Fifty Shades of Grey
quietly. I raise my eyebrows
He tilts into a
I tear away
out the rain. We
every narrow threat. We
shake grace to the
The split hive buzzes
on its own, the bees long dead.
It’s the echo of the swarm,
a lingering song, the honeycombs
a lattice of nerves,
If you touch it, it will flinch.
It’s an oscillating force, an electrical force, a force
The hivematter is organic—
It’s more than wind.
We learned to hum so
our lips buzz, tickle
Honey coating the tongue.
The tongue warmed
Otherwise, the sound is hollow.
We learned to match frequency,
Press your finger into
Feel it vibrate
like the skin of your throat.
To a Player Piano, Grand Rapids, MI, 2010
The way my father’s calloused fingers plucked tiny checkers, careful and patient, counting aloud as he skirted the perimeter of backgammon’s felt-and-leather stage, teaching me addition in the pediatric ward. The only other sounds: the ding of elevator arrival and helicopter wings. My skin raked bare by drug, scalp shining feathery under fluorescent lights, and my father, still scraping together some semblance of order, scolding me for itching out my eyebrows, Pick out mine instead. as if he wished he could take my place or that we’d all end up unchanged. These are the moves of brown and ivory stones kept in neat rows, progressing in circles from one corduroy cradle to another, Move one guy six and one four, or this one ten. His stones advancing counterclockwise against the trajectory of mine like a sweeping negation. The muted rattle of dice in felt-lined cups again and again both of us traveling nowhere. Maybe it was all just practice for what was to come, the way his tissues fell into mindless replication like a child pianist repeating the same measure. In the months before he died, I found the backgammon set buried in an antique dresser drawer. His mind had been rollered flat by illness, his fine motor skills rendered imprecise, but backgammon came easily each gesture rising from the wreckage of memory. In the lobby of the hospice hell-home where we let him die, some restored Steinway kept playing itself from a pattern punctured in paper, the notes laid out like barcodes, each perforation a premonition of its sound that suck of air the way a choir holds its breath just before beginning the way a father leaves his daughter filled with holes.
You Called the Night It Snowed in April
You called the night it snowed in April. I squeezed out of the dinner party, slumped behind the wheel of Molly's car and listened. Harshly, you squeezed the dinner party from my mind. Delicate white flakes fell on Molly's car and glistened. Harshly, the wind blew the idea of warmth and eating well from my mind. Delicate white flakes fell. “Are you in a safe place?” I asked. The wind blew. The idea of you warm and well in the shelter near Leicester passed, “Are you at a bar?” I asked. You remind me you can’t drink in the shelter near Leicester. The past, an unbreakable chain, links me to you. “You shouldn’t drink.” But in the dim bar you will shoot cheap whiskey. There is an unbreakable chain which links you to me and light brown liquor. From the shitty, dim bar where you shoot cheap whiskey you called. It snowed that night in April. You drank light brown liquor. I felt shitty and slumped farther down behind the wheel.
The Man Who Can't Say No
She lost her father to a city he founded in his brain. He built disappearing streets, littered with yellowed newspapers, bills, and love letters to women he’s never met. Bus stops, skyscrapers, and automobiles made from books he’s never read. He’s sculpted statues of his children and ex-wives out of canned goods, stitched a city flag out of clothes he’d outgrown and turned bedrooms into museums for the world’s largest collection of tiny spoons. And suddenly the population explodes. Ghosts of dead relatives and friends bang on pipes, turn streetlights on and off. Families of stray animals move in beneath the ceiling for a sky that holds the suffering sun and moon.
Ode to the Enemy Sniper
Searching for your defining moment, you’ve come to dance in our little war. Life is nothing more than a turn of the windage knob, a slight adjustment for distance, a tight lungful of breath, a sight bearing black reticle, that crosshair etched into your lens like a crucifix, reaching for the edges of your omniscient circle, a transfer of kinetic energy from man, to machine, to man. The word Dragunov strikes fear into your enemies, but in you it triggers the ancient sentiment that sparks wars among men; and so you aim steady, you squeeze slowly, propelling your projectile toward the anatomical plexus that turns off the world.
A different version of “Ode to the Enemy Sniper” appears in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2012).
It seems so long ago since we spilt our bloom, sculpted our sleep around the impact of ricochets into powdered dust, cried out Mene Mene as we waded into the Tigris to recover bodies. This is not the first time I have spoken of this. And each time the story grows less. Grows thin. Each time I end with a sigh, the only honest breath from my lungs, borne of a lexicon of light breathing, these tiny learned exhalations covering the holes that now stipple my stories—that have displaced those moments when I cried out: forgive me
J. Scott Brownlee
Hill Country Elegy
Let the division of light be the barbed-wire fence line. Let it divide up everything. Let it determine where the boundaries of the day and the first darkness are. Let the beef cattle enter and exit the pasture as they each see fit, licking piles of salt from the round, rubber basins the hired hands fill for their thick tongues to lick. Let what the deer eat in the long drought be enough. Let the landscape contain itself. Here where the golden light of sun going gradually down leaves me singing the songs German forefathers sang, ranchers taming the land, let me return to the basics of living off the land. For over eighteen years I thought I would never grieve, leaving here. Now, it’s the deer calling me back with their white tails, faint flicks in the darkness again between my snake chaps and the bee brush, the mesquite scrub and the needled cactus spines. Everywhere I look, there is tangible evidence of my hill country origins. As I pass through the pasture on my way to the highway, I see a buck. In my high-powered scope, in the crux of its cross-hairs where the deer marks a vanishing point, there’s an infinite place I can never quite reach: an erasure fills it. Both the buck and myself will disappear, and I understand this. But until then, one bullet joins my body to the buck’s. For a second, we’re linked by the passing of it through twilight between us. Its hot cone breaks his skin—enters in where it enters my skin. Shared friction burns the two of us at its vanishing point, where a great peace fills me— and an emptiness, him. Christ got up on a cross to prove he meant business. My own father took me hunting several times, though I never liked it. Now, I’m doing it simply because I miss him. This one ritual kill is ours. Tonight we can say anything. Distance passes through us like light thrown down from stars. We are drawn near by it—so close the bullet I shoot at the sky, streaking up, touches him.
Lisa Fay Coutley
Which means I’ve started watching YouTube clips from the local dog shelter in the city I was sure I’d burned behind us. Familiar never pushes in its chair or leaves the table quiet. We live in a box. At night, I lock us inside & hope no one breaks in, or out. Sometimes, pre-sleep, I spin scenarios of what might happen. My sons never make it to college or marriage or fatherhood. I try to imagine how my whole life has passed & only this year have I noticed my own pigeon-toed stride. Parked, I’m stalking my oldest boy as he walks from school to his friend’s, where they’ll sit, chillin’ & smokin’ blunts all day. & so love saunters dumbly away. No glancing back. This is it: the dream where I’m screaming underwater or trying to punch some bitch in the face. Voiceless. Armless. Careo—in need of, free from, without. A kenneled dog comes closer to the word for missing than this dead language I'm learning, in this house where no one speaks.
Things Really Went to Hell
Everyone in your house had a beard, even the smooth-haired dachshund with the wheelchair attachment. Her name was Margot, you said. You asked about my trip. Bus travel was invented for the fashion depraved and those who enjoy touring historical sites. I am neither of those kinds of people, I said. I was forthright about my interest in socks. You had hyped yours up in our conversations over the Internet. Your best quality was love of fabrics. That was also something you said. I asked about them, your socks, only to look down and see orange polka-dot boots. Margot was there too, a stuffed octopus in her mouth. Someone sneezed upstairs. You offered to drive me around town in your bloodmobile as compensation for the lies you told me about your socks. That didn’t seem adequate compensation to me. I said but all those pictures and you said Photoshop. I asked if I was the first and you said not even close. Margot squeaked across the floor, tentacle in mouth. I said my heart was not a plush toy and you said it was a sock. I walked back out your door, past the bloodmobile with the license plate motto: The Sideburn State. Now, this made sense. I wrapped this relief around me like a scarf and was on a bus home twenty minutes later. And I was so happy—my scarf said don’t mess with me, I’m the saddest motherfucker with a window seat.
What The Academy Does In The Library Stacks
The easiest part of being me is probably all of it but somehow I keep finding it hard. Especially the folding of clean laundry. Especially the throwing away of old flowers. I carry death on my shoe. I keep pebbles in my pockets—small ones of no particular significance but mine, still. I wear voluminous dresses too, big gashes of fabric & the body swirling underneath. I’ve got all these hands & I just want to touch myself, okay? & not always even that.
Over & over the cat says she just wants to be where I am or, failing that, to know where I am. She keeps an eye out. She’s ready if the rats ever come. The body swirling underneath is sometimes a galaxy & sometimes an engine & sometimes a dog but please don’t mistake it for ever just a body please. How do I talk about a body? The cat walks everywhere with purpose.
This article is a treatise on the semantics of bodies in relation. The weather is always an excuse for drinking I say. As if I needed an excuse. The sky is my excuse – my reason its unbounded size & the distance between it & me. Come closer please. Wouldn’t you like it if I said that to you? You would, you would.
But the body beneath the body is an exploding star, a hidden tulip, a skeleton key that once spoken might open your heart beyond what you can bear. The body beneath the body has a voice. The body beneath the body beneath the body is composed entirely of heart. What is a body. I am going to keep drinking. Keep going.
I am translating into academic language the story of peeling back the bodies of my lover, of holding her in my mouth & the awe-clapped collapse of one body into another, those infinite layers crossing one into one into one into one until there—was her heart in her mouth & O how it sang. Come closer, now. See how the body moves under all this fabric. Perhaps I’ve waxed long enough. The clothes unfolded, the flowers drooping.
A Simile Is a Suspension Bridge
God—loving you is like sleeping drunk on the roof please come get me or at least give me a call & we can talk about having a party: let’s talk about having a fancy dress party, a costumed fancy dress party where everyone comes as the person they most want to sleep with & I will make hors d’oeuvres from my mother’s cookbook, the one from the seventies with the terrible off-color photographs but I have faith it’ll turn out okay. Cheese balls, devils on horseback, pigs in blankets, pimento-stuffed olives, Ritz crackers, tomato aspic. The cat & I have been so sad, God, we wake up every few hours to say “I love you” even though this only serves to remind us: we are still alive. We’ll invite all your favorite people & all of mine, but not Julia, who turned out to be a bitch, or Angel Michael, who you know I like but sometimes he can be sort of smug & I really want it to be the kind of party where we let loose. God, needing you isn’t easy, not even a little I wish you’d come get me. The cat & I miss you something fierce. Faith is like a wholly undeserved hangover, a stubbornly dry ballpoint, like realizing partway through an episode of Law & Order that you already saw the second half, in a motel outside Tempe, your whole naked body goose pimpled under the air conditioner; it’s like / it’s like a bridesmaid dress, faith is. God, faith is the distance between you & me, sure, but it’s also like a head full of the perfume of a girl who probably doesn’t want me back. Everyone knows this already, but of course I would show up as Joan & I think that’s a defensible choice. I’m getting carried away with the party, aren’t I? I just want you to call or to show up when I go for my goodnight smoke or sometimes I imagine you will be waiting on the porch as I walk home from work because you’ve forgotten your key but you don’t & don’t & don’t don’t don’t show up & the cat & I are so sad God I wish you’d call.
In Praise of Kool Filter Kings
If the sea had skin you could roll it up over Florida like a condom, prevent what you only in the comfort of others’ mishaps call the spread of Florida. And what’s so wrong with Florida, then? There’s none more existential crisis than 6:30 pm in Florida, and you need not have driven there drunk the night before, parked on the street outside the Daytona Beach YMCA, rusty harmonica on the dashboard and God knows what looks like donut glaze on the jeans you cut into jean shorts with a buck knife just south of Valdosta. We’ve come to the shore, by God, so we’ve conquered the shore, quoth you, for puking-on is 51% of ownership in business-friendly Florida. The sea is not indifferent, but rather calms you roaring in your ear. There’s still half a tank of gas and an unopened pack of menthols you must have bought at a Gate in St. Cloud, now what? You gave a homeless girl four menthols and a five-spot and she swore she’d spend it on bean burritos and she didn’t even cheapen the deal by proffering a blowjob. The liquor stores here never close because it’s the beach and you know by the way your eyeballs burn the sun will come up soon and you feel you should pray but you don’t know what to pray to and a blue crane perched on the arm of a lifeguard chair somehow reminds you there’s love in the world. Now what?
Twenty Miles Offshore
I remember walking out into the field behind our house the winter after I almost lost a leg to an unfortunate arrangement of old pine bark and truck engine. The world is full of legs—I thought. I’ve never been sure why hospital rooms keep cold the way they do—I think maybe those machines were special vacuums designed to suck up all the warm. I think maybe that’s what snow sounds like, a vacuum cleaner clearing carpet in another room. That winter after was when I started to play this game I called, how cold. It’s a one-person game—just you in a field with the naked cotton air. There are so many edges in the mountains, too many corners, places where one thing becomes another. I hate the sound of ripping fabric. When I think about childhood, I think about running—and then, for a long time, not running. There are monks that sit on snowy mountains, wrapped in soaking sheets. I used to believe I could lie on my back in a field of snow for hours and never feel it. When I drove back from college that first time, the blue ridge spilled over the dashboard all at once—I’ll never forget it. An hour ago I wanted things to be smaller. Now, I’m looking at water and thinking about your calves. I’m afraid I’ll never understand what sex is really about. What is enough? I think maybe there is a drift in my head. Things float off all the time— I know it because I watch them go. I don’t know if this is what love ought to feel like, and I don’t know exactly what it is you love, but I know that when you disappear into the rolling hills of your ribs—I want to go with you. The world is full of legs and arms and spleens. Who knows how many different ways there are to be in pain. I think maybe you are what blurs the edges, I think maybe you are the ripple where the big open gap-toothy sky piles into the road. What if I had never learned to swim? I am full of salt, the smell of chlorine. I am tired of talking only to dead people. An hour ago, I imagined having a beer with Laurence. Now, I’m telling him about the ocean at night—Have you ever been out this far? I ask.
Sometimes I Want You To Throw Things
You are talking to me about waves, about the difference between sets, about offshore winds and sinking tides— I want to collect your lazy freckles and pile them up like goose feather I want the grease stuck folds of your palms and your fingers on my stomach like an almost-too-cold shower There are things you cannot say to a person: You taste like toothpaste and floss and rainy weather I want to be your chewing gum I want to be the water-heavy air that fills the four feet between where I am and where you are Everyone’s beautiful is another person’s I-don’t-give-a-shit—I love you sometimes I don’t understand what you mean about drift. Does it frighten you when I talk about mountains, when I say that December is the only month that tastes like December. Are you scared I’ll sink into my ditch of blue? I’m thinking about the way you fall asleep on your back without any covers—I wish I could do that. If I hate you it’s because I’m jealous. If I’m not making sense it’s because I want you to do it for me— I want you to gather up all my syllables and arrange them into a perfectly constructed paragraph. I disagree with you about the phosphorescence. It is not the emission of light by bioluminescent plankton It is the millions of lightning bugs that somehow migrated into the ocean. They only just figured out how to glow underwater, they’ve been waiting on you for years