Seven Poems from Illinois State Festival Writer Magazine

We Sit Together Friday Evening

…and Elizabeth says she knows this to be true:
Each step defines patterns on the earth below my feet
in a lonely dance of circular footprints that spiral, reverse,
edge forward, drop back, until the beginning becomes the end.

She is aware that I don the cloak of a smile each evening,
its fiber thinned to a ghost that floats across each room.
Elizabeth counsels patience, says this is the path I chose.
Still, she knows one sip will not diminish my thirst.

She is intimate with the literature of my existence,
dry habits that hold these eyes to each familiar page.
That there is no rising action from which I cannot anticipate
a fall, that there is no more, no less, than this hour, this day.

On a morning when I have settled, opened my book to a page
where I thought my place had been, the journey is new.
A stranger offers secrets, treasure, undeclared gold that fills
the empty pockets of my day, and soon, I begin the leaving.

I wrap my hope in precious cloth and hide it. Terrified,
I want, and then despair, that my breath might slow again
to a static rhythm, that the blunt thrust of this wandering heart
will surrender to the dimensions of its cage.

I ask Elizabeth if she thinks this love I’ve found
may be a chapter that remains to be written.
Elizabeth tells me she does not know the answer,
but she offers a pen, a blank page. We begin

***

Finger Weaving A Voyageur Sash

Twine ribbons: gold, red, emerald, for his eyes
Her furrier trades, her babe a nascent flame.
Her hands keep weaving: Listen to the cries.

This sash will dip for water, tote supplies.
Spread beeswax forms the cup, deft hands the frame.
Twine ribbons: gold, red, emerald, for his eyes

A chevron pattern forms as threads embrace.
Skinned beaver pelts all sold, he paddles home.
Her hands keep weaving: Listen to the cries.

Skilled fingers work, a smile in place denies
approaching screams–perhaps a children’s game.
Twine ribbons: gold, red, emerald, for his eyes.

Her focus on each knot fast fingers tie
–not Frenchmen overrun, not bodies maimed.
Her hands keep weaving: Listen to the cries.

Night’s air awhirl, the sky shoots fireflies.
Sometimes, she bleeds black arrows in her dreams.
Twine ribbons: gold, red, emerald, for his eyes.

Sad voyageur, death swooped with swift surprise.
Thuds shake the door. A sister screams her name.
Her hands cease weaving: Listen to the cries.

Her lover, bones and ashes where he lies.
and still wild roses star far fields the same.
His sash weaves with the fire’s flames that rise
in ribbons: gold, red, emerald, for his eyes

***

Black and White

That little detail
in an old photograph,
seemingly insignificant–
that broken toy
on the ground,
a knowing daughter
frowns at her mother,
a fisted hand,
a missing earring,
that reckless weather
in a married lover’s gaze.
Each arrests our attention
out of all importance
to its ostensible place
in the composition
of things –That element
unveils a secret
with unintended power,
the unexpected
that makes us wonder
why it is we cannot
look away. The unseen door
through which sorrow saunters
–An uninvited guest
we end up talking to
all evening.

***

A Thousand Days
It’s so much more respectable to drown
one’s woes beneath the channel’s oily sheen.
I never should have married for a crown.

The tower’s chill. I pace from stone to stone,
my throne a threadbare carpet, and it seems
it’s so much more respectable to drown.

My daughter has her father’s hair. She’s known
to be a legal heir. I hope she yearns
to marry no one, even for a crown.

Some claim my brother lay with me, I own
it’s possible, but not whilst I was queen–
It’s so much more respectable to drown.

Lord Cromwell’s stock is rising like the sun,
his stealthy machinations slipped between
King Henry and myself. I’ve lost the crown.

The swordsman from Calais, whose stroke is clean,
will part me from my life for Lady Jane.
It’s so much more respectable to drown.
I never should have married for a crown.

***

East Memphis
In every sorrow there is profit (Proverbs 14:23)

Girls walk together, arm-in-arm
their denim skirts modest and long,
each covered elbow must not seek
the sun.

Small houses circle round the school;
each Sabbath day, they stroll to shul.
Thick hair pulled back erratically,

tendrils escape by noon each day;
a girlfriend tucks them back again.
It’s hard to be chaste at sixteen.

They often hold each other’s hands,
pretending to avoid the eyes of boys
who wish, but never voice
the dangerous, forbidden words of love.

Men rise to meet the nascent sun.
They don their kippas, clip them down.
Wool tsitsit hang beneath each shirt,

Humash reveals a parashah.
Foreheads enlaced, left toward the heart;
with leather blessed before the knife,

they shokel as the Torah flame
ignites a vast, complete, celestial soul.
They know in faith this is their world.

Each glance direct, each voice assured.
Hashem instructs directly here–
these lives carved by dark-hatted men
who lived and died six hundred years ago.

Each boy will travel far in life, Yeshiva. Israel,
a wife who’ll clothe herself in wig or hat,
decreed by ritual and rule.

An iron drape of custom will compel her –
cook the Shabbos meal. Bear children. Remain clean
and calm. Embrace this space you’re given,
this, you own.

***

Ages

I — Black

Bereft of oestrous
night sweat sheets
simulate passion flown

II — Gray

An overcast eye
gentles every landscape

III — Blue

My mother’s veins
river my hands

IV — Yellow

Brittle t e e th
    c
   r
      o
   o
        k
        e
        d

        b
        o
      n
  e
s
curl over
bunioned feet

V– Green

Dying is one gift
our children keep.

***

While the Light Lasts…

I.
Pockets stuffed with extra ammo, rifled men deconstruct bodies clinging to steel cables. The trapped link arms on truss ledges: black, brown, white sail into air, leaving red Pollack arcs shooting behind.

II.
Lovers whimper between clenched teeth, then jump, as bullets whiz by overhead. Church women crouch in the uptown direction to bat at passing souls, desperate to save a few, but spirits slip like yellow silk through their fingers and the wind from their leaving floats over the cantilevered arch spanning the blazing river.

III.
Smoke from bodies aflame tongues the strung moon; ashes flake their wings as cardinals litter the sky like liquid roses, their trajectory a drunkards’ scribble across the fire-haloed clouds.

IV.
The thump of a falling body startles a cur that scares under the spandrel. Nosing the air, he yips from his hinged jaw, smells his own dog denouement in the gathering atoms of night.

V.
The water’s breast is lumpy with meat; painted waves flicker an oily rainbow of expanding heat.

VI.
The fearless dead lie coffined beneath earthen slabs of clay while beyond the water, fires wink out, one by one by one, the light fails, and midnight capes fresh corpses sprouting metal petals from their breasts.

VII.
A neon billboard’s words flash a riddle over Times Square no tongue will ever solve. A New York Times front page from yesterday tumbles and folds itself around a trembling lamppost.

VIII.
In a hot green room across the river, a red-headed girl flips the pages of a photo album perched atop her nine month belly, a frown on her face. She gazes at photographs collected by those whom she does not yet know have joined the dead. She raises her head and asks the quickening air, where do people go when they don’t come back no more?

Thank you to Editor Jane Carman for publishing these poems.
2014 copyright JP Reese

For Doug

A passer-by found Kate slumped, tongue thick, clumsy, hands turning, turning the wheel, eyes flying apart in small, bright pieces. Your shell lay broken over the hood of her Camaro. The parking garage’s concrete blocks were splashed with drying blood that painted the unfinished portrait of a young man.

Dangerous men had forced Kate behind the windshield now dotted with carnage, told her to confess if she valued her breath. They placed her on point after they broke you, leaned you over the chrome bumper, and pressed her foot to the pedal.

You’d heard too much. The final lesson of this life was taught by men who laughed as they ended yours. You’d turned the corner in the wrong room in a moment perfect for dying, ignorant that the clock was ticking this last hour.

Had it only been someone else, a deaf man, one who walked with a white cane tipped red, a drunk splayed on the sidewalk cadging strangers for change…. If only, my friend, you had not overheard their plans. Your jokes would still welcome me over long-distance calls, your redhead’s skin still sunburn on trips to Michigan’s dunes, your mother not weep for her lost only child, your son grow up without a parent.

Only mute Kate knew their faces as she collected despair in small, speechless increments, her mother sipping Chianti and laughing her smoker’s laugh with those who had killed you. Your first girl could have won tardy justice for you. Instead, Kate fashioned prison sheets as a noose, fixed them to the bars, and purpled her face in shame.

*********This story made the top fifteen stories in the International Flash Fiction Day Flashmob Competition. Thanks to Michelle Elvy, Linda Simoni-Wastila, and Christopher Allen for organizing such a fun competition and including the world. http://flashmob2013.wordpress.com/winners/

Pink Quartet

Ben and Sarah walked down the cathedral’s slate steps, Ben cradling Sarah’s elbow as she tried not to slide on the fresh stain of snow covering the stone. The rest of the mourners gave them room, waiting to follow until the black-clad parents rounded the building and trudged through the ornate wrought-iron gate, its finials topped with winged gargoyles. The sky spit ashy flakes on the mound of dirt waiting near the opened ground. Two men dressed in green cover-alls and caps waited discreetly behind the temporary overhang, shovels grasped in gloved fists. A whiff of cigarette smoke dissipated on the chill air. The couple found their seats as the rest of the gathering wandered in behind them. Four men, their shoulders bowed, but not by the weight they carried, set a tiny coffin on the straps above the hole. One bent down and removed a silk blanket protecting the white enameled lid, folding its lambs and little girls into a square, he handed it to Sarah. She pressed its softness hard against her face, each figure sewn in different shades of pink.

***

When Sarah tossed back shots of rum, she often woke dehydrated and lost in someone else’s bed, smelling of stale perfume and borrowed cigarettes. This morning was different. She came to lying against the delivery door on the back dock of The Flying Cactus Bar and Grill, shirtless and wrapped in an unfamiliar cloak. Early morning dewed her sunken cheeks. She’d lost an earring and when she felt the lobe, her hand came away streaked with blood. Grasping the knob, she pulled herself to her feet, every movement after midnight a mystery to her foggy brain. Digging car keys from the back pocket of her unzipped Wrangler’s, Sarah tottered under a newborn sun toward the parking lot, clutching the cloak around her naked breasts, hoping the pint was still in her glove compartment, long hair aflame in different shades of pink.

***

The room no longer welcomed cigarettes, so Sarah smoked them outside, leaning against the brick of the back wall before meetings. She came in early every Friday to help make coffee, set up the chairs, and place the blue books around the table. There was always a box or two of tissues handy for the newer members as they learned to put one foot in front of the other, gaining balance through the testimony of others. Sarah took one day at a time as she prepared lesson plans and graded essays in her one bedroom near campus. She hadn’t yet found the courage to call Ben but knew there would be time to make amends. She often drank tea with honey before driving to a meeting where she could safely examine the scars of her past in the night room, surrounded by friends. When it was her turn to tell her story, even now her face sometimes betrayed her, coloring in different shades of pink.

***

When her waist-length hair fell out in tangled clumps, Sarah thought she’d never show herself in public again. After a few weeks, the lack of hair slowly became tolerable; she purchased a stack of gorgeous scarves and found she had a flair for tying knots and twirls. When she walked into her classroom after a month of substitutes who taught Chaucer and Milton while she puked and writhed on the floor of her bathroom, she was prepared for mumbled condolences, false assurances that she looked great, or even gasps. Instead, she entered a room full of students with bald, shining skulls, mile-wide grins, and Ben standing next to her desk, the surface covered with caps: snap-brimmed, wide-brimmed, double-flapped, each one dyed in different shades of pink.

Published by Orion Headless, January, 2013

From the Umberplatzen

 
From The Umberplatzen: A Love Story by Susan Tepper is a remarkable book composed as a series of dispatches from the front that are not only about love but also about loss and the treacherous shoals of memory.  It may be slim, but this novella’s emotional aftermath expands outward long after the final page is turned. Written as a series of linked flash pieces set in page-long chapters, this unique compilation is structured in a way that delights and surprises. From every angle, syntactically and visually, from the ongoing conceit of the female protagonists’ memories taking form as she opens her abandoned lover’s mailed objects of almost obsessive desire, to even the punctuation choices, add to the overall gestalt, making this little gem a wonderfully realized whole. The love here is a bittersweet one, colored by the protagonist’s inner struggle with commitment and both character’s inability to honestly articulate their feelings to one another. This book is like a table full of delicate appetizers, each one more delicious than the last.
 
Syntactically, Tepper creates a tumbling, headlong rush of ideas and images through the use of short, declarative sentences used by the narrator as she recounts her relationship with the mysterious M in a series of flashbacks. A wife who had abandoned her husband and fled to Germany from the US, Kitty Kat had begun a two year affair with “M.”  We don’t know anything about Kitty Kat’s career other than that she has one, though we do learn that M has been a respected physicist and professor who has been married before.
 
As the book opens, Kitty Kat has already left M and returned to the states. We learn more about M’s interior thoughts and the depth of his feelings for Kitty Kat from the letters and mementos he sends through the mail after she has left him. These long distance reminders expose the depth of M’s loss, and they also reflect his desperation to win Kitty Kat back through their revelation of hitherto hidden aspects of his private self.  His sent mementos come clean about his feelings in ways he had balked at when they were physically together.
 
It becomes clear to readers during the journey through these short vignettes that M had much more invested in the relationship than Kitty Kat ever had: “No at home we have birds that fly away…”  Kitty Kat says to M as they cut through the Umberplatzen during a snow shower.  He replies to her, teary-eyed, “Here is home” (31), clearly wanting her to want to stay in Germany, fearing her talk of “home” signifies only a temporary sojourn until she can really go “home” and start a new life alone. This trope is repeated in another chapter, solidifying the idea that for Kitty Kat, living in Germany is temporary.
 
Each tiny story, told from Kitty Kat’s point of view, has its own title, “Leaves,” “Lock of Hair,” “Waterfalls,” indicating both the chapter’s content and also that it is capable of standing alone as an individual flash story, but as one reads through the book, it becomes clear that these stories compliment one another, that their themes entwine like the bodies of the lovers they reveal, that the whole becomes greater than its parts. The chapters are set up similarly in that each begins with Kitty Kat’s recounting of an experience she and M once shared, but it soon becomes apparent that she may be remembering the experience as a result of a letter or trinket she holds in her hand sent that day by M to remind her of their life as lovers.
 
The first entry, “Leaves,” offers readers some exposition.  Kitty Kat (whose real name, like M’s, we never learn) is back in the US. She had been in Germany, in flight from her ex, but she has now left M to come back home.  In the present, she has not returned to her ex husband, and it appears she is living alone. In each flash chapter, a sentence or two functions symbolically to imply something about the state of the relationship, past or present, between Kitty Kat and M.  In “Leaves,” the protagonist says of some Umberplatzen leaves M has sent her through the mail that the leaves themselves have “…dried into almost total powder. A few veins remain but that’s about it,” (3) symbolizing the current nature of their relationship–A few ties remain, but the vibrancy of the affair is gone, at least for Kitty Kat.  In this chapter, readers also get a sense of M’s desire to control Kitty Kat in a section that flashes back to their relationship when he has shoved a peanut butter sandwich into her face, then tells her to “…smile for real.”
 
It is not until readers reach the sixth entry, “Birds,” that they learn M’s nickname for his lover is Kitty Kat. The use of this diminutive, and a dehumanizing one at that, makes the narrator at first seem the weaker partner in the relationship, but by the conclusion, we realize the chosen name says more about M’s insecurities and desire for control than it does about the psychological strength of Kitty Kat.  We sense she prefers the non-name, that it is a choice made from strength, that she is a woman shedding her past and disappearing for a time in order to decide who she wants to become.
 
In all her stories, Tepper is a master of the perfect final sentence as well as in crafting dead-on dialogue, and these flash pieces are no exception.  Final lines either startle or completely clarify ideas for the reader in many of these stories. The dialogue is written in such a way that there are no question marks or other punctuation other than a period here and there to make the reader pause, and there are also no paragraph breaks, creating a sort of breathlessness that mimics the emotional exhilaration of a love affair in its beginning stages, an argument, or interior musings that flow swiftly from one idea to another.
 
Sentence fragments pepper the book as well to heighten the verisimilitude of the characters’ recounted dialogue and interactions: “When I sell my flat I will buy Capri. All of it he said. Well naturally. How will I know where to find you said M. You could be in any one of hundreds of villas. Look for the prettiest one. With the best sea views.  He sends me a postcard of Capri. We can still do this it says in M’s familiar hand” (33). Switches from past scenes to the present are startling but feel right, as the narrator Kitty Kat is the only speaker, (and a deliciously unreliable one at that).
 
A repetition of physical details here and there throughout the stories is one of the strengths of the book.  It’s almost like the reader is on a treasure hunt and finds familiar objects sprinkled throughout the stories, like M’s kites, a Roman Wall, and especially, the Umberplatzen itself  with all its literal and figurative meanings for the couple. The neologism Umberplatzen is both a symbol of Kitty Kat’s resourcefulness, (she can’t pronounce the correct German name for the trees in the park that are the central locus of the story, so she makes up a name), and the word also suggests her vulnerability as a stranger in a strange land where the culture and the people are unfamiliar to her.  The word takes on symbolic resonance as the linked chapters progress, and the word Umberplatzen is used in some context in nearly every story. There are Umberplatzen trees, a forest of Umberplatzen, and the park itself is referred to by the narrator as The Umberplatzen.  The word serves as a touchstone for the reader, as it appears in all but one chapter and may imply the stories will wrap up with a satisfying denouement, but Tepper is too savvy a writer to give us a nice make-up kiss between the characters beneath the Umberplatzen leaves at the conclusion.  We must come to our own conclusions at the finish as to what lies ahead for these separated lovers and whether their affair is fated to resume or has ended forever.
 
The book is set in an old-fashioned, Olivetti typewriter-style font that adds to the reader’s sense that these flashbacks of the love affair are almost like dispatches from the front of a long-ago, but not forgotten, war of wills.  The type also adds to the idea that the characters are presently somehow ghosts of their former selves, fragile in their dealings with one another over a vast distance that is both physical and metaphysical. The look of the type on the page is pleasing and reminiscent of a style ex-pat writers in Europe during the 1920’s and 30’s might have used.
 
Though the protagonist in From The Umberplatzen is named Kitty Kat, by the final stories, readers know she is clearly not a docile, housebound creature, but independent and her own person, which adds interest and tension to the interactions between M and her. Readers slowly begin to understand the power dynamics between the two lovers through the series of letters and packages sent by a lonely and much more open M in the here and now and through the memories kindled as a result of these gifts he sends Kitty Kat.
 
M seems to be offering the whole truth that once lay hidden beneath their old conversations, something he typically avoided or obscured when they were together.  He seems to be desperate to show her he’s changed and to persuade her to return to him. But his gifts aren’t all sweetness and light.  His frustration and anger become clear through some of the objects he sends her.  For example, one day he sends her a garter and writes “{w}ear this when you’re with another man…” (39).  Another day, he sends her a box of confetti that she says “looks so lonely” as an apology for refusing to take her to a party on their first New Year’s eve as lovers.  He is telling her through these mementos that he remembers everything about their relationship, every conversation, even when she thought he wasn’t paying attention.  These mailings are M’s last effort to try to salvage a relationship he desires, and has always desired, much more than Kitty Kat ever has.
 
By Tepper’s final story, “Grafted,” readers can conclude that even though M tried to be the dominant partner in the relationship with his bluster, philosophical tendencies, and brilliance, Kitty Kat has somehow managed to slip from this relationship intact and seems to be heading into a future that does not include Germany or M.  I couldn’t help but feel sorry for poor, doomed M, he of the softer heart who now cannot look away, even though at the beginning he probably never saw her coming.
 
From the Umberplatzen: A Love Story
by Susan Tepper
Wilderness House Press
ISBN 978-0-9827115-4-5, 56 pages
 

Off the Beaten Path

Father Unick makes love to Dick’s elegy from the stone pulpit. Prayers for the dead man are decanted like sacrificial wine. We four, three exes and one current, perch quietly, past beatings undetected, broken bones healed, elation unnoticed by the well-dressed mourners. For better or worse, we gaze through Unick, having exhausted our year-long discussion of the power of latent anger, the solutions we could have chosen. A heady idea, these choices one can make.

We could have been pulp. Buried. Compost. Maybe there in that wood. Instead, the bastard’s life was over before he could throw another punch. The arrow exploded skin. Eve’s always been a fine shot, and Sally and Dick’s final hunting trip a brilliant strategy. Flaps of bloody belly hung through Dick’s torn camo. Birds startled as the weapon whistled its Darwinian intent through air followed closely by odd, woman-sounding whoops that echoed over the deserted hunting ground. Dick toppled to the loess, a goon unfit for survival. Drool wet his chins as a great, mortal roar beat the blood-misted air.

Ex-wives and widow, we congregate. Diddle our rosaries. Spit-shine the twenty-third psalm through Altoid-scented breath. Afterward, other people’s tongues move thickly with, “terrible accident.” and “Yes, just awful.” Our Oakley’s shade glances that compare old bruises. Practiced deceit directs our muscles in bodies freed of torment by Eve’s deeply planted barb. We pat people’s hands, wipe away tears.

Later, as one, we empty Dick’s urn over the waterside cliff. Back at the church, Father Unick counts Dick’s money– his lucrative cameo concluded. Sally, Dick’s last punching bag, has access to the accounts. We share a final chance to fondle, sift through Dick’s ashes for bits of bone and toss them into the sea. Broken pieces of charred fist sink to lie on beds of sand. Our smooth worry stones are cast after them. Stepping over old scars on the path, we lock arms and head toward a smoky single malt.

First published at A-Minor in 2012: http://aminormagazine.com/2012/03/05/off-the-beaten-path/ Nominated for Best of the Net.

Disturbance

We linger in the vague, blue hum of another summer. The sudden plummet from the middle dulls our senses and bends our spines closer toward some final ground. Bad decisions, mistakes, hard luck: scar tissue tightens in welts beneath the flesh in wishbone arcs. Deep wounds are always palpable, and blood sport rarely passes without lingering pain. Sparrows dive from the eaves, their love cries filter through the shuttered windows to disturb the white webs we’ve spun like shrouds around our skulls.

In the night kitchen, we pass in silence as televisions flicker, ghostly in the empty rooms beyond. Each morning breaks its fingers against the granite of our prison; no light enters here. Leaves hang from red oaks, quiver in surrender, a dusty patina settles over each moisture-starved vein. Tendons curl inward on themselves, and still the cleansing rain denies us relief. Yellow weeds choke garden space. There will be weeds next year, too.

We scavenge for crumbs in a world that rejects us, subsist side-by-side in a house of separation, crouch over screens in dark rooms, painting our pain into cartoon frameworks. Our lips recoil from touch. Tongues lie flat and silent through the hours. Necessary words flutter and fall like broken wings from our mouths. Unspoken, words like touch and kiss and love lie trapped between the curving bone while barbed words catch and pull at the air to carve more space between us.

Each blue grows muted within these walls, while outside, a red desert descends. The arm of a flagpole furls no flag, a dog run is undogged, a man buys a country, his currency the face of fear, another buys an arsenal to camouflage his impotence.

A June bug struggles on its back, its legs wave, frantic to climb the ladder of sun. A small boy tilts a magnifying glass over its fumbling trunk, his face passive in the numbness of this mossy age. The bronze carapace cracks and bubbles beneath the glitter that beams from his unforgiving hand. Lips spread in a death’s-head grin, the boy wanders off to seek another game to play.

A windlass creaks over a half empty well, its water wafts a lonely, brackish smell. I finger the pennies singing in my pocket. I close my eyes. I toss them in.

First published at Pithead Chapel, 2012: http://pitheadchapel.com/jp-reese/