2013 from Texas Review Press
Winner of the 2012 X.J. Kennedy Prize
SO YOU WANT TO BE
A TEACHING ASSISTANT IN ENGLISH
Rent a tiny room half a mile from campus.
It will be winter, and all winter long
your radiator will be a cold slab of ribs.
Worse, it’s Wichita, or somewhere
not much better, and you were dealt
a 7:30 a.m. class.
On the sidewalk you move
in your monstrous coat like a moonwalker.
You follow the bouncing full moon
of your flashlight, like the dim beam
from a miner’s helmet, leading you
to English 101, Fiske Hall. Shivering
in their coats, the 28 students hate you
because it’s your fault the afternoon classes
were full. They hate you because it’s Wichita
and their hair is frozen to their heads.
And they really hate this first assignment—
Write about your most intense personal experience—
because their most intense personal experiences
kinds of things, or, worse, they’re still waiting
for an intense moment to occur to them,
some razory lightning bolt of experience
to rearrange their bland circuitry.
And you—you’re only a few years older
than them anyway and still don’t understand
the difference between a restrictive
and nonrestrictive clause, so who are you—
unzippering your briefcase like their father
home from work . . .
these double-spaced confessions to Kathys
and Karens and Jims who are simply
hoping to have something come back
without much blood spilled on it,
something that maybe you’ve even pronounced
“Good!” or “Shows some potential.”
But now you see Julie
in the corner staring at the circled D+, her rambling
rendition of the unhappy tryst between a Mack truck
and her dachshund, and she begins to cry, audibly,
because she’d poured her heart out and—OK—
there were fragments and run-ons and she just can’t get
the difference between there and their and they’re,
but her dog Fritz, was, after all, an A+ kind of dog,
which should count for something, right? Why, her tears
seem to be asking, did I have to get a teacher who hates dogs
so much? And she leaves the classroom, shutting the door
gently, before you can think what to do. Perhaps
she’ll go hang herself or, worse, report you,
and you know you’ve got nothing the next hour
but a drill on dangling modifiers and ice
is etching little flowers on the windows
and now you’ve got to pee, and when it gets dead
quiet in the room and you’re standing there
with your tongue puddling in your mouth,
and half the students are eyeing the door Julie
escaped through, you realize, finally,
what it’s like to be in charge.
LETTER I NEVER SENT MY FATHER
First, I want to say that most of the advice you gave me
was useful as a pocket watch dipped into molasses.
About girls: Never kiss them before they’re ready.
And later that same night sweet Darlene held out
her hand to me: Blotter acid, she said, I’ve already
taken mine. But I loved, when you came home from work,
the anachronistic way you’d shoot hoops in your coat and tie,
bucket-style, scooping the ball into the redolent autumn air,
the leather spinning—improbably—through the net.
My first night drunk, on my knees in our damp basement,
tomato beer and Mogen David rollicking in my guts,
you watched from the top step as I shot prodigious volleys
of what must have looked to you like blood
before you spotted the empty Mad Dog bottle.
Think you’ll live? you shouted down, and let me continue
meting out my own punishment while you made us coffee.
I loved it when you’d take me along on your calls—
to Fergusen Tool and Die in Ulysses, Tumbleweed Steel
in Great Bend, western Kansas flat as the one draft
you’d buy me later, Black Label, Schlitz . . .
And then we’d go to the Elk’s or VFW in whatever town,
where you’d seek out a poker game and wait for luck
to come your way. In Syracuse one night you hit a boat
on the last card, and let me peek at that sweet king of hearts.
I hushed back in the shadows. A man nearly twice your size
stood, and flopped five diamonds. When your trip kings
and sixes exploded up at him like an aurora borealis,
he reached across the table and grabbed your collar.
Bucko, you said, you don’t know what kind of hardware
I’m holding down here in my coat pocket.
Goddamn lucky bastard! he yelled, slamming the door
behind him. You blew out a puff of air, stood, turned
your coat pockets inside out, and smiled through the applause.
Then you let me rake the pot.
WHAT I BELIEVE
You don’t believe in God? What do you believe in?
(with a nod to Jim Harrison)
I believe in the light
that warms the copper birdbath,
the blinding yellow finches
splashing away in flight.
In the hard truth
of the copperhead, uncoiling
and arching back in my path.
Winter’s first icy, delicious kiss.
Fire sawing through split oak.
The wisdom of the lug wrench.
Resilience of synapses.
The reassuring snap of Tupperware.
Huge rootwheel of the saguaro.
The sappy ‘50s love song on AM radio
just now landing on Mars.
Eye contact. Touch.
The gray fox feeding on cracked corn
at midnight below the salt lick
that gleams like a chunk of arctic ice.
The mole’s slow, persistent faith in the earth.
The next word, and the next.
Hondas and Land Rovers and BMWs
in the unseasonal heat.
They’re stuck in the 5:00 rush behind
this plodding brown-speckled
mallard and nine ducklings
she pulls behind her with invisible
thread across six lanes
of Nicholasville Road.
What cells are firing in her brain,
urging her to do this,
the only pond for miles
recycling across the street
in the Fayette Mall?
And what fabulous stories
will these stalled-out husbands tell,
half an hour late again,
over the fading pot roast,
the limp string beans?
One admits a lover he’s taken
years to invent, happy hours
at the Rodehouse Inn,
the life he’s been dreaming into place
on the long rides home.
Packing a suitcase, he thinks
he would have confessed sooner
if the ducks
hadn’t been so long in coming,
obedient and oblivious
in the fine April air,
opening a clear path at last.
WHY I LOVE MY WIFE
In the German gynecologist’s
there was a red light
and a green light. Naked,
the women waited for green
to enter the inner sanctum
to be examined. Linda
had some rash or itch
so, naked, she waited. Twenty
slow minutes, thirty. Finally,
the green light. Two tongue
depressors for horns, swaying
her breasts side to side
like fleshy pendulums,
she did her best hoof-dance
toward the doctor. Mooooo,
she said, mooooooo, one horny
hoof tattooing the linoleum.
The doctor called for backup.
Two nurses rushed in to see
if Security should be called,
the other mad cows stuck on red, stalled.