February 2017

Written in Albuquerque (Terrace SE), July 2005.  The fire in my backyard mentioned in “Against the Drone” left innumerable bits of glass from the trash dump that used to be there.  As much as I took out, there always seemed to be more.  Published in my books If I Could Be the Stone and Wings of the Gray Moon.

Broken Glass

 

My back lot

is a purity

of dead voracious sun

and sidelong glass sliver

and much of the glass

refinedly pounded into

sugary uncutting cubes.

 

I’m selecting this

atom by atom

slice by slice

for a plastic bag

and I hear the city workers

laying pipe a block up

jeering on their lunchhour

in shadow of hedge

and young mimosa

across the front street, one

keeping his hardhat on

 

and when a tall

college girl passes

dressed for July

they try not to be stereotypes

and only turn their eyes

and whisper evaluations

once her back’s to them.

 

I can’t see any of this

from where I am.

I’m not hiding

but hidden.

My lowered flesh

sows the ground

with salt.

Written in Albuquerque (Terrace SE), February 2005:  for Jones Wright Pegram, my maternal grandfather, and spoken in my mother’s voice.  Several details are fictionalized:  she trained as a psychologist, not a medical doctor, for instance, and I don’t know for certain that Jones was ever pastor of a church;  but this is mostly an accurate depiction of their relationship.  Published in my books If I Could Be the Stone and Wings of the Gray Moon, and in the local zine Central Avenue.

An Abraham

 

We are a big enough family

to do most things, except become smaller.

The old man in this bed swordfighting the air,

backing off from its assault,

has been various smooth and harsh things to many of us

and now is various things inside,

something about the kidneys giving way,

holes melted in the stomach by a lifespan’s sour mind.

 

He wakes panting and the eyes wheeling wall to wall

and croaks dreams:  he’s driving

up to a red light he knows means stop

for everyone but him, the cars ahead

like a clotted passing train, his shoe on the gas.

He’s a bird looking a mile down into streets like a machine,

city streets they must be (the man’s never seen the city),

some crazy-stacked overpass maze, but then oh!

he’s a man not a bird, and that wakes him.

 

I am his eldest daughter,

which hasn’t been good for anyone.

His church was the kind where only the walls are nude,

the pewbacks level as farmer’s rows

or his back, marching after the team, his

back to the bed, the last pulpit.

I wanted curves and dark cups, bewilderments of hillsides.

I guessed the plainness of things was fooling.

I had fox’s nose and ears.

 

A good farmer has nothing for a fox but a gun.

There was enough father in him that he broke his on his knee

and didn’t reload.  Once it sank in

that God meant a fictitious nuisance to me,

that I would only lay my faith in what I could rub myself against,

the further steps were gentler:  med school

in the fellowship of niggers (at least a doctor

you could avoid calling Mister), my flight

to the perverse Yankee states,

my children doomed to be smaller than their cousins.

 

I don’t know why I’m sitting here

unless to honor the way he sat and never spoke

well or ill of me, in the uncomprehending rocker

and the Bible at his eyes.

                                                A mere thing to give

but in this bed years ago he must’ve given mere things to my mother

from his lean fierce shanks to start the multitude of us,

an Abraham.

                          And this was his love,

that bare no-comment, and now these hurtling dreams,

his breaths feinting at him and

closing in, closing in.

Written in Albuquerque (Terrace SE), November 2004.  Published in my books If I Could Be the Stone and Wings of the Gray Moon.

Against the Drone

 

Outside the laundromat

the hair blows over my eye,

thinner than the air’s rivers.

 

Inside, the drunk in the brittle black wardrobe

who looks like he ought to go into the washer whole

finishes a giant sack of junk food

then starts asking people for money.

Me he calls brother-man

or that’s my guess,

my detective work on the warped syllables.

 

“My team came in!”

yells the beard in the cushioned vest

as quarters jackpot out of the change machine.

But it wasn’t only a gag:  “Denver!

Denver’s kickin’ their ass!” he announces to the room.

The drunk’s pard, shiner covering a stab scab,

comes up and highfives the beard.

They tell each other “Denver!” a couple times.

 

I wouldn’t be here

except the laundry room at my buildings caught fire

last month.  The sign on the door says TEMPORARY CLOSED.

It was the second fire in one week.

The first took out my back fence

and now our yard’s twice as big.

I stood across the street squeezing the popcorning cat in my arms,

wearing dumb indoor clothes.

 

The firemen weren’t in much of a rush either time.

All in a day’s work

when the flames take more of the world,

 

brother-man.

Written in Albuquerque (Terrace SE), August 2004:  addressed to Leora Byrne.  Published in my books If I Could Be the Stone and Wings of the Gray Moon, and in the journal Arsenic Lobster.

The Foothills

 

Your house is someone else’s

you write:

the house we strangely bought:

 

and you’re where you always should’ve been,

up in the foothills

with your own income bracket,

not playing out your gentle life

in this creeping slum.

 

Your house is someone else’s

and that will assist me

whenever I pause still skittish on that corner

seven years after our car wreck

and can see it down the block.

The mush I made of us

might still attack me

but fainter, now that I know.

 

The last time your house was someone else’s

it seemed too small to contain such air and freedom.

We dickered only lightly,

being sure.

 

Why would I want you to go on living there

anyway, among the aftershocks

of horror and defeat?

They could never drown out

how beautiful we were.

 

Me, I’m doing well,

I’ve got more than my half of the rent for this month.

It’s been forever

since I went to the foothills.

Yesterday, on the way to a nonbinary and gender nonconforming art event (where I got to do a bit of art modeling for the first time in 15 years), I had the urge to make an attempt (not my first) to clarify my gender identity and general thoughts on gender/sex in (I hope) simple, direct prose. Later in this post I’ll share a new poem and talk about some others that deal with being transgender, and how they do and don’t communicate identity.

The most descriptive single word for my gender is “nonbinary.” Before I start unpacking that term, l should clarify that I’m speaking of gender as distinct from physiological sex. (The Genderbread Person is still my favorite breakdown of the distinctions between gender identity, gender expression and biological sex.)

Those who’ve read Courting Hunger will know what reproductive function I’ve played. Sex can be divided into a binary of “maleness” and “femaleness,” but that doesn’t mean we’re all ones or zeroes (intersex people excepted, or forgotten, or denied). It means we’re each composed of both ones and zeroes. Most of us are either a lot of ones and a few zeroes or a lot of zeros and a few ones, but to be something of both is the norm. Most of us don’t know exactly what our individual proportions are. We have not, perhaps, tested our chromosomes or hormone levels. 

And that ratio of zeroes and ones changes throughout our lives. I have to wonder, does a person really have the same sex before, during and after so dramatic a change as puberty? Is the male/female binary really the most meaningful way to categorize sex? Are the deliberate ways we moderate our sexes less real than the automatic ones? I have taken hormones and had surgery that altered my sexual characteristics because I’m transgender. Others undertake those actions for a variety of reasons—menopause, fertility, sterility, virility, cancer. Does the motivation make the change less meaningful to the person living through it?

However we divide it, physiological sex isn’t simple, and neither is gender, with its additional complications of social and personal definition. When I say I’m nonbinary, I mean that I reject the notion that anyone’s maleness and femaleness has to define who they are—at least, no more than the many subsets of human physiology by which no one defines their identity—and that I will not passively allow socially defined and enforced gender to determine who I am or how I define others. I also mean I am not a boy or a girl, a woman or a man, a he or a she. 

My transgender-related poems tend to focus on specific moments rather than broader questions of identity, and I suspect that might make my gender identity unclear to those who know it only through my poetry.

The only poem in god-chaser that deals with being transgender is “in transit,” which tells the story of my quest for testosterone 20 years ago. It is explicitly nonbinary—”I just couldn’t find the none-of-the-above box under ‘sex'”—though actually at that time I thought that not being a woman meant being a man (a temporary mistake, like the brief period during adolescence when I tried to be a girl). I added that line to the poem because Bob suggested it ought to be clearer what my present conception of my gender is, and accomplishing that without disrupting the immediacy of the poem was more important to me than historical precision. 

Courting Hunger includes several transgender-related poems. “Before I heard of transgender” describes how at age 4, the gender identity declarations of my fellow toddlers prompted me to consider my own gender and to conclude that I wasn’t a boy or a girl, though I also knew what others would say I was, and how I tried to find a way to express that. “Compassion,” “Rites of Passage,” “Original Cum” and “Pinocchio” describe experiences around the time I was taking testosterone. I worry that the lines in “Pinocchio”—”Was that the night I knew / I didn’t want to be a real boy?”—might confuse readers, but I hope it’s clear that “real boy” has a narrow contextual meaning. It may not be also clear that the rejection of masculine identity was in addition to, not instead of, the earlier rejection of feminine identity. I hope, at least, that poems appearing later in the book—”Coming out” and “Don’t say ‘transgender'”—make it clear that “Pinocchio” doesn’t signify the end of my transgender identity. “Don’t say ‘transgender'” gives a conjectural account of my plans for top surgery, based on the sort of hurdles others have had to face, which bears no resemblance to how the actual surgery worked out, which was a good deal better. So far, this new poem is the only one which makes reference to the actual surgery:

The Truth #81

The one who thinks she’s a little girl

confronts me by the sinks

as I close the door on sunlight.

She sets her lips in grim pout, folds slender

arms about her chest, indignant at

the man in the women’s portapotty.

 

Perhaps seeing the ends of mastectomy

scars snaking from beneath the hems

of an orange tank and under my arms,

her mother apologizes for her. But

the one who thinks she’s a little girl

isn’t wrong about me, and I prefer

the honest asshole a child can be.

 

I’m trying to hint at “nonbinary” here, but I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded. “Consumers,” appearing in the chapbook Call Me Crazy, also hints. A recent poem included in my last post, “The Welcoming Committee,” deals broadly with the idea of gender role enforcement.

The books mentioned here are available through the Books page in print and/or as free ebooks.

Written in Albuquerque (Terrace SE), April 2004.  This poem makes more than a small homage to Eliot’s “Prufrock.”  Jessica Posniak (now Jess Lionne) thought “faintkneed wind” was over the top:  but isn’t the whole poem?  Published in my books If I Could Be the Stone and Wings of the Gray Moon, in the local zine Central Avenue and in the journal Skidrow Penthouse.

Goodbye, Mr Parakeet

 

He would sit, his cappuccino gently freezing,

at his peculiar table

on the renovated ocean dock

with its upscaly kioskfaces gazing gray into the sky

and no dead or dying leaves anywhere,

both hands on his aching cane.

 

On specific weekdays

he’d have a lofty but piteous smile for the tourists,

a single smile

arrived at after hours of planning.

 

He wore black in the summer,

white in the winter

and no one was ever troubled for him.

 

He preferred bow ties,

the old sort that begin as one strip

and require to be entangled.

 

Somewhere halfway through his vigil

the tide would change

and left things would get lost

or lost things left,

and his eyes would become realms of snow

or of elmseed, falling voluminous

among faintkneed wind

to a ground swept quiet.

 

When he finally stood

the entire staff would emerge on the pier

and shyly, in unison, whisper

 

“Goodbye, Mr Parakeet.

  Goodbye

                    again.”

Written in Albuquerque (Terrace SE, living with Sari Krosinsky, teaching at UNM and T-VI), December 2003.  This series was conceived the fall I settled with Sari for good, and revised and reordered in 2009.  I should say I don’t believe in an afterlife, so poems that explicitly explored Jeffrey the dead boy’s situation have been eliminated or drastically reduced.  He’s important only as a commentator on this world anyway—to my mind.  Other readers may have other opinions.  The Prologue and Epilogue say—not very straightforwardly—that life-after-death is a device I know nothing about.  “Cars” was published in my book 3 Cycles.

Cars

 

It hardly even happened.

Well, nothing happens unless you notice

and he hardly even did,

for a long time after it was over.

So weird to get lost in this city—

he can cross it in a second now

one end to the other

and he always knows the way—

but he got lost that day all right,

he’d only been here once or twice before,

and just thought without thinking

that the school group’d stay straggled over a couple blocks

the way it had been,

but when he glanced up from the magazine rack

he couldn’t see anybody.

It was a short cut

was the plan,

he was sure he knew which way they’d gone

and could make it there faster.

He was a little proud of himself.

Four big kids jamming the sidewalk

didn’t mean anything necessarily,

or meant various things in various situations.

Something about him wasn’t from here:

this city, this ’hood, this doorway.

A drawing-together took place around him.

He didn’t even dislike it,

automatically laughed

which was what he always did,

and it wasn’t the wrong thing to do,

it wasn’t the right thing or the wrong thing.

When the knife came out

that wasn’t wrong or right either,

just something else to be settled

before he got to go on down the block.

He was almost imagining what terms he’d use

to tell José about all this

and see if he could get José to say “Man,

what kinda magazines were those!”

Then Jeffrey’d say “Just cars, man.

I ain’t shittin’ ya.  Only cars.”

He may’ve even said the word “Cars”

to the paramedics or whoever,

whoever was the last person

to hear his voice.

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), August 2003.  Odd that the first thing I wrote after falling in love with my future spouse would be about a man who rejects the society of other humans:  I guess it’s a farewell to being alone.  In college I had two friends (whose names, alas, I’ve completely forgotten) who talked about their plan to do just this, including the sauna idea—but they were counting on visiting a nearby town for supplies (and the company of Eskimo women) once or twice a year, so the situation isn’t the same.  I love the fact that this was published in Permafrost, the literary mag of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, the closest city of any size to the MacKenzie River Basin in the Northwest Territories.  I owe the spiders snapping in the stove to my Washington girlfriend, Alex Bradley, who had a wood stove.  In addition to Permafrost, published in my books If I Could Be the Stone and Wings of the Gray Moon.

MacKenzie River

 

His door is a pure bald hole in the wall plugged with the piece of the wall sawed out of it.

(We say “door” for open and closed door.  I doubt he thinks of this.)

No conceivable function for a porch, none for a window, an aluminum chimney exists for smoke, or the door for a crisis backdraft.

He wouldn’t want to look around him.  It looks how it looks:  they’re partners not friends, he and the forest, and leave each other be.

 

His quartered logs are pyramided one side of an outhouse;  spiders throw silk cities through them that unstick when the logs are taken, and the spiders snap in the stove.

 

The outhouse isn’t a crapper but a sauna.  All it has inside it are rocks hot water’s poured over in the winter.  He goes naked in the shed, then goes naked into a snowdrift.  No one’s watching.

 

He hunts what he eats.  Those are his slow careful days.

He’s good with a bow or knife but favors his rifle because the pain’s rapid and then lost.  He knows about the pain that isn’t but doesn’t feel any urge to nudge it, pet it on the crown, let alone start it.

 

When did he come up here and lose a life people would understand?

When is more crucial than why:  whys work themselves out over years.  The answer is eleven.

 

Eleven years without moving from these woods without seeing anyone other than the ones with the whisper of death on them also before the shot, flickering buck, bland fox, the pheasant and its fussing.

 

He sleeps sometimes for a week it seems, then wakes a week

and is all a whipped spindle of clanks and risings, of straddled legs and reaching out the back, and at the end of one of those weeks, no sign of anything done

 

because he never adds to his life only repairs it.

 

He owns one book, a scarred old Sears catalog, has the item numbers and prices by heart, the possible colors of the sweaters, the count of parts in the toys.

He can leave it open to one page for days but the pages themselves are unreadable:  he brought the catalog into the sauna once and it wizened and bled.

 

He dreams of walking through a Sears department store, this oblique lingerie model with a clipboard escorting him.  “I’ll take that one, and that” he says and she writes it down.

Then it begins to snow in the showroom, till the store goes blind, and he’s sighting through his gunscope at the cold transforming whiz waiting for a thing, anything, to prowl into it, and feels the hot of his own breath and blood shrink as it leaves him, the blizzard catching it away

and on a startle of breath he awakes.

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), December 2002.  The lines about the imbeciles on the turnpike owe something to an ’80’s George Carlin routine.  Published in my books If I Could Be the Stone and Wings of the Gray Moon.

Slice of Life

 

Twist the toll collector

who is secretly the Emperor of France

consoles his sullen

disinherited brother

by naming battleships after him

& having him over for macaroni Friday nights

where they watch taped hockey games

& Twist tells him tales

of the latest state executions

& all the imbeciles he deals with on the turnpike,

the ones who never have correct change,

the ones who do but make sure he knows

what they’d rather be doing with the money,

the ones who petition him for clemency

not to set fire to their villages

& offer superb art treasures