2013 Winner - Poetry
We live in her house now,
and have for almost eight years.
When she died, I wrote her a poem on purple parchment
ripped out of an address book, dotted with moons and stars
sketched into the corners.
I was ten then so it was a good poem and people hugged me
though I did not know why.
Relatives crawled out of the woodwork to weep for her.
Men in moth-eaten thatched suits and dark black battered ties
came to speak for her,
albums were stripped bare of pictures for her.
My grandma took Xanax for her and everyone held her hand
and felt the spasms in her chest
run down all the way to her knuckles
as she gasped for air between sob after sob.
Everyone loved each again that day
and forgot about how cousin Burgundy
went missing for two years and was found
in a ditch somewhere with a needle sticking out of her arm
foam around her mouth
but she was here now,
cousin Brandon suddenly remembered who my mother was
and their embrace will always be cemented into my mind,
even though long ago he swore never to talk to her again
after she put up with that aborigine bush man that dealt coke from our apartment
and punched a hole through the wall in my grandparent’s house.
I remembered Baba, sitting in the kitchen sucking on nicotine sticks
a yellow eclipse stained on the ceiling above her head
she even smoked while she was on an oxygen tank
and offered my sister stale Twinkies and butterscotch
Later I would hear my grandma’s voice and know that
Baba was still alive inside of her raspy esophagus
Ya hungry Have some cough drops
Smile For Me
Teeth don’t belong in jars
but she had a whole row of them
connected with wire like some kind of science animal
that died and got put on display
She took her bridge out every night before bed and cleaned it
she took her teeth out to show me and cackled
like the witch that lived in my closet
she knew I hated it
never ride down a hill on your bike with your eyes closed
she would tell me the story of how when she was younger the ground knocked them out
I picture Mount Everest and my grandma riding down
on an old little red Huffy
dressed in a big billowing priest’s robe, I cannot think of her as younger
so she towers on top of the little bike and smashes into the dirt
her teeth bite into the ground and stay planted there like little tombstones
so for a long time I would brush my teeth in the morning, slowly
and wear my helmet in the school parking lot, even though it was pink
wrestling with a tree that has stolen his fishing line,
tells that tree who’s boss and reminds it of each derogatory name it forgot it had
and my brother pretends to fish
with a broken foot- long plastic stick on the end of the dock,
And my sister. Oh, my sister. She swings her red pole back,
about to throw the best cast of her life, and
hooks me square in the left eyebrow, centimeters away
from the eye that saw my grandfather rip a barbed piece of metal out of a bluegill’s lip,
the same eye that saw Uncle Jean rock that aluminum boat to the point where
capsize wasn’t a joking word,
and the man we call “the ogre” who demands I give him
one thousand dollars for his lucky lure I lost that he will never see again.
That fishing line is still tangled in a tree somewhere,
that red pole sits in our basement closet with Santa Claus and broken Easter eggs,
my skin has healed
and that thousand-dollar lure the ogre nagged me about for years
sits somewhere at the bottom of Seneca Lake.
It’s A Boy
I was there when she twisted her knee,
trampolining to dreams she would never reach
late night movies, brownie batter,
and while other kids played dodge ball,
we sat on swings designing red realities
to everyone who ever told us
we were ugly, we were worthless, and
no one would remember our names.
(It’s a good thing we’re not gods)
One day, she climbed out of her window
and didn’t climb back into my memory until years later:
K-Mart. Bell bottoms with mud caked around the cuffs. Jeans ripped.
Grease streaked through her hair.
Black and white stripes stretching over
the next generation of picking forget-me-nots and avoiding eye contact.
A baby bump so large it looked like pillows we stuffed under our shirts.
She flings her arms around me like nothing has happened since
Barbie and Ken got a divorce, it’s no big deal, Barbie was left with eleven children
in that little pink box of an apartment and
every single one of the little brats had the same damn name. We haven’t spoken since.
This is the story of more girls than I can count on my hands,
Our shitty town, beaten dirt paths cutting through playgrounds
where kids would deal meth under a sycamore tree.
This is not just their struggle, this is my struggle and this is your struggle.
Umbilical cords chaining them to a life
handed out like a flyer someone threw in the wind.
I used to blame them for it
now I know that something moves us around chessboards without our consent—
she was in and out of foster care, and she was abused
our families survived from paycheck to paycheck
and dipped into our nonexistent child support for cocaine they couldn’t afford
and the cow jumped over the moon, and babies came from storks,
and our children should’ve been digging up worms together
should’ve been building castles out of sand and claiming them with bottle caps right now.
Instead my children are five years overdue and counting,
and I have learned I’m some kind of freak of nature, a big lonely middle finger
to every sociology textbook definition of who I’m supposed to be.
I was supposed to be fourteen and pregnant
like every other girl who sat on the bus with me.
I aborted the idea in my own head but it still grows in the belly of poverty,
and this is my struggle because those girls were my family,
this is our struggle because
how many trimesters do we have to pass through until we realize that
we’re not just bitches who can’t keep our legs closed, but
when we’re born, someone else gives us our names.