Love Letter to Janet Fitch’s White Oleander

On the inside back cover
of my library-borrowed copy
is a list of everyone who has ever
checked out this book and loved it enough
to claim temporary ownership.

The names lined up neat and orderly
as items on a grocery list –
people brought together by happenstance,
sliding their names one after the other
like beads on some invisible string.

I cast my eyes over the crowd
that has gathered here,
listen to their whisperings:
“God, what a story.”
“So beautiful I cried.”
“I thought I was the only one.”

It is a family I would like to be a part of
so I add my signature to the stack,
scrawling it out like I’m painting on a cave wall –

in the hopes that I may be preserved here,
that someday a girl like me
will run her fingers across the ancient ink,
these sloping As and Ls,
and know that someone
once cradled this book before her —
passing it into her hands
like a baby to its mother,
as if to say

This is yours to love your whole life.

Poem-Picking

I pick poems from my mind
like berries from a bush,
reaching to where they grow thickest –
those far-up places they can stretch out
and whisper to the sun.

Some days the bush is bare,
leaving me to scavenge
the spoiled and rotten fruit
at its base.
Some days the berries are
bursting with juice and
I’m just too tired
to lift my arms and
harvest them.

And some days,
on a day like today –
when the sun smiles
and the breeze lingers –
I emerge triumphant
from my garden,
a basketful of them
swinging by my hips.

Greetings! If you are reading this, I am currently in France, where I will be exploring and picking poems for the next four weeks . My blog will remain active, as I have four more pieces scheduled to publish themselves, but I will not be here in person until late July. See you then!

Bearing Witness

I wish to look at the world
the way my cat does:
unflinchingly,
often for hours as a time.

I wish my eyes could
sit in my skin like that –
glossy marbles floating
in the black universe of his fur –
forever bearing witness,
forever documenting
the happenings of my backyard.

It astounds me —
how he can stare into the heart of a window,
refusing to turn aside

even as a bird is torn to shreds
on our front lawn,
chirping for mercy
at the talons of a hawk,

how he can watch with cool detachment
while I, with my human heart,

look away.

Eggshell Heart

Day after day you pick at your heart like an eggshell
or the way a vulture might pick at roadkill,
peeling back the membrane, the layers, the skin.
Feel this, you instruct it,
pinching its fleshy softness between your nails.
Feel that, you say,
pointing to the bird lying dead on your lawn.
You press your thumb into its sides
until it bruises purple –
watching the color bloom
violent under your fingers.
You tell it to ache.
You tell it to throb.
You tell it to do
its goddamn job.

Mouse and Snake

Once in ninth grade
my class huddled together
as the science teacher lowered a mouse by its tail
into the snake terrarium.

My peers whooped and hollered,
their faces bright with horrific glee
as I, social recluse, finally saw it:

the ring of humanity,
and how I existed on its fringes.

Neither the feeder nor the fed,
but the observer
of the violent order of things,
wringing her hands and watching in mute horror
as life swallows itself.

To Live the Way the Fishes Do

Always the sense that I didn’t appreciate it enough –
This poem, that my eyes skim over
In the early hours of the morning
Like skates across the surface of a frozen pond.

Always the sense that I could’ve dug my heel in –
Cracked it and observed the fish at the bottom
Circling in their own cadences,
Darting in their own directions.

I read it aloud to taste it.
Perhaps if the words sweep over my vocal chords
Like water over a set of gills
I can begin to understand and
Live the way the fishes do –

Here at the bottom of the pond,
Here at the bottom of the poem,
Alive in the bowels of this lifeless thing.

Different Breed of Poetry

My friend Logan writes the kind of poetry
that eats itself –
that gouges its eyes out
and fingers the bloody caverns.

His is a poetry that’s fascinated
with the empty spaces in its body –
poetry with a mouthful of cavities,
that spits out a tooth
with each sentence it speaks.

I want to write the kind of poetry
that roars in the face of such obscenity –

instead of whimpering
and lowering its head
in disgrace.

Hunger

The need to break the world down into bite-size pieces
you can fit in your mouth – to taste every continent,
wrap your tongue around every rock,
melt with your saliva the lines we have drawn in the sand,
the idea that human can be separated from human.
Lie with me in this non-space, this no-man’s land.
You are drawn here the way insects are driven toward light
with furious hunger, the insatiable appetite
to consume all there is to be consumed
at a table reserved for no one.
Do you know what it means to crave?
You feel it along the lining of your stomach,
the way you’re shrinking from the inside out.
Let’s have a picnic.
In honor of every famine, every time our plates were empty,
let’s dine.
Break bread and drink wine.
Let’s eat in honor of everyone in human history who ever went hungry.
Take the food you need, take the love you need
on this checkered cloth we have laid over the earth
upon which weary travelers have stumbled for eons
in the endless quest for nourishment.
And once you have torn the last bit of meat from the last bone
with your cracked and crooked teeth
tell me if you feel better.
Tell me if you understand now.
Once your body has fallen silent and the universe along with it
tell me if you look to the stars, to the moon, to the space in between –
if you reach out your hands like a beggar digging into his pockets and
beg for your hunger back.

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.”