Sipping mango tea, Robin and I labor over our gourd poem. Bidding against each other for slang culled from the lexicons of pro wrestling and figure skating. Robin swaps lutz for leg lock. Compliments my film noir metaphors, introducing me to the defective detective whose curse is a gift. Whose gift is a curse. I trade axel for her hope spot. Her sons, she says, play football for the Boilermakers. Her husband prefers white shirts with Adam Smith neckties. I show her a snapshot of my white German shepherd. We collaborate on a groundswell poem that thrums like the chords on a pedal steel guitar. Browse a bookstore during lunch break. Thumb through the instructor’s magnum opus. Sidestep Romance to pass through Suspense. We write again. Her ekphrastic applause for Hopper’s Automat. My dour projection from a Coney Island postcard. Its crowded boardwalk. The Wonder Wheel. I buy her a red Merlot from the cash bar during the afterglow reception. We nosh cubes of blue cheese, exchanging guarded asides about the tyranny of prepositions. Then bicker over the distance between Muncie and West Lafayette. I criticize the joy in her Automat draft. She takes her hope spot back. We quarrel over whether Double Indemnity was plotted during a one-night stand. Until the wine vinegars our tongues. Until only the words which make stranger a verb remain.
The Word Heart
The critique group warns me
I’m walking a tightrope when I use it.
Their mouths are flashing lights–their red pens
bars lowered at the railroad crossing.
We must all be watchful of this word.
It will stick like tar, drown a poem
in canned syrup
no one can stomach for long.
I look back on all the mistakes I have made—
even when I’ve tried excluding the word,
it has come back with a force
solely its own,
like the lover who won’t give up,
like the muscle that must be used or die.
What humans brought into the world is exaggeration: for example
that day we shuffled into the bleak auditorium, me baby-faced
with a haughty and yearning heart; young, brainy, stiff-necked
and all around me, rubberneckers looked for him and there he was,
at the podium, face like a potato, portly;
hands that could fist the throat of a fish,
famously unsmiling, a dense mountain from Montana
come to us, idiots of the west.
This man is my lover I wanted to announce; like so many others
he just doesn’t know it yet. But he opened the book
as I had my own eyes, a thousand times,
in light and dark. And he began to read
with the authority of a conductor taking me to the stops,
and shelters. Until now no one had ever used
the second person on me.
The last good kiss, he said, /you had was years ago. I seized my seat
handle, melted into the chair, my hair was in pleads, my toes
griped the slope of the raked stairs,
that ghost kiss came to haunt me,
my whole life, even as I stand and make like to throw this chair
at the window and, as the glass breaks, I cry: take that, Time.
Sylvia, Hank, and the Undisciplined Squish of Emotion
Much has been written about the foundry furnace
crucible of molten metal heat of hate and love,
poems and novels, iron and magnesium, red-hot,
white-hot: the fluxing Sylvia + Ted conflagration.
This obscures her luminous writing, hiding it
behind the soap opera of raging poets
with verbal sledgehammers plus suicide:
kids in another room and head in oven.
However, Plath’s original version of Ariel,
the one not edited and re-jiggered by Ted
nor published for forty years, was semi-sunny:
the first word is “love”, the last word “spring”.
I discover this factoid—and embryonic marvel
for Sylvia as a capital P poet, not Sylvia
as Our Lady of the Eternal Tabloid—after
examining a photo of an annotated page
from her copy of Four Quartets. Handwritten
notes in the 4th quartet reference the 2nd:
the phrase ‘undisciplined squads of emotion’,
which, in her scrawl, reads as ‘squish’ of emotion.
This leads into a rabbit hole of imagining
an emotionally squishy time in her stormy
life, so I envision an intense college kid
in the summer of 1952 in an almost jolly
mood during a breathless Manhattan bus trip
to see Hank Williams perform—she scribbles
of her deep love for the dark, depressive longing
in his eyes, his voice, and mostly, his songs,
into one of her omnipresent journals.
It’s easy step to fantasize them falling—
hard–for each other and tumbling into bed,
kicking off a lively, fun, and brief affair.
Another rabbit hole, this one digital,
conjures a kinescope of a TV variety show,
with Hank dedicating I Can’t Help it
if I’m Still in Love with You, to “a girl
I recently met, a wild young poet”,
and his signature warm, nasally moan
painted with an pronounced twinkle.
Sylvia, Squish, Hank. I can’t help it . . .
Don’t Write About Writing
in response to Sylvia Plath’s “Words”
Each word breaks the plane
the fourth wall
the line in the sand
Saddles a horse
laden with magic
to stop injustice
the fall of humanity
and the cry of babies
But the lonely and the happy
the calm and the frantic
the emboldened and the silent
from their circumstances
of their achievements
Here the writer pauses
And keeps writing
because that’s how
it’s always been
Secrets That are Not Mine
He’s convinced I’m going to put his secrets
in a poem. That’s what poets do, he says.
I know his hidden sadnesses,
tadpoles wriggling in my palm.
My own are tucked away or buried.
Also not safe.
Men think sexual crimes
are rare. They do not share
with other men.
But the women I know
let me walk in their ruins.
Noting the lack of shade,
the burnt, patched grass.
Not Writing Because
Outside, the neighbor blowtorches weeds.
An earless girl tries piano keys.
A car refuses to start, though its driver insists.
The tumbler releases the flywheel’s blissful sputter.
Perhaps he is late for work.
Maybe he is off to meet someone he’s heard from
after twenty years, someone who he believes could finally love him.
But of little explosions under the hood,
he knows only heartbreak.
Or, he is down to his last cigarette.
He’s promised to quit. He made it four weeks.
But then, he loses his job for being late
too many times, or she laughs at his confession,
and he wishes only for what we’ve all wished for:
a dramatic exit.
I begin to hate that car—
forestaller of everything that could save him.
That dream-crusher, cork of impulse and intention.
That pig-headed, unimaginative, uncooperative malingerer
of a poem—
I mean, car.