Category Archives: Sustainable Chaos

A Fundamentally Backward Metaphor Since Young People Are Less at Risk from COVID-19 but Anyway, a Parasite is a Parasite: Thoughts on Being an Essential (Teacher) Worker During a Pandemic

Please sacrifice your young, the cowbirds say,
depositing their eggs in someone else’s nest.
You know, it didn’t have to be this way—

all the precious hobbitses are safe.
Other countries made a safety net.
But. Sacrifice your young, our cowbirds say,

and we bob our stupid avian heads and let them take
the food we worked for. Our own babies are just waste.
But no, it didn’t have to be this way—

“Many parasitized species routinely recognize and reject cowbird eggs…
destroying the egg, rebuilding the nest to cover the egg, or abandoning the nest.”
Please sacrifice your young, the cowbirds say.

Restart the economy. Open your campus. #vacay.
Do we always, always, always have to say yes?
Maybe it doesn’t have to be this way—

maybe we don’t have to curtsy every single day.
Billionaires don’t always know what’s best.
What if we don’t do what the cowbirds say?
What if it doesn’t have to be this way?

_____

Quotes on cowbirds from: https://web.stanford.edu/group/stanfordbirds/text/essays/Cowbirds.html

No cowbirds here. None in our yard. We’d holler at ’em. Scare ’em away. Throw rocks.

______

Of course I’m lucky to have a job. Lucky I’ve been working from home since late March.  Lucky in that there’s a chance I’ll get to teach my courses the way I want to this fall–all online, but lots of group work for students to interact with, and lots of one-on-one conferences with me (possibly in person, depending).

 

But universities are opening for all kinds of reasons other than “this is healthy and safe and best for the public good.”

______

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.

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—

______

QUARANTINE ABECDARIAN THAT AMAZINGLY DOESN’T USE “QUARANTINE” FOR THE “Q”

Aline is a poet
Bob likes to fish
Chuck likes to throw things
Doug plays in the dirt
Ed likes to teach
Fanny likes to WHAT? WHAT DID YOU THINK I WAS GOING TO SAY?
Gale is a blowhard
Hi says hello
I spend so much time
Just amusing myself. I wonder if I can
Keep it up when we start
Losing people we know to the virus.
Mom and Dad are in lockdown
Now, we can’t hug them
Or even visit except online.
Prayers seem distasteful when the religious
Quacks sound them the loudest.
Really trying to focus, to be there for my
Students, but I feel stunned a lot of the
Time. But I keep trying. Which of
Us will turn out to have the right
Vision for how this all will
Work? Imagining the future takes e-
Xtreme optimism, which I don’t have. Do
You? Let’s talk about it more on
Zoom.

_____

I’m not much of an optimist, but in a few weeks, my azaleas will be blooming.

Pandemic Poem #2: Singing Happy Birthday Alone

Life might get back to normal, but I don’t know when.
I’m trying to work. I’d rather nap. I just wash
my hands and sing happy birthday again and again

and watch my hands dry out. Here’s another concern:
if I don’t strive hard right now, really push,
my life will never, ever be normal again.

Pandemic, panic, politics. Alliteration is not our friend.
While I wait for everything online to crash,
I decide to wash my hands and sing happy birthday again.

I want to be a superspreader. I want people to die. I want
to die. I’m not as shocked as I should be by my awful thoughts.
“Things will get back to normal.” Can you tell me when?

I’m grateful for root vegetables and food in cans.
My hero potatoes: fry, roast, boil, mash.
Will we ever sing happy birthday at a party again?

How soon we have to cook over open fire depends
on how well the grid holds up. Such a specific wish.
Life might get back to normal, but I don’t know when.
I’m singing happy birthday all alone again.

Nothing Much

–for friends whose child died

 

I have nothing to give you, and nothing
on a piece of paper will help except that
having lost everything, you have
less than nothing, so maybe nothing
is something, maybe nothing is enough.

I am so sorry for your loss. I am so sad.
I think of you so often. I send you love.
I send you my prayers and my thoughts.
I, I, I,
I have this compulsion to make it about me.
One time I grieved so hard for a man
I barely knew, it took me years
to write the widow and that letter
was, like this current moment, about me.

Love from a distance and tokens and prayers
and kind thoughts on paper and strong wishes
every time you cross my mind, which is a lot.
As you continue to do the math of all you’ve lost,
the complicated math, the algebra, the calculus
(the problems of death are exponential,
the remainders don’t fit anywhere), just add
this in somewhere, this nothing. It isn’t nothing
exactly, but it’s not enough. It’s nothing much.

Questions of Real Estate

“Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” Elizabeth Bishop

 

When I look at Real Estate in The New York Times,
I am charmed, absorbed by how small the spaces are
how much they cost, how light, how airy, how clever.
And oh!  The things the owners say sometimes:
“It’s a modest little apartment but it’s so well done,”
(Barbara Barrie said) “It has brought me joy every day.”
But the odds for joy on the Upper West Side of Manhattan
are better than even, I’d guess. I really couldn’t say.
I am obsessed with other people’s homes.
I drive by houses and picture myself there.
Would I like it? Are the people inside happier
or sadder? Do they want to stay or go?
I think I could be happy anywhere.

I could be happy anywhere but here.

_______

I suppose it’s possible that last line is true, but more likely it’s the poet in me having that line occur to me and going NICE TWIST.  In any case, my house in small-town Wisco is pretty sweet sometimes:

a pic my husband took this morning

Dream Song #4 (a fat sonnet)

The trees and hills are at that awkward point
of winter, snow on the ground but nowhere else,
a bald guy with new implants too spread-out
to be attractive. I can’t wait until it all melts.
I had a dream once of climbing a hill like that.
I stubbed my toe, looked down to see bright pink
instead of white—blood mixed with snow—I think
that’s why hills look like heads to me still. What
dream book should I consult for giant head
with tender scalp and kicked-up bleeding crown?
I was part of a dream journaling experiment back then
and had a wicked crush on the therapist who led
the group. He had snake dreams. We all said
a snake means sex. He said no, not always. It doesn’t.
At 22, I was a nearly-manic mix of depressed
and horny and drank too much one time and tried to find
his house. I knew it was by a lake. If I found
his house, he didn’t answer the door. Which is good.
That night felt like a dream, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t.

Shantung Time

How will we say we’re less vulnerable
Without being vulnerable? “Oh, we don’t
DO that anymore,” we’ll say, when someone shares
A little too much because all sharing
Has become oversharing, other than strategies
For getting stains out of the shantung
Pillow covers and the shantung pencil skirts
And the shantung drapes, because yes,
We are moving to a time of nubbly silk
And charmeuse and chiffon and brocade,
The 2050s, what we’re longing for,
Not there yet, but it’s coming,
A time when outside the gates there’s chaos
But inside the walls there’s harmony
And quietude and busy, humming bees,
All dearly bought and all we have to lose
To get there is our urge for authenticity.

______

Shantung skirt and jacket

“Dräktjacka” by Mölndals stadsmuseum is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Dream Song #3

Does cultural appropriation demand intent?
What if what I did was only in a dream?
I watched an eagle landing on a chicken

over and over and over again.
It was some kind of Native American thing.
Does cultural appropriation demand intent?

I decided I should weave feathers into a crown.
It looked like a massacre, but there was no harm
done by the eagle to the chicken.

We started singing, loud, “C’mon
Let me see you shake your tailfeather.”
Does cultural appropriation demand intent?

We were being assholes, absolutely stomping
around, not caring. We didn’t belong there.
Could you watch an eagle groom a chicken

and not wake up laughing like I did?
Is it my fault I summoned John Lee Hooker?
Does cultural appropriation demand intent?
I am sorry. For the singing and the laughing. And the eagle. And the chicken.

_____

I feel like my subconscious is a mess.