(Regarding Paul Steck’s Ophelia Drowning, 1895)
She rushes under the surface with ethereal grace,
the pastel-palette whirl of skirts surrounding ankles,
the raising of her hair and crossing of her forearms,
you can hear the whir of water, muffled and hushed.
The stained painting is a small reflection in my hand
when I return from the wake and sink behind my desk.
This is not real, Steck, Ophelia has a bad way of
painting death comfortable— pretty and lush.
(after reading Marge Piercy’s Intimacy)
You asked me for a revolution of flesh, pulse and perspiration, so I gave you my skin. I unzipped myself and stepped out of it. I tore the organs from my body. I emptied the stomach and piled the entrails at your feet. I broke my sternum and displaced my ribs. I left the cavity cavernous. I offered you my heart. The pulse was still in it, all the ineffable still attached. I offered you my heart, still beating in my skeletal, outstretched hand. I held it out. I begged you to take it. I pled with you through the sockets in my skull. I burned for you until my bones turned to ash, until my organs were puddles and my blood boiled away on the pavement. I burned for you until my heart was all the heat that was left in me. I offered you my heart, and you took it, then left. You walked away from my body, my remains. I offered my heart, and you took it, a trail of blood and abandon leading from my ashes to your destination.
Painters’ Exhalations 180
(after Agnes Martin’s Untitled #7)
Gardens solely don’t dance
on the palms of manicured lawns.
Or, for the pleasure of prize-winning
ideologies. Along the California
contoured spectrum of beach time
patterns, allure, large teal coat
with full pockets of pounding foam
colliding with a child’s imagined,
tangible castle. Here, sand, a garden, a blond,
miles-wide line of pebbles and gaping mouth
for seaweed turned from its mother’s
Families dig with plasticized
tools, excavating sound and
sand crabs running from the watcher’s
digging hand. A brand of meditation
needed to conceptualize outside au courant
renditions of garden bodies, bodies whose
vision of self mirrors an elsewhere understanding
of beautified, sacred, horizontal torsos.
Lannie’s grandma had been lingering on her deathbed since her ninety-eighth birthday seven months ago.
Every Sunday evening Lannie called her at 8:05 so as not to interrupt her deathbed viewing of 60 Minutes, and every Sunday Gram signed off saying,
“If I could just see you married off and respectable, honey, then I could die in peace.”
“Horst,” Lannie said across the breakfast table to her partner of 27 years, “Let’s just get married and make her happy.”
Horst looked up from his laptop, where he was placing an order for a new hoe at LeeValley.com.
“I thought Gram was a feminist,” he said.
True, Lannie agreed. Gram had burned her bra at age sixty and started wearing her brother’s Levi jeans. In 1973 she had been widowed after a long marriage and had never taken up with anyone else.
But late last year, Lannie’s sister had left some of her chick lit books lying around where Gram could see them. Gram had read one about the humorous escapades of a soccer mom and ever since had harped on Lannie to tie the knot.
Horst reached across the table and took Lannie’s hand.
“How about next Saturday afternoon? You can send the invites on the e-mail.” Horst said. “Leah can do the ‘I dos’, she’s ordained, y’know.”
Lannie did know that neighbour Leah carried a card in her wallet that proclaimed her a minister of the Holy Ministry of Gabriel on High and had in fact presided over several unions on the eve of the millennium.
“Okay,” Lannie said, “You talk to Leah, I’ll send the invitations. Hey, I better call Gram first of all.”
Gram picked up on the third ring.
“Are you planning to be alive on Saturday?” Lannie shouted into the phone.
“Oh, I expect so. Why?”
“That’s the big day, Gram. Horst and I are tying the knot. And you’re invited.”
Gram wheezed in delight and Lannie imagined her little eyes sparkling.
“Well, you get over here this afternoon and we’ll get out my old wedding dress. If the worms haven’t eaten it, it’s my gift to you.”
Lannie’s skin crawled at the thought. She was very familiar with Gram’s wedding picture. The dress was high-collared stiff ivory taffeta with short puffed sleeves, a wide pleated waistband and a huge skirt that reminded her of a deflated parachute. Gram had been eighteen and perky as a bug when she wore it. Lannie was fifty-two. Still, it was free.
“I’ll see you at two, Gram,” she said. She set down the phone and looked at the clock. Already a quarter to nine. She wanted to get the vegetable garden tilled for planting soon and the neglected flowerbeds needed a lot of care.
Well, first things first, she would get the invitations sent out and then get to work.
She logged on and went to the free e-card site and found a nice plain template with a garland encircling the text. She quickly typed in the event, time, place and cut and pasted her friends list into the address box. Then she pulled on her gardening gloves, grabbed a spade and went out to work.
At one-thirty she came in, ate a banana, jumped in and out of the shower and drove over to the senior care complex. The nurse on duty waved her over and handed her the keys to Gram’s storage locker.
After clearing away a stack of dusty boxes, Lannie opened the trunk and lifted out the dress and veil in their cocoon of brownish tissue. It felt as stiff and smelled as musty as old canvas as she carried it up to Gram’s room. She dropped into the armchair next to Gram’s bed and was pinned by its weight.
When she had caught her breath she said, “Horst’s sister will come by with the van on Saturday and bring you to the house.”
“What day is it today, honey?”
“Still Monday, Gran.”
“All right,” Gram said, gleaming with pleasure, “I’ll try to hang on till then.”
Lannie patted her knobby, dry hand. “I’ll see you then” She gave her Gram a kiss on the forehead and staggered out to the car.
As the week went on she got a lot of RSVPs and on Friday she made a triple batch of spanakopita and bought bags of plump green and black grapes. She ordered a slab of carrot cake from Safeway and giggled when she asked for the little plastic bride and groom on top.
On Friday night she and Horst spent their last night of living in sin on the couch, watching classic movies and necking like teenagers. They had not felt so fond of each other in years.
On the morning of their wedding day the newspaper announced a recall of spinach and grapes but they were too busy to read it. When Lannie finally got to Safeway to pick up the cake, she found the store and the whole mall in darkness from a power outage. The ovens, of course, were cold. She talked through the window to the store manager and said she would take another cake. She pointed to a pretty peach and white double tier number she could see atop the display case.
“That cake is cardboard,” the manager said.
“No problem, nobody eats it anyway,” Lannie replied, and the manager helped her get the cardboard cake into the car.
Leah arrived with flowers in her hair and all six feet of her clad in a long white surplice that made her look like an ectomorphic angel. Horst wore a clean blue button down shirt, black pants and a black string tie. Lannie had sprayed the taffeta dress with Febreze which made it not only fragrant but pliable. Leah and Horst beamed in her direction.
And then the first group of guests arrived. They wore grimy sweatpants and plaid shirts, and carried crusty shovels and rakes. They stared at Lannie and Horst in open-mouthed silence. The down the street neighbors arrived next, also dressed for work. Neighbour Clancy finally spoke up,
“This is the weeding party, right?”
Lannie’s sister’s van pulled up in the driveway. She called over a couple of the men and they wheeled Gram down the ramp. She looked beautiful in a patterned silk bed jacket and a matching quilt covered her legs. She peered at the mounds of earth next to the dug up flowerbeds and the crowd of people holding shovels and spades and Leah, with her wide surplice sleeves outstretched.
“Looks like I just made it,” she wheezed with a final breath.
Leah rode with Gram’s body back to the hospital. Lannie and Horst took care of the paperwork and the friends and neighbors went to work on the yard so that by the time they got home all the beds were tilled and planted and not a single weed remained among the roses.
They sat down at the kitchen table and realized that they were famished so they feasted on spanakopita and grapes until they were stuffed full.
They admired the cardboard cake with its decorative crown and little doll bride and groom forever molded together.
And they were thankful for the kindness and affection of family and friends and content for the life they had shared together. They stood hand in hand in their beautiful garden and watched the sun go down.
GRASS OR QUIVERS
I walk around on grass, a somnambulist who sees
very little when he walks around
on grass or quivers on concrete slabs.
I once met you and shook so steadily
that you thought it’d be
a good idea to send me screaming
through the dishwasher in your affections.
These pronouns that are the focus
of our debate mean
when placed in the center.
So you ask me
to take you home because
my bed is too small.
I read somewhere
that poetry is sex,
but it’s not. If anything,
poetry is spending a year
attempting to scrape
from an aging
In the drugstore, you told me
that you don’t celebrate holidays
anymore because it’s too mainstream.
I had found a present
for you, but I dropped it behind
a bottle of shampoo before you had
a chance to see it. We left
with your mascara and my gum
The painted windows had
dripped onto the sidewalk like melting snow.
It was the shortest
day of the year, so we sat outside
and waited for people to turn
their headlights on. I think
something was supposed to come, but
you never told me what to look for. I played
with the mascara bottle and thought
about telling you that you didn’t need it
but I couldn’t so I let it fall next
to your thighs.
We only had sweatshirts and
I offered to share because your hands
were wobbly in the dark and
it was hard to see your face, but
you said you didn’t mind the cold
I could feel goosebumps against my jeans
The cashier was staring at us through
the window and smiling, and when
he came out to smoke he complimented you
and I wasn’t sure how I was supposed
I tried to speak, but
it felt like a movie where our faces
are never in the same shot, because we don’t
know how to put ourselves together.
You played with your earrings
and you said you weren’t sure
how to make something important
I mumbled “Maybe it just is”.
We shivered, and the light
of the parking lot traced your smile
Use once and Destroy
Waking up under the Jackson Street Bridge is never a good way to start the day. Looking out from under the meagre warmth of the mildew smelling blankets I can’t see the sky, only the mud, the beer cans, and discarded piles of wet clothing revealed in the sodden half light of early dawn. It is a typical Portland morning in late spring. Cold, slate grey sheets of rain pound the overpass and the cars rushing overhead. The rhythmic sounds of their passing greet my ears like the waves of a great industrial ocean crashing on black top shores.
Zoey sleeps soundly under the moldering covers. The sound of her soft breath and the comfort provided by her warmth cause me to linger in the bed though my mind is drifting to more pressing matters. I have to take a piss and more importantly I need to do my wake up shot. I grab an empty forty ounce bottle that is within arms reach piss in it and throw it as far away from us as I can. Only then do I reach for the bag containing the works and very quietly unwrap the unsavory treasures within. I light two small tea candles, one for light and one to cook up my hit. The sound of the lighter stirs Zoey from her sleep and blinking at the flame she stretches and gives me a sad and tired little smile.
It’s been almost a week since we first met here in this darkened urban cave. Almost a week since that first trip to House Depot and that first sweet score. Almost a week I have been out of jail this time. Almost a week and two more trips to House Depot. Two more trips to S.E. Portland and two more rides in Julio’s car. It took us only a day to go through those first balloons. I laugh bitterly to myself remembering that I thought they would “last a few days”.
Right… The thing about heroin is, the more you have the more you need. I lie to myself this way a lot. It is a necessary defense mechanism for a junky. The truth is just too ugly, so we construct elaborate mythologies for ourselves. We are masterful deceivers. We exist on lies. We manipulate and destroy everyone around us in the name of that great unholy whore dope.
Daily we say it “gonna kick tomorrow”. That ultimate junky cliché and we believe it when we say it. “Just this last shot”. “One more fix”. These are the lies that sustain us. Without this armour of denial we would surely parish by our own hands. The grim truth of this self imposed life sentence would overwhelm us and carry us to the bottom of the darkest pit.
The people in our lives pull back and fall away with each shred of our credibility. To them we are beyond sick. We cannot be trusted. It’s true; we are lepers in this great and prosperous society. To look upon us is to look upon death itself. So we cook up, tie off, and shoot that lie right into our arms. With this sacrament we are healed. You can’t visibly see the change and from the outside we appear as shabby and pitiful as ever but inside, inside we are golden warmth and comfort. In that inner landscape of bliss and satisfaction we take shelter from the world. We take shelter from ourselves and that great deception. We rush ever onward towards our doom knowing we are just one shot away from death and finding out the truth about god.
By the dim light of the candle I arrange the tools of my self destruction before me. The spoon, the needle, and the tiny ball of black tar. These are the sacred and holy devices needed to worship here, here in this death church. This black cathedral of concrete and suffering. From my water bottle I draw the measure of liquid needed and squirt it into the spoon. I remove the last of the heroin from the small square of plastic shopping bag and place it with the water in the cooker. Tying my arm off with a shoelace I hold the rig in my mouth and complete the ritual. Finding a vein in the darkness is a challenge and after a few tries and with blood running down my wrist from the misses I finally see the small burst of red in the tube. Pushing the plunger home I remove the spike from my pale and wounded flesh and lean back to enjoy the brief respite.
The rush is over quickly, leaving only the absence of discomfort. Not really a high so to speak but merely the relief of not being dopesick. After the initial “honeymoon” stages of nodding out and nausea this is all we get. We forever chase those early highs, sucking the fumes of old memories. Inhaling the toxic exhaust of our own burned out potential.
With a sigh I pull the blankets back up to my chin and close my eyes. Without looking I can hear the sounds of Zoey preparing her own wake up hit. I nod briefly and wake a few minutes later when she crawls back into the bed. She curls her small frame close to mine and presses her face to my neck. We sleep like this for awhile and for us this is the best we get. These moments make all of it okay. Just for now we can pretend we are not in this place.
Later on it has stopped raining and the absence of sound awakens me. Sunbeams filter in through the fence that covers the opening under the bridge and the interior of the squat is revealed in all of its squalid glory. The same sight I have awoken to for a week now. Dirty needles, used condoms and cigarette butts stepped on and half buried in the mud. We need to get the fuck out of here. This place is death. I need a plan to make some real money. After the three successful trips to House Depot Zoey ‘s I.D. is now burnt so that’s out. I haven’t called my mother in a long time, and she is usually good for some help if I can make up a good enough lie.