Light bends about her head—moon through
the trees, streetlight down the block,
incandescent glow from a rowhouse
bulb—and he bends, too, to hear
her plead, Don’t hurt me any more.
He says, I never meant to hurt you.
The words float there, smelling of asphalt
and someone’s trash and honeysuckle
sweet in a nearby yard. Headlights
journey up the street, briefly
silhouette her as she places
both palms, open, on his chest:
as if she might somehow read
his heart with just her fingertips.
Laughter drifts from an upper window,
nylon sheers shimmer in the breeze.
She weighs the silence, measures again
the length and breadth of what is,
what’s not articulable. As if
in answer, his hands grip her back,
tight, tighter as she accepts his lips—
so that when she undresses later
in front of the mirror she
discovers ten new bruises, pink-
purple whorls inking her skin.
That first time when you hit me,
I marveled at the crack
your hand made as it struck
flat against my face.
I should have known right then:
we were headed straight
for this soul food joint, where
I’m picking at turnip greens,
sweet potato pie,
as you plead with me to take
my inconvenient heart
and just go away.
You say it’s all my fault:
I ask too much, love
too deep. Don’t make me do it
again, you say. I know
you mean it. Like you mean
this next thing: when we’ve split
the last crumb of cornbread, made
our exit past the catfish
gazing lugubrious in
his tank, when we’re standing
in the parking lot, your arms
around me, your hand—same hand—
traces the bone of my cheek,
as if I’d never been there,
as if you would never leave.
Katherine E. Young’s poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, Southern Poetry Review, and many others. She is the author of two chapbooks, Gentling the Bones (2007), and Van Gogh in Moscow (2008). In 2010-2011 her full-length manuscript was a semifinalist for the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award, the De Novo First Book Award, and the Philip Levine Prize, while her translation of contemporary Russian poet Inna Kabysh was awarded a share of the 2011 Joseph Brodsky-Stephen Spender Prize. She teaches English at the University of Maryland.
Q: This is difficult subject matter—discuss the making of poems about physical and emotional abuse.
A: Our culture seems to prefer that victims be strong, dignified, and stoic (the very qualities, of course, that abusers methodically strip away!). Louise Bogan (who knew a thing or two about being a victim) writes that the lyric poet cannot “indulge in any of the lower-grade emotions, such as self-pity,” a maxim I took to heart in working with this material. But these poems aren’t about keeping a stiff upper lip—they’re about something else. I believe people stay in abusive relationships because our human need to love is stronger, even, than our fear. What I wanted to capture was the speaker’s passionate love and empathy for a person who—like all abusers—is so damaged that he lacks the capacity to accept, let alone return, those feelings.
Q: Food has power to soothe, celebrate, heal, unify. Can you talk about “Soul Food” and your characters?
A: And soul food itself is famous for all those reasons. Of all the possible food-related settings for this poem, which balances “comfort food” against a relationship in which “comfort” plays almost no role, I couldn’t have chosen one more deliberately ironic. And yet I was completely unconscious of that irony when I was writing the poem because I was fixated on the man and woman clawing at one another—neither one able to break away—while sharing that last shred of cornbread. And on that catfish, cruising in his murky deep. A friend commented that this poem ends in a parking lot, “where these things always end, don’t they?”
Q: Honeysuckle is mentioned in your poem—is there any other fragrance so intoxicating and fraught? What other flower-aromas are particularly powerful for you?
A: I was raised in the rural South, so I’m particularly partial to magnolia in bloom; I recently finished a group of sonnets in which magnolias play an important role. And my uncle in North Carolina planted gardenias that flowered into December—I’d arrive for the holidays to find a cut gardenia in a glass of water on my nightstand. As for honeysuckle, even the name is fraught with that curious interconnectedness of sex and mother’s milk—the unwrapping/disrobing, the suckling, the sticky sweetness.