Category Archives: Authenticity

What the little cat wants

The kitten I’m holding watches
the pen move across the page,
nose tracking the same pace as my writing.
She would rather my right hand
spend its time some other way,
petting her, for example.
She’s so small, a runt
(not a kitten any more) and I can
hold her with one arm, steady,
and feel her purring over my heart.
But she keeps wiggling, wanting
all my attention, both of my arms.

Tuuli, the little kitten.

(I was thinking of this Phil Levine poem, “A Theory of Prosody,” as I wrote, as I stopped writing.)

NOTE: she got down by choice after the selfie. I’d have waited to post it online otherwise. NOTE: she’s back. So it’s time to hit publish.

Independence Day

Drunk on the blaze of my personal arson
and good Tennessee whiskey, I staggered
backwards twenty snaking yards
from my trailer to an oak with a view
of Kiwanis fireworks.
Never mind the drought
Southern Illinois was in the middle of–lighter fluid arced
half a halo in front of me sending undergrowth
crackling and hissing in ashes to heaven.
The blurred outline of my friends through the wall of flame
spurred me on. They were the wicked, quenching
my prophet’s fire with an earthly garden hose,
mortal buckets and tea kettles of unholy water.
It was vision I was after, miles of it,
punctuated by pink and green screaming meemies
and roman candles.The bottle rockets we’d shot
at each other merely tickled and I wanted to scrape
the sky to yell at the Almighty. I scrambled up the tree
in time for the hollow finale, a giant dandelion
of Sousa flashes that sent me disappointed down
into the gentle arms of a blackout.
I woke unable to articulate
“hangover,” the wet-ash smell of war thick as ink,
the charred path behind my trailer still smoking,
beer cans and the pitiful skins of firecrackers
dotting the yard.I stayed in the shower forever grateful
for fire that burned so far and no farther
but I could not cool the sting of vision limited
by recklessness so easily halted: the blank slate
of acres on acres of hardwood forest burned
uselessly might have rendered more wisdom
than my crooked destruction, meager
in scope, unnamed ivies already rooting again.

_____

So much has changed since the late 80s when this event really happened. I no longer live in a trailer. I no longer get drunk. In fact, I almost never drink at all. Prolly a good thing. This poem was published in Cutbank in the early 90s, once I’d begun teaching in Wisco.

These were the days when we’d buy a bottle of Jack Daniels for a party and throw the cap away. “Won’t be needing that,” we’d say. Hey. That rhymes. I wonder if….

Oh–also, I’m sure I could name the ivies now. My guess is that a fair bit of it was poison ivy but also Virginia creeper, or as in the above photo, grape. Which we probably need to clear off our window before it comes inside.

There was also a lot of honeysuckle around that particular trailer, which I knew at the time, because some of it had worked its way inside, into the shower stall, which I liked, because it was so fragrant. I am no longer charmed by plants working their way inside my house from the outside. So much has changed.

Recrudescence

I think I have some kind of chronic disease
or condition or ailment or pestilence because I am
productive only one day out of three.

I don’t mean relatively speaking. I mean
one good day & then I pretty much collapse.
I think I have some kind of chronic disease:

congestion, aches, low-grade fever, fatigue.
Nothing awful, but bad enough I can
be productive only one day out of three.

There’s a name for it: post-exertional malaise.
One cat in particular loves that I’m taking more naps.
I think I have some kind of chronic disease

which might be the virus getting all the publicity,
or maybe I’m depressed. Anxious. A hypochondriac?
Whatever—I’m productive only one day out of three.

Maybe I’m a secret Puritan if I think
less work equals illness, that perhaps
I have some kind of chronic disease
if I’m productive only one day out of three.

____

(I’m exaggerating a little for the rhyme. But I do have some kind of recurring crud.)

_____

This is Tuuli, who loves to crawl under the covers when I nap but would not, for this picture. Weird little cat.

AFTER SCHOOL SPECIAL

Am not the productivity queen, though trying,
every bad habit I have is worse right now.
I’ve learned a new word—“recrudescence.” Wow
is that my life at 3 a.m. I keep thinking I’m dying
from the virus that makes my lips a little blue
but is not, not according to the test, the hot new sick.
You can learn a lot about a person in a pandemic,
but what you think you know might not be true.
I’ve been thinking about the shows I used to watch after school.
Who would and wouldn’t wear a mask because it was or wasn’t cool.
Leave it to Wally to be the most consistent.
The Beave would try but lose his in a minute.
The actor who played him just died—let’s take a second to grieve—
or really however long we need—but I think we can all agree
Eddie might wear his mask in front of June,
but he’d take it off the moment she left the room.

—–

(pandemic poem #11)

IN WHICH THURSTON HOWELL III DECLARES THE PROFESSOR IS EXAGGERATING COVID-19 NUMBERS AND THAT THE HOWELLS HAVE NEVER WORN AND WON’T EVER WEAR MASKS OR PRACTICE SOCIAL DISTANCING EXCEPT FROM PEOPLE WHO AREN’T WORTHY OF THEIR TIME

“Of course not dear,” Lovey says to her Mister
but she puts her mask back on when he looks away,
which is often, as unabsorbed as he is with her.
Dollar signs in his eyes and under his nails.
Who’s in Lovey’s eyes when she closes them?
She’s just smart enough to play dumb.
It’s not the rich man who sets her heart drumming.
It’s not her husband’s coconuts she’s rubbing.
Once more amusing myself takes an extra turn
as I’m sorting through what I’ve learned
in quarantine. It’s you I’m unhappy with, you
and your mask, or your lack of a mask, you make me rage, make me panic.
You can learn an awful lot about people in a pandemic,
but what you think you know might not be true.

(pandemic poem #10)

_____

Answering America (pandemic poem #9)

We are an unserious country. We are a joke.
We say “thank you for your service” to police lined up before
we scream in their faces. This has to be funny. This can’t be real
because if it’s real, Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb
is, like, the mildest imprecation possible. And maybe we already did.
Some weapons-grade sperm implanted strong, healthy, blond eggs,
implanted in the rivers lining the Midwest, somewhere between
the Mississippi and the Missouri, we were so pregnant we waddled
and gave birth so many times to nuclear idiots, venal and mean, and so white.
So many of them. So loud. So sure. So heavily armed. So angry. So white.

I don’t feel good don’t bother me. It’s not corona virus. I don’t think.
But how would I know? There are tests everywhere. Everyone who wants one gets one.
But not me. So I don’t know. It might be some other dread disease.
I have symptoms. But I veer so whiplashingly from hyper aware to oblivious
about my body, I don’t even know when I’m hungry. Everything hurts. Then nothing does.

I don’t need more books but I’m buying them. And buying them.
Support a local business, I tell myself. I don’t drink beer anymore. I don’t miss bars.
I miss someone else making my coffee. I miss someone else making me cookies.
I miss browsing the shelves. America why are your libraries full of tears?
The books miss being handled. They miss the browsing. Even curbside service
leaves them lonely. When you order the very book you want and someone pulls it
for you, there’s another book just three books down, a bright red spine
you’ll never see, a font that catches your eye, an author photograph you develop
an instant, serious, intense crush on, but not now, not when we’re quarantined,
not when we’re not sure where we can go or how to go when we go where we have to go.

When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
You and me both, buddy. When? Here’s the thing—when can I go shopping
and not think about washing every single thing I’ve bought? You and your
mid-century modern concerns. No wasted space on those worries. No flourishes.
You had no idea how lucky you had it. You stewed over the atom bomb
but one never went boom by you. That’s not why your hair fell out.

America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?
We need a haircut. We need a massage. We need to go bowling. For the love of God,
we need to park in a row of SUVs and wear our Sunday best business casual khaki
soul suits and raise holy hands together, repeating structurally plain refrains,
daydreaming under architecture designed by industrial archangels bent on compliance
and ease. There is nothing sublime where all of us on stage wear a mic
designed to blend with our faces, making our projected voices seem miraculous.

America its them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.

The more things change, the more they
change. The more things stay the same.
The more, the more, the more.
Nothing is ever good or bad but America makes it so.
The tiny little campus where I’ve taught for half my life has always had
a lot of international students and I’ve loved them, 93% of them, for sure,
but now we have a sphincter in Arkansas mouthing they can come here to study
Shakespeare or the Federalist papers but not quantum computing. I don’t know but
I’m guessing the mouth-sphincter from Arkansas did not study Shakespeare. Or math.
One time I had a Russian student tell me he missed the Soviet Union.
He missed being in charge of half the world. I guess I should’ve warned someone.

Curvy hips on a girl and six-pack abs on a boy will take us wherever
we want to go if we also have good teeth, good hair, a willingness
to be provocative, to be deeply, deeply offended, to be filmed taking a shit.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
Until the world collapsed, we had no unedited experience, no authentic
way of being in the world, everything styled, just so product placement, curated.
However now our roots are showing. Our nails have fallen off. Perfect lips droop.
The blush is off the rosé colored glasses. The blush was broken capillaries all along.

It’s going to get worse in the city on the hill before it gets better.
We flattened the curve to prove we could and now we’re whipping it
like a cowboy on a tacky tv show because we can. I don’t mean Hee Haw.
That’s where I first learned about re-runs. String Bean died, I knew he did,
but there he was on Channel 12 KFVS Cape Girardeau, as I lived and breathed,
as he did not. Someone explained it to me. Probably my brother who
always loved giving me bad news. Now we say of people who are dead
“at least they don’t have to go through this.” Of people so far gone in Alzheimer’s,
“at least he doesn’t know we’re not there.” This moment nothing seems possible except more
disaster. More terror. More sadness. More cycles of hot takes and outrage and bounce-backs
and war and corruption and always, always, another novel virus waiting in somebird’s wings.
America is this correct?
I’d better get right down to the job.

_____

(Italicized lines, if it’s not obvious to everyone, are from Allen Ginsberg’s amazing poem, “America.”)

_____

And if you’re super-lucky, the bookstore in your town just drops the books you bought right on your front porch.

Dream Song #6, Pandemic Poem #7

Everything’s still crowded in my dreams, bathrooms the worst,
with people jammed in or lined up or knocking, “Can you hurry?
My little girl has really got to go.”
They’re chamber pots, implausible stalls, or holes
in the floor. I’m always just about to lose it
when I find a working toilet in a bank lobby.
So far, barely, at the last second, I make it.
I wake up relieved I haven’t soaked the sheets.
Last night: the closest one is full, the next
monitored by a woman I somehow know doesn’t like me.
I’m close to the parking lot. I just decide to leave.
I’m already late. Somehow this connects
to a storm brewing. It’s so dark all the streetlights
have come on. I get excited when I think of this lie:
“I’ll just tell them I thought it was already night.”

Quarantined Uterus (pandemic poem #6)

–for Alison Gates

Is your uterus quarantined in my office?
Is it velvet? Latex? Mod-podge? Wires? Ribbons? Lace?
If so, I apologize. You’ll get it back. I promise.

Were you in the original exhibit? Are you one of us?
Are your creations fearfully and wonderfully made?
Is your uterus quarantined in my office?

Do you spend more or less time now taking offense?
Has your life been irrevocably derailed?
If so, I apologize. You’ll get it back. I promise.

Let us now praise our famous menopauses.
The big one. The peri, which stops and starts, like waves.
Is your uterus quarantined in my office?

Has yours been removed? Do you miss it? The mysterious
bloody Weltanschauung a uterus contains?
If so, I apologize. You’ll get it back. I promise.

Are you sewing like a banshee gone all Amish?
Has your normally sufficient equilibrium been mislaid?
Is your uterus quarantined in my office?
If so, I apologize. You’ll get everything back. I promise.

This is Alison Gates’s contribution to the Exquisite Uterus project.

_____

This poem was inspired by a Facebook comment from Alison Gates in which she said, in response to someone asking if she was referring to the Exquisite Uterus Project, “Yes! Are you one of us? Is your uterus quarantined in my office? If so, I apologize.” This may well be my first found poem. (The woman Alison was responding to quoted “fearfully and wonderfully made” from Psalm 139 in her contribution, so I was inspired by her, too.)

Alison Gates & Helen Klebesadel (two of my feminist / academic / Wisconsin / inspirations) started the Exquisite Uterus Project   in 2012 as protest against the (unfortunately) continuing (and unfortunately escalating) war on women. I was lucky enough to see the exhibit at the University of Wisconsin System’s Faculty College, which used to be hosted on my sweet little UW campus.

My villanelle here isn’t particularly political except in the sense that I truly believe the personal is political, that it’s political to speak plainly of our lady parts, and I aimed the question about taking offense at people who are offended by the word “uterus” or any hint of women’s agency, humor, intelligence, vast creative power, etc.

My own relationship with my uterus is very much defined by perimenopause these days. My brilliant body chose this pandemic as a moment in which to say “yeah–no–we’re not done with all that yet.”  So that explains the direction the poem went.

In any case, I believe reproductive rights are human rights. That women’s rights are human rights. In case anyone ever had any doubt.  And I’m concerned that people are using the pandemic as an excuse to curtail abortion rights, such as this story from NPR, which describes such attempts (and at least momentary judicial remedies).

In the meantime, I am happy to celebrate amazing, creative women who share their work and their passion and their generosity.

Bad Habits (Pandemic Poem #5)

“Do you realize the illicit sensuous delight I get from picking my nose? … Or sometimes there will be blood mingled with the mucous: in dry brown scabs, or bright sudden wet red on the finger that scraped too rudely the nasal membranes. God, what sexual satisfaction!”  Sylvia Plath

 

Eternity’s stopping and starting all the time—
my fingers shake. I count to three.  Apparently
I can’t stop touching my face to save my life.

I cover my mouth, two-handed. I don’t know why.
Afraid of my breath? Of what I’ll say? Beats me.
Eternity’s stopping and starting all the time—

if our fair-haired Sylvia hadn’t died from suicide,
her sexy rhinotillexomania would currently be
why she can’t sit on her hands to save her life—

I picture nails with a Betty Draper shine,
a shade of pink called Cool Eternity.
Depression stops and starts all the time

for some of us, a tide that likes to rise
and fall, constant. Irregular. Seriously,
I can’t stop touching my face to save my life.

Knowing myself the way I do, it won’t be a surprise
if I die from fidgeting. I hope it’s not immediately.
I can’t stop touching my face to save my life.
Eternity’s stopping and starting all the time—

______

Dream Song #5, Pandemic Poem #4

I dreamed I saw a Wooly dog descendant—
wiggle-butted, scruffy, ornery, clearly
one more in a long line of poodle-terrier mutts.
His owner said, “he’s a Rottweiler,” but
no way. Just too much Benji evident.
Black against the giant foxtail. Curly
in every way—tousled coat, bent tail,
wagging walk toward me when I called.
When I was little, we let our dogs run free
all day and shut them up at night. Also, we
got the girl dogs fixed, but not the boys.
Thus all the Wooly dogs in Southern Illinois.
Every single thing was looser then.
I was happy. My dogs were my best friends.

______

Napping with Wooly.