The Guest Writer page features original work from a growing community of writers and poets who share one key trait: a commitment to seeking the truth through their own unique style, process and sense of craft. Our intent is to feature new work - poetry, short fiction and personal narrative - on an ongoing, weekly basis.
We’re honored to feature five poems from Mari L’Esperance’s first full-length collection, The Darkened Temple. Her work has appeared in Pequod, the Beloit Poetry Journal, Barnabe Mountain Review, and Salamander, in addition to numerous other journals. Her first chapbook, Begin Here, won first prize in the 1999 Sarasota Poetry Theatre Press national chapbook competition.
The following poems are reprinted from The Darkened Temple by permission of the University of Nebraska Press, © 2008, by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. The collection is available wherever books are sold, or online from the University of Nebraska Press.
All day the fog off the bay sighs to be let in.
And all day I am alone with her, trying
to write her from memory, and failing,
trying again, and failing—as if writing her
could explain the past, make her real,
shape her into something actual.
Instead, even the swaying acacias
are shrouded figures in the swirling gloom.
The fog wants in. I cannot see beyond it.
Someone tell me how the story ends.
I am tired and want no more of this journey.
TO HER BODY
Of water. Of sub-
Fire. Limbs charred
and smoking. Of
on the azaleas—its
brittle purity. Indigo,
celadon. Bitter green
and gingko. Of
hunger and the one
long scar. Of womb.
Bone shard. Heartache.
Mud and clay. Of stone.
Loneliness. The child’s
cry, unanswered. Of
want and despair.
Of salt. Blood—blood
on silk, on lacquer.
Of dusk. Irises. Fog
in the cedars. Of fog.
Fog and absence.
The garden that you loved has folded into itself,
the rotting blooms and stems so much litter in the dirt.
The empty bird feeder glints and sways in the sun,
freed of its purpose.
What is left of you, Mother, threatens to break apart
at the edges, a thin outline already losing its shape.
This must be how the heart makes a place
for the life that still demands to be lived,
turning away in stages until whatever the heart bears
takes on a new likeness, something it can live with.
Or is it that what remains finds a way to rearrange itself
around absence, until absence becomes part of the picture,
bland and familiar. The old photographs lie hidden
between dark layers of blankets and stale cedar.
They too are working their way, little by little,
into what we can’t yet imagine they will become.
AS TOLD BY THREE RIVERS
Eight a.m., up too late the night before
learning the nose and throat, the bones
of the hand. Rounding a corner
on the seventh floor of Eye & Ear, the view
from the window takes you by surprise:
the city of Pittsburgh fanned out before you,
its verdant wedge of land softened
by the arms of three rivers, their names alone
like music—Monongahela, Allegheny, Ohio—
threading their slow eternal way home,
knowing. You think of Naipaul’s book, how
that distant mythic river in that distant
unnamed place reminds you somehow
of these three rivers meeting, the purpose
in their joined ambition as it should be,
how their journey tells the same story,
a story of becoming, of knowing one’s place
in the world. Standing there at the window
you see how everything that’s come before
has brought you here, how it all makes sense,
these three timeless rivers moving forward,
deliberate and without question, telling the story
of the life you have chosen, of the life
you could not help but choose.
WHITE HYDRANGEAS AS A WAY BACK TO THE SELF (excerpt)
To enter the mind is a dangerous act—
In the mind there are rooms
we dare not inhabit,
we refuse to follow—
This is about a kind of intelligence.
This is about making a way
to live in the world.
To enter the story
going back to the beginning.
To enter the story
and drowning is the only way
to get there—
To begin is a dangerous act.
To enter is to risk disaster,
mind infinitely skilled at deflecting
what it cannot bear—
circling and circling the perimeter,
black surface sheened like onyx
(to protect me, I think—must think)
and no perceptible point of entry—
The self is a house
that is closed to me.
It stands on the other side
It is not the entering
but the fear
and what I imagine
I might then
Another poem from The Darkened Temple, “Finding My Mother,” appeared as part of our Poet-a-Day feature during April 2010. Read it here.
During our most recent interview, Penelope Schott and I discussed her writing of the following poem, “Heart Failure,” including its intrinsic connection to her relationship with her mother. The poem appears in Schott’s most recent collection, SIX LIPS (© 2009, Mayapple Press), and appears here with the writer’s permission.
This is the year I would like to find pity. I would like
to hurt for my mother the way I ache for my children
whenever anything major goes wrong in their lives.
I want to feel vicariously glamorous when she models
the umber cashmere sweater she bought half-price
in the overpriced boutique by her favorite sushi shop.
I would like to gasp for breath whenever she grabs
for her oxygen tube and jiggles the prongs into sore
nostrils. I want to tremble and feel confused
when she can’t retrieve e-mail messages and starts
to panic. When her skeletal legs burn under sheets,
I wish my own hard-muscled calves would throb.
I want to be sad that she’s eighty-seven and fading.
I want to invent memories of how she encouraged me
when I was a child, how she helped me when I
was a young mother, how understanding she was
when I got divorced, or else I want to stop caring.
Meanwhile, my mother masters forgetting: which
museum she means to visit, the name of the play
she saw yesterday, what day is today.
This is the year I intend to excavate my terror,
melt down my resentment, blow it into molten
orange glass, shape it into a shining sculpture
of one enormous woman and cool it and smash it.
My mother has become tiny and pathetic and brave.
Recently she has learned thank you or even please.
She lives in her elegant house like a black pearl
from a broken oyster drifting under reefs in a bay.
She lives in her house like a startled rabbit unable
to finish crossing the road. If I had enough pity,
I would dare to squeeze her fragile neck and kiss
her forehead as I press down on her windpipe and keep
on pressing with my strong and generous thumbs.
These days my mother surprises me, slowed,
gentled, taking trees into account.
It’s not what I’m used to, this appreciation,
watching the squirrels scamper up black bark
like acrobats of joy, while the long afternoon
withdraws into twilight, her mechanical tide
of oxygen yawing through waves and troughs
This drowning old lady is not my mother. Not
abrupt. As I stroke her knuckles, grace glints
in our salt hands.
Scot Siegel is an urban planner and poet from Oregon. He serves on the board of trustees of the Friends of William Stafford. His books include Some Weather (Plain View Press, 2008), Untitled Country (Pudding House Publications, 2009), and SKELETON SAYS (Finishing Line Press, 2010). Salmon Poetry has accepted his second full-length collection, which will be out in early 2012. Siegel edits the online poetry journal Untitled Country Review. The following four poems appear here with his permission.
WHEN THE BARN DANCE BEGAN
Under aluminum lamp-swing
the beginning and the end of
the early suffering began . . .
– inscribed on the back of an abandoned barn
Nearly evening. No friend
arranged a meeting. No rumor
No letter passed hand-to-hand––
Behind the grandstand, sweet
riffs off the San Joaquin Valley––
Oat grass, reeds and a young
Latina dances in a wind skirt
on the moon-swept pond…
Alone again with my thoughts
I lean against the split-rail fence
of my childhood in California––
Night air rippling off the Sierras,
wagon ruts meandering somewhere––
and Lyra’s constellation reemerges…
A sacred code was broken that night
I cannot explain. But she brought forth
everything I’d ever wanted
and that one thing, free
yet inescapable, still a part of me,
I would always need
[First published in The Enigmatist, and appears in SKELETON SAYS.]
INSPECTING GRANDPA’S GUN
I retrieve it from a dry, dark place
Pull it from a sleeve, some felt-like leather
With our name inscribed on a flimsy tag
I examine it for any trace of him –
This was a gift to my father from his true father
The one with spaniels and a hunting lodge
Not the one we could not speak of –
I take up the heft of it, and get the sense
I am looking down the long barrel of some
unknown history . . . He always told me:
Safety-on, until you’re absolutely ready
Watch your stance; hold steady.
I scan the room: No window. No door.
Just the gun like an iron dove in my hand. With love
I turn it over, brush my fingers over the stock
Find his initials in smooth silver ridges –
I turn it over again. And drink from a spring called
The pooling of history – A chalice of blood,
The Ukrainian forest at dusk; – I have his chin
When I lift & pump the muzzle; his shoulder
When I place it in the crook; his eyes
Pressing cold metal to my face; – then his voice
When something faint & terrible, in the shape of
my real name, burns through the cheek piece –
[Appears in Some Weather]
VISITING THE MASONS’ GRAND LODGE IN FOREST GROVE
The glass is half-empty. The night fills it with sighs
We came for a good time, my wife and I––
Kids at summer camp––Even after twenty years,
Some things we still do on a whim…
It’s late. Packing now. Didn’t even stay the night.
The lodge and its rooms are dingy & warn
With the pall of those who lived and died here.
(A siren wails from the highway below)
Ten years ago the last resident left in protest;
The Grand is boutique hotel now. Micro beers and
A movie house. Tourists and young executives
Drink without a designated driver. Play truth or dare.
Watch foreign films, or screw, for a change…
Our room is hot and it smells like the old, my wife says
Though I think hospital… Poor Farm… Asylum…
I wonder how many died right here in this room
Where the walls feel dank. The sash window sticks
And the radiator sits silent as a minister
No hiss. No spit… Idle as a visitor slouched
in the corner, when I turn and close the door
[Appears in Untitled Country]
WHEN YOU BRING MY MEDS
I am strung out at the end of Ward 3 in the midst
of a dream, flying over Havens Elementary
I am no longer old. My bones so light the sun
lifts me from the balcony of my decrepit body
And releases me into the atmosphere of your white frock
And I am grateful. For I have died
Five times already, since my wife’s elongated
stop––her slow surrender to Alzheimer’s––
And my daughters’ inevitable leaving, when they shed
my name like snakes shed skin in early morning sun
For men who take one look at me and see only an old
man: No inheritance. No plan. Only the slow drip,
Drip, drip… to keep him company. The piped-in oxygen,
cigarette grip on the channel changer––
This day is a gift, really. When you come, the round gears
of the sun and trees outmuscle the blinds, and release me
The sky and swifts make love again. And my disease
subsides, docile as a sweet little lapdog––
I am so lucky to have you here with me, listening; holding
my hand as if it were a living thing. Saying nothing
And everything I ever needed. Your eyes guiding me safely
over the tarmac of what my healers call
my advanced dementia
[First published in The Centrifugal Eye, November, 2009: “Battling Stereotypes” and appears in SKELETON SAYS.]
Oregon poet, Mark Thalman, helps us springboard into new guest writer features with four poems from Catching the Limit (© 2009, Bedbug Press – Fairweather Books), part of the Northwest Poetry Series. Thalman received his MFA from the University of Oregon, and has been teaching English in the public schools for 28 years. He’s also been a board member of the Portland Poetry Festival, a Poet-in-the-Schools for the Oregon Arts Foundation, and an Assistant Editor for the Northwest Review. His work has appeared in Carolina Quarterly, CutBank, Many Mountains Moving, Pedestal Magazine, and Verse Daily, among others. The following poems appear with his permission.
Out here is miles from anywhere.
Coyotes, cattle, and sun become your companions.
Hills roll and fold, a sea of giant swells,
then flatten out, lay calm, in bleaching summer heat.
When evening unveils its stars,
life shrinks under the universe.
For centuries, Nez Perce came to trade for Columbia salmon,
then Pioneers snaked wagons down the Blue Mountains.
Even today, dust devils coil up,
and rivers cut deep gorges.
Sage grows low so wind can go where it wants–
whistling through wire fences.
[Previously published in Writers' Dojo]
AT THE CABIN: ODELL LAKE
Not having talked to anyone in a week,
I keep my voice in shape
by standing on the swing,
knees pumping, arms flexing ropes–
making the board go
back and forth,
higher and higher,
until I´ve got enough momentum
and become the metronome.
If I am off key or forget a lyric,
there is no one to hear it.
On a slight breeze, I sing to my favorite trees,
chipmunks scampering the wood pile,
the shy rabbit by the lake. I sing
through soft filtered light–
a couple of Elvis, a bunch of Beatles,
followed by some soul,
and a medley of rock n´ roll.
Firs, having stood for hundreds of years,
absorb my voice. When I stop
not much has changed.
The world is a little older, the planet
a little further through space.
[Previously published in Pedestal Magazine]
HIGHWAY TO THE COAST
Thick and green, the hills rise
on each other’s shoulders.
High ridges disappear in fog
make me wish I was born of water.
At the divide, I taste the cool ocean air,
the way a deer finds a salt lick,
and roller coaster down a narrow road
that does not believe in a straight line.
crawl through barbed wire fences.
Small towns occur like a whim.
As if in a coma, they merely survive.
I tune in the only station
and listen to country western.
Static gradually drowns the singer out.
Rounding a corner, he pops to the surface
for another breath,
simply to sink back still singing.
Fir shadows lace the road.
Bracken cascades embankments.
At the next curve, a farmhouse is half finished–
boards weathered raw. Chickens roost in a gutted Chevy.
Scattered among these hills, families
rely on small private lumber mills,
the disability or unemployment check,
the killing of an out of season elk.
[First appeared in Caffeine Destiny]
NORTH UMPQUA, SUMMER RUN
I cast a fly
which I tied last winter,
and let it drift
below the riffle.
There, a steelhead lies,
weighing the current,
balancing in one place,
the mouth slowly working
open and closed.
While eyes that have never known sleep
signal the body to rise,
slide steadily forward,
over mossy stones.
In a smooth flash of motion,
deft as a blade, the fish strikes
and the surface explodes.
Trembling violently in air,
amid spray and foam,
the steelhead blazes like a mirror catching sun,
falls back, extinguishing the fire,
only to lift again,
a flame out of water.
In a long meteoric arc,
cutting a vee across the surface,
the fish unable to dislodge the hook,
dashes instinctively down stream.
Zigzagging back and forth,
fight the current and line,
it is only a matter of time,
until this miracle of energy
rests on its side,
She’s fat with roe,
so I work the barb out
and let her go
on her journey
there is no escape.
[Previously published by Gin Bender Poetry Review; later appeared in Deer Drink the Moon: Poems of Oregon, Ooligan Press, Portland State University)
Thalman will be part of a panel discussion on Oregon poetry during the upcoming Summer Solstice Poetry Weekend, coordinated by Eleanor Berry. The discussion takes place on Saturday, June 26th, from 1:30 – 3:30 in the Stayton Public Library meeting room in Stayton, Oregon. On Sunday the 27th, from 3-5 p.m., Thalman will be among the events featured readers at the Stayton Friends of the Library Used Bookstore.
Read another of Thalman’s poems here.
Hanna Neuschwander is a Portland writer and editor with roots that extend to the Northwest, Southwest, Northeast, and Canada. Her non-fiction articles about Portland’s artisan coffee and food world have been published in Willamette Week, Barista Magazine, and Portland Monthly. She works at Lewis & Clark, where she is the editorial director of Democracy & Education, a journal for people who can’t think of two more important things.
HOW UNWORRIED I AM ABOUT NEXT WEEK
Skip a rock across the meridian
Fold the state of California in half, and this day
By nightfall I’ll have crossed over
Drinking whiskey at the Coronado
Watching pelicans teach their young
to slide into the envelope of a wave
There will be sun in San Diego
And my brother’s newest pair of $400 shoes
Henry Hughes grew up in Long Island, and has lived in Oregon since 2002. He currently teaches at Western Oregon University. The poems in his most recent book, Moist Meridian (© 2009, Mammoth Books), come to life on the page through Hughes’ ecstatic voice and willingness to be both playful and sublime. His first collection, Men Holding Eggs (© 2004; Mammoth) won the 2004 Oregon Book Award for poetry. Hughes’ commentary on new poetry appears regularly in Harvard Review. The following poems from Moist Meridian appear here with his permission.
SKELETON PIRATES OF AMERICA
masts gnawed away,
we burn black slicks
for a Chinese cargo of toys.
Never dead enough, juggling
cannonballs and Arabs,
brown galley boys
to fill our clothes.
Unpaid women pinch
note-wrapped rats between the planks,
and the sun
burns so hot
can’t digest the shimmering curse.
I’m George, says the air-conditioned captain.
See all the blue
for my eyes.
DEVIL KNOWS DIFFERENT
Watching them gulp
garbage and skinny eels–two gaunt sharks,
open-mouthed in appeal–I nod,
Now, you. You come back with me.
Smell the salt, the oily churn of a twin-screw cruiser,
drunk and wide as the Fifties.
See your parents, the sandy woman
and sable rodded man, telling you to feel the bite,
Feel the flounder’s deck-flutter,
taste its whiteness. All the baked clams,
boiled lobsters and barbecued bass
they’ve eaten and served
to fuel the business of living,
of making you.
Parents gone now. It’s your chance
to feed your teenage daughter
more than money. Umbrella beach days without her mom.
Your lectures still too hot to bear.
She wades the blonde bar, waving to a yacht. Sharp sharks
shilling into the scent
between her legs. People say, What we eat
can’t imagine being eaten
Devil knows different.
NEW YEAR’S WITH CHRISTINE
Transmission busted. It’s late
and I have to drive home alone, in reverse,
from Saint Mary’s singles dance,
Bing’s White Christmas on AM.
I see the first small snow
in my taillights, and in ten minutes
the defrost sweats off a storm.
Flakes blow up
finding clouds again.
What if I kept rolling,
New Year’s Day, 1982. Driving us
in love, silly, still drunk
down that terrible hill to your house,
sliding in crystal terror
over the curb
into Neil Cohen’s handsome snowman.
His bottom sphere smushed gray
and that broom jammed in our bumper.
I held his crunchy head,
lifted that gold pipe
and said, Here, have a smoke. And you knelt,
to wear that hat meant change.
And you put it on.
HOW I FOUND THE SKY
It was the only time
my father asked me for anything.
Why don’t ya make me a duck for da office?
It was the only time I went to the library
for a book: Waterfowl of North America.
And it was the only time moribund Mr. Brown
gave me a decent piece
of unknotted pine, and put his coffee down
to show me how to bandsaw
without losing a finger.
I cut those penciled lines,
shaped the block, hollowed the center,
glued the body, shaved the head’s fragile bill
and narrow crest, leaving those buffed cheeks–
some ruddy joy
a lonely bird might fly to on a cold morning.
Joy? I don’t know.
I was rasping through recessed confusion,
burning in feathers, drilling shallow sockets
for the glassy red eyes of high school.
And when I carried that blond mallard
through the halls, it was the only time
beautiful Miss Herman, the art teacher
I loved and failed for three terms, spoke to me
of colors: burnt umber, raw sienna, cobalt blue
brushed across the folded wings.
We were friends
the night among the boxes,
unlabeled for fast stacking in the old pickup.
We’re not finished, I said.
There’s wine, and I’m not taking it with me.
Tipping that last ocean view,
you said, I’ll miss you so much, before that half-light kiss
pressed a bloom
straight through the island. Our hands
sands a wave makes
without music, without a bed. A motion
awaited, undressing like a storm
just ahead. So close
without my glasses. Can you see? you smiled,
one hand touching my face, the other driving
the dented guardrail
over the bridge.
A review of Moist Meridian will appear Thursday, December 3. Our complete interview will be live on Friday, December 4.
Ed Skoog’s poetry has appeared in many magazines, including American Poetry Review, The New Republic, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, and NO: a journal of the arts. Born in Topeka, Kansas, Skoog graduated from Kansas State University, and holds his MFA from the University of Montana. Currently, Skoog is the Jennie McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington Fellow at George Washington University, and splits his time between D.C. and Seattle. Previous to that, he was the writer-in-residence at Richard Hugo House. The following five poems are from his first full-length collection, Mister Skylight © 2009, Copper Canyon Press, and appear here with his and the press’ permission.
RECENT CHANGES AT CANTER’S DELI
The telephone is no longer upstairs.
Cut fruit in a cold cup will never be whole.
Nothing is where it was. The plate
is beside the bowl. My mind’s all fucked up,
distorted, pale light reflected on stainless steel
of the walk-in-cooler. It is not where it was.
Here’s the spike to build a body of receipt.
Sweat collects on the waterpitcher lip
like the goodbye of a woman I loved.
The clerk bends his body to pray the miracle
of the handwashing station, turns knife to loaf.
The present pours into the pepper shaker.
It settles on the silk ivy of the now. Odds fade
in the sports section fallen between the counter,
where paying my bill I orphan a dime
for a silver mint, and the window snows sun
brilliant on Fairfax, demanding the commute.
They are not letting me drive anymore
and turning onto Melrose on the bus,
the driver, I overhear, has another job,
one he doesn’t know the name for.
Up in the haze some undiscovered animal
watches us, its plan mapped out, fire
swinging up the canyons, unfolding
until flame may flicker tip of sabertooth fang
in the museum where rare finds are hidden.
I, too, am a dinosaur. Rawr. My little claws.
I’m the dredge flopping for tar from the pits.
Click. I am a kind of David Bowie
in the Amoeba everything’s-a-dollar-bin.
I have four fingers and a thumb on my right hand,
equal representation on the left, and fourteen
billion toes. I’m a windup rooster. Who I am
and what I feel are irrelevant enough to be central
to the project of contemporary American poetry.
Or perhaps any art. Poetry’s just the form
of unimportance I teach teenagers above L.A.
under slanted windows that kill, by surprise,
the birds we then write about, gathering bonfire
around the small corpses, because it’s cold here.
in scarf and boot turn
around our neighbor’s pine,
spill grog into snow,
approaching our porch with
“O Come All Ye Faithful.”
A few stumble or sing wrong,
open the door, Jim for
come let us adore him.
Annual Christian, pipered
by their pied joy, I lean
to follow when they go.
A hand holds me back.
The lead caroler, encountering
our Ford glazed with ice,
undeterred, opens the door
and crawls right through,
knees on the seat, gloves
on the dash and headrest.
The rest follow, pulling
“I Saw Three Ships”
through the car like a rope.
Soon I am falling asleep
in vast winter bedroom silence,
and I am singing with them
through local traffic
houses towns lives
exile and years of night.
EARLY KANSAS IMPRESSIONISTS
Silly now, when she visits
dreams, or I visit her, my mother,
in new condos at brief’s edge
where the neon restaurant’s lawn
shallows with winter. She laughs
in the expanse, wordless, collapsing
into snow to wave arms and legs,
craft a figure. I do the same,
like an infant learning its body.
Dusting off, I rise and she’s gone
every time. I see our shapes
then, mine a mimicry of myself,
hers a rectangular silence,
inhuman, without room
for rage shame guilt or scold,
the curves that let us recognize
each other in the air, O,
in our dynamic world today.
My last look around the house
took so long that the vine
climbing the rosebush climbed
into my eyes, and a lizard
climbed, too, mouthfirst from grass,
its skin changing color
from grass green to a green
almost without green,
the color of dust on feather.
How changed from last winter’s
midnight when I let the dog out
and rats ran from the mimosa
to the fence while shingles
sparkled on the lawnmower shed
and in the grass, a cold lizard
raised a claw. How changed
from next week’s water
writing its black line across plaster
I cannot read in California,
where I hold the cellphone hot
while Lofstead, early returner,
kicks the back door in
to tell me of the damage.
Images come fast to the small,
linoleum sandy and streaked,
walls dice-dotted with mold,
and through a broken window,
the rosebush ash-gray, the yard
ash-gray and without lizard.
MISTER SKYLIGHT (excerpt)
When you enter the city of riots, confess
what turns your life has taken,
what is hard-on and what is mineral. Confess
until the wind catches itself by the tail.
Or find some solace. Mr. Skylight captains
a houseboat downstream like a vitamin.
I can only just begin to bear the chain-link fence.
Reflected in a puddle, the image trembles
as I tremble. The image freezes, I shiver.
It is like the enormity Gregor Samsa
is hoping to sleep through, but, well, can’t.
The woman playing Atari in public has, has…
Everything’s hauled away. In buckets.
These peaches, for example. I have heard
of you, yes, the monkey says. The moon
offers its offensive and ridiculous bulge.
Out in the salvage yard the snowy drifts
are not snow. White paint on frames,
they lean against front doors that won’t open in.
Mr. Skylight, stumbling through, asks
“Didn’t we just finish painting this wall?
Aren’t the brushes still drying on the sill?”
When the moment opens again,
remember to feel the immense province
pulling in, a hand here and here,
remember to smell what first was sweet,
apricots just sliced, one half-globe still rolling.
His wife ran upstairs to call police
as the “assailant took the victim’s own
paring knife from the counter.”
We show this on the snowy channels
most sets veil, between the black and white:
how they dragged Mr. Skylight inside and made
demands, then went deeper into his building,
and the iron gate lifted off its spindle.
Hill of stubble in moonlight, the hog
bristles across the lawn,
eats whole bouquets, eats bouquets whole,
plowing tusk through silk rose, a fresh lily.
Our headstones surrender their salt.
Wilder animals would not perturb us.
Worse hogs will cross and sand
down names. This one, at least, grunts life.
He would eat hog, could he make one die.
If there is a man inside the hog costume,
wanting to feel unchanged, so there is a hog
wearing an inferior fake man.
Read a review of MISTER SKYLIGHT here.
Nora Robertson writes fiction, poetry, reviews, and essays, which have appeared in such publications as Redactions, Alimentum, Monkeybicycle, Citadel of the Spirit: Oregon’s Sesquicentennial Anthology, Plazm and Portland Monthly. She is a contributing editor to the New Oregon Arts & Letters webjournal and is the producer and writer of the New Oregon Interview Series. Her recipe poem, “How to Boil an Egg” (below), was nominated by Redactions for the 2007 Pushcart Prize. Her performance work has been showcased in Portland in the Enteractive Language Festival, the Public Works series curated by 2 Gyrlz Performative Art, Phase One: Words + Music; Performance Works Northwest’s Alembic Series in the five-woman show Housebound, and in Tiffany Lee Brown’s site-based installation Play Me at JAW 2008 at Portland Center Stage. She lives in Portland, Oregon and works for the Portland Public Schools.
© by Nora Robertson. All rights reserved.
HOW TO BOIL AN EGG
1. First, you have to not think about a lot of things. The passage through the vaginal canal of the hen, the feminine parts clinging to and pushing forward the papery shell enclosing a thin membrane around the possibility of a future chicken. Maybe you had one of those experiences, like at a natural history museum or working at a diner, where you may have had the privilege to see the blood spot. Some people never recover. The taste always reminds them.
2. The kind of pan with the special core that conducts heat all over is best. Allow the tap to rush frigid and breathless. The water will need salt. Have you heard about the slaves of Targhaz who dug out chunks of grey-white salt in sub-Saharan holes, dry as their salt-block homes sucking water from their bones as they slept? Foremen only lasted two weeks. Faces rotated through like the burning yolk-yellow round of sun overhead. And what about that snake god of Ghana asking for lovely virgin bottoms, rigid and headless? I imagine I am that girl, pinioned, winner of a local beauty contest. While I’m waiting, it happens that blood drips down my inner thigh, red as hibiscus, spoiling the meat. There’s no warrior to rescue me. I have to rescue myself through biology.
3. Boil all this with the egg, seven minutes at least. If you’re hard-boiled, you’ll like it plain with a little salt and pepper. Sometimes, it’s easier that way. There are many ways to devil your egg, with blood-flecks of pimiento or the rendered fat of a hen. My grandmother used to make hundreds of these in the late 60’s for what they called entertaining. In a bone-white house with tilework shimmering milky light off the walls, she laid them out in rows on gleaming platters. My mother came into the kitchen once in the middle of the night and found her peeling eggs. Her body was bent over as she was sobbing. My mother remembers the feel of her shuddering when she rushed to hug her, the streams of salt water running down between their faces.
(previously published in Redactions)
MY HUSBAND AS SENSITIVE INSTRUMENT
1. Delicate, quivering, he watches TV with the sound turned down low. If he had antennae, they would be curved and lightly furred. The best insects for Yucatan tacos are jumiles with their strong mint flavor. The first step is to locate the jumiles, to slide your hands between the flat of rocks and pull out the thing you want, its tiny legs scrambling against your palm. The Maya would eat an honored sacrificed one afterwards, wasting nothing of the god-flesh. It’s not that they thought they could predict time, just inhabit it more fully.
2. When two of our good friends decided to sleep with another two of our good friends and the one who was my old girlhood pal like hips rotating out of the same socket bucked up the nerve to tell me about it, he already knew. You can keep the jumile alive almost indefinitely in the crevices of a leather bag as long as you feed it the right mixture of leaves and grass. The Maya would strip the god costume off the carcass and prepare the honored sacrificed one for the coals. They thought each moment had a personality and that by careful observation, you could know which way the wind was blowing, what was dangerous and safe.
3. When it is the right time, crush the jumiles in a stone mortar, volcanic. Grind in a little chile, salt, tomatoe. The mixture will become soupy, corpuscular, time to fleck it with green of chopped cilantro and punch it with lime. The summer I drove in circles across the hot body of the country like an arrow returning to its bow, my husband already knew why. But it’s easy to tell when you’re lying, he said. Maybe no one was ever paying attention before.
4. Ladle the jumile mixture across just-made tortillas sent from a cupped kneading hand onto the griddle to the plate. It goes well with strips of meat leftover from barbeque, with fermented maize. I had allowed someone else to run the flat of his hand across my back the same way I later ran it across my husband’s, like brushing fingertips across a harp, across the steely inner strings of a piano. Rib stacked above rib, shuddering with wet.
(previously published in Alimentum Journal)
Dana Guthrie Martin lives in the Seattle area and writes wherever writing will have her. She shares her home with her husband, her pet hamster and her robot, Feldman. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals, including Blossombones, Blue Fifth Review, Boxcar Poetry Review, Coconut Poetry, Failbetter, Fence, Juked and Knockout Literary Magazine. In May, Martin will enter Converse College’s low residency MFA program, and in July, Blood Pudding Press will publish her chapbook, The Spare Room. You can read some of her collaborative work with poet Nathan Moore at Mutating the Signature.
— after John Donne
For every robot that goes down fighting
There are two or
Three or legions who turn away, trying to
Blend in with suits and satchels, going to
Jobs they don’t want so they can feel useful.
They’ve learned this is what it means to be real —
To leave the fallen, as if each day were
A war, the lawns
Of their suburbs littered with mines:
The dog catcher
Who lets frothing dogs chase robots down streets
While driving alongside in his truck, laughing
And bellowing “Bot!” in accusation;
The children who kick and spit and slap wads
Of gum on their metal behinds so they can’t
Sit on benches
Without sticking to them; the housewives who
Draw their curtains
Because they can’t stand the sight of one more
Damn robot. Meanwhile in factories, work
Drones on and the robots bemoan nothing.
They move just as they’ve been programmed to move,
Fingers trilling like a dance, placing things
In their places.
— after John Donne
Why not me? Why not my human-
Like fingers and other hard parts? How would
That differ from licking a fork
Clean or having a mouth full of braces?
You know how I charge your skin when
You come close, the hairs on your arms rising to
Meet me: allegiant soldiers
Who listen to your body’s mute desires.
Your electrical wires, woven into
Every inch of who you are, brought
You here. And the blood that moves inside me
Could warm you until your devices
Soften, then melt, if only you’d give me
One free download. How easy that
Would be. So slide over here like
A well-lubricated cog, and add your
Piece to my machine. What I mean is this:
You complete my design; you’re what
My creator had in mind. My circuits
Are heavy with you every night.
If I had been built to dream, my dreams would
Be viscous as crude oil, pungent
As electrical fires. You would be there
With your flawless architecture —
Our world as small and flat as a diskette —
Calling me through caustic smoke and liquid.
For weeks, ghosts
have made their way
down the long hall
that leads to your bedroom.
They handle the doorknob
of the closed door as
you lie in bed and watch
moonlight glint off
the knob’s imperfections.
More ghosts stand
in the middle of the lawn,
cast shadows onto the room’s
far walls. Once, you heard them
ease open the window
above your bed, felt their
dry breath on your forehead.
What was it they whispered
just before they disappeared like
invisible ink? Something akin to
talking in tongues, a message
that drives you to wait
for their return wearing
your best nightgown,
with your face made up,
the covers thrown clean
off your body.
NOTE: The poems ROBOT WORKERS and ROBOT LOVER are from a series that follows the line syllable count and overall structure of John Donne’s love poems.
Shaindel Beers’ poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She is currently an instructor of English at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon, in Eastern Oregon’s high desert and serves as Poetry Editor of Contrary Magazine. She hosts the talk radio poetry show Translated By, which can be found at blogtalkradio.com/onword. The following poems from Beers’ first full-length collection, A Brief History of Time (Salt Publishing Ltd) appear here with her permission.
© 2009 Shaindel Beers
Where will we be the next time
they emerge, in 17 years,
when brood X nymphs first wriggle their way
out of exit holes, climb the trunks of oaks and maples,
sun themselves on viburnum,
pale and helpless, before their wings dry
so they can fly safely to trees to mate, lay eggs,
I’m not sure I have a concept of 17 years.
I remember Ronald Reagan was President,
I was jealous of my friend Lindsey because
she had a Debbie Gibson hat.
The Princess Bride came out, and is still
my favorite movie.
Seventeen years in the future seems daunting.
The boys at the little league field behind my house
will be men, the neighbors’ dog will be dead
and the tree in my backyard
will no longer be mine.
I could be living anywhere—
not one to put down roots, I can’t even guess.
Just yesterday, I realized, looking out your window,
that in less than two months
new trees will greet me from another window.
No longer the canopy of hardwoods,
but lush, tropical greens year-round
1,300 miles away from you.
And though we’ve talked about this,
I wonder what you’re thinking,
what you would like to be doing
with the seventeen years that this year’s
nymphs will spend underground,
burrowing, living on the roots of all those trees.
ELEGY FOR A PAST LIFE
I miss the honest life we used to lead
scraping up odd jobs so we could see
a movie the next town over,
and stare for a few hours at people
on the drive-in screen who weren’t
like us — who didn’t wear too big hand-me-down
flannels and mud-caked boots —
and even if they were playing farm people,
had never known that pinching pain
in the sacral spine that paralyzes
as you heft the bale by the twine
and let it avalanche down to the ground.
For days, after seeing a show, we’d sit in the loft,
legs dangling over the bleating sheep below
and dream about the life we’d live
when we’d escaped. Back then at sixteen
I thought we’d make it out together,
and become writers, the only job we could imagine
where we wouldn’t smell like shit or hay or cows
but too many months passed when I didn’t bleed
and when we were safe, the test negative
and burned in the rubbish heap behind the barn,
you left, too afraid of being trapped
in a cornfield town
to wait for me.
A MAN WALKS INTO A BAR
He was tall, well-built, blue-eyed,
a guy most girls would want to take to bed.
Then he reached for the beer with his left hand,
revealing the stump of his right.
We could tell the second he knew that we knew.
We’d smile, but the smile wouldn’t travel
all the way to our eyes. He’d turn back to the bar,
fold his arm closer so that we could
no longer see
as we rushed off to sling beers for guys
not as good-looking but more whole,
the ones who leered lecherously,
on “Short-Shorts Night”
and left ten dollar tips for two dollar beers
always expecting more, always bitter when we didn’t deliver.
The quiet one, we wounded week after week, a guy
any of us would have considered “out of our league,”
“a long shot,” if he had been unbroken,
the sad, blond man we were afraid to love.
They used to chuckle at him softly
the way the small-minded do at the simpleminded
when he would snore or fart in church–
And sometimes let him carry the collection plate
while they dropped in a sweat-earned buck or two
from callused, earth-caked hands. But it was her I watched–
Imagining how hard it must have been to have
a Mongoloid son and a husband so cruel he called
the boy “It” and left her out of shame. And yet–
she sat every Sunday of my childhood
beside a forty-something son she still dressed every day
and felt blessed enough with her life
to make me ashamed to pray for more.
Fridays Mrs. Wampler would give in
and leave the projector light on
as the film wound from one real to the other.
At six, the world moving backward amazed us
more than the world moving forward,
though that amazed us, too.
Full blooms squeezed back into buds;
seedlings hid themselves underground,
but our favorite was our claymation version
of Beauty and the Beast. We would cheer as each
petal affixed itself to the thorny stem
and the beast grew stronger, clap as Beauty
no longer wept at his deathbed. And soon,
he was a prince again, too polite to ever
insult a crone. This taught us that beginnings
are always best, despite all they say about
Happily Ever After. If we could invent
the automatic rewind, bodies would expel
bullets that would rest eternally in chambers,
130,000 people would materialize
as the Enola Gay swallowed the bomb,
landmines would give legs and fingers
back to broken children.
Right now, teeming cancer cells
would be rebuilding blood and bone.