Spilt

There, there! Though I never asked for this flatness
or to be so efficiently dismissed—
no lanterns floated on my temporary lake,
no time for the cream to form continents, calve icebergs,
and no one says of my demise, a library was lost

still I have known the sluggish bottom of the bottle
and the dead chill of the cooler, can recall
startlements of light as I rang like money in the pail

and before that, warmth and dimness
and the deeply thrumming pipes that bore my substance
from Meadow, sun clouded in bugs, through nonbeing
to a kind of splendor, even transcendence:

in perfect continuity with my surroundings, white light
poured into white light. And whole. And held.

I could tell the people a thing or two about despair.
Haven’t I spilled, controlled, each morning
past the stark looming letters that foretell
the curdling and the old-age smell?
But I know too that annihilation

means only to be packed again into the egg.
Prismatic, I will split and realign.
Behold the road that opens in mid-air,

the sudden and familiar loss of shape,
the wet slap my skin makes against the grain.
No tears, no tears! That cup was not my home.
I wore and then outgrew it like a shoe.

The world’s distilled to an infinite plane.
It’s happened before. I will get through.

 

[A year in poems— March entry]

 

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White Flag Beside the Wye

Five miles through woods crept up to eight, then ten,

and the sun had made its turn past vertical,

descended to leaf-level and set the green flickering

when the path dead-ended in river mud, ebb tide, no abbey.

 

The way unwound like a dropped scarf, blackberry-tatted.

In fallen-away fields the gorse burned yellow

around the unpanicked legs of cows. I closed my ears

 against hordes of nettles muttering go back

and knelt over the map: a paper bird I’d found

at the bus station that morning, hatched roughly

in the knapsack, blue wings creased with use,

its thin cry unconvincing

next to the book that shared its nest, the cover worn velvet,

the folded page I held in my palm

like a compass, no glimpse of Tintern yet, but that

would come, wouldn’t it?  All paths lead back to builders;

and so on through the deep and deeper forest

I paid out bravery like twine, knotted it, clutched

at its dwindling weight in my hip pocket,

until at the river’s sluggish edge I pulled its feathered end

into my hand.

 

They say the ruins are lavender in this light.

Are stone and slingshot. I’m down to my last apple.

The river opens up a skyroad for monkish bees that stumble

homeward from their flowers, the world’s sweetness

a burden almost too much for them to bear. Yet up they buck.

Over eons they’ll pack a blissful gold

in six-sided cells their bodies spend all to form.

But I am no alchemist. I have only prayer.

The rosary of footprints I’ve laid down winds up and back

in sodden chalk. Nothing but steady effort with which to beg

whatever god was cast out here or comes to summer rough

to make of me, as the day goes down, an offering,

something cored more finely than the hiker

I set out as, in a far more crowded country.

 

O setting sun! Strike a match against my hair

and kindle on the sodden riverbank what’s left of me

into a blaze the likes of which this valley has not seen

since men first cleared the land for their ships of stone,

a blaze such as the ancients used to navigate by—

for I am lost, I am lost, at last freely I confess it

like the sacrificial beasts that in late summer

wander these high fields crackling with gorse,

their legs alight, their bodies never burning.

 

 

A Year in Poems: February Entry

[Author’s note: this is a “longline poem” assignment I started for a poetry class I took with John Shoptaw at Berkeley. The WordPress format doesn’t capture the shape I was trying to create with each pair of lines. If you’re interested, the intended formatting is maintained in this Word doc.]

just to say

there will be
no crumb cake
for our daughter’s
birthday tea

because someone
ate the plums
even though
I hid them
in the icebox

oh
and forgive me
but your next
apology by poem

had better
be a goddamn sonnet

 

 

Here’s a little extra add-on to my January poem post. It didn’t feel fair to use it for my main poem, because it wasn’t resurrected from my poem graveyard–in fact it went from thought to finished (finished-ish) in the space of a few weeks. It is obviously an homage–and retort– to William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say,” a poem I know well but revisited with fresh eyes this past winter, when it was kicking around in meme form. As a writer and reader I love the original poem; as a wife and mother, I find it completely exasperating.

One Earring

You are not wooden
but you look it, coffee
lapping against tamarind
in the glossy and absolutely
smooth hemisphere
I used to rub with one small thumb—

or was that your sister,
fallen since into some dank
S-bend, no longer gleaming
like Saturday night, not
setting off the tint
of my mother’s tugged-at hair

(walnut and cinnamon smoking
to grey where it twisted
from her forehead)
but rocked in nightly tides
of turned wine and dishwater,
not spoken of, not saved?

Twins once, now you
are something else
I hesitate to name,
one a young and un-eroded
version of the other.
Tiger eye I’m told—

but surely that should
mean green, or striped,
or a stone that stares back?
Worn, your weight unbalances.
Until in the mirror
I summon ghosts.

In the glass the stones
of years fall back into my hand
and you are not orphan.
Here is the shell-like, elegant ear,
a mother’s cinnamon hair
restored to its rough glory,

and the floating moon of you
(moon of teak, moon of upturned earth)
whose gravity still grounds me.

 

 

[A Year in Poems: January entry]

[And a bonus poem to start the year off.]

A Year in Poems

I feel so-so about New Year’s Resolutions. On the one hand, why wait til January to make the changes you want to see in the world? You could have a summer resolution instead (when you might actually want to get up at 6am and run 3 miles through the park), or a back-to-school resolution, or just a my-god-it’s-Monday-again resolution. Plus you’re not going to stick to it anyway, are you? Why set yourself up for failure?

On the other hand, sometimes we need an occasion for change. It can help to have a sense that something outside of us is becoming different–the setting, the era, okay, the year–and that therefore we might for once succeed in being different too. I am not much of a runner, but when I studied abroad  in Mexico in college I woke up early every morning and ran along the beach as far as the sardine cannery and back. Every morning. The friends I made in Mexico thought of me as a runner. New place, new me. (One friend, who was actually a runner, tried running with me one morning and quickly discovered, oh, no, you are not a runner.)

DSCN1654
Like, seriously. Not a runner.

So right at the end of each year, when people ask if I have any resolutions, I usually say no.

But even as the words leave my lips, somewhere over my head a wisp of a resolution is floating, like the faint mist on a mirror that tells you a body still has breath.

And by the end of January–importantly, after people have stopped asking about it–I usually gather the ovaries to formally admit my resolution to myself.

I still think I’ll fail at it. I usually do fail, if what one’s going for is perfection. But if it makes me move even a little in the direction I want to go, wasn’t that worth it? The goal isn’t finish this marathon. It’s get off this couch.

Which brings us to this year. See. I have this stack of poems that I’ve started over the last decade or so and abandoned, or gotten stuck on, or thought were finished and then realized later with horror were the melodramatic ravings of a teenage diarist. My resolution is to pluck one poem from this pile each month of 2018 and finish it. This is no more ambitious a resolution for me than usual, but this year I’ve decided to add some extra incentive to follow through with it. Some virtual accountabilibuddies, if you will. That’s where you come in–if you want.

I’m going to post each poem on this blog by midnight on the last day of each month. (I am! I am! I am!) You can subscribe if you want (can you? I don’t understand technology), or check back in, look out for the latest installment. You can email, text, or homing pigeon me if I fail. You can say I owe you a beer if the poem is late and I will shrug and pony up. Although if you live in upstate NY, you will have to fly here to collect on said beer.

I might not share the Poem of the Month on Facebook every time (or any time, after this) because this is HARD FOR ME PEOPLE. But I will put it up here, on this blog.

Or, you know, maybe I’ll fail. I may end up flat on my face on the floor.

But at least I’ll be off the pinche couch.

 

Rilke After Ants

The ants are gone.

They’ve been staging raids on our kitchen for months now, uneven ribbons of them unspooling along the wall and up the sides of cabinets and along the rim of the trash can. They seem to multiply every time the air gets warm or it rains too much, or maybe it’s the fog settling down, or the angle of light in this hemisphere at this time of year–some mysterious combination of perfectly normal weather events that we have yet to work out precisely. Whatever it is, some mornings I wake to find scads of ants, whole rush-hour commuter trains of ants, Sherman-marching through the kitchen and setting upon every crumb left on the floor or counter from the night before.

Oh, did I mention that we have a toddler? A lovely, boisterous, brown-eyed toddler whose job description (which I have never been allowed to read, let alone edit) apparently stipulates “the liberal sprinkling of crumbs on all flat surfaces before bed each night” as a requirement. The ants assigned to crumb patrol in our kitchen can really just phone this one in.

But they don’t. No, our ants want to work for their food. As much as I despise them, I will grudgingly admit that these ants are some industrious little bugs. (Are ants bugs? Google later.) I’ve found them in closed boxes of cereal, in a zip-locked bag of sugar. The latter looked like an ant farm when I discovered it, almost cool in a creepy-crawly way. I put it into the freezer, next to the Frosted Mini-Wheats, which as it happens freeze quite well. We’ve had ants in the butter dish, in a pile of my son’s used Kleenex, swarming out of a piece of fruit I’d just cut into.

It’s nasty, y’all.

And don’t think we’ve just been sitting around and watching them have their way with the space where we cook and eat. (Or, you know, just sitting around and blogging about it, which would somehow be worse.) There’s a bottle of Windex, which has never been used on actual windows, that we keep handy to rain death on the ants and wipe out their pheromone trails. (Science!) We keep the sugar bowl in the fridge now, and move the trash can around to make it harder to find, and I try, I really try, to sweep up after our little Hansel-Gretel impersonator with his pockets of crumbs.

The clincher, of course, would be to cut the ants off at the source. More than once I’ve followed the trail of antmen back to where they they’re entering the apartment, and sealed the hole with lab tape.

But it’s like Whack-a-Mole. They just find another opening. And recently they’ve discovered an entrance that is beyond the power of lab tape to fix, a long wide crack under the bedroom baseboard heater. (The bedroom! Two rooms away!) When I saw that crack, something in me laid down arms and gave up. Well, I thought, that’s it then. We’ve got ants. Some people have credit card debt or weird skin allergies. We have ants. My mother came to visit a few weeks ago and looked side-eye at the ants on the counter, scrabbling out the calligraphy that only they can read. She didn’t say so, but I knew she was shocked and disturbed. I’d felt that way once too, before the ants broke me in. “Yeah,” I said, “we have ants. They’re annoying.” Sigh. Shrug.

And then. And then? First thing last Saturday morning we discovered a particularly gleeful revelry of ants, contra-dancing along a smear of peanut butter on the kitchen counter. A thick line of them lead down the side of the cabinet, across the kitchen floor, down the hall, through the bedroom. I windexed the living shit out of them while crying tears of despair. And in that moment, somewhere between me and my husband, the thought formed: NO. No, we do not have ants. I mean yes, okay, we do have ants, but we are not people who have ants. It’s not, like, a character trait. It’s not a immutable burden simply to be endured. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The boys went out to the hardware store and were back in fifteen minutes with a tube of caulk. My husband smeared great thick gobs of it into the crack under the heater. It was not pretty. Our landlord may disapprove of it, if he ever sticks his head down there. But fifteen minutes after the caulk had dried, we noticed a difference.

There were still ants. But they seemed confused now, piling up at the end of their former superhighway and then wandering aimlessly off trail. As I windexed and wiped up the leggy little bodies, they weren’t instantly replaced by more leggy little bodies.

I didn’t hope too hard, at first. I’ve made fixes before that didn’t last. There were still ants in the kitchen, stragglers and slackers moseying across the tile and in the fruit bowl and along the edge of the sink. But later that day, we left for the weekend, and when I came back 48 hours later…

…the ants were gone.

It’s been a week now. I left a few pieces of granola on the counter last night, almost deliberately. This morning they were untouched. The ants are gone.

I’ve read Rilke. What young poet hasn’t? And I’ve found words to live by in his letters–like the command to love the questions more than the answers, to circle them like like locked rooms that you will one day have the key to enter, or like letters written in a foreign tongue that you may one day hope to speak. But Rilke’s famous ringing edict–you must change your life–has always put me off. Underneath it I hear judgment: your life is terrible, and it’s all your fault. I imagine Rilke sitting across from me at my kitchen table, spooning ant-laced sugar into his tea, saying sternly: you know, you really must change your life.

I can’t, I think to myself on bad days. I can’t.

It was this prison of thought that my husband broke through when he brought home the caulk and began, recklessly and messily, to fill in the cracks.

Forget must, Rilke. I love you, but I don’t need to hear anymore about what I must do. I’m thirty-three years old. I pay my own bills. I’m a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a mother. I’ve read all those job descriptions, okay? I know what I must do, and most days I do it, and some days it’s all I can do to get out of bed.

And yet–and yet. We had ants, and now we don’t.

Say it with me: shout it: carve it into marble.

You can change your life.