Josephine, 1905, Winlock, Washington
Each day the day starts out the same, the scatter
of some crumbs under the trees, that talk she
talks to birds. That thocking sound inside
her hat that drowns the rain. A certain kind of
madness can be comforting. She lifts her knotted
frame, strikes her hoe against the rocks
to salvage singing what she can, to hear
the apples growing. Even God would
understand—the One who took her child,
and then another. Once she sang at a revival.
Now each night starts out with moonlight
savaging the orchard, that knocking at the doors
that robs the lanes. Love is mystery and pain,
who loves a child growing marvelous under stone.
Leigh Anne Hornfeldt
“We treat them like babies who cannot speak.”
- Oleg Gazenko
Tended like a baby perhaps
but not worth retrieval. Was she
bitch when her bladder leaked
on the floor of the tiny mock cabin?
Packaged, alloyed, gifted to space.
Led out of Moscow snow
and into the room of another
How she shot from the barrel,
a little glitterati. Harnessed
she could only
sit stay lay down.
From Earth's pull fire pushed her,
pitiful brown thing,
into all that blackness.
She became the opposite of diamond.
Radio waves tangled in the wind,
ocean, ocean, ocean, then
beep beep beep beep
Sputnik's telemetry a rapid pulse
in her well-trained ear.
In the night men hovered,
their blankets and arms wrapped tightly across children
who pointed to the sky, to light that might be a dog,
fur floating in weightlessness, nosing dumb and fumbling.
In the darkness (that slow self-repulsion) a father
whispered hush when asked where stars go when they die.
Felt his feet touch ground for a moment.
That muggy afternoon when Mama told me
in her scary-quiet voice go get the gun
as she saw the stranger crossing our front yard,
slicking back his hair, I was too young
to understand how she’d sensed the danger
in his swagger, or how he knew as he came down
our dead-end lane, that Papa wasn’t home.
But I did know my Mama knew things before
they arrived. When she dreamed someone’s death
the quiet would swirl above us, heavy
as the bloated cyclone she had seen
a week before it came,
hooking its curved tail down
and taking away the Thompsons’ new barn.
And what else I knew then,
as I lifted the weight of the gun
from its resting place under the stairs,
was that the stillness was gathering again
just the way it had the day Mama killed
the copperhead coiled on the porch where I played –
one sharp shot with Papa’s .22 and then
she was carrying that loop of limp coldness
over the handle of her broom,
bearing it off before her like a talisman.
The July afternoon stretches like old suede
over the bluffs that shade the curve of the river
where three old men sit waist deep, in lawn chairs
dragged into deeper places. The air thickens
with the smell of cooking pork and barbecue smoke.
We use the river like a neighbor’s backyard pool
gifted to us from the hills. We drive out to the falls and
scuttle down, dodging bramble cuts and creeping vines,
to the cold smooth boulders that cradle our backs
while the rush flows over us. We watch the kids
dive and risk the jut of rocks along the bottom,
and wait out the long hot breath of the day.
That July day, we pedaled through the haze and heat
to 7-11 to buy cigarettes from the bearded old guy
who never failed to caress the tanned curves of our bodies
with his hooded eyes. We bought frozen drinks, nachos,
bright packs of chewing gum, all under that veteran gaze,
while the boys who’d brought us there waited on the asphalt,
bikes trapped between their denim legs, sneakered feet restless,
eyes narrowed against the light. Later, we carved pears.
Laying in the slim shade of the worm-pocked tree,
we gave tilted faces, funny grins, to the soft crooked fruit,
etched our initials in the moist, brown-spotted skin,
and our palms grew sticky with their mealy juice.
Mosquito-bitten, we kissed those boys in the slatted light
alongside the garage, ducking quick at each passing car,
watching and waiting for your dad to catch us there.
Our monument in broken creamy flesh abandoned
around our feet, we laughed out loud at our power,
at what we could break and bargain for by slipping
down our jeans, by pocketing our knives. We wound up
older, older than fourteen, and thinking we could read
the lattice of matted grass imprints on our arms and calves
like runes, we didn’t see the sun sink low, we never knew
the grass and ants laid low and crushed beneath our backs.
Wendy Taylor Carlisle
Spring Comes to Ponca and Jasper
After the 20 minutes it took to turn her to four pounds of grit;
as the box of her waits on a shelf for what might be
a funeral that turns instead into a trek by the Buffalo River,
April-riled and moiling, bridge-high at Steele Creek, scouring the cliffs—
big Bluff and Rock Bluff—past the abandoned cooler of Schlitz
at Kyles Landing, past the Elk Museum at Ponca and into
the Boxley valley by the Arkansas Hotel, the Little Buffalo
running at the back, pale Kiss-Me-by-the-Gate on its ruined arbor,
through spongy hills, the burn ban lifted everywhere
in Madison County, signs on the firehouses:
OK to Burn in Alabam and OK in Kingston, and Marble Falls,
where, all down to Jasper, pastures are overrun with primrose,
daisy in the ditches, the pastures ripe with pulsing yellow Coreopsis
named here Tickseed, the foliage favoring a second-green, the one
she used to call chartreuse, the dogwood still undistracted by blossom,
everywhere wild iris rampaging in purple and peach
sandy, wild strawberries that hint of coming
summer, pink as the inside of a lover’s lip, Egyptian
Walking Onions in the valleys burgeoning, as a grey translucence,
her ashes, lift over the hillside like blown gauze.
If I had named the blood hour, drunk it down
with the spider web tea Grace gave me for healing,
swallowed it hot, would there still be white dust
talcuming up from the floor boards, still the ghost of loss
hanging on the front porch like a camp lantern?
If I gave up, when would that be? Defeat day?
There is historical precedent. But forget Appomattox.
It was Lee's mechanical doorframe that
was his consummate contribution to the history of failure.
His calculations on the physics of still and lintel
proved even worse than his ideas on Union. Say finished.
According to my ex some border clock always reads 2AM
and time runs away without a hint of mourning.
Love him anyway, Grace said, It’ll be a remedy.
She said things like that. I should have taken her advice
like a potion, guzzled it like Bourbon, like General Lee
who never got over surrender, instead stayed
awake nights talking to himself. Maybe I should
talk to myself all night, drink distillate spirits, stop trying
to suss out the actual time: an hour, a morning, 2 AM.
No Children, Will Travel
she knew when the pollen coated the car
in sulfur slip
it was another summer
with no child
with no child
they travel easily
they easily arrive at parties
with lilac perfume, cognac in hand,
play the elegant part
the part of her hair
the care she gives to geometry
a straight line
for a press release
and the released
breath she sends into the dark bedroom
when he was sleeping
he was softer
when he was softer
he was no one she knew
The Lycée Student, 1937
Late to join the bell-summoned line
of kerchiefs and caps,
she looks out from the foreground
as though to make contact
with us, the outside-the-painting
people. As though she'd like to play hookey
here for a spell, leaving her classmates
to trip over names they must learn:
Daladier, King Zog…
A curious encounter. She
as yet unaware of A or H-bombs,
the camps and the trains,
Europe busting apart like statuary
dropped from a height, or an Egypt
without Greeks, her people.
And us not knowing
how to break the news, explain
the way we live now, logged on
and locked down. How to gloss
words like fracking
or killbox, not in any lingo
she'd have taken to heart.
Back turned to the others
posed in various attitudes,
she must stay at the threshold
where the artist put her,
pictured as innocence --
delight in her expression like a child's
when promised the movies.
In this one, the woman dressed like a nurse comes
home with vomit on her uniform;
her husband slumps over the kitchen table,
bills spread out like a jigsaw puzzle;
they’ll argue, scatter sheets, slam doors. In this one,
the woman with large, pendulous breasts
will miscarry, and you will see an extreme
close-up of the bloody toilet bowl;
she’d already bought child-resistant covers
for all the electrical outlets
and a safety gate for the staircase. In this
one, teens in tiny bikinis rub
in the fat, one-piece girl’s failure: they call her
Dorkimedes, tell her not to dive
in unless she wants to displace the whole damn
ocean, ask her if she had a whale
of a time or a whale for breakfast; and you
and I will watch the whole thing. In this
last one, we will stare as a breathtaking young
mother catches her daughter playing
connect the dots with her grandma’s liver spots
during those final unconscious hours
in the hospital, and the mother will slap
this daughter so hard across the face
that a red spot forms on her cheek, its carmine
recrimination the final dot
to connect in the picture we are forming.
Now the skin flicks end; the lights go on.
I’m sorry: you came here looking for the nurse
fetish’s most perfect expression,
for schoolgirl skirts and French maid fishnet stockings;
for jumbo jugs and titanic tits,
for barely legal filmed-on-her-birthday teens,
for M.I.L.F.s and goth chicks and girls next door,
butt-spelunkers, deep-throat queens, and coldcocked sluts;
and you have been given this instead.
All you wanted was to see some skin. You did.
Spend the day in it. Here are your shoes.
On Talking to Your Former Self at the Age of Six
In some cramped elevator,
instead of holding your breath
in your knotted hands,
you’ll stir up a conversation
with a cowlicked child.
You’ll say things like,
I used to have a pair of shoes
like that; or, Avoid gluten
when possible. Then you’ll get
too serious and beg of this kid
with too many freckles: Whatever
you do, don’t go to Florida
in May twelve years from now.
The kid will look at you like
you’re Christ and laugh a bit.
You two will make sweeping
generalizations about Play Doh.
and the merits of sheets
that vibrate at the first hint of
moisture. The kid will bemoan
the cruelties of his parents,
and you’ll bemoan how empty
you feel, like a well lacking coins.
After which, you’ll shuffle
your feet and think of all
your major failures as clay
pigeons being blown to pieces
over your least favorite of
the Great Lakes. You’ll sigh
and gesture sadness in your hands.
You, in your wisdom about
world politics and macramé,
will talk about the inevitable:
the demise of western civilization,
good westerns where the hero
dies, and the death of Madonna.
You, of course, have assured
yourself that you will not live
to see that day. The kid will ask,
If not now, then when? You’ll lie,
saying, As the crow flies. The kid,
nonplussed, will say, I just want to
ride the Ferris Wheel until the world
explodes into dust and constellations.
You just say, Let’s not speak of that.
Highway 98 East, Port St. Joe, Florida
You knew this place once the way
you know your mother’s palm, your father’s fist.
No maps get you here. Even compass points know better.
Go on. Leave. Follow the highway, twisted as a rattler,
pocked as its diamond back, a forked route
where an armadillo picks its way south.
Find a path by palm & pine, sweet gums with Spanish moss
beards like old men who tell stories of the dull death
in the bottom of an empty well. Follow the armadillo’s
herky-jerky sawtooth sojourn. The asphalt thins out this far.
Only gravel & oyster shell shards. No new foundations
poured, no blocked condo rows.
Frayed saw grass edges the mudded shoulder.
A dog’s bark echoes over the bayou.
The occasional car slows for a photo.
Alabama plates. Georgia plates. A child’s face presses
the backseat window, breathes white mist on glass
& writes a name. His? His mother’s? He wipes it clean
with a shirt sleeve. The bay is a blue silk skein,
unraveling toward oblivion.
Every day feels
like a churchless Sunday, quiet, somehow holy
in unpeopled silence. A singlewide trailer overlooks dunes.
Spindled stairs. A dish pointed at the sky.
The driveway doglegs into swamp. No cars. No trucks.
You might say “abandoned.” You might say “alone.”
Wherever you look, land sings emptiness.
A message carved on pine might go unread forever,
save the one who wrote it, whose religion of silence speaks
only in mouthed shapes. There’s music here, no doubt:
the woven cries of birds & insects, the bay’s constant hush.
Something passionate because no one hears it.
Shore side, the tide washes in a rotted fishing net.
The gulls are Braille in a whitewashed sky.
A Map of North Florida
My head darkens the map, obscures
miles of coast. I once plotted courses
away, out west, up north, open roads
on an almanac I held in my lap—
a finger-traced escape from a milled
future measured in smoke stack gouts
or a shrimper trawler’s haul. I can’t see
sweet gum crowded single-wides
hidden down limestone dead-ends.
Can’t find the forgotten piers
where I spent nights praying
to be anywhere else. On this map,
forest fades from dark brown
to khaki regions of sand-shoaled inlets,
tiny blue runnels. I drag a finger
down Highway 98 along the coast
& picture condo-crowded beaches,
rows of sand dune palisades, cinderblock
raw bars hidden down dead-end
cul-de-sacs, places I imagine I remember,
all framed in this folded landscape.
I drop a finger to my hometown—
Port St. Joe. Trace the empty spot
where the paper mill once stood.
So empty now. So far away.
The Arrangement of Skin
As if the mounted moose and raccoon heads weren’t enough to induce queasiness,
I’d sit and listen to him explain his latest project in the basement, another black bear,
dabbling duck, some Doberman Pinscher a man couldn’t part from his memory, heart.
The story’s quite romantic till the skinning starts, the ease in which their frozen bodies slide
across the table; coolly steaming, slowly thawing, posed in the last moment
before the appendix of their deaths.
If there was a god, I imagined he was a taxidermist like my uncle, though less bearded
and with more finesse at sculpting the still-life of our bodies, more concern
for the outer than our inner-workings.
But God was nowhere near the mannequins those weekend afternoons, the cold flesh
wrapped around wood wool, the slow stitching of their flaccid bellies, necks,
or the placement of one glass eye after another.
Even then, I wanted to perform a lobotomy on language, find a description
of how I felt when he tanned that white-tailed jackrabbit, not a job he got often,
but he’d often explain the legend of the jackalope, its hybrid antlers, hillside
his handful of sightings on hunting trips.
He’d tell me that he’d sometimes put a flask of Maker’s Mark on the porch at night,
find it empty in the morning, paw prints tracked across the front yard;
that its feral shyness resembled mine, and although I didn’t see the connection
between me and something imaginary,
I was convinced he was convinced by its mythology, lured not by any desire to capture it,
just retell the story.
Perhaps there’s a gene that slowly unthreads the sanity of all uncles, pushes them
to the deep end of the family pool, although he wasn’t crazy as much as lonely,
having hijacked my aunt’s patience with his hobby, drizzling details of his work
into every conversation; touching her cheeks with the after-scent of brine,
and meat soaked in pickle acid and quilted salt.
Once, as I helped give form to a deer’s flat head, he told me how he’d plan to stuff her
if he could, carve out her eyes, throw them on a plate, start cutting at the nape,
down the vertebrae, till he reached the border of her waist, and peeled her flesh
like someone peeling off a full-body swimsuit.
When I asked about the organs, muscles, where he’d put the skull, he said
he’d bury them with her always-wilted daffodils, her white garden cap,
and the grass-etched gloves and handheld hoe she loved more than him.
I tried to laugh it off but I knew he spoke serious about his art, the potential
to preserve his talent through his wife, and as he straightened the deer’s snout,
I remembered seeing my aunt sitting on the porch one night, pale nightgown draped
on the silent steps; her daffodil body stiff like a wolf’s drawn
to the pine-needled moon, half-awake and drinking my uncle’s whiskey.
Beginning, with Lists
They say we survived the fire because we hid in
and "other bodies of water"
When a group of us lies on the ground,
our bodies form a map of a series of lakes.
We are the secret, swollen, double version,
the useless, fragrant mud version,
the boiled, dried, smudged version.
Other theories I've been considering as I stand around ripping up dresses
and boiling strips of cloth--
we are more like letters than words,
more like scratch-marks than letters,
we lead to what matters but do not matter ourselves
Beginning, with Char
Let's get this out of the way--
the people will be strung onto the fire like beads onto a wire.
I’m not going to say it isn't pretty
now that I've gotten used to it.
Most days when the fire comes I carry my eyes around
and say yes to them, hold them and feed them,
two little, open-beaked dead stars.
But today I woke up and the story hadn’t even started. All morning,
straight, simple vertical stripes of white pine.
Finally I walked onto the canvas of the empty field and said here’s what’s going to happen--
we’ll arrive by boat
we'll be special
we'll clear thousands of miles for train tracks, logging trucks, and farmland
we’ll stack the brush and let it dry
we’ll think we’re building a future to rise above the cold, flat lake we drain out of it
but what we'll actually be building is a fire
then, to survive, we'll become the fire,
then we'll be the green shoots after the fire,
then, when others come, the fire again
the char will have no voice
that's the definition of char
Beginning, with Chipped Cup
After we got used to the fire, after they gave up
and started making new maps without us,
little carvings and glued faces started showing up again
in the shed out back.
When my mom came out of the shed and slammed the door,
I asked her why someone would bother if she knows she isn't likely to finish,
if she’s more likely to melt with the pieces in the fire or to drop one when it gets hot
and cause the fire.
She told me to go put my white dress back on and help my brothers.
Try sitting in the unfinished corner at the back of the house this time.
Try, my brothers said, as she shooed me toward them,
try looking like an old fashioned picture of a girl.
We need something in the frame to be human and something--that chipped cup--
to be historically accurate.
You'll figure it out.
Make it look like you're fine.
My brothers said that’s what everyone's saying now—
it’s a photograph of the authentic past if the person half smiles
but still looks as if she might start to scream in the next frame.