Three Poems by Aaron Smith

Definition

How to describe what it felt like
to be gay when I was young?
I didn’t feel different, a given
for a boy who went to church,
didn’t cuss, and stayed inside
all summer. The guy said,
“Thanks for missing the football,
faggot,” after class, and I died
inside the flood of lockers. Not
dead, or unborn: a mercy I was
afraid of, but wanted. Hiding
in the corner to change for gym,
they laughed at my soft, pimpled
back. Boys on one side of the field,
girls on the other. “Aren’t you
on the wrong side, Smith;”
even the coach laughed, and I was.
Days I stared through three-pane
windows at trucks gliding
interstate to somewhere better,
stranger, not quite right, but true.
The gray-weather chest
I carried the summer I rubbed
the pillow between my legs
and thought of the UPS man
and neighbor’s tight belly
until the semen I wasn’t sure
how to clean, but God wasn’t
watching, he turned away,
and I begged him like I would beg
all men before I hardened to stone,
not one rolled away, but invisible;
stone, invisible, not right either.
What do you call the kid of a dad
a mother calls home from evening
shift because she caught him
watching “nearly-naked men”
on television? He didn’t spank
me, but didn’t love me anymore
in the same way. “Don’t tell
your mom about this again,
Dammit!” Damaged, Damned.

*

I Never Went Back

It was my first spring in New York when Nancy
came to visit. The towers had fallen, and everyone
was still trying to make sense of the loss beneath

the stripped skyline; two giant columns of light
beamed against the night to remind us something
was missing. We wandered the streets near my sublet

on Second: Veselka, St. Mark’s Church, the Belgian
fries place with so many sauces. I’m not sure why
we stopped, the small psychic shop, and the large

woman who motioned us in—gray hair, draped
in a purple nightgown. Nancy, spiritual and skeptical,
refused to say yes or no when the woman pulled

the Tarot, put Nancy’s ring in her palm. If she was really
psychic, she wouldn’t need feedback to tell the future. When she
got to me, she asked if my friend could step outside.

She wanted us to talk alone. I was ready for the hard
sale, when she’d try to get me to empty my wallet
so I’d know how to win the lottery, or tell me

the line in my hand meant a long life and prosperity,
but I wasn’t expecting: there’s a dark cloud that hangs
over you and nothing in your life will ever work out.

She said, I can help you—I said I needed to think
about it as Nancy peered through the window,
pointing at her watch because she was hungry.

I didn’t trust her energy, she said, something was weird
about her. I remember the cool wind on our faces,
and the joint we smoked on the lumpy futon

as we talked poems and men and how she thought the city
was a great fit for me, and I remember the woman
watching us walk away through the storefront glass,

staring at me from inside my own reflection
that I was afraid to look too long at.

*

I Get Lonely

You heard from a friend
that I get lonely, or more accurately
my mother died and she did
I tell you via text. I’m sorry you say

and I don’t say you didn’t kill her,
but instead think of you gripping
our dicks in the early-evening bedroom.
Look me in the eye you said

knowing my own shame was a turn-on
(sometimes I remember it and come
on the floor in the yellow bathroom).
I’d like one more night together

I wish you’d say, but you and the man
you live with are working really
really hard on your relationship,
it has its challenges.

*

Aaron Smith is the author of four books of poetry: Blue on Blue Ground, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, Appetite, Primer, and, most recently, The Book of Daniel. His work has appeared in such publications as Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and The Best American Poetry. He is associate professor of creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Revision Lesson by Erin Murphy

Revision Lesson

The faces of my former students
blur together like the crowd
in Pound’s metro station:

petals on a wet, black bough.
But you are the only student
I’ve had who suffered

such a public loss. And so,
nearly two decades later,
I can still see you

sitting on the right side
of the classroom, your long legs
tilted to fit under the small desk.

It was my first semester teaching
creative writing. I felt I had
something to prove, though

now I’m not sure what.
That I knew what I was doing?
That I wasn’t a pushover?

That despite the reputation of poets,
I wasn’t flaky or sentimental?
All of the above, I suppose.

I must have been afraid
any display of emotion would
crack my professorial armor.

Our introductory class covered
poetry and fiction writing.
You and your classmates read

and wrote poems and stories
that we critiqued in workshops.
You preferred the concrete cause

and effect of narrative, the mechanics
of getting characters from Point A
to Point B. Poems were squirming

fish that slipped between
your fingers; it was as if you
didn’t trust them. You set your

story one year into the future.
I had decided in advance
that I would treat your work

the way I would treat that
of any other student: objectively.
I would not assume

the character’s experience
was your own, even though I knew
from faculty lounge murmurings

that it was. I would not offer
sympathy. Sensitive topics
are par for the course

in creative writing. In the years
since you took my class,
I’ve had students write about

childhood abuse, sexual assaults,
gambling, and drug use. Self-harm
is a common theme, especially

among young women, though
I once had a male student write
a creative nonfiction essay

about his former addiction
to cutting his gums. In graphic detail,
he described repeatedly puncturing

the pink flesh above his molars
until he drew blood. Some students
need to learn the difference between

writing personal journal entries
and writing for an audience.
Others may benefit from a referral

to health services. But you didn’t
fit into either of these groups.
When it was time to discuss your story,

I jumped right into critique mode.
Give us a flashback or two
to develop your character,

I suggested. Try incorporating
a specific memory. Add some dialogue.
At the end, you—

I mean your character—
reflected on the one-year
anniversary and said

Everything will be alright.
Your resolution seems a bit forced,
I said. Maybe find a way to suggest

to the reader that she’s
trying to convince herself.
A month later, I would see you

dancing at the winter formal
in a blue polka dot dress, flinging
your arms into the air as if

launching missiles. But that day
in class, you folded yourself
over your notebook, scribbling

furiously. Your classmates painted
the tile floor with the soles
of their shoes. I suggested that you

build tension by withholding
information. Don’t tell us
right away that it was

September 11, I said. Wait to tell us
that the protagonist’s father
was one of the airline pilots.

What I did not say:
I’m sorry.
What I did not show:

I’m human.
I am. I am. I am
still telling.

*

Erin Murphy’s eighth book of poems, Human Resources, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as Diode, Southern Poetry Review, American Journal of Poetry, The Georgia Review, North American Review, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. Her awards include The Normal School Poetry Prize, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, and a Best of the Net award. She is editor of three anthologies from the University of Nebraska Press and SUNY Press and serves as Poetry Editor of The Summerset Review. She is Professor of English at Penn State Altoona. Website: http://www.erin-murphy.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/erinmurphypoet
Twitter: @poet_notes

So Good to See You by Lex Runciman

So Good to See You

The purple, cherry red,
the pale white, dark throat, tangerine, and pink –

every blooming azalea and rhody you have ever seen –
gather them.

And the leaves, oak leaves, maples – the lacy
and the fat hands, cottonwood and all the cotton,

and willow, madrone, rowan and plane, gather them
and the conifers together – gather all your losses,

every wave of wave-wash Pacific, December to July,
cold or warm, foam diamondy and sidereal,

every greeting, those welcome tonal shifts,
subtle maneuvers in the muscles of a face.

Hold your losses, for they want to escape, and as they do,

let them: let goodbye be return, be hello, so good to see you.
Goodbye, hello, so good to see you.

*

Lex Runciman’s selected poems, Salt Moons, was published in 2017 by Salmon Poetry. An earlier volume won the Oregon Book Award. Recent poems have appeared in such places as The Gettysburg Review, Hotel Amerika, Dime Show Review, Poetry Ireland Review, Windfall, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. With his wife of 50 years, he lives in Portland, Oregon.

Learning Arithmetic in First Grade by Judith Harris

Learning Arithmetic in First Grade

Across the window pane
of my study, the woody vines
of the Boston Creepers
cling tight to the masonry
like beads on an abacus’ string.

As I look closer, I’m reminded
of how I learned to count
by methodically moving each bead

as a day to the side, counting
to myself another day over,

then putting my head on my desk
for a nap, and leaving the rest
for tomorrow.

*

Judith Harris is the author of The Bad Secret and Atonement (LSU Press) Night Garden (Tiger Bark Press), and Signifying Pain: Constructing and Healing the Self through Writing (SUNY Press). Her poems have been published in The Nation, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Hudson Review, Southern Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, the syndicated newspaper column, American Life in Poetry, and Poetry Daily and Poem of the Day from The Poetry Foundation and on NPR. She is currently at work on a new book of literary criticism, The Poetry of Loss: Romantic and Contemporary Elegies (Routledge Press) to be published next year.

Two Poems by CL Bledsoe

I Wish You Were Fun

I don’t know what the birds are singing
about, but I suspect it’s something to do
with their sciatica. Mirrors begrudge us
for not being Picassos. All sadness and past
due bills while needing a haircut. I wish
I was fun. I wish fear didn’t strangle my smile
while I am just trying to get the shopping
done. There’s so much weight on my
shoulders I can’t look up without something
important sliding off. Laugh. At least
I’m not Ayn Rand. It’s a different kind
of fear. That I can’t open enough
to the world or that I can’t close fast
enough. Either way, no one is happy
with every new recipe. When I close
my eyes and think of you I see commercials.
So many times it’s about flirting with the void
when all you want is to be held by the darkness.
I’m sorry that you aren’t happy, but I’m not
going to be your midlife crisis. The difference
between an adventure and a mistake is all
in the telling. These days, I’m all mistake.
Coward cowering indoors for fear of storm.
I’m already wet and I have so far to go in
these squeaky shoes. But you remember
when I was fun. Were there ever days
before these?

*

Mornings, Feeding the Fish

There was a different smell in the morning.
The cows were quiet. The breeze

came in from the Lake down the hill.
The sun hadn’t heated the dead

fish, yet. You could believe the world
was new, just because it hadn’t

seen light in a while.

*

Raised on a rice and catfish farm in eastern Arkansas, CL Bledsoe is the author of more than twenty books, including the poetry collections Riceland, Trashcans in Love, Grief Bacon, and his newest, Driving Around, Looking in Other People’s Windows, as well as his latest novels Goodbye, Mr. Lonely and the forthcoming The Saviors. Bledsoe co-writes the humor blog How to Even, with Michael Gushue located here: https://medium.com/@howtoeven. His own blog, Not Another TV Dad, is located here: https://medium.com/@clbledsoe. He’s been published in hundreds of journals, newspapers, and websites that you’ve probably never heard of. Bledsoe lives in northern Virginia with his daughter.

How to Float by John Wall Barger

How to Float

My mother writes me details of
her holiday in Goa. A man is snoring
in the next hut. A big rock in the sea
is covered with crabs. I can just see her
at an internet cafe typing emails,
air thick with incense and Germans
smeared with coconut sunscreen.

People used to ask if we were sister
and brother. No more. She’s
frailer, child-like. Nervous.
Mothers are strange. Primal force
ramming against the ego.
How do they find peace?
She writes, I just sink to the bottom!

How do you float? She’s so thin.
Does she have the body fat?
Was she buoyant before me?
Before my father? What invisible
anvil does she hold? Any little thing
can wreck you. Maybe her dad
winced at a drawing of hers. Perhaps,

in the water, we must become
someone lighter. A lady who skips work
to smoke clove cigars and play
the marimba. I mean, why don’t we
drown every time we see a photo
of an elephant, face hacked off
by poachers? I picture my mother

wading to the dark edge of the sand
where fear begins. She should float.
Look at her. Porous as balsa.
Guileless as an apple. I write her,
“Just fill your lungs, have fun!”
I wish I’d said, “Please avoid
the ocean! It’s fucking terrifying.”

*

John Wall Barger’s fifth book of poems, Resurrection Fail, comes out with Spuyten Duyvil Press in fall 2021. He is a contract editor for Frontenac House, and teaches in the BFA Program for Creative Writing at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Two Poems by Kristin Garth

First foot fetishist

I meet at the strip club adores a horde
of stilettoed feet — mine, two more paid if I’d
take a seat at his table, champagne poured,
to unbuckle shoes, nothing undignified,
untoward — removing bras, plaid print skirts.
Rest your sock feet (he knows they hurt) upon
a seat discretely close to him — not pervert
but gentleman who would never come on
to you, ask to touch. Proffers rote questions
about school, movies and such though his eyes are
on arches, toes when you respond. Obsession
makes him an automaton, a strip bar
regular. Every dancer knows the routine—
It’s still demeaning if not quite obscene.

*

Transmutability

I drive across a bridge sometimes to write
where I was born — an insular beach town
my parents scorn because, somehow, in spite
of the tank they fabricated to drown
me in somebody else’s vacation place,
I too am a tourist who travels
an hour, unicorn notebook, pencil case,
towards this gulf to share some tranquil
coffee shop space with teenagers, doing time
like me, with strangers hoping to find
transmutability maritime.
I blow through here for a breeze that reminds
me of the resilience of my mermaid brain —
a gulf could only nurture not contain.

*

Kristin Garth is a Pushcart, Rhysling nominated sonneteer and a Best of the Net 2020 finalist. Her sonnets have stalked journals like Glass, Yes, Five:2:One, Luna Luna and more. She is the author of 23 books of poetry including Candy Cigarette Womanchild Noir (Hedgehog Poetry Press) and Atheist Barbie (Maverick Duck Press). She is the founder of Pink Plastic House a tiny journal and co-founder of Performance Anxiety, an online poetry reading series. Follow her on Twitter: (@lolaandjolie) and her website kristingarth.com

A Day in the Life by Bunkong Tuon

A Day in the Life

Make sure Chanda leaves for school
with warm kisses on her head.

Pick up lettuce, carrot, and for
something a little different, maitake.

At the Party Store grab big bright
balloons, along with a poster of

Nella, the biracial princess knight
who rides her pink unicorn and battles

Badalf, the wicked wizard.
On your way home, get gas.

Call your wife to let her know
she is Queen of Niskayuna.

Turn on the stove, throw in
the diced onion and garlic.

Eat less meat and more vegetables.
Read Doc McStuffins to Chanda.

Grade papers.
Plan lessons for next day’s classes.

Look up at the night sky.
Breathe in the cool autumn air.

And pray for no more news
of another school shooting.

*

Bunkong Tuon is a Cambodian-American writer and critic. He is the author of three full-length poetry collections and a chapbook. His publications include The American Journal of Poetry, Diode, Chiron Review, Paterson Literary Review, Misfit, carte-blanche, among others. He writes for Cultural Daily. Tuon teaches at Union College, in Schenectady, NY.

Unfinished Landscapes by Gerry LaFemina

Unfinished Landscapes

My friend Peter pointed out the condensation
on his glass & declared how much love is like water:
everyone wants it, & how it comes

in a torrent or a trickle; though it can also be
a still pond with mosquitos, cirrus-like, above it
so that sometimes we might confuse

the soft insect buzz for love itself, but no.
The water metaphor was what was important
in the end—how we thirst & how

we can’t cup it in our hands for it seeps
between fingers as we bring it to our mouths
so it’s as if we kiss our own palms.

Some people, in desperation, get on their knees
bend over like a dog to lick at a puddle.
So easily we lose our dignity, & easily, too,

we fight for it or weep in its name.
That’s something never taught in science class.
Ditto how to cope with heartache or how to enjoy

the way sunlight seems to cast itself
on only select leaves of a spring catalpa
so they grow a little greener, more lush & thus

more lovely. Ask the landscape artist I see some days
in May, in Central Park, & he’ll show you how
he mixes acrylics, shade after shade of emerald

whisked in, sometimes, a bit of yellow to nix
a daub of blue, then feeling it thinned out too much
adding something darker. The brush swirling in hues

so that it resembles a smeared thumb print,
a bit of forensic evidence, the way the fine brush hairs
form thin ridges in the paint.

Then it, too, is gone. Likewise, day’s luminescence
which gives way to evening with a shuffling sound
that can only be described as wind through leaves.

The painter picks up his tubes, canvas, & easel
though he’ll stop to let you know that
this is another in a series of unfinished landscapes, &

that he used to paint boaters on the lake
from one of the stone bridges.
It made him hopeful, somewhat nostalgic—

those couples with their secret languages &
picnic baskets, their laughter
competing with busker song & the giddiness of kids

clutching balloon strings. He never says what changed
his mind, or how much sadness is like sunlight—
ubiquitous, momentary. Along the curving path

comes a woman with a poodle, whistling
Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring. There’s no call for rain,
yet an umbrella swings from her free hand.

Peter would say that proves everything.

*

Gerry LaFemina is the author of numerous collections of poetry, fiction, and criticism. In 2022 he’ll have two new books released: The Pursuit: A Meditation on Happiness (creative nonfiction) and The American Ruse (poems). He is a Professor of English at Frostburg State University, serves as a mentor in Carlow University’s MFA program, is a Fulbright specialist in Writing and American Culture, and fronts the punk rock band The Downstrokes.

Two Poems by Ted Kooser

Three Leaves

The first from a cottonwood, a rag
of a leaf, yellow with green stains,
the kind you might pick up by one
corner and cautiously sniff, a strange
oily paraffin odor. Next, from an elm,
in that dusty, green bleached down
to brown paint of a ’48 Plymouth,
rust holes all over it, the wind
pushing it rattling over a sidewalk,
then tipping it into the gutter.
Then one from an oak of some kind,
with the scuffed leatherette brown
of an old Samsonite suitcase, long
out of fashion, our last leaf today,
part of a matching set, handed down
autumn to autumn.

*

Dust Bath

Had it not been a good path
to scuff to the barn in the evening,
across the low slope of a hillside,
this shallow rut—with today one
brown cow in the lead, seven
following, heavy heads nodding
and blowing—would be grass
like the rest of the pasture, but
just now it leads up to and then
on from a place that stays put,
a shallow around which a kingbird
is flying as it waits for the last
cow to clop past before flitting in
for a vigorous dusting, just a puff
from this distance, like smoke
from a cannon that’s so far away
you can see it, not hear it, then
the bird shooting out and away,
too small and too far for an echo.

*

Ted Kooser is, at 82, fully retired from teaching and public appearances but writing every day at his home in rural Nebraska. His most recent collection of poems is a fine letterpress limited printing of A SUITE OF MOONS, from Gibraltar Editions in Omaha. He is a former U. S. Poet Laureate and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.