— after Alison Prine
I was here before the house came down.
I ran up its carpeted stairs,
my feet bare; I stood dripping
in a towel just outside the bedroom door;
I daydreamt of making a mural
of the hallway wall,
my hands full of tacks and yarn.
I came along the backcountry road,
its tar hot and melting in the August sun.
I passed a boy playing crow
in a cornfield, daring a rifle to shoot.
I was here before the house came down.
My feet wore holes in the carpeted stairs.
I wanted this place to remember me,
though I didn’t know I’d leave it — or rather, it left me.
I was the one calling out its name.
If a tree falls in the woods
And no one is there to hear it
Does it even make a sound?
If a police officer shoots a black kid
and no one saw the bullet
Is the black kid really dead?
If a white man goes on a killing spree is he a terrorist?
Or mentally ill?
Or a wolf in white skin?
If the black kid does not get a hashtag
were they really killed?
Are they worthy of mourning?
If no one knew the black kids name
were they even a person
or just a target?
If no one comes to the black kids funeral
Is their mother still crying?
If the black kid does not make the evening news
did they even
A Filipino restaurant is bone marrow
and vinegar boiling
perfectly over the sound
of the most dramatic Tagalog
soap opera you’ve ever been forced to watch.
I come here, when I can afford it,
when my homesick can only be cured
by my mother’s hands
The server is a young woman,
possibly in her 20’s with a posture
that’s been carrying the weight of her father’s expectations.
She calls me, “Ate” every time I come in.
It means older sister in Tagalog.
I can tell by the way she responds
to her mother that she still lives at home,
because Filipino women without husbands
have no business being out on their own,
she wears a crucifix on her necklace
to remind her a man died for her once,
her priest, her mother,
her father, and her aunties
won’t ever let her forget it.
And she doesn’t know.
But I’ve been there.
Wanted to believe that
I could behave and sit still.
Find a nice boy to marry
to shut my mom up and wear tradition
and religion on my wedding day,
but I needed to be free.
And I wonder what young women
like this know about freedom.
What it’s like to not have a predetermined destiny.
To not always have to say the right thing,
and dress the right way
and be the dream
that someone else dreamed for you.
But this glass house
contains a boy
with too many stones
and not enough heart to tell his mother he’s trans.
Because I swore I would never tell my mother.
Because she wouldn’t understand.
Because this is will make the pot boil over.
And this young woman could’ve been my mother in past life
The woman behind the counter says,
“Hi Ate. how are you today?”
Hold back my painful desire
to tell her I’m different now.
I went and got free.
I am not your sister,
but I’m still part of the family.
But the smell of this adobo
is whispering my mother’s name
and I can’t unclench.
My mother grips tradition
and Catholicism so tightly
she has no more knuckles for this.
I do not correct her.
Continue this transaction like we normally would.
Do not try to axe at the root
of this family tree we swing under
I decide to never tell my mother
I can’t be her daughter
Do not throw these stones from your glass house, boy
the only chain you have left
Don’t anger your ancestors
Don’t shame this family anymore
Do not come out again
Don’t do this to us
So, I do not correct her.
Instead I settle into this excuse
rather not uproot this tree from the ground
Rather not show her that she might be the one who is free
We complete our business and she says, “Thanks Ate”
But I’ve been used to being free for too long.
My jaw shakes loose of the weight it’s been holding
dislocates from my mouth
and drops into the young woman’s hands
“Kuya” I say.
which is a respectful title for
I do not expect her to catch me.
My muscle memory braces itself for the shatter
for the shards of stained glass
church windows I’ve just smashed.
She says, “Have I been saying it wrong this whole time?”
And this is where I have to come out again.
A decision to make to erase the history we’ve created together in our connection
to erase my own history
or to be loyal to who I’ve been
I choose to be loyal.
I say, “no.”
Wait for the confusion, the hate, the back turned that I know so well
She says, “Oh, Sige—Kuya”
And wonder how I will tell my mother that I am still her child.
She was perfect pitcher,
Cooled glass and ice center,
Crystal all her own bounty:
Solid hammer, extended bat broken
Cam, when is delicate fist
Worth more than peacock tailed
Beauty fanned against face?
She is not safe.
No one is safe
From the break.
Her grandmother was a witchdoctor
seafoam green eyes and muddy skin
the earth shook when she spoke
islands out of the sea, a place called home.
She is not safe.
No one is safe
From the break.
The sun perched between her thighs
A gown of silk and spit sways against
The winds exhale, she asks the sky
To return her purple labia in exchange
For the low hum she remembers rattled
At moon once the sun burned out, but now
All she can hear is the whir and click of
Her unhinged ribs stringing themselves back
Together in the shape of an open mouth:
she will devour each star until rendered black.
She is not safe.
No one is safe
From the break.
Her daughter wears a crown around her neck
one lone dove in the palm of her hand
she names it after her father's fallen eyelash.
A bundle of sage burns at her feet
smoke twists towards her gathered ten,
she stops listening to her mother chewing heat
long enough to catch the birds last breath.
A copper leash patterned after still
heart of her grandmother’s dust swings
in mimic of smoke, proven ancestry.
She is still not safe.
We are still not safe
From the ache.
We form ourselves indigo diamonds
On Mars, water once flowed. Where
did it go? Some froze, but scientists
suspect a cosmic cue ball — a comet
etc. — knocked Mars so hard
the planet escaped
its own atmosphere, just
left it there, jumped its own skin
like an anime cat
leaving his pajamas spread-eagle
in space. And now, goddammit,
David Bowie is dead.
I worshipped him like a flower
twists its dewy face to the brightest,
prettiest star. He asked us,
decades down, “Is there life on Mars?”
Once, perhaps. There once was life
in Bowie too. Stars glitter,
planets don’t —
an atmospheric parlor trick,
but neither titan ceases
to exist just because
a little air escaped.
(for Abbey, Belle, Circa, Fiddleback, Fritz, Oscar, Sideway, Toast, and Zan)
The Vixen pinks his way through whiskers,
strikes a nice plié,
then knocks a shot of Jäger back,
and drops some Fourier.
The shaven Lion shyly strides
beside his own conceit:
a guileless wilding
twice defiled, but innocent and sweet.
Mama Panda and her Pup
(wily as Montaigne)
splay their limbs in slick abandon,
rolling through the rain.
She's a powder-hounded faun
with talcum in her eyes —
he's Dauphin of Malcontrites:
: the locus of surprise.
The Kangaroo who used to wear
a Fox's gold lapel
casts himself on infant seas
and rides each roll and swell
Rainbow Rat, the dayglo champ
wriggles in a bedsty tizzy,
nursing at his thumb.
The Folf-cum-Husky's snugly tucked
and tangled up in blue
and white and glows so bright
he turns the old moon new.
Even Wolves, who play at stern
and sober countenance,
lose themcells in padded selves
and capillary dance:
though shadows blaze through every day
and coruscate the night,
we learn to see beyond the darkness
by each other's light.
hood the fir cones from
rainfall. They respond
by closing tight
like the armadillo married the ent
and gave birth to
convex reflections of skylight
No slither for the deluge
the fir cones may now ripen
a living piece of architecture.
And when the branches shed,
the needles burn in captivity,
to bless and protect
Vancouver has an
But here the
only permitted explosions
are gas leaks.
always burning down)
with my sister, the arted-up
boarding for windows of still open
Block long fenced off gravel
pit where I once ate gyros
with my nephew. (this neighborhood
is always coming up) The
Cyclery, the reading center are Causes,
rally points, easily raised funds to move
ahead. The family
owned coffee shop
not so much, just another,
they live a few miles south and
their house is being destroyed
to make way for an oncoming train
I did not see her in flight or morning.
I did not stand her harps or trumpets.
or anything in my getting up day.
I traded the dreams we made on the ground
for my dream to be a god in the sky
(It was a guilded Gethsemane).
Hell is immortality without a net.
Immortality is a moon that never sets
after a million Sunday suns.
What was more important in the clouds
to my zest for joy unseen?
What unseen lord lineated my wings
and made them more important than our broom?
What made them more important than our leaps
Through earth bound walls and beams?
What — in the light — was far more desirable
than the beads of sweat in our dreams?
Once we salved our scars on the ground.
Fields bent around the space we tided
and stole away from lashes and bounders.
Once we stilled the weevil in stole away hours
and made nothing more important than our clay.
Once we spun and made a world
and then I flew away.
Why, boy, why should she have not kept moving?
My funeral band should have been dusted.
My procession was better off bare and emptied
in a taxonomy of heartbreak and loss;
a mourners’ row of upturned plots
for living graves of swords and shields.
Hope brought her no feathers in ruby red fields
and memory gave her no balms.
Why should she mourn me in the memory of flight
when my rails meant more than her arms?
For over a year now we've been publishing poems by local writers every Tuesday (you can see them all on the archive page). Each poet recommends the next in a chain that has led us through some of the most fascinating corners of the Northwest poetry scene.
We wanted to take one week out of our schedule to look back, in appreciation to the poets who have shared their work with us, and in hopes that you might discover a piece or two that speaks to you that you may have missed the first time.
Next week, we'll be back with the start of our Fall chain, but in the meantime, here's a retrospective.
EJ Koh was next — we're presenting her, Robert Lashley, and Sherman Alexie at the Elliott Bay Book Company on November 11th, so please save the date. Then: Claudia Castro Luna, Jourdan Imani Keith, Felicia Gonzalez, Emily Bedard, Erin Malone, and Christine Deavel.
We spent the month of December celebrating the life of Madeline DeFrees by running five of her poems: "Matinal", "Phobias Incorporated", "Grandmother Grant", "In the locker room", and "Going Back to the Convent".
So, that's a lot. In these works you'll find humor, beauty, playfulness, anger, sarcasm, frustration, desire, love, bravery, and exhilaration. We couldn't be happier about our Tuesday Poem series, and are so pleased to be able to offer it to you.
Please do spend today browsing them, and we'll see you next Tuesday with new poets and new work.
Art saves nothing
and this is not art
just words running
in lines, hoping to reach
time is running out
for bat and bee,
hippo and elephant.
Coral reefs are dying. Salmon,
once wild, breed in tubs.
Don't put your hope in poems
that plot the putrid doings
of bankers, that bank
on Franz Marc's red horses
gamboling and grazing,
as if we'd never learned
to fabricate glue from hooves.
There’s been a lot of talk about the balcony railing lately. Is it up to code? Does it have a soul? What secrets does it hold? Does it have reality? Does it have anyone to blame but itself? What are we to do with it? Why does it have to appear at all? Personally, I don’t really care. It’s not our balcony. But as an external feature of the building we are to share in its fate and responsibility. In philosophy, this is called the problem of identity over time, or the doctrine of preformation. You may remember the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Well, this has nothing to do with that. This is an HOA situation. I feel the slow crackle of metamorphism. This is called hydrothermal alternation. I feel the clutch of the sublime when I say this. There is a balcony in all of us that develops by rumination. It becomes lost in its arabesques. Though perhaps it may be more accurate to say that it comes to itself in its arabesques. It honors the élan of its own extravagance. This is what gives the balcony railing its humor of increasing subtlety, of understatement and overstatement, of empirical dance and dynastic abstractness. Whenever I’m feeling parenthetical it helps to think of something prominent and wet. I think of the balcony railing. Its lucidity and inertia. The convivial curves of its filigree. There’s a certain implication involved in making an appeal to the vitality of carrots. It is, after all, a balcony railing under discussion here and not a catwalk. If this were a catwalk rather than a railing, I might mention decimals, or pylons. There are intermediates in protein metabolism that will serve as motivational tinfoil. Probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities, said Aristotle. But did Aristotle have a balcony? Did Aristotle cook hamburger on an open grill? Did Aristotle own a single spatula? It is enough that the balcony railing strikes the eyes of the passerby with eloquence. Everything else is morality. No one knows what a belief is. No one knows what a truth is. We just go on pretending that the balcony railing has all the answers. And open our books and read.
Beth Garrison or more precisely Or Breathings, Bearing Short and Bartering Ohs. Sorting Rehab, Harbor Tinges, Brasher Ingot, Neighbor Rats, Herring Boast, Groin Breaths or Groin Bathers. Herb Organist, Barter Hosing, Gather Robins, Erasing Throb, Aborting Hers, Baring Others, Boring Hearts, Abhor Resting, Horniest Grab, and Bighorn Stare. Happy Birthday Bright Señora.
Record summer of fire
close to your home —
a trailer, parked at the confluence
of the Columbia River overflowing
with fish, and tinder dry
Methow Valley. Gone. The water tower,
school, and churches.
Your tortilla comal and family
pictures set in Michoacán, zircon
tiara from a glowing quinceañera,
torched. Smoked too, was your job
tending hilly orchards where apples
caramelized on the branch. Fire left you
stranded like the bear cub
whose mother couldn’t outrun
the flames. Afterwards, no one ate
the charred cows branded
and fenced in pasture, who were bred
not to flee, as you did, arriving
years ago with a few pesos, holding
tears on your tongue, and a blazing
hope — you might have been
the man standing, garden hose in hand,
spraying down his roof, green lawn
of dreams, untouched.
My diaphragm left behind
A mind works funny when it comes to sex
important things crash
A fire wound takes everything away
Random acts of nature relentless
Internalized violence a fog
I killed the frog for science
What we love we destroy
Yesterday I was a sex machine
My warrior searching a way to spark
Internet recessions scare me
I wanted to sleep with him
but my diaphragm was lost
His talking politics turned me off
What fool runs a train so fast?
Dying we land in the book of the dead
Damage occurs when you play the target
If only sex solved problems
We are soon to topple
Did I mention violation?
Law of the strong versus the weak
Mandatory sex is one way to subjugate
Someone was fucking in the warehouse
tools got slimmed, a rack fell over
solid groundwork was laid
A multitude of actions equals no progress
My ass plays tricks on your brain
There is no time for sex unless forced
Did you call the powers into a meeting?
The landlord too busy to attend
The accountant buried in his books
The secretary took notes even though no one showed
The notes were scant
People who don’t vote are like pigeons
dead on the side of the road
Evil an often-traveled trail
Anger stores up in cellular tissue
No heart can stand a broken back
We must learn to ignore much of everything
Survival, a game we lose
No jackpot named freedom
When did Clockwork Orange become fun?
A thrill a minute means alive
An exchange of body secretions
From the other-sided, alee the valley; to give what you want —
says the mentor, irreparably. As pretense gets wrecked like a
photograph. As we haunt eternally.
It's hard to tell.
Cold guy drifts in cold veins, this nightly swim.
So I overheard in LA, grab a shovel, LA is dead.
Nothing is Real. Lame,
I know. Ask if there's proof.
Of life, if not for death's warming the carpet living room.
I'm officially bored with weed,
as if a backpack with nothing in it. As if I hope the world is done
sleeping in synchronicities.
Are there heavenly capillaries networking? Blacked-out to neon.
Who is recording
our untitled hallucinations: washed up on the amethystine sea he plunged,
and what of the notes nailed to the roof with a gun? Days of
noise funneling into the hollows
of my hips. A lot of beating hearts out there. As they say, imitation
is suicide, you lowlife.
I’m an insomniac, it’s a lifelong thing. And lesbian. I’m sick when I say this, a little envious of a body that can fit through anything, a lifelong thing, steady hands but a little shaky otherwise, getting hurt in everyday ways, we joke about it, I’m sensitive. Growing up together it’s years of tangled up arms or conversations and no one touches me as an on my own grown-up but for hugs and comings and goings or across my hair when I’ve just cut it, I’ve grown all arms and head. I say to students in art class, do I look like an octopus? And when did we all know I’m gonna know you forever, and the times we were wrong and the wet weather of being teenagers or losing touch, moving back, it felt like we were fully formed forever ago sweetie. We kept returning to the ocean with varying levels of expertise.
There’s a girl freshman year I still wonder about you, I don’t want to seem vulnerable, said something about misdirecting and hiding. Her cracking, daily voice. You share so many things I’d like to think your openness hides something else you won’t tell me. I’m flooded with sudden possibilities that are in the past. I say who knows, I don’t know. Remembering her like when I finally found an octopus below me but you turn to tell your sister bobbing next to you and looking back I can’t.
I don’t know what I’m looking at and I’ll know it when I see it, I’ve known you guys forever. In my marriage I had no friends there but nowhere to be solitary, you have to share everything, it was in a roughed up old country that knew everyone else better. We had a stuffed animal octopus from some country’s aquarium in our bedroom, it could have been Australia or mine from home or some trip, as a married grown-up what do you do with stuffed animals when you want them, because IT’S AN OCTOPUS, but it’s not for anything. In the divorce, apparently I got the stingray. It’s on a bookshelf now, or maybe never see you again, ever.
After divorce I kept finding myself ranting laps in the pool, back in my own country, foreign again differently now. Could no longer say my wife to uncamouflage myself in the straight world. I’m back with my childhood friends, grown-up together who all live there now they have husbands. The other night we were laughing about the little mermaid. There’s something else.
In England, Ursula was a real name, a friend, friendly, I met her at the lesbian Uni group. Then I got married and she was my wife’s old friend and first girlfriend, my friend their friend Emily’s first girlfriend too, they had such history I just dropped into it, no one was ever solitary, we would laugh about the history all the time or just forget it. I realize later she’s a widow with children. At the pool, there were paintings on the wall that recently disappeared and reappeared more colorful, dolphins sprouting with enthusiasm out of coral and sponges but the octopus picture never came back. I never say the plural, I don’t want to look foolish unless I know you know I saw it coming and know what happened and I’m ok with it, and breezy. I don’t know if you see this in me and there’s no point in hiding. I know it wasn’t realistic but it was my favorite, a group of them orange and floating blithely in the open blue chlorinated wall.
I also worked briefly at a rare bookstore in Cambridge for a woman, forget about it, her own kind of cartoon Ursula, brutal in an impotent small way, learned to describe what kinds of books as octavo to please her but she never explained what it meant, the work ended, it’s hard to think about when I needed her job so badly. It turns out I have a few good friends back here to rush around me. I’m the only one on my own but they are here for weeks and years. This time last year I told you I was coming here and so delighted, what I learned about cuttlefish as well, my grandma just died and the weekend had to let go of everything, rush to family for something huge and unspecified, but I came out on Monday as promised. You asked about donations to remember her. The death lurking in each funny moment, and I picked up some stickers for you, and I remembered intriguing facts for you, and I also have to be reminded about the facts. The last time snorkeling was your fairy tale wedding at the beach. I had food poisoning and thought I was dying like a small child on Friday nights when your parents got divorced. I’d still go back, it was beautiful.
Now we’re all back here I think in the fairy tale version, I’d be Ursula. It’s my body, I’m a nice person. I don’t want to hurt anyone, on the phone I don’t ever say it, I just listen and laugh let her feel we could be close because she won’t notice that we’re not, why uncover myself again. I have no evil plot but I’m not the other characters. You’d be Ursula because when I came back here for visits you suddenly grew up without me, as a grown up you wear dramatic red lipstick sometimes and it surprised me then but now I live here and it’s you of course, normal and glamorous. You’d be Ursula because of the greyish purple color I see when I think of you sometimes, and weekends together, and because of your octopus shirt that I love, and you’d be Ursula a casually flamboyant performer, and wicked sense of humor anyway and we were talking about it to begin with. At the end, I realize I’m Ursula because the sound of my other dead grandmother, I felt like she was family. When I’m sick I wonder if I sound like her. Her deep mysteriously broken voice, so ordinary to me but shocking to my wife then over the phone, no future partner will know it now just throwaway moments. Thought it was a grandfather, but only her normal everyday voice like a million ordinary things breaking and settling.
I use a trick to teach students
how to avoid passive voice.
Circle the verbs.
Imagine inserting “by zombies”
after each one.
Have the words been claimed
by the flesh-hungry undead?
If so, passive voice.
I wonder if these
sixth graders will recollect,
on summer vacation,
as they stretch their legs
on the way home
from Yellowstone or Yosemite
and the byway’s historical marker
beckons them to the
site of an Indian village —
Where trouble was brewing.
Where, after further hostilities, the army was directed to enter.
Where the village was razed after the skirmish occurred.
Where most were women and children.
Riveted bramble of passive verbs
etched in wood —
breaking up from the dry ground
to pinch the meat
of their young red tongues.
There’s this vessel I feel
the presence of all the time. My sister-
in-law sprays a semi-precious wash
of silver beneath her tongue
which is one way to manage. For my own
part I envy the wooden pencils
shot through with graphite, deveining
themselves to the end of every line.
But for the stenographers
everyone do your own typing
seemed a sensible and leveling measure.
They still have their secret alphabet
and their flip-top pads so suited
to it. They took dictation
the way young Mother Theresa
heard God talking plain as a neighbor
yelling through the screen door
that the dog has got out of the yard again
but after starting that new order
and dressing all the sisters in white
cotton ribbed in periwinkle she didn’t hear Him
ever again. It’s not that Wisconsin
is newly rich in silica, which is another
word for quartz, which is another
word for sand, but suddenly industry
can’t get enough of its impressive
compressible strength and tiny
roundedness, which is another word
for I am found pleasing again. I will pour
most of the glasses of water I will ever
drink. I don’t mean loneliness. I could
impersonate your heart by tapping
on this wiped Formica lub dub
until you consent to tomorrow’s
urgent appointment but I hope
it doesn’t come to that. I think
of my prototype — the prototype
of me — gangling on
a ledge: the wire limbs
taped to the short cage
of torso were engineered for maximum
slouching, but, too, you could drop her
from the high roof
as much as you want. That egg
would never crack.
We’re on a roof taking in the view. You
throw something over the edge. You don’t know
how to count into a million pieces. You don’t
know that gone is defined by what you still have
to live with. You want to see where it went
and it’s my job to tell you these things
so I show you, my shoulders and hands tightening
as I bend us into that irrevocable space.
You reach your hands out, straining
against my hold. In this moment I’m capable
of anything, which reminds me of yesterday,
the cup of tea I held steady as I tiptoed
toward my chair. The few drops escaping anyway
onto my skin. My hand opening. I remember
the cup breaking, how it woke you
from your nap, how my quiet was gone
even before it began. And now we’re here,
both looking down, and I’m that capable of anything.