end of this stanza, the speaker vaguely refers to the affect of the “infection” as “the / urge.”

In the next stanza, “Dogs bark at the night, prepare / for Sister’s visit.” It is unclear for what they need to prepare, but when Sister arrives, she “gnaws their / bones, humps the women, and makes everyone laugh.” In this stanza, I contrast the images that could be taken as aggression (“gnaws their / bones, humps the women”) with the fact that she “makes everyone laugh.” Everyone is included in the good time, and although the previous two images are wild in nature, the dogs and she are having fun.

The final stanza deals with Sister’s interaction with humans. The first few lines contrast her easy, natural relationship with other canines with the violent and fearful reaction she receives from other humans: “But not everybody likes Sister / Wolf.” Here, part of Sister’s name even changes from “Nun,” a distinctly human calling, to “Wolf.” Although it’s still capitalized, the name change reveals the shift from her connection to canines to her conflict with humans. These humans “grab their / rifles or, in a pinch, chuck / silver bangles at her and / shriek.” The beginning of these lines sound aggressive: they are willing to shoot Sister Wolf, but the narrative quickly devolves as their reactions become rather silly. The silver bangles refer, of course, to the myth that you can kill a werewolf with a silver bullet. However, they are throwing jewelry and shrieking, in what sounds like a pitiful attempt to keep her at bay.

Sister’s reaction is a mixture of aggression and pleasure; she “growls” and “laughs.” One gets the sense that her aggression is playful and that she is not afraid of the humans’ attempts to end her. In the morning, she “wakes nude / and adorned until the next / bald moon pulls / her like a riptide.” Rather than the traumatic wake up call that most werewolves experience in folklore, I wanted Sister’s “day after” to feel like waking from a dream where she felt beautiful and happy. The “bald moon” both refers to the moon’s fullness and references Sister’s head. (Sister had joined a Buddhist convent but kept her head shaved, even after she had left.)

The final lines “pulls her / like a riptide,” in one sense, shows that she is not completely autonomous. She is still pulled in by nature, but when she is part of nature, she also finds freedom.

“Werewolf”

Werewolf

Sister Nun does not mind that
she’s a werewolf. It doesn’t
bother her to think of the night
he pierced her back with dirty
claws, infecting her with the
urge.

Dogs bark at the night, prepare
for Sister’s visit. She gnaws their
bones, humps the women, and makes
everyone laugh.

But not everybody likes Sister
Wolf. The humans grab their
rifles or, in a pinch, chuck
silver bangles at her and
shriek. Sister growls,
laughs, and wakes nude
and adorned until the next
bald moon pulls her like a
riptide.

Photo Credit: Christian Hughes
http://www.christianhouge.no/Shadow-Within

Bitch!

Today’s blog post is a writing invitation! Follow me, won’t you, down memory lane? In one graduate course I took during my MA program, our professor assigned us a recitation. Here is a conversation we had on the day mine was due:

Professor: Shanti, are you ready for your recitation?

Me: Yes.

Professor: What poem will you recite?

Me: “Bitch.”

Professor: Shanti!

“Bitch” by Carolyn Kizer was one of my favorite poems in graduate school. The dramatic situation (or plot of the poem) involves a woman who runs into her ex and remains calm and affable to him. However, she internally experiences an array of emotions, triggered by his appearance. Kizer anthropomorphizes her speaker’s internal feelings by manifesting them as a dog, or the speaker’s inner “bitch.” Here, I’ll read it for you; I cannot recite it anymore since my memory’s gone to sh*t:

What are my favorite parts of this poem? I like the contrast in the speaker’s tone of voice and the emotional reaction of the bitch: “My voice says, ‘Nice to see you,’ / As the bitch starts to bark hysterically.” I also like the range of emotions the bitch experiences. She first reacts to the ex aggressively, and the speaker has to remind her that “He isn’t an enemy now,” but later, “At a kind word from him, a look like the old days, / The bitch changes her tone; she begins to whimper. / She wants to snuggle up to him, to cringe.” At this point, the speaker and the bitch switch stances, as the speaker disciplines: “Down, girl! Keep your distance / Or I’ll give you a taste of the choke-chain. / ‘Fine, I’m just fine,’ I tell him.”

In the next several lines, the speaker explains that “she remembers how she came running / Each evening, when she heard his step; / How she lay at his feet and looked up adoringly.” Despite her devotion, “he was absorbed in his paper” but “the small careless kindnesses / When he’d had a good day, or a couple of drinks / …seem more important / Than the casual cruelties, the ultimate dismissal,” and the speaker must drag the bitch by the scruff “Saying, ‘Goodbye! Goodbye! Nice to have seen you again.’” The speaker’s desire to maintain dignity dominates over the bitch’s desire for the ex. Here, the bitch could really represent the id or a child, wanting this man despite the knowledge of his bad behavior. The speaker has the difficult task of tightening the reigns and escaping, while she still has control.

For the last three years, I have lived with dogs, and although they praise me each morning as if I were the rising sun, they are technically my wife’s dogs. I have lived with my eighteen year old cat (Mouse) for fourteen years. She is very much like a dog, which I hear is typical of the Maine Coon breed. Although she usually resembles royalty, greeting “her” guests as they enter “her” home, she does bestow special blessings on or warnings about some who cross her path. One memorable time she did the latter was when someone I felt “iffy” about came over. Mouse looked up at this person, then looked at me in disbelief (how could I let this disturbance into her home?) and began running around the living room, racing-track style. And although she has never once intentionally hurt me through scratching or biting (even when I’ve had the unfortunate task of bathing her) she ran right up to me, gave me a surprised look, and bit my hand. She pivoted and bolted down the hallway, fluffy tail a blur. I felt as though she had expressed, “You’ve been warned. Do what you will—I’m out!” She has also approved of people, sometimes placing a paw on their shoulder and giving me a knowing look.

11110799_10153297516327474_5155730610732884282_o
Mouse Cat Weiland

I actually didn’t have Mouse when I recited “Bitch,” back in grad school, but I sometimes think of this poem when I see her manifest the good and the bad of what I already know but won’t say or admit.

So, here’s your writing invitation: Write a poem that anthropomorphizes an inner insecurity or a set of mixed emotions. Please share in the comments below. No need to be shy; we’re all friendly here!

 

Photo Credit: https://www.etftrends.com/2017/03/are-parts-of-wall-street-being-two-faced/

Our Mothers

In preparation for America’s Next Top Model, I used to cook a giant bowl of pasta and toast a  hunk of garlic bread. A neighbor came over one evening, which happened to be the night of the season premiere, and was surprised when I shushed him. I usually turn off the television / phone / computer—or whatever technological distraction—when someone visits. He sipped his drink and watched as the models cried about their new haircuts, their weight, their tight, pointy shoes.

“Why do you watch this show?” my friend asked.

“Shhh,” I said. It was time for their close-ups.

Here’s why I liked ANTM: it reminded me of writing poetry. Bear with me. The best models possessed both technique (knowing how to angle their bodies into “good lighting,” for example) and an ability to relinquish control. Many of the models were criticized for looking “too posed.” In poetry, the writer must “find the good lighting” through word choice, line break, and punctuation. However, if the writer cannot let the poem grow organically, it feels too manicured, and the reader is left wishing for the poem’s heart to beat.

I like the way Lu Chi describes the relationship between technique and intellectual depth, in The Art of Writing:

“While the language may be lovely
and the reasoning just,

the ideas themselves
may prove trivial.”

I don’t think there’s intellectual depth in modeling. In fact, in cycle 1, the best model of the group (Elise Sewell) got “eliminated” because she responded to the question “What makes a woman sexy?”  by discussing the correlation between estrogen in the womb and desired “feminine” features. To this response, the judges reacted with some version of “Oh, you’re smart, huh? Do you think you’re better than us?” (By the way, if you ever feel like hearing a good, expletive-laden rant, I highly suggest listening to Elise go off about the “wasteful” people around her.) Intellect appears absent, and even shunned, from ANTM. However, in order to produce interesting photographs, the young models must contort their bodies in uncomfortable clothing (or no clothing at all) whilst dropping their emotional guards. I was always impressed by the ones who could do it. To lower one’s shields, one must know she has them and what triggers them. Likewise, the life force of a poem, which I believe is emotion, can only be allowed, never forced. While there is, of course, a place for intellect in a poem (but perhaps not in modeling) without a certain surrender, the poem can sound stiff or “too posed.”

Another theme that I noticed in ANTM was the influence of mothers. Tyra enjoyed discussing her mother’s support and love, and she frequently told the girls how sacred their own mothers were, which I always thought was rather naive. Some of the young models even talked about their broken relationships with their abusive mothers, but Tyra relentlessly conjured the mother figure image, either from her own personal narratives or from the memories she evoked from the young models.

It is through these two lenses—the marriage of form and intuition, and the pervasive presence of the mother, that I wrote the poem, “Our Mothers.”

In the first stanza, the speaker describes the youth of the models. Their “blooming faces” and “Tightly-knit / skin that won’t be missed till / worries stick like flour to the dough” indicates both an innocence and a certainty of future worries. The second stanza switches to a  memory of the speaker’s mother, who’s skin is both vampiric (an image that conjures darkness) and without wrinkles (which reminds the reader of the young models in the first stanza). However, the reader also learns that the mother’s skin is young-looking only because she rarely leaves her dark bedroom and that she also has a pill habit. The speaker remembers handing “her bottles like / spices to a master chef,” which references another reality show, Master Chef.

In the third stanza, the speaker discusses the success of the models who don’t rely on their natural physical beauty but rather, allow themselves to be vulnerable:

“On Top Model, the girls who give up
their pretty bones, that which they’ve
relied on their entire short lives, stare
ugly into the lens. The forgotten
loneliness, a soft rage that burns,
looks back at them like
a friend from long ago.”

The speaker romanticizes modeling, indicating that opening emotionally for a photograph can somehow connect the model to her true self, dark as it may be. The models stare “ugly into the lens,” which seems to have been a strange trend in fashion for at least the last twenty years. (On a side note, I got married earlier this year and was surprised to see that even the some of the women modeling beautiful wedding gowns seemed fairly pissed off about it.)

The fourth and fifth stanzas return to the mother. In the fourth stanza, the reader learns that the drug addiction has gotten worse and that the mother is homeless and alone and possibly hearing voices:

“Alone in her car, where my mother
sleeps every kind of night. Only
her voices listen now, though I try
as if the Milky Way is a sparkled
highway that sags under the weight
of our messages, piled star after star
till it breaks the night.”

The speaker wants to connect with the mother, but it proves as impossible as using the Milky Way as a medium of communication. In the fifth stanza, the speaker  again describes her mother as physically youthful: “My immortal mother only now / begins to silver against the black.” The speaker then imagines her as a contestant on ANTM: “Her long, stringy hair would get / chopped on Top Model, razored / to highlight her cheek bones, / centered, even in her sixties.”

The last stanza focuses on the vulnerability of the models: “The models bend like baby / dolls in vintage, ruffled skirts. / The foreign girl gets sacked. / Back to Europe with her chic, / bald head.” The girls pose like baby dolls, which makes them look childlike and susceptible to that strange hue of misogyny that asks grown women to remain infantile. The foreign model is far from home, and using the word “sacked” reveals the harshness of the reality show’s environment. Upon her dismissal, and in the final stanza, “Everyone is crying / and partly wishing it were / them, far away and alone.” In the final two lines, the speaker connects with the models: “like me. Thinking / of our mothers.” The last few lines take the momentum of two narratives (the models’ competition and the speaker’s trouble with her mother) and create a scene of mixed emotion and contrast. The models presumably want to win the contest but also “partly” wish they were going home, and the speaker finds connection and meaning from a show that centers around arbitrary achievements.

“Our Mothers” first appeared in Two Cities Review, Issue 5, Spring 2015

Our Mothers 

On America’s Next Top Model,
blooming faces march
down the runway. Tightly-knit
skin that won’t be missed till
worries stick like flour to the dough.

I think of my mother’s vampiric skin, without
crease for the years she spent self-penned
in a dark and air-conditioned room, delegating
her pill habit. One by one, from the floor
beside her bed, I handed her bottles like
spices to a master chef.

On Top Model, the girls who give up
their pretty bones, that which they’ve
relied on their entire short lives, stare
ugly into the lens. The forgotten
loneliness, a soft rage that burns,
looks back at them like
a friend from long ago.

Alone in her car, where my mother
sleeps every kind of night. Only
her voices listen now, though I try
as if the Milky Way is a sparkled
highway that sags under the weight
of our messages, piled star after star
till it breaks the night.

My immortal mother only now
begins to silver against the black.
Her long, stringy hair would get
chopped on Top Model, razored
to highlight her cheek bones,
centered, even in her sixties.

The models bend like baby
dolls in vintage, ruffled skirts.
The foreign girl gets sacked.
Back to Europe with her chic,
bald head. Everyone is crying
and partly wishing it were
them, far away and alone,
like me. Thinking
of our mothers.

High School Never Ends or Why Poets Hate the Question “Did that really happen?”

Before I talk about my poem, “Dormant Trigger,” I’ll tell you why poets usually don’t like to be asked if the poem they wrote “really happened.” Imagine the following scene on any typical talk show of the 80s or 90s: A guest discusses her drug problem and reveals that she’s pregnant for the third time, with yet another man’s child—but wait—she isn’t sure which gentleman is the father, and she has also gambled away her grandmother’s retirement fund. “Boo!” yells the audience. “This lady’s got problems!” Then, one audience member gets the attention of the host who bounces up the stairs and pops the microphone in front of the guest’s face. “Do you have something to say to our guest?” “Yes, I do [insert host’s name].” She turns her judgmental gaze to the troubled guest and blurts out “You have low self-esteem!” She wags her finger and the audience cheers.

Why do I bring up this talk show / timeless example of public shaming? Of course, the woman has low self esteem. Good grief. She also probably suffers from addiction, possible mental health issues, and it doesn’t sound as though she’s been afforded many opportunities in life. It is irritating a) that someone dumbed down her troubled life to rival some pseudo psych article you might read in Glamour Magazine, and b) it’s beside the point. Up on that stage is an actual human being with complexities. Most likely she feels for her children. She has hopes for them, even if her ability to take good care of them is inhibited by her current state of mental health. Who was she as a child? How was she treated? What did she learn about relationships? about herself? about her body? about men? If a poet were going to write about her, these are some of the questions the poet might ask even before putting pen to paper.

How could poets know the answers to these questions? Unless they can research or interview the woman, they’ll probably have to guess. Nearly all poets create speakers and dramatic situations for their poems that are, in some way, reflections of their own experiences. If a poet writes about the woman on the talk show, does that mean that she, too, has a drug problem? Maybe, maybe  not, but she may know what it feels like to be confused or betrayed or ashamed.

For these reasons, it is always best not to ask the poet if the poem is autobiographical. If it did “really happen,” then you are probably in for an awkward, if not depressing, conversation—and believe me, you do not want the poets getting depressed on you! Also, the poet took time to give the speaker depth and grace. It is much more interesting and enriching to honor that speaker as her own person, rather than trying to match her personality to the poet’s. Finally, it’s complicated. One might answer the question “Did this really happen?” with a question: “Which part do you mean?” Of course, this conversation quickly becomes tedious. Maybe the poet does have a drug problem but doesn’t have any kids. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Poems want to stand on their own, uninhibited by their creators.

Now that I’ve explained why poets don’t like to be asked if the subject of a poem actually happened to them, I will tell you that “Dormant Trigger” is about something that actually happened to me! And no, before anyone asks, it didn’t happen at the university that I teach at now. Despite the fact that it “really happened,” I’m still going to discuss the poem in terms of speaker and dramatic situation as to keep the focus on the poem rather than on the mean girls. Here’s the story:

I’ve always appreciated my dad’s honesty, even when I was younger. When I came home one day, frustrated with the casual cruelty of teenagers, I asked my dad if things get better after high school. His face slightly twisted into a tentative grimace. “Not really,” he said. “People act like that even when they’re old. They just get slightly more sophisticated about it.” Unfortunately, I have found that he is right. “Dormant Trigger” is a poem about such behavior, later in life. I think it’s funny that this experience happened after a faculty meeting. Much of our young lives are spent in school, and it seems that that’s where much of the bullying occurs. Well, apparently, teachers are not immune!

In the first stanza, the speaker directly addresses “you and your friends” who “laughed and mocked” the speaker. It is not until the third line, that the reader learns that the speaker (as well as the ones mocking her) is a teacher. The poem then shifts out of the moment and into a memory. We’re not sure, at this point, how the speaker feels about the other faculty members. Rather, she thinks of Stephanie, a girl from high school whom the speaker remembers as more beautiful than her but also as unkind. She reveals that the only reason she spoke to Stephanie was because of an unnamed “kindness…despite / the countless times she smoothed lotion / over her jail bait legs, longer, slimmer, than / mine.” In these lines, the reader can visualize Stephanie’s appearance as beautiful, but there’s also an edge to it. She has “jail bait legs” that she “smoothed lotion / over,” indicating that she understands her sexuality and power. The reader also imagines her as supernatural. She makes “that silent / whistle only teenage sirens possess” to rouse her group of girlfriends to “feed on the weak” (presumably the speaker).

In the second stanza, the reader is back in the present moment of the poem: “Restraint: Outside the faculty room, I wanted / to fling on you all the glares and inside jokes / (at my expense) from gym class. To claw / your pretty, straight hair and make you feel / like a pimple-faced idiot, naked / in the shower room.” The speaker holds back her urge to retaliate. She feels transported back to adolescence and can only think to respond as she wishes she could have, when she was young and bullied.

In the third stanza, the speaker uses the word “escaped” to describe how she leaves “without taking / your poise with me.” One gets the sense that it was all she could do to hold herself back as she walks away from her colleagues. However, the tone shifts quickly as she then begins to wonder “who Stephanie might have married, / what job she took. Were her thighs / still firm; did her friends still serve / as her beautiful, clear-faced watch dogs?” The speaker’s musings sound realistic at first; Stephanie very well may have gotten married and she most likely has a job. However, the reader can see the hold Stephanie still has on the speaker, as the questions begin to imply that life could remain stagnant, that Stephanie hasn’t aged and that her girlfriends still swarm around her, “protecting” her from less popular kids.

The concluding lines offer a reflection on pain:

“What I remembered then, is that inflicting pain
is a prayer. Like tattooing
Don’t look at me across your throat:
you want what you give.”

Often times, a line break can add an element of surprise. The first line break in this passage creates a slight pause before “is a prayer,” an action one does not usually associate with “inflicting pain.” The next image takes the reader completely out of the school setting. I’ve always found it strange when someone dresses or makes up her / himself to be noticed but then, gets angry at the attention. It’s an interesting game. The last lines emphasize the contrast between intention and reaction: “Like tattooing / Don’t look at me across your throat:”

The last line reveals a complexity in human desire. Perhaps people who are combative don’t precisely want arguments but rather to feel passion from someone. With this idea in mind, I ended the poem with “you want what you give,” which leaves the reader to reconsider some human behaviors.

“Dormant Trigger” was Issue 9’s Poetry Contest Winner in Bop Dead City, December 2014.

Dormant Trigger

When you and your friends
laughed and mocked me after our
faculty meeting, I thought
of Stephanie, a beautiful, skinny
9th grader whose one moment
of kindness kept me
speaking to her, despite
the countless times she smoothed lotion
over her jail bait legs, longer, slimmer, than
mine, as she made that silent
whistle only teenage sirens possess,
alerting the other girls it was time
to feed on the weak.

When I escaped, without taking
your poise with me, I wondered
who Stephanie might have married,
what job she took. Were her thighs
still firm; did her friends still serve
as her beautiful, clear-faced watch dogs?

What I remembered then, is that inflicting pain
is a prayer. Like tattooing
Don’t look at me across your throat:
you want what you give.

On “Crack Jenny’s Teacup” By Kate Garrett

When I came across the phrase “crack Jenny’s teacup,” on Talk Like a Pirate Day many years ago, a course was set that would reach its destination in a poem of the same name, and finally a chapbook named after a line in said poem. The phrase means, quite simply, to visit a brothel, and it got me thinking—pirates and sex workers in historical and fantasy fiction are often united in the popular imagination. Even the ever-family-oriented Disney have always included a few in their Pirates of the Caribbean films. Historically, it’s accurate—I realize this, not only in stumbling across the phrase “crack Jenny’s teacup,” but because famous female pirate Anne Bonny, it is said, was close friends with a bisexual man who also happened to be a brothel owner.

Learning about Anne Bonny’s friend led me round another spiral of thought: the many examples of queerness and empowered women in the world of historical pirates. (I was already pirate-obsessed, but more reasons to adore them are always welcome.) Anne Bonny’s crewmate Mary Read lived parts of her life as Mark Read, with male pronouns, and was equally happy being Mary with female pronouns. As well as being genderfluid, Mary was possibly also bisexual, and I know of at least one history book written entirely about gay male pirates. Buccaneer Jacquotte Delahaye also lived as a man for a time. After Jacquotte came “back from the dead,” a woman again, she refused to marry or have a relationship at all, because she didn’t think any power balance in that situation would be fair to either partner, and she was more concerned with providing for her disabled brother (which is why she was a pirate in the first place). Empowered women, ahoy.

With all of this in mind, my first port of call was thinking of a way to reclaim the phrase “crack Jenny’s teacup.” I mean, it sounds rough, crude, a bit disrespectful—all the things you’d expect from nautical slang regarding this popular shore leave activity, really. But what if the pirate visiting was also a woman? And what if the two women, both outsiders by profession in a very ‘masculine’ world, were actually in love, in a committed relationship, so bringing a further layer of separation between themselves and the men around them, and between the human beings and the jobs? After all, we speak of so many people in history as if they were only their title or profession: kings, queens, knights, cowboys, outlaws, highwaymen – pirates. I wanted to find the people behind the stereotypes this time, even if in this poem they are fictional. And the people I found were two women completely dedicated to each other.

It would’ve been all too easy to make the sex worker an observed character, to have given the speaking power to the woman in the traditionally masculine job, so I made her the narrator instead of her pirate lover. Both women stand up to the “final customer” of the evening: the speaker “shoos” him away, and when he starts to get lippy through familiarity with the speaker, her girlfriend shoots him a look and he leaves. And when, in the wee hours, our narrator is off duty, she and her lover can spend a rare night together while the latter’s ship is docked. Behind closed doors and underneath her sailor’s clothing, our lady pirate loosens “her hair and her smile,” and there is another side to her, which our narrator adores just as much as the dashing rogue: “I love her when she’s soft, or when she’s hard.”

When I started reading this poem at events, I was surprised to discover it chokes me up, and I have to read it through tears–particularly the last stanza: “now she wakes: deadly, delicate” and “but I lose her each time / to breeches, boots, and ship.” I’ve never been a pirate or a sex worker. The characters in this poem are fictional, but I can feel the narrator’s sadness as she remembers the inevitable separation from her girlfriend, because that’s something any person who’s ever loved another can understand. Pirates might be thieves, even murderers, and certainly they were terrors at sea, but that’s just it—they lived their life at sea. If any of them did have a loved one, they would be away from them for long periods of time as much as any Royal Navy sailor. And why would a pirate not have a loved one? They’re still people. Even Blackbeard had a wife.

“Crack Jenny’s Teacup” was first published at Melancholy Hyperbole, and is included in Kate’s tiny chapbook of historical pirate poems Deadly, Delicate.

Kate Garrett

Kate Garrett’s poetry has been widely published in online and print journals, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and longlisted for a 2016 Saboteur Award (in pamphlet form). However, while her poetry is busy doing stuff, Kate bums around reading books and hanging out with her husband, children, and cat in Sheffield, England. (Okay, okay, she also edits at Three Drops from a Cauldron / Three Drops Press, and Picaroon Poetry.)  Stalk her on Twitter (@mskateybelle), Instagram (also @mskateybelle), and Facebook (facebook.com/kategarrettwrites).

Featured Image: http://lesluv.deviantart.com/art/Anne-Bonny-Black-Sails-437042617

Wading into the Sea Change –by James H. Duncan

I sometimes contemplate whether or not it was wrong of me to think, upon discovering I had cancer, “I don’t want to be a cancer poet.” Please understand I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a poet exploring that experience, especially when it’s their experience, but there’s a fear of being boxed in that comes with writing about this new life. There’s a worry that this disease will overwhelm the creative desires and processes and narrow the vision.

I’ve made an effort to write about as broad a life as possible, but fighting against the sea change was a losing cause, as cancer will eat away at your existence in constant, subtle (and not so subtle) ways, just as it will your body. As such, I began noticing the details of this new life coming to the fore and calling for attention. So I gave it, and I found that writing about those details, rather than the overwhelming fears that came with this harrowing journey, comforting, rewarding even.

One of the details I noticed, repeatedly and quite hauntingly, was the empty waiting room. This limbo territory I found in doctors’ offices, hospitals, and labs became a fascination. Sometimes, they weren’t empty, but even the small groups, couples, or individuals felt remote from one another—separate tribes wandering a strange land, quiet and wary of what came next. When empty, the rooms were still littered with the detritus of those who came before and moved on, and for all we knew, may never return. How many people have read that Time or Elle? How many children that Highlights magazine? Who else has tapped on the tank of lethargic fish gurgling out an existence in the window overlooking Madison and 53rd Street? The song playing overhead from dusty speakers embedded into drop-ceilings, who else heard that muffled tune and didn’t realize that maybe it was the last song they’d ever hear?

Details like these made the experience not one of being “a cancer patient” but of being a human working through a homogenous system of rooms and regulations, of dulled grays and beiges meant to comfort but somehow dehumanizing the movement from healthy to dead, or at least being lost somewhere in between. I suppose it does circle back to some of the great fears we have, the core human emotions—loneliness and the uncertainty of what lies behind that final door. It’s something we can only know for sure once we’ve walked through it, our final appointment with the last grim doctor any of us will ever see.

Out of this experience came the poem, “Last Appointment of the Day,” which appeared in Kleft Jaw #4 and is slated to appear in my upcoming chapbook We Are All Terminal But This Exit Is Mine. I hope you enjoy the poem, or at least, can relate to it. Then again, perhaps it’s for the better if you can’t and never will. If only.

For the audio version, click here or below.

Last Appointment of the Day

across the table where picture books and
children’s magazines wait for small hands,
across the green carpet where plastic cars
and wooden jigsaw puzzles lie patiently

for children who may never return

there is a fish tank, the saddest looking pit
of gloom ever, dark as a thunderhead
in tornado alley, listless fish waiting
on death, floating nowhere in the murk

there’s a scream in my mind but there’s
no sound, like a horror film on mute,
internal and forever, and all these
empty chairs surrounding me

the receptionist calls out my name
so I get up and go inside while music plays
from somewhere overhead
as they shut the door behind me

James Duncan

James H Duncan is the editor of Hobo Camp Review, a former editor with Writer’s Digest, and is the author of What Lies In Wait, Berlin, Dead City Jazz, and other collections of poetry and short fiction. His work has appeared in American Artist, Up The Staircase, 3:AM Magazine, Boned, and Poetry Salzburg Review, among other journals. He resides in upstate New York. For more visit www.jameshduncan.com.

Photo Credit: the dark door by adamy on deviantart
http://pezcame.com/ZGFyayBkb29y/