What follows is not a good poem. In fact, I haven’t looked at it since i made one attempt at a second draft in November 2005. (I eventually stole parts of it for another poem.) But it’s an interesting poem, I think, because of what it’s trying to get at—that there is an element of possession to love. We want to both possess and be possessed. That there is something somewhat cannibalistic about love, in how much we want to not only hold the beloved, but we want to have them inside of us, woven into the very fabric of our DNA. Of course, if we’re relatively sane, we don’t act on that deep desire. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s taboo to talk about, but we all have a whiff of the obsessive about us, particularly when it comes to love. In the case of this poem, the beloved in question is my mother, who I’ve now figured out was actually standing in for both of my parents. Two people I wanted desperately to possess. Two people who could never figure out how to possess me.
I should also say that the poem is dark, and I find myself resisting that darkness sometimes. It feels wrong to have so much fun being twisted, and I don’t want anyone to think I am actually this extreme. But as all great crime fiction writers know (at least the ones who write for the BBC), sometimes you have to push things to the extreme to get to the very ordinary human truth.
Eating Mother (second draft)
There is a certain desire toward
cannibalism of the beloved mother.
It asks an act of violence,
this sacrament of love.
I love you so much mother
I will wear your heart
hanging from my lips,
the best stick parts
gouged out. When
you expelled me. When
you threw me out
from between your legs,
didn’t you smell the grief?
What else is blood but mourning
for what has been broken?
Now I see your teats are a substitute
lacking the rankness of true intimacy.
They are given too freely.
I suckle too for the ghosts
who didn’t make it, those
you kicked out before
they had hands to hold.
What choice have I
but to open my mouth wide
as all our tiny mouths.
you are our beloved suckling pig.
you are our beloved first kill.
We are giddy with blood and delight.
Self-portait as Baryshnikov’s Lover
How do you hold on to a man with such disdain for gravity? It’s not that he’s out of my reach; it’s that it’s so difficult to reach him. Those mournful eyes hover over me like a hot air balloon. I don’t know enough Russian to explain he’s got the Rapunzel story upside down. We are tethered by the most frail of strings—true love. It is hard to know which kiss will be a scissor, which will be a knot. I would like to blame it on the language barrier, and it’s true, our bodies do not speak the same vernacular. He would like to tie him to his wrist. I would like to tie him to the curl of my back. It is true that we also cannot agree which language to use when we speak of absence. Or how to describe the difference between how his body hollows my bed and how my body hollows his bed without using patryonimcs or patois. What is true: we can both walk gracefully from point A to point B. What is true: we can both walk gracefully together from point A to point B. What is true: We cannot agree on when to start or how long to take or what to do after. It’s difficult to hold on to woman who has such disdain for the gravity of the situation. It’s not that she’s out of his reach. it’s that it’s so difficult to know if she wants him to reach her.
Self-portrait with giants
Today I am rife and ripe with giants. Their footsteps echo like fog, land like fury. To which untidy rooms of my body the giants are walking I’m not sure. How far a giant can walk I’m not sure nor how tenderly. What is known is more than one giant strides and sidles inside of me. Carcass, one calls me. Beloved, one calls me. As the day lies breaking they name me gift in quiet conversations punctuated by the noisy flapping of my heart against the streaked window of my chest, bemused and dazzled and baffled by its own reflection.
miss the deadline
hate all the pens except the one that’s lost
borrow someone’s text
borrow someone else’s text
kill all your babies*
re-define the verbs
don’t remember what happened the right way
write so objects in the mirror are farther away than they appear
write with one eye closed
write with ears full of sealing wax
measure the distance from your desk to the coffee pot in unwritten pages
write all the wrong words
mispronounce everything especially around line breaks
write only with pencil shavings
read too much
read too little
read books that are not yet written
bring snacks to the book club
never join a book club
club the books you don’t want to read
sell out each time you write a story
make a story from each time you sell out
keep a list of favorite best sellers
add “in bed” to all your motivational quotes
keep a common place book
burn the common place book every night and start again
never sleep at night
sleep at night only when you should be writing
jump off the cliff with a notebook strapped to your back
write like nobody’s listening or will ever listen
write like books are dead
write like English is your 3rd or 4th language and you sometimes speak with a lisp
write like a motherfucker**
*I promise I’m not promoting infant genocide here. “Kill your babies” is the phrase writers use when they’re talking about a line or phrase that they absolutely love but, for whatever reason, doesn’t belong in the piece of writing they’re working on
** I don’t usually swear when I write, and I’d probably be too mortified to say that out loud, but come on, that’s one of the only true things in this list….with many thanks to Cheryl Strayed and the Rumpus for coining it first
It’s hard to believe that this poem is more than a decade old. I wrote it during my fellowship time at the Fine Arts Work Center. I’d always enjoyed going to museums but this was the first time I’d ever lived among visual artists, visited their studios, engaged with art work outside of a museum or gallery space. It was the beginning of my long conversation with visual work, although I didn’t know then that I’d get to the point where I’d hear poems speaking to me the minute I walked into a museum show. But that’s another post for another time….
As I re-read the poem now, I realize that it captures some of my discomfort in my late 20s/early 30s at being an “artist,” of having a way of looking that was different than most of my friends. It’s taken me a long time to appreciate the way my brain works, and to know that there are people who appreciate my brain precisely because of my way of looking.
Oh, I should mention that as I remember Ellen’s painting, it was a gorgeous close-up of a tree trunk in a forest of trees.
“The Painter’s Small Wife”
(after an untitled painting by Ellen Altfest)
Yes, I said, I’m really looking,
not looking, wanting
nothing to remain
of the moment, nothing
to shred into something.
I wondered how
you saw it like that,
close-up of plates—
blue, white, yellow, pink—
that were the bark.
I saw that it was muddy.
And maybe there were three trees.
Your brushes, relentless,
drowned out everything.
Here, I wanted to say,
here I am,
blocking your light.
You painted the shadows,
I’m not sure if I hated you
then, or after.
Everything to me
simply brown or green.
When deep within its nebulous corset
the poem dares disturb the peace
for God’s sake, do not make eye contact.
At best it’s an axe-grindy tattletale
at worst a begloomed pilgrim wandering
the road less traveled. Poems are,
of course, notoriously short on epidermis.
Dylan Thomas used to describe a poem
as walking over glass on your eyeballs.
Unpigeonholability’s one of the forces
that makes poetry the raspberry in the face.
These vowel movements—combative,
dopamine-inducing, stabby–will help
a poet grow up, immediately make him want
to do something else.
(Found in Poetry review of Carmine Starnino’s Lazy Bastardism by Michael Lista and Gwyneth Lewis)
Editor’s Note: Writing this poem made me giggle.