When I Look Down

Sometimes I see the sky when I look down
A simple illusion
Realized when water achieves stillness
Perhaps to remind us that we can be tricked
By too-perfect reflection

But I play along and wonder out loud
Who moved the sun & the stars
Or is it just that I’ve once more rolled into an inverted knot
Nothing where it’s supposed to be
Because I’m the one all twisted up

Sometimes the sky gets tired & heavy
And just wants to rest a minute
On that soft, gentle pond

The sky isn’t proud
It will lie on a puddle, even a dirty one

We’re not so different
Sometimes the sky & I are both blue
Both dark
Both without enough oxygen
Both have holes & burn like a pogrom
Witnesses to more than we’d like to know

And I coagulate
Become refractory—
Resist this parade of whispery lights
Kept back by the levees of my eyelids

I refuse to look up
Insist I am alone
I will not be the sky’s spectator

Ah, but sometimes when I look down…

-K.Soleil 2014

The Devil Enters the Garden

It was always quiet when we left the schoolyard to walk the one block home.  No one would have expected anything lurid or spurious to happen in our little town, and therefore no one would have questioned the sight of two girls blithely traveling the path on our own.  Not that we were seen that often. Many of the schoolchildren came from farms, or former farms, in the outlying countryside and went home by bus.  People on our street didn’t stay outdoors much, most of the neighborhood being retirement-aged, and the silent walk often felt lonely, even with my sister next to me.  However, we didn’t complain; we were accustomed to the uneventful stroll.

On one particular day, we met a dog we’d never seen before, a curly-haired little dog, eagerly smiling his dog smile when we stopped to pet him.  We were first and second graders, not inclined to mistrust the four-legged inhabitants of our small town. My sister suggested we call him Cinnamon, because of the ruddy brown speckles on his cream-colored coat.  Cinnamon didn’t seem to have anywhere else to be and we were in no hurry, so we stopped again to bury our fingers in his fur.  What a curiosity it was when the second time we stopped, he jumped up on my leg and as I took his paws and held him upright, his hind parts thrust forward and back.

“Not Cinnamon. His name should be Elvis!” I said.  Pam and I were delighted by the unusual spectacle of a dancing dog.  Even after I let him drop to the ground, he jumped back up to rock on my leg.  I pushed him down laughingly and continued home, but Elvis followed.

It was flattering that this strange little dog had become so fond of me.  I think Pam got jealous, because once we got to our front yard, she pulled Elvis off my leg and drew him to hers.  She was pleased to see that he’d rock on her with enthusiasm, too; however, he always returned to me after a few minutes. Some of us are just more charismatic with the flea-carrying set. I tried not to rub it in her face too much.

Pam thought that the dog’s dance routine was far too innovative and astounding to keep to ourselves, and suggested we should bring out Grandpa to see it.  She went in the house to fetch him.  It was my task to keep the dog rocking on my leg until our grandfather would have the chance to observe its antics.

I waited on the porch, occasionally bouncing my foot while the dog remained attached to my shin like a mushroom on a tree.  His unflagging devotion was really something to admire.  I, on the other hand, was finding it more and more difficult to maintain my interest.  It seemed to be taking my sister an awfully long time to get Grandpa to come out.  As I waited, I sat down on the flaking, gray-painted wood of the porch.  Elvis continued to rock.

When my mom and dad divorced, Mom brought my sister and me to live with our grandparents.  I was maybe eight and my sister was seven.  We lived in a little Appalachian town in Pennsylvania, next to a wide, slow river.  The main street ran alongside the sidling river valley.  Houses and churches climbed up the steep hills.  It was the most picturesque and innocent place I ever knew, like a cover of the Currier & Ives catalogs that really and truly arrived in my grandparents’ mailbox.

The town is less than a mile long with nary a traffic light, but boasted no less than five churches.  The religious capacity of Tionesta was enough for every one of the citizens to be at least two flavors of Protestant at the same time, if they had felt that inclination.

One of the churches was across the street from my grandparents’ house, but we didn’t go to that one.  Strange-looking ladies with their hair braided and piled on their heads like bread rolls went to that church.  They wore black skirts that brushed the sidewalks in the middle of summer.  The men of the little red brick church, on the other hand, don’t stand out in my memory at all.

The men I remember were the middle-aged guys dressed in camouflage pants and safety-orange vests from neighboring cities, who would tramp through town on their days off buying bullets from the hardware store so they could shoot at furry antlered critters.

So in this town of bun-headed religious sects and gun-wielding factory workers, I went to church every Sunday and school five days a week, but very rarely did a dog ever accost my leg.

In fact, there was only one day so eventful.  And waiting on that porch, the novelty waned.  Where were Pam and Grandpa?  What if the dog got fed up and went home?  I feared the show would curtain before its debut.  I lay back, staring up at the colorless, overcast sky.  Finally, Grandpa came to the door, face darker and cloudier than the weather.

I suppose when Grandpa saw this eight-year old child lying on her back with a small dog humping her leg, he only saw Satan fornicating with beasts or some other fabulous vision, because he thundered such disgust that the dog immediately ducked his head and ran up the hill, round the corner and out of sight without taking a moment to slow down or look behind him.

Alas, I had meant nothing to Elvis.

I, on the other hand, could make no such getaway, and had to slink inside the house, trembling and ashamed.  With just the look on his face, Grandpa made me understand that the dog’s funny movements had been nasty and wicked and that my participation was evidence of my own wickedness.

Never was a single word spoken about what had transpired.  I was sent upstairs to wash and read a book until supper was ready.  We ate our roast leg of some tasteless dried out animal—my mother, sister, and grandparents each concentrating their eyes on the tiny white daisies printed on the plates.  We had stewed prunes for dessert, to rid us of any devilry.

Based on the increasing chill of my grandparents’ affections, I understood that it was going to be exceedingly difficult to cleanse myself of this foul transaction and I didn’t know exactly how my redemption would ever be accomplished. But I ate all my vegetables, every night, without complaint.

Sometimes they smiled. Eventually they would even forget themselves and make a joke. I recall the one about using my school picture to scare away vermin in the cellar.

Looking back, I now find it a miracle that I’m not one of those poor souls who is compelled to go to some anonymous back room and pay to have feces smeared on me, or go to so-called hedonistic nightclubs where I’m publicly chained up waiting for strangers to attach clothespins to my nether parts.  No, despite my wicked innocence, I am blessedly equipped with a healthy and enthusiastic sexual impulse, rarely ever wishing to pretend I’m lying on the flaking paint of a front porch, while a hairy-backed man shows up, never speaking, and mounts me, vigorously shaking a baby doll in his teeth.  No, I’m completely normal, an unsullied specimen of feminine purity. Thanks to Grandpa, vanquisher of predatory poodles.

For the working stiffs

In Self Defense

There is a murderer
who followed us in the elevator this morning
trailing so many bodies
holding their paper cups and drippy umbrellas
and the murderer watched us tap our security
passwords and waited with us for our turn
to draw brackenish coffee from the communal tap.

When we weren’t looking the murderer dove into our yawns—
breakfasted on the breath in our vast inner atriums—
but when I caught the killer’s noxious reflection in the monitor
wearing my crinkled forehead and droopy shoulders,
waiting for his chance to kill me, I said
Aw, come on
because this was just not my day,

I said
There’s been a scheduling error it’s not my day
I’ve got too much shit to do.
But he was already here & didn’t want to waste a trip.
The murderer was being stubborn.

I thought, a magnet is repelled by the same polarity.
I knew, I should start killing.

So I murdered whatever I could—
burned an extra lamp light on my desk—
squished a mosquito —
tossed a plastic drink lid into the ocean to choke sea birds—
turned up my space heater—
started a nasty rumor about a co-worker—
maxed out my credit card on useless crap at the dollar store
that I had the clerk double bag while I whispered die, die
and sent you one more unsolicited e-mail
reeking with my desperation to rescue
whatever last glimmer
of charm I can brandish
before it fades like smoke.

Then I started to relax. I was even able to take a nap.
I would have dreamt of you
but the murderer is still riding your ribs. Instead,
I dreamt I was getting a promotion,
once my boss dies, except
the murderer never wants to take the bosses
for that long. Bosses don’t make
anything.

What attracted that bloodthirsty bastard
was we started out as poetry—
reproducing ourselves as sensory images
of tiny black hairs and hot breath.
I was one verse and you were the next.

And as we broke upon each other’s lines
swapping rhyme schemes
we got too noisy.

Every creation can’t help but attract some death,
while we haven’t had time to sacrifice enough
to reverse the killer’s path.

So you know
what you must do, my lyric executioner.
Go on

save yourself.

The Inhumane Society

Several Christmases ago, I visited my extended family in western Pennsylvania. The family is quite close, and there are times when this can be truly comforting. And then there are other times when their world seems entirely suffocating, which happened during this visit over a decade ago.

While making the rounds with my cousins, I brought my small son to the ramshackle farmhouse belonging to an aunt and uncle. My uncle, whom I’ll call Uncle Gus to maintain his privacy, offered the adults a glass of his home-made wine.  Actually, I think he also offered wine to a couple of the children, but my cousins and I laughed that off and quickly sent our boys to another room to play with Gus’s guns (all dismantled, by the way, to varying degrees of recognizability).

Gus brought out plastic cups of his home-brewed elixir while from the doorway out of Gus’s view, my cousin’s husband, whom I’ll call Josh, soundlessly gestured to the quality of the drink we were about to try.

He held his nose, grimaced, and shook his head no, no, no, no.

I sipped tentatively. Perhaps it would have tasted good if we’d mixed it with olive oil, salt, and pepper and poured it over some arugula.

Then I turned around and saw where the wine was coming from. It was in a large jug, the kind used for water coolers. There was no lid to the jug, only a turkey baster protruding from the top. Growing along the inside was a greenish-black substance, which I don’t think was enhancing the wine’s flavor. Gus used the large plastic bulb of the baster to suck up the yellow liquid and squirt it into cups.

He brought more grog to his two sons-in-law, saying “Drink up!”

We all thanked him, then Josh said he was going to take us on a tour of Gus’s latest hunting trophies. The three of us walked into another room.

“Do you think it’s safe to drink this stuff,” I asked Josh. He’s an engineer that works for the state, monitoring the water supply. I figured he knew what was within the limits of acceptability.

“I’m not sure,” he answered. “It doesn’t seem to have killed Gus yet, but it could be slow acting.”

While I love my relations, it’s become impossible to deny that I don’t relate to them.  Growing up, I felt like I was one of those genetic anomalies you’ll sometimes see in nature, like a six-toed rabbit or an albino squirrel or a four-eyed frog.

That never felt good, so I left home to find out where I really belonged. This may sound insensitive or petulant.  I can’t help but be the center of my own universe, so my ego responds. In fact, to be really truthful, I sometimes regard my family of origin as though they were the two-headed salamanders or the algae that grows without sunlight. Or whatever that stuff was growing in the wine jug.

After some debate, we poured out our cups into a sickly-looking plant in the corner, hoping that we wouldn’t be responsible for its demise, but then philosophizing that we may have been putting it out of its misery.

We wandered back into the living room, and sat on the lopsided sofa for a while. My cousin “Colleen” was presenting her dad a blood pressure cuff—a well-intended, and therefore fruitless, gesture.

The excitement of watching each member of my family take their blood pressure got to be too much, so I ventured outside with my son to circuit the property, walking around the various rusted carcasses of tractors and combines. We explored a vast two-story shed full of mysterious pieces of metal. So many machines had been unrigged in that building, one couldn’t help but arrive at a certitude that there was no hope of anything being assembled in a functioning sort of way ever again. Nevertheless, there was a beauty to these rounded and squared objects that glinted in the dusty air. They were exquisite in their exotic uselessness. If one were to arrange them into a gallery exhibit, the show would be titled “The Art of Neglect.”

There’s a wider scope to what’s depressing about these visits, besides my defensive judgments of my relatives. People in this part of the country used to know how to maintain those objects. It used to be possible to thrive on that piece of land, when the soil and water were cleaner and people’s bodies were fed better stuff. The communities weren’t as fragmented and neighbors weren’t as bedraggled, so friendships with them didn’t look like liabilities. There are only so many toothless neighbors reeking of beer one can meet without feeling ill at ease.

My boy and I were getting cold and decided to bypass the larger barn. The barn housed some horses with matted manes, as well as one blind old pig, but most of the stalls and the mangers were used to store more esoteric pieces of rust and rubber. Truthfully, I wanted to keep my boy out of there. Better to go inside and see if we could scare up some tea.

Rounding the back of the house, we discovered a colt walking between the parked cars, awkward and out of place. The gate that surrounded the barn didn’t look open, so our best guess was that the young horse had jumped the fence.

It was prancing back and forth uneasily, seeming not to know what to do next. We went into the house to tell my aunt Linda one of her colts was loose in the driveway.  Though I don’t know why I was surprised, a chorus of cousins chimed in with my aunt.

“That can’t be.  You just didn’t see the fence.”

The we don’t believe you refrain is a greatest hit in my family.

I replied, “Yes, I saw the fence.  It was behind the horse, not in front of it.  I can usually spot those kinds of things right off.”

Still, no one could accept what I was saying.  Josh and Eli, husbands to my twin cousins, being only married into the family, allowed for a remote chance that if my son was agreeing with my testimony, perhaps I didn’t imagine it. After all, there was also a male there, saying the same thing as me—even if he was only four years old.

They put on their coats to see for themselves.  The rest of the clan stood around talking about the function of fences, and how they used such things to keep horses inside a defined parameter, in case I didn’t understand.

Last spring, we were watching some silly alien movie and my now-teenage son, the wag, wise-cracked, “Where did they find so many green actors with four arms to be in this movie?”  And my cousin quite un-ironically attempted to explain the advent of CGI.

This is a family trait I’ve found particularly maddening. My own vanity notwithstanding, I’ve stood out to many in the outside world as somewhat gifted, and yet my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins always treated me like a raving idiot—which is their de facto opinion of everyone in the world. They don’t have any particular means of substantiating this attitude and will deny that they even act that way.  And yet, when a person speaks, their first impulse is to dismiss.

I’ve never been one for lying to or tricking anyone.  It doesn’t appeal to me. On occasion, however, I’ve made the mistake of making observations out loud, observations that others preferred to ignore: things like, “Grandpa sure does yell a lot,” and “Why’s that lady sitting on Uncle Gus’s lap?”  These things weren’t to be talked about, but I was young and didn’t know better.

You see, my family long ago adopted a policy of rejecting wholesale anyone’s ability to observe the world around them accurately.  It was clearly a defensive strategy.

I recall a time in the sixth grade, when I fell down the steps outside my Aunt Linda’s house.  I was in agony, unable to move my left hand without screaming.  No one believed I was in pain.

“You just want attention,” my cousins said.

Yes.  I wanted attention because my wrist was broken.

“If it was broken, it would swell up,” my mother said.

There was nothing to do but sit there and watch syndicated re-runs of Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley while the rest of the family ate supper.  Five hours elapsed and I still held my throbbing arm in my good hand, the injured hand limp and white.

“Oh, if you’re not going to let up, I’ll take you to the emergency room.  X-Rays are expensive, you know.”  This, from my mother, who was a nurse at the hospital. We had pretty decent insurance that we never used.

We went to the hospital, where my mother cared for people when she was being paid to. After my arm was x-rayed, the doctors wrapped my broken wrist in a plaster cast.  Thank god the hospital wasn’t staffed with more relatives of mine.

When we got back to Linda’s house, my cousin Colleen greeted me with, “It was just a bruise, wasn’t it?  You big baby.”

I waved the cast triumphantly in her face.  For six weeks, I had a chalky white banner of vindication.  But once the cast came off, the lesson was lost.

For instance, the aforementioned holiday visit.

Josh and Eli came back into the house, said, “The colt is loose, alright,” and everyone sprang into action (except Uncle Gus, who once he’s stripped down to his underwear, can’t be removed from the Barcalounger unless there’s a promise of whiskey).  In minutes, there were eight adults and four children trying to round up the incorrigible colt.

I would have expected the filly to come to Linda, since she belonged to her, but every time Linda took a step toward the animal, it reared and ran the opposite direction.

The colt, like all the rest of the horses, had dried-on mud across her flanks and big knots in her mane.  She stamped her feet and blew sounds of distress through her nose.  As Josh and Eli tried to approach her, she ran off to the far side of the yard, near the barn, but away from the fence gate.

The other horses in the barn whinnied out an anxious reply to the colt’s calls for help.  I had moved away from my son because a couple of times the horse had come charging at me, and I didn’t want my child to be trampled.  One cousin kept him back a safe distance while the rest of the adults formed a wide circle around the nameless horse.  It seemed that when the colt didn’t know where to go, she would run to me. I wasn’t sure if I was just imagining it, due to a bias of sympathy for the both of us. But then, even a cousin of mine observed that the colt kept coming to me, and soon it was agreed that I should try to lead her to the gate.

I grabbed a carrot, held out my arm, and said gently, “Come here, girl.  This way.”  The horse followed.

I stepped in front of the open gate.  The horse wouldn’t go in.  I opened the gate wider, yet she continued to pace around me.  Finally, it dawned on me to walk through, myself.  As soon as I did, the horse entered the field.   She realized she was back in familiar territory and galloped straight into the barn. Josh and Eli set to work making sure that the gate was securely fastened.

My son and I spent this most recent holiday up in Syracuse, with my partner and his oldest, closest friends. It was a lovely time, with good food, singing, and all the things I associate with Christmas. The people were warm and made me feel welcome. I’m very grateful for being part of their celebration. Nevertheless, in the days since then, I can’t escape thinking about my own family, even with this holiday spent elsewhere, away from home and kin.

Have you ever eaten something delicious and been reminded of all the mediocre or unpalatable versions you’ve had before it? Or compared your current job to a much worse job you had before? This line of thinking can be applied to just about any experience. I think it’s one of the mechanisms we use to “count our blessings.”

My life is blessed. But there’s a pain I feel when I think about home, like a sore spot where there’s a splinter trapped below the skin. When I was a girl I felt very much like that colt, eager to jump the fence. But where to go? Like the colt, I wouldn’t have gone too far hitchhiking down that little country road, and I was too young to get a job. I had to wait until I was older, stronger. But it still feels like a betrayal that I led the colt back to her family, back to the place where she was hemmed in by all the comfort and deprivation she had ever known. To ease my misgivings, I remind myself that she actually does love her parents and aunts and uncles and cousins. No matter how far she yearns to run, it’s not that simple a trick to pull off, getting away. The desire for freedom inevitably contracts into something smaller.

The colt just wanted to see what the driveway was like. She’s not ready to completely cut out. She just wishes the wine was decent. It’s not as though the world is a friendly place for lone filly colts, either. It’s not an easy place for anyone of rural origins. I tell myself it’s better for her to be in the barn with the rest of her fold.

Or maybe I let us both down. I wonder if I ought to be back home, taking better care of the horses. After a few days back there, I always manage to leave and tend to my own hide. If I were to speak out again the way I used to, I’d say “Something has seeped into our rural spaces, and maybe everywhere, that’s subtle and poisonous. This pathogen could be coming through the televisions and the shopping malls. It’s mesmerizing. We forget what matters. I feel disconnected from you, which is very similar to being disconnected from the natural world that sustains us.” But I’ve never come out and said that to them. In that respect, when the moment of truth shows up to test how I handle myself, I turn out to be no more reliable than my relatives think I am.

Sea Monkey Romance, Volume 1, Issue 22

We are creatures
more fiction than reality   sketched
on a cardboard box

We defy logic by existing
at all    I torpid in my plastic
natatorium noticed by no one
can’t discern you in the brine
but you’re there feeding
from the same broth of life and excrement

We’ll spawn despite not embracing
releasing ballads into the tideless mare
brief and futile
never seeing how future copywriters
edit our saga    after god’s little
brother feeds us to his dog.

Still Cooking

Heat

how did I get so hot

the subway platform a griddle serving up
dimly radiating lightbulbs
wrapped in cages of engine fire
plus all these exhaling bodies
making everything flicker—
my tongue, the lights, the attendant’s voice through the speakers—
newspapers put to work as fans
are no relief
and you are leaned against a steel brace
acting cool pseudo-reading a book
and I’m looking for a shadow in this sunless cell
my hair licking my sticky neck
suddenly aware of the curve of my lower lip
and the mingling odors
writhing wriggling from the darker parts
the promise of new flavors
passing your tongue
new skin beneath your fingers
new words in your ears
new sights in your temporary new life
with a new person
an urge to make it easy

because
you’re looking at me

Creative Conformity

This month, I’m exploring the sestina, a poetic form that doesn’t typically rhyme, but has a very specific pattern of repetition of the last words in each line of the stanza. The effect of the repetition can seem incantatory and mysterious.

This is the prescribed pattern:

1. ABCDEF
2. FAEBDC
3. CFDABE
4. ECBFAD
5. DEACFB
6. BDFECA
7. (envoi) ECA or ACE, with BDF at the midpoints of each line

The origin of the sestina goes back to the time of the troubadors of the middle ages, and originally was another device for professing courtly love. Given the romantic context, the repetition could also connote devotion, perhaps even obsession.  In that tradition, I offer my sestina.

Dreamer’s Sestina

Again last night I saw you in my sleep
and wonder if you see me where you lie
encircled by a house two kids and wife.  We haven’t spoke;
I was too afraid to kiss or touch
your dormant form, should you have woke
remembering our murmurs in the night

as a mistake.  Desires run loose at night;
that is why I’d rather sleep
some more, recalling the spiral stars that woke
when our skin unearthed. In that dreamland, we still lie
together every sunset, so that our whispers touch.
My days are silent, blotted by what I spoke

at slumber’s border.  If only living words spoke
the same message I hear in solid, opaque night.
The mother sun fears for me, wakes me with her touch,
telling me there is no light and heat in my sleep.
She is warm and real on my head, but inside is such a lovely lie,
it’s a fresh grief every time I’ve woke.

And what of you?  What did you see when you woke,
squinting at me?  You never spoke,
and since you didn’t speak, you couldn’t lie.
Kisses confessed what you hid behind night.
Our confederacy won’t disappear, though we sleep
fenced off by years.  Our memories still touch

in mingling vapors, despite how we’ve lost touch.
The touch is not lost, should I say, but stored away, and woke
on chance evenings when we’re both asleep,
and you ask me is it true, those words I spoke
about how you vibrate in me like the eternal night,
although I sleep next to another—do I lie,

to dream our love is endless and true while I lie
beside this other body, with its living breath, and touch
this foreign skin that has a right to touch me every night?
Is this other lover dreaming?  Should he be woke
to the bright glaring truth of promises I spoke
to you?  I, like him, like you, in my silence sleep.

I stubbornly pretend to lie with you, wondering how you woke
but failed to persuade me no touch was felt, as no word was spoke
on that masquerading night still imprisoning me in sleep.

***