I wrote this essay during the month of February five years ago. It details my experiences up to that time as a poet in the context of an (obviously failed) attempt to leave poetry. These days, I see a lot more that I admire in poetry. That’s not an accident. I am much more careful about the company I keep and the situations I enter into than I was up until 2010. I know the poetry world can still be brutal and that racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia—as well as sexual improprieties ranging from manipulation to assault and rape—still occur.ere The poetry community—whatever that term means—is as dysfunctional as it is functional. That shouldn’t surprise me, but some days it does.
As an aside, it’s interesting to read the essay again in light of my more recent diagnosis with various forms of immune system dysregulation. Of all things, I was still largely closeted about my health when I wrote the piece because I was afraid of losing my job or being stigmatized. (For instance, the cold I talk about several times was actually pneumonia. Partly I was in denial, and partly I didn’t want anyone to know I was that ill, especially since I’d just gotten over a case of pneumonia.) Toward the end of the essay, I discuss the concept of a non-integrated self that feels like a “self” and an “other,” not a whole. My health issues were a kind of “other” residing inside me, hinted at with a reference here and there throughout the narrative—if that’s what you can call it—but never fully known or understood.
The things that I am happiest about whejin I read this essay are fourfold: First, I kept writing poetry. Second, I no longer worry about people thinking I’m crazy. (Think what you want. I can’t control your perception of me.) Third, with time and hard work on both our parts, one of the damaged relationships I describe in the essay was healed and the friendship preserved. (That doesn’t always happen. I am thankful that it did in this case.) Fourth, I have made every attempt to integrate and accept various aspects of my identity and my circumstances on my own terms rather than allowing other people, or issues beyond my control, to define or defile me.
February 4, 2010, 8:01 a.m.
Early on, I learned the lesson that words and the body are connected. My mother started leaving me at a woman’s house after school. She was young, blond, physically fit, recently divorced. She had a son who was just under two years older than me. I’ll call him C. She wasn’t around much. I only remember her being present in the house with C and me on a couple of occasions. The rest of the time C and I were there alone.
We were in the same grade, despite our age difference. I was young for my grade, and he had been held back a grade, I believe for behavior issues. I have a photo of him at my fifth birthday party. A Winnie the Pooh cake is centered in the frame. I am to one side, wearing a plaid-and-denim dress, my hair bright from the sun. His is even brighter, and curly. He sits on a piano bench that’s been pulled over to the table for extra seating. It’s from the piano my sister left in the house when she moved out to get married.
C is slumping. While the other children are caught playing and smiling and eating, he looks upset, even petulant. Maybe his father’s leaving did something irreparable to him, maybe this was simply his nature. I’ve never seen such a sad child. Even I looked happy in that photo, though I was born on a Wednesday, and my mother always told me Wednesday’s children were full of woe.
C was controlling, which I imagine he must have learned from his father. We would play games such as checkers and chess, and he would make demands of me if I lost. The demands became greater over time. Even when I won, he began saying that I had lost, and saying I had to do what he wanted me to do. The demands went from controlling to sexual in nature, or I should say to being both controlling and sexual in nature.
“Pull up your shirt,” he would say.
“No,” I would reply. “Besides, I won.”
“You did not.”
“Yes I did.”
My assertion that I won bought me some time. He would back off, not knowing what argument he could make to get his way. His first approach was to threaten to tell on me to his mother, which did not faze me. She was never there anyway, and I never saw her take much interest in either C or me. Discipline and punishment were absent in that household. Then one day—perhaps weeks later, perhaps months later—C modulated his threat and in doing so found the one thing he could say that would invariably give him ultimate control: “I’m going to tell your mother.”
I was terrified of my mother and had been as long as I could remember. As she drank each night, she became more and more belligerent. My father would come home from work and yell at her. As soon as he retired to his area of the house, my mother would turn her anger and frustration on me. Her yelling, her cruelty, became more escalated with each drink, each passing hour. Until seconds felt like minutes and minutes like hours, and all I wanted was for her to pass out so it would be over for the night. Those last sips of her drink before she shut her eyes or was ordered to bed by my father seemed to take an eternity.
I would bear anything other than C fabricating stories to tell my mother. It did not matter that, at first, he was only talking about wins and losses in games such as checkers. All I knew of my mother was her anger. Anger is all she was. She didn’t need any provocation to be set off, to tell me she hated me, that she wished I’d never been born.
So I lifted my shirt. And when C made me pull my pants down, I pulled them down. And when he made me let him touch me, I let him. When I refused, he would say, “I’m going to tell your mother you let me touch you” or “I am going to tell your mother you took your shirt off.” Soon all he needed to say was, “I am going to tell your mother.” Finally, all he would need to say, to get what he wanted, was “mother.”
Once, another little girl stayed with C’s mother to be watched after school. She was a year younger than me. He ordered us to both take off our shirts. I can’t remember what else he made us do. The phrase “playing doctor” came up. I think there was a blanket. I know there was grass. I only remember the fear and the words. The words and my body. The words and the fear. The fear and the grass and the words and my body.
The other girl was scared, too. I wasn’t the only one.
I was ashamed she had to see what he did to me, what I let him do, what I was letting him do to her, all on account of his words and my silence. She and I were dumbstruck. We were waiting for it to be over.
February 4, 2010, 12:32 p.m.
I sit in a van doing math. Is age five correct? Was it age six? I count the years backwards from twelfth grade. I’m certain this all happened when I was in first grade. This would make me six years old, while C would be seven, nearing eight. How can I not know what age we were when these events took place? I can remember what I looked like, what he looked like. I remember finding the pornographic magazines that he kept under his bed. I remember the day I accidentally walked into his bedroom while he was changing clothes, and he feigned anger in front of his mother, even though he had forced me to look at him without clothes on so many times when she was not home.
How can those details be so clear, but my age, and his, are not? Now every detail unravels as I spend more time on it. Was he held back a grade, or was he just on the older side of the age range for our class? Was he really almost two years older than me, or just over one year older? Were we really in first grade?
Yes, yes. Of that I am sure. “It was first grade,” I tell myself, making a note on the back of a map.
There’s only one way to verify my age: look at the photo and see how many candles were on the cake, if they had not been removed before the photo was taken and if they are clear enough in the image that I can count them. I place the item “look at photo” on my Google to-do list. I don’t know if I’ll be able to look at it when I get home.
I am sitting in a workshop that is part of a relatively new low-residency master of fine arts program in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve just been admitted to the program as a poetry student. This is my first workshop at the master’s level. It’s week one of summer residency. I share my poem “Prim” during class, one of two I will share with this group.
Essentially, as much as any poem is “about” anything, “Prim” is about a child being sexually abused, hearing the voices of abuse in her head as she tries to navigate her own sexuality. I’ll admit it’s a difficult poem, one of crisis not synthesis.
One of my female classmates, a third-year student, is outraged. She can’t believe I’ve written “yet another” poem about “women” being oppressed. “We need poems about women who are empowered,” she demands. She makes this demand as a feminist. She is tired, so tired, of encountering this sort of weak female speaker in a poem.
I feel she is trying to erase not just my work but my life. She is tired of my life, tired of being reminded of lives like mine. How dare I. How dare I.
February 4, 2010 12:45 p.m.
I have arrived early for the literacy outreach work I am doing at a Montessori school located in the south end of the county. My class doesn’t start until 1 p.m., so I sit in the van across from a playground where school-age children are enjoying recess. Some of the children play a game of basketball, others sit in a circle talking.
One boy, older than the rest, as evidence by his size and build, stands away from the others, on the far side of the playground equipment. He has an airplane in his right hand, a clipboard in his left. On the clipboard is a blobby object that looks like rolling hills, or perhaps it’s a Godzilla toy lying on its side. The Godzilla toy is more likely than hills, I tell myself. There are other objects on the clipboard that I can’t make out. They all seem carefully arranged. I write, and pretend to write, on the back of a map so I won’t seem like a creep who sits in a van watching children play.
The children sitting in the circle grow louder and more animated. They appear to be discussing shopping. The words “mother” and the store name “Target” resound louder than the others. Target. Target. I look back at the boy with the airplane as he drives it at an angle into the objects on the clipboard, upsetting everything. Though he’s most likely plowing down Godzilla, from here it looks as if he’s driving the plane into a field with hills to one side. I think of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. 2001.
The boy talks to himself. He seems angry and intent. He rearranges his objects on the clipboard, drives the airplane into them again. And again.
February 4, 2010 5:09 p.m.
At first I can’t find the photo. The album I am looking in stops when I am three years old. Then I find another album and locate not one but four photos of the birthday party, two in color and two in black and white. Is it the same party? Yes, it is. I verify that the cake is the same, and everyone is wearing the same outfits.
I am indeed wearing a plaid-and-denim dress. But the photos remind me that this dress has an image of Holly Hobby on it. I suddenly remember it was my favorite dress, and I begged my mother to let me wear it that day. Other details were incorrect in my memory: The cake is not centered in the photos. We aren’t eating; we’re poised to eat, the cake in pristine condition. C is indeed slumping in one photo, the one in which I am about to blow out my candles. But his hair is not curly. It’s a little wavy on the ends at best. In one image he does manage a smile. In another he is back to looking pensive.
One of the boys at this party is on Facebook. He has six children of his own now, or perhaps he has five children and a youthful wife. It’s hard to tell, especially these days. His fraternal twin sister is sitting next to me, leaning her head on my left arm. She would later become my best friend, but I would never like her much. In her early teens, she would learn to ape whatever the boys and men she was after were into, at the expense of becoming her own person. When these boys and men had sex with her and told her she was the most beautiful person in the world, she would feel she was loved, that she had achieved something, even though they never called. Unless they wanted sex. Then she became beautiful again.
There are paper plates with Winnie the Pooh on them, colorful plastic cups, mood rings, what appear to be Slinkys, and those paper things you blow on that fill with air and whine as you empty your lungs into them. Just outside the frame, with only a sliver showing, a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game decorates the door leading to the garage, which had recently been turned into a bonus room. This is where my father spent most of his time each night, alone.
But I am not here to detail what’s in the photos. I am here to count candles. One, two, three, four, five. There. Five, just like I thought. One of the photos is even labeled “5th Birthday Party.” I have my answer. Or do I? In one photo, the candles are lit. Do I see five flames, or six, or seven? There are two candles far away from the others. I can make those out clearly. The rest are in a clump.
I can’t believe this. The number of candles is not clear in any of these photos. From one angle, a pink plastic cup right behind the lit pink candles makes it hard to count those middle candles. In other angles, a stand-up table display of Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, Kanga and Piglet obscures my view. And what of the label on the photo, identifying my age as five? Looking closer, it’s clear that’s been written in my own, circa 1988, penmanship. Though I am sure I conferred with my mother about my age in these photos, I don’t know that the label can be trusted. Her memory was pretty shot by then, from so many years of drinking.
Six. After looking at each photo for a long time, I am relatively certain I was six years old. So we were in first grade, after all.
February 4, 2010 1:14 p.m.
When we get to the end of the picture book Frederick, one of the children asks, “What is a poet?” I don’t know how to answer. Yesterday, I would have had a long answer. I would have encouraged the children to become poets.
Another child pipes up, “Someone who rhymes.”
Another says, “Someone who uses their words to help people.”
Or do I imagine that last answer?
February 4, 2010 6:09 p.m.
In Frederick, the story begins just as five little mice are getting ready for winter. They gather up corn and food and other supplies to get them through the long, cold months they will spend in their hideout. Frederick doesn’t help at all. On each of the book’s pages, he seems to be daydreaming, or nearly asleep, or off on his own doing absolutely nothing.
“He’s not doing any work,” the children exclaim as the book is read.
“He just wants to be alone,” another child adds.
Frederick tells the children he’s gathering up things they will need during the winter months, such as color and words.
Do you really think he’s doing that? “No,” scream the children. “He’s pretending.” They giggle.
At the end of the book, when the mice’s supplies have run out, they turn to Frederick for help. “What do you have,” they ask him. “Where are your supplies?”
Frederick makes the mice shut their eyes so he can show them the color he has gathered. He makes them listen so they can hear as he recites a poem about four little mice. For mice just like the four of them.
The mice proclaim, “Frederick is a poet!”
February 4, 2010 7.05 p.m.
Someone has found their way to my site after searching for the phrase: “bullxxxx girls talking drama poems.”
June 1, 2009
Day one of National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month. The first ever, established by President Obama. I am in the South, in a state whose governor will make a mess of things on the national news in a couple of weeks in yet another political sex scandal. I will be safe at home when that news breaks, but right now I am in my second low-residency master of fine arts program, participating in a workshop as part of that course of study.
There was some brouhaha the day before because I took issue with a poem I found to be sexist, with the poem’s subject—a modernized version of Helen—being pinpointed as the source of men’s suffering. Everyone in the workshop was pussyfooting around the poem, talking about line breaks and teensy details in the piece, when I decided to speak up and talk about the work from two perspectives, neither of which was particularly welcome: feminist theory and reader-response theory. I talked about how the poem made me feel when reading it. That it made me sad and mad. That I identified with Helen and did not like seeing her invoked as a cursing, culpable temptress, the way so many women are characterized in literature and in life. Helen was raped. She was kidnapped. How can she be cast as in control? Did she drive men to do these things? Were their actions her fault, because of the spell that women like her are always casting on men?
That night, the poet who wrote the piece approached me to talk about what I had said. I thought we worked through it, both understanding one another’s positions even if we didn’t agree. The next day in workshop, the poet brought the same issues up again—the ones he had addressed with me privately—this time in front of the entire workshop. I didn’t know why this was being brought up again, or why my response to his work—specifically the response from a position of feminist theory—was so unwelcome. Another man in the program chimed in in support of the author.
When it was my turn to have my poem critiqued, everyone, including the instructors, largely avoided talking about the work as a whole, instead choosing to focus in on one element: the gender of (by which I assume they meant the biological sex of) my speaker.
It cannot be a male speaker because the speaker takes a bath, not a shower.
It cannot be a female speaker because there’s a reference to the speaker’s wife in the poem.
It cannot be a male speaker because there’s a line that shows the speaker’s vulnerability, and that makes the speaker seem female.
It cannot be a female speaker, because even if she were gay, she would not call her partner a “wife.”
This talk goes on and on. Finally, I am asked if I want to speak. I do want to speak. I ask the group why they fixated on the gender of my speaker, especially at the expense of discussing the poem’s other aspects. The male poet who had earlier come to the other poet’s defense says with authority, “Like it or not, Dana, gender matters.” He goes on to explain that the world is full of men and women, and we need to know who’s who.
I don’t want to do this. Not now. Not here. Not in the South. Not away from all my friends and support systems. Not in this assbackwards place, as my mother would call it, where the term lynching has already been dropped several times and where every student is white—a fact explained away by a classmate who asserts that all the black people who apply for MFAs get scholarships from the top MFA programs.
No. Not here. I don’t want to do this here. This is not safe.
But I don’t see a choice, other than silence. Not after thirty-four years living in the Midwest, seventeen of them living in Oklahoma, after all the ways I have allowed silence to oppress and to deny—to take and to take me and to take me over. I know I have to do this. I’ve promised myself I will never remain silent again.
I tell everyone in the room that I identify as transgendered, blasting off a mini-rant about how—just as there are many people who fall between straight and gay—there are many who fall between male and female either biologically or psychologically, or both. There are many of us who identify as falling on a continuum of sex-, gender- and sexual-orientation identification, and who have the right to compose poems without people trying to force us into using identifiably “male” or “female” speakers and to force us into using subjective and arbitrary gender markers, such as whether or not the speaker takes baths.
The room seems stunned, except for one of the instructors, who is thrilled. She’s never heard of this before … this … what is it again?
“Gender dysphoria or gender dysmorphia,” I reply. “I don’t like either term, though” I explain, “to describe myself.”
It’s true. I don’t. Both terms frame the phenomenon as a pathology. I don’t feel like a pathology. I feel like a person. The instructor is writing each term down on the printout of my poem using a pink pen. Realizing this is the marked-up copy she will hand back to me, she crosses the terms out and writes them on another sheet of paper.
She says this is groundbreaking, that all my poems make sense now, especially my robot poems. Now she is excited to work with me. She can’t wait to work with me.
I walk back to my room in tears, passing the magnolia trees that bloom all over the small but attractive campus. I haven’t seen trees like this since I last visited Oklahoma. We had a huge star magnolia in our backyard that my father doted on and that my mother loved until she died. The tree bloomed every summer, its flowers so sturdy and large a child could bury her head inside them. Seeing the trees on this campus makes me feel lonely and nostalgic. I feel like I am at home but very far away from home. I turn my thoughts back to the present.
“This is a women’s college,” I think. “A women’s college. What would they do with someone like me?”
I spend the remainder of the residency locked in my room, other than attending the rest of the workshops and all required events. I cry almost the entire next day during workshop. But I made myself go back, and for that I am still proud. I also typed up extensive notes on the poems being covered. I hand them to each student after class.
The day after that is better. I start talking again about halfway through the four-hour class. I hardly cry at all. A student passes around a wad of buffalo hair from her favorite buffalo, who was slaughtered. She keeps the hair in a small bag. I can’t refrain from crying as I hold the hair. I hold it for a long time before passing it on, trying to imagine the animal whole, alive.
A few months later I learn that I received a “B” for the residency. The director cites the fact that I did not “participate fully” in several workshops, and the fact that I missed one (not required) poetry lecture (which I missed because I had been summoned by him to his office at the time of the lecture).
Finally, he writes that I did not “demonstrate a passionate commitment to writing.”
February 4, 2010 8:36 p.m.
While I am writing my last installment in this series, someone finds my site after searching for the phrase: “will pertussis go away on its own.” They make it to my Facts and Myths About Pertussis post. Now that is writing which will actually help someone. Try sharing pertussis facts as a poem. Try getting anyone to read that poem.
February 4, 2010 8:51 p.m.
I think I’ll take a bath now. Maybe read some Mina Loy. I hope I don’t get it wet. I got my copy of Matthew Dickman’s All-American Poem wet yesterday. I can’t say I’m too upset about having done so.
I can’t wait to share my thoughts on Loy’s life and her work, but mostly on her life. I never said I was done reading poetry, or talking about it.
For those of you who are worried about me. Don’t be. Were I to step into the fire, I would rise from it. Just like my mother did. Like she did time and time again. This is our curse: to live.
February 4, 2010 9:38 p.m.
I slide each photo back into the album. I place the album on the shelf with the others, including the ones detailing my parents’ lives. I want to talk about those photos, the ones of my father in Korea and my mother at her family’s house in Oklahoma, but I am too tired. I still have not managed to draw a bath. I take a moment to note that the word “Oklahoma” has the sound of home inside it.
February 5, 2010 6:13 a.m.
I awake from a dream about children. I am reading to them. I insert their names in place of the characters’ names in the book. I make the story about them. The story I read has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has predicable patterns. It has a tidy ending, one that is revelatory or surprising, but not too revelatory or surprising. It is a story they can digest, handle. By making the story specific to them, they are more drawn to it. They listen more intently. They want to hear more and are sad when the book is over.
“Again,” they exclaim. “Read it again!” The laugh even as they make the demand.
I am the equivalent of Frederick the Poet Mouse telling the other mice a tale about mice who are just like them. The children see themselves in the story. It is not clear to them where they stop and the story begins, or where the story stops and they begin.
I realize, looking at the term “Poet Mouse,” that if you drop one letter, you have “Poet Muse.”
February 5, 2010 6:31 a.m.
I open an email from someone I don’t know. He writes, “Do you feel like you’ve ever met someone quite like yourself?” Then asks, “How old are you?”
I don’t know how to answer either question. I have no energy for communications or revelations beyond this series. What I am writing about right now, and all I am writing about, is how it came to pass that I left poetry. I have no time or energy to delve into additional questions, ones asked privately by strangers, even strangers who seem kind enough.
I am scared of private spaces and private communications anyway. I’ve seen the damage they can do—the policing and the secrets. I’ve lived inside the policed and self-policed space that is my life for years. People always ask me why I talk about everything in public. “It’s the only place to do so,” I tell them. When I want to be honest but avoid the crux of the matter I say, “I like to gossip about myself so nobody else can.” When I want to get right at the crux of the matter I simply say, “It’s safer.”
What I have realized in the past few weeks is that it’s not just my life that has been a policed and self-policed space. Poetry is also such a space, because we let it be one, and I don’t mean policed in the positive sense of the word. Like others, I’ve been complicit in that silence. Being complicit is something I’ve learned—from other poets. When poets have told me, “It’s best to let that go” or “It’s best not to bring that up publicly” or simply “Get over it,” I have listened. I have taken note. I have allowed those poets to shape the story of my life—its beginning, middle and end.
Much of what I am revealing in this series I have never revealed to anyone. I have been that good at tucking misbehaviors and missteps away, even blaming them on myself.
I feel more than vaguely nauseated, as I do most mornings.
October 8, 2008
I receive an email from a local poet I had contacted about a paid mentorship. When I contacted him, I explained that I was not in a master of fine arts program but was very serious about poetry and would like to have a structured learning situation. I had not been able to find something of that sort outside of MFA programs, which had been frustrating.
The poet had been enthusiastic about the idea of acting as a mentor. We emailed back and forth more than a dozen times, and he asked for my phone number. When he called, he talked about all the things we could do when I came down for our first meeting. He even said he was going to set me up with a naturopath so she could help me learn ways to support my kidney function. (I had been diagnosed with kidney disease a little over a year earlier.)
The morning we are going to meet, I am elated. Just before I pop into the shower and start getting ready, I see an email from him. Its subject line is “NO MEETING.” I open it. Inside the email, the poet says he does not think I have demonstrated a commitment to writing or to the mentorship process, and he has better things to do with his time than meet with me.
I am crestfallen. This poet is extremely active in our community, and widely loved, both in Seattle and in outlying areas. I had just spent hours talking with him in person a few weeks earlier, and he had amazing things to say about poetry. He’s a champion of poetry and of poets. He is a hero. But heroes don’t do this to people, certainly not to people who look up to them and want to pay them for their knowledge.
When I pull myself together, I check the stats on my site, just to see if I can find some clue there. He’s left comments on my site in the past, so I know his IP address. There it is, sure as xxxx: He made his way to my site after doing a Google search for the phrase: “Dana Guthrie Martin Husband.” That hit came in just before his email saying he didn’t want to work with me, that I didn’t have what it takes as a poet.
December 3, 2009 10:56 a.m.
I call one of my closest friends, also a poet, to tell him about the grade I received for the summer residency at the school in the South.
“So what. Grades are bullxxxx,” he says. “Adults shouldn’t be graded anyway.”
I explain that I am upset not about the grade but about the methods for determining that grade, especially in light of what happened during the residency—the trauma I experienced, the lack of support I feel I received from the institution, and the subjective factors the director was using regarding grade determination.
“How can you evaluate someone’s ‘passionate commitment’ to writing,” I ask my friend? “And what have I ever done that runs contrary to a passionate commitment to writing?”
“Get over it,” my friend says. He says I should not bring it up again. That it’s “not that big a deal.” I’m relatively certain this is exactly what he said, as I’ve made notes on a piece of paper, something I’m prone to doing every time he and I talk. I usually take notes so I can look things up later, learn from what he’s sharing with me. Today, I am reluctantly, slowly, writing “get” … “over” … “it.”
I get off the phone and am left with two silences: that of the room and that which is being imposed on me. Within the month, this close friend and I will no longer be on speaking terms after I blow up at him with a growing anger whose roots were established in this moment of silencing and dismissal.
More silence. More loss. Losses all around.
February 5, 2010 9:15 a.m.
Narrative. It’s not something we’re born understanding. Children up to a certain age do not realize there are such things as before and after, action and consequence, earlier and later. I believe I read something about this recently in Nick Flynn’s memoir The Ticking Is the Bomb, a book that, despite a few strong and moving moments, largely fell flat for me.
One facet of early literacy education is teaching children narrative skills. We tell them stories that have plots, that go from point A to point B. There can be surprises, but even the surprises are systematized. They either occur at the end of the book or appear on every page. The surprises are, therefore, as predictable as any other element in the story.
Some of these surprises are ways to teach lessons. And the lessons taught can, and do, carry biases that slip through without most instructors and parents noticing them. Take the instructor who, when reading the book The Rhyming Dust Bunnies, asks the children, “Have you ever seen your mom sweeping up at home?” as opposed to asking, “Have you ever seen someone sweeping up at home?” A small lapse, but these lapses add up, and they make an impression on our children. They shape how our children see the world. Even such seemingly benign phrases as “your mom and dad,” used in a generic way, not only carry a heterosexist bias, they also don’t speak to children whose parents—whatever their sexual orientation and sexual identification—are not married, or to the growing number of children who only have, and only know, one parent.
I am always careful about not allowing biases to slip into my early literacy outreach work. But I am concerned that teaching narrative skills is in fact a way of allowing biases into the teaching. I know this goes back to my own stance toward poetry, my uneasy relationship with narrative poems, or at least with the way that, within poetry, narrative has come to mean something very limited. In teaching these children narrative skills, am I not encouraging them to think and move through the world in this way, always seeing objects and other people in relationship to themselves, seeing themselves and each other in relationship to stories, always looking for how “then” affects “now,” perceiving time and our experience of it as linear, and wanting everything pulled together in some enlightening and instructive fashion in the end?
And in pushing children toward narrative, am I not pushing them away from the multiple logics and sensibilities of poetry, at least poetry that is not narrative?
Children who learn narrative skills at an early age have significantly higher scores on standardized tests. Studies have been done that show this correlation. There’s a huge push to train children to think in terms of the narrative construct. And we do push. We push them to use language within narrative’s confines.
We do not push children to think, write or use language like poets, for no standardized test would show a tangible benefit to developing strong poetic skills at an early age. Poetry does not serve the interests of the state, nor do poets. Both poetry and poets can, in fact, work against the state’s interests. In reality, however, poets seem more interested in working against one another’s interests, with no regard for the real power it possesses—to reframe, to estrange, to disrupt, to tell.
February 5, 2010 12:42 p.m.
Someone has found their way to my site after searching for the phrase: “NOT HAVING THE WORDS TO EXPRESS.” I know how this person feels. I understand the urgency of setting such a query in capital letters.
Mid-June 2009, afternoon
A poet friend and I are talking on Skype video. I try to explain what happened at the residency in the South. He does not understand the labels “gender dysphoria” and “gender dysmorphia.” Rather than try to explain either in clinical terms, I send him a link to a piece I’ve shared on my site regarding my own experience of being gender queer. He reads the piece as I make my Gumby and Pokey action figures prance back and forth across the camera lens.
“Why do you need to label yourself,” my friend asks once he’s read the piece. “Why not just be Dana.” I put Gumby and Pokey down and smile more broadly.
What he probably does not intend, but what his words in effect convey to me are, “Why do you have to label yourself in a nonstandard way”? For we all label and are labeled. Every time my friend calls himself “he” or checks the box “male” on a form, he is labeling himself. Every time he calls someone else “he” or “she,” he is labeling them. I am not a fan of labels, but I would like one that comes closer to how I feel about my experience of my own body and mind.
February 5, 2010 7:51 a.m.
I listen to Beck on my way to work. He sings: “There’s too many people you used to know / they see you coming / they see you go / they know your secrets and you know theirs / this town is all crazy / nobody cares / baby you’re lost / baby you’re lost / baby you’re a lost cause”
I imagine poetry as a town. I also imagine my hometown in Oklahoma, which was nothing short of crazy, but also like a poem in some ways.
Yes, there are secrets. Yes, nobody cares. Yes, I am lost.
February 5, 2010 2:53 p.m.
A writer friend of mine sends me an email that reads, in part, “It’s like you’re abandoning ship by tearing up the deck and building boats from the lumber.”
I have to build new boats. What other choice do I have? I don’t want to drown.
I remember the day I spun around and around inside my inner tube. I was in our pool, the one my father had a contracting crew install when I was in fifth grade. It was a hot summer day, as all days in Oklahoma were and are. I had my eyes closed to heighten the effect of spinning. I figured out that, if I put my legs into it, I could spin very quickly. I counted to thirty as I spun, then shot my arms straight up and pointed my toes straight down, legs stiff. I went under the water, all the way to the bottom of the deep end. Down, down, but it didn’t feel like I was going down because of the disequilibrium in my body.
I stayed at the bottom of the pool enjoying the disorientation until I was out of breath and needed air. My eyes still shut, I tried to make my way to the surface. But I couldn’t find it. I kept holding my hands up, or what I thought was up. Yet my fingers did not break through to air. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought to open my eyes and find my way visually. I think it was part of my game: I had to spin, count to thirty, go under, sink and find my way to the surface—all with my eyes shut.
I finally thought to open my eyes. When I did, I found the surface. I gasped. I swallowed a lot of water from breathing in too quickly and too close to the surface. With no one there to pull me out, I made my way to the edge of the pool and sat for a long time, coughing and heaving, my legs still shin-deep in the water.
From then on, that was the day I nearly drowned. Still, I didn’t stop playing the game. There was something addictive about it. Alluring. I can’t describe the feeling in my body as it was lost and wet and nearly weightless. I was alone down there, completely alone, estranged from the everyday world.
I tried to get friends to play the game with me, but none of them thought it was fun. They had the good sense to remain on land, or at least in the shallow end of the pool. They bobbed around in their one-pieces, while I spun then sank then emerged then spun then sank.
I also tried to play the game with one of my larger friends, but she got stuck inside her inner tube and we did not have a bigger one.
There were days I tried to stay down until I was out of air, and beyond. Days I wanted to not “almost” drown, but to actually drown. I would wait until I was home alone, then put on my swimsuit and get out the inner tube. “This time, you will be able to go through with it,” I would tell myself.
I always found air. My body wanted to live, it seems, even if I did not.
February 5, 2010 12:31 p.m.
Another poet friend whom I admire a great deal sends me an email about my relationship to poetry. In part, she writes:
Maybe it let you down because you were looking for Jesus there and didn’t find him. Maybe you can go back later when you no longer connect it to people instead of activity—if that makes sense.
My reply to her, which I’ve modified slightly below, is:
I started writing poetry because I thought it would lead to a sort of communion with other poets, because I thought it was a means for me, for all of us, to use words in ways that don’t lead to hurting people bodily, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually.
I needed that, and still need it, after seeing words deployed the way they had been in my life—the way they had been used leading up to, during, in conjunction with and as justifications for raping, molesting and abusing me. Not to mention labeling, exploiting and manipulating me in far broader ways. And not just me, but those I know and those I don’t know. All of us are negatively affected by language in one way or another—the language we use with each other and the language systems use against us.
I know I should be able to separate poetry and poets, but I can’t. I will never be able to do so. I got into this because of the humanity of it, the responsibility we share as poets and as people. I got into it because of the good that can arise when we have power over our words—as much as we can ever have over language—when we use words in ways that challenge all the hurtful ways words are used in this world.
February 4, 2010 11:21 a.m.
I have just read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to the children in one of my morning literacy outreach classes. For this book, I use a felt set with representations, in felt, of everything the caterpillar eats before turning into a beautiful butterfly. We count the first set of items together: one apple, two pears, one-two-three plums, four strawberries (which half the class mislabels as apples), one-two-three-four-five oranges.
Predictable. Each page shows one additional item, and all items in any given group are the same. Homogeneity. Consistency. Children learn the world will be like this, for them and for everyone. All they have to do is grow into that world.
Have you ever read children’s stories from and about other countries? There is one, whose name escapes me, about a lion who takes and takes and takes from the animals he rules. He shames and beats those who do not give the lion the lion’s share, which increases exponentially throughout the story until the lion’s share is the only share. He knocks one animal upside the head and its eye falls out of its socket.
Reading this book for the first time, I kept waiting for the story to turn around. But it didn’t. In the end, the other animals wander the land, hungry and hurt. That’s a far cry from teaching children about apples and oranges and pears and plums. There is no transformation in that book, no animals protected in their cocoons who turn into beautiful creatures that fly away.
February 5, 2010 11:31 a.m.
In the lobby of the library’s service building, a motion-sensitive piece of art is installed along a long wall. I am carrying boxes full of children’s books through the lobby when the art lights up. I smile. I still haven’t located the motion detector that makes the art light up. I pass white and yellow and red and green color blocks, all dancing in succession. On, off, on, on, off.
One of the students from the MFA program in the South contacts me through Facebook after we are all back home. She professes to be a friend I can rely on. She is reaching out in friendship, she explains. She is happy to talk to me, she adds.
She says some other things, too, that don’t make a lot of sense to me. Something about my not liking her because of how she looked and dressed. With this divulgence, I feel insecurities have crept in on her part, for I certainly never meant to make her feel bad on any account, let alone aspects pertaining to appearance.
Quite the opposite: When I saw her the first night of the residency, I thought four things: “Wow, she is strong and beautiful.” And “Thank goodness she’s in the program.” And “This should be interesting.” And “I want to get to know her.” When I found out she was the author of the poems she had submitted for the residency workshop, I thought, “Oh, yes. Oh yes.”
I am thrilled to receive an email from this woman. Her attempt to reach out makes me feel less isolated within the program. I reply by trying to better explain my perspective on what happened at the residency. I go into far too much detail, as I am prone to do. Though I am merely hoping to explain and to open up a dialogue, she believes I am attacking the other students in the workshop. She is offended on their behalf.
She replies that she knows for a fact nobody in that class was trying to hurt me.
I know nobody was trying to hurt me. That was not the point of anything in my reply. The point was to come to some sort of understanding, to be understood, to make sure her understanding of my experience that day wasn’t filled in by someone other than me, or by her own gaps and assumptions.
I try to reply, but she has both unfriended and blocked me on Facebook.
February 4, 2010 5:08 p.m.
As I sit in my car on my way home from work, stopped at a light, I feel cagey. I always have to talk on the phone while I am driving. If I can’t talk to someone, or if my phone fails for some reason, I feel trapped inside the vehicle, cut off. My nerves act up, making my skin tingle and spark, the way I imagine a potato feels when hooked up to one of those potato-powered clocks. I quickly tap my left foot at each red light, fold and unfold my arms.
I used to love cars. I would squeeze behind the driver’s seat of my father’s El Camero as he drove around our hometown running errands. The seat next to him was open, but I felt safer folded into the small pocket of space behind his seat. I placed myself there the way he folded and placed a handkerchief inside the front pocket of his sports jacket every morning.
Crouching behind his seat placed me closer to him, too. It would be only a few years before his advanced age and terrible sense of style would make me ashamed to be seen with him. For now, when his friends and business associates meet me for the first time and ask, “Is this your granddaughter” with wide grins, I chime in enthusiastically, “No, I’m his daughter,” as if I had a pot of gold by my side, or the world’s next great discovery.
Cars changed for me after he died. I was part of the funeral processional that wove through the streets of our town and up to the I.O.O.F. Cemetery. I sat by the window and looked out at a group of children playing a game of baseball. There were adults, too. One of them turned toward us, removed his hat, made the shape of a cross in front of his face, chest and shoulders. I had never seen that before, but I knew the gesture was one of good will. I felt connected to that person, as if there was no pane of glass separating us. “Someone cares,” I thought. “Someone cares that this has happened.”
It was dumb luck, and my father’s bad habits, that placed me in the car that day. Me and my mother. It was bullxxxx that we were there, and that he was not.
February 5, 2010 5:35 p.m.
I read a poem by W:
Dear everyone, I’m sorry for being a poet,
for my high brows and low sperm count,
for my sweaty middle eight and my lazy back nine,
for the tears that well up as I tear a page out of the Onion,
for looking past you and into the guts of a piano last night
W is not the reason I left poetry, though he is, in a small and indirect way. When I read his poem, I want to stay. I want to be a poet and feel proud about being one. But why not leave the work to him and to others who seem to have it under control, and for whom being a poet seems to be less problematic, less painful, or both.
I initially wrote “a little less problematic,” but a colleague recently pointed out that I tend to minimize my feelings by using the phrase “a little” when I mean something much more than “a little.” She was right. I have deleted the phrase “a little” at least two dozen times so far in this series.
Mina Loy once proclaimed that she never was a poet. Perhaps I never was one either. I do know that I’ve stared into the guts of many pianos and found them far more fascinating than the people in the room. I have taken strings in my hands and held them taut, aware of the silence, holding off on letting go because I want so badly to hear the sound the strings will make when I release them that I never want to release them.
Perhaps that’s what I want from language: to hold the sound in my body, in my mouth—to never let the tones out, because I want to hold onto all that beauty as long as I can and perhaps in the process become beautiful. When I exhale, the other words come back. The ones used to hurt me that live on inside my muscles.
I suspect W would tell me that what I am writing here is xxxx because nobody other than those who know me will give a damn about what I am writing. My reply? I would be happy if even those who know me gave a xxxx about what I am saying. In my experience, that has not been the case. The first poem I wrote, printed and hand-bound as a chapbook for relatives of mine, prompted one of them to storm out of the room in anger. He did not like the way my father was depicted in the poem. To this day, that is my only love poem, written for my father ten years after his death.
I start to write an additional sentence here, but stop. I hold the string taut.
February 5, 2010 7:29 p.m.
N and I seem to be at an impasse. We don’t know how to talk to one another unless we’re talking about poetry. We sit on the phone tonight, largely in silence. At first, he attributes the silence on his end to the fact that he’s tired. When he does start talking, it’s about poetry.
“I can’t take one more thing related to poetry,” I say. “Not one more poetry-related thing that will raise my blood pressure even by just a few points.” I hold my hand over my heart and feel it beating hard, a gesture that N, of course, cannot see.
We decide tonight is not the night to talk. We’ll try again tomorrow.
If I lose this friendship, this writing relationship, I will be devastated. I can’t take another loss. I can’t lose N.
February 5, 2010 6:52 p.m.
A poet I am acquainted with sends me a message of encouragement through Facebook. She has organized the message into a bullet-point list. She explains her reasoning for this format: “It’s so hard sometimes to come up with a relatively cohesive communication. So I’m resorting to bullet points. Forgive me, Dana.”
February 5, 2010 7:46 p.m.
I have been stalling since I got home from work. I don’t want to write what I know I must write next in this series. This is something I have written about several times before, and I almost resort to linking to the posts I have already written, but I can’t do that. This piece is central to what comes later in my life’s narrative. And what I am about to relate has everything to do with how it came to pass that I left poetry.
To commit something, anything, to the screen, I decide to mirror my friend’s approach and tell this story as a bullet-point list:
- I could not tell you what make or model of car it was, but I know it was a station wagon.
- I want to say it was bronze, but that might be a detail I am filling in, one that has no basis in reality.
- He was driving.
- His wife was in the passenger seat.
- I was in the back seat, directly behind him.
- He had a problem with frequent urination.
- A glass jar, which he and his wife kept in the front with them, served as a repository for his urine.
- They emptied it out at rest stops when they needed to fill the station wagon’s tank.
- She carried the full jar into the public restroom and dumped it while he pumped gas.
- I could smell his urine every time he opened the jar.
- When he said to his wife, “Hand me the jar,” I held my breath.
- He used her name when he asked for the jar, but I am leaving her name out of this list.
- I will not leave his name out.
- His name was R.
- I never thought I would experience anything worse than I experienced in my own home, any fear greater than that of being alone with my mother.
- After that trip to Memphis, the one I was sent on with R and his wife shortly after my father died, I could not wait to get home to my mother.
- Safety is an ever-shifting term for those who do not have it.
- We look for it where we can find it, and label the least-unsafe situation we can find “safe.”
- This is all I can say right now, all I can bring myself to say about R.
February 5, 2010 7:59 p.m.
I receive confirmation that my next chapbook, forthcoming from Slack Buddha Press, does not need to be labeled as poetry. I am tickled pink. According to the publishers, Slack Buddha shares “the work of contemporary practitioners” and does not force a genre label on any of its authors.
I can get behind calling myself a “practitioner,” though I know some people don’t like the term. What matters most is that the chapbook is still a go. I am thrilled to be able to share my text without the baggage of having it labeled as “poetry” and without being called a “poet.”
In a workshop I took with Sam Hamill in 2008, he said: “Even how you break a line is political.” For me, choosing to not break the line has become a political act, one that feels perfectly right at this time, for reasons I have barely started to explore and explain.
February 6, 2010 6:04 a.m.
Hush, little baby, don’t say a word.
Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird
And if that mockingbird won’t sing,
Papa’s gonna buy you a diamond ring
And if that diamond ring turns brass,
Papa’s gonna buy you a looking glass
And if that looking glass gets broke,
Papa’s gonna buy you a billy goat
And if that billy goat won’t pull,
Papa’s gonna buy you a cart and bull
And if that cart and bull turn over,
Papa’s going to buy you a dog named Rover.
And if that dog named Rover won’t bark,
Papa’s going to buy you a horse and cart.
And if that horse and cart fall down,
You’ll still be the sweetest little baby in town.
February 6, 2010 6:38 a.m.
I have blocked out a big chunk of today so I can work on formatting poems by E and W. This is going to be such a load of work that I feel funny in my stomach just thinking about it, like the time we would go over that last large hill on our way to the weekend house at Lake Texoma—my dog on my lap shaking with excitement in anticipation of our destination, which she could smell; my father and mother in the front seats, their mixed drinks in the car’s center console. I would always lose my stomach going over that hill. It was like flying that didn’t last long.
“Half purebred.” That’s what my mother called my dog. It was very important to my mother that people know the dog we owned was half “pure,” just as it was very important to her that people know what percentage Native American we all were and that we were from the civilized tribes, which in her mind were superior to the others. She would emphasize the word “civilized” as she said it, dropping down into that first syllable with her Oklahoma accent.
I simply called my dog by her name, which my father gave her. It was dismissive: “Shi Shi.” Technically, “shi” is from the Japanese word “shiko,” meaning urine, but my father meant her name in keeping with the sense of the Urban Dictionary definition: “classy overpriced and contemporary.” Shi Shi was, to him, a high-maintenance, prissy little thing. I always attributed the gift of Shi Shi to him, since he is the one who put her in a wrapped box for me to open on Christmas Day.
“Open that one, open it,” he kept urging, pointing to a large, hastily wrapped box in front of me to my right. But I wanted to save it for last, precisely because it was the largest and therefore had to be the best. I wanted to keep that string taut by dillydallying as long as I could before getting to it.
He began to get worried about Shi Shi. She’d been in the box a long time. No breathing holes. He ordered me to open the box. Then he pecked, “Dana, Dana, Dana.” I ignored him. “Dana,” he pecked again.
I got mad about his demands, his incessant repetition of my name. I turned my head quickly to give him a mean look for being so demanding when all I was trying to do was open my presents in an order and at a pace that suited me. Everyone knew holidays were for children. This was my day, not his.
He caught me in a Polaroid photo just as I turned my head. For years when people would say, “You look so mad there,” I would deny it. How could I ever admit to being angry with my father?
I open the file E and W have sent to N and me. I see their dedication, and it makes me ridiculously happy:
E dedicates these poems to W.
W dedicates these poems to E.
I wish every good thing for them. Every good thing.
February 6, 2010 7:43 a.m.
N and I are trying, again, to talk on the phone. I lie on the guest bed and look up at the ceiling. I am comfortable and tired. I rag-rolled the ceiling different shades of blue a few years ago in an attempt to emulate sky. This was my way to have semi-transparent cumulus clouds, with blue showing through, whenever I needed them.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, most days are gray; many are hazy. This sky was something I needed to paint because I came from Oklahoma. From big sky. You could drive for miles under Oklahoma’s clouds, uninterrupted by the complication of mountains or tall trees—when there were clouds, that is. Most days, the sky was blue. And there was the sun, of course, but the sun wasn’t part of the sky, only suspended in it. When I was young, I liked to think of the sun as a pristine egg yolk. I liked to imagine it yoking all that sky together, acting as its manager, the way my father was a manager, both at work and at home. I did not know “yolk” and “yoke” were two different words that carried different meanings. Both words were one, and the sun was both.
The conversation starts off with a drag, like a boat that’s forgotten to raise anchor. N still does not seem to know what he can safely talk about that won’t make me sad or mad or both. We sit for a little while in silence. I open the door to talking about poetry, but not poets. Soon, we are laughing and prattling on like we usually do.
Then he says: “I think you can definitely talk about poetic language but defining poetry as this discrete instance of magic as opposed to other instances of text is ridiculous. There was a time I thought you had to say what poetry is as different from other genres—as opposed to prose—you know? But I’ve totally changed my mind about that. I think the whole genre-distinction thing is misguided.”
I don’t hear a word of what he’s relating, except the word “poetry,” which I’m especially attuned to.
I am looking at the ceiling. It’s a terrible paint job, doesn’t come close to looking like sky. The jagged edges of various colors compete for space the way attendees of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference compete for mere inches of floor space in hot, terribly overcrowded rooms. The worst I saw the year I attended was a floor literally covered with bodies and water bottles and bags and books, people stepping on one another’s feet and hands and belongings as they tried to wedge their way into the room. I could not help but think of hyperplasia, a condition in which too many cells crowd an area, well beyond the number normally seen. Hyperplasia can result in enlargement of organs or even in tumors.
The topic for this panel had something to do with what poetry editors are looking for in submissions. Other panels at that same time, in the same building and even along the same series of hallways, were not filled to capacity. This is where everyone wanted to be. This hyperplastic crowd, it seems, flew to Chicago in February in hopes that this panel would be the magic bullet that would remove the barrier between their work and its publication.
My first mentor was on the panel. I worked with him when I was a student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He taught an introductory poetry class and was the managing editor of New Letters, for which he now serves as editor. I adored my first mentor and had not seen him for a decade. I was hoping to see him after the panel, but N and I had to leave, even though we got there early. So many people were crowding in and stepping on us that we were on the verge of simultaneous panic attacks.
There was really no use in staying anyway. We could not pay attention to the panel because head after head kept popping through the door, loudly whispering, “Is there any more room” before barging in despite the fact that it was more than apparent there was no more room. The query was not so much as query as a declaration of intent to crowd. As they made their way into the room, they would point at one or two square inches of space and mouth to those surrounding those inches, “Do you think I can fit in there?” They would motion to those already seated to cross their legs or hold their belongings in their laps or scrunch up—just a little more—to make room. They smiled, or they didn’t, as they made these demands.
My first mentor was and is a good man. I try to remember this when I think of the others who’ve come after him in the guise of mentors, educators and peers.
It’s as if all the colors on the ceiling are trying to elbow one another in the ribs and eyes and groins to make more room for themselves. To be foregrounded rather than backgrounded. I’ve known this for a long time, that my paint job was a failure. Sky is sky. Paint is paint. Paint can never be sky, at least not paint that is in my hands.
I zero in on one spot that looks like a beheaded whale. Or does it? What would a beheaded whale look like? Given their overall shape, I think a beheaded whale wouldn’t look very different from a whole whale. Why am I imagining this creature as beheaded? I try to imagine a whale, a real one, not a painted outline of one that resembles a whale. I cannot remember what a whale looks like.
I see two people next to the whale. They stand arm in arm. They are dressed like pioneers, unassuming.
“I didn’t listen to a word you said,” I tell N. “I was staring at the ceiling.”
“You should type that up and put it on your blog,” he replies nervously. “Say I was talking about poetry and you weren’t listening because you were staring at the ceiling. People will think we always have terrible conversations.”
“I will. Send me what you said as an email. Will you? Please, please please.”
February 6, 2010 10:33 a.m.
Someone makes their way to my site from a site called “How I Dig Out Beautiful Caves.” The URL is based in Norman, Oklahoma, my hometown. I misread the visitor’s URL as “How I’d Gut Beautiful Calves.”
My misreading seems appropriate, given that the visitor is from Oklahoma, and Oklahomans like their beef. My senior year of high school, I dated a young man who slaughtered his own cows. “Butchered,” he called it, just like he called “dating” me—well, he didn’t call it anything. Turns out he had not told anyone about our relationship. I showed up at his house one day, and the cow I’d grown fond of was gone. “Oh, we still have her,” he explained. He opened up the freezer and yelled, “Here she is,” as if it was a big ta-da moment.
I think of the abandoned slaughterhouse not too far from my family’s home, just past the old military base and just beyond what the teenagers—at least in the ’80s—dubbed “Acid Road” and just on the other side of Highway 9 and just off to the right before you reached the animal shelter, which you could almost always identify from afar by its incinerator’s bright flame. If the incinerator was on, that is.
That slaughterhouse was turned into a recycling center when I was twenty-three years old. I brought my boyfriend, now husband, to look at it the first time he traveled with me to see my hometown and meet my mother. Scratch that: The slaughterhouse wasn’t something you “looked at” so much as something you experienced. Most people did not like the experience. I only had one friend in high school who enjoyed going there with me. No: “Enjoyed” is also the wrong word. The slaughterhouse wasn’t something you “enjoyed” so much as something you simply went to, for communion or estrangement or both. Sometimes you simply went to cry.
My friend and I would stay a long time, picking shoots of grass, gone to seed and now dry, and carrying them like bouquets. Sometimes he would push my hair back behind my ear to get it out of my face when the wind was blowing. He was still tender then. He was my best friend. He was gay. I was in love with him for years. These are all labels I apply to him, all of them labels. Now he’s not part of my life, and I only have words in place of him, signifiers with an absentee signified. A loss, a loss. Another loss.
When we approached it—my now-husband and I—I saw that the slaughterhouse had been re-sided with corrugated metal painted bright colors. People were pulling up and leaving. Cans and paper and glass were being shuttled from one place to another. From cars and containers into the large warehouse space.
I felt sad that the slaughterhouse was gone. It was a reminder of what we do to animals in the name of meals. It’s hard to find them in this country, both active and inactive ones. They are tucked away, intentionally. The one near my home was special to me. It told a secret many people wanted to keep secret. It whispered that secret to the dead air.
I think about the phrase “how I’d gut beautiful calves,” still not realizing I have misread it. Does this person mean baby cows or human legs, I wonder? What does this person want to gut: a farm animal, a person, a woman?
February 6, 2010 2:20 p.m.
A poet friend calls, someone I know here in the Seattle area. He always manages to call or email me when I feel disheartened about poetry.
“How do you know to contact me at just the right time,” I ask.
“Synchronicity,” he replies with his sweet laugh.
I love people who tell me to combat my concerns about writing by going deeper into writing. I am not being sarcastic; this is something I really love. As I type the words “this is something I really love,” I realize my friend uses this phrase all the time. Now I hear the words in his accent, and that makes me happy. One of my greatest pleasures was the day he came over and read sections of The Disaster, a long poem N and I are writing. My friend squoozed way down into the cushions of our couch, put his feet up, held the poem on his stomach and read it aloud, softly, as if he were learning about something secret.
I once did something for this friend that nobody asked me to do. I did not talk about it for a long time. I left a writing workshop we were in because another member said something unkind about him to me. I talked to my friend about it months later, explained myself. He didn’t understand why I left the group so suddenly, and he really wanted to understand.
Connection, understanding and compassion are essential to this friend … I suddenly realize I don’t call him or see him enough.
As it turns out, my friend didn’t care that the other poet said what she said. He was just sad that the workshop stopped meeting. This in turn made me sad. I am responsible for his loss.
As we talk today, we begin discussing the poem as a text. I had lunch with him about a year ago at a little bar in Bellevue. I was asking some poetry-related question, something relatively mundane.
“All poems are texts,” he replied. “They are simply texts.”
He went on to say that you confront a poem the way you confront any text. He held up a menu in his right hand as if it were a poem, laid his left hand where the body of the poem would lie on the page.
My friend’s advice is to read Stories and Texts for Nothing, by Samuel Beckett. And d.a. levy. And Laura Riding Jackson.
“Yes,” I say, jotting the information down on the back of a bill from the U.S. Department of Education.
I tell him to read The Book of Nightmares, by Galway Kinnell. One’s all I got today.
February 6, 2010 5:25 p.m.
“We seek to be truer,” a poet friend says on my Facebook wall.
I like the word “truer.”
We are in the hotel where a writing conference is taking place, in a restaurant just inside the registration area. Hundreds of poets and writers flit back and forth like gnats. All dutifully wear their conference IDs on lanyards, all carry satchels, backpacks and bags stuffed with books. They are on their way to and from panels, readings, the book fair and the public restrooms, some of which have lines that extend all the way down one hall and into another.
He has chosen a seat in the most visible section of the restaurant, an open space near the intersection of two highly trafficked hallways, as opposed to a spot tucked deeper inside the venue. I feel he has selected this spot for a reason. For the entire event, he seems to have choreographed who he will be seen with—and when, where and how he will be seen with those people. Being “seen” with him seems to be his way of introducing me, of making the statement that I am of some, however modest, worth.
He even orchestrates who he will walk to readings with. I learn this the hard way when, one night before a reading, it becomes apparent that N and I are not allowed to walk with him the two or so blocks from the conference hotel to the reading venue. I realize this when trying to make eye contact with him over and over as he and a clutch of women stand at a small bar just inside the hotel’s entrance. I wave. I make more eye contact. But N and I are both ignored, my gestures shut down.
N and I walk within six feet of his group from the lobby to the reading, but it is clear we’re not walking with his party. Once we all get to the event, however, he makes a point of coming over to talk to me. He stands in front of me, his height a statement, especially in a room full of seated poets. He touches me on the arms and shoulders. He asks for a hug. He leaves for a while then comes back, repeating the entire set of requests and gestures. This happens three times.
“This is just a gesture,” I think. “It’s only a gesture.” Maybe this is the way things work at this conference—new people make their way “in” based on how others seem to fawn over them. I’ve never attended this conference before, so I wouldn’t know its politics or social dynamics, though there do seem to be many of both in play, with overlap between the two.
At lunch, he tells me how much he loves my poetry and my thoughts about poetry. I go into detail about the panel N and I just came from, where the conversation turned to the notion of “doing violence” to a poem. One panelist’s points during that discussion are of particular interest to me, including his assertion that all acts of writing are violent, that language is intrinsically violent. Another panelist rejects this idea and feels more than uneasy with it. “Why all this talk about violence,” she asks the audience.
We have been in contact for several months, since I posted a note on Facebook saying I was looking for a poetry mentor. He works at a respected university and takes on many students to mentor, he tells me when he responds to my query.
The conversation pivots from how much he likes my poetry to how much he likes me. “I really like you, Dana. I really, really like you.”
He leans in and asks, “Is N in love with you,” as he reaches out to hold my hand.
February 6, 2010 10:03 p.m.
Mina Loy’s goal was quite simply to become the most original woman of her generation. To this end, but sometimes to our confusion, she refused to identify with many groups and causes that seemed natural for her to adopt. She affiliated herself, instead, with those considered the ‘enemy’ by the more ‘ideologically correct’ of her generation. Rather than allowing herself to be fixed by an identity, she interloped, using her various identities to transform the cultures and social milieus she inhabited. Feminist and Futurist, wife and lover, militant and pacifist, actress and model, Christian Scientist and nurse, she was the binarian’s nightmare. — Introduction to The Lost Lunar Baedeker
Kansas City. I’ve been invited to a dinner in honor of a feminist poet from the Pacific Northwest who is nothing short of a legend. She is in town to read as part of the Midwest Poets Series. My first poetry mentor, who organizes the series, has invited me. This is a generous gesture on his part. He will later characterize me to this poet as “one of the best young poets writing in Kansas City.” I will be humbled and flattered, though I know the only reason this could even possibly be true is because so few young people are writing poetry, at least in Kansas City.
On the way to the airport, she will ask him what I write about, and he will say, “Sex, mostly.”
At dinner, the poet drinks wine and eats calamari. She talks about traveling in France, about real turquoise versus that “cheap stuff” from Mexico. She yanks a clip-on turquoise earring off her ear and passes it around so everyone can see its quality. She begins shoveling calamari onto other people’s plates. I am a vegetarian, so I say no. She refuses my no, holds her plate up and scoots a tangle of calamari toward mine with her fork. I push it around to be polite.
On her second bottle of wine, she starts talking about James Dickey. “James Dickey tried to rape me,” she says. She gives details: the room they were in, the way he pressed into her, covered her mouth, how she managed to extract herself from the situation. The table has fallen silent. She says it again with even more solidity, “James Dickey tried to rape me.”
She would not let it keep her from writing, she tells us. There was no way he was going to keep her from writing. She is pointed, adamant.
An hour later, still drunk, she will stumble into the podium and knock over a glass of water during her reading. I will find her brave and annoying. She will remind me of my mother, right down to the clip-on earrings. I will wish I had never met her.
February 7, 2010 6:27 a.m.
Beautiful half-hour of being a mere woman / The animal woman / Understanding nothing of man / But mastery — Mina Loy
August 7, 2007
I am in a class with a noted writer, in which we are discussing ways to tap into the unconscious mind as part of the writing process. It is still week one of the low-residency program in the Pacific Northwest. After the usual, boring-ass, methods are tapped out—such as drinking some tea or doing yoga or sitting silently for a while or writing a ton so you get all the “bad” writing out and can then go deeper—the conversation takes a turn.
A woman in the program tells a story about meeting one of the area’s famous male poets, whom she greatly admires. They were both attending the same party, and she was excited to finally have an opportunity to meet him. When he arrived, she said something to him. According to her, he looked right through her then walked past her to talk to another woman, someone “younger and prettier.” She emphasizes these words as if they are dirty.
Her anger at the younger prettier woman is clear. She is not upset with the man but rather with the woman behind her, the younger, prettier one.
After the class is over, I write in my journal:
I don’t understand this line of thinking. I take the position that when it is the man’s fault, it is the man’s fault. His and his alone. I know some might say, “But women can bring it on by saying x, by wearing y, by engaging in z, by looking XXX, by the way they lean into men, the way they push their breasts up to a man’s eye level, the way they wiggle and giggle, the way they might as well wear a sandwich sign that says ‘xxxx me. xxxx me hard.'”
xxxx that noise. We will never get things right in this society or any other until we place blame where blame is due. In this case, that man might have blown it or he might have wanted to get blown. But it was his choice to do what he did. Not talking to a woman at a party is no great offense, considering what he might have done to her instead. Get some perspective. This man had no obligation to talk to a stranger, after all, to talk to her any more than to talk to anyone else in the room, male or female.
And perhaps, let’s just entertain this notion for a moment, perhaps this man passed by the woman for some other reason. Not her age or perceived lack of beauty. In this way, us women need also to get right with ourselves, of this I am certain. We are not as gross as we think we are. Many of our flaws are only seen by us and might even be cherished by someone else. We can’t keep approaching other people with all kinds of self-made garbage, throw that garbage in others’ laps, then blame them for it being in their laps. How can we ever even hope to have self-actualization, or to understand anyone else, or to have them understand us, when we behave like this?
I am not saying there’s not a problem. There is a problem, no doubt. There are too many problems to name. The way society can treat women as objects, yes. How hard it is for women not to internalize it all, of course that’s a problem. And men. We all know men. We know they can be a real problem. But they aren’t always, and women aren’t always the innocents. I have felt the filed claws of women in my back more times than I can name. And I haven’t even gotten to the whole social construction of gender and the limitations of all discussion based on a male/female dichotomy thing, but that’s not a wreck I can dive into right now.
What I can say is that I am a person who, daily, struggles with how I look. But whenever I articulate anything about that struggle, my women friends (I have very few) tell me to shut up. They are offended, because they think it’s disingenuous, that I can’t feel what I feel because of how I look and that even if I feel what I feel, I have no business mentioning it, given that they feel they look less [fill in the blank] than me.
Again, xxxx that noise. Other women cannot and will not tell me how to define myself, how to experience my body, or how to talk about my body. I don’t let men do that to me, and I won’t let a woman do it, either.
For instance, I have every right to say I hate my nose. I also have every right to say I love my ass. I do. It’s genetic. When I love my ass, I am in some small way honoring my mother and her body. It’s the least I could do for her, since she suffered far more abuses in her life than those she committed against me. Rape, molestation and physical abuse run along my mother’s lines. I am not sure how it’s become genetic, but it has. That’s a fact. This is why I avoid letting psychics read my palms.
I am a fine piece of ass, but I am also much more than that. I think I’ve been through enough bullxxxx involving my body (rape, twice; molestation; years of physical abuse, etc.) that I deserve to have a reconciliation with my body, this skin container I have long loathed because of how it got me into difficult situations (rape, twice; molestation; years of physical abuse, etc.), not my body per se, but the fact of being corporeal.
You can’t rape an idea, you can’t bitch-slap something ethereal. There has to be bone, blood and flesh for any of those injustices.
I have hated my body. I have wanted my body to be, as my new friend says, nothing more than a vehicle for carrying my brain around. But my body is more than that. It hurts. It has hurt me. It has been too weak to resist what’s coming at me, in me or on me. It has folded in on itself, like a cheap lawn chair from Wal-Mart. It has gone limp. It has betrayed me.
It continues to be a difficult journey for my body and me. But we are carrying on, into some unknowable future, in hopes of growing old enough that we both forget these sufferings. How I yearn to be the age of the woman who is passed by. Maybe then, my body and I will be more at rest, at peace, the shards of our abuses worn down to stones.
I have lost my point. But it goes something like this. If you ever see me at a party and someone who happens to be a man walks past you to talk to me, perhaps you might consider it’s not my body he’s after. And even if it is, I stand a good chance of either engaging him, or driving him off, with my intellect. I think I’ve earned that. Perhaps you could look at yourself and see what the problem really is. And if you identify that it is in fact the man, be angry at the man. Speak out against the man. Not The Man, but that man committing that injustice. It is all you can do. It is what you have to do. Woman, leave us ladies out of it.
February 7, 2010 7:02 a.m.
And why has the collective spirit of the modern world … recognized itself unanimously in the new music of unprecedented instruments, and so rarely in the new poetry of unprecedented verse? It is because the sound of music capturing our involuntary attention is so easy to get in touch with, while the silent sound of poetry requires our voluntary attention to obliterate the cold barrier of print with the whole ‘intelligence of our senses.’ And many of us who have no habit of reading not alone with the eye but also with the ear, have—especially at a superficial first reading—overlooked the beauty of it. — “Modern Poetry,” Mina Loy
February 7, 2010 7:48 a.m.
I have just emailed the crux of the matter—the center around which this entire series rotates—to someone by way of email. He is the first person I’ve told the whole story to. My heart is racing. I am scared and ashamed. I don’t know if I’ll be able to share this facet of the story publicly after all, but at least I told one person. It looks even worse now that it’s in writing.
One argument for writing as opposed to verbal communication is that you can do the former even while gasping for air, when the gasping leaves you unable to speak.
I am on another poetry-related trip. The poetry mentor I met through Facebook lives near where I am headed. He says he wants to come pick me up and drive me from the airport to the event. He says he will handle all the details, including getting hotel rooms for us to stay in the night I arrive. He thinks it would be best to crash close to the airport, since my flight arrives so late. We can drive down to the event the next morning.
We stand at the check-in. The attendant only hands us key cards for one room, not two. Because of a flight delay, I am several hours later than I expected. It’s too late to get another room; they have all been booked for the night.
I am stunned and confused as we make our way down the long hall to the room. We had talked after the writing conference, and he had assured me he only meant that he liked me as a friend. He also had a very asexual, childish way about him. There was only playful, childlike, energy between us. I did not pick up on any sexual energy.
I tell myself, “He’s not doing this. He’s not doing this. He’s my friend. I trust him. He’s my mentor. I must be misreading this. Could he really be doing this?”
I am still picking up on zero sexual energy as we settle into the room. He places all his belongings on his own bed, not the one I will be sleeping in. I am getting more of a slumber party vibe than anything, which is in keeping with his overall childlike energy. I try to write the situation off as him having confusion over the boundaries of our friendship more than anything else.
At the same time, my body is telling me a different story. Panic is setting in because I have so many physical and sexual violations in my past, and in particular issues around bedroom spaces. I also have sleep anxiety—particularly with sleeping in anyone else’s presence, even those I trust. There is no way I am going to be able to go to sleep, or to trust him while I sleep.
I step out of the room and call my husband, explaining that it is one room, not two. He is shocked. I tell him I think it is all OK. That I don’t think there is anything underhanded going on and that it feels more like a sleepover than adult cohabitation.
I get off the phone and go back into the room, thinking, “It’s just one night. Just get through this. You can do it.”
I take two milligrams of Ativan, both for my nerves and because I know there is no other way I will be able to sleep. That’s a large dose. I only take Ativan in rare cases and in small doses if I have a spike in anxiety.
I lie down on my bed. The medicine begins to take effect. He asks me questions about my mother, and about my physical and sexual abuse. This seems like a strange cluster of topics to bring up at this time. Why would I want to explore this territory four hours past my bedtime, after I’ve had a very hard and long trip, when I have taken a sedative, and when I need to get some sleep for the coming event? It’s true that he doesn’t know my anxiety about being in this room with him, but the other factors are apparent.
I think, “What is he thinking?”
I can’t remember what all he asked and what all I said. My memories of conversations are usually quite clear, but the medicine is functioning as a kind of blur filter.
At some point he asks if he can rub my feet. “OK,” I say. He starts making his way up my legs and I am paralyzed—both physically because of the medicine and mentally/emotionally. The fear associated with all the times I’d been abused started to kick in. When R molested me, I did the same thing: I froze. When C touched me: I froze.
Now everything is hazy. I do recall thinking, “There’s no way he’s making some kind of move on me—especially not when he’s asking me to tell him about my sexual abuse. That would be really, really twisted.”
He keeps moving his hands higher. It becomes clear with a shock what he’s doing, and more adrenaline rushes through my body. I am still scared to confront him directly, to call him on what he’s up to.
“I need to sleep, I need to sleep.” I bat him away.
“Do you need someone to hold you,” he asks.
“No,” I say.
“Are you sure,” he says.
“Yes,” I say.
“Where do you want me to sleep,” he asks.
“Over there,” I say.
“Not here,” he asks.
“No,” I say.
He gets up reluctantly and as he moves to get into his bed, I can see through his clothing that he has an erection. I think he was rubbing my legs with it at one point instead of using his hands.
I lie there stunned. I can’t fall asleep even with the medicine in my system. I stumble, nearly fall, trying to get dressed. I am trying to be as quiet as possible. My stumbling wakes him up. I tell him I am going to the lobby, that I am not comfortable and can’t sleep with him there. He says he will go sleep in his car. He leaves the room. I pass out in my bed.
About four hours later, I wake up, and he’s back in the room, asleep in his bed. I have no idea how long he’s been there. I have no idea what he might have done while I was knocked out.
He drops me off the next day at the event. I am still in shock.
February 7, 2010 9:38 a.m.
Because he looks like our father and is nearing the age our father was when he died. Because I look like our mother and am the age our mother was when I was born. Because once he lives longer than my father it will be like watching my father live out the years he was not granted. Because looking in on my life might make him feel as if he is re-witnessing hers. Because in this way he is a ghost to me. Because in this way I am a ghost to him. Because ghosts hide from one another. Because in hiding we remain peripheral. Because the periphery only knows silence. Because it is natural to ignore what can’t be acknowledged. Because cloaks have folds to hide inside. Because folds are pleasurable. Because pleasure is safer. Because there is no safe.
February 7, 2010 12:06 p.m.
I take a break from writing this series to hear W read his work on a poetry show. I listen. Hearing his work makes me want to not leave poetry. His voice makes me want to stay.
February 7, 2010 12:48 p.m.
There’s too much space between me and those reading this site. The silence makes me feel alone, and scared. We are all alone, and scared, even when we are together or feel as if we’re together.
February 7, 2010 8:31 p.m.
I have a cold. I am tired. My husband backed our car into our other car this evening. We were trying to leave the house. We thought getting out would be a good thing. Reading what I’ve written has him a little addled. I’m a little addled, too, by the process of writing it. There I go saying “a little” when I mean something much more than “a little.” It’s hard to tell secrets. Harder still to commit them to writing. I ate some green beans. Some were yellow, others … green. Two were rotten. I did not eat the rotten ones. Facts about green beans are easy to commit to writing. Perhaps this is why so many poems are about toasters and Bacos and plungers and Sonicares. None of those things can talk back or tell us we’re lying about them, that we’re full of xxxx. There are no consequences when it comes to name brands and off brands and small generic tools positioned around our houses. The word rotten looks weird to me right now. Someone sent me a photo of a pink butterfly hair clip lying in mud. She said it reminded her of me, but she did not know why. The title of the image is “this made me think of you.” I did not reply with an emoticon smiley face, but I should have. A couple sent me a video that includes a dog and two beer cans. I don’t make this xxxx up. I am interested in the identity of the dog but not that of the beer cans. Everyone keeps asking me if I’m OK. A few ask if they can do anything to help. I am as OK as I’ve ever been. A little lonely. A little scared. I want a cocoon. I like the way the word cocoon looks. My husband says, “Cocoons are just hard things that hang in trees.” I tell him not to say mean things about cocoons. I have not written what I’ve written because I felt pressured to write it. I have written it because I knew I would find other, more pleasant, things to write and do if I did not move through the writing quickly. Sometimes speed allows us to penetrate the impenetrable. Speed is not always a pathology any more than any other thing is a pathology. We like to pathologize as much as we like to label. This story will be here tomorrow, if it is in fact a story. I will pick up where I left off tomorrow, if I want to continue. I hope I will want to continue. There’s a lot more to tell. I hope to do right by the story of my own life, and my recent decision to leave poetry. My husband sits next to me in an uncomfortable chair with his feet propped up on an ottoman. I read this entry to him. “I am sliding out of this chair,” he says. “It feels like something is pulling me by my ankles.” I tell him that’s the devil.
February 8, 2010 6:07 a.m.
Someone has found their way to my site after searching for the phrase: “how to kill a woman.”
I can see the time they visited the site, where they are located, their service provider’s name, how many previous visits they have had, how long they stay, what pages they visit, their IP address. If I wanted to zoom in on their location on a map, Statcounter would allow me to do so. I can label their entry so I know if they come back. Even if they come back using a proxy such as Hide My Ass or Cloak, I can still see all their information.
If I wanted to, I could use various features of Stacounter and Google Analytics to organize and analyze visitors in terms of trends and behaviors. This is the same kind of analysis used in market research and is in fact used in this way by bloggers who sell advertising on their sites. In this manner, the people visiting my site could cease to be people and instead turn into statistics—into members of groups that are assigned not based on their validity as grouping criteria but rather on their correlation with consumer behavior, as established by marketing professionals.
For example, one reason the LGBT “group” is being marketed to more heavily these days is not because people are more open-minded. It’s because marketing professionals figured out this group spends money. People might be more open-minded, too, but the marketing efforts still come down to the dollar, as do most things. Bottom line: If you want inclusion and representation in this country, you’d better be able to pay for it in one way or another, collectively or individually or both.
And you had better fit into a demographic that has been identified and is being tracked. Otherwise there will be no marketing professionals monitoring your group’s spending patterns and making recommendations to their organizations and businesses based on those patterns. Blame groups and group-think and dichotomies and the binary on capitalism. But it’s really a chicken-and-egg situation, ultimately, since it is human beings and our narrow-mindedness, our limited perceptions and perspectives, that inform how capitalism operates, as well as the marketing infrastructure that supports capitalism.
And if you don’t have money, you might very well end up in a group that is pathologized. I call that pathology marketing. These are the people drug companies want to sell drugs to. Drugs business is big business. If you don’t have money, you can at least still “participate” in our capitalist culture by being someone who “contributes” by way of opening your slim wallet—and the larger wallet of your health insurance company—for pills you may or may not need to treat diseases you may or may not have.
Do I really believe this? Yes and no. My answer is not entirely, “No, I don’t believe this.” I suggest reading Fritjof Capra’s The Turning Point if you are at all interested in pathology marketing and the business of drug companies. It is an older work, and drug business has only gotten bigger and more powerful since its publication. Take 1997, when new FDA guidelines allowed drug companies to advertise directly to consumers through various forms of media, including magazines and television. I was working at The American Academy of Family Physicians in medical editing at the time. We could not believe it. We could not believe what we were seeing. The power.
So much for privacy where information is concerned. So much for anonymity. I consider uninstalling Statcounter for ethical reasons. I don’t want to be Big Brother—especially not when one of the people I am keeping tabs on is an estranged relative who has been visiting this site for months using a proxy, even after I asked him to stop reading my work. I suspect he thinks he will come up in the memoir portions of my writing. I can assure him he won’t. He had no appreciable role in my life, so he will not figure in the retelling of my life.
February 8, 2010 9:43 a.m.
Highway 167 South. One police car. Two police cars. Three. Four. Five police cars, each coming into view one at a time as I move closer and as other cars to the left of me pass, opening up a window onto the scene. One ambulance, doors closed. No activity around it. No gurney. No paramedics. No mobile medical equipment. No movement.
One fire truck, also silent.
In ninety-two minutes, the children in a class I work with will listen to a song about what a great day today is. “Be grateful for this day,” the song will tell them. I read them a story called A Monkey Among Us, and they pick out all the colors in the book. Orange. Blue. Green. Purple. Pink. Red. We count the colors and add them up. “How many is that,” I ask. They reply with various answers, anywhere from one to seven. For some, the colors are easier. For others, the numbers are easier. When I hold up a piece of plastic fruit, some yell out its color first, others its name. Which is more important for any given class or any given child—description or signification—seems to follow no pattern.
Margaret holds the letter “P” in her hands, a plastic magnet that is part of a larger set. She does this every week with a different letter. She can’t listen to stories without sneaking over to the tray of letters and snatching one.
Joseph has a new backpack. He can’t do anything without wearing his backpack. He keeps it on all day long. When I ask each child to do a silly dance move for the others to imitate, Joseph’s move is to turn slightly and show off his backpack. We all pretend to have backpacks. We turn to show them off to one another.
Halfway through a story, Margaret’s “P” slips from her hands and falls to the floor.
I tell her it’s OK. We all have accidents.
Two of the police cars are on the other side of the median, the rest on my side. The ambulance and fire truck are on my side as well. I say “my side” as if I own this highway, or at least this stretch of it. The way Margaret calls the letters in the tray hers, as if she owns the alphabet.
The way is straight here, clear. Portions of this highway are very unsafe, but this is not one of them. The median is wide, covered in grass and weeds that are still green, thanks to the Pacific Northwest’s temperate winters. I am not even wearing a coat today. An overpass stretches overhead. Several large pillars extend up in support, like old-growth trees rising from the earth. They have not yet been retrofitted with metal fittings to make them more earthquake-resistant.
Joseph has stealthily left the circle. He scoots to the classroom’s far wall. I ask him to come back. He shakes his head. I smile. He shows me his backpack. I smile. He unzips it and begins removing toys. A plastic jet plane. A plastic choo-choo train. A plastic car. Another plastic car. He points to the car in the artwork on his backpack. I smile.
Traffic is backed up both northbound and southbound. People are impatient. They shift in their cars, grumble. When they pass the scene, they lay on the gas.
We are all standing now, going through the motions of the hokey pokey, which has been reinterpreted in a children’s book called Sock Monkeys Do the Monkey Monkey.
We put our tails in. We put our tails out. We put our tails in and we shake them all about. We do the monkey monkey and we wiggle all about. That’s how we scream and shout.
The children mix things up as we go along. For example, right and left—arbitrary concepts they haven’t quite mastered yet. When I tell them to put their tails in, some protest, “But we don’t have tails.” I tell them that they do. I tell them they can be anything they want, even a monkey with a tail. Our dance isn’t very precise, but that’s OK, too. I tell them we all make mistakes. We don’t have to be perfect.
What strikes me is the precision. The truck impacted one of the pillars exactly in the middle. What I can see suggests a direct line from the highway to the pillar. No swerve or brake marks on the highway. This is one of the only areas where there is no wall blocking the median, where the median and pillars are accessible. This was not an especially easy mark to locate, or hit.
We are singing along to “Knuckles Knees.” The song requires us to touch our knuckles to our eyes, noses, stomachs, toes, hips, lips, legs and hair. As the progression becomes faster, none of the children can keep up. I can’t keep up, either. “Going this fast is hard,” I tell them. Though they don’t verbally agree with me, the look of bewilderment on their faces tells me they think it’s hard, too. “Boo,” I say to the song.
Two colors stand out. Yellow and red. Yellow is the color of the tarp covering the body. Red is the blood all over the airbag and what is left of the front of the vehicle. I begin screaming when the site comes into full view, though I knew this was what I would see. As soon as I counted more than three police cars, I knew it was really bad. The overall lack of movement, the stillness, told me it was fatal.
An instructor has inadvertently knocked some of the letters out of their tray. The children look over in unison. “Another accident,” I say. “It’s OK. It’s all just fine.”
Driving back from the school, I count tire marks left by previous travelers who have had to apply their brakes quickly. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. I get into double digits. I only stop when I realize the tire marks are everywhere. I see a cluster of three crosses off to the right side of the road. Dates are written on the crosses, but I am going too fast to make them out.
I think about what I saw earlier. Single-car accident. In light traffic. On a clear day. No entry into oncoming traffic. I think of someone I know, someone once dear to me, whose suicidal ideation is always about driving off the side of a highway and into a pillar. “Some days it just seems so easy,” he has told me.
I get home and open an email from E and W.
“Here’s the text of an Exquisite Corpse,” W writes. They sent it, he explains, because they think I might love it or hate it.
The word “corpse” throws me at first. I ask if I can include the poem in a piece I am writing about an accident I saw on the highway today. “I would rather talk about the exquisite corpse than the real one,” I explain.
E says I can use the poem. I realize it does not appear to have a title. I decide to say the first line is the title, at least for now. I’m sure they will let me know if I’ve made a mistake. No biggie. Words can be changed, and what we do with them can be changed. That’s one nice thing about language.
Rain Sounds Like a Choir Clapping Somewhere
Rain sounds like a choir clapping somewhere
over there, away, distant. Over here
faintest lump in the throat, guzzle of rain,
a brilliant career. The real you
bent back against bricks. Snow sounds like
a holler into a windstorm, empty like that:
a snare drum, a brush, a stick of peppermint gum
chewed to bits, tongued to a bubble and popped.
Weather’s like that—turning faces to flash replicas
or mirroring a bad habit by blacking out the light.
Light’s a poor teacher. It blacks the spaces
it neglects: purpled half-moons underneath the dull eyes you deflect.
Sound is worse: the snorting car under a spotlight, the hiss of toll-road change
slung into the bucket, the burp of a tire, the a-ha of a cop. Strange.
Think of Venus and Adonis as you know them—the sunshine
lays its palm against his plum-tucked face and she’s a goner,
mortal for a bit, in love. She’s a stone-fruit married to a knife,
an old copy of the Game of Life missing a few pieces, rubbed
to ruin, pale at the corners—he’s
a bluebell in a wasp’s blue bonnet, broken nest strung from an Elm tree
in a made-up place, an English wood, bobbled just above a lady’s hat. She sleeps.
It’s peaceful. Neat in the shadow of a church steeple. Night’s like that—
sealing your ears to keep out gallons of water. Snow on the Welcome mat.
Snow stuck to shoulders and hats, flurried into paper, shredded into flakes,
someone’s week-old divorce ripped to bits and flung, a cap on graduation day, confetti.
February 8, 2010 4:53 p.m.
From the KOMO News website:
Car hits overpass killing one
submitted by Morris Malakoff on Monday, February 8th, 10:04am
A one-car traffic accident about 9:30 Monday morning took the life of a 66-year old man.
Valley Regional Fire Authority was dispatched to the southbound lanes of SR-167 at 15th Street SW where a Toyota pick-up truck had slammed into a bridge support from the 15th Street overpass.
Witnesses said there were no break lights from the truck before it hit the support at a high rate of speed.
The lone occupant of the truck was pronounced dead at the scene.
The State Patrol is investigating.
February 9, 2010 6:07 a.m.
I dream E and W hold oranges over my head so I can count them. I don’t want to count them. I want to eat them. The oranges make me smile.
I’ve always thought oranges were a happy food, though when I was a child I refused to eat any because I didn’t like how sticky they left my hands. Other children had no problem with sticky hands. I was always different. Sitting on the front porch of a caretaker’s house—a woman who had no fewer than fifteen children running around, at least half her own, though I never got a clear idea exactly how many were actually hers (or perhaps I once knew but can’t remember now)—her oldest son tells me not to eat the seeds from a watermelon or else a watermelon will grow inside me. The other children laugh and continue eating the watermelon wedges on their plates, seeds and all.
I panic. “Don’t!” I want to yell, or perhaps do yell. “Don’t eat the seeds!”
I won’t touch watermelon again for some time, until the fear of a watermelon growing inside me subsides. The risk is too great. It’s an idea that will haunt and terrify me—what something that large and hard could do to your insides once it started growing there, like a tumor. The pain it could cause.
This is the house where I will watch Sesame Street in utter confusion. I don’t know the alphabet yet. Letters appear backwards and mangled. Long after the other children have learned to read, I struggle with letters that flip-flop on the page, that won’t sit still and be what they are. Teachers, some of them, will try to help me. They will show me the difference between the “d” and the “b,” the “q” and the “p.” They will remind me and remind me which way what they call “the tail” of the “j” is supposed to go.
“This way, not this way,” they will say as the draw the right and wrong examples on the board. They will ask me to point to the right one, but I won’t be able to identify it.
This is also the house where, a few years later, if I remember my time frame correctly, I will buy a bunch of books from a traveling book sale that makes a stop at our school. I buy the books because the kids in class whom I most admire bought a lot of books the last time the book sale came. I will understand, from their actions, that reading matters. It’s something to do outside of class, not just in class.
I will sit in the caretaker’s house and read each book cover to cover. Though the individual letters have settled down on the page by this time, the words they form, laid out in sentences, and those sentences, laid out in paragraphs, and those paragraphs, organized into chapters, will mean nothing to me. I will read every book absolutely lost inside the words, the narrative. They, the words, and it, the narrative, will not come into focus no matter how hard I try to concentrate. I will tell no one. This is another secret I must keep.
The caretaker comments about how much I am reading all of a sudden. She asks how one of the books is.
“Good,” I say.
“What happens in it,” she presses.
I cannot answer. I have no answer.
This is something I want so badly. I know that reading is important, that books are important. I bury myself inside them but will be lost for years, telling no one.
When I am selected as a “gifted” student to take the SAT in the tenth grade, a year early, for practice, I will score in the 30th percentile on the verbal portion of the test. I am unable, under pressure and on a time limit, to identify themes in the essays, to follow their threads, to pinpoint what argument is or is not being made, to answer questions about which sentences are most or least similar to those in the essay.
In my dream, after E and W leave, I realize exactly what I need to write to end this series. I map out my exit, but I am too tired to wake myself up and write my exit strategy down. I tell myself I will remember it all when I wake up.
I move into a series of lucid dreams/night terrors in which I try to get out of my body. My body suddenly feels like a vehicle moving very fast, vibrating, as if it’s about to shoot down a long corridor at a high rate of speed. I feel a cold light inside me. I become cold. I feel myself slipping into that corridor. No, being sucked into that corridor—like a sealed container inside one of those vacuum chutes at the bank. I feel as if someone is holding me in the opening, threatening to let go so I will be pulled in.
I am forced to wake myself up whenever this happens. I am too scared of where I will end up if I am untethered from myself. Sometimes I think, “Just go. This time, just let yourself go. Find out what will happen.” I think this while I am asleep because my mind is awake. But I always hold onto myself, no matter what plan my subconscious mind has for me.
One day at the caretaker’s house, there is a plate of cookies in the kitchen. They are for all the children the caretaker cares for. I run to the plate. Her oldest son intercepts me, tells me I can’t have one. I beg. I tell him the cookies are for all of us, including me.
“You’ll have to eat this first,” he says. He holds up a rotten banana, its entire peel brown.
Crying, I eat the entire banana. He still does not let me have a cookie.
“But I ate the whole thing,” I plead. “You said!”
What I’ve just written is not the way out. I’ve only opened up more doors, more corridors. This is not how I dreamed I would exit this series.
February 9, 2010 9:14 a.m.
I ride the elevator down. I ride the elevator up. I buy one Coca-Cola from the vending machine in the break room. Someone wears a shirt with a graphic pattern, a wide stripe down the front. One gold stripe. It reflects the dumb light as she walks.
One of my fingers is numb. Two books lie on the table where people set books they don’t want anymore. Neither book is worth reading. People keep good books, give bad ones away. Last night a friend told me friends ask each other if they are OK, that it’s what friends do. I don’t know what friends do. There is one dead moth inside a light in the elevator. The moth, a shadow of itself, is made shadow by light and filter, and by the angle from which I view it. Light’s a poor teacher.
Little round suns, these elevator lights. Not any suns: the sun viewed through fog, fog sharpening its edges until it becomes a disk.
I am in the middle of interviewing Hazard Adams about poetry. I want to ask him, “Does your experience of a poet’s work change when you lose faith in that poet as a person? When they manipulate or abuse you? Not people in general, but you in particular?” I don’t know how to ask him that.
I ride the elevator up. I ride the elevator down. I listen to the voices held in its walls. I touch its cold surfaces. It groans. It is mechanical yet organic. Its closed doors keep secrets, ones that can be told quickly between floors.
I tell the elevator my secrets then stare directly into its thirty-six suns, each made in the likeness not of the others, but of a master die we’ll never see.
po-lice [puh-lees] noun, verb, -liced, -licing :: who buries the dead with her own hands :: who clutches infested fruit :: who counts to ten :: who digs a hole :: who does not turn her :: back :: who draws boundaries :: with fluids :: who drinks from a flask :: who exhales vowels :: who files :: words :: until they are dull :: who forgets :: where the treasure is buried :: who gathers what is said :: and puts it in an envelope :: who lifts the body from a trunk :: who lists infractions :: who plants seeds :: at the wrong time of year :: who removes :: everything :: by the root :: who seals :: who sinks :: who slices the :: garment :: up the back :: who spits :: when words crowd her :: mouth :: who tells fortunes :: over entrails :: who tells us :: what we are allowed to :: do :: with words :: who visits wearing a cloak :: who volunteers :: to gut the living :: who walks her paces :: who wants to :: know :: who whispers :: who wicks pain :: like water :: who wraps :: the body :: in :: a blanket :: whose walk :: is :: a march.
February 9, 2010 1:01 p.m.
back / words / everything / garment / mouth / do / know / in / is
with fluids / who files / who forgets / who removes / who seals / who sinks / who spits / over entrails / with words / who volunteers / who whispers / like water / who wraps / the body / a blanket / whose walk / a march
who draws boundaries / who exhales vowels / who lists infractions / who plants seeds / by the root / who slices the [ … ] / up the back / who tells fortunes / who tells us / who wants to / who wicks pain
who clutches infested fruit / who counts to ten / who digs a hole / until they are dull / when words crowd her / to gut the living / who walks her paces
who does not turn her / who drinks from a flask / where the treasure is buried / who gathers what is said / what we are allowed to / who visits wearing a cloak
and puts it in an envelope / at the wrong time of year
who lifts the body from a trunk
who buries the dead with her own hands
February 10, 2010 7:02 a.m.
I wake up too late to write before leaving for work. This upsets me. I have something I need to tell. I feel it inside me like hands held open, pressing against my frame. It is as if I am two people before I write: the one I see, and another I can only feel. She is a mime, speaking to me through her hands.
Once I’ve said what she wants me to say, I will be one person again. Until she has something else to say. We don’t communicate very well. I try to interpret what she needs. All I have are feeling and language, a potent combination that often has disastrous results.
She will have to wait this morning until I can read words like tea leaves to decipher how she moves inside me.
I feel heavy. My face is swollen. I wonder how much mass this shadow person has, how much I would weigh if I were to step on a scale right now. Perhaps what we attribute to water weight isn’t water.
February 10, 2010 4:56 p.m.
My cold is in full swing. I just returned from the office and am already in pajamas. I was hungry when I got back but too worn out to make anything, so I located a slice of round cheese, covered it in mustard and folded it in half—a sandwich, technically, since the mustard is held between the two semicircles of cheese.
Today a child punched me, then he punched Pan the Chimpanzee, my hand puppet. We did not like being punched. Pan hid on a high shelf. I had to remain at floor level, where I was vulnerable. We all have bad days. Today nobody wanted to sing songs. Nobody wanted to dance. Nobody wanted to read books. Everybody wanted to pull hair and kick and scream and knock things over, even big things such as one another.
Everything—the books, the songs, the dancing—will still be there for these children when they are ready to learn and have fun. I will still be there for them when they are ready. I am prepared to pull out all the stops: I even have a pair of toe socks, ones with big, funny stripes. The socks are bound to lighten the mood of any room.
This series will still be here, too, when I feel better and am ready to write the rest of it. But tonight, I have a date with a glass of saltwater, a bottle of cold medicine, my incredibly comfortable sofa and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.
Before I go, just one more thing about that slice of cheese: Two halves folded are still two and more so than the two the two they were. The way earth folds in pelicans and does not apologize and apologies fold in sorrow as large as an earth once flush with pelicans. Who raises suspicions and blood pressure. Who testifies. Who is a falsification of milk. A kind of lie we hold close and will never relinquish. The cow wanders. Farther.
February 10, 2010 5:34 p.m.
my frozen brother / my nitrogen-infused brother / with extra slug bait / my one-armed brother / my single-use brother / my pregnant brother / you left me in the water / brother / and never came back / a girl with my name / a pretty girl / that was the last time / I saw you brother / “Marco” / I called / “Marco” / I opened my eyes and you were gone / the water still / moving where you had been
you fed fish raw meat / made them jump / to get it / you fed the Shih Tzu / beer / I clanked on the piano / in the spare room hoping / the dissonance would at least / make you yell at me
here is a photo / where you are tall and I am not / you are pale and I am not / you wear cutoff jean shorts and flip-flops / you hold your hand / to your head / one finger pointing / at your temple / I stare at your toes
they found a white fish / bright as a ballerina’s costume / face like a dog / eyes of peridot / they killer her / brother / left her on the deck alone
You were in a car once / your friends got out and beat / another boy’s car with a pipe / broke glass / how did it feel / brother / to be left alone / to be the one with no pipe in your hand
every summer winged ants make their way / into my house by the hundreds / I vacuum them up / caulk holes
someone is eating your lungs / brother / your eyes are hollow like your father’s / you are still handsome in a suit
do you want to know how she died / brother / the liver / don’t blame her / brother / don’t blame me / she did what she did / brother / my brother / brother / you are doomed / brother / why bother / why / brother
February 11, 2010 7:41 a.m.
One of my readers has been taking advantage of my stat counter to send me private messages. He will do a Google search for a term he wants me to see, then bounce to my site. This means the search term he entered will show up as a “came-from” page in my stats reports.
Today, his came-from search term is “You do kick booty, BTW.” The one he used before that was “Poet practitioner who kicks serious booty.”
When I take cold medicine, I don’t dream. When I don’t dream, I don’t know how to wake up, how to be awake. Without dreams, there is a hole inside me, through me. I place a shawl over the hole to hide the damage.
Earlier, I wedged each of my toes into my toe socks. I’ll make those kids happy today no matter what it takes. They have to understand that, one day, reading and writing might be their only way into, or out of, their lives. I need to help them keep those options open.
February 11, 2010 3:03 p.m.
I just got back from another batch of early literacy outreach visits. I am taking a different route to this particular area and back, in part because it’s safer and in part because I don’t want to pass the spot where the car crash happened. I can’t encounter it again. That space will hold energy tight, like molecules arranged in a crystal lattice structure, for a long time to come.
Today during I Stink, a book about a garbage truck going all around town munching on everyone’s trash, Amanda yells, “The truck does not want to swallow panties and poop!”
“No,” the teacher and I say. “No, it does not.” Everyone laughs.
I always keep poetry collections close. I think of them like airbags or inner tubes in that they keep me safe. I am staring at the ones I’ve set out in my workspace at the library. Left to right: Inger Christensen’s Alphabet, Danielle Pafunda’s Pretty Young Thing, John Ashbery’s Planisphere, Katie Degentesh’s The Anger Scale, Daniel Comiskey and C.E. Putnam’s Crawlspace, Linda Gregg’s Too Bright To See, Christian Hawkey’s The Book of Funnels, Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck, James Tate’s The Lost Pilot, Cynthia Cruz’ Ruin, Joshua Beckman’s Shake, Chelsey Minnis’s Bad Bad, George Oppen’s Collected Poems, Denise Levertov’s Breathing the Water and Erin Moure’s Little Theatres.
I could tell you stories about a few of these poets—how they have acted when I met them, what they have said, outside of their poems, that I’ve found disheartening. One of the poets on this list actually sneaked out the back door of a poetry workshop he was leading in Kansas City back in 1995. He grumbled on the way in that we weren’t paying enough to be in his company, that we should not have had access to him for a mere ten dollars a person.
“That’s all,” he carped. “In New York, people pay a lot more for me.”
Someone explained that the literary arts organization sponsoring him had raised grant money for him to come, and part of the grant was to make his workshop affordable so finances would not be a barrier to taking his class. This did not matter to the poet. He wanted people to pay “a lot” to see him.
A little later, after he allowed the group to introduce themselves and after some small talk about poetry, the poet slipped through the back door of the literary center so he could grab a smoke. We waited for him to return. A few minutes. A few more. He never did. He took off on foot, or so it appeared.
I understand the need to break free sometimes, that the world is too much with us. But I don’t think the workshop is too much with us. Scratch that. I actually do think the workshop it too, too much with us. What am I trying to say? I think it’s this: If you agree to teach a workshop and decide you don’t want to teach that workshop for whatever reason, you should have the decency to tell everyone you are leaving, and you should leave through the front door.
In a similar vein, if a poet who admires your work smiles at you in the hallway at a small (i.e., extremely underattended) literary event, try to work those face muscles a little by smiling back. Even a remote smile is something to the recipient. You are lucky anyone admires or adores you, since you’re only a poet, after all. Shape up a little.
I almost think it’s better to not know poets outside of their poetry—to have no idea who they are and what they are and are not capable of. Reading Erin Moure, for example, is—for me—an experience unblemished by anything about Erin Moure or my interactions with her. That’s because I have no impression of her and have had no dealings with her whatsoever.
I plan to have no future interactions with poets for this reason. I want to read their work clean. I want poets to be nothing more than the names on the covers of their collections. As Amanda might say, I am tired of swallowing their panties and poop. If I swallow enough of it, I will stink.
February 8, 2010 10:34 p.m.
P, who I know through Facebook and Read Write Poem, sends me an email in response to a recent Facebook status message. Her message to me reads, in part:
I have survived a great deal too. But not heroically. With damages. It’s frightening to talk about those damages and difficult without being seen as defeated or self-pitying and those things are not what it’s about. There are people, women, walking around with great big holes blown threw them. Not just the ones who fight the wars. The obvious wars. Thanks for saying what you said. I want to talk about the great big holes blown in people.
Her email makes me sad. It’s one of many I’ve received since I started this series. We really do have holes blown through us. So many of us do. Different kinds of holes. Different numbers of holes. But holes nonetheless.
My friend J, the one leaning her head against my shoulder in the photo of my sixth birthday party, has just seen a movie with me at Stubbeman Village. We are fifteen years old, and Stubbeman is not the best place to hang out.
When I was younger, I would ride my bike along a tucked-away path from a neighborhood adjacent to mine over to the shops at Stubbeman Village. It had quaint stores that sold things like unicorn stickers, worry stones and small animals carved from quartz and soapstone. They sold those squares filled with blunt pins that you could press your hand or face into and the pins would mimic the shape of either. They sold solar calculators and stained glass window decorations.
Most of these items I could not afford, but I did pick up a solar calculator that came with a beautiful faux-leather case. The buttons were gold. Not real gold, plastic. But gold-colored plastic. It was the most beautiful calculator I’d ever seen. I had to save for it, which was something my father taught me to do before he died. He helped me open my first bank account when I had saved one hundred dollars. He matched my one hundred dollars as a reward for saving my money. Then we went to the bicycle shop to get my first, three-speed, bike. That’s the one I would ride to Stubbeman Village and back.
Over the years, a rougher group of teenagers started hanging out at Stubbeman, as well as some men, probably in their early twenties, who were there to prey on the high school girls.
Within two years, the movie theater where J and I see the movie that night will be shut down due to lack of patronage. It will eventually reopen as a dance club as the owners of the mall flounder in their attempt to keep the shops vibrant however they can. I will never understand how the space can function as a dance floor.
“How can people dance on an uneven surface,” I will ask my best friend, the one I am in love with. I will not get a solid answer from him, other than, “You don’t notice when you’re drunk.”
The first time I sneaked out of the house, it was to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which played at midnight every Saturday in the Stubbeman movie theater. This weekly showing went on for years. It was something that was always there, a fixture in Norman, Oklahoma, as much as the giant mound of dirt off to the right as you entered the highway near Sooner Mall was a fixture. The mound, so I was told, had been used as a target-practice area by the military years earlier. I don’t know if that was really true. It never made sense to put a target practice next to a highway, unless the former predated the latter. But a lot of things did not make sense in Norman, such as that catawampus dance floor.
For me, the mound was where King Kong was buried. When I was young, this is what I decided the mound had to be, the only thing it could possibly be. I needed a story to make sense of something nonsensical, and that was my story. And so this is what it always was, and still is, to me. I pay my respects every time I pass.
My mother took up this story, too, until it became her own. “Wave at where King Kong is buried,” she would say as we passed the mound. When I was older and brought various boyfriends and future husbands home to meet her, she would ask, “Why don’t you drive out and show him where King Kong is buried.” I love this about her: the fact that she entertained my stories, that they became real to her, too. Later she would support my writing as well, for which I will be grateful for the rest of my life.
J was with me the night we went to see Rocky Horror. We had a way out of my house: up onto the dresser in my bedroom and out through my west-facing bedroom window—the same one we would open during tornado warnings—up a small gate that we would prop against the fence and use as a ladder, over the fence, down the other side using the fence’s brick lip as a foothold, across the front expanse of lawn and over to the driveway, where my boyfriend and my best friend were waiting to pick us up.
We took my best friend’s car: the Pinto. It was a dirty bronze color, like a Coppertone sunscreen bottle that had faded in the sun. He had not yet traded the car in for the Fiat, which would later be run over by a truck, its entire plastic body crushed under the truck’s tires. I will never know why a truck deliberately ran over my friend’s car, but I will later—years later—suspect it was a hate crime. Being gay in Oklahoma was, and I bet still is, no easy task. Even if you are so in the closet you have not admitted your sexuality even to yourself.
After that, he had a red classic Beetle. (The new versions would not be on the market for years.) Then I don’t know what kind of car he had, because I would not know him anymore.
J and I got caught that night when we came home from Rocky Horror. My mother had roused herself, mysteriously, from her drunken stupor that passed for sleep. How she managed to wake herself and realize we were gone I will never know. We used all precautions when returning to the house, coming back in the way we went out. Or maybe we just came back in through the door leading to the driveway. It was actually a more practical way to come and go, especially since that door was on the opposite side of the house from my mother’s bedroom, but that hardly felt like “sneaking out.” I suspect we came in the way we went out—reversing each step we took to scale the fence and wriggle through the window—to heighten the effect of our covert mission.
All I know is we felt we’d made it, that we had pulled off our plan without a hitch. But there she was, hands on her hips. We knew we were, in my dead father’s words, up xxxx creek.
December 3, 2009 10:21 a.m.
I query the director of the master of fine arts program in the South about my residency grade. He cuts and pastes the program’s grading standards for my perusal:
The A student handles techniques of craft, language and grammar as if instinctively, though the student may have spent hard hours learning it. Attendance, for this student, is not an issue: she is extremely committed to being in class and will always make up missed assignments. The A student is an asset to the class and the instructor, questioning and probing toward a personal aesthetic. Her work is uniformly arresting and, whatever its apprentice flaws, always contains something of original value. The A student may have abundant natural talents, but also simply works harder and more relentlessly with what she has. The result is work that is exciting and clearly more accomplished than that of even B students. The attitude of the A student is one of passionate commitment to writing. The A student demonstrates a command/mastery of the techniques and craft of the genre studied in the course.
I rewrite the standard as follows:
The A student handles flaws harder and that is exciting and passionate. She is language. Her work often has bright nearly perfect hands. She may or may not take characters to class. She is loosely organic but basic. Her thighs cancel out her luster. Her purpose is to flatline when we want her curves to rise. She must perform. She must interest us. She is syntactically incorrect and our lack of originality misses her. We approach her with calipers. Our memory of her is spotty. She loves the letter ‘F,’ which is a serious problem. We are looking for a remedy. We are cutting class to find her. We have number one and number two pencils for bait. Our lack of ability should not keep her from our work. Sixty percent of all students wind up running in the woods at some point during their studies. Seventy percent of our job is to lure them back to campus. We can’t use the word stay or the phrase please, please stay. Our contracts prohibit begging. We can, however, crawl. So we crawl.
My rewrite makes me feel better, but only a little better. I do see my rewrite as an improvement on the original document.
My mother was running late picking J and me up after the movie. We walked along the sidewalk just outside the strip mall, past kids clustered in small groups. They were smoking, drinking and talking loudly. We didn’t fit in with any of them, but we wanted to. We shuffled past group after group, trying to seem less interested in them than they were in us. We hoped our apparent disinterest would have the opposite effect on them and that some of them—any of them—would take interest and invite us into their circle.
I don’t know that either J or I could ever explain why we decided to do what we did next, but it’s what we did. We both came from abusive families, and I think in some ways we wanted to put ourselves at risk—or rather, we had been taught to put ourselves at risk, since we did so every day in our own homes.
We saw my mother coming in her beige Grand Prix. She was about half a block away and hadn’t spotted us yet. Two young men who we didn’t know began yelling at us from their truck and motioning for us to get in. We ran over to them and jumped in the truck. The men took off.
The day after the mentor drops me off at my poetry event, he sends me an email. “I really, really like you,” he writes. He asks if we can take our relationship in a different direction, into the area of “physical exploration and play.”
Later I will look at a book he signed for me the day before. In the inscription, he will say that I no longer need a mentor. It appears he’s decided that I do need a lover, and that he should be that lover, no matter what my feelings happen to be on the matter.
December 4, 2009 8:28 a.m.
I post in their entirety the grading standards sent to me by the director of the master of fine arts program in the South.
The ‘A’ Student
The A student handles techniques of craft, language and grammar as if instinctively, though the student may have spent hard hours learning it. Attendance, for this student, is not an issue: she is extremely committed to being in class and will always make up missed assignments. The A student is an asset to the class and the instructor, questioning and probing toward a personal aesthetic. Her work is uniformly arresting and, whatever its apprentice flaws, always contains something of original value. The A student may have abundant natural talents, but also simply works harder and more relentlessly with what she has. The result is work that is exciting and clearly more accomplished than that of even B students. The attitude of the A student is one of passionate commitment to writing. The A student demonstrates a command/mastery of the techniques and craft of the genre studied in the course.
The ‘B’ Student
The B student is proficient with techniques of craft, language and grammar. Her work often has bright moments of true originality. All assignments are handed in on deadline, attendance is nearly perfect, and the student participates fully in workshop or other classroom activities. This student may or may not be highly talented but is making much of whatever talent she has. The student takes some chances in writing, and some of those chances pay off with rare and wonderful images, memorable characters, inspired situations, wonderful lines of dialogue, wise insights, beautiful language, etc. Work may be uneven but shows promise and direction. The B student demonstrates a proficiency in the techniques and craft of the genre studied in the course.
The ‘C’ Student
The C Student has some ability and routinely applies herself but, compared to classmates and compared to a universal standard, with no noticeable distinction. Creative work graded C usually lacks luster and a strong voice, and may be disorganized or loosely organized, but will have a genuine structure and a purpose. The C student demonstrates a basic knowledge but not mastery of technique. The C student’s work over a semester may have highs canceled out by lows, or it may be a flat line when what is wanted is a rising curve of interests and performance.
The ‘D’ Student
The D student’s work is often technically, grammatically or syntactically incorrect, or creative work almost completely lacks originality, or the student has missed the equivalent of three weeks’ classes, or the student has failed in some assignments or scored below 70 percent on exams, quizzes, and other non-creative work in conjunction with any of the above. In general, the D student lacks ability and does not wholly make up for it with effort, has some ability but gives the course spotty effort and attention, and is not doing work of a caliber appropriate for a college student.
The ‘F’ Student
The F student’s work is technically, grammatically and/or syntactically incorrect in a serious way, and student has made no successful effort to remedy the problem. Standard editorial format is not observed, or creative work is completely unoriginal or plagiarized, or the student has missed four weeks or more, of the class, or the student has failed to hand in a significant portion of the assignments, or scored below 60 percent on exams, quizzes, and other non-creative work in conjunction with one or two above. In general an F student shows basic lack of interest and ability and should not be encouraged to further pursue Creative Writing study.
I make the following observations about these grading standards:
It is absurd that ‘natural talent’ and ‘ability’ are integral to this grading system, as opposed to objective measures based on work and effort. These grading guidelines also focus on a continuum of development on the part of the poet, with the ‘A’ student being at the end state.
Students who enter a program to learn more about the craft of writing poetry—which should be the case for anyone entering an MFA program—cannot according to this grading system earn an A in any class, or even a B. In fact, they should not be able to earn an acceptable grade until completing the program. And that assumes anyone can master poetry in the two short years that most programs span. It also assumes there is an end state poets arrive at where there is no faltering or experimenting or changing styles or continuing to struggle.
Many widely published and wildly popular poets would not fare well under this grading system. How many collections do you pick up to find that every poem contained therein is ‘uniformly arresting.’ What does that even mean? The desire to have every poem a poet writes be ‘uniformly arresting’ and to grade according to that standard is misguided, favoring one type of poetry over all others, namely excluding those that intentionally present a barrier to entry or that naturally present that barrier simply by being poems.
Dense and intellectual material seems to lose out in this school’s framework. Experimental work seems to lose out. Poems that rely on delayed cognition on the part of their readers seem to lose out as well. Any poem you have ever read that you love or like or appreciate but that you would not describe as ‘arresting’ would lose out. And in this grading system, that means the poet who writes any of those types of poems also loses out.
Even more absurd is the fact that ‘universal standards’ are being invoked. What are the universal standards of poetry and writing, again? I had no idea that heated debate had been solved. I would love to know the outcome, and to know why this program feels it is in the position of determining what the universal standards are.
In the comments for my post, in response to several readers’ insights about the standards, I add the following observations:
Also, I noticed that the only place objective standards—missing x number of classes or scoring below x percent on exams—are listed is in the grades ‘D’ and ‘F.’ This illustrates [one reader’s] concern about the classism intrinsic to the grading structure: Those who are at the bottom of the charts have strict, objective measures that can be applied to justify their grades. Those at the top of the scale have a subjective and fluid measure that allows instructors to assign higher grades (or lower ones) when needed without having to be accountable to any standards.
For example, why is the number of missed classes spelled out in the ‘D’ and ‘F’ grades but for the ‘A’ grade, the criteria is the loosey-goosey ‘attendance, for this student, is not an issue.’ What does ‘not an issue’ mean? Missing no classes? Missing one? Two? Missing as many as the ‘D’ or ‘F’ student, but in this case the person doing the grading thinks there is something special about this particular pupil, so the loosey-goosey language works to that instructor’s, and student’s, advantage?
This structure does indeed mirror capitalism and how people of different classes are treated and measured in our society. It also mirrors how some K-12 systems discriminate against their students by applying rules unevenly between lower-level and honors-level classes, with the latter having much more freedom and the former being bound by inflexible standards.
Studies have been done showing the catastrophic effects of these sorts of systems. I remember reading some of those studies two decades ago. It is a shame that an institution of higher education, in the arts nonetheless, would apply this kind of two-tiered system in its program today.
I make all of the observations above, but I am skirting something essential. That is because, as of December 4, 2009, I am still too afraid to speak publicly about what happened to me at the residency with relation to gender roles and gender identification; the fear, shame and isolation I felt; and my position that the grade I received feels unjustified and unfair—that I believe the grade is directly related to my experiences on that campus and my decision to complain about those experiences, as opposed to the quality of my work or the assertion on the director’s part that I did not “demonstrate a passionate commitment to writing.”
I don’t remember their names. I don’t know where they lived. I don’t remember anything about their truck other than the fact that it was a truck. I don’t know what they looked like.
As I said in a previous post, I don’t know why we got into the truck. I don’t know what we were thinking. I wanted to avoid my mother, I do know that. Perhaps when I saw her coming, something was set off in me—fight or flight. And as I almost always did until I got older, I chose flight. I did not want to get in the car with her.
Though she had seen my mother at her worst, my friend J wasn’t afraid of her the way I was. J could leave my house and my mother’s rule anytime she wanted. And frankly, her house was often worse than mine. I once saw J’s father slap her so hard she fell partway down their staircase. She ran to her room afterward. I followed. She was quiet and crying, but only barely. I couldn’t get her to talk to me about it. This was one of the few times she had nothing to say.
I know they are not in high school. My guess is that they are between nineteen and twenty-three, but those ages are hard to decipher—everything from the late teens to the mid-20s looks pretty much the same.
We ask them to take us home. I give directions to my house. That’s not the way they are headed. I tell them they are going the wrong way, but they keep going the wrong way. We realize they have other ideas. They promise to take us home just as soon as they show us something.
J and I are getting scared, and somehow we are able to communicate that fear to one another without letting on, just as we knew how to act aloof when passing the high school kids on the sidewalk outside Stubbeman Village and how we decided in tandem to get into the truck in the first place. We communicate through looks and intonation, since we are not able to say what we need to say to one another explicitly.
The men take us to I.O.O.F. Cemetery, where my father was buried two years earlier, but of course these men don’t know that.
“What are we doing here,” I ask.
“We’re gonna have sex with you,” one of them says.
We beg them not to hurt us. We demand that they take us home. They refuse. They are going to have sex with us, they say again.
I change my strategy. “OK, OK, that’s cool,” I tell them. I look at J. I tell the men that my mom is gone, and there’s a whole liquor cabinet at my house. We can drink all we want and have a way better time there. To sweeten the offer, I throw in the fact that we have a swimming pool.
J chimes in to support what I am saying. I wasn’t sure she would know to go along. I am relieved that she does. Together, we convince them we’re into it.
The drive back to my house from the cemetery is only five miles or so, but it feels much longer. My heart is beating rapidly. So is J’s, but she seems calm. We have no idea if what we’re doing will work, but we know it’s our only shot at getting out of this.
Turn by turn, I carefully spool out directions for a drive that seems to take hours.
“There it is,” I say, pointing at the house as we approach the driveway. I tell them to park on the street. As soon as they stop the truck, J and I jump out. I don’t think I even had to yell “run.” We just ran. Past the driveway, across the front expanse of lawn, up and over the fence by the side of the house, using the brick lip as a foothold to boost ourselves over, down the other side of the fence using the small gate propped up as a ladder, into the westward-facing window—the same one we would open during tornado warnings—and onto the dresser in my bedroom.
We run through the house, locking all the doors and windows. The men scream words such as “xxxx” and “bitches” a few times, then peal away in their truck. For weeks I will worry about them coming back, but they won’t come back, and the fear will pass—as much as any fear I’ve ever felt has passed.
J and I get into the liquor cabinet—the one my father crafted himself a few years before he died. The cabinet has mirrored shelves with attractive glasses on display, as well as two faux drawer fronts and two real drawers, one of which still contains a photo of him and one of his lighters, along with some drink napkins and swizzle sticks.
We drink whiskey straight from the bottle.
My mother will return a few minutes later, angry that we weren’t there when she came to pick us up. She waited and waited, she will explain. We won’t say how we got home, other than to mumble something about running into friends who gave us a ride. When she asks which friends, we will reply vaguely.
We will be happy to see her. Her presence will make us feel safe—as safe as we’ve ever felt.
Sometimes girls like J and me trade lack of safety for an even greater lack of safety. I think we do this because the concept of safety becomes so foreign to those who have never experienced it that what the word signifies is as estranging as the word itself. Said over and over, any word will fall apart, but especially those we have never quite situated in our lives.
For J and me, the component parts of the word “safety” peeled away from the word’s meaning long ago, until the sounds were, and are, no longer elements of language but rather a brash noise, a sensory invasion—tires leaving the scene of our lives again and again, every day marred by new sets of skid marks.
By trading safety for less safety, we have something relatively “safe” to come back to, at least by comparison. I needed my mother to be “safe,” my home to be “safe,” to feel “safe” with my mother at home. Everything is relative, and we create our own relativity to give our lives the same kind of meaning other people’s lives seem to possess. Girls like J and me spend our entire lives trying to give meaning to the term safety, but in the end we often only find its opposite.
And its opposite finds us. Men like the ones in that truck have girls such as J and I pegged. They know we are vulnerable as soon as they set eyes on us. To them, we are nothing more than hermit crabs which have molted and are unable to grow new exoskeletons. Anything can pierce us. Anything can tear us apart. And who would say or do a damn thing to stop those men, when girls like us are nothing more than throw-aways, trash, society’s expendable by-products.
So we choose silence. Our lives are as silent as a house is when everyone living inside it has left, died or passed out for the night.
The series I am writing about how it came to pass that I left poetry, along with recent events and circumstances in my life, have led me to the very beginnings of some revelations about myself. I have always considered myself to be an extremely self-aware person, and I have always been honest about my personality and the ways in which my personality has been shaped, including my many flaws.
I am honest to the point of being brutally self-abusive, in fact. This self-abuse is something I’ve struggled with for years, but it has only been through writing this series, and through recent events, that I’ve come to a new juncture in understanding who I am, and why and how I relate—and react to—others the way I do.
One realization I’ve had is that the people who trigger me in the ways my mother did through boundary-crossing, false expressions of intimacy and other violations are the ones I pay attention to, let into my life and allow to stay in my life. I believe this is because boundary-crossing, violations and the “feeling” of closeness—especially closeness brought about in a never-ending cycle of hurting/healing—are what I have learned from a very early age constitute a relationship.
I don’t feel that I actively seek these people out, but I do think that once my boundaries have been crossed, a person is far more, not less, likely to gain access to me and entry into my life. Part of this stems from my desire to see potential in those who are flawed, which I will discuss in more detail at some point. In short, if someone says or does something hurtful, my first instinct is to try to make them understand why what they have done is hurtful or wrong or inappropriate. I feel compelled to make sure they understand how they have made me feel, and that they realize why they have made a mistake.
This urge on my part is coupled with a strong sense that if someone responds to what I am saying, they must be good people. Their listening validates not just that they are hearing me, but that they are accepting me—not just accepting the information or feedback, but me as a person, the whole of who I am. I am only now realizing that this dynamic is at work, and that it has been at work for years. And I know exactly why.
I am aware now that giving so much attention and energy to those who cross boundaries does not lead to better relationships or to true understanding and acceptance. It actually puts me at risk in many ways. Notably, if someone crosses a boundary or does something hurtful, they are likely to be people I should avoid, not embrace. I’ve seen relationships in my life play out this way time and time again. I let someone in. I struggle to keep them in despite the mounting evidence that I should not allow them to continue to be part of my life. I question myself. I doubt my instincts. I struggle. In the end, my feelings for them become stronger, not weaker, the more boundaries are crossed and the more unsettling the relationship is in large and small ways.
I have spent an enormous amount of time and energy on people whose initial interaction, or a very early interaction, is inappropriate and hurtful. These people in turn end up hurting me again and again, and sometimes they actively position themselves to play this role—to exploit, to marginalize, to silence, to sideline and, ultimately, to sidestep me.
I have wondered about something for years. It’s the fact that I’ve let so many good, caring people go. In college, for example, there were a number of people who I could only characterize as amazing and compassionate and kind. But I tended to “forget” about them. That is, I would see them if I happened to run into them or if circumstances put us in the same place for an activity or a class or a protest march or something of the like. But I would fail to reach out and connect with them, to be active with those friendships.
This is a pattern that has continued to this day. There are half a dozen people living here in the Seattle area who I really like and really respect, but I honestly forget to reach out to them in the interest of deepening or sustaining our connection. Instead, I have spent years of my life focused on relationships that are not healthy with people who are agitating in various ways—those who trigger the same kind of pattern I had in my relationship with my mother. And I have done this at the expense of focusing on healthy relationships. I’ve done it without even knowing I’ve done it.
Until now. Now, all the different trails I’ve been following about my own patterns, behaviors, feelings, physiological and neurological responses finally feel like they are meeting up. I used to feel as if I was following one trail or another, but not to any greater understanding about their interconnections. Or the trails would be covered in overgrowth here and there. I could never see the entire web of trails laid out on the land like a tangle of veins.
This pattern of focusing on relationships that mirror the one I had with my mother can take many forms. At the core, somewhere deep in my psychology, I believe I literally have a diurnal need to move into a stance of absolute self-hatred and fear and panic, and to then struggle against those impulses in order to right myself and rebuild my sense of self again through affirmations and prayers and hope.
I believe this impulse is diurnal because this is exactly how my relationship with my mother played out every singe day of the seventeen-plus years I lived with her, as well as any day thereafter that I visited her, stayed with her or had any contact with her. As my mother became more and more inebriated each night, her abuse would escalate and escalate until I—daily—was in a state of complete crisis, about my identity, my future, my worth, my life. I honestly feared for my life when I was living with her.
What I didn’t realize at the time is that she actually took my life in many ways through her actions. I am still here, but I am a shell to some extent. I am what is left after that level of abuse. I am the neurological, physical, emotional and mental reduction of what she did to me day after day, and my body and mind are still operating under the conditions of daily torture.
Some things have gotten better. Finally, at age thirty-eight, I can walk into a room and stay in that room even if I know someone else in the room despises me. I don’t have a fight or flight response anymore, with a rapid heartbeat, a sense of panic, and the often literal need to run—not walk but run—away. I don’t do that now. I can also actually have uncomfortable conversations with people I don’t like or respect who are saying annoying or ignorant or hurtful things without having a fight or flight response.
This is huge progress for me. I used to avoid so many situations, including work situations, because of these feelings. The “flight” response comes from such a deep and primitive part of the brain that it can’t be modulated or controlled even when you know it’s there. Not without years of cognitive re-mapping.
I believe this improvement stems from the fact that I no longer feel I should be liked by everyone. I’ve talked that talk for years, but deep down I have always wanted to be liked, especially by those with whom I am in close contact, including peers, co-workers and supervisors. Not being liked is something I dealt with for so many years when I was young, and I never developed a strong sense of self because nobody in my family was there helping me build up my self-esteem. In fact, they were doing the opposite.
I have known intellectually for a long time that being who I am and having the views I have—that being strong, independent, outspoken and a nonconformist—would not make me as likable as some people, especially given the fact that I also happen to be, or at least look, female. Women are supposed to be both liked and likable. It has taken years for that intellectual knowledge to make its way into my body so that my primitive brain no longer takes over when faced with people who don’t like me. It has also taken years of being away from my mother’s physical, emotional and psychological abuse for my body to not be in a state of constant fear, ready to react at the slightest sign of a threat, no matter how small that threat is compared with the one my mother posed.
Though my fight or flight response has improved, other things have not. The central impulse that I have to be psychologically knocked down and then build myself back up—that pattern which came from my mother and started as far back as I can remember—is still there.
Now that she is dead (and even before she died, for I internalized her patterns long ago), two things have happened. The first is gravitating to people who cross my boundaries and hurt me, as I discussed above. The second is filling in and playing the role of my mother when necessary. I no longer need to have anyone there each day to make me feel terrible about myself and to break me down: I do this to myself. I have become my mother, perpetuating inside me the destruction and the patterns she established long ago in our home on Meadowbrook Drive, in our lazy university town in the middle of Oklahoma, chock full of raised flower beds and home games, brick houses without basements in the middle of the tornado belt, and of course circle drives. You could measure someone’s status by whether or not they had a circle drive. We intended to get one before my father died, but then he died.
The weapons I use against myself include things that others have done to me. I will replay one infraction over and over for years. My mother always said this was the curse from her side of the family, that we forgive, but we never forget. Well, we don’t just not forget. We put painful interactions in instant replay so we can pull them out whenever we haul off and start feeling good about ourselves. Then we can use those replay moments to bring us back to the self-loathing that is our set point.
I also replay my own mistakes, bruising myself for them repeatedly. I don’t think I am a worse person than anyone else, but I believe I put myself through an inordinate amount of anguish because I have never learned to be as kind to myself as I try to be to everyone around me. I am kinder to a hermit crab than I am to myself. This is not to say that I am always kind. I am not.
This is why I need those people—the ones who cross boundaries—why I need to let them in, whether centrally or even peripherally. They give me instant-replay moments to use in my daily tearing down and rebuilding of self. For instance, there was an incident I had with someone who was once a close friend. He became upset with me. He raised his voice. We were in my car. I pulled over and asked him to get out. I told him I just wanted to go home and that his behavior was not appropriate. My husband had just gotten an X-ray to see if he had lung cancer. He and I were waiting on the results. I didn’t even want to go out in the first place. I had told my friend that, but he really wanted to see me.
He refused to get out of the car. He kept talking loudly and gesturing. Panic came over me. I am terrified of confrontations in small spaces because my mother used to make me hide in a closet when R would come over to our house after he molested me during a trip to Memphis that he and his wife took me on.
I told my mother about what happened when I got home from the trip, and she turned to a male relative for advice and help. This relative thought I just misunderstood what R was doing and that I had not actually been molested because sexual intercourse had not taken place.
Let me lay out there what happened. It’s true that R did not have sexual intercourse with me, but he did touch my breasts after he asked to give me a back rub. It’s true that I could tell he was going to do it even before he did it, his hands making wider and wider paths across my upper back and onto my sides. It’s true that I froze, other than clenching my arms to my sides to stop him. It’s true that he forced his way through my arms and onto my developing breasts and nipples.
It’s true that R pressed me down onto the bed in the spare room at his son’s home where we were staying, the one with the light blue walls. It’s true that he held me down, hard, and then he pressed his lips to mine in a kiss so forceful it pushed my head down into the mattress. It’s true that he held his mouth to mine until his wife came in and yelled at me, as if I had asked for it. It’s true that she yelled for me to get out and that she had a look of anger on her face like none I had ever seen on anyone’s face, other than my mother’s. It is a face I would later see on the relative, too. It is a face I would someday see in myself, but not for years to come.
It’s true that I expected R’s wife to help me, but she offered no help.
It’s true that R intersected me one night when I had sneaked into the bathroom after he had gone to sleep because I had to pee and brush my teeth, and it’s true that I had been afraid to leave the room I was staying in with his granddaughter for fear of running into him. It’s true that he pulled me into a bear hug and would not let go, that he put his hand down my pants and touched my buttocks then ran his hand between my buttocks until he could feel the back of my vulva. I also felt his fingers on the maxipad I was wearing. I had just gotten my period a few months before. I remember being ashamed that he knew I was wearing a maxipad, even though that was the smallest way in which that incident crossed a boundary.
It’s true that what he did constitutes molesting me. Look up the definition of molestation if you have any doubts.
I told my mother all of this. She relayed what I said to the relative. I was ashamed enough that she was calling the relative for advice and telling him what happened. I was beside myself when she got off the phone with him and told me he thought I was mistaken and that she should not do anything, since R was a public figure in our small town.
It’s true that I expected the relative to help me, but he offered no help.
And I do believe my mother was trying to help me, but she had been trained to listen to men and do their bidding. She was a drunk, feeble unempowered woman living alone in a small town that was mostly run by men. In some respects, I blame her for not doing more. In other respects, I understand why five decades of sexism and abuse and manipulation and marginalization at the hands of men, as well as her own mother, had led my mother to make a call to a male relative looking for help and validation, and why it led her to do whatever that male relative told her to do, no matter what the cost was for everyone involved, namely me.
This is how it came to pass that the solution my mother offered, the only solution, was for me to hide in the closet whenever R came over. She would see his El Camero pulling into the drive and yell, “Get in the closet. He’s here.” And I would run.
No matter what my mother did or did not do to me, at least she believed me. For the rest of her life, she maintained that she believed everything I had told her about what R did. I could hear it in her voice when he came over, the way she curtly told him I was not there. She was muffled because I was in the closet, but I could still tell she was defiant. I knew she was making her angry face as she spoke to R, and that her intonation was the most strength she could muster. I knew she must have been scared when he came over, for herself and for me. We were alone in that house with him, the two of us, reduced to this because one strong man in our family was dead and another had doled out bad advice.
It would be seventeen years before she would reveal that she, too, had been molested. She was the same age as me when it happened. He did it to her in the barn on her family’s property. He was much older than her. He was also technically a family member, since he had just married my mother’s older sister. Nobody helped my mother then. How could she have begun to know how to help me?
It’s also true that the only reason R did not do more, including actually having intercourse with me, is because in that cavernous house of his son’s, I was able to hide. I hid in closets. I spent two weeks hiding in closets, under laundry, behind rows of shirts. I sat perfectly still, barely breathing, for hours and hours on end—as he marched through the house while his wife was out all day with the granddaughter and we were alone there together—looking for me.
It’s true that I brought back that terror and had to relive it in my own home, the one on Meadowbrook Drive, because my mother made me. And, because of his actions, the relative she looked to for support also made me. I mean “made me” in both sense of the term. They made me do it, hide that is. And they made me who I am. Or more precisely, they are responsible for who I am not and who I will never be: a whole person. They gave me a world where there is no protection, no recourse, no voice, no safety, no credibility. They gave me a world where all you can do is hide in the closet and hope nobody will hurt you.
My world is still a closet. And if you are reading this post, that means I’ve trusted you enough to let you into my closet. You are here, crouching with me. And I am so shattered that I can’t tell if you should be here next to me—if I can trust you—or if you are another person who wants to hurt me, and if I want you to do the hurting.
Someone I have never met berated me two days ago for not trusting him implicitly. How do you explain that you don’t know the first thing about the word trust, or about your relationships to and with other people? And why should we hand trust over to those we have never met? How do you put someone in a closet and make them feel the terror, the honest to God terror, you have felt, and then tell them this is how you feel all the time? How do you tell them to imagine that feeling, and why would you ever want to have them imagine it? You could never be as cruel as to be as cruel as those who have been as cruel as they have been to you.
Small spaces always made me feel afraid. I know this is because of the closets in my life and the role they have played. I am scared and uncomfortable in elevators, cars, magnetic resonance imaging machines, rooms that are too small, rooms with only one exit. I have to orchestrate where I sit in a restaurant, and if I don’t sit with the correct relationship to the room and its exits, I can’t feel comfortable. I have learned to pass off terror the way I might pass the salt. I know how to frame terror as quirks. I deal in terror every day, and I’ve learned to entertain people in the process. Quirky people are fun. Terrorized people clear the room.
My friend knew this about me. We had been very close and had talked about the closets, including the literal closets I spent so much time crouching inside. He knew small-space confrontations of any kind were a trigger for me that would bring on the equivalent of a post-traumatic stress response. But he could not help himself that day. He was so afraid I would put an end to our friendship over what he was doing that he did it more, and then he did it even more—all of which ultimately ensured I would indeed put an end to our friendship.
I understand that to anyone else this was merely a fight in a car. I get it. But that’s not what it was to me. And the bigger issue is how I got into that situation in the car in the first place. There had been issues in that friendship. I am responsible for those issues because I remained in the friendship and actively took part in it. There had been other instances of boundary-crossing, but never like that day in August of 2008. It would take me another year and a half before I would realize that, after the car incident, the relationship—whatever it amounted to—was irreparable.
Because he refused to get out of my car, I got out of it and started walking away from the vehicle. He followed me, still insistent on engaging. He grabbed me by the arms. I asked him to let go. He refused, and though I know he refused out of his desire to be heard and an insistence that he be able to work through things with me in that moment, he still had no right to cross a physical, psychological or emotional boundary with me or to not listen to my pleas to be left alone. Violations were triggered. I told him he was scaring me. I told him to stop and to back away, to physically move away from me.
I was in the closet, and I wanted to shut the door on him, to shut him out. This is a moment I have put on instant replay, and I have played it on auto-repeat for the past year and a half. I will most likely replay it for the rest of my life.
“Breathe slow and easy,” I would tell myself as R wandered through our house calling my name. “Just breathe slow and easy.”
My friend refused to back off and leave me alone. I called my husband and told him what my friend was doing. At this, my friend moved a few feet away and began muttering as I spoke to my husband. But my friend still would not leave the area even though I was asking him to do so. While still on the phone, I told my friend that I was getting back in my car and that he was not to attempt to approach me or the vehicle. He promised, putting up his hands in a gesture of acquiescence.
I got in the car and immediately locked all the doors. Just as I did so, my friend lunged at the car and yanked on the passenger door’s handle. I drove off, terrified, in full flight response.
I was twenty-five years old before I stopped running to the closet and hiding in it whenever I felt scared or threatened. When we first started dating, and even after we started living together, if my husband couldn’t find me in our apartment, he would look in the closet. He knew which one to look in: the one in the bedroom. Bedroom closets are always where I have hidden—in the house on Meadowbrook Drive, in the house in Memphis and in my own residences.
Change comes slowly. I’ve vacated physical closets, but there is always a closet with me, inside me. And I am always seeking out, or being sought out by, those who will make me want to retreat to that closet. This has to stop. These relationships stop now. The rest of my life, I will work on demolishing that closet and being extremely cautious about my relationships so that I don’t let anyone near me again who makes me want to build a new closet to hide inside.
My friend, the one from the car, recently sent an email behind my back to two of my dear friends. This was triggered because I cut off all communication with him several months ago for the reasons detailed above. He characterized my experiences with him as a “massive overmagnification of what other people might typically shrug off.”
He also framed anything I might say about him as nothing more than my “emotional truth,” which is a phrase I used in the installment for this series about the incident with my poetry mentor. The way my friend bled that phrase of its meaning and significance and turned it on me as a way of undermining everything I have been writing, and that which I might dare to speak, was nothing short of stunning.
He went on to state that I have a “textbook” case of cognitive distortion, even linking to a Wikipedia article on the subject.
This email terrified me. Despite everything, including that day at my car, I never thought this person was capable of such an infraction. One of the biggest issues I deal with, and have always dealt with, is not being believed. I have lived with that since the relative my mother called dismissed my concerns about what happened with R I have never been believed, and I have often been called crazy by people who don’t know me at all. Just the other day, I was called a “lunatic” by a poet I met through the internet.
It is assertions such as these that make me want to recoil and hide, to get inside my closet. I deleted my site, shut down my entire online presence. I do want to preserve myself, and I am going through a serious health issue right now, and I do need to heal. But I also need to say that I am here.
Here I am. I am here.
I am here. I am here. I am here.
The only way to be at peace with those who want to call me cognitively distorted or say I am a lunatic is to let them say it and to respond by saying, “You know what? You might be right.”
So there you have it. Maybe they are right about me. If someone I trust implicitly ever tells me they think these things, I will listen. If my doctors ever hold this opinion, I will listen. But they don’t. And for now I will assert that just because I am saying things people don’t like and don’t want to hear does not mean my mental clarity is suspect.
But just for xxxxs and giggles, let’s all operate under the assumption that I am insane.
There. Does that feel better? Do you feel as if you’ve just slipped out of your office attire and into a pair of elastic waistband leisure pants like the ones my father wore on weekends when he was piddling around the house or fishing at the lake?
Now, you will need to pardon me. I have some drywall to tear out and some bi-fold doors to haul down to architectural salvage. I am sure someone can find a good use for those closet doors, but not me. Not anymore.
We all come to be through other people. — N.
It has been interesting for me to see the responses to the conclusion of “How It Came to Pass That I Left Poetry,” and to the series as a whole. I have received publicly and privately communicated support for the writing—with far more private support than public. The private support makes sense for a number of reasons, including the fact that leaving a comment on much of what I have written doesn’t feel like a direct or connected enough response. There are also those who can’t or don’t want to publicly identify with the series, which I understand.
For some, the response has been to remain silent. This makes sense; it is not easy work to engage with. In some ways, it is selfish for me to have shared what I wrote because of how difficult the reading is. Of course, nobody has to read anything I write, which is how I justify sharing the work.
Another response for some has been to pull away. I know there are many reasons for that distance. I am not placing a value judgment on the distance, simply noting that it is one of many reactions.
And there are some who have engaged in various ways that I would not have anticipated. One is the underlying notion that life and healing are linear, as if we are on a path and we keep heading down that path without any regression or retracing of steps. As if the experience of life is as linear as the construct of time.
I don’t believe that’s the case. I think we are all, despite our pasts, constantly in a state of progression and regression, of forward and backward movement, and I believe this shifting is necessary. It is as if we are all traveling along a Möbius band. Sometimes we are at the top of the band, and sometimes we are back underneath. But we are always on it, crossing back to the beginning many times over.
Further, I believe the Möbius band is constantly reorienting itself so that we can’t tell what is top and what is bottom. We might experience ourselves as being at the bottom of the strip when in fact we are on top but it is our perspective, or that of others, that is off—just like my perspective was off when, dizzy at the bottom of my swimming pool, I swam down, rather than up, thinking I was going to break the water’s surface at any moment. Instead my hands hit the pool’s drain, and I was shocked.
Sometimes, for example, our greatest struggles are also our opportunities for the greatest insights and changes. We cannot always see that from where we are at in any given moment. It does not help that, culturally, personal crisis is not sanctioned. We do not see the moment of crisis as one to work through and address head on in order to make that moment as productive and applicable to our past/present/future as possible.
It is also true that we can feel as if we are at the top when in fact we are at our most __________ (insert any and all words that apply; these may include but at not limited to: vulnerable, demanding, misguided, unsustainable) and are therefore far less “on top” than we think we are. We might even be about to go under, or perhaps we are already under.
If we saw all of this “over” and “under” not as a series of positives and negatives, but rather as states that are complementary and necessary and concomitant and interdependent and co-regulating, I think we would have a much healthier approach to each, both as they are manifest in our own lives and as they are manifest in the lives of others.
I also believe that time as we have come to understand it—the linearity of time—does not exist in the mind. We simply do not think/feel in a linear fashion, according to the governing of the clock and calendar. We are always living in the present, past and future as far as our minds are concerned. They are one thing to the mind, just as thinking and feeling are one thing, not two, and just as mind and body are one. How does the mind distinguish between the three—past, present and future? How do we know the three are distinct and not constructs in themselves, sub-constructs of time? Why should such distinctions be necessary—because that’s how we’ve learned we should experience life? Because we are terrified of what will happen if there is co-mingling, particularly of past and present?
If you have any doubt about the mind being steeped in past and future as much as it is in present, record your dreams for a week. How many are strictly about the present? My sleeping mind has given my father back to me many times in the twenty-five years since his death. I have lived out countless futures with him that I would lose if I forced my mind to live only in the present.
One of the issues I have with this notion of living in the present, with the cult of the present, is that it feeds into an underlying problem in our society, which is that we don’t deal well with adult victims of childhood physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The overall sense I get is that if we are abused as children, we aren’t supposed to talk about that abuse as adults. Because that was then, and this is now. Heck, that’s even a saying, “That was then. This is now.” We are supposed to be whole, miraculously, or at least play like we are whole. Or we’re supposed to shut up about what has happened to us and “leave it in the past.” There again we have the language of the past as something to leave behind, to abandon. We are supposed to “move on,” a phrase that invokes that idea of life being linear and of us all being on a path.
Everyone else has moved on from their childhoods and whatever those childhoods involved. We, too, should put on our fancy hiking socks—the ones that wick sweat away from the body—and lace up our overengineered waterproof hiking boots and get on that forward-looking path that has the word “future,” along with an arrow, on large signs all along the way. (These signs are, of course, there to keep us from accidentally turning around and going the wrong way on the path, back to the past.)
I feel frustrated when I am treated as if I must be far behind person x or person y in terms of my own development and integration, and as if I will someday catch up with those people or at least follow them along the same path that has worked for them. Where is the a map that diagrams one person’s personal development or self-actualization in relation to another person’s? I have never seen that map, and I don’t believe it exists. Maybe employees at Google will invent something to this effect. Twenty percent of each Google employee’s job is to innovate new technologies, so you never know what they might have in store for us in terms of mapping the self and mapping others.
One way I can ensure I appear to be far along that path (i.e., more actualized), is to remain silent and to continue using my coping mechanisms in a way that dictates how people perceive me. One way I can ensure I appear to be less far along that path (i.e., less actualized), is to write as frankly as I have about experiences, behaviors and feelings that most people would never divulge to another person, let alone write about, let alone “publish” in any sense of the word.
Do my divulgences mean I am less integrated, or more integrated, or neither? I don’t know how anyone could answer that question with assurance.
I was looking for groups in my area that support adult survivors of child abuse and child sexual abuse. I could not find any. There are groups for alcohol and drug dependence, for those with mental illnesses such as depression, and for adults who are being physically and sexually abused. There are groups for just about everything, many of these groups. But not for adults who survived physical, emotional or sexual abuse as children.
The fact that those primary support systems are missing seems to be in keeping with society’s overall stance that we need to just get over it. The this-is-now mentality seems to permeate our culture, including our basic supports for those in need. As a result, many of us unfortunately end up in those other groups—the ones for drugs, for mental illnesses and for adults who are in abusive relationships. We end up in those groups precisely because we don’t have and have never had the support we need for the core issues we face.
So we turn to drugs and alcohol, we get depressed, we seek out unhealthy relationships. Then perhaps we make our way, or are ordered, into a group. But now we have at least two problems to treat: the one that led us to the group, and the underlying issue related to our childhood abuse. And what does come up in those groups time and time again is that so many of their participants were abused as children.
Why is there such resistance to people speaking out and wanting to work through these issues? Why are we pushed into the now and told that the past doesn’t matter in our lives or in terms of how our minds have been hard-wired and how they experience and re-experience the world?
A friend sent me this piece from Adrienne Rich’s Midnight Salvage. It seems central to what I have been writing about in terms of my leaving poetry, and more specifically in terms of eventually finding my way back to it. I feel the pressure of “this horrible patience.” I am trying to be patient by riding the wait out in prose.
We do what we have to do, don’t we.
This horrible patience which is part of the work
This patience which waits for language for meaning for the
This encumbered plodding state doggedly dragging
the IV up and down the corridor
with the plastic sack of bloodstained urine
Only so can you start living again
waking to take the temperature of the soul
when the black irises lean at dawn
from the mouth of the bedside pitcher
This condition in which you swear I will
submit to whatever poetry is
I accept no limits Horrible patience
The most famous poets are not the most gifted, the most daring, or the most geniusy. Fame and poetry mix best through steady mediocrity, the creation of a ‘poetic voice’ and a concrete underpinning of institutional power.
This satirical (and astute) article touches on another reason I left poetry: I got tired of poets and their relentless careerism. Not all poets are like this, but many are. As the article’s author, Jim Behrle, illustrates, that careerism has everything to do with the fact that most poets are, by and large, irrelevant.
As a communicator at heart, I know much better and more effective ways to communicate with people than through poetry. My writing on medical, health and scientific topics has reached thousands of people. (And I didn’t even have to relentlessly promote myself or my writing to have that effect.) In contrast, my poetry has reached dozens of people, tops.
The fastest way, as a communicator, to marginalize yourself is to write poetry. At least, that’s the reality most of the time, for most of us. If I am going to sit on my tookus writing for hours each day, two things had better be the case: 1. the writing had better actually reach people, and 2. the writing had better be about something people need to know—something that could change their lives, improve the quality of their lives or improve the world.
I know this isn’t necessarily the takeaway Berhle wants readers to have after reading his piece, but the article did bring me back to these two central points about what I want my communications to be and do—how I want to interact with the world through my writing. Many people are content to write poetry because it is fulfilling, bringing the poet peace or joy or happiness. Having people read the work might not be important. But for me, communicating means having someone to communicate with and to. I am, after all, in conversation with myself all the time without laying a finger on my keyboard.
At this time in my life, my health, well-being, spirituality and relationships would all be greatly improved if I didn’t spend all my time sitting at a computer working on poetry that isn’t being seen, or at least isn’t being seen by many. I have always said I want to do work that matters in the world. I can’t do anything that matters in the world if I am spending my time, and spinning my wheels, on this poetry business (in all senses of the term “business”).
I also find the notion that people are “doing something” with regard to the world’s problems by writing poetry about those problems rather annoying. I don’t buy that line anymore, certainly not in terms of my own relationship with and response to the world and the issues we face locally, regionally, nationally and globally. If you want to write a poem, write a poem. If you want to do something about something, go do something about that something you profess to want to do something about.
My experiences in family and adult literacy outreach have definitely helped me come to this place. Reaching out to children, adults and educators for the past seven months has been just the “doing something” I have needed. I got off my tookus, and doing so felt good and right. Now I as I reexamine my approach to my writing, I realize that any writing I “do” must “do” something: The work must be meaningful and educational. I don’t want my writing to be separate from my doing. I want it to be part of whatever I am doing, of whatever small changes I can make in the world. I want to write pieces that are relevant. And those pieces, by and large, aren’t going to be poetry.
I just came across this entry from my series, “How It Came to Pass That I Left Poetry.”
February 10, 2010 7:02 a.m.
I wake up too late to write before leaving for work. This upsets me. I have something I need to tell. I feel it inside me like hands held open, pressing against my frame. It is as if I am two people before I write: the one I see, and another I can only feel. She is a mime, speaking to me through her hands.
Once I’ve said what she wants me to say, I will be one person again. Until she has something else to say. We don’t communicate very well. I try to interpret what she needs. All I have are feeling and language, a potent combination that often has disastrous results.
She will have to wait this morning until I can read words like tea leaves to decipher how she moves inside me.
I feel heavy. My face is swollen. I wonder how much mass this shadow person has, how much I would weigh if I were to step on a scale right now. Perhaps what we attribute to water weight isn’t water.
I had a surprising insight last week about my audience—the shadowy, indistinct person I see, feel and write to whenever I am writing prose or poetry. I used to think this was an external entity, not one that actually exists, but rather one I imagine existing. What I have come to understand is that this person is me, and “she” is a way that I distance myself from myself.
All this time I have been writing with the stated purpose of exploring the “other” in order to come to see “other” as “self,” and I have been way off base. What I have actually doing, through my writing, is dissociating from myself, turning “self” into “other” and then writing to that “other”—I have been allowing myself to see “self” as “other,” not the other way around.
This is something I can trace back to my first memories. In the absence of a functional family system with supportive adults, I created a supportive figure in my mind—someone who cared for me, wanted to listen to my thoughts and would protect me. I had to create this person because my mother and father were not playing that role. They were too caught up in their adult world, which basically consisted of drinking and fighting and, in my father’s case, being absent (first because of long hours at the office and then because of his early death).
In our household, I was either invisible or a target. I was invisible when my parents drank and socialized with their friends, or when they started arguing each day in front of me as if I was not there. I was a target when my mother turned her anger and frustration on me. I was a different kind of target later, when R entered the picture.
The person I created to listen to and protect me was probably similar to some people’s experience of God or another divine caretaker. I never thought this entity was real, per se, except for a brief stint after my father’s death during which several students in my school tried to introduce me to Christianity. Trust me, I wanted that entity to be real, not just something I made up to console myself and to move through my days feeling less alone. I even talked in tongues once. Glossolalia was an interesting experience, but it did not feel authentic. Cathartic, yes. Authentic, no.
I kept talking to my protective entity after I moved out of the family home. I have spent years in conversation with that entity. It’s a given that when I need to work through something or prove my position on this matter or that, I will be in dialogue with that person who is there and has always been there, patiently listening.
It makes sense that when I started writing, I would write to this same entity. I don’t know why I didn’t recognize that sooner. She’s the one I am always in conversation with, or rather speaking to, at least when I am writing individually authored work. Through my therapy, I am coming to understand that this entity is a survival mechanism I developed when I was young and had no other people in my life to support me, let alone the ability to be supportive to myself.
Several weeks ago, my therapist gave me the simple task of saying something affirming to myself in the first person. I couldn’t do it without being brought to tears, I mean bawling. The idea of saying, “I am strong” or “I am a good person” was more than I could tolerate. Yet I am able to put those terms in second person and imagine my entity saying them to me, “You are strong. You are a good person.” I have no issues with that.
What I’ve realized, with the help of my therapist, is that I was made to feel so bad about myself when I was young—so much of the opposite of self-esteem was cultivated in me—that I had to create a separate person, if you will, to nurture and care for me. It was shocking to realize that this person is me. That “other” is “self” and it always has been self. To this day, I feel so bad about myself that I have to talk in second person in order to relate anything affirmative to myself.
This entity is not working for me anymore. I need to reconcile the fact that she is me, and I am her, and together we are whole. We always have been whole. She loves me. She is me. This means I love myself. Some people will read this and have no idea what I am talking about. Thankfully, they have not been fractured and fragmented in the ways I have. But for me, this is a revelation of “holy crap” magnitude, so I will say it all again: She loves me. She is me. This means I love myself.
This also means I am capable of loving myself, and I have loved myself all along. I have nurtured myself through everything I’ve endured and survived. I have been there for myself since I was young, when my circumstances and those around me made me believe I was not able to be or do anything good, even where my own relationship with myself was concerned. But right alongside the voice in my head that pushes me, daily, to either treat myself as invisible or as a target, there is another voice that has held me together and shown me great compassion. And her voice is my voice, too.
It all makes sense now, that feeling I get before writing, the one I discuss in the excerpt above. That excerpt is the beginning of a new understanding of my relationship with writing and with myself: “Once I’ve said what she wants me to say, I will be one person again.”
I not only write to her; I feel her, as if she is inside me. She has weight. She is real because she does have a body—mine. She does have a mind—mine. She does have a spirit—mine. Now I need to work on integrating her and accepting her as myself. I need to make sure my writing isn’t a way to continue holding her at arm’s length and treating her as “other.”
It’s time to let her go, or rather welcome her in. I ultimately want to write not to and for her, but to and for myself. And I want to feel whole all the time, not just after I’ve said what she wants me to say. It’s hard, and risky, to walk around like that—whole. But I am willing to take that risk.