Violence in Five Acts

for Matthew, without regret or reservation

In the summer, I’d climb up the dying elm with her
slick and pernicious gashes, her plague of elm bugs,
to watch the cottonwood seed cluster and
breathe across the grass. You found me there once,
threw up a lighted strand of Black Cats that went
off at my feet. I nearly fell to my death.

You said “make me some lunch”
and the unjustness was just too much.
You shoved me effortlessly through the
pantry door, my skirt tore to the waist band.
For a skinny kid you sure had a low center of
gravity. Like an old shaolin monk. Like you’d
been patiently weaving a private gamut of landed
licks and meditating to drown out the nay-saying jocks
mumbling on in their neckless turpitude.

I made a break for it then, and cleared the hill on
foot before you caught me up in the green Datsun,
pulled the brake as you threw it in neutral.
We were all so competent driving stick back then.
Maybe that’s the take away. That town that bruised and
bullied the light right out of you gave you this practical gift.
I give up. I gave up then. And you dropped me like
rolled sod over the tailgate and drove me home.
A weird and lonely float in a southwestern gothic parade.

In the yard you turned the hose on me. The cold water
tasted like copper. But then so did the split in my lip.
My hair dripped down my neck and back, my whole
body rose in goose bumps and my shirt was sticking
and bunched across my chest. I cried out truce.
Please, truce. You agreed to stop if I didn’t tell.

My brother, before I could slip through the
front door you had it closed and bolted between us.
Nothing could ever be easy with you I screamed,
sprinted for the side door as you locked the
screen. I boiled over. You pushed your head against the
mesh, your thumbs in your ears, taunting me. I
calmly brained you with a rusted monkey wrench
dad asked us to put away. At that crack, before
the fall, as my short lived and stressful victory
settled like a dying wind around us, I knew I loved you,
staring at me, startled and wide-eyed in wonder
like you were seeing me for the first time.

Holy Rolling

dive under the breakers, bob over the swells

A moment of reverie for the 8-track without which I would never have learned the art of disappearing in close quarters or how to switch from being to listening while the long shadow we cast skittered along the rock walls of the Salt River Canyon. The Tioga listing forward toward Yellowstone or the Mogollon Rim packed stern to bow with children. My father, my captain. My mother, his competent first mate. And man, did they mate. Until the camper could barely contain us. Until the riveted seams buckled and bulged as we clambered over one another for our shot up front between them. The enviable sweet spot, that prie dieu before the chunky altar of the 8-track emerging clunkily with one fat volume knob, one square button that could only bypass multiple tracks at a time. The space race was over and I believed we had clearly won it. Yet we couldn’t skip a dud song without missing a few good ones.

So we memorized whole albums like atlases, studied the geography of each song. We learned to anticipate crescendos and key changes and percussive crashes, any of which might provoke my father’s splayed palm to fall hard on our bare thighs with a sharp crack followed by a hot sting. Divine and warranted, he would roar. He would say, “boy, that’s gonna leave a mark!” as our tender flesh reddened and rose in what we hoped would be a perfectly hand-shaped welt we could show one another like a badge or a medal earned through impossible patience and the extreme discipline of letting our guard down though we knew full well what was coming. We’d scuttle back to the recesses of the cabin where the violence was more predictable and fair. And just like that, and for just a moment in time, that quiet notion that we might be anonymous was briefly dispelled. My family full of rough lovers and rough love being the thing we pass along. Until our own children can’t sit near us without running the risk of being spanked or wrangled, pinched, pink-bellied or having a claw raked through their tangled hair. Until our own children can no better control their own desire to torture what they love a little bit.

A moment of reverie for the 8-track, for the cumbersome case with its austere clasp and the 12 cartridges pushed neatly into their individual slots, which is how I learned to hear music in the order that it was intended. A patience my daughter may never know with her shuffling selection, the ease with which she can track past a lengthy ending or dismiss a tune that no longer pleases her. Even as I anticipate the daunting task of getting a sleeping body, grown too long to carry, out of a car and into a bed, she has a thousand songs nested in her elegant fist. She commands them into position between herself and the darkness of that languid drive’s last leg, rolling out like a slow black ribbon. And I think about my siblings, tucked into our cubbies and cots, the only things saving us from the permanent silence I imagined the Rim was composed of were my father’s heavy breathing and a slender neon bulb above a hand sink that stuttered on reluctantly and couldn’t even work without humming.

Folk Songs from the Pending Apocalypse

Upon our bellies we will go

All the manufactured sound will abate.  All the refrigerator motors and the city bus engines, the ringtones, construction and thumping bass of car stereos, the ceiling fans and the furnaces. It will all come to an unexpected end. The fluorescent bulbs will leave off humming and the insistent grump of every computer fan will fall quiet. The last generator will generate its final irrelevant function off of fumes. We’ll think, at first, we’ve gone deaf. Until we notice birds, fire, wind, footfall and, somewhere in the distance, singing. Forever going forward someone will be singing somewhere out of frame.

Soon after, we’ll begin to gather. Tentatively at first and shy as middle school students at a dance we know we must, but cannot fathom why we must, attend. We will meet in a landscape cobbled from concrete and silence, electric poles, old plastic bags and cell phone towers, in front of buildings we’ve begun to gut for wire and wood (the instinct to recreate will come over us, and though we won’t know what to do with it, we’ll destroy perfectly useful shelter in our haste). The graffiti will glow, hovering above its surface structure, more apparent without the sound of traffic as context. Motionless cars will niggle at our subconscious while objects of comfort: sofas, soup bowls, ergonomic office chairs; these will make us shake our heads in wonder as we tear them apart to fashion a sort of hackneyed tribal aesthetic (before our perfectly good trousers have even begun to wear out).

We will grow taut in the knowledge that it collapsed before it reached its full potential, because the whole of civilization prematurely blew its wad after a spate of over-compensatory pounding. So sorry we wasted time being hungry. So sorry we were ever withholding. On the other side of the preemptive and even beyond the retaliatory, our bodies will become sinewy. Every bone will ache like a tooth. We’ll forget words like “contrail” and “teleprompter.” Words like “toil” and “safety” will seem new. We’ll be miserly with the word “desire” and wasteful with what we call “need.”

Which horrible thoughts will we be confronted by then? Which imaginative tangent we’d successfully kept at bay will arise in us and gift us with our undoing? Or will we distract ourselves, awkwardly discussing the things we used to use to distract us? Will we say, oh, remember how once when we looked at a photograph our eyes searched for ourselves first? And if we weren’t in it, remember how the photo didn’t mean anything to us at all?

Then two of our number will peel off to lie on a bare mattress in a dark room (though perfectly fine linens molder away in the cupboard). Pulled together by some likeness of longing epitomized by the slope of a salty neck, one will say “The work we are doing is good work” and the other won’t be able to help themselves, will inevitably say “be inside me.” Because love will still make us stupid. Though its brutality will be more apparent. Though the luxury of the word will shame us. Though we’ll pronounce it “biological imperative.”

Three For Flinching

every bit of you that is lovely and tender
will go into the fashioning of finite things


Out there among the frozen
rose hips near the duck pond,
you’ve been out there too long,
Open Field. It is nothing but
horizons for you. And, too, the
reluctant first step that will
likely get you killed.

From a distance you thought the
birch leaves were wafers of light while
you dug for something you recognized
in the rubble of someone else’s life. That
perfectly wrought moment at 3:17, a ping
from a dead star or a submarine ping.
Echo back, Radio Transmission. The
desire is still out there somewhere
but the body is fading around it.

Bruised Thigh, it’s a head cold
and an icy drive in. Pay attention.
It seems all
 you ever think about are
the clothes you
 were wearing when you
figured it out, when you realized, at last,
it was make believe.The thumb in the arch
of your foot,
the sinewy skitter up the leg, the
approximate ratio of sighs to fingers on flesh
following the dream in which your mother can
see again
and she’s wearing an emerald dress.

Dia de los Muertos

what heals you, get you to it

I have only ever touched three dead bodies. Each with my index finger tracing the middle proximal bone, past the knuckle, stopping at the end of the capitate of the right hand laid gently over the left. There is something about cold skin that renders the body ageless. I remember that my brother, not even twenty, felt as old as my father at 49. And that poor cadaver in between; she could have been in her sixties, the skin over her ribs peeled neatly back. With her I had to strain so hard to tune out the nervous and brutal chatter of other students. I later laid my hand across my father’s breast bone as well, thumb along the sternum, fingers spread over his ribcage. He was dressed in his temple clothes and they were so white; my hand like a tea stain upon them. I felt my own heart stutter and understood, finally, the futility of a deep longing for a thing that can never, ever be. I wanted to believe it was a brave and loving gesture, but really it’s just so difficult to give and receive love from the dead. Before he had even gone we had already begun the systematic transfer of our affection to the space he occupied in memories and stories. Such as it is with a long illness; you have nothing but the fleetingness of time.

I have a young daughter who explores dead things. She pores over each squirrel and chicken. Sometimes through a scrim of tears, though it happens less and less frequently. In part, she seems coldly eager to understand the lifelessness of a thing that once scampered or preened about. But she’s also taking her first tentative steps to peer into the face of her own inevitable passing. I admire her courage. There is very little space left over in me for reverence, but for her I’m still capable of a private awe. For a week in September I watched her navigate her father’s complicated nature following 24 months of absence. Two years so saturated with longing, I could have wrung out time and made a salty lake of desire in our back yard. When he finally arrived she was exact in her loving gestures. She was precise in her grief when he left. Sometimes, if I’m being honest, I regret how vulnerable I am to her losses. Before her, I too could determine how much I was willing to unravel, how much love I would pour out and at which intervals. Now I round out my days watching her speed down the road with her breakable bones and delicate membranes, my heart somewhere in my throat.



Home, Body: Homeward Bound

reconsider the sweet spot of the thing but come up wanting

During the early summer of 2005, I drove across the country in a caravan of various vehicles, all of which were peopled by my siblings and their children, my mother, and a large black labrador. The majority of us were relocating to the fertile farmlands of eastern Pennsylvania in a bizarre little anti-diaspora that was difficult for my most modern friends to understand.

It was difficult for me to understand. I was awash in that postpartum sea separating me from my pre-baby self. Bobbing farther away from the poems and the pool hall near the bookstore. The heady kisses, the conversations that ran long, the racy autonomy, and the ease. Drifting away from the desert in an easterly fashion, watching scrubby ranch land grow greener, more humid, more fecund, and more foreign. All of my possessions were boxed neatly and had gone with my husband two days before. I carried only a few changes of clothing with me, five CDs in my back pack, a nine month old baby still at the breast, and a disquieting itch in the back of my brain.  By Oklahoma I suspected I was making a big mistake.

I’d chosen those five CDs carefully since space was tight. Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde,” A Velvet Underground anthology, Jonny Cash’s “America IV,” Something Will Oldham-y, maybe “Ease Down the Road,” and Smog’s “A River Ain’t Too Much to Love.” Arguably five of the most perfect albums to play while taking in the lazy hush of the middle american landscape. But nobody would let me listen to them anyhow. Ten minutes into the Velvet Underground anthology, Bethany, who was driving while giving herself a full manicure on top of the steering wheel, said she didn’t think she could take any more of it. Actually, I think she said something like, “Uh,  I don’t think so!” whilst ejecting the disk with a neatly filed fingertip. We were in the lonesomest part of rural America, maybe the border of Kansas or across it and into Missouri, passing field after field of corn broken up occasionally by raggedy little porn shops.  Why so many porn shops, I wondered? Later someone told me that they do a lot of business with truckers on a long haul. That made me sad to know, that disconnect between a human and actual human contact.

After we left Amy in Chicago, I took up driving Kristen’s car with my mom riding shotgun. She couldn’t see very well by then, and she also must have felt accommodating because of the fight we’d had in the motel room that morning after she’d insisted we sleep with the air conditioner on high and the baby and I had woken up with earaches.  This finally left me the run of the stereo. I put on “A River Ain’t Too Much to Love” and let it play straight through. God, what a revelation of an album! The slow rhythms and bottom notes suited the languid hurt in my tense body relaxing, matched the rise and fall of the soft green swells with their dark shadows and bright curves. My mom was quiet and thoughtful and Ohio rolled out around us.  The baby made small and occasional baby sounds but mostly she slept a little fevered sleep. I considered hopefully how every road trip, every marriage, every move, and every single baby turns us into a boomerang, flung so far out from our center we become disoriented and foreign. But in all that frightful spinning an imbalance is created, a wobble that returns us more fully to ourselves. When it ended my mom waited a good five minutes before tentatively asking me “So, was that man talking or was he singing?” but all I could consider was the brilliant promise of that single line “Oh I cantered out here, now I’m galloping back” and the potential in the pacing of musical notes that followed.

Momentum 2

On a road trip with just a change of underwear, some stretch pants and an untuned guitar, she forgets her book on the nightstand and has to borrow her daughter’s toothbrush.

When I totaled my car I had, in my trunk, a large produce box full of pornographic magazines published in the the late eighties and a worn-out flannel night shirt.  The box had been stowed there months before after Eric, who had got it off another cook, and Jovita brought it over to our apartment.  We had dug in full of pervy mischief, running a constant stream of editorial comments about dated hairstyles and props. It was the Fourth of July weekend and Marye Margaret was with us as she always was back then.  She pointed out the vegetable graphics on the cardboard and took to calling the haul “porn on the cob.”  After a day or two we lost interest and I threw it in the trunk of my car next to the torn nightshirt, the origins of which, and how it came to be there, are still a mystery.

Marye Margaret had slipped so thinly into our young marriage I couldn’t have anticipated the ruckus her departure would later cause.  Before we’d known her too long she was already fielding the back porch physics conversations I so dreaded while I hid in my room working on what I naively thought would be my first novel.  I suppose it should have been a red flag that we needed a third person to flesh out our deficiencies. But there it was.  She made me feel important and clever and ate my terrible cooking with a noisy gratitude. She laughed easily and often and she would go with me to see bands.

The afternoon I crashed Marye Margaret was riding shotgun.  She was moving to Madison the next morning and we were speeding down the road in a futile effort to out-pace our pending lonesomeness when I drove head long into the broad side of the old guy’s van following his illegal left turn.  When you watch a wreck like that in slow motion with the sound down there’s a sort of beautiful symmetry informed by physical laws, like a body parting water.  But in real time it was a noisy and frightening mess.  On the curb after the event, after we ascertained that all our parts still moved and spoke with the police, after we begged a call off the kid at the Der Weinersnitchel, we waited for my cousin Billy.  He lived close enough to pick us up, though by then we were complete foreigners to one another.  I could barely ever pull together two things to say to him before we fell into our routine and adamant silence, this boy with whom I’d run dirt roads and even practiced a little at kissing.  He seemed knotted up in a secret rage I couldn’t access and didn’t want to anyhow.  When he came for us he grunted and I climbed quietly into the cab of his pickup, my right leg pressed reassuringly along Marye’s, my face still stinging from the punch of the airbag.  I tried not to think about my ruined car and banged up body.  Tried not to think about how it would appear to the wrecking crew when the only things discovered in the trunk were porn and a torn nightgown. Tried not to cry about my stupid friend stupid leaving my stupid marriage that couldn’t quite gather enough momentum.

Instead, I thought about how Billy had a laminated heat-sensitive photo of a woman wearing lingerie hanging from his rearview mirror and I supposed, as the tow truck dragged my totalled car past, that if it were warm enough her underwear would just disappear.  I tapped it and set it to swinging, then pressed my palms around it, but I was still too cold from all the spent adrenaline. I leaned forward and breathed long, hot breaths on her until finally her panties faded and the sob in Marye’s throat surfaced and burst into a thousand little bits of laughter.