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July 2006
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July 2007

Baby’s First Cell Phone


That first August of the new millennium,
the sidewalks teemed with toddlers learning
to walk and talk at the same time,
while poking at their bright toy phones.
There were stories of accidents.

We crawled up out of the subway,
blinking, as if waking from our naps.
We peered around for two comforts:
the towers that nailed down Manhattan,
and the bars on our cell phones.

My boss sent me to the Flat Iron Building
to find a walkie talkie of my own.
The store was like a tall glass ship
cruising due north on Broadway
with its chirping cargo laid out in rows.

Like magic, it could locate Mom and Dad,
in faraway lands. My friends back home,
a list of names, became imaginary.
Their voices conjured in a stairwell,
or elevator, a rooftop dinner party.

You’ll never guess where I am. I thought
myself one of the crazies, receiving
through hot plastic, and glittering guts
a broadcast of so and so’s baby shower,
who married who from high school.

My cellie shivered in its thin green light.
At 2 am, I heard it from the kitchen counter
from across time zones, to be nuzzled
and nursed. Taking on names of men.
I couldn’t keep them straight.

That summer I was stumbling too
along with the flock across avenues,
towards diversion, towards shade-
a training for that sudden moment when
we’d be lifted up, connected, grown.

Pleasantly cloned.


Last weekend we went on an outing to Signal Mountain. Road trips are a good time for getting acquainted. Nobody has to make eye contact. Outside the car flows a river of distraction. Inside, they are talking about great cities to move to, where the scene is artistic, young and progressive and the cost of living is reasonable. Austin, Portland, Madison and Bloomington. And I pitch in some trivia, kind of amused by the idea of picking up and moving to a place for a list of reasons like that. A place that looks good on paper. As if we had a choice.

Later on, my professor asks how we’re feeling about the program, are we happy with our decision? Everyone chimed in with their opinions, mostly affirmative: Well I looked at this and that program, in Vermont and Out West and upstate New York and This one is a good fit, etc. Again I found it hard to answer. This place is everything to me, but I don’t think of  it as a “choice,” but as a pathway that was opened up to me. To come or not to come, maybe, but this is it. The narrow path.

Late in the evening we got onto the really personal stuff. Again, everyone is talking about their choices. Lovers and marriage, whether to have children or not. Religion. Have you always been a Christian? And I’m answering before thinking: That’s the culture I was born into. That’s the way my family is.

I think about going back to myself ten years ago, saying: There it is, your future, handle it gently. It all seems so designed. Did I choose to be rooted to this place, this husband, this set of beliefs?

We are all evangelists for personal responsibility, the strength of our decisions, being proactive and all that. Meanwhile, with age, I’m getting skeptical about our so-called “choices.” Like Flannery O’Connor, I’m beginning to think there is a hidden world, a barely visible plan and we may deviate from it in smallish ways, but the plan exists all the same.

I am still thinking about the book Never Let Me Go. This novel masquerades as a science fiction mystery, but its the weirdest kind of treatise on free will. As the truth is slowly revealed about the characters, their twisted origins and their horrible fate, they never revolt. The “system” and fate are one in the same, irresistible. Its about how we all more or less accept the terms of our existence.

Who has dreamed up this plan for us? I look at the strip-malled landscape and wonder. These vast economies, systems of oppression, the paths of my class. We go about making our plans, but do we deviate at all from the ruts set out before us?

If you love something...


One time I saw my ex-boyfriend at a bar. It was crowded and noisy. I was talking to a girl I really wanted to impress, who had invited me out to celebrate something cool she’d done. Like a show she’d curated or a book published. She later told me that my face collapsed as she was introducing me around the room. I was smiling and then I blanked out, apologized and left.

I saw him at the bar and then I never saw him again. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen that girl since those days either.

Which was not what I was expecting. We lived only blocks apart. We had so much in common, I thought. Surely I would find myself across the subway platform from him, or squeeze past him in the cereal aisle. We’d have our chance at the donut shop or at Blockbuster or on the B43 or crossing the park.

I’d been anticipating that casual run-in for months. What could I say to him to make him pine for me for another 20 months? I had practiced at least six ways of saying, “It’s really good to see you.” Sincere. Seductive. Sarcastic. It could happen when I least expected it. I tried to always be ready.

After that moment at the bar, I came up with a new line. “See? We don’t have anything in common after all.” Practicing it enough times, it was kind of a relief. When you let some things go, they are just gone.

And then there is poetry. My flirtation with poems has been going on for so long. Like I’m carrying around this latent gift for poetry, like a backup lover.

I’m beginning to understand that getting any poems started and  finished will be a huge labor. And when I think about that commitment I have to wonder if there’s anything there at all. Do we really have anything in common, me and poetry? Is it relevant to my life? Do I really even want to read, much less write poems? Wouldn’t it be a relief to just let it go?

Unlike some relationships I have manufactured, poetry keeps coming back.

Swimmer’s Ear

Its been an hour since I floated
on my back– the sky a blindfold,
lungs a raft. My fingers scanned
the teabrown cool, and yanked the cords
of lily pads. We choked the surface,
scooping breath in oily rounds¬–
a dialogue that drowns the sound
of helicopters overhead.
(You float like this to get rescued.)

Impromptu yoga, bend and tilt
the waterway,  entice the tiny
farewell dribble, earlobe lick.

Almost Dying Doesn't Count


Trapping crawdads in the creek out back
the stormwater snagged him, tore off his shorts,
when freed from the branches and runoff debris,
he slogged home to the table unable to eat.

Landing hard on his handlebars,
voices behind a red curtain,
told him to shake it off, while
his seeping spleen urged him to sleep.

Dazed and limping away from the wreck,
front doors locked as he knocked,
can you please call my mom? The cops
scolded him for leaving the scene.

This was before she passed, so when
faces changed to plastic, his heart
like a fish, he said, I can’t go on like this,
it sounded like a teenage phase.

As the sting grew stiff and hot, doctors
swarmed at his bedside for days
marveling at the pus and fuss from
one yellow jacket under the swing.

Clawing his way into a lobby
he slid his wallet to the security guard,
said, call my wife, tell her on a scale
of one to ten this is a ten.

Bonnaroo Burlesque


The hippies have a good thing going at Bonnaroo. Everyone seemed genuinely happy to be there– smiling, dancing their asses off, sharing bowls and contraband Gatorade, spooning in the shade or waiting in line politely for port-a-pots, ATMs, and the ferris wheel. I didn’t see a single brawl or belligerent drunk. I didn’t see any pissing-in-public or throwing of bottles. No obnoxious corporate sponsors or security guards. No pickpocketing or puking or heckling or groping or arrests– the free-for-all antics that you kind of accept with Big Shows.

(Actually, free-for-all is an illusion– Bonnaroo is a miracle of logistics and planning. I marveled to look around and imagine the sheer cash flow of the thing. What’s $250 tickets times 80,000?)

Of course, my impressions are pretty rosy because I went home each night and took a shower and slept in my bed. Friends who camped have more hardcore tales of what transpired after dark. i.e. those peaceful nappers are actually passed out drunks who get tripped over, stomped on, covered by ants, and tangled up in sloppy, unintelligible fucking, cheered by a crowd. Then there’s the creepy contrast between the “recreational” drug use of the affluent tourists and the East Tennessee methheads who come out of the woodwork for Bonnaroooo. Anyways.

In a crowd that big, caution definitely treads on the vibe. Its hard to dance when you’re vaguely keeping one eye on the nearest exit, and the other on your wallet. As a woman, I’m particulary wary of big crowds. Maybe part of what made Bonnaroo so much fun is that the crowd was the well-balanced. Bonnaroo is still whitey as hell, but there seemed to be as many women as men, maybe more.

Make the ladies feel safe and they will drive cross country to not only show you their tits, but walk around topless all weekend, sober, happily smeared with mud, body paint and electrical tape. They will crowd surf (Franz Ferdinand), mosh (Gogol Bordello), rush the stage (Hot Chip), and jump onstage and freak eachother (Girl Talk). (I know, crowdsurfing, moshing, and freakdancing. Its like a ‘90s revival.)

I remember reading an interview with Thurston Moore where he’s asked about being married to a powerhouse like Kim Gordon. He made this awesome comment about when you keep the queen bee happy, the honey flows freely. So yeah, the hippies have a very good thing going. There was even a vendor selling those little funnel contraptions that allow you to pee standing up.

Other than the belly dancers and burlesque side shows, and Sting taking off his shirt, the girliest part of Bonnaroo had to be Feist’s performance on Sunday. For me, it was the high point of the whole sweaty, dusty, sunburned ordeal. And gawd, she was striking on stage. At turns poised, then playful, then powerful. Leslie Feist looks so much like her voice– stylish, delicate, immaculate. Her songwriting alone is reason enough that her DNA should be shelved somewhere, but recordings don’t do her voice justice.

I was a little frightened, however, at how skinny she looks. Hopefully I’m wrong about this, but I couldn’t help thinking it:

Could it be just the bangs?

She was the only performer I saw who actually interacted with the audience. We obediently sang along, whistled along, snapped our fingers. Somebody waved the Canadian flag. Somebody gave her a bundle carnations. Somebody yelled out I love you Leslie. And a guy’s voice yelled out I wanna fuck you. Just a little reminder of the ugly anonymity of the mob. Maybe this is why other bands don’t try to engage the audience. Maybe this is what happens when a woman gets on stage.

Kids without parents

Thinking about that last poem, I remember being so fascinated by books and movies about Kids Without Parents. This genre, so named by Jennifer Smith, includes tales of orphans, runaways, lost kids, kids at boarding school, kids at summer camp, kids accomplishing stuff, misbehaving or surviving, without grownups around.

Most of these stories totally romanticize the notion of being lost or kidnapped or abandoned. Being independent looks like a grand adventure. Which is a big ole lie, but at least they give kids a lot of credit. Usually the challenges of abandonment force the plucky youngsters to do grown up stuff to get by. Us kids can do it all by ourselves, that kind of thing. There's usually a happy ending, which includes a tearful reunion with mom and dad, along with a newfound respect for eachother.

Examples include:
Hatchet, Annie, Party of Five, Home Alone, Hansel & Gretel, Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, Little Red Riding Hood, Little Rascals, Bridge to Terabithia, Oliver Twist, Prep, Lord of the Flies, Walkabout, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Savannah Smiles, The Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, Goonies, Kids

Can you help me add to the list?

Run Away From Home


(another Hannah)

I saw a show with a runaway girl who kept
her long hair coiled up in a newsboy’s cap.
Surviving in the wilderness, she saved
A friendly wolf who left a rabbit by her campfire.
Skinning it was gross, but she had to eat.

One morning over Quaker oats I said,
I think I’m going to run away from home.
My Dad and I discussed the plan. I’d leave
at suppertime, provided with a sack
to hold two shirts, my favorites, some apples,
and Granny’s number. My sister bawled.

I’d stoweaway in Southlake Mall and live
off pretzels, Icees, movies rated R,
Take baths in the fountain after hours,
snatch handfuls of pennies. I’d sleep curled up
in display beds in Home, breathing in those
festive florals, a new set each night.

Maybe I could get kidnapped by some crooks
That weren’t so bad once you got to know them, who
lived in their van or, better yet, a shantytown!
My portrait on cartons of milk and t.v. sets:
Missing Child. Heart of Gold. Large Reward.

That night I walked off Barnett Road, on past
the trailer park and crossed Old Dixie Highway
by myself. I took these things to a desert isle,
hitchhiked out west, jumped on a boxcar. I joined
a tribe of orphans turned loose in a dark museum,
with no bedtime, just like you read about.

Extraordinary Man

There was this guy who had super powers for real.
When he looked at a cashier, he could see
straight through her frothy orange hair
to her scalp. And not just that, he could make out,
just by the creases in her shoes, if she was
rich or poor, aching or numb.

He could see her at age 19,
but he could predict the future too.
Mostly bad news: the sky was always
reporting car wrecks, Alzheimer’s.
The warm asphalt said, “gunshot wounds.”
Pigeons in flight, “hookers.”

He could hear messages in the radio,
codes littered in tabloids and lotto slips.
He heard the words people meant
when they were saying something else.
He heard the secret suffocating
that made them all ordinary and mean.

This was no ordinary guy
who scurried across the parking lot
tallying the price of a gallon of 2 percent,
and the length of the Express Line
and the minutes left in halftime.
He was Extraordinary Man.

But the job was too much.
The ants cried out from the pavement,
the outrageous angle of the sunset,
the falling sap of cigar smoke,
the brokedown Cutlass with the kids inside
moving faster than the speed of light.

He had to wear little foam earplugs
and even they were swelling in his sleep,
in his bruised ear canals,
murmuring in Chinese,
begging to be found.

Tell, Don’t Show

James Wood spoke to us about the use of detail in novels since Flaubert, which sounded pretty tedious, but struck a nerve with me right from the start. He jumped right on an a technical issue in writing that has often paralyzed me.

Here I am, trying to paint a lifelike picture for the reader using concrete detail, (“showing, not telling”). I’ll create these “ordinary” characters who aren’t particularly perceptive and would never notice their elaborate surroundings, much less have a sense of wonder about them. At some point, the description starts to seem intrusive and phony. Who is noticing what? Me or the character who’s supposed to be inhabiting the world?

The problem is that the writer is always there, “working very hard to obscure his labor;” to smooth together the chosen detail to create a something “real.” Meanwhile, the use of concrete detail is rife with commentary. What’s included is always an indicator, even the seemingly insignificant details. There is no “showing” without “telling.”

What’s left is hardly any subject, only style. James Wood said that since Flaubert, even a non-style is a style. And style is going to be self-conscious.

With this on my mind, today I read Miranda July’s irresistable story in the New Yorker. Its almost a monologue- openly self-conscious, only minimal details are included to advance the story. The return to exposition means she doesn’t try to bury her psychology in the telling.

I have the same reaction to her as I do to Hemingway or Bukowski. Like, this is fiction? Its such a relief to be addressed this way. As a reader, I hardly have to meet her halfway. And as a writer, I love silencing the inner instructor who’s chanting “show, don’t tell.”

Which makes me wonder…why is this the mantra in creative writing? What impulse are we trying to train out of storytelling? Don’t we just want to tell what happened, and what it reminded us of, what we mean and why it’s worth repeating? When I read July’s pieces, I sense there’s something snobby about training out the impulses of the chatty, confessional narrator. Like something very intimate and honest is being lost.