Wives of the Poets
Last week I told my class how Elinor Frost never forgave Robert
for little Elliot’s death. She thought he didn’t alert medics fast enough.
“Maybe he took the road with too much traffic,”
cracked a bearded, bespectacled young man,
“or got lost in the beauty of the woods.”
“How can you joke about them losing a child?”
accused a young woman with long earrings and boots,
and we launched into “Home Burial.”
Flip a shiny quarter and it’s either an eagle
flying away as fast as it can or a dead president
trying to look dignified despite the worms
under his wig. This week I tell them
Wallace Stevens said “A poet looks at the world
the way a man looks at a woman,” but he
and his wife, Elsie, lived in separate sections of their house
and he never wrote her a love poem.
“Thirteen ways of looking at a jackass,”
murmurs the young woman, arms and brows crossed,
and the young man replies, “I’ll bet he got tired of her
getting on his case when he just wanted to unwind
with a little Guitar Hero,” and I say, “We don’t know
much about his life, but . . .”
It’s fall semester and as the trees bare themselves, the students
cover up and take back all the promises of spring
as the hot kisses they’ve planted on each other
ice over, and I know that next week when I tell them about
Williams Carlos Williams cheating on his wife, Flossie, these two
will say, “So much depend upon you flirting with my roommate,”
and “Not ideas about the cheapskate but the cheapskate himself.”
Today you broke the garage door and said “I’m sorry.”
You let the laundry pile up, and you’re sorry.
Here I am airing our dirty laundry. I’m sorry,
you married a writer. All day I’ve planned my classes
and now I’m far away from you, lost in the woods of this poem,
which isn’t great or maybe even good, and I’m sorry
that literary biographers and classrooms in the future
probably won’t be discussing our marriage.
We’re a sorry couple and no longer young,
but flip a coin a hundred times, and fifty times you’ll forgive me,
and fifty times I’ll tell you there’s nothing to forgive.
If I describe the wind as pickpocket subtle
or as a ghost running naked through our yard,
that’s called anemographia, but knowing this
won’t fill my pockets or scare off the ghosts
that haunt me when the hum of our refrigerator
wakes me up. Having my office computer stolen
woke me up to the need to always back up
files but I’d rather move forward. In the foreword
to a book on the Mayans, I read that our superstition
of tossing pennies into wells for good luck
has its origins in the Mayan custom of wedding virgins
to the spirit of the Well of Sacrifice. Well.
At least I’m not a lost virgin ghost, unveiled
for some ugly well-spirit. Last week at a $27/night hotel,
I stared at the “continental breakfast,”
one banana muffin covered by a cloud of gnats.
I grimaced and another hotel guest ate it, saying
“These bugs won’t hurt you.” All week,
his bearded bug-eating face has haunted me.
The fear of beards is called pogonophobia.
Knowing this won’t bring my laptop back
or make you love me any more. This is an elegy
for my lost computer, but it’s also an ode
to the way you can mend me with a smile or a kiss.
At Sewanee, I heard Robert Hass say all poems are either
laments, songs about ways to escape a power that can kill us,
or litanies, prayers to a power that can make us feel more alive,
and at the time I thought that was way too reductive,
but this poem is both, don’t you see? It’s impossible
to put out a fire before it’s been set, impossible
to scan the hard drive of my mind and eliminate
the virus that threatens to kill my memory,
impossible to save those sacrificed Mayan virgins
or say the right thing every time.
Now I can shop for a new computer. I can
become a Luddite. I can toss myself down a well.
But all I want to do is tell you that every love song,
every romantic movie, makes me think of you,
and no matter which way the wind blows,
it will always carry me back to you.
At the Afterlife Bar and Grill
A glass falls and fills the clouds with shards,
a broken window with that old blue and green marble
on the other side, magnified so we almost think
we can go back. A kitten mewing in a woodpile.
A child lost on the street. A mother, panicked
at the police station, her lucky penny tossed
down the wrong well. We can’t do anything
but watch and maybe, finally, get to know
our neighbors. The world was Eden after all,
but after dark, before fire. We never could see
the great Godzilla, but something smelled awful
and our friends kept getting stepped on.
Over a drink, we remember cold nights that froze
our beards. Over another, we recall how sharing
a cigarette was the closest we got most nights to sharing
each other’s breath. The silliness of believing
that sleep and wakefulness were different states.
That I love you and fuck off were antonyms.
Our talk flows like the mighty Mississippi.
Alive, we could never find the right words,
blind dates who said they’d come right back but didn’t.
The barmaid’s an angel, and the low yowl of Mozart
and Mingus’s latest jam rises from the juke box
like a body from a tomb. Alive, I was a radio
that lost reception, I say. There were miracles
everywhere, I say, on earth as it is in heaven,
but my eyes were union workers on their lunch break.
These hot wings are miracles, but everything’s a miracle.
You say, let me tell you something in confidence.
Your voice climbs onto some ledge
that my ears can’t walk you off of.
You say I can’t handle all these miracles.
You drink until you fall down because
it’s way too much for your to stand.
(from) Annoyed Grunt
Am I the worst teacher ever?
I will not waste chalk.
If I have the guts to leave the teaching profession and open that muffin store,
I will finish what I sta
What if the substitute is smarter and prettier than I am?
I will not yell “She’s Dead” during roll call.
If my husband had been a better husband or our marriage counselor had been a better
marriage counselor or the two of them weren’t so cute together,
Cursive writing does not mean what I think it does.
What if I wrote letters to their doctors asking to excuse them from checkups?
I will not prescribe medication.
If I wear a short skirt to work, Will Seymour want to see more?
I will not conduct my own fire drills.
If Bryn Mawr College mostly just taught me to fake it in bed and in the classroom,
I will not belch the National Anthem.
Can’t they get their sex education at home?
I will not do that thing with my tongue.
What can I do for the child with bruises on his psyche but none on his arms?
I was not touched “there” by an angel.
If I smell chalk everywhere I go,
I am not Charlie Brown on acid.
If the students grow up to cheat on their taxes and their spouses the way they do on their tests,
I will only provide a urine sample when asked.
Will they realize how under fire I feel, how one against thirty?
Over forty and single is not funny.
If I secretly root for the boy with ADD and against the twin girls with all the answers,
“March Madness” is not an excuse for missing school.
Do my students know how little I make?
I will not charge admission to the bathroom.
If I can write the perfect ending to the Never-Ending Story,
the world may end in 2012 but this show won’t.
(Italicized parts written on the blackboard by Bart Simpson at the beginning of various episodes)
(from) Annoyed Grunt
“Jihadist Homer,” an episode Fox was too chicken to air
As the opening credits roll, Osama Bin Laden hides
behind our couch, his big eyeballs zig-zagging
like flies wary of the swatter. Then I’m the fly
and Ralph Wiggum and Milhouse are the swatters.
It’s Valentine’s Day at Springfield Elementary,
and first Ralph stacks the Hallmarks on my desk,
“I choo-choo-choose you” superimposed on a train, for one.
Then the bell rings, and I run from Ralph right into Milhouse,
his lips cherry-chapsticked and puckered into a heart shape.
I run right past the school bus and Otto Mann’s “Catcha later
little chica” and duck into the new Springfield Islamic Center.
The women and men in there sit on opposite sides of the room
just like the kids on the school bus, but thse men
aren’t making obnoxious offers of chocolate and roses.
I buy a hijab and a Koran, thinking modesty will turn off
those pesky boys. “I’ll be in my room,” I tell the family,
and when Dad comes up to summon me to dinner,
the holy book falls open to Surah 8, Verse 60
as reading glasses appear suddenly on his face:
“Prepare for them whatever force and cavalry you are capable of gathering
to strike terror
to strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of Allah and your enemies.”
I tell him that “Islam” means “Peace” and most American Muslims are good,
moderate, taxpaying citizens, but Dad says “Woo hoo” and something
about getting a Ramadan holiday from his job at the nuclear power plant
and he runs out to join a radical-bearded sect. “Hmmm,” says Mom
when Dad’s new friends refuse the BLTs she offers
and put Dad up to offering her a chador as a Valentine’s Day present.
After dinner, Nelson taps on my bedroom window, and I let him in
because he reminds me of James Dean and because he’s carrying
a three-foot-tall stuffed Cupid. He strips off my hijab, says “haw haw,”
and tickles me on my bed. After one of Dad’s new friends happens by,
looking for “The Men’s Room,” they decide to stone me!
“Eat my shorts,” says Bart, and pulls down his pants,
revealing a Danish Mohammed cartoon stenciled on his boxers.
Dad strikes a deal: we get spared and he agrees to suicide-bomb
Mayor Quimby’s office. In the closing scene, Dad’s in the afterlife
with his fifty-seven virgins, and he sees why they’re still virgins.
It’s Crazy Cat Lady, our chain-smoking Aunt Selma, Lunchlady Doris,
Comic Book Guy’s twin sister, Ms. Albright the frigid Sunday School teacher,
and a bunch of others you don’t even want to know about. Dad’s annoyed grunt
reverberates all over heaven and earth and the closing credits.
Tom C. Hunley is an associate professor of English at Western Kentucky University and the director of Steel Toe Books. His newest books are Greatest Hits (Pudding House, 2010), Octopus (Logan House, 2008, Winner of the Holland Prize), and The Poetry Gymnasium (forthcoming from McFarland & Co., Inc.). His poems have been featured three times on The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor and three times on Verse Daily, and have also appeared most recently in North American Review, New Orleans Review, and Louisville Review.