Three Poems by Rachel Custer

House Soon to Catch Fire

Upstairs, a man
with swarming wasps for eyes

paces the carpet bare.
Bent birdcage of a woman downstairs.

Falling matchstick of a man
who only wants to rise

like song, like the blush of pride in
his children’s cheeks.

Brief fever dream of a man
whose senses whisper lies.

What gift can he offer
his children? His name,

that prison cell inside his neighbors’ glares?
The desperate shame

of broken teeth, of ugliness
that can’t afford disguise? That man

looks at his wife, sees only bars.
Listens for birdsong, hears broken cars.

Such a man would maybe
trade a match for unheard blame,

would settle for ash lifted skyward on a flame.

*

Stripper

Whatever you think you know of me is wrong.
I came up in church. I remember all the songs –
Amazing Grace. Just As I Am. For All the Saints.
I spent a lifetime being what I ain’t.
I spent my childhood on a desperate man.
He spent himself against me. Now, I can
touch a man without him touching back.
I’m real good, too. I got the knack
for making an invisible man feel seen.
That’s why they come, you know? They clean
their dirty fingernails and shave up neat,
and sit there still as Sunday under me.
Just as they are, so wonderfully unmade.
I’m the patron saint of getting paid
for less than what a man will sometimes steal.
Sundays, I repent. It’s a good deal.

*

Factory

South from courthouse square, the church bells ring
time to clock in. A call to partake in the sacrament
of making. Here’s a factory, placed in the crease
of a hand. A factory, the promise of daily labor;
here’s peace in the land. A factory is a lung,
breathing a people, exhaling a town. In, deeply,
with sweat and life-time and dreams; out, with
force behind it, order. A factory is the land resting
behind a border, and the border itself. A factory
is a pantry full of stocked shelves. A town is a place
where a person can go to a store and pay a bit
of her life to buy a thing that she made with a
bit of her life, and she can walk away feeling
proud of her life. A town is what happens between
work and church. A life is what happens around
a town. There are men whose hands get lost
on the way to work, end up wandering the paths
of the forest called woman, the desert of a constant
thirst for wine, the grasping vine of a hot pipe.
A factory requires no leap of faith. Repetitive
work is a kind of balm for the open wound
of doubt. The church bells ring the workday out.

*

Rachel Custer is an NEA Fellow (2019) and the author of The Temple She Became (Five Oaks Press, 2017). Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals, including Rattle, OSU: The Journal, B O D Y, The American Journal of Poetry, The Antigonish Review, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters (OJAL), among others.

Three Poems by Rachel Custer

Farmer

Save your sorry. Your sorry won’t get me
my crops in before the frost. Your sorry
won’t fill the propane tank. Confess me up
a big old sack of free feed, while you’re at it.
What I don’t need? A man who can’t outpace
his sorries, who leads ‘em around like a pack
of fair-weather friends. Another man hog-tied
by shoulda done. I knew a man once, he plowed
through each day like sorries leaded his boots,
each foot dragging the bodies of his regrets.
His whole life was an apology. God, what
did he think? It would stop him dying? He died,
like we all do: with dry lips and not enough
to drink. Sorry is death for no reason. Sorry
is men dying everywhere except the spot
where you stand, and you laying yourself
down in the sand. Each death deserves a life.
It’s like, I don’t know. Here! It’s like a field.
The most fertile field needs a fallow year.
The man who never rests his field grows
nothing but the knowledge of should
have done. What should I have done?
My son was just learning how to run the big
plow, and if he was too young, if another year
would have kept him from its blades – what
should I have done? What will it help
to plant, again and again, that field where
my boy died, and to harvest regret from
the black soil of the past? Don’t tell me
you’re sorry, I used to tell him when he
messed up, it doesn’t fix it. Don’t tell me
you’re sorry. Just stop doing the wrong thing.

*

Fire

Halfway down a country road a house leans
as if asking for forgiveness. As if asking
to be remembered well. Remembers the time
the roof caved in after a wet snow and how
the candles made stories of the walls. Nobody
knows hunger like a cold child. Hunger eats
anything it can get, and if hunger gets nothing,
it will eat the house that holds it and make
a dessert of itself. Hunger would rather reign
than serve. I would rather ask forgiveness
than permission says a woman, and this woman
knows the truth: how once invited inside,
hunger never leaves. Hunkers in the corner
and glares. How it feeds and feeds. A house
leans like a fire waiting to happen. Says a child:
I would rather steal than ask for anything
just before asking a neighbor to borrow
an egg. A man walks to work as if asking
forgiveness, leaning like a house against
the wind. A house could be forgiven for taking
hunger’s side, for demanding so much,
for its quiet and constant need. A man
could be forgiven for striking a match.

*

Inheritance

Lucky from the start, I was. Came home
lips to nipple and swaddled in a good name.
Nothing softer in this world than a good name,
nothing warmer. Like the best cologne dabbed
behind each ear. Like the deep weave of plush
rugs, the feet of soft women dancing. Before
I was poor I was rich. Before I was rich I was
nothing. I was maybe the extra finger of Scotch
in my father’s night, was maybe the crystal
just-so of my mother’s glass. I was low light.
Before I was drunk I was a child, tucked inside
others’ drunkenness and waltzed around airy rooms.
The whitewashed tombs of my mother’s breasts.
Her Home & Garden womb. Her best-dressed,
drunk at the Christmas party smile. Her royal
flush spread of hair, brushed and gleaming. I
was the kind of lush that blooms in scant light.
She was the kind of hush that looms. I can’t fight
the sure dread that my mother will look down
on me someday, that she will bend over me
like reed grass. The light behind her. Someday
you’ll thank us, I imagine her saying, everything
we gave you. The kind of name that could never
belong to the kind of man I am. The cold comfort
of no blame. A world willing to shift to fit my name.

*

Rachel Custer is an NEA Fellow (2019) and the author of The Temple She Became (Five Oaks Press, 2017). Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals, including Rattle, OSU: The Journal, B O D Y, The American Journal of Poetry, The Antigonish Review, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters (OJAL), among others.