To My Husband on the One-Month Anniversary of Our Separation
In the absence of children, we placed checks against animals:
four cats and hens to remain with me; the dog moved
to your side of the page along with the sectional sofa,
the king-sized missionary bed, the Smith Mountain watercolors.
While you moved out, bought new sheets, acquired
a phone number I need not learn, installed another
electric perimeter fence around four acres of real estate
I will never visit, I pet-sat my own dog;
at night she paced, chewed my baseball caps to damp spirals,
went cold turkey. Day found her insanely panicked, at peace finally
in the back of our old car, her long blonde nose resting
on the Jeep’s rough carpeting, one ear unflopped and cocked.
Last week, while you pet-sat the cats and hens, I visited my parents
to explain our separation, a situation I thought as fragile as the eggs
the Rhode Island Red had been brooding for a fortnight.
And today you drove eight miles to the airport to pick me up,
and I’m with the dog in the back of the car, her tail beating
a soft tattoo, snout burrowed beneath my leg. A strange land,
this back seat–watching your fingers upon the steering wheel,
your tanned arms, the shirt I have laundered for seven years–
and I wonder at the choices we make: at the dog’s, to hunt
down comfort in cars; at mine, to tell my mother you are stupid
but essentially a good man; at yours, to bring your girlfriend,
to open the car door for her, to give her my front seat.
Hard to Believe
(after Suzanne Gardinier’s “Impossible”)
Was that your breath trapped inside my answering machine
late last night? Still calling. Still speechless. Incredible.
This freesia swaddled in a green sheath. A bud fat pact.
A shifting to shame the loup-garou. Incredible.
Glassed incarceration of our separate cars at Main
and Tenth. Both inmate and visitor. Incredible.
Maggots dance a mole through diamonds scattered on the lawn
—the wing shadow of a thousand crystal starlings. Incredible.
Both your flawed daughters, decked in spring glitter and candied
heels. Smiling. Polite. Our dying eggs. Incredible.
Barbara T. Tom M. Benny B. Judith L. Big Jeff.
Wayne C. Shane B. Vicky D. All dead. Incredible.
My mother, content, planning her last sofa, last stove.
I, content, plan the excision of my womb. Incredible.
That given the round of graves, cremations, burials
at sea, we plant gardens, pregnancies. Incredible.
Beginner, begin with life. Don’t forget your mother,
your meds, bees. Be quiet under critique. Incredible.
Masked and gowned, crooking your day-old granddaughter, tracing
her knuckles with your finger. No, your finger print. Incredible.
Dear Breath, Here are the keys to her lungs. Come and go
as you please. No expectations. Yours, Incredible.
Conversation at Tastee-Freeze: Stage Five
We had other days, their moments
amber-locked—the lawn beyond the museum;
the swings in Miller park; your front room
with its stacked maze of magazines and mail,
cigarette smoke a mezzanine above
the baby grand—all loud with your prophecy:
how my husband would leave; how I would know
when to put the drinking down, where I might go,
who I might find there to help me.
How there are things we cannot predict:
how one day, you would call me beautiful
and I would hear you; how in three years
a beauty spot on the side of your mouth
would signal a movement, a silent protest
of rogue cells, threading like mycelium
across your breasts, into the hollows
beneath your arms to shoal like piranha
in the eddies of your brain, to feed
on everything you had left to tell me.
On the drive to UVA, we drowned
in a dearth of words, your head beating time
on the window. And in the consulting room,
packed with little-boy oncologists
in white coats, too starched, too clean
for this prognosis, your anger ricocheted
off their rookie concern. Random
phrases—Door Jamb! Bean Pole!
Cock Sucker!—snagged in the broken
nets of your memory.
What need had they for stethoscopes today?
Then silence ‘til Amherst when you tap
the steering wheel, say, Snow Queen.
We park facing the freeway, open our windows
so the wind and speeding cars might rock us.
Ice-cream smeared chocolate across your chin,
your hair wild and wind-knotted, you grab
my face between your sticky palms,
say, It’s okay, say, It’s the end
of the world, say, Goodbye, say,
Tsunami. Say, Beautiful, Baby.
B.A. Goodjohn is the author of the novel Sticklebacks and Snow Globes. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in a variety of publications including The Texas Review, Cortland Review, and Connecticut Review. In 2011, she won the Edwin Markham poetry prize. She teaches English at Randolph College in Virginia and blogs at www.bagoodjohn.blogspot.com
Q: You write that “one day, you would call me beautiful/and I would hear you.” Why is it easier for us to accept criticism than praise?
A: I wish I knew. The solving of that secret could have saved me from many therapists’ couches. I’ve never been good at handling compliments. Perhaps it is because there is a part of me that feels somehow fraudulent. When Judith told me I was beautiful that day, she meant I was beautiful inside. At the time, I was unable to accept that. I was days away from heading into a rehab, and I felt far from beautiful. Or perhaps it is because I sense that a compliment somehow brings with it a responsibility: if I accept that I am beautiful/wise/clever/talented—whatever—in this moment, I will have to go on being that thing in the future. And that’s too heavy a burden for me.
Q: What do you hear on first waking at your house?
A: Claws. My cats and the dog wake early and begin to move around the house in search of goodness knows what. I can hear their claws clip and clatter on the hardwood floors. All journeys include a layover at my bedside. It’s as if they are checking to see if my eyes are still closed. Sometimes I feign sleep and they head off again, clicking from room to room. My punishment then is to wake to my iPad. The alarm is a terrible song I downloaded for free in Starbucks, and I am sick of it.
Q: When she says “Snow Queen,” all the richness of that Hans Christian Andersen story was evoked. The Queen kisses her hostage child “only twice: once to numb him from the cold, and the second time to cause him to forget.” Was this story in mind when you wrote – or perhaps you have other thoughts to share on that shattering last stanza.
A: Yes, absolutely. That terrible day and all those that followed struck me numb for many months. It was only on sharing memories of that day at her funeral that I defrosted everything about our friendship and moved towards this poem. I’m blessed that I was kissed only once.