archives spring 2009



Unlearning to Read

I don’t remember learning how. Only not knowing, then knowing. Before: lines chickens made in the dirt inside the coop; circles and triangles I drew in the garden mud with my fingers. The only meaning attributed these symbols, that of a child’s whimsy. After:

the day my mother drove us to Seattle to buy fresh trout at Pike Place Market. Looking out the car window at buildings, trees, and billboards zipping by. All along the highway, signs for beer I was not allowed to drink and cars I was not allowed to drive. I read one, then another, and then another—first with pleasure, then fear, as I began to realize this was not a television I could turn off . . .


The words howled at me, insistent, like my cat stuck on the windowsill outside my room in a night storm. I listened to his cries but was too afraid of the wind whipping the soggy hairs of the willow against my window to get out from under the covers and let him in. Afraid of him, too—all yellow eyes, melting fur, bones.

The billboards, more than I could count, rushed past. Still howling.

I said to my mother: I can’t stop reading. How do I?

She laughed. That’s what happens when you learn words—you can’t ever go back!

I shut my eyes, but still I could see the letters, black against the red of my eyelids. No longer would a sign with a picture of a woman holding a dog say: But cats are better!  No longer would a photo of an old man in a wheelchair promise: Soon he will be a child again. Never would a smiling family standing next to a house with a white picket fence reassure: There are goblins inside, but you can kill them with circles and triangles.

The words told me what the good and bad witches wanted them too. I listened to them all.



Imaginary friends were for other kids.
I tried; grew quickly bored. Instead, I invented
my own TV show with unseen viewers.
Told them what I thought
of everything and everyone—
how funny my mother looked wearing her mud mask in the mornings;
how much of a stranger she became when gossiping
to her friends over the phone.
The way my father leaned forward in his seat to listen
to the preacher on Sunday mornings;
how he would yell at us on the way home
that we weren’t taking Jesus (him) seriously
because we were always fighting over
who got the biggest bowl of ice cream.

But what did he know—
I posed this question to my audience—
when he was hardly home?

Nothing, they assured.
He cannot.

My spectators loved my Orange County neighborhood
in the sluggish melt of summer:
avocados thudding to earth,
bougainvillea petals browning the asphalt,
the old woman with Aqua-net hair
hosing her Bermuda grass.

It’s beautiful, they sighed.
We wish we could.

They possessed emotions purer,
more savage than my own.

Roaring when I pointed out
the Chihuahua in the pet shop
with the baby bonnet on its head;
wailing the day I was sent
to my room for pinching my sister
until she bled beneath her skin.

I tried to cajole them
that bruises eventually vanish,
that all banishments, in time, are lifted—

but they couldn’t stop weeping.

Always in awe.
Always enthralled.
Perpetuity at the spin of a dial.

Words glitter
at dusk, globes turning
in closed-off rooms.
A book is read once, then tossed in the fire.
Childhood. Where all signs point
center, the stopped heart.

There they wait, still, my invisible ones—
a breath they’ll hold and hold


S & D

And if their love is true?

          True as a fine array of meats in a market stall.
          True as come-do-me-this-second, you-big-handsome-brute.

          True as a blind man.
          True as money.

What is love?
          Realized in the instant, in the total dark.

Love: braiding a righteous man’s hair.
          Truth: a donkey’s jawbone to the back of the head.
Love: honey on a beautiful woman’s lips.
          Truth: a hive vibrating inside a lion’s carcass.

                                                                  His   mane      curls            to earth

                                                                                       like   birds
                                                                                                 air,     feathers           


                                                                            brighter than         the spark

                                                                                       of her scis sors

                                                                                                 in the fallen


                                                                                 This makes her

                                                                                                 weep . 


                                                                                       Still                  she


                                                                                                               ting        .


Brief Crossing

after Catherine Breillat’s film

He is only a boy of fifteen. He knows nothing
Of love, only desire

For the older woman leaning
Against the railing of this swift ship.

She with the strong neck, pale eyes unyielding.
He sees her naked even now:

Her full breasts, sea foam
In his virgin hands;

Her arched back, a wave’s swell
Returning to him over and over.

She sees him too.
Not his nakedness,

But his soul.
It is a small

Dark thing
Pulsing with heat.

Across the vast deck their eyes lock.
He winks; she doesn’t smile.

Both know what is to come,
But only she the after.

This comforts her, even as she foresees
The dark desert that is to form

Under the liquid bright of his black eyes.
One night. Then the dock and the dry world. 


Kate Durbin’s first collection of poetry, The Ravenous Audience, is forthcoming from Black Goat Press/Akashic Books. Her chapbook, Amelia Earhart: Fragments Found in a 1937 Aviator’s Boot, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Durbin’s poetry has appeared recently in Drunken Boat, elimae, The Ledge Poetry and Fiction Magazine, Boxcar Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of California in Riverside.