Poems from Lost Arts, Louisiana Literature Press, 2013
My youngest sits on her color-blocked floor
Looking up at the camera like she knows
The world is hers. There’s a long line of blocks
Spread out behind her, running the length
Of the room, and a shorter square on the carpet
Where her rubber lizards sit corralled for a moment
Just like this. The blocks are placed
In elaborate colors and shapes, a city’s
Whole horizon. She’s so good at this.
She’s good at everything she tries
And her older sister knows this,
Outshined every time so she starts to smile
Less and builds no cities and tells me she’s stopped
Drawing pictures while her sister gives me pages of lizards
And cats, colored monsters,
It’s for you, mommy, her eyes shining, the way
She’ll grab the mike from me when I’m singing,
Ad-lib a song in perfect pitch while her sister
Is nowhere, tucked away in her room.
Why do others
Erase us from the world like this,
Deflate us like blow-up dolls,
Our cheeks and shoulders sagging in?
Why is one person’s joy another’s fear,
Diminishment so palpable it comes and disfigures
Us right where we sit, the way we angle our chins,
Stop beaming ourselves out into the world with our eyes
Like my youngest, legs crossed and hands folded
In satisfaction on her lap, her corralled lizards,
Articulated city, the way my oldest so rarely
Feels herself the author of her world like this
Since her sister does it best. Why to exist do we need to do better,
Be better, achieve, all the not-as-goods
Receding into the background
Like a chalkboard erased? I want to shake
My older daughter, breathe my life into her
Find a way to stand beside her
So she will not deflate
But I know that I can’t hold her up,
Provide the form that gives her shape.
Crossing the Channel, 1926
Have done it, no girls
But I broke my first world record
When I was twelve
And though I’m nineteen now
When I slide through the water
I feel I am a hundred men,
My breath, my arms, won’t slip.
You have to look out
For the jellyfish that sting.
A poison creeps into your blood
And you freeze when the waves go rough,
Your arms, your shoulders blocked.
What poison creeps in
When they call you “girl”?
When they say
Can’t and can’t and can’t and can’t
And you begin to freeze?
The Channel is not an ocean,
It is a song, clear notes
calling. These waves could
Drown me, yes, but I am a song above
That hinged boy’s voice when he told me
Forget it, you’re a girl.
I knew right then
I’d drown if I stayed on shore.
Art Against Entropy
In all my incarnations
People look at me
Say why do you run
Why do you lift so many weights,
How can you spend
So much time? And what can
I tell them, I’ve been doing it
My whole life, I will be doing it
Until I am dead.
There is philosophy in the breadth
Of my back, in my tangled feet
Ecstasy and screams. My feet
Hit the ground like a lighthouse
Blinking its way into the night:
What you need to find is here.
There is nothing more beautiful
Than a hipbone, a body stripped
Of anything it doesn’t need.
Is for rightness, for each thing
To take its proper shape.
My Father in the Lake Placid Trees
I run with my knee on fire
A burn from cartilage rubbed red
No slide from one plate to the next,
Flesh-colored athletic tape
Running a triangle from under the joint
To out the other side.
At mile 23 a course volunteer
Is surprised to see someone running injured
And asks does the tape help
And at this point the best I can do
Is grunt not much
As if every nerve from
My feet through my teeth
Is plucked and dancing.
I picked this marathon
Among all marathons
Because it was the last place we heard
He lived, and though I knew
He wouldn’t be there
I kept looking for him
At every water stop,
Expecting to see his camera
Flashing each step of my run
The way it did in high school
When I was in front of the pack,
Not so far back like this.
But look for him by every
Telephone pole, in the light
Needling each pine tree
Stretched for rain, the roiling
Gray of clouds: Lake Placid,
This place of jagged stones
Along the lake, the cold-laced
Twist of trees.
I haven’t spoken to him
For twelve years, not like
I haven’t tried, the Christmas
Cards sent to the addresses I looked up,
Every last John S. Heywood
In upstate New York on the list.
Someone else named John Heywood
Called me once to say he wasn’t
Him, but he knew where my father might be
And he’d try to find him, since, after all,
A man should know his grandchildren
If he knows anyone
And I thought how Keene sets her mouth
The way my father did, the way her brow clenches down
As she asks me whether or not
Her grandfather is dead and when I say no says
Well, can I see him does he have white hair
Will he yell at me so at mile 25
I start to see his face floating every body on the sidelines
Until their eyes and noses morph into someone else
And it’s then he starts floating
In the white cedars
Cheshire Cat winking in,
Winking out, all floating teeth
And every so often there’s the flash
Of his eyes, that blue that belongs
Somewhere else, that blue that shines
In Caelan, the one who turns away in pain
When I stagger across the finish line
Strung across that old Olympic speedskating
Oval that now is concrete
And for an hour can’t walk, just cry
Bind the athletic tape tighter around my knees
And her eyes flash at me and she says
You shouldn’t be doing this mommy
And I know, I know, I know, I know
This legacy, my father’s love
Bound up by grief and pain.
The Bonds of Words
The summer before second grade
My daughter begins to catch up with
Herself, her fingers that couldn’t
Direct a pen find some hidden
Connection like the knobs
Along her spine and suddenly
That long sweep from z’s to e’s
Makes sense, the pen in her fingers
Obeying at long last the dictates
Of her brain, the neat curves of
q’s and p’s. The doubt that had
Shadowed the gleam in her eyes
Falls away, along with the terror
Of swimming, the requests she
Submerge her head. I did it,
She tells me, her voice fierce, I’m just
As good as Keene, her little sister,
For whom these mechanical matters
Of neurons and form have
Always been as easy as breathing,
And my eldest, watching me
Watch her sister with pride and relief
Took the quick flip of her
Sister’s neat shoulders,
her muscular legs, and my delight in them,
As a fatal condemnation of hers.
Keene’s our athlete, I’d already said
And Caelan would turn away,
Lips set, her face a block of stone I was
Starting to chisel in a certain way,
That way my parents called me
the pretty one, my sister the brain
So much I still think myself stupid,
My sister makes jokes
About her nose and hips,
Apologies for some step
Repeatedly gone wrong.
We become the names given us,
Even when we know better
We cannot turn away.
I have done this without meaning to,
Without taking proper care,
Training my eldest daughter’s body
To awkwardness with my words
More surely than her soccer coach
Might be able to train her a
Any other way.
My words hurt. I am the means by which
A sad history repeats.
I must take responsibility for this