Tag Archives: culture

What to Write Poems About

At fourteen I wrote them about glass and coffee
and self-identity. Like a bird I screeched my sentience
from telephone wires.

At fifteen I wrote poems about writing poems,
an embarrassing amount, really.
Like any honest teenage writer
I was more enthralled with the idea of art
than art itself.

“I’m a poet,” I announced to a world half-listening,
and roasted those words until they were overdone
and rough as leather. I admit, in those early days
I did not know how to be tender.

At sixteen I turned with a hardened heart
to the way of Plath, depression, darkness
and macabre feminine ballads.
That was no place to stay

so at seventeen, having passed through the
three levels of novice writer hell,
I dug in my nails and crucified myself
on paper.

And now at the ripe age of nearly-nineteen
I write them about spiders and alcoholics,
violins and violence, ocean waves and
wavering conviction

not to mention
feminism and France and sunflowers
and goodness and God
and you.

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Meeting Michelangelo

You should never meet your heroes.
Ah, but how many times have I heard a stale cliché
and proceeded to ignore it?

A month ago today I met the author of The Book Thief
and stood like an ant before a mountain,
trembling in my bones beside
the fullness of him.

Who was I, to this man?
I knew every crack and crevice of his story
and he did not even know my name.

He was about my height, actually.
He was not ancient and he was not towering,
had neither black cape nor scepter
nor raven perched upon his shoulder.

He was not grey and wise,
he did not have marble universes in his pocket
or shoot fire from his eyeballs.

I had wanted to convey in pure poetic genius
that his book carved me into a person
the way Michelangelo chipped away
at marble and found David inside

but all I managed to do was hold out my copy
and stammer, Thank you.
Thank you so much,
for this.

He did not – as one might suppose –
strike me with lightning.

Rather, he put his arm around me.
The hand that wrote my favorite novel
hung for a moment around my waist
as he told me he cried to write the ending
I cried to read.

How human he was, then.
How the stone crumbled, with a single tap,
to reveal a face just like mine.

NaPoWriMo as Cardioversion

For Johnny, and the resurrection of our creative selves.

Today’s poem rests atop a precarious
pile of essays and to-do lists
and unfinished emails.

This, I have to remind myself,
is the important work

this: my art,
the heart of my life,
that I must sometimes shock
back into beating.

One Voice, Speaking Without a Mouth

To play with an orchestra is to surrender control
and to let your hands move
as they know how.

You must learn how to become
the person sitting beside you
and to bend, like the grass,

to the music that moves you.

The flutes with their birdsong
and the cellos with their cathedral chords
have much to teach us

about the simple strings and buttons that,
when touched, stand tall
and speak for themselves.

Song of Rainwater and Stone

It was beautiful, and it was sad.
These two tastes have coincided so often
I have come to expect them in my mouth
like cream and sugar, like salt and pepper,
inseparable and incomplete without the balancing flavor
of the other.

You would love me if I told you why I cried into my pillow tonight
but for now I’ll keep these swollen eyes and trembling lips
a secret.

All you need to know is that
I was beautiful, and I was sad

and when the tears met the crevice of my mouth they tasted
like rainwater hitting stone,

stone that withstands a thousand years of wind and time,
stone that weeps with the sky.

Birdseed

A stream of consciousness piece

I leave my heart open like a birdcage.
I am not trying to trap anything inside,
I am just tired of living in a world where
people who love each other don’t say
they love each other.

What is it like to not have a body? I want to ask the wind.
Does it hurt being everywhere at once?

My empathy is a drop of honey on the tongue –
it is sweet, but not enough to soothe a throat.
This world is so busy screaming its voice has gone hoarse
and I spend most of my time reading its lips

searching for the pain that is more than verbal.

My thoughts don’t fit neatly into my mind tonight,
or any night. If I take them and scatter them
like birdseed, will it lead you back to my door

which is open, by the way, swinging
and sighing on its hinges?

I don’t have the strength anymore to close it,
or to turn my back to those who knock.
I only want to hold each new face in my hands
and kiss its blushing cheeks, pink and soft
as a newborn child’s skin.

None of us asks to be born.
I imagine my not-yet hands pressing against the walls
of my mother’s womb
and falling through a trap-door into a world that is
not as warm as the human body.

I want to fall in love with someone with a heart like mine.
I want our hearts to speak through our ribcages to each other
and say, “My door is open. I will not close it as long as I live,”
because closing up is painful and wrong.

Ask the flower that, once open, can never retreat back into itself.
Ask the tree that can never take its roots back from the soil.

Like a pact, like a promise, give your heart away
and accept that it will not come back the same.

My fingers, once tangled in your hair,
will never be the same.

Tell yourself this is good, this is natural

and when you offer birdseed, open your palms
because you understand nothing can eat
from a clenched fist.

Why are you hesitant by the door
when it’s ajar

and why does a firefly in a jar
stay when there is no lid?

I have no answers, only this

door, open for the sake of
being open.

Go

If your head has grown heavy and unbearable,
away to the woods to regain your smallness.

You have no more use for economic theory and manmade history,
trust me. Count the rings in the trunk of an oak tree
to learn all you need to know.

Teach yourself to shed this worldly skin, to crack this corporal shell.
These walls are bones that cannot hold you –
splinter away like wood
like an acorn bursting forth
you must go, you must go.

Like a candle flame on a wick
lean and burn in the direction of the wind’s choosing.

I Am Just as Human as You Are

Too many times you looked at me like my fingers were grasping the switch
that would rock your electric chair.

No, I will not hold a life in my hands.
I am not your executioner or your liberator,
I am not your Christ.

Stop thinking of me as a raven in a graveyard,
my beak stabbing the ground, waking the dead.
Stop imagining me with the sky and earth in each palm,
bringing them together with a clap —

ground-shaker, thunder-maker, heaven-swallower.

I will not hold the world in my throat or on my back.
I will cough it out, I will thrust it off.
The only thing worse than being treated like an animal
is being treated like a god.

Too many times you gave me your heart to weigh against a feather.
Too many times you looked at me like I was Fate with her cruel scissors.

Slowly, deliberately, one by one

I lift away my fingers.

Litany of a Sunflower

“The sunflower is mine, in a way.” – Vincent van Gogh

As God loves his followers,
so the sun loves her flowers.
You’ve never seen disciples like these –
they raise and bow their heads to her,
they sway like women in church,
they never turn their backs.

The closest I ever came to a religious experience
I was hovering like a hesitant bumblebee
in the French countryside, the day
I tried to pick one from the edge of its field

I wrestled with its stalk for minutes
before my uncle eased my hands away
and snapped it for me.

Because my fingers were gentle and incapable,
I carried my stolen gift to a grave
in Auvers-sur-Oise where I laid it six feet
above a painter’s bones

and I swear he was breathing at my neck,
nothing heavy, nothing threatening,
just grateful –

gentle and incapable
of grabbing me by the wrist
and pulling me up by the roots.

I know you, I thought.
I know that hesitancy.

The realization came like water from the dirt,
it came to me earthy, it came to me holy,
pure as an epiphany at the altar.

This is the closest to God
I’ll ever be.

Tour de France

You step off the plane, and it’s like you’ve time-traveled. Your body finds itself six hours ahead of its time. Your eyes see sunshine where they expect darkness. Your ears find noise where they expect silence. Your internal clock is now stalled and completely out of sync with your surroundings. And yet – the sounds! The people! The language! Everything is colorful and lively and new and you’re afraid to blink and miss a single second of it. Your hands shake — with excitement or exhaustion, you can’t tell.

On the train ride down to France, you see its neighbor Germany through a window – your first real view of Europe. It is somehow everything you expected and nothing like you imagined. It’s a cluster of villages nestled into the sides of a rolling hill. A countryside that sprawls out far as the eye can see. The grass, the rivers, even the air – all have a foreign quality to them.

After two hours acquainting yourself with Europe behind glass, you leave the train and take your first step on the ground of this alien continent. You feel like Neil Armstrong, going boldly where no man has gone before. The people around you speak in a tongue that, to your ears, is complete gibberish. Your head swirls with English thoughts that you cannot express to anyone, and, for the first time in your life, you feel voiceless. Unable to talk, you listen.

French is music. French is ballet. French is a silk ribbon of sound floating through the air into your ear and you understand nothing about it except that it is beautiful.

Fast-forward to your visit to quaint French villages, where you feel as if you’ve been plucked from reality and set down in the pages of a storybook. Think fairytales. Think Beauty and the Beast. Think flower-boxes and horse-drawn carriages and outdoor cafes where poets, artists, and intellectuals recline and discuss the great theories of the universe over coffee and bread.

france 4

Bread. It permeates everything. You smell it in the air, on your clothes. You carry it home with you and smell it on your skin at night. Your first French pastry is a pain au chocolat and when you bite into it, you bite into the sun. Fresh out of the oven, it fills with you with warmth that runs like liquid gold along your taste buds and into your bloodstream, stimulating every drowsy atom of your body to life. Bread at home will never taste like proper bread again.

You spend a night in Alsace, walking its streets long after the sun has fallen and the shops have closed and the tourists have cleared. And suddenly, in a moment of pure clarity, you realize you have stumbled upon the secret heart of France. It isn’t in Paris, as so many believe. It’s here. It’s in this little village – this tiny, overlooked dot on the map. You know because you ate its cheese and you drank its wine and you opened your mouth to its every taste. Now you stroll under its streetlights; you kneel to pet its stray cats. You touch the stones of its cathedral and think of everyone who has ever bent to pray here. You want to smile and you want to cry but mostly you want to lie down on this cobble street and be swallowed up into it and become a part of this magical town forever.

france 3

But you leave. You leave and you visit Paris, which is gorgeous and vibrant and wonderful in its own special way. You climb the three hundred steps of Montmartre and view the city from its highest vantage point. You wander through the artist’s quarter and see an endless line of painters at their canvases and wonder if the next Monet is among them. You sit on sidewalks eating ice cream and listening to the tunes of street musicians, tapping your foot because music is a language spoken by everyone. You walk through the doors of a dozen cathedrals and raise your face to a thousand stained-glass windows and think to yourself, If I were God, I would always have an eye on Paris. It is dazzling and it is loud and it is impossible to look away.

france 2france 6france 5

It is also exhausting. You visit the quiet hometown of your favorite artist to get away from its hustle and bustle. You pick a sunflower and write a letter and leave both on his grave, where you weep six feet above his bones. You close your eyes and can almost imagine him standing over you, his hand on your shoulder, his kiss on the top of your head. It is a day he would have loved: blue skies above golden wheat fields. You wonder if he would love you as well, love your offerings – read your letter and touch your sunflower, every petal.

france

You visit his exhibit in the Muse d’Orsay and it is something out of a Doctor Who episode. You stand for thirty minutes staring at a single painting. Hundreds of people elbow you, snap their picture, then turn quickly to the next one. You take the time to look, to see. You study every brushstroke, every bit of texture, every fleck of color. Tears slide silently down your cheeks. To know that you are standing face-to-face with the canvas his hand ran across – that you are inches away, that your fingers could easily stretch out and graze the places his fingers grazed. To know that is to reach through time and touch him.

vincent

You visit medieval castles and hear history whispering in the walls around you. You visit Notre-Dame and understand why it inspired so many stories. You sit on the lawn before the Eiffel Tower and consider how profoundly lucky you are to experience all of this.

eiffel tower

notre dame

And then, just as France begins to feel familiar, just as the land beneath your feet has stopped seeming so strange and you’ve even begun to speak a little of its language, you’re on the plane back home. You watch Europe tuck itself beneath a blanket of clouds and you wonder if you’ll ever see it again.

But you do. Even in America, you see it. You see it in pictures and poems and the pages of novels. You read descriptions of towns you’ve visited and your heart swells with joy. You hear a French word or phrase out of an English-speaking mouth and your ears perk up to listen. Bonjour. Voila. Bon appetite. You see it in the eyes of others who also been to Paris, who seem to understand everything you can’t articulate about it. Who can only nod their heads and smile and say “I know” as you struggle to find the words.

You know that six hours ahead of you, France is just as beautiful and busy as you left it. You lay your head down on your pillow at night and think about all the people in Alsace just waking up, sipping their morning tea and watering their flowers.

And you fall asleep, leaving the world in their capable hands.

Setting it Gently Down

“You will find that it is necessary to let things go; simply for the reason that they are heavy. So let them go, let go of them. I tie no weights to my ankles.” – C. Joybell C.

The last time I left
the door slammed shut behind me,
slicing the back of my heel.
I wanted to sink to my knees
there on the stone walkway
but instead I stumbled forward,
a red trail of myself left there
on the soil leading up to your porch.

There is only one way to talk to the moon,
only one way to hold a fossil –
that is, tenderly.

So this is the last bit of time
I will spend on you, tonguing
your name and hacking it out with my pen.
I will stop trying to unearth you.
I will stop listening for you
in the full-throated scream
of the cicada beneath my window.

I will stop watching the clock and
envying its seconds.
I will accept that there will be
no seconds for us.

With shovel in hand I will go searching
for relics from someone else’s past.
I will hold them up to the light
and they will mean nothing to me,
I will break them if I want to.

It will feel good to speak to rock
without expecting a response.
It will feel good to handle history
with a steady hand and emerge
from the dirt unscathed.

October the First

Well if it isn’t you, October,
waiting for me by the door.
You flash your jack o’lantern grin
as I grab my coat,
candelight flickering between your teeth,
saying let’s go for a walk,
you and me.

The day is soft, the air is new,
nature is sinking to its knees
in a Shakespearean death scene,
let’s take a moment

or a month,
while the world withers and dies,
to get to know each other again.

A Fruit Apologizes for Its Ripeness

I am a pomegranate, sliced in half,
each seed exposed and ready to be plucked.
When your fingers come prying at the rind
I pray to god my insides don’t go leaking out.

Sorry for spilling my guts on the table.
Sorry for giving up so much of myself.
You just wanted a quick look at my anatomy
before I molded, it’s fine, I understand.

I don’t know how to hold anything in.
Barriers make no sense to me –
I seep through like condensation,
like rain on a window
dying to get in where it’s warm.

I am organic matter; what I lack in metal and structure
I make up for with blood and bones –
too human to mimic a skeleton,
too fluid to imitate something still.

And maybe I’ve been exposed to you for too long –
exposed like fruit to oxygen,
exposed like mummified skin.

If that’s the case, I’m sorry for rotting,
and I’m sorry for bringing the flies in.

A Reading Recommendation

To they who scale apple trees and shake the branches until fruit falls,

I say: read the collected poems of Robert Frost.

If you take your tea in the morning hours, this is for you.

If you have ever wondered why birds sing in the day

and cicadas scream at night, take this.

Take it if you love December sun and August rain,

if you delight in the misplaced and the nonsensical.

If a firefly has ever caught you.

If you have ever watched an egg fall from a nest

and lunged to save it.

If you forget names but remember faces,

if you forget words but remember feelings,

if you forget the shape of the body but remember

the touch of its flesh — I have just the thing.

To they who live for the crunch

of leaf underfoot and apple under teeth,

I say: read the collected poems of Robert Frost.

Everything I Wanted to Say to Him August 11th at the Local McDonald’s

I was ten minutes late to the best night of my life —
the night I sat across a booth from a boy in plaid
who, in a moment of pure poetic clarity,
told me God is a place.

((But more about that later))

Across the table, I studied you like a student
confronted with a new philosophy.
I wanted to take you apart and see how you worked,
hold your gears in my hands and watch them turn,
is there a beating heart at the base of this machine?
Hey, I see you –
past the anarchist, past the guitarist, past the angry wayward poet,
I peel off the skin and get to the core of your apple,
the cream, the vanilla, everything that is sweet and milky about you.

But hey, can you take me to God?
Do you have His address?
Can you drop me off on the doorstep
and ring the bell?

You see, the Christians – they’ve got it all wrong, you say.
I’ve stumbled across God in grocery stores
more often than in churches,
I’ve seen His face more clearly in tree bark than in stained glass windows.
God is a park bench every homeless man stops to rest his broken beaten body
God is a car with a stalled engine, abandoned on the side of the freeway
God is a dumpster on the corner of Despair and Anguish Avenue
where humanity throws away its hurt and its suffering –
to understand God, you have to crawl in and sit amongst the garbage –
I have been inside the mind of God,
have you ever been INSIDE God?

Your eyes are electric with the question
they pick me up and turn me over like an hourglass
and I watch in amazement as my sand starts flowing
who knew time was so alive
who knew it could be resurrected
who knew flipping everything upside down
could get you running properly again?

You’re too busy dismantling my world
to see how hopelessly, stupidly in love with you I am –

because you’re ME turned inside out,
and I want to understand you the way
a skeleton craves understanding of its body –
how do you hold it all IN?
You are an inversion,
an upside-down, inside-out,
tangled knot in a ball of yarn
and I want to see everything
from your perspective.

Where do you end?
How deep do you go?
You are a well I could drop a stone into
and never hear it hit bottom.

God is a noun –
person, place, or thing –
you remind me that God is a concept
we’ve never stopped trying
to slap a label on.

Oh, and thank you for pulling me outside
after we had already said goodbye
and pointing upwards and saying
LOOK HOW BEAUTIFUL THE SKY IS RIGHT NOW
and it was a curtain half-eaten by moths
and Van Gogh’s Starry Night blue –

God, did you know how beautiful you were?
Your eyes glistening like a child seeing a firefly for the first time
your hand callous and sweaty over mine
because you couldn’t leave, you couldn’t drive away
without showing me the sky first.

Did you mean it when you said God is a place?
God is a place, you said,
God is a place –
well, I’ve been on the hunt –
find me in your local graveyard,
tripping over tombstones –
searching for a living voice
in the lost land of the dead –

In France I drove through a field of sunflowers,
their heads all raised in the same direction
as if looking to heaven for answers –
so when you think of sunflowers,
I hope you think of us

and that night we stood shoulder-to-shoulder
beholding that blessing of a night sky

I don’t think God’s a person,
I think He’s somewhere you are –
and there we were standing
in God’s beating heart

You told me God is a place –
I think God is a McDonald’s parking lot
and tonight I’m coming home to Him.

I must apologize for my extended absence. I’m starting my first year of college, and it has left little time for poetry.

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.