Vampire Connoisseur

During the summer following my Ph.D. graduation, my friend, PJ Underwood, lent me every single season of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel series on DVD. It was just what I needed! Although I was still surfing the momentum of graduate school—teaching three summer school classes and writing more than I ever had before—I suddenly enjoyed more free time. I gazed at the brightly lit box with awe, as I sat, for the first time in years, and actually watched television shows instead of just occasionally hearing it in the background, while I busily edited my essays or graded student quizzes. I loved Buffy and her adventures. I loved the show’s irony and its quirky winks at the audience. I incorporated the show into my dreams, where I dated Spike and reincarnated as a vengeance demon.

I do not purport to be a true vampire connoisseur, but I can hold my own in a conversation about vampire narratives. Aside from the fact that Buffy was a good show, perhaps one part of it that struck me at the time was the notion of actually having time. The vampires (and some of the demons) perpetually had their “whole lives ahead of them,” (unless they met the unfortunate end of a stake). I had time, too. I had finished my Ph.D. program at 30 years old and was just starting out in life (by academic standards anyway). I suddenly had the time to participate in indulgent activities, like making bread from scratch and flat-ironing my hair.

What do I like about immortality on Buffy and Angel? Well, first of all, the majority of the vampires are young and hot. They get vamped when they’re in their prime, none of this Claudia bullshit from Interview with the Vampire—forever stuck in a child’s body. Also, none of that other nonsense on True Blood where poor Eddie Gautier has to live his potential eternal life in his middle-aged body, unable even to glamor anyone; and poor Jessica Hamby, turned before her first romance and doomed forever to regenerate her virginity. How dreadful!

Vampires on Buffy can’t see themselves in the mirror, so what does it matter? It does matter, though. If I were immortal, I’d definitely want to fight crime, and on television, fighting crime is best done in a leather catsuit. What? Also, I’d want some immortal pals. I can’t even imagine how people would function, knowing that everyone around them will inevitably die and leave them behind.

There’s one part of immortality that has always bothered me, though (in addition to my True Blood anxiety of living in an utterly stagnant body) and that’s the fact that Earth’s just not that big. How long before one gets bored of the seasons, of people, of this kind of life? I am reminded of an episode of The X-Files (“Tithonus”) when the agents go after a man they believe is a serial killer who photographs his victims. Turns out, the poor guy just can’t die. He’s 149 years old and was meant to die from yellow fever but refused to look Death in the eye, so Death took his nurse instead. (That wily Death! Nurses just get it from everyone, don’t they?) Anyway, there’s a scene where he’s explaining to Scully how long he’s lived and that it’s no life at all. He claims that even love doesn’t last long, maybe “75 years, if you’re lucky. You don’t want to be around when it’s gone.” He tells Scully that he had to look up the name of his wife, one hundred years after she died. It bothered him that he couldn’t remember it.

I think that he’s probably right. This planet is cyclical in nature, and really, how many times do you want to go around it? In my poem, “Immortality,” I let Sister Nun live two lives. In the first, she gets to live out her fantasy of living in the flesh forever with “a band of immortals.” I let all of them keep their beauty and youth, but I give their bodies more flexibility, sometimes changing colors or sprouting wings. Her second life begins when the pain and burdens of living overwhelm her. However, although she is not in the flesh, she gets to see the world through the eyes of the living. In this way, she maintains her immortality but without the painful attachments of corporeal life.

For the audio version, click here or below.

Immortality

When things go
well, Sister wants
to live forever like
a superhero with a
band of immortals
who crawl all over
buildings helping
people out.

When the world is
over, they fire
marshmallows in a
red cave and remember
old loves who
died again and again
throughout the centuries.
Their own beautiful,
permanent youth, changed
a hundred times over,
glittering pink some days,
opaque and withholding on
others. Wings at times,
that which separates them
from the larger pack. Lean
muscle, recognizable to
those who study
immortality or the history
of friendship.

Other times, agony’s familiar
noose, a corrective sinner’s
flog, Sister longs
to change back to
energy. Watch the
story through the eyes of
everyone else. Blissfully
detached, and a gentle voice,
asking, Do you like it
here?

Featured Image: Viago from What We Do In The Shadows https://indieethos.wordpress.com/2015/03/05/what-we-do-in-the-shadows/

The Virgins Are All Trimming Their Wicks

Years ago, I lived in Hattiesburg, MS, when Hurricane Katrina ripped her way through the south. Of course, the destruction took its toll on everyone, physically and emotionally. The beginning of  fall semester was postponed. We picked up branches, donated water, and waited for the lights to come back on. When people were able to attempt their normal routines once more, I noticed a curious personal aftermath. I witnessed three marriages begin to break in half just weeks after the storm. Long-kept secrets were revealed, voluntarily and with haste. Affairs, grudges, surreptitious pregnancies were handed out like new playing cards, their recipients told to deal. It was as if the lack of electricity, that constant humming that allows us all to endlessly distract ourselves, suddenly gave way to the urgent need to purge dishonesties. Luckily, I guess, I was single at the time and did not experience any personal revelations, and aside from finishing my Ph.D. a few months before the hurricane, had not really experienced an emotionally eventful year.

I wrote the poem, “Virginity,” during the summer of 2011, a couple months after the tornado in Tuscaloosa, AL. That year had, in fact, felt like nothing but emotional events. I will spare you the details of a romantic relationship gone bad and a friend’s betrayal (insert soap opera soundtrack). As I was writing notes for my poem, I found myself interested in vulnerability. I was bothered by the fact that some people have the heart to mess with those who cannot defend themselves or are not in the shape even to know that they are being manipulated. Then, for some reason, a comedic example of such a scenario popped into my head: cow tipping! I am a city girl but did my undergraduate work at the University of California, Davis, which has a well known agricultural program. It was there that I learned about cow tipping. I was told that you just rush up to a cow and tip her over. Yeah, I know. It befuddles me to this day.

And so, I changed the tone of my poem by discussing cow tipping rather than dark, vague feelings about betrayal that I couldn’t quite articulate anyway. This poem is included in my book Sister Nun and fits into her narrative. She is pushed forward by forces that are not in her control but also rooted in a past that is gone forever.  At the end of the poem, I didn’t have the heart to let the kids knock over the cow. I just let her dream of her happy past! You’ll notice, in the second stanza, there is a reference to eastern philosophy. The idea of the lotus, in Hinduism and Buddhism, is that it floats on a muddy pond but remains pure and white. It symbolizes the idea that one can attain enlightenment but still remain in a world of darkness, without sinking into it.

That feat is easier said than done, of course, and “Virginity” explores the idea that such purity can be easily muddied, even by a group of ornery teenagers, at least in the case of this cow.

(For the audio version of this poem, click here or below.)

Virginity

Virginity is a fragile
canoe. Metaphors are
fragile, too, of course.
Sister knows this but
can’t help thinking of
powdered white cleavage
and unattractive doilies.
The absence of color and
all the colors at once. The
lotus, pure and floating on a
muddy pond. But what about
cow tipping, the irresistible
urge to knock down the
innocent? Children dressed
to match the night and in love
with love, snake through the
gold grass and up to that
old girl, mother to a dozen
calves in her lifetime, and
remembers them only
by their markings.
The hush of midnight and silence
of those trying to keep silent.
She brushes her tail against
her own leg, feels the breeze on
her hooves as she drifts from
one pattern to another, brown
with white spots…black and
brown swirls…white and
grey…white and grey.
The half moon takes root and
she dreams of soft
mooing and warm milk.
Silver cars on a distant
highway. The way
things used to be.

Featured Image: http://www.sustained.ie/news-items/food-exports-up-in-2012/attachment/close-upofcow/

Sharpen Your Knives! 

This week, I’m continuing with my “poetry introductions” and thought it appropriate to dissect my poem called “The Dissection,” which is from my recent book, Sister Nun. In the book, Sister Nun leaves the convent by the third poem (“Sister Nun Leaves the Convent”) and we know from the second poem (“Every Day, Sister Nun Chops Wood”) that she is not religious. However, throughout the book, Sister is influenced by her time in the Buddhist convent and by Buddhism itself. One prevalent idea in Buddhism (and in many Eastern religions) is omniscience—knowing all, feeling all, seeing all. Often such a state is thought to be a byproduct of enlightenment or to be the state of enlightenment itself.

One summer day, I was at happy hour on a restaurant patio. My drinking companion had gone inside to get another cocktail, and I noticed a planter out of the corner of my eye that held a thick-stalked plant. The rhythm of the wind and the way the plant bent with the breeze made me think of arms swaying to music. I started to think about the strangeness of that image, not just the plant as arms but arms as objects, animate and autonomous from the rest of the body.

“The Dissection” is a poem that imagines omniscience as a physical state. It is not to be taken literally, of course. You cannot actually dismember a body, scatter it across the world and then expect it to continue seeing, hearing, and so forth. In addition to a surrealistic dramatic situation (that’s poet-speak for “plot”) I combined a tone of  horror and humor: the fear of separation and the absurdity of existing in a physically omniscient state. I also juxtaposed cold, detached imagery (“knives and forks” and “tubes”) with casual, humorous imagery (“tacky bath tub stickers” and “bobbles on a tourist’s wrist”). I wanted the experience of omniscience to encompass both a darkness and a lightheartedness.

Below is “The Dissection.” I hope you enjoy Sister’s enlightenment!

(For the audio version of this poem, click here or below.)

The Dissection

Sister Nun agreed to it. A small
group of women sharpened knives and
forks and other kitchen tools. They agreed
to agree:  first the legs, each one slipped into
separate tubes, no consorting. Her heart, dumped
gently into a tank, crude, with tacky
bath tub stickers. It’s how she’d always
seen it. Souvenirs in a basket at a
shop somewhere in Tahiti. Her ears and eyes—
bobbles on a tourist’s wrist. Restaurant planters
bloom with her arms: Hello! they wave
It’s springtime! In this way, Sister has forced
omniscience, twinkling hard against sunset.

Featured Image: http://www.italian-lighting-centre.co.uk

Author’s Note: I know that, today, many of us feel deeply saddened. I don’t know much about how to “fix the economy” or how to eliminate bigotry, but I do know that it’s important to allow one’s self her/his own emotions. I considered not posting my blog this week, because I feel helpless and hurt and outnumbered, but I think that it’s also important, when a person can, to keep moving forward. So today, I am going to grade my students’ papers, take Mousecat to the vet, and post this week’s The Poets That You Meet, as I had planned to do every Wednesday. Although I wrote this one a while back, I think it’s an appropriate subject for today, and I hope that our country can move toward empathy and enlightenment.

To Boldly Go…

When I was seven, I won a poetry contest. There was an awards night, and I stood at the front of the room, wearing a dress that my mother had sewn me: maroon background with a tropical fruit pattern. A politician spoke in that “these are kids, everyone!” tone that adults often use when talking about kids, in front of kids. The politician then announced something terrifying. She intended to hold a microphone in front of each award recipient, who was then to explain their work to the room of parents. For better or for worse, my surname has ensured that I will be last in nearly every line, and I tried to stay calm while I thought of something to say about my poem. I wish I had the poem now, but it is lost in time, and I can’t quite remember it. I can guarantee you that it celebrated end rhymes and that it was unreasonably cheerful. (I didn’t go poetically dark until adolescence.) As the politician bent before me and put the microphone in front of my face, I looked at her frozen smile and decided to boil it down as best I could: “It’s about the flowers and the rain,” I said. The room awww-ed and laughed, and I’m sure I did look cute. I had a bob cut and a fruit dress.

The truth is, I have never felt comfortable discussing my work. I’d rather discuss other people’s poetry. Nevertheless, at the end of every poetry reading I’ve done, people tell me that they like my introductions to my poems as much as the poetry itself. Once in a while, they say they like them better, which I try not to take personally! As a college instructor, I have noticed that my students often go a bit pale when I mention that we’ll study poetry during the semester. Some of them even get a little angry, as if I had added, “…because you’re so bad at understanding it.” I can’t blame anyone for not understanding poetry when it’s likely that no one ever taught them how. I have been teaching since August 2000 and have, over the years, received the confessions of even tenured professors: that they do not understand poetry and therefore, try to avoid teaching it.

Poems are puzzles, and perhaps that’s the first piece of information that many people never receive. No one would buy a puzzle (do people still buy puzzles?) and then return it because, when they opened the box, it was still in pieces. However, often people toss aside a poem if they can’t understand everything about it after the initial reading.

And so…in response to my fans (do poets have fans or sympathizers?) who think I should provide some introduction to what the hell my poetry means, I am starting a blog that will discuss some of my poems. Since I can’t imagine only writing about my poetry every week, I’m also going to post interviews with people who are poets, artists, filmmakers, writers, “spiritual”-types, and heretics.

I’m a firm believer that you should always begin with Star Trek. Below is a poem called, “Where No One Has Gone Before.” It’s from my book Sister Nun, which you can learn more about here. When I wrote this poem, a friend of mine had recently recommended the reboot of Battlestar Galactica (an excellent series, by the way) and said that she liked it better than Star Trek: The Next Generation because it was grittier. Characters’ wounds, physical and psychological, don’t get cleaned up and shined for the next week’s episode, she told me. These wounds dog the characters as relentlessly as Cylons. Meanwhile, on STNG, all I can say is that they must have the most AMAZING therapists in the future. Even poor Picard, who gets abducted by the Borg—the show’s most terrible enemy—and forced to destroy a number of Federation ships full of people, was pretty much all right after working out some family issues at their French vineyard. I like that possibility, and I figured that, after so much conflict and so many uncertainties, Sister Nun would like it, too.

I hope you enjoy the poem, and until next week, live long and prosper!

(For the audio version of this poem, click here or below.)

Where No One Has Gone Before

Sister would like to marry
Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the
Star Ship Enterprise and wear
high-suspended collars, brightly
lit like autumn, where all the
shames and dishonors we’ve endured
or committed, all the garish
wounds, marring the soft skin beneath
our eyes, across our scalps, the
stiffness in our arms, our lower
backs, the stars blinding us with
hope; tamed, refreshed, pressed
good as new within a day, or a
week, as clean and black as a
vacuum in space.