15

When I leave, the sky is still its deepest blue. Half moon suspended. Gray highway nearly empty. I drive south and a deep mist hovers.

Silhouettes of trees: Backlit, skeletal.

As I pass through the security line, the agent approaches. “I am just going to pat down your leg,” and I wonder what the sensors might have detected on the back of my left thigh, on the few inches of flesh in brown tights.

At the gate, I unintentionally position myself facing the entry to the café and there, become a kind of unofficial and dour greeter.

I watch as a man fumbles with his wallet, then drops it. A couple bickers over the price of coffee. I am given an occasional half-smile. A nod. This hour of morning feels illicit.

I finish my coffee and make my way to a molded plastic chair by the window. From here, the pavement outside is endless and gray. I imagine it to be the sea, the vast, glassy center of it. No wind. Indistinguishable from sky.

Hours pass. I drift in and out of sleep. There is cool air blowing on my head. The man seated next to me zips his sweatshirt, pulls up his hood and slumps against the window. The woman behind me is humming to herself.

Dream in three parts:

(1) At the airport, you are waiting. “You are so late,” you say. “Too late.” I hand you the small bag I have been carrying. Inside, a white bird, hardly bigger than a stone. “This changes nothing,” you say, as you take my hand. But I know this is not true.

(2) We are sitting around a long table. The table is covered in white plastic. You are cutting shapes from colored tissue paper. Pink and blue and orange. You survey the table. Paper shapes fluttering. You take one, place it on your tongue. Then swallow. Then you say: “Now you.”

(3) The distance is the distance and the tug of daily living is what it will ever be. I cannot lie and say I do not wish it different at times; do not, at times, wish it anything other than what it is.

When I arrive in Lincoln, the air is warm and sweet. Cloudless sky.

And now, nightfall.

And now, the quiet settling in.

And now, silence. 

29

My mother was goddess of water and by water she perished, plunging herself headlong into the sea.

She had fallen in love with a mortal boy and we all know that nothing good could come of that.

Found herself with child. Found herself in a family way and the mortal boy too delicate and too trembling to be of use.

Invoked the doves to tend to me: Stout-bodied birds who fed me figs and apples and pears. Crop milk

from their beaks into my mouth.

I am daughter of a goddess and didn’t they try to teach me flight? But I did not fly. Did not sprout wings. Stood

with arms outstretched overlooking the swift river and held

my breath –

Found my own mortal man, took him to the coast. Watched his brown legs glisten in spray of salty sea. In his golden arms he

carried me for miles.

Then married to a king. Royal lines are not so easily interrupted.

There were others of course, slain by their own hands too powerful was my tragic beauty.

Such is the currency of the gods.

But did I not build up great Babylon? Erect high brick walls behind which, under shade, I lay down with my turtledoves 

not flesh of my flesh but my own.

Was destined to be queen. Empire stretched from Caucasus to Arabia; Iran to Cyprus. Built palaces in Persia.

Created an army of false elephants to show our great strength.

And all the while, cries of mourning doves. And all the while mother so still in her watery grave: All the terraces and gardens

all the reeds and lush trees

all the armies of elephants and mortal men

could not bring her back.

13

"The imagination is a cynic. By that I mean that it can accommodate the most disparate elements with no regard for relative values. And it does this by assuming all things have equal value, which is a way of saying nothing has any value, which is cynicism."
— from The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, Richard Hugo

On a tree-lined street in an unremarkable suburban town, there is a white house in which my mother is always dying. Falling ill and then dying, repeatedly. 

The mayor has a child she did not want. 

The mayor does not trust the children in the town. 

There is a hill on which a young girl died; the circumstances of her death remain mysterious. 

Ghosts haunt the town. There is little time for sleeping. 

There is the ghost of the young girl. There is the ghost of the mother, always dying. 

Flowers thrown across graves are signs of disrespect. Do not bring flowers to the dead. 

A river runs through the town. It is too cold now, for swimming. 

I have never seen such trees. I have never seen such mist hanging over this river. I have never felt such dissociation from the requirements of living.

FInish one thing before starting another. 

There are some things you can only take one at a time. 

Certain tasks will remain unfinished. Days pile up and then months. Too much static in the brain. 

I write it all down because it seems easier to lay it all out like a map one thinks one might read. 

A list of the dead and the dying includes us all. 

15

this year, as last, I have a small email list to which I will send a poem a day, through the month of April, in celebration of national poetry month. 

just a poem a day, hand-selected by me for your pleasure. I include some information about the poet, and maybe there will be occasional, local (Rhode Island) poetry-related news. 

if you would like to be included on this list, send me your email address (through the “ask” box or at mkimarnold [at] gmail [dot] com).

happy poetry month to all. xoxo 

46

Let’s say you stand beneath the garish yellow light and ask for something you have always wanted. Let’s say you hear the sound of your own voice asking. And you hear:

car alarm in the distance. Doors closing and then opening again.  

That was the year of the fire. We stood in our nightgowns on the sidewalk and watched smoke billow from the roof, thick and black. No one knew who started it but later we learned about the woman who let the gas run from her stove for hours. And then,

and then what is one match lit in darkness?

What is a childhood?

A red brick building six stories high. The darkness of stairwells. Dreams of falling down them, endlessly falling.

A playground in the back, not shaded, exposed to hot sun. We could see tar paper hanging over the sides of the roof. So hot and so bright it looked like it was melting. Was it melting.

Metal framework of swing set. Metal slide. Hot beneath naked thighs. So often alone.

That we could not take care of our cat. Cat would be given away. She came and circled me, sat in my lap as if she knew what we were considering. I am a cat. How easy it would be to send me

back. Back to the night of the fire. Night of smoke and catch in the breath. Hot and cold at the same

time. That winter, snow so deep, we swam through it.

Beloved park across the street. Ancient trees. Duck pond. How far it stretched. We could walk the length of it. We walked for hours.

Let’s say you go back. You take someone with you. Someone you love, or want to. Press your face to the glass at the front door. Tiles in the entry way still the same as you remember. Yellow petals unfurling on a field of white.

What is a childhood?

Was not learning to ride my blue bicycle. White basket, woven plastic, pink ribbon tied to the handlebars. Left leaning against the wall in the dank basement.

Was my father’s height and how he stooped, bent over as if to examine something he had dropped on his shirt.

Lottery tickets extracted crumpled from his pockets and then staying up late enough to watch the late-night drawing, write the numbers down.

And then his closet empty.

And then Wednesday afternoons at the Wendy’s drive-through, burgers and fries wrapped in paper. Rosary hung from the rear-view mirror of his burgundy car.

Reading the dictionary on the floor in the hallway. Orphan: a child whose parents are dead. Orphanage: a place where orphans are looked after.

I was sick for days with fever. Cold cloths held to my skin. A bit of soup or crackers. Ginger soda and tepid tea.

What is a childhood? Soft rolls and crumb cake after church on Sundays.

And the shore, always the shore.

Walk to the boardwalk after dark. Electric light. Carousel and fortune

teller: Here is something you should know.

The windows of the haunted house glow orange. Flickering. Is there smoke pouring from the windows.

Let’s say you ask for things you know you cannot have. Electric train. Red wooden rocking chair. A doll with jet black hair and eyes.

What did he leave? A jar of buttons. A photograph of himself in uniform. He is smiling.

Buried it all under the branches of a broad tree by the duck pond. Drew arrows in the dirt with a stick so I could find my way back.

What is a childhood?

Wide trunk of oak tree and fallen bark. Acorn caps bruised the knees. A certain kind of wind that colored the sky, that darkened it.

Throw pebbles in the pond, watch the rings.

9

Late in the season the world digs in, the fat blossoms
hold still for just a moment longer.
Nothing looks satisfied,
but there is no real reason to move on much further:
this isn’t a bad place;
why not pretend

we wished for it?
The bushes have learned to live with their haunches.
The hydrangea is resigned
to its pale and inconclusive utterances.
Towards the end of the season
it is not bad

to have the body. To have experienced joy
as the mere lifting of hunger
is not to have known it
less. The tobacco leaves
don’t mind being removed
to the long racks - all uses are astounding

to the used. 
There are moments in our lives which, threaded, give us heaven -
noon, for instance, or all the single victories
of gravity, or the kudzu vine,
most delicate of manias,
which has pressed its luck

this far this season.
It shines a gloating green.
Its edges darken with impatience, a kind of wind.
Nothing again will ever be this easy, lives
being snatched up like dropped stitches, the dry stalks of daylilies
marking a stillness we can’t keep.

— Jorie Graham

33

I dream of trains rushing past. Yellow line painted on the ground and I stand behind it while one machine hurtles after the next so close I feel cool wind.

Here is my youth: riding the train to see you, bounding down the concrete steps from the platform to the street.

Bright sun. Wet heat. No relief.

What is a childhood? My father rolls rosary beads from bits of paper, counts them out across the kitchen table as he sits in the dark.

Prayers for five decades. Repentance and devotion.

Mornings, light floods the long narrow kitchen. A cat hides between the stove and the sink. Yellow dishcloth hangs from the oven door.

Low hum of radio. My hair in braids.

What is a sentence?

And the shore. Always the shore.

Mornings, light floods the narrow kitchen. I hold a glass in my hand and then drop it. I am always breaking glass.

Here is my youth: crossing from the train platform to the stationery store where I finger vellum and wood pulp.

A mouthful of prayers, silently. The night of the fire.

Black smoke billowing from the roof. Obscuring the stars.

My father’s closet empty, door hanging open. My mother holding a cool towel to her head.

Mornings, light floods the narrow kitchen. A certain devotion.

We stood on the sidewalk in our nightgowns, gazing up.

When I bled, I was sick for days.

What is a childhood? At the shore, we swallowed salt.

My mother holds her skirt up as she wades through floodwaters. Mother in a yellow dress. Devotion.

On the train platform you are waiting. Bright sun behind you and radiant. Skin tastes of salt and the sea. Water marks on the sea wall rising.

I find the yellow line, stand behind it. Wait for shock of speed and cold. Count out prayers of repentance. Days of bleeding.

Mornings, light floods the narrow room. Broken glass on the wooden floor. Cat darts out from between oven and sink.

My hair in braids. I hold up my skirt. Gazing up at the smoke-filled sky. 

7
This book is interesting as there is as much failure as success in it. When this was printed I did not understand this creation. I can see now, but one cannot understand a thing until it is done. With a thing in the process of doing, you do not know what you are doing until it is done, finished, and thus you cannot explain it. Until then you are struggling.
I was not interested in what people would think when they read this poetry: I was entirely taken up with my problem and if it did not tell my story it would tell some story. They might have another conception which would be their affair. It is not necessarily attached to the original idea I had when I wrote it.
Nobody enters into the mind of someone else, not even a husband and wife. You may touch, but you do not enter into each other’s mind. Why should you? In a created thing it means more to the writer than it means to the reader. It can only mean something to one person and that person is the one who wrote it.
Gertrude Stein, on Tender Buttons, in an interview with Robert Hass, 1946, from A Primer for the Gradual Understanding of Gertrude Stein
28

Overnight, cold rain fell. Ice on the porch steps. Ice on the walkway. Morning moon. Hissing from the old radiator, the soundtrack of winter.

From notes, a list of rules:

  • The poem should be 32 lines long.
  • The poem should contain four complete sentences and one must be a question.
  • Line 11 should end with continuing punctuation (e.g., dash or semicolon).
  • Name of one foreign food.
  • Name of a street.
  • One abstraction (e.g., sadness, love)
  • One non-primary color.

Force two poems to fight it out.

Force every type of sentence into a poem.

There are fifteen things you must get into this poem.

Make lists as an easy way to get it all in:

  • Think about a person you were once close to, but not now.
  • Make a confession or ask a question.
  • One thing you wish you could forget.
  • List of facts. Little-known facts.
  • A person who has misunderstood you.

This morning, the radiator sounds like my father snoring. Deep, breathy, predictable patterns.

Man walks past my window with a knit hat pulled down over his ears. Such wind.

I saved a bit of twig you picked up for me on a walk once. Through the trees that were covered with green moss. Tucked it into a glass on my desk where I keep my pencils and pens. This morning while worrying it in my hands, I broke it. I am trying not to make everything into something larger than what it is, but still: If one is looking to read meaning into the smallest of things, one will not be disappointed.

A specific unraveling. Or:

Laying down at the altar of unnamed, inarticulate faith.

Already, it is light now.

Snow on the ground and ice.

Already, seemingly endless winter.

Summer at the old house: A dog falls asleep on the hosta and crushes it.

Winter: I do not remember winter.

Spring: Paper lanterns strung from clothing line.

Here is a bit of memory: My father in a red plaid bathrobe. My father in a blue striped shirt. My father’s tie is too wide. My father’s pants are too short. My father sitting in a chair with the light dim. My father’s upturned palms. My father’s voice: Little bunny. Hey, bunny.  

All our fathers.

9

Today in the news I read of
Irish soldiers starving in
The Belfast Maze, & how, at
The end of fasting, their bones,
With no muscles left to hold
Them back, could slice their skin to
Pieces as they sleep, & turn
In their sleep. They still won’t eat,
But lie silently as glass
Shattered in houses, or small
Hawks that have fallen a long
Way, broken or frozen blind
By snow, their eyes wide open
But no longer noticing
The simplest detail, a fly,
A drop of water, the smoke
Of some passing train scrawled on
A sky that stays there, above
Any reason for a sky. 

— the closing lines of “South” by Larry Levis

25

There is a story that has haunted me for years. From a collection of contemporary writings by Japanese women, called Rabbits, Crabs, Etc. One of the title stories, “Rabbits,” is narrated by a woman who encounters a human-sized rabbit in the woods, follows it, and the rabbit tells her story.

We learn about the rabbit as a young girl. She and her father raise rabbits, to keep as pets but also to eat. Twice a month, they prepare a rabbit feast, which they eat separately from the other members of the family, who find this ritual barbaric.

The father grows ill. The daughter takes on more of the responsibilities of killing and preparing the rabbits. She enjoys the rabbit slaughter, and as her father becomes bed-ridden (the suggestion is that his illness is related to his gluttony) she begins killing the rabbits for pleasure. She stitches their skins together to make a rabbit costume. She fashions a mask of rabbit fur, into which she inserts glass eyes.

In the story’s gruesome climax, she bathes herself in rabbit blood, dresses in these rabbit skins and presents herself to her father (now near death) as a kind of tribute. In his shock and horror, he is stricken by the sight of her, and dies.

While I was away, the range of my emotions confused me. I found myself in an unfamiliar psychic landscape of exaggerated impulses that mimicked love, longing, intimacy.

What is the name of the bird that can imitate the sounds of fire engines and car alarms?

I visit with friends. I prepare meals or sometimes, we sit in restaurants beneath strings of tiny white lights and talk about how we never expected to find ourselves here, in this place – literal, metaphorical – where we are now.

We tend to the things that require us. We make our way.

Before he dies, in his terror and confusion at the sight of this human-sized rabbit, the father throws a glass pitcher at his daughter. The pitcher hits her in the face and shatters the glass she had sewn into the mask. A piece of glass pierces her eye.

For a time, she lives there, blind in one eye, eyesight growing weaker in the other, among the rabbits she raises.

M. gets home late from work and I spend the hour prior to his arrival in a low-grade, persistent anxiety over his safety. The roads are slick from the wet snow that’s been falling all day.

At the house down the block, a transition home of sorts, fire trucks and ambulances gather. My windows glow red. I peek through the curtains, but see nothing but trucks and uniformed men standing around on the snow-covered lawn. I pace. I send text messages.

The narrator looks for the rabbit again, some time later. Finds her fallen in her small house, a shard of glass protruding from her remaining eye. All around her, blind rabbits. Their eyes had been gouged out.

I am not sure what I had hoped to say. Where I anticipated that movements through memory might have carried me. These days, I find myself beneath a blanket of sadness, like the bare branches of trees under wet snow.

All through the night, snow clings to branches. Unmoving. Weighing them down. 

24

A poet who runs a small press once said in a room full of aspiring poets, “I try not to make money on any of these projects. If I make any money, I put it back into the next chapbook. I don’t want to make money. If anything, I want to lose it.”

Some of us laughed and later in the q&a, a woman in the audience assured him that he could in fact make money on these books. What he needed, perhaps, was a little marketing expertise, and some focused efforts on promotion. The poet listened and nodded and thanked her for her comment. But there were several of us in that room who were pretty certain she had missed the point completely.

I am reading Richard Hugo’s collection of essays on writing, The Triggering Town. In the final essay, called “How Poets Make a Living,” he tells a story from his time working at Boeing. Discovering a man and his wife squatting on Boeing land, the company takes actions to remove them. The man in anger and fear, writes long letters to Boeing, in which he does not so much protest the eviction, as chastise the corporation for its ignorance and privilege. He says:

"This country was built for more than one man to enjoy….You may be making millions of dollars but there will be a day when you won’t be. I am still suffering from some of your dirty work. I know kind of man you are and the rest of your so-called class."

And later, in postscript, “The Admiral,” as he comes to be known, writes:

"When a man is in the middle of the road I can give a man a drink of water and feed a man. I have done. I only lost homes in my lifetime. These rabbit hutches I’m taking with me and other planks that is loose and lumber. I will have to unbolt the planks to the rabbit house unless you give me a good price for them like you said this afternoon. That money will go to my mother."

In the years after graduate school, during which I followed a particular kind of career path and wrote little, I thought I had given up on writing (or that writing had given up on me). That had I been good enough, or dedicated enough, I would be able to write perfectly-formed pieces and the writing life would unroll its carpeted pathway for me to follow. That if I were talented enough, it would all come together and that success in a writing life would mean I would make my living through my writing.

I no longer pretend to know what success – in a writing life or elsewhere – truly means. Back now, in another graduate program nearly twenty years after I began the first, I take comfort in the idea that in a writing life, there can be silences. There are ebbs and flows, and if the arc of life is long, one can imagine – rather than straight lines – undulating waves.

In telling the story, and in discussing the poem that this incident prompted, Hugo attempts to answer the question, “How do poets make a living?” He talks about his time at Boeing and his current position, teaching at a university. He says:

“I suppose I haven’t done anything but demonstrated how I came to write a poem, shown what turns me on, or used to, and how, at least for me, what does turn me on lies in a region of myself that could not be changed by the nature of my employment. But it seems important (to me even gratifying) that the same region lies untouched and unchanged in a lot of people, and in my innocent way I wonder if it is a reason for hope. Hope for what? I don’t know. Maybe hope that humanity will always survive civilization.”

Hugo goes on:

“But no job accounts for the impulse to find and order those bits and pieces of yourself that can come out only in the most unguarded moments, in the wildest, most primitive phrases we shout alone at the mirror. And no job modifies that impulse or destroys it. In a way, The Admiral speaks for all poets, maybe for all people, at least a lot of us. We won’t all disappear on a remote country road in the Monroe Valley, but like The Admiral and his wife we are all going into the dark. Some of us hope that before we do we have been honest enough to scream back at the fates. Or if we never did it ourselves, that someone, derelict or poet, did it for us once in some euphonic way our inadequate capacity for love did not deny our hearing.”

27

It is a familiar question, about belonging. Where do I belong?

I return from ten days away and move among the members of my family – at first like a ghost presence – familiar, remembered, but unreal.

We settle in. The remembered rhythms of our lives together. Time takes shape again, and form.

Are we who we were? Each disruption on the surface rippling out in all directions. Is this who am I now?

Jean Valentine speaks of silences. In a writing life, even years. Her own five years of silence, after which she says she no longer desired to be understood. That is, did not feel the need to give information through her poems. This seems important. About legibility.

What can happen, she asks us, in the silences?

My own years of silence: No epic journey. No pilgrimage. No conclusions to draw, no equations to show how one thing leads to another.       

Here is a hypothesis: A square of light behind her head as she speaks.

Here is a hypothesis: Silence is a kind of waiting. Days of waiting. Years of waiting. A whole lifetime of waiting.

Is this where I belong?

Waiting to return to the white room of the mother’s death. The origins of silence?

On legibility: Wallace Stevens tells us, “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.”

What eloquence is there in making marks on the page?

What can happen, bypassing reason?

What ways of knowing do we have access to, beyond discursive?

The way we know things about silence. The way we know something about a thing through its absence.

Perhaps we write for the absence and to it:

Dear silence, dear distant star.

Dear forgotten self.

Dear lost. Dear unraveling. Dear coming undone.

Dear darkest hours.

Dear departed.

27

The year coming swiftly to its end. I am not sorry to see it go. I hardly know what I did this year, with the time. So much of it spent waiting. Still after all this time, waiting.

The body in its slow decline. Dull ache in the bones. Lines deepening across my face. My hair coming loose in clumps.

Started the year with lists. Books to read, places to visit, topics on which to write. Even lists of lists to keep. Artists to research. The first collections of favorite poets. Small presses and journals. The names of obscure saints. New projects to think about starting some day. Projects that have been started, but remain unfinished. This is how I pass the hours. Incessant inventory. Stating and re-stating. Accomplishing little, save for filling time.

This is the year we lost M.’s father. His troubled heart relenting at last. We stood there for hours, as friends and neighbors filed past, their heads bowed, tremors in their voices. A life both ordinary and extraordinary. This is what we get.

Later, we spent a week by the lake. Paddled out past the rows of houses to the quiet inlet where turtles sunned themselves on fallen tree branches. How my daughter wept there, beneath the weight of her own life beginning, stretching out before her like the inlet itself, shimmering in early light, but revealing nothing of its quiet depths. 

This was the year I was finally given a name – a single name amid the anonymity of forms and documents. Not my mother, but the woman with whom I lived for a time. (“She lives comfortably with a foster mother and her son.”)

Songhee Lee. She was forty-five then. I am also given the address where she lived, where we lived, but to me the words signify little: Hongeun-dong, Seodaemungu. A phone number: 352-1733.

The social worker adds, at the end of her note: “I hope this answers your question.”

The year I traveled west – not once, but twice crossed the wide plains. First with my family so that at Jade Cove, with the cool damp air on our skin, we could watch as the Pacific beat against the rocky cliffs. And to walk, days later, along the great Russian River in the small hours of morning, the mist still hovering there, and flanked by ancient trees.

Then later, alone. Seven uneasy days spent circling a writing project that now languishes. The bench by the lake where I sat in the afternoons, reading Edouard Leve’s Autoportrait and weeping for reasons I could not then articulate and not now remember fully.

A year when the voices of women kept me company: Marie Chaix, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Anne Carson, Christine Schutt, Mary Ruefle, Hoa Nyugen, Heather Lewis, Dorothea Lasky, Sharon Olds, Ana Bozicevic, Alison Bechdel, Anais Nin. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Nan Goldin. Francesca Woodman. Maggie Nelson. Patti Smith. Stevie Nicks. Natasha Khan. Katie Crutchfield.

A year of letting go. (I am still working on this.)

I re-worked a long poem that had been haunting me for some time. Forcing it into shapes it did not want to take. I put it aside for months. I read about the migratory patterns of birds.

It became a long poem of twenty-eight stanzas. Here are the first two:

image

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And here is how it ends:

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