When I Grow Up

When I grow up
I think I’ll be a poet
and sit in my study
with my tea and my typewriter
and share my wisdom with the world
I’ll have a cult following
be a celebrated nobody
that English majors will recognize
in the coffee shop a few times a year
and be just as poor as I am now
but with a check in the mail from my publisher once a month
I’ll wear knitted vests and old blazers
and people will listen to all my bullshit
and pay me $300 to speak at their conferences
I’ll give the same advice writers have given since the beginning of time
but people will listen to it
because I said it
and one day when I’ve retired
and nobody has noticed
someone will pick up a tattered copy of my life’s work
from the bargain bin for fifty cents
and want to be just like me.
My driver’s license says I’m almost 30 now,
but I still plan on growing up someday,
and when I do, I think I’ll be a poet.

Splinters

Poems grow out of me like porcupine quills,
a protective layer between me and the world.

They are reverse splinters,
stabbing up through my skin like springtime saplings
bursting from the seeds of my thoughts—
but it hurts to dig them out
or cut them down
and work them into
the fence surrounding my life
(and I’m not even sure I remember
what I was walling in or walling out).
I have to find the right places to put them,
somewhere they can protect or grow,
and hopefully get under someone else’s skin.
They itch like a sprouting beard.
They grow like grass, like weeds, like thorns.

I am a farmer who planted a field and then let it go fallow.
There are weeds in the furrows as tall as the wheat,
and cattle have gotten in through the unfinished fence.
The tractor has sat idle on the lawn for so long
one wheel is flat, with plants spilling through the spokes;
there are flecks of rust on the red engine cover.
Underneath is a patch of dry dirt stained black with oil.
I opened the hood once to see what it needed.
A frightened bird startled me as it fled,
leaving its blind, chirping chicks behind.
There was a network of mice nests
with little pieces of egg shells scattered inside them
and the headless fossil of a mouse on the engine block.
I closed the compartment and walked to the edge of the field.
I flicked a grasshopper from a golden stalk
and saw that I was too late to save it.

I thought about burning,
about moving,
about changing professions.
But the hoarse whisper of the drying stalks haunted me.

Today I walked right past the moldering tractor
and into the field itself, ignoring the whine of the crickets
the dripping of water,
the scratch of the nettle
and listened to the rustle of the leaves
and the rattle of the grain.

I knelt and clutched a handful of dark earth.
It smelled like fresh rain
and left a dark spot on the knee of my pants.
I wrapped my fingers around a solitary weed and plucked it out,
leaving a wet wound of fertile ground behind—
though the weed told me something of how dear its life was
with a few lines of poetry it placed into my uncalloused palm.
I plucked them out one at a time
and placed them on the fence
and listened.

And then I pulled another weed.

Practice

We practice everyday:
checking off boxes,
kissing loved ones goodnight,
and preparing our bodies for storage.
We wrap ourselves in amniotic blankets
and melt into the night
trusting that we’ll awaken—
and usually wanting to.
We’re born into each new day,
stretching joints and blinking at lights
as if for the first time,
so ignorant of what’s ahead
we’ll often look back on our morning naivety
and laugh or cry at what we see.

We know we cannot live there though,
in that nostalgia-tinted looking glass,
cannot snatch a single hurtful word
out of the air after we’ve sent it
buzzing like a mosquito into an ear.
Nor can we project our voices indefinitely
into the caverns of history.
Our words will echo until they fade
or until someone else picks them up
and shouts them ricocheting through time
just to hear how they sound,
and then they will be their words, not ours.

No, we can live only here
in this moment,
brief as a snowflake drifting through a flame;
we melt into night
so when the time comes for the eternal sleep
we’ll know just how it’s done,
only this time the womb is a coffin.
Suspended in lifeless fluids,
we are born into oblivion.

Breanna

     Recess started. Breanna walked to the shade of her tree and sat down.
     “It is my tree,” she thought. “No one else comes here.”
     She opened her backpack and pulled out her book. Mrs. Finley had given it to her as a going away present, and she had let a few of her friends sign the book before she left. She stared at their signatures until her eyes started to blur, then she punched herself in the leg and blinked until her vision cleared. She let the book fall open and began to scan the lines like a rock skipping over a pond. When she came to the end of a paragraph she imagined the rock skipping one final time before sinking down into the murky depths where weeds clutched at her ankles. Then she picked up another pebble, safe on the shore, and tossed it across the next paragraph. Breanna became so lost in this fantasy that she forgot to pay attention to the words her stones were skipping across. She became so lost in it that she barely noticed the droplets falling onto the page. She became so lost in it that she did not even hear the group of girls approaching until they were standing all around her.
     “Breanna, right?” a voice said.
     Breanna jolted and slammed her book shut.
     “Yeah, why?” she asked, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. The girl who had addressed her knelt beside her.
     “Are you okay?” she asked. Breanna felt a pit open up inside her, and the pit was black and empty save for the strands of memory waving in the darkness, the strands of memory that clutched at her ankles as she tried to free herself. She felt the pit open inside of her, and a sob rose to her lips like final breath of a drowning child.
     “What’s wrong?” the girl asked, putting a hand on her shoulder. The sob escaped, and Breanna began to cry. The other girls knelt down too and reached out to her with cautious hands.
     “Hey,” the girl said. “It’s alright. It’s alright. Everything’s gonna be okay.” She sat down next to her and draped her arm over Breanna’s shoulders like a warm towel, and Breanna cried and cried until she felt the memories release her, and she bobbed to the surface and could fill her lungs again.
     “I just…” she said. “I miss my friends.”
     And she cried again, but she wasn’t alone this time, and instead of weeds or memories there were hands. But they were kind hands, and they did not clutch or drag or suck her down. The memories waved in the depths and reached for her, but the hands anchored her in that moment by the tree, and the pit in her stomach was filled.

 

I was a river

I was a river when you found me, little bird.
You couldn’t bathe in the deeper parts of me
for fear of being swept away.
Instead you found some dissipated eddy
in which you could immerse yourself
and sing your titillating gratitude.
You marveled in my ebb and flow
and followed my tributaries as far as you dared.
Dark trees hung over me in which you could wait
for safety, to be fed,
or just to roost and hear my constant voice.
The change was nearly imperceptible at first.
A little softer
or a little lower down the mossy bank,
and you thought the winter runoff was ending early.
But it came and went, and still I changed,
twisting and turning on my own sandbars
until I covered twice the distance
with barely half the water—
then less.
From river to stream to brook,
and all of nature hedged me in
as banks retreated.
Many times you’ve flown to the source
to see what was the matter
only to find there’s nothing you can fix.
It may be that someday
I will find my course again,
and all my rivulets will become one
meandering no more, but raging,
crashing down and rising up
breaking the bars and blasting the trees,
retreading my old path.
Perhaps I’ll gurgle from the depths I’ve sunk
and pour over the sides again
with greater flow than ever
for the perspective I’ve gained,
and my branches will spread like fingers
over this place, clutching
and grabbing it up with abandon,
creating new tributaries to feed my appetite.
Perhaps, my friend, but I cannot tell.
I did not foresee this bend, and
almost everything has changed, little bird,
save one thing only:
I am still your stream.
Come perch above and sing to me.
Come bathe in my clear and gentle waters.