Poems

Poems from Lost Arts, Louisiana Literature Press, 2013

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Lizard Corral

 

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

(Gertrude Ederle)

 

Five men

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.

My longing

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.

I’m ashamed

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