Dorianne Laux: The Book of Men

Dorianne's photo June 2007(1)

Mine Own Phil Levine

after W.S. Merwin

What he told me, I will tell you
There was a war on
It seemed we had lived through
Too many to name, to number

There was no arrogance about him
No vanity, only the strong backs
Of his words pressed against
The tonnage of a page

His suggestion to me was that hard work
Was the order of each day
When I asked again, he said it again,
pointing it out twice

His Muse, if he had one, was a window
Filled with a brick wall, the left hand corner
Of his mind, a hand lined with grease
And sweat: literal things

Before I knew him, I was unknown
I drank deeply from his knowledge
A cup he gave me again and again
Filled with water, clear river water

He was never old, and never grew older
Though the days passed and the poems
Marched forth and they were his words
Only, no other words were needed

He advised me to wait, to hold true
To my vision, to speak in my own voice
To say the thing straight out
There was the whole day about him

The greatest thing, he said, was presence
To be yourself in your own time, to stand up
That poetry was precision, raw precision
Truth and compassion: genius

I had hardly begun. I asked, How did you begin
He said, I began in a tree, in Lucerne
In a machine shop, in an open field
Start anywhere

He said If you don’t write, it won’t
Get written. No tricks. No magic
About it. He gave me his gold pen
He said What’s mine is yours.

*   *   *

TO KISS FRANK,

make out with him a bit, this
is what my friend would like to do
oh these too many dead summers later,
and as much as I want to stroll with her
into the poet’s hazy fancy
all I can see is O’Hara’s long gone lips
fallen free of the bone, those two damp slugs
slumbering beneath the grainy soil.
I can hear Frank’s dry voice
combing the air for song, but what I see
is his skeleton entombed in dust, wrapped
in his dapper suit, his razzle-dazzle sunglasses.
She sees him alive, ambling
down a sidewalk, all of New York
clambering into the sky behind him,
cuff links winking, his dear friends waving,
calling him by name like they do in the city:
800,000 people and you step outside for a smoke
and see someone you know.
That’s how it is with death.
Those you love come at you like lightening,
crackle for an instant—so kissable—
and then lips and all, they’re gone.

*   *   *

THE SECRET OF BACKS

Heels of the shoes worn down, each
in its own way, sending signals to the spine.

The back of the knee as it folds and unfolds.
In winter the creases of American-made jeans:
blue denim ridged, worried-to-white thread.

And in summer, in spring, beneath the hems
of skirts, Bermudas, old bathing suit elastic,
the pleating and un-pleating of parchment skin.

And the dear, dear rears. Such variety! Such
choice in how to cover or reveal: belts looped high
or slung so low you can’t help but think of plumbers.

And the small of the back: dimpled or taut, spiny or not,
tattooed, butterflied, rosed, winged, whorled. Maybe
still pink from the needle and ink. And shoulders,

broad or rolled, poking through braids, dreads, frothy
waterfalls of uncut hair, exposed to rain, snow, white
stars of dandruff, unbrushed flecks on a blue-black coat.

And the spiral near the top of the back of the head—
peek of scalp, exquisite galaxy– as if the first breach
had swirled each filament away from that startled center.

Ah, but the best are the bald or neatly shorn, revealing
the flanged, sun-flared, flamboyant backs of ears: secret
as the undersides of leaves, the flipside of flower petals.

And oh, the oh my nape of the neck. The up-swept oh my
nape of the neck. I could walk behind anyone and fall in love.

Don’t stop. Don’t turn around.

*   *   *

SECOND CHANCES

What are the chances a raindrop
from last night’s storm caught
in the upturned cup of an autumn leaf
will fall from this tree I pass under
and land on the tip of my lit cigarette,
snuffing it out? What are the chances
my niece will hit bottom before Christmas,
a drop we all long for, and quit heroin?
What are the chances of being hit
by a bus, a truck, a hell-bound train
or inheriting the gene for cancer,
addiction? What good are statistics
on a morning like this? What good
is my niece to anyone but herself?
What are the chances any of you
are reading this poem?
Dear men,
whom I have not met,
when you meet her on the street
wearing the wounds that won’t heal
and she offers you the only thing
she has left, what are the chances
you’ll take pity on her fallen body?

***

Dorianne Laux’s most recent collections are The Book of Men and Facts about the Moon.
A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and winner of the Oregon Book Award and The Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry, Laux is also author of Awake, What We Carry, and Smoke from BOA Editions. She teaches poetry in the MFA Program at North Carolina State University and is founding faculty at Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA Program.

Geoffrey Philp: Erzulie’s Daughter

Geoffrey Philp

It began with the usual insults
about her nose and hips,
and the belief that her true-true mother
lived on a coral island protected
by sunken galleys and man-o-wars.

These fantasies,
her therapists said, were drawing her
toward a different future
than her parents had wished for
when they punished her
for not reading the books they’d studied,
and sent her away on Easter egg hunts
dressed in starched, pink dresses, white bonnets,
and blue bows in each braid of her stubborn hair.

And when she began cutting her wrists,
arms, legs, and belly, her parents
agreed with the psychiatrists
to the prescriptions of pills, potions,
and poisons to keep her grounded in this life.

But then, the scabs became scars became scales,
her hair grew wild and untamed,
and a garden of yellows, blues, and reds sprouted
on her arms, legs, and back –
her ears and lips studded with gold –
and almost overnight she changed into something
she had always resembled in her own dreams,
in the mirror of her mother –
something beautiful and fearsome.


***

Geoffrey Philp, author of Marcus and the Amazons and Dub Wise, teaches English and creative writing at Miami Dade College. Geoffrey publishes regularly on his blog (Geoffrey Philp’s Blog), and has begun an online petition for the exoneration of Marcus Garvey.

Read also Beyond Mountain View and A Poem for the Innocents

Allison Joseph: Ode to the Naked Mole Rat

Allison Joseph

Hairless, nearly sightless,
cold-blooded bucktoothed rodent
roly-poly as sausage, you burrow
six feet below in arid soil,

sensitive to touch but impervious
to pain, bereft of the chemical
that gives skin the sting
of acid, stark pain behind.

Exhaling carbon dioxide
in your cramped underground,
you are the only animal
that shows no response

to such searing burn, oxygen
in such scant supply to you
scientists speculate you evolved
nerve fibers with no verve,

no capacity for pain that lasts.
How I envy your dark
havens, quiet anonymous lairs
where you feel your animal nothing,

almost useless eyes beady slits,
skin wrinkled as an elephant’s,
a coat of gray garbage bags.
How many days have I wanted

to tunnel deep where no one
could find me, eyes tight
against light, fat body
waddling? The air

that sustains you
would kill me, but we
are still mammal kin,
vertebrates negotiating tunnels

as if we know what we’re doing,
know what paths to pursue,
despite our blindness and saggy
skin, our fiercely ugly claws.

***

Allison Joseph lives, writes and teaches in Carbondale, Illinois, where she’s part of the faculty in creative writing at Southern Illinois University.  She serves as editor of Crab Orchard Review, director of the SIUC MFA Program in Creative Writing, and director of the Young Writers Workshop, an annual conference for high school-aged writers. The author of six collections of poetry, she has received awards and fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council.

Also read At Rochman Memorial Park

Denise Duhamel: Girl Talk

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I lost my Ronnie when I was only 58.  58!  Can you imagine?  I was so young then, but I wasn’t interested in anyone else.  I often fantasized that Ronnie died (I know, terrible!) but then when he really did die (heart) I missed him so much.  About a year later, a man tried to touch me at a party (a retirement party for Lulu’s husband Ralph).  I slapped him and went home crying before they even served the cake.  I spent a decade crying.  I didn’t even touch myself, if you know what I mean.  My daughter gave me this—I don’t know what it’s called—a dildo maybe?  It was purple, and it scared me to death!  But then, when I was 68, I met Herbert (at the community center—I was volunteering and he came in asking if there were any regular card games).  I don’t know why I went out with him— perhaps because he seemed very gentle.  After our date (Giorgio’s—I had the flounder, a little dry, but OK, and very nice bread) he asked me back to his condo (Sea Towers, eighth floor, ocean view, very neat) to watch a movie (Turner Classics).  Then, after an hour or so, he told me he had a second TV in his bedroom and asked me to lie down with him there.  I said, “Are you crazy?  This is our first date…” and he said, “But I have prostate problems.  Really, all I want to do is lie down and hold you.”  Well, I was hooked.  We’ve been together for over ten years.  No sex!  He just kisses me (no tongue even) and rubs my back.  His doctor wanted to give him Viagra, but I told him, “Herbert, you get those pills and it’s all over.”  He’s not interested, really, either.  Sometimes we stay up all night listening to records (he still has a stereo that works) and holding hands. It’s incredible.  I feel like a schoolgirl again.

from Ka-Ching! (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009)

***
Denise Duhamel’s most recent books of poetry include Ka-ching!, Two and Two (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009 and 2005) and Mille et Un Sentiments, a limited edition chapbook (Firewheel Editions, 2005),  Queen for a Day (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001) and The Star Spangled Banner (Southern Illinois University Press,1999).  Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative Poetry (an anthology which Duhamel edited with Maureen Seaton and David Trinidad) was published in 2006 from Soft Skull Press.  A winner of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, she is a professor at Florida International University in Miami.

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