A venal monster by any other name …

I have taken to calling the president “Caligula.” Seth Meyers put this in my head by referring to him a few weeks ago as “our drooling, potato-brained Caligula.” It felt perfect. I used the whole description for a bit, but have given up the adjectives. They offer too much cover for evil.

At the start of the administration, I refused to put the word “president” beside Caligula’s name. Also wanted to avoid using his name. I started calling him “THOTUS” instead: Titular Head of These United States. (I was pretty proud of that one, I have to admit.) THOTUS worked for me on many levels. It gave a nod to the man’s baseness by including “tit.” It acknowledged the obvious fact that the decisions he was making were guided by his masters even as he wore the crown. And it let me bypass saying his name or calling him by the office he held.

Eventually, I had to give up THOTUS. It still worked for me, still felt satisfying, but the damage being done to and by this country was too great to be tossing around a cutesy name for a greedy, self-aggrandizing, painfully unintelligent, insecure, hate-monger bent on theft and destruction. And so I finally succumbed, began calling him both by his title and his name.

But now the power and horrific majesty of “Caligula” has been presented, and I find it too fitting to pass up. I’ve been using it almost daily, and it satisfies utterly. Or … almost utterly. Sure Caligula’s rep is that he was a monster and a sexual predator who thought he was a god. That all tracks. Yes, the homework I did that turned up questions about the accuracy of those accounts, but it still felt right. But somehow not enough right. And, of course, that’s because of Caligula’s grand-nephew, Nero.

Nero keeps getting in my way. Famous for “fiddling while Rome burned,” which definitely feels right if you sub in playing golf for fiddling. But “Nero” doesn’t feel as right for me, and “Caligula-with-a-side-of-Nero” is just ridiculous.

And, too, there is the concern that saying anything other than his title and name is just repeating the mistake of THOTUS, the mistake of being funny when there isn’t a single funny thing happening.

I’m sticking with Caligula for now, despite the inaccuracy of the comparison — the Romans at least got one good year of not-insane rule before Caligula turned into a horror legend. I’ve dropped the almost cutesy, doddering-old-fool additions of “drooling” and “potato-brained” and settled fully into this usage. Hoping that I only need to use it for the next seven and a half months.

Hoping.

Failure to Launch

I wasn’t sure I’d post this one. I wrote it the day after the poems I shared last week but held it back. Not that I haven’t written about this in past posts, but maybe precisely because I have written about this in past posts.

Sheltering-in-place has been sucking me dry. I keep trying to push myself back to the page, and I keep not getting there. I have been doing plenty of other things, but I miss my writing, miss finding my way through my thoughts on the page. I know it will come back, but I’m feeling it today.


Try and Try Again
Forty-one

The nurse held your hand.
She looked into your face and smiled.
“I’m saying the fertility prayer over you,” she said.
Her face was kind
was sad.
You had seen the waiting room.
Most people came here in pairs
not like you, alone.
She must have said her fertility prayer
for all of them.
And sometimes it must have worked.
Not for you.
You left as you’d arrived, alone.

I can feel your heart rise
then fall.
I can feel your anticipation,
the way you tried not to dream
and dreamed all the same.
And I can feel the crash and burn
the sting of it,
the finality.

It would have been easier, maybe,
to get a registered letter.
“No, you aren’t meant to be anyone’s mother.
As you were. Thank you.”
Easier than all those hopeful days,
Easier than all those tears.
Easier.

Still.
You accepted it.
It took two false starts
and three failures.
It took all the money you never had.
It took all of you.

Not anyone’s mother.
It can still make you cry,
but you have accepted it.
Because what else is there but acceptance?

You think about the nurse
her wedding ring hard and cold against your hand
her eyes sad
her smile sad, too.
Her fertility prayer
over you like a shawl,
slipping from your shoulders
to pool on the cold, tile floor.


It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.

National-Poetry-Month-2020

One picture … nearly a thousand words

I’m back. I’m sorry for disappearing when I live in the epicenter of the outbreak. I’m totally fine, still safely working at home.

I’ve written a couple of poems in this off-blog time. Most of them I think I’ll leave in my notebook. Last night I was busy, however, and I want to share. Last night, I was part of an hour-long writing group on Zoom. It was the everything’s-moved-online version of an ongoing writing workshop series that is run at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. The facilitator was a woman I know from VONA, so that felt comfortable and made me confident that I’d enjoy myself.

I invited RedEmma to join me because I thought she’d like it and also because I’d had to cancel our writing date from last week.

We started with an image from The Outwin 2019 exhibit, a photo by Genevieve Gaignard called “Trailblazer (A Dream Deferred).” We were given some time and invited to write something using the image as inspiration. I’m not surprised that I was inspired by the photograph. It’s an interesting, lush, and beautiful piece. Its subjects are compelling. Being inspired by it almost seems like a given. I wasn’t expecting to be so inspired that I would write three poems, however. Three. Poems. Just like that. Three poems. All called “Foremother.” Here they are.


Foremother 1: Trailblazer

I see you
walking over that hill
with Abraham, Martin, and John.
What weight do they give you
what do you carry,
how long the road?
I want to tell you
don’t go.
Don’t take that path
stay.
Keep safe here
with me.
Stay.
I know you’re listening.
I know you know.
But I see you choosing,
see you walking up
over that hill.
The light in your face is clear
is bright, is warm.
I want to hold you back
turn you away from the light.
They need you
of course they need you.
But stay.
I need you more.

Yes, I am that selfish,
I am that grasping.
Yes, I would hold you back
for as long as I could.
As long as I could.

The hill will always be there.
The path will always be there.
But stay.
I need you more.

∞ ∞ ∞

Foremother 2: Recognition

When I travel back,
I stop short of you
always stop short of you.
Yours is the story I can never see
will never tell.
How far from you do I need to be
to let myself look behind that curtain
to finally learn the whole story?
My past is your future.
The two cannot meet
and yet —
the two have always met.
You are still here, in me.

I know the story ends badly.
How else to explain my fear
my refusal to open my eyes.
The story ends badly
but without that end
there would be no place for me,
no me,
no place.

If I could write to you
I wouldn’t ask
would never ask.
But I’d want to know.
And I’d want to hold out my hand
offer a path, a way, protection.
Anything you need.
Anything to guide you home.

∞ ∞ ∞

Foremother 3: Treasure

They would have made you bind your hair.
You would have missed the good oils,
the butters.
They would have made you bind your hair,
told you it was dirty,
was ugly,
was wrong.
They would have made you bind your hair,
wrap it in rags
and made you braid and adorn theirs.

Was it the first thing you freed
when your journey ended?
Was it the first thing you freed
after you stole yourself from bondage?
Was it the first thing you freed,
letting water flow through it,
oil smooth over it?

How often in all the years since
did you run fingers through it,
glide your palm from crown to nape?
How often
did you buy a ribbon you didn’t need
a frivolous comb
a paste-jeweled circlet?
How often
did you detangle your tresses in the sunshine,
aware of that warmth
and the play of red highlights through brown?

They would have made you bind your hair
so you shook it loose
shook it wild,
unbound
every morning
every evening
every day for the rest of your freedom
the rest of your life.


It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.

National-Poetry-Month-2020

That’s not how love works, redux.

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter …

Yes, almost half a month into epistolary poems. I haven’t reached that crossover point, the moment that happens a lot of the time in April when I suddenly realize I’m enjoying working with the form, even when I have so much still to learn and work through. I’m no longer feeling as if I’m in a pitched battle with the form, and that seems like for-real progress.


Unscarred, Not Unscathed
Twenty-five, power and control

I want to sit with you
on the train ride home after the first date.
Could I warn you,
convince you?
I want to say
stop, sweet girl.
That man will hurt you.
Not with his hands —
he will never strike you.
But you will be years recovering.
I am still recovering.

I want to sit with you
and tell you the sick you feel in your gut
isn’t a giddy tickle of new love.
That’s your fear response,
your body sensing a predator,
just as he scented prey
the first time you smiled at him.
I am still recovering.

I want to say
you deserve so much better
than his shaming, his belittling, his insults.
He is the story you’ll never tell anyone.
He is every cruel question,
every angry blame you’ll hurl at yourself.
I want to shield you
call out his lies.
I know you learn so much in these two years,
but your soft heart shouldn’t bear the cost.
I am still recovering.

I want to sit with you,
I want to say you are strong.
I know you will resist him,
won’t give over the total control he’ll demand,
you’ll stand and walk away when you finally see him.
And that will save your life.
I am still grateful.


It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.

National-Poetry-Month-2020

NOLA, Darling

The second trip I took with my mother was a tag-along trip. She was headed to New Orleans for a conference and invited me to share her hotel room. “I always get a double queen,” she explained, and said I should get a plane ticket and come on down. So I did. She was at work all day, but we had our nights to roam the city together, and it was pretty delightful. Because it was New Orleans and because it was my mother. And so …


Sense Memory
(or, Dreaming inside Her Dreams, 2)
Forty-eight, traveling with my mother

Is heat the secret, the magic key?
Those nights in New Orleans
unlocked new doors
slipped her back and back,
into her childhood
into memories you’d never heard before.

That first night, walking through the Quarter
searching for dinner
settling, heat-flattened
in a tiny, crowded spot.
She was tired, a little depleted
enjoying her meal but subdued.
Then she tried the bread pudding.
One taste —
her face opened.
She smiled, closed her eyes, smiled more deeply.
It wasn’t just good
it was memory.
It brought her mother to the table.
You watched her change,
leaned in as the stories began.

That night on the tram,
windows open to thicken the stifling air
both of you half conscious
the heat drawing you down, under.
Then the story began again —
her first visit to New Orleans as a child,
her aunt who lived in
working for a fancy family on the avenue.
Stories from behind the scrim,
the curtain she kept drawn over her past,
spilling one over the other,
what she knew, what she saw,
what she dreamed, what she lived.

And what you wouldn’t give
to take her back and back again
into her memories
into the stories you’d always wanted to hear.

Every night of that mid-summer trip,
both of you soft and wilted in the heat.
It let her guard slip,
let the girl of her come out
come quietly out and into your arms.
Your sweet mother,
a woman you’d never known playing behind her eyes.


It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.

National-Poetry-Month-2020