January 20, 2022

Ekphrastic Challenge, December 2021: Artist’s Choice

 

Nature People #8 by Bruce McClain, pencil drawing of a man's portrait drawing himself from leaves

Image: “Nature People #8” by Bruce McClain. “Last Reach” was written by Wendell Smith for Rattle’s Ekphrastic Challenge, December 2021, and selected as the Artist’s Choice. (PDF / JPG)

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Wendell Smith

LAST REACH

When I was 31 I wrote,
“If I am a leaf upon a bough
may the wind be strong that takes me down
that I may have a long and giddy dance
before I reach the ground.”

Now, that I’m almost 80,
I know, “No if about it,”
and yearn for perfect stillness
in bright Autumn sun
that warms ones core as coals
in a cast iron parlor stove
will warm the body on a January night,
so when I yield to gravity,
I will sail down the air with ease
to berth in a bed of other leaves.

Lately I’ve come to hope that berth
will be against the southern,
weathered wall of an abandoned barn
where I can rest roasty on bright days
protected from the chill winds
that come as the season bends
around the solstice
and one by one like leaves
we lose our friends.

from Ekphrastic Challenge
December 2021, Artist’s Choice

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Comment from the artist, Bruce McClain: “I selected this poem, Last Reach, because it illustrates in word what I render in pencil, the process of life and death. ‘If I am a leaf on a bough,’ ‘and the long and giddy dance before I reach the ground’ capture, in a subtle way, what my art represents, the lessons learned and the wisdom gained through the ups and downs as life unfurls. This illustration is the first in a series of fifty which will appear in my forthcoming book, Elder Leaf.”

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January 19, 2022

Karan Kapoor

CIRCLES

after Bob Hicok

I do not want my mother to die. My mother does not want her mother to die. Her mother does not want her husband to die. Her husband does not want his son to die. His son does not want his daughter to die. His daughter is too young to pronounce death, let alone decipher it. Three days later, when her grandfather will die, she’ll be braiding her doll’s hair. Thirty-six years later, when her father will die, she’ll be looking, with ocean eyes, at her six-year-old daughter braiding the hair of her doll. Three days later, tired of the doll, her daughter will ask her the question she did not ask her mother: where do they go? She won’t know what words to put in her mouth, so she’ll leave her mouth open. She’ll chew on it all night. Nobody wants to go somewhere they can’t return from, do they? But then, who wants to go so far only to return? My father cuts the strings of kites when they’re way up in the sky. The world is full of kites like these.

from Poets Respond
January 19, 2022

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Karan Kapoor: “Bob Hicok’s birthday is today. I write poems because I want to make someone feel the same way Bob’s poems make me feel—full of wonder, beauty, joy and innocence. Each of his poems take me to a place beyond suffering. I imagine it’d be easier for Sisyphus to roll his boulder up and down the hill if there was Tchaikovsky in the background, or I was reading him Bob’s poems. I do not like that we write tribute poems to poets only once they’re dead. Bob Hicok is alive and writing the most surprising poems and deserves to be celebrated every day, but especially today. I’m so glad that he was born. His poems make me want to be a better person.” (web)

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January 18, 2022

Margarita Cruz

ERASUR

At a buffet, a woman once whispered to my father 
this was America he should speak English
as he slipped on a word, traced it with his tongue and teeth. 
He has a stutter. He has a stutter. 
He used to tell me bedtime stories about his life in Mexico before me, 
before I could speak, before I could tell you 
what the difference was when he described himself as living in a rainforest 
and when I said rainforest and before the person next to you
could tell you what they mean when they say rainforest. 
Podría describir para ti la jungla, but I don’t think it would really matter 
—wouldn’t you just skip over the parts you didn’t really understand? 

How will I be understood if I don’t say it in your language. 
This language. Como puedo ser entendido?
Especially if I myself don’t quite understand.
Mi mama knew what to call herself when I didn’t. 
A full word, full label—didn’t give herself a hyphen. 
She’s an American but they still speak to her slowly.
Her parents were not born here 
and she was not conceived in the United States 
and you can see it on her face like you can see it on mine. 
You can see it on the back of her hands from years in the fields 
and the way she says shares instead of chairs 
because she never really formed that hard “ch” sound, that chiding,
that “I learned this as a child 
and now I’m embarrassed when my mom says ‘shild’ instead of child sound,” 
that my mom tries hard to be someone she isn’t when she’s in front of strangers sound 
—speaks slowly to avoid the tripping on her tongue.

I wonder where she got the idea that there were folds in it like an old rug?
I wonder which asshole child of hers became associated with the idea that she 
should already speak this new language to us correctly,
should already have thrown away her first language like I was, 
should have placed her palabras in italics with context 
and only as tags at the end of a sentence to let us know it would be over soon—
should have sounded more like an American. 
Not a Mexican. Not a Mexican American. 

She told me not to become a hyphen, 
for a hyphenated American doesn’t exist, we don’t exist, 
we’re given a hyphen to make space between us and America 
without it we are neither American or maybe we are, but maybe I’ll lose it—
but what am I when I am neither someone from this tierra or that? 
Por que me miras asi? 

I am slowly learning que yo puedo hablar como me quieres—
que mi mama tried to squeeze herself so tightly to fit into a crack in the wall,
that when she bought us fast food it was only ever one color—
and you are what you eat.  
And for a long time, I thought that only reading writing that didn’t belong to me,
that didn’t mention young women like myself, 
that acknowledged mis palabras como una cosa raro, 
or didn’t mention me at all  was the only way that I should write.
Place myself in a cotton field not so that I could pick it like my family did,
but so that I could wear it. 

Let’s talk on the pouring of refined sugar and milk so heavily into my coffee that  
I’ve lost the taste under it, 
my peculiar blend of two different homes, a peculiar blend of two languages.
My upbringing on one language that sounds invasive, 
like the Mexican petunias that grew in my backyard
passed from family member to family member that weren’t actually invasive 
but rather perennial and anyone who’s taken care of flowers
will tell you that perennials can be tamed, like me, 
can be cut down and gotten rid of
but the wild Mexican petunia is known as aggressive and no wonder—
the people who call it aggressive are afraid of it growing amongst their own plants. 
Afraid that one day it will overgrow and kill the roots they planted.  
    They                       want                 to                 erase                 it. 
What happens when we erase something that grows so naturally? 
What happens when I can no longer remember the first words that slipped from my lips? 
What happens when
What happens
What?

from Rattle #74, Winter 2021

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Margarita Cruz: “‘Erasur’ is based off my relationship to the ways in which I feel the hyphen has altered me, has made me pay attention to who I am and who I am not, and the ways in which it clings between both worlds often made me feel as if poetry can narrate the liminal spaces in which people can exist.” (web)

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January 17, 2022

Madeline Cash

SPONGE CAKE

Your mom is birdwatching and you’re thinking about rapists. She points out a woodpecker or something. She use to be a big name in publishing. Now she’s retired. Now she makes sponge cake and points out woodpeckers. The walls are painted eggshell so she’s walking on eggshells as she’s climbing the walls. She has the best landscaper in Connecticut. You wonder if your mom has a rapist. She’d have the best rapist in Connecticut. Her trees are so lush that they’re top-heavy. Their trunks buckle under the weight of their foliage. It’s like they’re suicidal says your mom. The best landscaper in Connecticut bolsters them with structural reinforcements.
 
Your mom asks if you slept on the flight here and you tell her you don’t sleep. You try to shower but your mom’s faucet is in French. It says “chaud” and “froid.” It’s too froid. It isn’t froid enough. You think your mom could use a visit to Froid. She asks where your rapist is now and you say he’s in your pocket. 
 
Your rapist is on Instagram, hanging out with everyone. Everyone is like, so-and-so invited him. He used to be a big name in raping. Now he’s retired. Now he hangs out with so-and-so and this must have been some fluke thing because he’s a really nice guy if you get to know him everyone tells you. The trees are suicidal and it doesn’t matter what language the shower is in, you never feel clean anyway. 
 
You have trouble breathing at night. Your mom asks where your rapist is now and you say he’s in your lungs. You go for a walk on eggshells. Your mom’s landscaper is the best in Connecticut. He waves you over to see where the trees are buckling. He tells you he got into the country in a shipping crate so small he had to dislocate his shoulder to fit inside. You tell him your rapist is on Instagram, hanging out with everyone. He says sometimes life throws a lot at you.
 
Your mom has a hybrid dog. You scratch its belly and pick up its shit. Once it dislocated your mom’s shoulder by pulling too hard on the leash. She could have fit in a shipping crate, you think. The dog cocks its head at you. It tells you that it used to be a person, a person who threw a quarter in a well during a lightning storm and woke up in the body of a hybrid dog in Connecticut. Some fluke thing. You’re like why are you telling me this. He says sometimes life throws a lot at you. You ask what it’s like being a dog and he says it has its days.
 
Your mom is making sponge cake and you’re thinking about rapists. Yours is a really nice guy if you get to know him. Your mom used to work in Paris. Now it’s only Paris in her shower. Now she’s buckling but bolstered with structural reinforcements. Now she’s blanching the basil and deboning the branzino and she’s mastered the sponge cake which is very moist. Don’t pathologize the sponge cake says your mom. Eat up. Life is hard but not as hard as a stale sponge cake. She makes extra for the dog and the landscaper.

from Rattle #74, Winter 2021

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Madeline Cash: “There are very few things I love doing. Of those things, writing has the fewest calories.”

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January 16, 2022

Elizabeth McMunn-Tetangco

TRANSPLANT

I guess the nice way
to think about it is to say

the pig was tissue paper,
packed around the

heart. It’s best to make
it all seem

clean. In the picture, the men pulled

the whole red heart out through a hole
in a green drape: underneath—

what we don’t talk about, the soft hurt tender
pink—and held above—

the heart alone, like glitter stars. Nothing

distasteful. It could be a Valentine, if you
like that. You stole

my heart.

Of course a pig’s not tissue
paper.

Of course we have to
make decisions.

from Poets Respond
January 16, 2022

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Elizabeth McMunn-Tetangco: “I don’t know what it is, but I’ve been really fascinated by the pig heart transplant story this week. It manages to be at once inspiring, terrifying, unsettling, and hopeful all at once, and new information keeps being reported. I think what I wanted to explore here was how complicated the whole issue is—there are so many layers, and I feel like many of these layers clash with our general desire to simplify everything into the most palatable version of itself. I’ve seen several photos included in news reports, but the one that stuck with me was the one with the heart over the drape—outside of either the pig or the recipient—waiting for its next life.”

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January 15, 2022

David Dodd Lee

SUMMER WITH A DUNE BREAKING OVER IT

Salmon, I learned later they were called, the fish
that bump up a river to spawn.
All night long they’d swim in and out of the huge console
that sat like a monument
in our living room in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. I fished
with a handline, looking down through the open top.
Who knows how I knew what to do, or if I’m even remembering
it right. I remember the white of the line cutting a slow path
through the dark, reflective water. I remember the plangent
trill of crickets. Nothing moved.
The hole in our living room floor led to a canyon full of clear water and stars
shining from the center of the earth.
The fish, black-backed and swimming in pairs, would nose my bait,
but never bite, while others, mailed silver and pink,
swam or flew—it wasn’t clear which—through the house,
left trails of bubbles in their wakes.
When I looked outside I could see fish swimming
through the tops of the leafless trees in the lamplit yards,
careening around cars parked for the night and the trunks of the elms
that then lined the streets in that town.

Sometimes I close my eyes
and listen to the wind maul Lake Michigan.
The sand, if you let it, will form a ramp against
your body, the wind driving it over you.
I’m such a small space of time, my body is,
under the crest of a dune …
I still remember the boys.
Their hair drifts in the water and their half-open eyes are beautiful,
the color of the moon, or the wedge of an apple,
or like the light shining
off the curve of a Chinook salmon
coming to the surface ten feet from the boat.
And now spring pokes lime-green shoots through the boys’ ribs,
and the woman moving beneath me
begins to groan like a swing set made out of wood.

There is a town in the south
where as a boy I played in the drive-in that was like a desert
of broken down cars and hot weeds,
steel posts wearing headsets the wind cried through.
Sometimes I’d sit in the field
behind the barbed wire fence and watch X-rated movies
and listen to the car horns and the muffled
words of the actors, indecipherable.

All night long the giant men and women
move their hands over each other
while I sleep. The man combs his massive fingers
through the woman’s hair and they both lie down out of sight.
The woman’s white dress flutters.
It blows down a slope
and settles on top of a flat slow river.
Later a helicopter chops holes in the paper clouds.
All the while the armored fish chase one another
around my bedroom, swimming in and out of the windows,
down the hall and into the kitchen
where they begin to bang against the hanging pots and pans,
threatening to wake up my parents.

While the man unbuttons the woman’s blouse
he watches the clouds
sail through her eyes. She smells his warm breath
that is like the sea blown inland. Later the man dreams he is in bed
with a glass sphere full of snow and a migrating V of plastic geese
only he can hear honking. He looks out the window at a duplicate formation
like an arrow pointing north. It is late spring.
The woman beside him is sleeping in a full-length wedding gown.
Now he remembers
the noisy parade of cars
trailing streamers and cans and huge, hook-lipped fish.

When a Chinook salmon swims through a lake under a full moon
on a summer evening, it is looking for the mouth of its river.
A hundred human children have just been conceived.
A bubble, like a dream, rises to a woman’s lips, and pops.

It’s daylight. The line sags in my hand.
Can anyone tell me what’s really down there?

The horizon looked like smoke
from all the blowing rain, and the chimneys, like dead periscopes,
stood unblinking above the freshly mown lawns.

Once—I must have been about five—I remember
pedaling by a cat. It was dead in the road.
He was singing, or dreaming. His paws were still paws,
soft with pads. I thought death looked lonely.
I thought the cat might get up and walk, like a boy, looking for a warm place to sleep.
At night I moved my feet inside the only still place
I couldn’t see.
I shined the light under the covers. My bed lit up like an aquarium.
It was always a relief, but sometimes I’d have to lie on top of the blankets
with the airborne fish,
who were just coming awake,
the warm currents like the arms of a mother
when she is moving through a dream in which she has carried you home.
Only once there she begins making love to a man
whose face is as smooth and as long as a piece of driftwood,
his arms pinning her legs.
There is laughter coming from the drive-in.
Close-up of a roller skate.
A woman touches an ice cube with her giant finger.

The screen of the drive-in looms over the neighborhood
I lived in whether it does now or not, replaced by a strip-mall,
the woman’s long arms
still drifting like leaves through a field
over the man’s back
(all of it overseen by the priest with the long dreadlocks), groans of love reverberating
through the trunks of the cottonwoods, the moon shining like a flying
fish against the cloak
of an almost navy blue sky.
And I’ve been watching that moon ever since, the way it follows the world,
probing the lilt of the gently blowing drapes,
the way its light pours like paint down the slopes of the dunes,
the way it hangs over the blue lawns surrounding Woods Lake,
where I now live,
a shimmering print reflected on water, soft as a kiss in the dark
of the nearby woods. All of this I can still see from where I sleep—
the double moons, and the fish underneath
(who on occasion I’ve seen cross Oakland Drive),
as well as the bodies they touch,
a couple undressed for a midnight swim. Somebody flashes their headlights,
somebody honks a car horn. The lovers shield their eyes, surprised, and look out at the world.

from Rattle #15, Summer 2001

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David Dodd Lee: “I do whatever it takes to make a buck—pet sit, teach, paint houses, write television criticism and erotica. I am the publisher of Half Moon Bay poetry chapbooks, and associate editor of New Issues Press, for which I get paid zip. I was homeless for two years after receiving an MFA in 1993.”

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January 14, 2022

George Bilgere

CALL OF THE FOX

The summer we rented the cottage in the woods
we would waken in the middle of the night
to the mating call of the foxes, 

which sounds like one of my freshmen
barfing up hot dogs and Wild Turkey
after his first frat party, a sound
that makes you want to puke yourself
out of sympathy or sheer disgust
with the whole situation, 

how the imperatives of desire
drive us into the dark woods,
sick with the incandescent
loneliness of the flesh.

However, after listening for a while, 
my wife remarked
that it was actually kind of funny, 

as if nature, usually so careful 
about beauty, about getting it just right, 
had for once screwed up, 
and created something even
Mary Oliver couldn’t get behind. 

And then we thought, 
well, since we’re up anyway,
and there’s nothing else to do …

Which is why my wife
is my wife.

from Rattle #74, Winter 2021

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George Bilgere: “We had a pretty lousy spring. A disaster of a spring. The season of new life became a time of strange and frightening death. But when summer finally arrived I felt it was time for a change. Maybe it’s a cliché, but I felt it was time for something life-affirming. And for me that’s always been poetry. Like pretty much everyone else my family and I stayed put this summer, and I spent the long weeks and months reading and writing. I realized once again that in difficult times poetry can sustain me. I read Neruda. I read Rilke. I read my dear friend who has passed away, Tony Hoagland. Dorianne Laux and Barbara Crooker. Set against the backdrop of the pandemic, the poems I read burned with a strange new life. Instead of the immensity of the tragedy dwarfing poetry, it infused it with a tremendous new vitality for me. It kept me going.” (web)

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