January 19, 2020

Jen Lambert

ONE BIG, EMPTY ROOM

When we get the results, my dad texts me.
He says we should wait to tell her.
He says, let her have one more good Christmas,
which is to say, let him have one more good Christmas,
which is to say he’s afraid.

When we do tell her, we do it over the phone.
Our voices, simple vibrations
we throw back and forth to each other,
carry her disease across state lines,
my sister’s ear to my ear to my father’s ear
to my mother’s mouth, wailing.

My daughters visit her during the week.
They say she likes to tell stories of when I was young.
They’re stories I don’t remember, and I wonder
if she’s imagining them. I wonder
if I am disappearing with her.

She cried when I told her that I was pregnant,
that I wouldn’t be going to law school.
Don’t do it, she sobbed into the phone,
you’ll forget yourself and you’ll never find your way back.

Now she cries
when she can’t remember the word for store. She says
that place you go to buy things and we know what she means.
She cries because the dying parts in her brain
make her believe that her husband is having an affair,
that the neighbor is feeding her dog
chicken bones through the fence,
that someone has stolen the lawn mower.

My mother points to an apple and says phone.

The last time I spoke to her, she said I’m not ready.
She said I don’t want to leave, and when I think
of a life without my mother, it is one big, empty room.

My daughters used to play telephone with soup cans,
a long length of string stretched
down the stairs, through the kitchen, over the back of the couch.

Can you hear me? they would yell, tin rims
pressed tight against their ears. Are you there?

She doesn’t remember my phone number anymore,
and when I call her, I want to ask the woman who answers,
Can you put my mom on please?

Her voice always sounds so far away.
The string between us stretched close to snapping.

Put the phone closer to your mouth, Mom, I’ll say.
Hello? she’ll say. Who is this? Are you there?
Are you there?

from Poets Respond
January 19, 2020

__________

Jen Lambert: “My family just recently learned of my mother’s diagnosis of degenerative brain disease. It has been a difficult month as we learn how to adapt with patience and compassion to her diminishing ability. She is often not herself, and just this week I watched the new Aaron Hernandez documentary, Killer Inside, that highlights the NFL player’s erratic and dangerous behavior, suicide, and posthumous diagnosis of the worst case of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) ever seen in a person so young. While Hernandez’s brain disease was ultimately avoidable, it still broke my heart to see how he struggled with the effects: paranoia, anxiety, and impulse control—some of the same struggles my own mother is experiencing. I feel fortunate that we know what is happening with my mother’s brain disease (CTE can only be diagnosed after death), but it doesn’t make the slow loss of the person we knew her to be any easier. Watching the documentary pushed me to start writing through it now.”

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April 28, 2021

Aryk Greenawalt

AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY (LOVE, LOVE, LOVE)

I. Lobby of the American Museum of Natural History, Manhattan, NYC

On the phone, my mother tells me it is normal to forget everyone I have ever loved. She tells me it is normal to forget I loved them. It is normal to be nine years old, surrounded by red-eyed girls at our very first sleepaway camp, staring into the night while they cried and imagining my mouth as a fist. My mother doesn’t know I keep my bully’s mother’s Facebook on my feed, doesn’t know that when I told my first boyfriend I missed him, I had my fingers crossed. My mother thinks there is a heart in me yet.

I was four when I decided to be a paleontologist, not yet in school, carcharodontosaurus easier on my teeth than my middle name. I sounded out the names. In dreams I was in Nevada or California, working sites in the desert, uncovering trilobites and teeth the size of my arm. My father took me into Manhattan every Christmas Eve, sat on the bench beneath the brachiosaurus while I traced its spine in the air, its smallest vertebra larger than my head. The holiday crowd parted around me. My father followed me from room to room and waited on benches designed for bored parents, but I knew them all—sauropods, theropods—and I could identify skeletons without reading the plaques. 

 

II. Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, Fourth Floor

I have forgotten everyone I’ve ever loved. Sediment on riverbeds. Stone and ash. Sweep the mud over my old middle school, the girls in my carpool, the freshman who texted i love u while I was on holiday. New York grinned with plesiosaur teeth. Here, in the American Museum of Natural History, when I look behind me at the teeth and thumbs of people whose numbers I deleted, who I watched walk away and who I walked away from, I see the space where a heart would go. What can I do with all these scattered parts? Drop them behind me like footprints. Make them fossils. Put something beautiful here, and I will piece it together. I will call them each by name. I will give them a name that isn’t theirs and call it into the night. No one remains to tell me I am wrong, to put salt in my eyes and call it love. If I am crying, you are walking away. If you are crying, I am walking away. But the bones stay. Give them distance. Make them fossils. I have never known a love I could hold while it was alive. 

Here, on the archivists’ table, we have human beings reduced to their parts: vertebrae, mandibles, phalanges. Give me the names before I forget altogether; give me a placard, and I will classify them. This is not my history, but I am trying to piece it together: the people who touched me, who wrote their names in yearbooks, whose eyes and hair merge into high school crowds and cinema exoduses; the ribs like crooked evergreens, knees shifting in my hands, my hands in the heart cavity, feeling for something to hold onto.

What’s left of everyone I have ever known could fit in the palm of my hand. I could fill a museum with the people I have split clean through with my chisel and brush. I could fill the halls with textured sweaters, raincoats, the bridges of noses. I invent the details. I can only be trusted to love when no one needs me to love them. 

 

Interlude: Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals

In a ditch in the woods behind my house, we found a skull: no blood, viscera shriveled on bone. The serrated hollow of its nose, its antlers detached cleanly on the ground. My brother cried the long hike home. I said, Its ribs, its ribs. Maybe I was the only one who saw them. The next time we went into the woods, it was gone. All the while I had been folding myself up to give it myself as a heart. I don’t remember a point in my history where I could say I believed in love, but, looking at the space where there had been a skeleton, I thought I knew.

My brother is the only person who stayed when he could have left, even when I held him down for seven years, thumb and forefinger griping muscle. How can I write this poem without making myself heartless? My bloods say, you are cruel. My bones say you have a claw like a velociraptor, always raised, and you drag it down the face of everyone bold enough to call you theirs. Say, you are bones in the ground. You are bones rising out of the ground. 

You are bones, and I am walking away. 

 

III. Hall of Ornithischian Dinosaurs, Fourth Floor

In 2017, a study moves the T-Rex to a new branch of the dinosaur family tree: ornithoscelida, bird-limbed. I imagine paleontologists disassembling him, carrying him in carts to the Hall of Ornithischian Dinosaurs, the glass case left empty behind him, footprints in the sand, claws scraping tile. If he was an ancestor of birds then he is still with us. Goodbye, Meryl Streep, your voice tracing genealogies in a room dark and ridged as the Great Blue above the Hall of Ocean Life. Goodbye Gavin on the bench beside me, our father in the back, his lips moving with the words, the light on our hands. I thought I knew everything. I thought when I moved to a place that did not know the bones and blood of me, I could excavate a new me, pull it from the earth and brush the dust away. I thought I could be someone who did not leave. Strip me of my half a century left; make me bones in the ground; trap my footprints in sediment and say you knew I would come back.

from Rattle #71, Spring 2021
Tribute to Neurodiversity

__________

Aryk Greenawalt: “My surreal approach to poetry comes directly from my worldview as a nonbinary autistic person (I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome but choose the label “autistic” to show solidarity with all my siblings on the autism spectrum, and to show that there is no hierarchy of value in autistic people, because we all have innate value). The world is indecipherable, so I make my own riddles and unravel them. People are indecipherable, so I create my own. The world slides around me like shower water, so I slide around it back. I write around it. I make crevasses and write in them. I write it into a world in which I have the control, in which I make the rules, where the world and I are perfectly understood by each other. I pursue amorphism: I eradicate the difference between the Thing and that which is outside the Thing. I tell the world: two can play this game, and I show it the playing field.”

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September 2, 2020

James Davis May

WHICH DO YOU VALUE MORE?

I bought my daughter a Venus flytrap for five dollars
at the orchid nursery in Florida City, where the orchids
hang from the ceiling and crowd the shelves, striking 
as the paper lanterns that float like jellyfish in the skies of Chiang Mai. 
Reds and oranges, violets and pinks—extravagance 
is the word, as if nature, tired of the dreary camouflage it designed

for dust-grey mourning doves and brown toads, said, 
This next round is just for me. Some art is indulgent, 
and that’s why it’s good. Compared to those
pastel and neon flowers, the stunted flytrap looked as though
one of last year’s flowers died in a pot that hadn’t yet received
a new flower, so some strange grass with teeth took advantage of the vacancy 

and, unassumingly, set up shop. But it’s what she wanted,
and on the ride home she told me how Venus flytraps 
don’t just eat flies, they chomp down on raw hamburger, too!
That’s what the book she read and made her fall in love
with the plant before she ever saw one told her,
and I knew about the hamburger, though I didn’t tell her,

because when I was a boy, I read the same book 
and also convinced my parents to buy me a flytrap,
and I even successfully lobbied for the raw hamburger, 
which I took to my room and dropped into the dinosaur jaws
I didn’t know people thought it looked like labia, and watched 
as the burger fell out—it was like feeding a nearly invalid grandfather

who doesn’t want to eat, when really what I expected
was the velocity of an alligator’s ravenous snap.
Better to have the world disappoint her than her father,
I thought. And when we got her plant home and put it
on the table and picked out a little raw meat, I was surprised
that it did close, not as fast as a gator’s mouth, but fast,

automatically, sort of like the way her hand closed
around her mother’s right after birth, an instinctual grasping
that fascinates us because it seems like will, it seems like love,
and maybe it is, but it’s not conscious of itself. And who says
love has to be conscious of itself? Which do you value more:
planned gestures like roses and chocolate or visceral action, 

your lover shielding you with his or her body
when you both mistake the transformer blowing up
for a bomb—a move that says I’ll die for you, darling,
without even thinking about it? We hold onto what we love 
the way almost-falling people hold onto railings. 
I’ll take the grasping every time. It’s what my body meant 

when I held onto my wife as I cried and cried and didn’t know why—
well, I knew I was depressed, but the pain had no source. 
I felt like a poorly shot bear in those awful minutes after the bullet,
how it doesn’t know where the threat came from and thinks,
maybe, that the trees did it, or the ground, but it still looks
for something to hide from so that thing doesn’t continue to kill it. 

I held onto her and cried until we were kissing
and then making love. Did things get better after that?
A little, and then they got worse, and then better, and then worse, 
and then better, and then worse, but that’s life, right?
The point is that this time the plant took the food 
because sometimes the world doesn’t disappoint us.

from Rattle #68, Summer 2020

__________

James Davis May: “When I played hockey as a kid, my friends and I would sometimes announce that we were certain NHL greats before scrimmaging. ‘I’m Lemieux,’ someone would say, and someone would shout, ‘I call Robitaille,’ and another would shout, ‘Coffey!’ Of course, we knew we weren’t actually these players; the thinking was, I guess, that we were somehow calling on their spirits to help us. Then as we played, we would mimic those players, trying to shoot, stickhandle, and skate in their style. My theory is that poets do something similar, that almost every poem has a hero/heroine poet behind it, a Dante guiding us through the process. It’s pretty clear my hero for this poem is David Kirby, whose braided poems just stun me. Inevitably, when I finish a Kirby poem—a poem like, say, ‘More than This,’ which appeared in this magazine, I ask myself, ‘How does he do that?’ I explored that question by writing this poem, and it’s worth noting that after finishing the first draft I stood up and threw my back out.” (web)

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November 23, 2020

Laurie Uttich

TO MY STUDENT WITH THE DIME-SIZED BRUISES ON THE BACK OF HER ARMS WHO’S STILL ON HER CELLPHONE

Oh honey, you can text him, you can like his meme, you can 
follow him on Twitter and to Target, you can ride shotgun, hold 
his anger on your lap, pet his pride, be his ride or die. You can 
wear those jeans he likes. You can discover Victoria’s 
secret, buy a bra with a mind of its own. You can 
recite I’m sorry like it’s a Bible verse and Snapchat the shit out 

of those purple roses he bought you at Publix. You can try 
every one of Cosmo’s 30 Ways to Give an Ultimate Blowjob
You can remember the name of his mother, his best friend 
in 2nd grade, the lunchroom lady who gave him extra 
chicken strips on Tuesdays. You can grow out your bangs, toss 
your hometown over your shoulder, sleep facing north 
with your cheek in his back. 
You can strip yourself for parts.        But, baby, 

it still won’t be enough. You can love him, but you can’t pull 
his story out of the dark and slide your arms into it. You can’t 
wash it and lay it flat in the sun to soften. You can’t 
hold his face in both of your palms and watch tomorrow 
bloom from the sheer wanting and waiting of it. It doesn’t 
matter if his daddy talked with his hands        or his bloodline 
is marinated in booze        or his mama loved his brother best. 
You can’t fix what somebody else broke. 

So, girl, put down your phone and pick up 
your pen. Take a piece of the dark and put it on a page. 
Sylvia Plath waits to wash your feet. And look, 
Virginia Woolf has built you another room and painted 
it pink. There’s a place for you at the table. Sit next to me; 
I got here late.        Oh, baby, don’t you feel it? You were knit 
for wonder in your mother’s womb. 
You were born for the driver’s seat.

from Rattle #69, Fall 2020
Tribute to Service Workers

__________

Laurie Uttich: “At fifteen, I started what would be a ten-plus-year ‘career’ in the service industry. I’ve been a florist assistant, a server, a cocktail waitress, a bartender, a catering assistant, a donut shop worker, a ‘bar cart girl’ at a golf course, and other jobs. I typically worked one or two jobs regularly and then picked up a third when I needed more money. After getting my first ‘real’ job as a copywriter, I continued to work at various service jobs to pay off my student loans (and cover the rent). I don’t know who I’d be without spending so much time under the scrutiny of men (and sometimes women) who first tried to decide if I was attractive enough to hire … and then, later, by men who were customers and often intoxicated. I think about that girl back then and when I imagine my younger self behind a bar or squeezing between two tables balancing a tray, I see myself so clearly as prey, my face frozen into a smile. I suppose the easy response is that being a part of these environments made me a feminist poet, but that’s oversimplifying it. I was always an observer, but being in a situation where it feels as if anything could happen—and you’re supposed to be friendly right up until the second it turns into something else, and who knows when that will be?—shapes how I view situations and how I address them in my work. In prose, I’m always couching reflections—‘not all men’ and that sort of thing. In poems, I just swim in the emotion of the moment and I don’t worry about any global conclusions a reader might make.” (web)

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February 14, 2021

Rattle is proud to announce the winner of the 2020 Rattle Poetry Prize Readers’ Choice Award:

Kitty Carpenter
Salem, Missouri
for
“Farm Sonnet”

 
The 2020 Readers’ Choice Award was selected from among the Rattle Poetry Prize finalists by subscriber vote. Only those with active subscriptions including issue #70 were eligible. “Farm Sonnet” earned 20.2% of the votes and the $5,000 award. Here is what some of those readers had to say about their choice:

Each of the nominated works gifted me poetic warmth. “Farm Sonnet,” though, took the lead for its last two lines which lit on a truth about love.
—Audrey DiPlacido

I like the simple straightforward language with its unforced rhymes and half-rhymes which support the gentle slide from memories of the mother’s strength and mastery sliding inevitably into the final years of her life when dementia led to a reversal in which she calls her daughter “mom.” The final couplet on the impossibility of love mastering the inevitable loss of death provides a fitting conclusion to the poem. It is an outstanding sonnet.
—Mark Grinyer

It is such a small, understated jewel of a piece, wrapped up perfectly by the form which is (as in the best sonnets) both intrinsic and invisible. It probably also for me benefited by being a quiet whisper in the midst of a large number of poems tackling BIG issues. But really, in this year of pandemic and lockdown, the basics of living and loving and losing feel like what we also need to be talking about, and aren’t.
—Melanie Wright

Simple, beautiful images of the glorious past and the sad future. The story of human being life, parent’s strength, devotion to protect their children, pets and farm. Then comes fast, the aging process, weakness and dementia, vacant eyes that breaks our heart. Life passes fast don’t wait to tell the one you love that you love them.
—Houda Bachour

While its conceit may feel less culturally grandiose (with other entries expounding on experiences born out of the pandemic, gender identity, or racism), the subject sings within its form and within its quietness. And even while reading other entries, I couldn’t stop thinking about the final couplet: “The time we have’s still too short to master / love, and then, the hollow that comes after.” Like … WHOA.
—Chelsey Moore

To read “Farm Sonnet” and all of the other finalist poems, pick up a copy of Rattle #70, or wait until the April, when those poems start appearing online at Rattle.com.

Kitty Carpenter was the winner, but this year’s voters were divided, as they always are—each of the remaining poems received between 5% and 16% of the vote, and all of the finalists had their own enthusiastic supporters. Every year, it’s an interesting and informative experience reading the commentary. To provide a taste of that, here is a small sample of what our subscribers said about the other finalists:
 

On Beck Anson’s “I Admit Myself to the Psych Ward in a Pandemic”:

I’m impressed by Anson’s honesty about his mental health struggles, and I like how he places his personal pain within the context of the pandemic. We are, indeed, “all being controlled by something / we can’t touch or see.”
—Chuck Snoad

This poem is unforgettable to me. The way Anson weaves in the descriptive landscape and surroundings and uses this experience to reflect on something larger than himself is spectacular. In this poem, one goes on a journey alongside the poet. I was left contemplating life in a rich, thoughtful way. Amazing!
—Melissa Sussens

 

On Chaun Ballard’s “Survival Is a Matter of Perspective When”:

It is a thriller of a poem, causing me to hold my breath for fear of what might come next—a short story of survival, so cleverly told. I found myself going back to it again and again. Congratulations to all the finalists, but Chaun Ballard captured my heart. It inspires me to take more chances with my own writing.
—Mary Moreno

The way that the poem keeps a steady, slow pace, is self-reflective, self-referencing, and breaks and then returns to form combines to effect a masterful lingering of a moment—the mix of the beauty and pain, threat of violence, misunderstanding and recognition is incredibly strong and powerful. I am typically not a fan of longer poems, but in this one I love how much is gained in the long form, almost seeming to suspend time the meander of thoughts. It reminds me of the mastery of Woolf in capturing stream-of-consciousness, and he achieves this in a poem. I’ve admired Ballard’s work for some time, and feel each time that I read his work how thrilling it is to witness the emergence of a truly great and innovative poet.
—Freya Rohn

 

On Shelly Stewart Cato’s “Mega-”:

After much consideration, I had it narrowed down to this poem and “Army Memorial Service:Tikrit.” It was a struggle to choose because I know the feeling of losing friends in war from Vietnam. I finally decided on “Mega-” because of the specific details that wowed me throughout the poem. Whenever I am writing a poem, I always think, “Details, details, details.” And I have the Ezra Pound quote on my desk: “Make it new.” This poem fit both of my rules perfectly.
—Jimmy Pappas

The visual details drew me in, and the poet-as-tour-guide transports us straight inside the megachurch, but I’m voting for the poem’s sardonic humor. Too few poems provide the laugh at life these times deserve.
—Tom King

 

On Skye Jackson’s “Spoon-Rest Mammies”:

Skye Jackson’s effort was the best of the bunch
I read it thoroughly thrice during one protracted lunch
Spoon-Rest Mammies, a reflection of these times
Social conscience versus prevailing capitalistic grime
Society should know better, but the dollar still prevails
The jingle in the pocket quips the rest can go to hell
One has to make a living, but self sometimes disguised
As inner turmoil boils with principles compromised
But the ending was quite fitting to this cautionary tale
Now, if all offending shops would follow suit as well
—Charles Sartorius

It’s so strong how everyday racism bubbles up like lava through the simple storytelling. The world and the characters and the things people say: The use of what is said and what is left unsaid is so masterful. The poem says to us knowingly, “You know how it goes.” I love that she gets to throw them out in the end.
—Liz Rizzo

 

On Gordon Kippola’s “Army Service: Tikrit”:

This is a brilliant sonnet. The sparseness of the description matches the somberness of the event. The rhyming is so perfectly done, never feeling forced. “Our ghost today is Private First Class Jones” sets the tone immediately. There is real respect shown at the same time as irreverence (“which made his ass go AWOL.”) The last line (The lyrics promise, “God is nigh. They’re wrong.”) is a gut punch.
—Karen Moulton

It stood out as the obvious choice for many reasons: the combination of gallows humor and respectful affection for the dead; the authenticity and maturity of the voice; the authoritative and light-handed use of accessible jargon; the deft execution of the sonnet form, which felt natural and unforced; the irreverent turn at the end. I also chose this poem for what it lacks: self-pity; solipsism; didacticism; melodrama; sentimentality; nationalism; overt, self-conscious patriotism; cliché. None of the deadly sins of light, inspirational, or populist verse are present. It’s masterful.
—Katy Balma

 

On Lance Larsen’s “And Also I Ran”:

My reason is simple: I can’t believe he did it. It’s a story almost impossible to tell—mechanically, emotionally, intellectually. Mr. Larsen’s poem leaves me feeling as if I’ve read a great novel. I am at once enervated and electrified, shattered and recovered and shattered again. And he accomplishes these things in a single type-written page, approximately. Magnificent. Lance Larsen’s “And Also I Ran” is why I am not normal. I refuse to miss this.
—Martin Vest

This poem feels to me, as Rilke said about a good poem, that it was “sprung from necessity.” In every line, I sense the urgency and the authentic rush to get it down. The poem beautifully balances thought, feeling, and imagery. There is also the balance of order and wildness in the language. Surprising turns all the way through. Sorrow and gratitude and a terrible wonder. Anger and relief at fate. This poem is accessible, but the psychological/emotional territory is complex. There is plenty of physical detail to ground the poem as it explores emotional, psychological, and spiritual matters of a tragic incident. There is love.
—Susan Browne

 

On Jessica Lee’s “Greener Pastures”:

Aside from my general personal preference for prose poems which tell a story, it was Ms. Lee’s brave and “no holds barred” effort in showing nature’s commonality and equality between the genders, which have been squeezed and pushed into religious and secular forms deemed “appropriate” by ignorance, which ultimately garnered my vote. Poetry, like life, isn’t always comfortable.
—Joseph Ridgway

I am female and was born in 1938, well before women were anything else but nice partners for well-earning husbands who would be made happy if they received a washing machine for Christmas and opened their legs when required. I am so very much there with Jessica Lee and my whole being understands that poem.
—Rosmarie Epaminondas

 

On Austen Leah Rose’s “Dear Husband”:

From the center of a dark star to the spark between two mirrors, Austen Leah Rose’s poem left me wanting to read it again and again, and each time I discovered something I wanted to know or understand. That’s my favorite kind of poem … one that leaves me with questions, not answers.
—Kate Marsh

As good as the other nine are, this poem is for me unquestionably the best. My response to it was immediate. While the other poems relate experiences, this poem is the experience. It defies paraphrase. It lives in a world created by language. When I turned to the contributors notes, I was pleased but not surprised to see a reference to Rilke. There are many rooms in the mansion that is poetry, and it appears that this poet and I like to hang out in the same room. This is a poem I will enjoy reading again, a poem which will perhaps have me rethinking my own response to Rilke. And it makes wonderful use of white space. White space, like silence, the frame in which a poem exists.
—Meryl Stratford

 

On Alexis Rotella’s “Empty Souls”:

This moving, prose poem, which is interspersed with Japanese or Buddhist inspired lines, beautifully conveys the traumatic overload that we are facing in the world with the pandemic, the climate crisis, racial injustices, and challenges to democracy. The poem conveys how as a society, we have very little room to empathize with others, due to sheer overwhelm. Practicing spirituality, such as Buddhist principles of emptiness, as well as conveying pain through poetic writing, are antidotes to staying connected and healing from trauma.
—Catherine Karnitis

I think it is the best choice because its effective use of the unusual form, the haibun, made it stand out from the other finalists. For a haibun to be successful, the title, prose, and haiku must all work together to create a whole. The haiku must be of exceptional quality, that is, not rely on the prose for meaning, but instead evoke a deep emotional response in the reader. “Empty Souls” meets all my criteria for a quality haibun. I was there, at the airport, on the plane, at the dinner party, and even at the qi gong class. The final haiku is absolutely stunning and leaves the reader with a bittersweet longing for the world to be as it should be, rather than as it is.
—Roberta Beary

 

June 24, 2020

Richard Prins

ARREST THIS POEM

A real poem will arrest its reader.
But it should also achieve things
its writer could get arrested for.
Personally, I have been arrested
for obstructing government authority,
criminal trespass, disorderly conduct,
and resisting arrest. I also want my poems
to resist, obstruct, trespass, and always
act disorderly (but most of the time
they just achieve public urination,
which won’t get you locked up in New York).

The first time I saw Prince
I was seven years old and afraid
of how much I loved him.
I mocked his falsetto
and asked my mother
if he was a boy or a girl
(the same question
posed to me by a child today
who broke from the sprinklers
to ogle my lime green toenails).

I was sitting beside the sprinklers
because my two-year-old loves water
ever since I brought a kiddie pool to Zambia,
and she splashed and drank so much of it
she wound up vomiting in the hospital
(I forgot the garden hose wasn’t potable).

If the word “Zambia” caught you off guard,
please remember that Zambia is a country,
and sixteen million people do live there
like my daughter did, happily, until
a week before Trump’s inauguration.
That’s when she moved to Brooklyn
because we didn’t think customs officers
would let her in the day they woke up
and realized they worked for a bigot.

When she was a baby, I flew often to Zambia.
Once my white seatmate asked if I was going
on safari. No; I was going to see my daughter.
“Oh,” her lips curled. “So she’s a volunteer?”
I was 28 years old then, hardly old enough
to have spawned a voluntourist. But truth
is just a maze I built myself to dwell in
with hedges trimmed short so strangers
can peer in, or leap out if they don’t like it.

Questions are less threatening
when they come from children.
Grown-ass Brooklynites
see my daughter’s skin
and ask if she’s adopted,
see her mother’s skin
and ask if she’s the nanny.
They rarely see us together
because we are not together,
so our little girl
shuttles between worlds,
her existence interrogated
by the curious, idle people
who never run out of ways
to let you know you don’t belong.

My last name is Prins, so I used to joke
I would name my first-born “The Artist
Formerly Known As” (tAFKa for short;
who wouldn’t want to rhyme with Kafka?).
I used to hold her in my arms and sing
medleys of Prince to lull her asleep
underneath a lemon tree in Lusaka.
I just can’t believe / all the things people say
Am I black or white / am I straight or gay?
Prince expanded my narrow sense
of life’s possibilities, and I hope
that same resplendent groove
will burst all the boxes and binaries
the universe may thrust on my daughter.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe
144,000 folks are anointed
to rule beside Christ in the afterworld;
Prince earns my vote to join that little flock
(though I’m sure he’ll get disgruntled
by celestial hierarchies and scrawl
the word “sheep” across his cheek).

Tonight, a Prince-themed roller disco
takes place beside the sprinklers,
where the undrained water lurks,
lashed by purple strobing lights.
I’m sipping a flask outside the rink
in my purplest dashiki, afraid to go in
because I came swaddled in self-pity
and the kind of unsexy lonesomeness
Prince tried to expunge from the earth.
I can’t summon the courage
to join the free beautiful people
and rent a damn pair of skates
even though I thought nothing
of obliging three police officers
to drag me out of Trump Tower
with plastic handcuffs pinning
wrists behind my back, a grin
spreading mirth across my face.
When they placed me under arrest,
I didn’t wish to walk beside them,
so I decided to channel my daughter:
if it’s time to leave the sprinklers,
she’ll stage a sit-in, limp as a fish.
Shoulders vanish inside her blades,
forcing me to lift and carry her away
just like the cops carried me away.
I have committed more poetry
putting my body on the line
than regurgitating my mind.

After Charlottesville, I took my toddler
to march against our Nazi-Coddler-
in-Chief. A puppet wore a Trump mask
and wielded a goofy, bloodstained axe.
The mingling protesters adored
my baby, who snuck up and roared
at Trump while we booed and hissed.
The puppet blew us a smarmy kiss.
But soon concern was sprawling
across the face of my daughter,
who will race to pat the shoulder
of any playmate she sees bawling.
Now she wished to console
this papier-mâché ghoul
getting bullied by Rise & Resist
and our rowdy troupe of activists.

“Daddy, I wanna hug the puppet!”
But that wouldn’t be good optics
with all the cameras flashing
and the world around us crashing
thanks to Trump’s unslakable thirst
for blood, attention, whichever comes first.
Maybe he needed more hugs as a youth,
and my baby unveiled an indelible truth
that good and evil are just binaries,
which need to be deconstructed.
But the world’s on fire, so fuck it—
I’m with the shrieking canaries.
I whisked her away like she was under arrest
even though pride inflated my chest
for my empathic little girl
growing up in a nasty world
that has already displaced her
and will continue to mistake her
for something simple, and slight.
May she teach me how to fight.

from Rattle #67, Spring 2020

__________

Richard Prins: “In January 2017, two events radically changed my life: my daughter arrived in New York, and Donald Trump arrived in the White House. The spare time that I had previously devoted to poetry was now spent at playgrounds and protests. My solution was writing this poem about taking my baby to a protest. I considered it a remarkable feat of multitasking. I’ve been arrested several times since then at other Trump properties and the United States Senate. Civil disobedience is a bold, reckless, floppy, disruptive dance. Ideally, it’s also backed up by meticulous planning, theory, conviction, and community support. In other words, just about everything I could ask for in a poem.” (web)

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June 24, 2019

Jim Gustafson

SHARDS, STORMS, SMOKE, AND SPROUTS

My asshole son-in-law is in prison now.
He beat my daughter almost to death
on a Tuesday night in July. The sheriffs crashed in
through the slider. The hurricane glass shattered
into shards. They saved her from the fucker’s hammer.
The next day, I swept up the glass, before a thunder
storm moved in and scared my dog. She didn’t leave
my side, stuck to me. She thinks I am safe.
My dog’s beside the point. Guilt does not spread; stays
in clots, rises up in the thunderstorms to scare my dog.
While I swept the glass, I thought about my dad
who died years ago, a week before Christmas.
I never heard him call me “Pal” again. His voice,
stuccoed in old smoke, whispered last in the quiet
that comes after ashes are tossed away at sea.
His words came seasoned with scotch and tobacco.
His shirt pocket always held a half empty pack
of Kents, white with late-night-blue letters
and a small gold crown, a hint at something regal.
So much of this is beside the point, misplaced
like my daughter’s Frangipani Mother’s Day gift.
She was broke, so she snipped a single branch
from her neighbor’s yard, tied a pink bow around it,
and gave it to her mother. I stuck it deep down
in a random spot in the garden’s ground and thought
about the impossibility of second comings.

Roots cut their way through in fresh soil—
that is to say, soft dirt mixed with garbage
left to compost in the heat and rain.
Rain came again last night, this time in spurts
rumbling between the silences like Cheyne-
Stokes breath, when all things stop
the way my mother’s stopped when she was dying.
Her eyes had stared down her final year or so.
They, her eyes I mean, were stuck in places
I had never been. She smiled at what she saw,
sang German songs. I didn’t know she knew
German. I didn’t understand any-
thing, then or now, especially now.

After the rain, I went to the garden
to look at the stick I stuck in the ground.
I cried because it had a single bloom,
white, pink soft, damp from fresh rain.

There are still tiny specs of glass
scattered around the slider where my daughter
used to live. You can see them when the sun hits
just right. They glow in a bright white light.
I have tried to clean them up. I will try
some more. I suspect they may never go away.

from Rattle #63, Spring 2019

__________

Jim Gustafson: “In 1966, I heard John Logan’s ‘Three Moves’ recited in a college class. That moment changed my view of poetry, the world, and myself. Since then I have written in search of understanding and shared my words in search of understanders.” (web)

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