I get to school early, take down the crucifix.
There’s one in every campus room. I lift it
gently from its hook, push it into the AV desk
among paper clips and wires. Or stand it
on a high sill, turn Jesus to look at the rain.
Or under the flap you lift to adjust the thermostat
where he vibrates a little when the heat turns off.
I like Jesus fine, just not when he’s being tortured.
Every day somebody rehangs him
beside the whiteboard, I don’t know who. It’s like
I’m playing a game at a distance
like Words With Friends against people I haven’t met.
Lately my life’s been so stupid and harried
I’ve been doing the prompts I give my class.
Prompt: Dramatic monologue from the perspective of someone talking about their work.
Let it comment on something from your day.
My money job is making models for mass production:
cat with tiara, Hobbit, Harriet Tubman, polar bear on ice floe.
I’m doing a crucifix series, Jesus sagging
on the cross, red gash to be painted in his side,
he looks like a diving trophy figure
wrung off his base. Loincloth in place of a Speedo,
crown of thorns, not swim cap.
I tried to make his eyes pained.
I made the stigmata with my smallest hook.
The Augustinian college ordered three dozen.
A dozen more for the seminary.
They needed a new look since the scandal.
I hunch on a high stool at a pedestal
topped by a wheel like a lazy Susan
on which I build, rotating it
to shape a finger or bevel an edge, cigarillo jutting
from my lips, getting smoke up my nose, magnifying specs
clipped to my face the better to see details.
Picky work, makes my neck and shoulders hurt.
When I have a minute off, I draw sculptures
I wish I could build, things requiring
sledgehammer and fire. Requiring courage
and desire. So beautiful
this pod in my head of welded steel
I sketch it, sketch ten.
Half egg, half chrysalis, what they give life to.
Then ten I-beams requiring cranes to lift and lean them
cantilevered, on an enormous pile of iron shavings.
A monstrous nest. Ten mothers
looking for sons, for daughters.
I save the drawings.
Some so delicate you can hardly see them.
Someday I’ll have a show, 4×6, postcard size,
‘All My Failures.’
I touch and drip the sketches with colors
you find in the scum of a woodland pool,
in the iridescence of a pigeon ruff,
in the edible flower salad
under plastic wrap at the organic co-op.
Selecting my pencils carefully, making notes
for scale and dimension
calibrated with prissy precision, even calculating costs…
Then I put them away, go back to my Jesuses, my maquettes.
Wet weather, students enter shutting up umbrellas
with exhaling snaps, wrestle out of diaphanous
ponchos, none more drenched than Dave the ROTC boy
in his drab cammies because Thursday is muster day,
or whatever you call it, rain or shine. Watching the students
is to watch for breaks in dispassion. Little blue gaps
appear in their cloud cover. The girls are wary
and ready to be praised, pleased the way girls can be
pleased and wary of motherly women not their mothers.
The boys are comfortable, condescending, chummy.
“Have you got your brackets ready?” asks ROTC Dave
in NCAA season, genuinely surprised when I say
I do. “Professor! Did you have a good weekend?
Is your husband doing better?” That’s Laney,
shrugging out of her blazer, the only black kid
in the class, possibly the whole school,
and she always remembers to ask. She’s the best writer.
Wilson, from China, unzips his motorcycle jacket.
“Over the weekend I read Faulkner,” he says.
“I think. He even better than Kerouac?”
He’s read more American fiction than me
and all my other students together, but can’t
write in English. (I grade him on interest.)
Caitlyn from Brooklyn sleeps morosely by the window
in her black lipstick, chthulu-print leggings
and cold-shoulder pirate blouse. I wonder how
she got here where the students are dutiful, kind,
bland, mostly rich and Roman Catholic.
Sometimes they almost catch me hiding Jesus.
Sometimes they catch me. They think I’m funny?
Or think they’re supposed to think I’m funny.
They don’t say who it is putting him back up.
They advise each other: “Don’t take theology—”
required course—“with a priest. You won’t learn
anything.” They mostly wear tiny crosses.
A small commotion in the corner.
“Am I going to have to separate you two?”
Frank Jr. and Talia, white kids from several
earlier immigrant groups. Him: “She stole my banana”
Me, automatic: “Well that’s symbolic.”
I don’t think I’ll hear about it from the Title IX office.
Prompt: I remember. Present tense.
I have crazy Mr Fisher for science.
Maybe he’s just bored.
Boys are harmed all kinds of ways.
He puts one foot on a chair,
rolls his pants leg, shows his varicose veins.
This one, he says, is Mekong Delta.
Brown polyester stretches across his shoulders.
A few sandy strands combed
over his flaking scalp.
A great teacher, he hardly teaches.
He tells stories of boys he grew up with.
One, one time, snuck onto a farm,
stole twelve ducks, dug a shallow trench
and buried them up to their necks.
Then, says Mr. Fisher, twisting
his chubby body to demonstrate,
he took a golf club to every duck head,
whack, whack, whack, down the row.
It’s in the 80s. The forests
are dying from acid rain.
Today I’m talking about how “metaphor
is like cosplay, like putting on a pressed uniform
or tailored skirt, to sally forth in the world
or in your heart, and feel according to the forms,
also beyond the forms. Say a girl’s sneaks—”
I look at a girl—she looks back—“are untied and gaping.
Well you could compare them to a dog in July
with its tongue hanging out, his drool stretching
from his teeth to the porch planks. So now you have
a pair of, say, Air Force 1s superimposed on
or merging incompletely with a memory
of the scary mastiff that growled at you
from the neighbor’s porch then got up as if
to come for you that one time you felt your mother
truly protected you otherwise it was always
just you and your feet stung as you ran home.”
I’m overdoing it. Feet in fancy sneaks
don’t sting slapping the pavement. “I mean
seems like metaphor could help us feel again.
I mean maybe you don’t feel that way,
maybe it’s just me experiencing pity fatigue.”
They look back, waiting.
My hands are made of desk they rest on. I lift
the lid a little, lift them away from Jesus.
Prompt: Describe a public scene from memory
using simile and metaphor.
Which type of figure works best and why?
Life is So Good Here
Barbecue smell drifts from over the river.
Too much lighter fluid splashed in the pouring.
Flares of sudden fire. Parkland.
Given: a family. Dad home on leave. The kids lead him
by the hand, showing him off, he’s theirs. And Mom
fully reclined on the blanket, angers and anxieties
pushed aside, even evaporated. Brief oasis
of self. On her shoulders
lotion makes windows of sheen.
Gluts of garbage blowing around,
a subtle stink in the weeds.
The happiness of that other family.
That time in the Atlanta airport, all the soldiers
in their desert combat fatigues, deploying,
redeploying, loping along in their big boots stuck out front
like clown shoes, like goose feet, down the concourse.
The man on the loudspeaker asking us to stand
and applaud for our heroes;
me frozen trying to think out what,
if I clapped, I’d be clapping for.
A woman with a collapsed face,
to the soldier nearest the gate,
Thank you for your sacrifice. My family is a military family.
He, sullen, blank, bored…
The faces of the other passengers formatted to show
they understand everything.
Which looks like happiness.
And what happened to us.
Goose gangs loiter, obstructing the bike path,
pumping their neck pipes.
There’s all the food thrown by the picnickers
and left by the picnickers
and all the food the river brings
with its floods and slithers of algae.
Life is so good here. The geese never fly south.
The students I’m talking at might be listening.
ROTC Dave bangs his chair legs down.
He pulls his pant legs out of his boots, wrings the hems.
He unlaces: his socks are sopping. “These army issue
boots are shit. They’re supposed to be waterproof.”
He fiddles with hooks, gusset. “I can’t do this.”
I don’t know what it is he can’t do; what I can’t do
is work the tech to run the video I want to show,
a reading of the poem with the girl burning
that’s nothing more than a list of similes that escalate
till the girl’s reformed as beast and dead and wind.
Helpfully ROTC Dave jumps up to link up
the connection, sees Jesus under the auxiliary,
pulls him out, looks at me, puts him back
where I left him. “There you go,” he says.
Video light softens the room. The students
make no comment; no one has told them what
is okay to say. To the shuffling that crescendos
at dismissal like windsong ruffling underbrush
as if wind is fire and fawns and bunnies
are running away, but losing my mind a little,
I tell the story of a boy I met who enlisted
at the height of the Iraq War, then came home
a year later with no legs, one hand, three fingers
of that one gone in the explosion. (More recently
I heard he married, has a career he likes, a family,
like a TV special, uplift for the win. Feeling’s a trinket.)
I say, “His body flew up. The wreckage and smoke
and flames and pieces of his body
engulfed him. It was like a god that didn’t exist
was giving a shiny red star to the world.”
They look at me worried, kind of a mirror,
waiting for assignment, for me to say “you can go.”
Or “I’ll be interested to see what you do.”
Nothing. But they go. Out into the rain they go.
Take-home assignment: Write about a life change; no punctuation. Employ metaphor.
Address it to a “you.” Break at least one rule at least once in the poem.
I always loved the stratagems the solidarity
of those nights before we got all the A.C. window units
in all the rooms and before her
it was you and me
the weather too hot to bear and you pushed
the misery forward into something that could be remembered
with a grim fondness lets just go sleep on the floor
in the living room it’s cooler there lets just suck
on some ice till our bodies take the cool here
rub some on your wrists let me run
this ice down your body
too hot to sleep our girl says
crawling into bed with us I say did you try leaving your door
open I can’t she says the cat will sit on the mesh top
of the terrarium he’ll sit on it break it then
my snake will escape crawling out the gaps again
well the other thing she says about the snake is
when she holds it
it crawls from hand to hand trying to escape trying
to get back into the substrate and hidey-holes
it’s like holding she says a liquid
it’s like holding a liquid she says again
then nestles her curly head into my neck and shoulder
and it’s easy to fall asleep that way and wake
to birdsound just there sullen and banal
in the leafy branches rubbing at
the window let me in
as I keep rolling the gems, blue red purple,
hand to hand to hand
what gems you say where did they come from
Nowhere. That’s all. Nowhere.