184 posts tagged poetry
When it’s time, the hotels of Ardmore no longer interesting
in their facades, the small bags of peanuts you used to buy
suddenly twice as big, as if someone far away, looking
out a window at a barge, had thought your appetite
was asking to be doubled, and the little girl you showed
how to affix playing cards to her spokes has gone off
to college, that school where anthrax arrived in a letter
and killed the chemistry professor whose face on TV
looked so small, like he’d been the head of a doll,
when you cried, fully and stupidly alone in your room,
literally into your hands, wiping the snot on your cat,
knowing this would set her about licking for hours, this spite
after emotion, you recognized it first when you were seventeen,
when you bit Sharon, not hard enough to break skin
but trust certainly was lost, and why, because she said
That must have been hard about military school, no longer
interesting because you’ve cataloged their moods, the different
shadows of the different cornices, the wrought-iron gate
so recently improved no longer sings when it opens, and you
should go, a whole new city, boxes of your life
staying closed, most of them, in stacks of who were you
after all, really, when it comes down to it, this collection
of how you said “shows to go you” to the magazine guy, of wearing
the apricot slippers, so have no set phrases, give your feet
a choice, I know, it’s tiring, to be new, to even try, who am I
to judge, look at me, my head shaped just like yesterday,
and this appointment with language I keep, as if eventually
a handle will appear, and the sound of me saying I’ll turn it
will be me turning it, to what, some sense of an other side,
which if you touch it first in your new home, in the away,
call me, the description, even with its holes, the torn edges
where to say a thing is to rip it, will be everything to me,
the beautiful frays.
When Bob Hicok’s poems resonate especially well with me, usually he is writing about the economy (not here; try “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down”), and/or he is descriptive and imaginative (here), not just telling you there’s neighborhood girl who should make you feel old because she’s grown now, but describing, instead, “the little girl you showed/how to affix playing cards to her spokes” and how she is no longer so little, and she “has gone off/to college, that school where anthrax arrived in a letter/and killed the chemistry professor whose face on TV/looked so small, like he’d been the head of a doll.” Talk about imagery! No ideas but in things. But Bob Hicok keeps going, describing how you didn’t just cry but you wiped your snot on the cat and she’ll have to lick it off for hours. He calls it “this spite/after emotion.” Then there are a collection of habits you’ve been holding onto, people you’ve been, such as the one wearing “apricot slippers.” And I wonder where he comes up with these images, whether they are in his life or purely his mind, and whether he could spare some poetic imagery for me, give me a transfusion of it.
But this poem resonates on another level, too, tells me about time passing and the value of change. The title is “Moving day.” Bob Hicok says that “you/should go, a whole new city, boxes of your life/staying closed.” And “so have no set phrases, give your feet/a choice, I know, it’s tiring, to be new, to even try.” And who is he to say? He’s got a “head shaped just like yesterday,” and he keeps his appointments with language, which I suppose means he puts a premium on language over change. But really, Bob Hicok thinks you can both try to reach the same transformation, whether by moving or by writing, and if you get there first, call him, “the description, even with its holes, the torn edges/where to say a thing is to rip it, will be everything to me,/the beautiful frays.” The end goal is the same: enlightenment.
So this poem has me thinking about change, about how many people are afraid to just go, to just move or try until you are pushed, because how can you make a decision if you don’t know what will happen? How can you change? And I am here to tell you that I have been on both sides: the one who leaps before looking and the one who just can’t decide. Last summer, I was riddled by indecisiveness: Should I move to New York or Chicago? Did I have enough money? Could I get a job? I didn’t believe in myself and I didn’t believe I’d make the right choice.
Sometimes you just have to choose something.
And I am here to tell you that the experiences you expect to be the easiest, the best, the happiest—I moved to Chicago last summer, I went on a study abroad to Greece two years ago—can and will be the hardest you will ever do. I was miserable in Greece, out of shape while climbing to the top of the Parthenon, sweating and heart pounding, surrounded by fit nineteen- and twenty-year-olds I didn’t understand or maybe I didn’t try to understand because I was 29, and I wondered every day why I decided to go. And as for Chicago: I lasted six months in Chicago, much of it miserable though I couldn’t cry, broke, and numb. And you could look at my bank account and the balance of my student loans and say both were a mistake, you shouldn’t have done that, you had no business going on another study abroad in Greece or moving to Chicago without a job, it wasn’t worth it. But it was.
After I came back from Greece, I went back to therapy. I started exercising. After I moved to Chicago, I realized how much I longed for trees, how moving home to Kentucky wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to me, how much I still valued reading and writing and academia above the corporate world.
It’s better not to wonder what if. It’s better to turn that handle and see what’s waiting, and if that means embarrassment and frustration and feeling like you might die, or going back to where you started, you are only proving how human you are and what the limits of your human experience are. You should wander to the edge of the borders, to see how far you can go, to test yourself. Because when you survive, when you cool down from the sweat and recover your finances and find something that makes you want to live again, you start to respect where you’ve been and how hard you’ve tried and the fact that you survived.
So this poem is telling you to turn the handle. This is your push.
Imagine having enough left
to break a bottle over it.
Listen how pretty, listen
for glass in nothing nearby
shattering, just morning birds
that do not wake whoever
is not sleeping. Come here
Little Birdie, come here.
No matter how great the gains
so many complaints hang—
The grass full of worms,
and still all that squawking,
like a couple talking and talking
about never talking. The chatter
of hunger, that gaudy red—
This poem was published in the July/August 2009 issue of Poetry. Truth time: I’m so tired from the end of the semester, I’ve scrambled to find a poem to post because I haven’t been reading anything other than freshman essays, and in my quest to find the perfect poem to post, I’ve actually found two or three that I hope to write about soon.
I was drawn to this poem because of its title, and when I first read it, I knew I liked it, but I didn’t know why. I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, but I loved the contrast and tension that pulls me deeper into the poem. As I kept reading the poem, it became obvious that it’s about the end of a relationship. There’s this sense of unease, of unhappiness, of dragging it out in the poem. This raises several questions: enough of what to break a bottle over it? Why is someone up before the birds? Who’s complaining—the birds or the couple? These questions in the mind of the reader create the tension in the poem and when I come to the end, those last few lines nail everything into place: “talking and talking/about never talking. The chatter/of hunger, that gaudy red—.” The couple in question is unhappy. They have nothing to talk about, so they talk about why they have nothing to talk about (instead of just moving on). “The chatter/of hunger” is so ambiguous because there’s the image of the birds and the worms, but there’s also this sense that the couple’s talking is that chatter and they’re both hungry for something more, but they’re not going to get it from each other.
I come to the last line in the poem, and I want to go right back to the beginning and read it again. I do love the title, and I think the title itself suggests that something’s about to change. Coincidentally, there’s a song also titled “When Big Joan Sets Up.”
Lugging of shellfish in coolers, boiling,
and bouillabaissing—summer luncheon
we had tried to give, canceling twice
when the parasite had come back to my gut,
then trying again, recurrent hope
of serving up the creatures of the shallow
deep. We joked about putting it off, but
underneath the joking, grim
and hidden, he wanted to leave me, and he was
working toward it and against it, maybe worried
he could not do it, longing for it
and fearing it, and not speaking of it, bent
over the shucked crustaceans and the finny
wanderers from the tide pools, their feelers which
had writhed their last in the home language.
It touches with a sharp, shelling touch,
still, to remember his joyless labor
in the heat, we sweated side by side three
times like a spell or a curse, until,
on Labor Day, the salmon at last
undulated out the kitchen door in its
half-slip of thin cucumber scales
on its fluted platter to the table laid with a
linen cloth under the old
trees of life. And almost no one
actually got there, at the last minute there were
sprains and flus and in-laws and flats
so the few of us there moved through the heavy
air like kids at an empty school on a holiday,
and the wasted food was like some kind of
carnage. We lived on it a week, as we’d been
living, without my seeing it,
on the broken habit of what was not lasting
love. When I remember him
at the stove, the sight pierces me
with tenderness, he was suffering, then,
as I would soon. When I see that day,
at moments I see it almost without guilt,
or with a pure, shared guilt,
or a shared cause, without fault, and there is
nothing to be done for it,
it can only be known and borne, it cannot be
turned into anything fruitful or sweet,
but just be faced, as what it was,
just be eaten, portion of flesh and salt.
Reading Sharon Olds’s newest collection, Stag’s Leap, after it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry was particularly painful for me. It’s about an affair and divorce and what’s left afterwards. And Sharon Olds writes with such honesty and kindness and generosity. I don’t know how she does it.
I’m the child of a cheating man, many times over. My father introduced me to his girlfriends when I was younger, when I was too young to really understand or maybe just too young not to trust him, and sometimes afterwards I’d help my mother look for him at the places he hung out. And I’ve been writing about it lately, trying to consider my father with the kindness Sharon Olds considers her husband. I’m not sure how to do it.
Memory “touches with a sharp, telling touch.” And I suppose I’d describe what’s left over, long after my parents divorced, as “carnage.” That’s the word Sharon Olds uses to describe a leftover banquet, which works as an extended metaphor for the end of her marriage: “and the wasted food was like some kind of/carnage. We lived on it a week, as we’d been/living, without seeing it,/on the broken habit of what was not lasting/love.”
Cheating is carnage. But just as sure as I am that cheating is carnage, I’m also sure that most people don’t take vows or get into relationships believing they’ll cheat. You cannot predict it.
And so Sharon Olds is kind to her ex-husband, kinder than I’ve been to my father: “he wanted to leave me, and he was/working toward it and against it, maybe worried/he could not do it, longing for it/and fearing it, and not speaking of it.” There’s so much tension in these lines. She doesn’t make her husband seem like a monster. Just a man, an unhappy man trying to make a change.
And by the end of the poem, even though the cheating and the divorce make a wreck of the marriage, Sharon Olds writes: “there is/nothing to be done for it,/it can only be known and borne, it cannot be/turned into anything fruitful or sweet,/but just be faced, as what it was,/just be eaten, portion of flesh and salt.”
No blame, no fault. Just acceptance. Just living through it. Salt. That’s hard to swallow.
If you want to read more about this beautiful collection that Carol Ann Duffy called “the book of [Sharon Olds’s] career,” start with the Huffington Post.
Twenty thousand songs he lived in like a self. Most ~ three minutes long—a duration—a form derived from the piano-roll. And as the sparrow sings. Twenty thousand songs gone digital (machine-ghosts), a collection excerpted from the economy of bodies except for the three minutes becoming, blaring now in my ear—as the sparrow sings—and as I cross the bridge of day: the young, enduring day within one’s own journal. Crossing the bridge of sings, and as the minutes sparrow, the close solidarity in the daily matter of facts keeps company with me and your twenty thousand selves, a durance derived from the economy of forms. I wish, sadly, as I tie my shoes, you could feel this even if only for three minutes.
Twenty thousand songs he wore like a patchwork armor—but of sound. Twenty thousand songs that sally into being then elide into the next track on the playlist, just five today, just five for the Golden Gate. And as the sparrow sings. Palms pressed against—pressing to breakthrough—this hard lake ghosted underneath the ice. Pressed against the terrible lightness of inwardness stoned on slogans such as “wish you could hear” / “love is all you need” / “cut up your friend” / “screw up your brother or he’ll get you in the end.” And as the bridge sparrows with harbor winds, and traffic rivers (with metal and plastic and half-intentions) like a wall behind him—but of motion and duration. Three minutes of form, only three more minutes derived from the piano-roll. And as day derives, as day sparrows, as the day bridges, I want to believe. I want to believe in keeping company, to believe in the solidarity of the twenty thousand machine-ghosts, to believe past when the ennui of the debt-ridden winter has shone out. But not hearing anymore.
Twenty thousand songs he rode as a beautiful vague, adrift along the three-minute becoming blaring now in my ears, blaring into seriatim. Twenty thousand songs, one on-going conversation, a form and durance derived from the economy of solidarity. And as the bridge sparrow sings with harbor winds. And as form bridges the daily matter of facts, I want to believe in the madness that calls now. Palms pressed against the railing, pressed against the drug-tired duration of days being waves. The psalm against blaring in your ears, blaring magnificent but without hope, without hope of liberation. But not hearing anymore. As being bridges / rivers /sparrows / the drug-tired and blaring day.
Twenty thousand songs, twenty thousand machine-ghosts, a collection of selves derived from the piano-roll, I lived in like a house—but of sound. And duration—as the sparrow sings—through frozen winter night work. And I want to believe in the solidarity in the economy of forms, the company of sings. I love you badly, Phantom, whose absolute brilliance assigns you to this zone. I wish, sadly, as I tie my shoes you could ride this three-minute vague and bridge. And as day derives from winter night-work, as day drifts along that which addresses the useless exile of the swan. And the sparrow sings dawn chorus for someone else to hear, I want to believe. Palms pressed against the daily matter of facts, pressed against your twenty thousand songs. The bridge and the harbor winds blaring now in my ears—and is that what you mean Phantom? is this what you mean machine-ghosts? is this what you mean night work / swans / rivers / economy / sparrows / bridges—and I want to live. But not hearing anymore. I want to live. And we want to live. We want to live. I want to live.
I almost didn’t write about this poem. I don’t know what to say about it.
But I can’t ignore this poem, can’t ignore the rhythm, can’t ignore the idea of “Twenty thousand songs gone digital (machine-ghosts).” The voice is undeniable.
The facts about this poem (as with most poems) are few: It is a prose poem. It has no line breaks and no regular meter and no obvious rhyme. But it is a prose poem, among all sorts of poems (even visual ones), in Striven, the Bright Treatise, about the suicide of Jeffrey Pethybridge’s brother, Tad Pethybridge. And it is written against suicide.
This poem reminds me of a villanelle in a way, because it has a certain form—each section starts with “Twenty thousand songs”—and a certain repetition, a certain circling around—each section repeats words, ideas, phrases: “machine-ghosts,” “palms,” “psalm,” “piano-roll.” But unlike a villanelle, it builds on something.
The end it builds on says: “and I want to live. But not hearing anymore. I want to live. And we want to live. We want to live. I want to live.”
And I can try to explain the palms/psalm/lamp anagrams—the word “lamp” isn’t used in this poem, though it is in many others in this collection—or the Golden Gate Bridge as it’s known for suicide, or the eulogy in the back of Striven, the Bright Treatise, which explains how much Tad Pethybridge loved music and ends with this sentence: “I want desperately to keep hearing him talk about songs.” I suppose maybe that explains this poem.
But I’m just drawn to “Twenty Thousand Songs.”
And if there’s anything I can write about this poem, it’s this: there is a desperation and a longing in the rhythm here—I can feel it, too—which builds until the end and we are left with nothing more than the desire to live, despite “the drug-tired and blaring day.”
I’ve known little of science
but understood the heart beats
like a caged god. I’ve been too something
my whole damn life. I’ve buried chandeliers,
turned domestic work
into love. I’ve traced an elegy
to its teeth.
It looked like pushing
I’ve been having a hard time
separating the kindness of strangers
from the motives of friends.
I’ve torn the clothes
off every blossom. I’ve built a box
no one will grieve in.
I should say I’m sorry.
I’m growing comfortable
with my life.
I was given this poem in a workshop I attended recently where the leader discussed the importance of taking notice of every day things. So many times we try to write about these largely universal experiences, like love or death, but not every moment is a vacation in Europe where we write about how our eyes have been opened, and not every poem can capture the way our first love felt. When we forget to focus on our daily lives, we actually limit our writing.
I really like this poem. The speaker is talking about domesticity and the entire poem makes these statements that almost compare similar things, yet these things are worlds apart. If someone said to me, “I’ve known little of science/but understood the heart beats/like a caged god” I would almost argue that they must know something about science if they understand the heart that way, yet there’s the obvious implication that the there is a huge difference between the science of the heart and the way the heart beats. The use of simile and metaphor establishes these differences and adds significance to what the speaker does know and has done. We all might benefit from looking at our lives this way.
I love some of the statements this poem makes, particularly “I’ve traced an elegy/to its teeth./It looked like pushing/in reverse” and “I’ve torn the clothes/off every blossom.” I read the line “I’ve been too something/my whole damn life” and I want to shout, YES! This is me! That’s why this poem is so effective. It doesn’t matter that the speaker is talking about domesticity. In our daily lives, we’ve all been in this place.
I love the last three lines: “I should say I’m sorry./I’m growing comfortable/with my life.” One thing I’m not sure of is how many of us are comfortable with our lives. Many of us can praise our day-to-day, but there’s always this pressure to do more, be more, to achieve more. I love the fact that this speaker says, “I should say I’m sorry” without actually saying it. This line could be taken as a way of apologizing by refusing to apologize, but the thing that sticks out to me is that the speaker is totally okay with life. Sometimes it takes more courage to admit that than it does to work for something more.
If you’re interested in reading more by Hafizah Geter, check out her website where she lists her publications.
On Easter morning all over America
the peasants are frying potatoes in bacon grease.
We’re not supposed to have “peasants”
but there are tens of millions of them
frying potatoes on Easter morning,
cheap and delicious with catsup.
If Jesus were here this morning he might
be eating fried potatoes with my friend
who has a ‘51 Dodge and a ‘72 Pontiac.
When his kids ask why they don’t have
a new car he says, “these cars were new once
and now they are experienced.”
He can fix anything and when rich folks
call to get a toilet repaired he pauses
extra hours so that they can further
learn what we’re made of.
I told him that in Mexico the poor say
that when there’s lightning the rich
think that God is taking their picture.
Like peasants everywhere in the history
of the world ours can’t figure out why
they’re getting poorer. Their sons join
the army to get work being shot at.
Your ideals are invisible clouds
so try not to suffocate the poor,
the peasants, with your sympathies.
They know that you’re staring at them.
It’s not Easter anymore, but I can’t stop thinking about this poem.
I spend a lot of time thinking, in this period of unemployment after I have learned how to think more, analyze more, agonize more, in grad school, but I haven’t learned how to get the kind of job that pays well at this point in my life.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the Kentucky I grew up in, about the family farm I grew up visiting, the peeling fences and empty chicken coops and abandoned cow patties. On that farm, in rural Kentucky, my great grandmother raised five children in an old farmhouse. The floor of the farmhouse slopes. An old red wood fire stove heats the house. The upstairs bedroom isn’t insulated, and its ceiling is made of cardboard. There is no word that so accurately describes my family as peasants.
There are “peasants” in this country. Tens of millions, Jim Harrison says: “We’re not supposed to have ‘peasants’/but there are tens of millions of them/frying potatoes on Easter morning,/cheap and delicious with catsup.” And if Easter morning is a feast of potatoes fried in grease, consider the way they eat the rest of the week, so poor a family of four fries an onion to share for dinner. My best friend survived that way. My immediate family was only marginally better.
I’ve been thinking about poverty a lot, lately, but I haven’t known how to articulate it. I’m glad to encounter this poem. Listen to Garrison Keillor read it on The Writer’s Almanac. And remember this poem.
I’m squeezed behind Formica and chrome, sitting in a diner booth
waiting for my steak and eggs, spitting tobacco into an empty Coke can,
and scratching some words on a paper napkin,
just hoping to hook a rhythm on a stale bait while
outside in the millbrick midnight, the canals of the Merrimack
run red in the blood glow of brake lights.
Casting my lines across these city veins where carp slip in the muck
among blown tires, immigrant bones, and the used-up breath of
all of us bottom-feeding for meaning, I try
to fishplate this downtown mise en scène
of a hooker named Flowers sucking glass dick in an alley,
then stilletto-stepping through the parking lot
where a couple stumbles toward their car from the Worthen bar,
their tongues tangled as they lean against a burnt-out street light
while two kids hooded in gang rags slide like cobras
into the diner, smoking butts and taking stools in the corner
near Jimmy Sullivan, the old bantam weight whose sauced body
bobs and weaves over a half-eaten turkey sandwich
served by a waitress walking under nicotine halos
who smiles through too much makeup at my going hungry
as a hairnetted cook throws baking soda on a grease fire
that shuts down the grill for the night.
A friend of mine recommended I check out Matt Miller’s poems that are featured in the Winter 2013 issue of Drafthorse, and I am really glad I did. Read them and also watch the videos of Miller reading his poems.
What I really like about this poem is the way it throws you into the story. Right from the start, you’re in the scene and you see the speaker in the diner. Miller includes all of these details that draw us further into the atmosphere and the poem: the tobacco in the empty Coke can, canals that run red in the glow of brake lights, two kids sliding into the diner, the grease fire. We’re thrust forward with each line, like we’re surveying a scene and trying to make sense of it, but there’s no time so we just go with it.
The language in this poem is very precise. It revolves around the diner, the town, and fish. It’s colloquial, but in a different kind of way. I love some of the descriptions: “millbrick midnight,” “hook a rhythm on a stale bait,” “Casting my lines across these city veins,” “all of us bottom-feeding for meaning,” “stiletto-stepping,” “two kids hooded gang rags slides like cobras,” “bantam weight whose sauced body/bobs,” and “nicotine halos.” There’s so much juxtaposition in these descriptions, in these things that aren’t necessarily related, yet when I read this poem, I picture the story unfolding because these descriptions make sense. This is how it is. And this is poetry at its finest.
Often when people recommend poems or poets, I’m skeptical, but today I’m thrilled that I took time from grading essays to explore this recommendation. I intend to keep reading this poem and many more of Matt Miller’s because there’s a lot I can learn from him, and I think that studying his poetry will help me become a better poet. Can you tell I’m excited?
Hers first. The beat of it. Something original, like a washing machine
or a car tire with two big nails in it. Describe the tire. It has to be black.
Describe changing the tire with your father and talk about his heartbeat,
which will involve the radio bump in his chest where the defibrillator is.
Pretend your father’s heart is made of pennies. Mention that the wires
are copper—it won’t make sense if you don’t. Your father has high cholesterol
and your brother has high cholesterol and you are at risk for heart disease.
Your doctor says you have high triglycerides. Don’t even bother trying to spell
that word. Spell check will fix it. Pretend that word is a wave you can dive
under. Pretend the whoosh of the wave is the sound hearts make. Realize
you’ve never heard your own heart with a stethoscope. Wonder if you can
get a stethoscope easily. Remember the time you snorted Adderall and sweat
through two t-shirts and a jacket as your heart pounded. Think of your heart
as a washing machine and the Adderall as Tide. Or Shout. Or OxiClean.
Think of your blood as a wardrobe. Imagine your heart trying on clothes in a mirror.
Wonder if a heart feels like an avocado. Remember that she likes to eat avocado
with lemon juice and nothing else. Think of how weird that is. Think of how
avocado leaves green slime on everything else in a salad. Wonder if blood
is like slime when it’s inside of you. Remember that blood is only red when oxygen
hits it. Realize that most of your blood will never see the light of day unless
you get stabbed. Think of stabbing as your blood looking in the mirror
for the first time and realizing it has red eyes. Think of your heart as a vampire
that drinks itself. Wonder if everyone’s blood tastes like pennies. Your father’s,
especially. Hers too. Think of her neck as a part of the body that can never taste itself.
—Michael Martin Shea
I once saw a Behind the Music or some similar program about John Cougar Mellencamp, and I remember hearing him say the claps in “Jack and Diane” were never intended for the final version of the song. John Cougar—I like that name, don’t you?—said he clapped to keep the tempo in the studio, but when he removed the claps, the song fell apart. I think of this poem in a similar way.
I love “Jack and Diane.” I love this poem. I love that this poem has ‘rough draft’ in the name, as if it started out with hand claps as placeholders—or a bunch of ideas for heartbeats—that became a part of the poem itself. ‘Rough draft’ implies self-consciousness, which is a good thing, because I don’t think this poem would be as good or fresh as it is if it weren’t self-conscious. I read this poem and I think about how I’ve been trying to write poems for NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) and how much I second-guess myself. “You’re trying too hard,” S says. It’s true. A poem is just a poem. But poems can mean the world to you, so much so that you don’t know where to start. This poem evokes those feelings: ”Hers first. The beat of it. Something original, like a washing machine/or a car tire with two big nails in it. Describe the tire. It has to be black.” Sort of: Wait. No, wait. Maybe I should use this metaphor? I like that. Eventually the poem becomes real and honest and uses images in an unexpected way. Like the avocado slime. Like the heart as a washing machine, which I’ve never seen used except by Laura Newbern (in “A Natural History of My Heart”). Here the heart is washed clean by ”Adderall as Tide. Or Shout. Or OxiClean.” Those are pretty powerful chemicals to wash the heart clean. Harsh, even. That’s not to mention the vampires.
This poem is, to me, an homage to being a young writer. After all, it was picked by Matthew Dickman to be in Best New Poets 2012. I hope there’s more where “Rough Draft of a Poem About Heartbeats” came from.
When I think of you
it is always of a small, locked room.
A principal’s dark, full lips
pressed together in a smirk. A glare
from his fat, gold herringbone chain
burning tears in my eyes, my face
red as yours in direct sunlight. And
even as my voice shut down
that day, I knew ditching
to buy *NSYNC’s CD
was worth more than
Prescriptive Speech class.
What I heard: four voices
harmonized in a plastic bottle.
Your falsetto, blowing the top off.
with no abusive boxer father
or snatched childhood.
sans German shepherds
stalking through his songs.
I’ve been watching James Brown
and Jackie Wilson make
pelvic fixation public domain
since I was old enough
to work a remote. And I have yet
to elude starched lines. How did you
learn to dance your way out of boxes?
Or did you
find it easy as breathing, like whistling
the national anthem?
Do you remember the Super Bowl?
How you tore Janet Jackson’s breast
from her top?
I love you that way.
Her earth-brown bounty of flesh—
large, black nipple
pierced, wind chapped, hardened.
And you saying, Go ahead. Look.
I really struggled with choosing a poem to post today because part of me felt like I should post something dramatic or something that outlined how I feel about the bombing at the Boston Marathon, but another part of me just wanted to share a poem that I enjoy, and so that is what I have done.
I chose this poem from Marcus Wicker’s Maybe the Saddest Thing because it’s a fun poem and that last line “And you saying, Go ahead. Look.” adds a whole new dimension to the poem itself. It takes the poem beyond Justin Timberlake, and to this level where it’s okay to be who we are, to make the decisions we make, to look, to turn away, to be sad, happy, to be everything all at once and unable to put into words how we feel. This poem isn’t some overture or commentary on the evil in the world or how we must ban together for the sake of love and goodness, but that’s okay. “Love Letter to Justin Timberlake” made me smile and I needed that today.
It’s Palm Springs and you’ve slipped away
from a day of swimming and drinking to lie
for a minute with your eyes closed
in the other room while the air-conditioner
moan-groans outside the window—your body
chilled from sunburn and untouched
for months. Startled from near sleep
you hear a crash
of laughter, man-laughter, the slapping
of bare backs, hands smacking
the skin of men drying
by the pool or making hamburgers
in the kitchen or solving a puzzle
on the glass table in twilight—
Does anybody need another drink?
and laughter. The pizza’s here;
Can I have a cigarette?
Pass the pretzels and your name:
Has anyone seen Aaron?
You don’t say anything but listen to the man
saying your name—Soon someone will be sent
to look for you, and you’ll pretend
to be sleeping, say you must have dozed off,
you’ll rejoin the party soon but need
another minute. You want
to remember this. You’ve waited
your whole life for them to miss you.
So often when I am reading poems, I am drawn into the flashy ones, the ones that do new things with language and line breaks and sounds and personas. But then another poem or collection of poems—Aaron Smith’s Appetite, in this case—comes along and it is so honest that it trumps everything.
The title alone says this poem is going to be real and honest and true: “After All These Years You Know They Were Wrong about the Sadness of Men Who Love Men.” Because you know “they” have said it: men who love men cannot be happy. Only sad. Or maybe you didn’t grow up in an area where anyone ever said anything crappy about a gay man. I did. But this poem counters that thought. The best part? This poem is not incendiary. It is not flashy. It is not in your face (though Aaron Smith has that right and does write about sex in other poems in Appetite). This poem is intimate and universal, drawing you, the reader, in with the second person.
What you’re drawn into is the feeling of being wanted and loved, of being missed and cherished: “You want/to remember this. You’ve waited/your whole life for them to miss you.” It’s a very universal feeling. So, yes, after all these years you know they were wrong about the sadness of men who love men. Because it is possible and probable that a man who lives his life honest and true to himself will be happy, even if you are uncomfortable with who he loves.
N.B. Julie Marie Wade has a review of Aaron Smith’s Appetite at the Lambda Literary Review that first brought this collection to my attention. You should read it.