Mist

I feel emptied
like a perfume bottle
that’s gone and spit its
last lavender-scented breath.
After years and years
of puffing away,
attempting to mask
the stink of the world,
my last cloud of sugary mist
clings to the air,
desperate to clean it.
My words are bleach
seeking to purify –
filter and refine and sanitize –
succeeding only in yielding a stench
sickly sweet and somehow
worse than before.

Incapable of killing bacteria,
I float with it.

Reverse Gravedigger

An extension of my last poem.

My job is that of a reverse gravedigger.
Instead of burying people, I unearth them –
hold up their bones and announce: Here they are!
Look, they’re not gone! They lived, and it meant something!
The dirt under my fingernails is testimony
to how long I’ve been scratching at coffins,
trying to extract evidence of life.
It’s comforting to assign each skeleton an identity.
This one here: Queen Elizabeth I, my inspiration as a woman.
And these ashes: Van Gogh, my inspiration as an artist.
Perhaps someone will dig up my own ribcage one day –
cradling it like an ancient relic, swearing it once held King’s heart,
or Gandhi’s.
And maybe that’s all life is:
scavenging through graveyards,
holding each skull up to the light and
giving it a name.

The Succumbing

Living –
I have tried to do it with my eyes open
Tried and failed, night after night

To be alive, after all, is to be aware

Awake

My flirtations with sleep are ongoing but
I refuse to invite it into my bed

I’m so tired
I’m so tired
I’m so tired
I’m so –

afraid that something beautiful will happen
while I am not awake to see

(I’m so afraid that something beautiful has happened
while I was not awake to see)

Existential Crisis Over Coffee

Over coffee, my best friend and I contemplate the universe.
Between sips, the questions spill:
“Why are we here? What’s the point?”

“Why does it matter that I paint and you write poetry?”
“For who? For what reason?”

I have no answer to offer, only an unfounded faith
That the human experience is a story, one worth telling,
One with plot, design, commentary – in tender hands,
Beginning like petals of a flower unfurling
And ending with a broken stem, snapped gently, with the kindest fingers.

They say there are sunflowers growing over Vincent van Gogh’s grave.
I can’t say why, but I think it’s very beautiful.

I watch as this poem writes itself,
My fingers along for the ride.
I don’t know why it matters,
Only that, somehow, it does.

vincent van gogh grave

Color

Some context: This poem was inspired by Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, in which the protagonist kills her infant daughter rather than handing her over to slave masters.

Red.
Thick red.
Red like a fistful of crushed berries,
Like juices bleeding through clenched knuckles,
Red that stains palms –
That is the color of a mother’s love.
Love too big and heavy for a single set of shoulders,
Love that breaks your back and bows you to the earth.
I killed my baby.
I killed my baby because I loved her too much,
Too much to give her up to a world that would only
Enslave her, rape her, and drain her of her all –
Too much to hand her over to the monsters at our door.
With love, I raised a saw to her throat.
With love, I tore her open and let her out,
Bent the bars of her prison and sent her running free into the dark.
Let me tell you about the color of skin coming apart
Like threads from a scarf – the color of unraveling,
Taking apart what your body worked nine months
To produce healthy and whole,
Destroying what you labored so long and so hard to create.
Show me beatings, show me lynchings
And I’ll show you killing as an act of kindness.
What you call a perversion of nature
I call an act of humanity.
Let me tell you about the color of chains
That are there even when they are not
And what it means when those chains rattle,
How you jump like a dog scared out of its skin and
Bare your teeth when your master raises his hand to hit you.
Let me tell you about men pounding down your door,
Men coming to claim your children.
Look me in the eye and tell me you would not do the same –
Would not gather your babies into your arms
And send them to a place safe from such violence.
Don’t think for one second it was easy;
Seeing color drain from baby cheeks
Makes you want to gouge your eyes out
And never see colors again.
I only did what was necessary,
What was right –
And if you mark me down as an animal
I have only this to say:
I was never more human than I was in that moment,
My hands stained with murder
And the color of mercy.

Desperate for Color in a World Devoid of It

Teetering on the largest ladder I can find,

I make mad lunges for a chunk of sky.

I think I can peel some off like wallpaper,

scratch at it with my fingernails

until it comes apart in my hands.

I just want a piece to bring home –

to tuck under my bed like a secret

and pull out in the middle of the night

as a reminder that darkness

does not stop the color blue

from existing.

To-Do List

Leave your windows open.
Wake the birds with your singing.
Be first to apologize and last to leave parties.
Make music amid the cacophony of universal gibberish.
Protest something.
Say “I love you” to someone who will not say it back.
Embrace feminist doctrine.
Avoid churches.
Worship in libraries.
Pet every cat you come across.
Vote.
Engage strangers in philosophical debate.
Read Russian literature.
Taste your words before you say them.
Cry at funerals.
Plant your seed of creativity where the education system will not uproot it.
Befriend anarchists and revolutionaries.
Initiate conversation with the sky.
Knock before entering.
Compassion over condemnation always.
Pens over guns always.
Make to-do lists.
Write poetry instead.

Something Less than Naked

He says “Take off your skin,”
so I do – shrugging off the weight of myself like a coat
that never really kept me warm, anyway.
He stands behind me and helps me out of it,
pulling off the sleeves, fumbling with the buttons and zippers
until every bit is peeled away to reveal the
floating mass of bones I’ve always been.
Not naked – something less than naked,
something secret and private and personal.

He says, “Let me see your insides,”
so I show him – prying back ribs to expose a frantic heart
trapped like a bird too long in its wire cage.
He says, “You are more than any sorrow that has laid its hands on you,”
bending my bars and inviting me out.

He puts his hand on my skull,
claims he can feel its thoughts moving right under his palm.
He puts his ear to my lungs,
swears he can hear the last echo of the Big Bang deep in my core.

He says, “You are older than the universe itself. Tell me how it’s been.
Tell me how you swallowed history, coughed out its wars
and made your peace with the rest of it.”

He says, “Show me how you click on and off again.”
He says, “Tell me about the first time you ever flicked a light switch and
what it meant to hold darkness in your hands.”

He says, “Bring your body to my doorstep – leave it on the mat with your shoes.
Come with your thoughts and heartbeat only.”

I’m barely down his street, thinking my thoughts and beating my heart
and he’s already pulling his door open with a smile left over from yesterday
saying, “Girl, I could hear that parade from a mile away.”

In Dreams We Also Die

Last week a boy said to me before class,
“I had a dream about you the other night. We died in a car accident together.”
I drove with him once, in real life, the night he told me he hated being alive
and I wanted nothing more than to kiss the sentence off his lips.
One hand on the steering wheel like an itch – the night he could’ve run us off the road
but didn’t.

In dreams we look for picnic blankets and cherry blossoms
and instead I brought you blood, a shattered windshield,
a bouquet of broken bones.
Like the pen that drains its ink in the middle of a thought
I am always running out of fuel and
I’m sorry I couldn’t get you someplace better.

I’m sorry we had to lay the blanket down here.
I’m sorry about the lack of cherry blossoms.

In reality I haven’t talked to that boy in weeks
but our dream selves are lying dead somewhere
hand-in-hand, staring sightless at the sky
and I will carry the weight of it with me always.

But anyway, it was just a dream.
Silly me. Silly us.

I told you once in a dream that I loved you.
You licked your thumb thoughtfully, flipped
through the pages of your dream oracle and mumbled
“Interesting. I wonder what that means.

My World Was Created in Fourteen Days

A memory waiting to be remembered
taps me politely on the shoulder first,
then shoves me hard –
pulling my hair, tugging my shoelaces,
forcing me back into a pile of my past
where I land on the soft July grass
that grew me like my mother’s body,
bringing me into the world a second time.

This is where I was reborn and raised:
this little college campus that held me in its heart,
swaddled me in the warmth of its people and its poetry,
fed me Ohio sunshine and baptized me in campfire smoke.
I watched sixteen years unfold in the span of two weeks.
I watched my feet grow farther and farther away
as I grew into the sky like a vine twisting its way up a tree,
the only growth spurt that ever mattered.

Those fourteen days, like the fourteen lines of a sonnet,
coming together to tell the story of my renaissance period.

I am not sure I believe in an afterlife,
but if it exists, I hope mine is this:
fourteen students and a writing instructor
biting the tips of their pens,
sucking the world in through their teeth
and blowing it out like cigarette smoke,
the kind that’s harmless as water vapor,
the kind you could never, ever die from.

Stardust

“I stared up at the ebbing quarter moon and the stars scattered like a handful of salt across the faraway sky…” – Billy Collins

I love them, the astrophysicists,
with their multiverse theories and galactic models
and ways of explaining the stars.
I love to sit at their feet – a reverent toddler
in a room of buzzing adult conversation –
listening to them go on
in words I don’t understand
about black holes and dark matter,
the mechanics of space and time.

I of course have my own theories –
a vague belief that stars have hearts like ours
that swell as they exhale their hydrogen
in a small, sad sigh.

Because of course it would be sad, burning out
after ten billion years of watching time unfold.
Of course it would feel a bit like turning the TV off
in the middle of your favorite program.

I look out my window and see a flurry
of broken hearts poking holes in the sky –
hearts that have long stopped
beating in ancient chests.

I too have impressive abstract ideas.
A true observer of the universe, I’ve studied and
catalogued recurring behavior in a dream notebook.

Infinity, for example, likes to crouch hidden behind a nightstand
upon which rests a single book of poetry.
Love-struck, it plants a passing kiss on the hand of the girl
who reaches out in the dead of night
for one last conversation with Billy Collins.

The Poetry Section of the Local Library Grows Ever Smaller

The poetry section of the local library grows ever smaller.
I return day after day to stand under the flickering lights,
watching the deterioration of the shelves
as they starve and shrink and finally collapse into a heap on the floor.

I assume it is the work of a thief, coming and going in the night,
his arms cradling the volumes, the anthologies, the collections
that no one will ever read again.

Today Shel Silverstein is missing.
I blow a kiss to the empty space as a final salute
before returning to my car, defeated.

Every night a new set of words is hauled away,
carried out like a sack of dirty laundry to clear space for
dusty memoirs and eight copies of Knitting for Dummies.

Today, near closing time, I caught the thief
tiptoeing by, casually slipping T.S. Eliot
into the pocket of his oversized trench coat.

I followed him home, waited for him to
retire to bed before sneaking down to his basement
where those lost books huddled together like kidnapped children.
With all the compassion I could summon, I touched my hands
to their trembling spines and whispered low:
There are still people in this town who need you.
Come home.

Staring Contest

What does it mean to have vision?
Like, REAL VISION?
You clutch my wrists like I have answers
And you can shake them out of me.
I’m afraid “vision” means a lifetime of
Staring the world in its ugly face.
I should warn you that the world never blinks.

It hurts to see,
I say, as I pass a pair of surgical scissors
From my hands into yours.
It hurts to cut your lids off and
Live with open eyes forever.

Poet and Beast

It’s not about dropping words like stones down wells,
Listening to the clanks and clunks ricochet off the walls
As you hover near the edge, pleased with your senseless noise-making.

It’s about dropping yourself down the well.
It’s about human skin against stone –
That warm slap that wakens the blood
And can be heard for miles.

It’s about getting inside, you know?
Crawling into the English language
Like a wounded animal and
Curling up beside its pounding heart.

That’s the music.
The steady thump, thump of it going on
In its endless monologue.
You sync your words with the swelling of its lungs
And hope they sound like keys of an accordion
Breathing in dust and bellowing out clouds.

The beast at the bottom of the well
Has never bared its teeth at me.
At night I bury myself in its fur and
We move as one – a slow,
Steady intake of breath.
In the dark, when it’s hardest to tell
Poet from beast,
I can almost convince myself
We’re of the same body.

The Flowers that Grow in the Midst of Hell

“Because the world is so full of death and horror, I try again and again to console my heart and pick the flowers that grow in the midst of hell.” ― Hermann Hesse

I follow him into the midst of hell,
For he leads me not into the fire,
But into the gardens –
To pick Satan’s most wild flower
From right under his nose.

My rebellion, my love –
I wear it in my hair always.