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My Friend’s Divorce | Naomi Shihab Nye

“My Friend’s Divorce”
Naomi Shihab Nye

I want her
To dig up
every plant
in her garden,
the pansies, the penta,
roses, rununculas,
thyme and the lilies,
the thing
nobody knows the name of,
unwind the morning glories
from the wire windows
of the fence,
take the blooming
and the almost-blooming
and the dormant,
especially the dormant,
and then
and then
plant them in her new yard
on the other side
of town
and see how
they breathe!

Mean | Colette Labouff Atkinson

“Mean”
Colette Labouff Atkinson

Wife two was a stripper. And sweet, as well. He traded her in for me. To people I don’t know, I say she was a dancer. I watch them, puzzled, wonder how anyone could not love a ballerina. And you have to question a guy like that: trading in a sweet stripper for me. Not a homemaker. Not home much at all. Not sweet. More like my grandfather, Jimmy Grieco. Mean. My mother likes to describe the blue-sky day when she bought me a helium balloon and I let it go. I was six. I begged for another. She said, okay, but, if you let this one go, I’m really going to be mad. I nodded, took the string in my hand, held tight, and then opened my hand flat so the balloon lifted and its string slipped up and away. You were never sweet, my mother says.

***

In Vegas, a few weeks ago, Jimmy and I sorted photographs in his double-wide just off Boulder Highway. My mother stood on the sidelines. She hates how I ask Jimmy for the hard stories. Tell me about the moonshine. Tell me about the dead kids. Tell me how your mother saved the family by burning down the farm. Jimmy’s crooked finger points to a picture of the family. That was Leonard. He was deaf and dumb. Died at twelve. That was Vincent. The baby who fell off the staircase without a rail. Dead at two. Then there’s his mother, surrounded by her children. She was tough, he says.Tough. When Chicago’s Black Hand demanded ten thousand dollars, she stuffed five grand in her apron, grabbed my grandfather—then five—and took him to deliver the money. That’s all you’ll ever get, she said, and don’t touch my kids or I’ll kill you.

***

My grandfather never asks about the first or second wife. I don’t have to tell him that ballerina-fable. He knows I’m three and mean. He knows it for his whole life. His first, my grandmother, was like sugar. He burned her, abandoned her in LA, raced to Mexico, paved road turning to dirt; he ate prickly pear, maybe, on the way to his quick divorce. And, though he won’t tell this story, his own father lived, first, with a sweet woman on a wheat farm, far south in Craco, Italy. He boarded a ship, told his wife he’d send for her, and then fled to New York. And in an apartment on Mulberry Street, he met up with the new girlfriend and they disappeared into their new world. She wasn’t pretty. She was tough. She got busted twice for making moonshine. Her sons loved her. She was mean.

You were told | Shoja Adel

“You were told”
Shoja Adel

I came to say good bye grandpa
He looked at my uniform and sighed
He turned to the picture on the mantel
As if looking for me in his platoon
Finally, he turned to me and said
War is always a lesson learned too late

He continued
We were told
Not to wake it up
We were told
It would take our children
We were told
Mothers would cry for the rest of their lives
We were told
Fathers who should be buried by their sons
Would bury their sons
We were told
It would turn the cities into ruins
We were told
The disease would spread over the land
We were told
Infants would suck on mothers dried breast
Till the last breath
We were told
Elderly couldn’t hang on anymore
We were told
It would spread seeds of hate and revenge
To poison generations
We were told
It would turn us to monsters
Who could not love any more
We didn’t believe it

Grandpa looked into my eyes and added
You were told

Odd Jobs | Jericho Brown

“Odd Jobs”
Jericho Brown

I spent what light Saturday sent sweating
And learned to cuss cutting grass for women
Kind enough to say they couldn’t tell the damned
Difference between their mowed lawns
And their vacuumed carpets just before
Handing over a five-dollar bill rolled tighter
Than a joint and asking me in to change
A few light bulbs. I called those women old
Because they wouldn’t move out of a chair
Without my help or walk without a hand
At the base of their backs. I called them
Old, and they must have been; they’re all dead
Now, dead and in the earth I once tended.
The loneliest people have the earth to love
And not one friend their own age—only
Mothers to baby them and big sisters to boss
Them around, women they want to please
And pray for the chance to say please to.
I don’t do that kind of work anymore. My job
Is to look at the childhood I hated and say
I once had something to do with my hands.
“Questions About the Wife”
Rebecca Hazelton 

I’m having trouble understanding the wife.
The wife seems like she is only there as a foil to your actions.
I want to know how the wife feels when you drag her
and your son down into the basement to start a new religion.
The religion has something to do with cowering
before a force greater than yourself and then being buried alive.
I want to know how the wife behaves in small, enclosed spaces:
if she is trying to comfort your son by telling him Daddy likes
to play funny games, or if she is already visualizing
herself walking into a women’s shelter, your son
on her back and maybe, because this is a fantasy,
she carries a burning torch, like an angry villager, or a goddess.
Does the wife merit any revenge after you weed whack
the coffee table? Does she agree with you that the coffee table
is yours to destroy because you built it? What has she built
in the house that is hers to destroy? What kind of childhood
has the wife endured that allows her to understand you?
In her past life or lives, was the wife ever a shepherdess?
Does she see you as a sort of Pan, goatish, and pricked
by ticks, but also very well-endowed? When the wife transforms
into a tree can she still think or is she just a green haze
inside, an idea of growing? I would like to see the wife
peel off that bark, leaving only enough for modesty’s sake,
although as this is your poem, we can take a bit more off.
I want to see her uproot herself, pick up the house and shake it.
How many people fall out?
The wife has something about her the Germans
would call unheimlich. I sometimes catch a glimpse of the wife
out of the corner of my eye but then I look away.
I cannot look directly at the wife. The wife is a conflagration
of everything dear. I wonder sometimes if she is faking;
There is a certain note she holds too long
so the orgasm is more operatic, less genuine.
When she cries, Oh my God, really, she should stutter.
Let’s say the wife wakes up in the morning.
You have already made breakfast. Does your kindness feel oppressive?
Does she want to take your weed whacker through the house?
Has she ever, in a fit of anger, destroyed your pornography?
When you found a picture of the wife online with a foreign handprint
smacked red on her ass, how quickly did your shock turn to arousal?
Are you aware the wife is breaking down in public places,
and sometimes cannot move for thirty minutes? Sometimes
her arm goes entirely numb from the shoulder down. I think the wife
might need some fine-tuning, some elbow grease,
some wrenching apart, and then reassembling.

Bulimia | Denise Duhamel

“Bulimia”
Denise Duhamel

A kiss has nothing to do with sex,
she thinks. Not really. That engulfing, that trying to take
all of another in for nourishment, to become one with her, to become
part of her cells. The way she must have had everything she wanted
in the womb, without asking. Without words,
kisses have barely the slurp-sound of a man entering a woman
or sliding back out – neither movement with even the warning of
a bark.

The Greek word “buli,” animal hunger.
Petting, those kisses are called, or sometimes necking.
She read this advice in a sex manual once: “Take the man’s penis,
slowly at first, like you are licking a melting ice cream
from the rim of a cone.” But the gagging, the choke –
a hot gulp of tea, a small chicken bone, a wad of gum grown to big.
That wasn’t mentioned. It’s about what happens in her mouth
past her teeth, where there is no more control, like a waterfall –
or its being too late when the whole wedding cake is gone:

She orders one from a different bakery this time, so no one
will remember her past visits and catch on. She’s eating
slowly at first, tonguing icing from the plastic groom’s feet, the hem
of the bride’s gown, and those toothpick-points that kept them
rooted in pastry. She cuts the top tier into squares,
reception-like. (The thrill she knew of a wedding this past June,
stealing the white dessert into her purse, sucking
the sugary blue gel from a napkin one piece was wrapped in.
She was swallowing paper on her lone car ride home,
through a red light, on her way to another nap
from which she hoped a prince’s kiss would wake her.)

The second tier in her hands, by fistfuls, desperate
as the Third World child she saw on tv last week, taking in gruel.
Her head, light like her stomach is pumped up with air.
She can’t stop. She puckers up to the sticky crumbs under her nails.
Then there are the engraved Valentine candies:
CRAZY, DREAM GIRL, ACT NOW, YOU’RE HOT. She rips open the bag,
devouring as many messages as she can at once.
They all taste like chalk. She rocks back and forth.

She has to loosen the string on her sweat pants, part of her trousseau.
The bag of candy is emptied. The paper doily
under the cake’s third layer, smooth as a vacuumed ice-skating rink.
What has she done? In the bathroom, like what happened
to the mistakenly flushed-away bracelet, a gift
from her first boyfriend – the gold clasp silently unhooking
as she wiped herself, then, moments too late, noticing
her naked wrist under the running water of the rest room
sink’s faucet…She’s learned it’s best to wait ten minutes
to make herself throw up. Digestion begins at this point,
but the food hasn’t gotten very far. As ingenious as the first
few times she would consciously masturbate, making note of where
her fingers felt best, she devises a way to vomit
that only hurts for a second.

She takes off her sweatshirt and drapes it over a towel rack.
Then she pokes a Q-Tip on her soft palate. Keeping in mind
the diagram in her voice class, the cross section
of the mouth showing each part’s different function,
the palate – hidden and secret as a clitoris.
The teacher’s mentioning of its vulnerability, split-second
and nonchalant like a doctor and his tongue depressor.
It’s a fast prayer – she kneels in front of the toilet.
Her back jerks and arches the way it might
if she were moving her body to meet a man’s during intercourse.
She wipes what has sprayed back to her chest,
her throat as raw as a rape that’s happened to someone else.
She cleans the seat of the bowl with a rag, and cleans
her teeth with a second toothbrush she keeps for this purpose.
Her sweatshirt back on, she gets to the kitchen
to crush the cake box into a plastic garbage bag.
And leaves to dispose of it, not in the trashcan downstairs,
but in a dumpster way on the other side of town.
“The Jewish Atheist Mother Has Her Say”
Daphne Gottlieb

baby, there is no
god but
they’ll kill you
for him. 

Half-Hanged Mary | Margaret Atwood

“Half-Hanged Mary”
Margaret Atwood

7pm
Rumour was loose in the air
hunting for some neck to land on.
I was milking the cow,
the barn door open to the sunset.
I didn’t feel the aimed word hit
and go in like a soft bullet.
I didn’t feel the smashed flesh
closing over it like water
over a thrown stone.
I was hanged for living alone
for having blue eyes and a sunburned skin,
tattered skirts, few buttons,
a weedy farm in my own name,
and a surefire cure for warts;
Oh yes, and breasts,
and a sweet pear hidden in my body.
Whenever there’s talk of demons
these come in handy.
——————————————————————————–
8pm
The rope was an improvisation.
With time they’d have thought of axes.
Up I go like a windfall in reverse,
a blackend apple stuck back onto the tree.
Trussed hands, rag in my mouth,
a flag raised to salute the moon,
old bone-faced goddess, old original,
who once took blood in return for food.
The men of the town stalk homeward,
excited by their show of hate,
their own evil turned inside out like a glove,
and me wearing it.
——————————————————————————–
9pm
The bonnets come to stare,
the dark skirts also,
the upturned faces in between,
mouths closed so tight they’re lipless.
I can see down into their eyeholes
and nostrils. I can see their fear.
You were my friend, you too.
I cured your baby, Mrs.,
and flushed yours out of you,
Non-wife, to save your life.
Help me down? You don’t dare.
I might rub off on you,
like soot or gossip. Birds
of a feather burn together,
though as a rule ravens are singular.
In a gathering like this one
the safe place is the background,
pretending you can’t dance,
the safe stance pointing a finger.
I understand. You can’t spare
anything, a hand, a piece of bread, a shawl
against the cold,
a good word. Lord
knows there isn’t much
to go around. You need it all.
——————————————————————————–
10pm
Well God, now that I’m up here
with maybe some time to kill
away from the daily
fingerwork, legwork, work
at the hen level,
we can continue our quarrel,
the one about free will.
Is it my choice that I’m dangling
like a turkey’s wattles from his
more then indifferent tree?
If Nature is Your alphabet,
what letter is this rope?
Does my twisting body spell out Grace?
I hurt, therefore I am.
Faith, Charity, and Hope
are three dead angels
falling like meteors or
burning owls across
the profound blank sky of Your face.
——————————————————————————–
12 midnight
My throat is taut against the rope
choking off words and air;
I’m reduced to knotted muscle.
Blood bulges in my skull,
my clenched teeth hold it in;
I bite down on despair
Death sits on my shoulder like a crow
waiting for my squeezed beet
of a heart to burst
so he can eat my eyes
or like a judge
muttering about sluts and punishment
and licking his lips
or like a dark angel
insidious in his glossy feathers
whispering to me to be easy
on myself. To breathe out finally.
Trust me, he says, caressing
me. Why suffer?
A temptation, to sink down
into these definitions.
To become a martyr in reverse,
or food, or trash.
To give up my own words for myself,
my own refusals.
To give up knowing.
To give up pain.
To let go.

2 a.m.
Out of my mouths is coming, at some
distance from me, a thin gnawing sound
which you could confuse with prayer except that
praying is not constrained.
Or is it, Lord?
Maybe it’s more like being strangled
than I once thought. Maybe it’s
a gasp for air, prayer.
Did those men at Pentecost
want flames to shoot out of their heads?
Did they ask to be tossed
on the ground, gabbling like holy poultry,
eyeballs bulging?
As mine are, as mine are.
There is only one prayer; it is not
the knees in the clean nightgown
on the hooked rug.
I want this, I want that.
Oh far beyond.
Call it Please. Call it Mercy.
Call it Not yet, not yet,
as Heaven threatens to explode
inwards in fire and shredded flesh, and the angels caw.
3 a.m.
wind seethes in the leaves around
me the trees exude night
birds night birds yell inside
my ears like stabbed hearts my heart
stutters in my fluttering cloth
body I dangle with strength
going out of the wind seethes
in my body tattering
the words I clench
my fists hold No
talisman or silver disc my lungs
flail as if drowning I call
on you as witness I did
no crime I was born I have borne I
bear I will be born this is
a crime I will not
acknowledge leaves and wind
hold on to me
I will not give in
6 a.m.
Sun comes up, huge and blaring,
no longer a simile for God.
Wrong address. I’ve been out there.
Time is relative, let me tell you
I have lived a millennium.
I would like to say my hair turned white
overnight, but it didn’t.
Instead it was my heart;
bleached out like meat in water.
Also, I’m about three inches taller.
This is what happens when you drift in space
listening to the gospel
of the red hot stars.
Pinpoints of infinity riddle my brain,
a revelation of deafness.
At the end of my rope
I testify to silence.
Don’t say I’m not grateful.
Most will only have one death.
I will have two.
8 a.m.
When they came to harvest my corpse
(open your mouth, close your eyes)
cut my body from the rope,
surprise, surprise,
I was still alive.
Tough luck, folks,
I know the law:
you can’t execute me twice
for the same thing. How nice.
I fell to the clover, breathed it in,
and bared my teeth at them
in a filthy grin.
You can imagine how that went over.
Now I only need to look
out at them through my sky-blue eyes.
They see their own ill will
staring them in the forehead
and turn tail.
Before, I was not a witch.
But now I am one.
Later
My body of skin waxes and wanes
around my true body,
a tender nimbus.
I skitter over the paths and fields,
mumbling to myself like crazy,
mouth full of juicy adjectives
and purple berries.
The townsfolk dive headfirst into the bushes
to get out of my way.
My first death orbits my head,
an ambiguous nimbus,
medallion of my ordeal.
No one crosses that circle.
Having been hanged for something
I never said,
I can now say anything I can say.
Holiness gleams on my dirty fingers,
I eat flowers and dung,,
two forms of the same thing, I eat mice
and give thanks, blasphemies
gleam and burst in my wake
like lovely bubbles.
I speak in tongues,
my audience is owls.
My audience is God,
because who the hell else could understand me?
The words boil out of me,
coil after coil of sinuous possibility.
The cosmos unravels from my mouth,
all fullness, all vacancy.

The Escape Artists | Donald Illich

”The Escape Artists”
Donald Illich

Why was there more than one of us?
Because it was more shocking

when we both exploded from the safe,
unharmed if short of breath,

dressed in sparkling blue uniforms
to signify our amazing natures.

Other times we’d plunge into water
in chains, stay in the icy deep

for several minutes beyond
what we should’ve been capable of.

When we emerged it was like exiting
the underworld, coming across as fallen

angels who didn’t need anything
on this earth, much less the applause

that avalanched over us. They didn’t
see the tricks we had developed,

the broken links, hidden keys,
the practice of bending, pulling muscles.

Why would they imagine this hard work
when their life is about not enduring

pain or danger? Sitting at desks
they quit if they feel eye strain

from staring at the computer screen,
would rather drop change

in a vending machine than walk
to the fridge for a carrot or orange.

We suffer so you don’t have to,
is what we think. As an example

of near drowning we are the sacrifice
you won’t have to make now,

to short circuit your life with big flashes
of lightning, risks that could suffocate

you if you guess wrong. To us,
the important thing is the process—

the lack of oxygen, choking on water.
This is where we’re alive—not

when you salute us, but when we
praise ourselves with deaths you can’t see.

Thirty Years Rising | Olena Kalytiak Davis

“Thirty Years Rising”
Olena Kalytiak Davis

I needed to point to the buildings, as if they all stood
for something, as if Detroit could rise again
into its own skyline, filled in
as it always is inside me:
each cracked sidewalk, each
of the uniformed girls, braided
and quiet as weeds, each bicycled boy, each man
with a car and a wife, the ones I slept with
and arranged, neatly, like a newly laid
subdivision.
But I was driving with my brother
who doesn’t like to think
of the thirty years rising
inside us, the leavened truth. He’s arrived
at the heavy black X of destination
on the inside of his forehead
and he doesn’t want to see me
looking like this: open-palmed
and childishly dressed, with hipbones
instead of children, aching
to put my sneakered feet on his new leather dash.
He doesn’t want to hear me
say something fucked-up, something like:
It’s in my bones. My sternum
runs like Woodward Avenue,
it’s pinnated, parked on, full
of dirt, holding women in wigs and cigarettes, bars
lit from the outside in, it’s overflowing
with pooltables and ashtrays. My ribs
are holding up factories and breweries, two-bedroom
houses and multi-storied lives, this strip,
this city, these sidestreets,
a bony feather.
He’s lived here all his life.
But I gave up these streets
for so many others. I hopped
turnstiles to ride the Metro,
memorized El tracks and Muni stations
until I had a huge worn subway
map in my head, but couldn’t get off at any stop,
couldn’t begin to live in any city, and couldn’t sleep
with anybody but myself. I gave up
this body for so many others. I’ve been both
an exaggeration of myself and someone
who looks just like me but sounds different.
But now I’m back
to visit both, and I need to point
to my first hotel room;
to the mortuary above which
my tall half-Chinese half-German
punkrockboyfriend fingered me
like a book in his little bed;
and to the hospital where our bonemother
died so late or so early that
we were both sound asleep.
I didn’t say it,
but: My sternum is breaking
with this, it’s sinking
like Woodward as Detroit rises around
my brother’s turn, rises and falls.
Falls not at all like this light summer rain
but hard, like someone else’s memory,
insistent, unwanted, but suddenly,
and again, being claimed.

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poetry, exceptindreams
exceptindreams
a poem some days

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