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August 28, 2015 Poetry

These Are Not Poems

Elizabeth Ellen

These Are Not Poems photo

Real Artist


I was talking to a new friend at a gathering at my house.
I don’t remember what I was saying.
My new friend interrupted me to say, “You seem like you live like a real artist.”
My new friend had already been twice published by The New Yorker.
I thought maybe she had confused me with herself.
I had a collection of stories that wasn’t even carried in most bookstores.
“What?” I said.
“I feel like all I do is run errands,” my new friend said.

I didn’t know what my new friend thought constituted living ‘like a real artist’ or what I had said or done to make her think I did.
(My new friend worked in academia and I rarely left the house.)
Maybe she had confused a lack of ambition, goals and work ethic with being a real artist.
Maybe I had been speaking about my life in a whiny or pretentious manner
(as I am probably doing now in these poems)
and she had confused my lamentations with living like a real artist.

Maybe she was calling me bohemian or temperamental or phony.

The more I thought about it, the more I began to think my new friend had knowingly or unknowingly insulted me.
Or maybe I had knowingly or unknowingly insulted myself.

(My new friend was recently offered a job at a more prestigious university and it is likely I will not see her again.)

I began to write a poem about my new friend.
She had a new novel coming out with a big press.
And I was living like a real artist, writing poems for free in my bedroom.

 


Two Days Ago

 

It was eight thirty or nine. I didn’t think my daughter would be home until eleven or twelve. Earlier in the day I had been unable to stop crying, then I had managed to stop, and now I couldn’t stop crying again. I was sort of hyperventilating and blowing my nose a lot. It was the worst it’d been in weeks and I attributed it to the weather because I didn’t know what else to attribute it to or I was uncomfortable attributing it to anything else. I was on the stepstool in the kitchen when I heard the garage door open. Earlier in the summer I had hidden mini bottles of wine and champagne in a cabinet over the refrigerator. Now I wanted the bottles back but when I heard the garage door open my immediate instinct was to leave the bottles where they were and to come down off the stepladder and to pretend like I hadn’t been crying. I tried to stand far from my daughter with my back to her but when she didn’t immediately go upstairs I had to walk toward her. I stood closer to her, wondering if she could tell I had spent the last hour crying. I didn’t think it was possible for her not to tell. I knew my face was red and my eyes were swollen and my voice when I talked sounded scratchy. I kept sniffling so that my nose wouldn’t run. I said, “I was just about to go for a walk,” which was the truth, hoping she wouldn’t want to go with me. “If you wait fifteen minutes I’ll go with you,” she said. “You don’t have to,” I said. “No, I want to,” she said. I went in my bathroom and splashed cold water on my face and blew my nose. It was already dark by the time we walked which was good because it meant she couldn’t look at me. We began to talk, but something about the conversation felt surreal or like we were in a movie or something. I felt subdued or slightly drugged or something. I avoided eye contact and neither of us brought up my crying or the reason why I had been crying and after she went upstairs to watch TV on her phone and I went into the basement to listen to music and to drink the wine I’d gotten back out of the cabinet after she’d gone upstairs.

 


Panic in Needle Park


We were walking through Times Square on the hottest day of the year in New York City.
I was way closer than I wanted to be to tens of thousands of people who probably didn’t want to be close to me either.
I had the thought that I missed the days when Times Square was filled with junkies and prostitutes then felt full of shit because I’d only known that Times Square from watching 70s movies and reading books (and because I would probably hate junkies and prostitutes if I encountered them outside of movies and books).
My daughter said, “How long is this show going to last?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
I was beginning to question why I had purchased tickets for a show neither of us seemed to want to see.

(I knew it had something to do with wanting to expose my daughter to things to which I had not been exposed which had something to do with always putting my daughter first which had to do with proving I was a ‘better’ parent than my mother which was super fucked up and hypocritical and judgmental and also, according to a therapist I saw four or five times in 2010, a main reason for the failure of my romantic relationships.)

Fifteen minutes later we were finally inside the theater.
I handed our tickets to the ticket taker who scanned them and then informed me they were for the wrong night.
“Take them to the box office, maybe they can help you,” the man said.
But at the box office we were told there was nothing they could do; the tickets were for the previous Saturday night, and tonight they were sold out.
We walked back out into Times Square.
My daughter didn’t say anything; maybe she was waiting for me to sulk.
We turned right off of the main road and onto a quieter side street.
I pulled a small bottle of Jack Daniel’s from my purse, opened it and took a drink.
“What are you doing?” my daughter said.
(It was uncharacteristic of me to carry bottles of alcohol in my purse or to drink outside of my basement.)
“I was going to surprise you with it later,” I said.
I handed the bottle out to her.
She made a face and shook her head.
“We can’t drink on the street like crackheads,” she said.
I pulled her into an alcove of a store front, took another drink and handed her the bottle again.
“We’re in New York City. No one gives a shit,” I said.

I couldn’t remember ever drinking like this with my mother.
I was always ‘too good’ to drink with my mother; always too busy proving something to her or to myself; it was hard to judge someone if you joined them, I guess, was the point of my abstinence.

“We don’t have any chaser,” my daughter said.
She hadn’t yet learned to like the taste of alcohol, only the effects.
“I have a bottle of water,” I said.
My daughter took a drink from the bottle, made a scrunched up face, and then laughed.
It was going to be a different sort of night than the one we had planned.
We walked down the street, taking swigs in random alcoves.
A few blocks down we walked by a large glass storefront with hockey jerseys hanging in the windows.
It was muggy, even at eight thirty in the evening, and the store, we reasoned, would probably have good air conditioning.
We went inside and regretted that no one we knew was into hockey.
The a/c was blasting and we stood and watched a fight break out in an old hockey game they were showing on a big screen in the back of the store.

Back on the street outside a teenage girl was sitting on the sidewalk alone, smoking a cigarette and taking a photograph of herself with a selfie stick.

The next day we would see Fun Home and go to the Museum of Natural History and the day after that we would walk by the Chelsea Hotel and the Stonewall Inn and eat lunch near Washington Square Park but I was no better than my mother.

I was a fake and a phony and I don’t want this awareness to come off as maturity (or as any sort of admirable quality) on my part because it’s not.
My mother was always her authentic self and I was living a life I didn’t necessarily want to live (because I wanted people to like me or because I wanted to be perceived as ‘good’).

In the airport three days later my daughter got a series of texts from my mom.
“She wants me to be her partner in her football pool this year,” my daughter said.
(My daughter was in a fantasy football league with her friends; I had texted my mother a picture of her reading a fantasy football magazine on the flight to New York City.)
I didn’t know anything about football.
“Cool,” I said.
They had struggled with a relationship for years and I had conveniently blamed that on my mother but I realized now I had done nothing to foster or encourage a relationship between them either.

“That will be good for you guys, to have something to talk about each week,” I said.
“Yeah,” my daughter said.

I didn’t know how to tell my daughter everything so I told her some things and kept everything else hidden. Sort of like the dad in Fun Home. I was sort of like the dad in Fun Home, I mean. My mother was nothing like the dad in Fun Home. My mother had nothing to hide.

 


JOA


Joa said his name was Joa but he didn’t look like a Joa and I didn’t believe him.
He was sitting on a stool in a kitchen and six of us were standing in a semi circle around him.
He looked like the lead singer of Pearl Jam when the lead singer of Pearl Jam sang about a boy named Jeremy.
I figured Joa’s real name was Jeremy (or Joe or Joel).
(It turned out to be Joel.)
Joa wanted my stepdaughter to live on a commune with him on the border of Idaho in northeastern Washington.
(This was why Joa was here; they’d met on craigslist and now he was here to ‘interview’ her in person.)
Secretly I hated Joa.
Joa had an iPhone on which he kept track of his steps and said shit like, “I stay away from GMOs to keep my alkaline levels in place” and “Today I already had ten thousand steps by two p.m.!”

Joa told a long story about a guy named Esu who had saved his life or transformed his life or in some way brainwashed him and started the commune (I figured Esu’s actual named was Eddie).

“Esu told me that if a friend doesn’t want to let you go, that friend is not being a good friend.  A friend shouldn’t try to guilt you into maintaining a friendship,” Joa said.

I didn’t understand other ways of maintaining friendships other than guilt.
Guilt was my main motivation for living in general.

Joa made contradictory statements like “we live totally off the grid” and “I’m never going to have a job again” and “once a month we make a run to Costco” and “I told the cop that was cool cuz I didn’t need a license anymore anyway.”

I thought Joa was full of shit (and wondered how he had driven over without a license and who paid the insurance on his car and stuff like that).
But my stepdaughter seemed to like him so I couldn’t say this.

I leaned against the counter thinking how full of shit Joa was with my arms crossed instead.

At the end of Joa’s speech he insisted on hugging everyone in the room.

“Most people hug on the left side,” Joa said, before he hugged the first person.

“But the heart is on the right side. You should always hug heart to heart,” Joa said, making a bigger production of hugging than I thought the situation warranted.

I stood as far from Joa as I could manage with my arms folded in front of my heart.
I waited for Joa to approach me.
I had not decided if I would refuse a hug or not.
Then Joa did something unexpected.
He hesitated a second in front of me and kept walking toward the next person.
I was the only person who hadn’t had to hug Joa and I felt a sense of accomplishment about that.

Later I sat with my stepdaughter after her date with Joa.
She told me they’d spent most of the five hours they were together picking up bicycles from one location and delivering them to another
while Joa ate convenience store nachos and smoked electronic cigarettes.

I wanted to point out several of Joa’s contradictory statements to my stepdaughter.
But then she said something that made me change my mind.
She said, “But I really like him.”
And suddenly I remembered liking guys like Joa when I was twenty-two also.
I was pretty sure I would have liked Joa.
I was pretty sure I would have wanted Joa to hug me heart to heart.

 

Party (2013)


It was a hot Saturday in July.
I was inside a motel room in Findlay (Ohio).
My daughter was gone for the day, scuba-diving for certification in a quarry somewhere near by.
I’d brought my swimsuit too.
There was a photograph of an outdoor pool on the motel website.
But when I walked outside to look at it, it was small and in the middle of the parking lot.
The water was a color I’d never seen before.
There was a slick baby oil sheen floating on top
And a man standing next to his truck nearby, spitting.
I sat on the bed in our room instead.
I could see Walmart and Cracker Barrel from the window.
I read half of Wallcreeper and both introductions to Tropic of Cancer.
I wrote notes to myself (or to someone else) in my notebook.
(Nothing publishable either way.)
By noon I was feeling stir crazy.
I ate a protein bar and looked out the window at the Waffle House across the street.
I counted the hours ‘til my daughter would be back: six.
I thought about walking to the Walmart but the Walmart was on the other side of the freeway overpass.
I couldn’t make out a sidewalk on the overpass.
I imagined myself walking on the shoulder of the road while men in trucks shouted things at me and spat.
I decided not to go to Walmart.
I looked around some more.
On the same side of the overpass I was on was a high school and running in front of the high school was a sidewalk.
I figured I would walk half an hour up the sidewalk and then turn around and walk half an hour back.

A walk of the privileged class!

It was cold in the motel room from the air conditioning.
Outside on the asphalt it was ninety degrees.
I started to sweat almost immediately.
It felt like waking up.
I bought a water bottle at the gas station before crossing the street.
A guy sitting on the curb with a toddler seemed to say something to me and spit.
I walked fast like I was in a hurry to get somewhere even though we both could tell I had nowhere I needed to get.

On the corner while waiting for the light to change I spat.

I walked past the high school and I walked past houses.
There was a house that said it was an antique store and a house that said it was a hair salon and a building that had once sold car parts but was now for sale.
Then there were no more houses and I was walking along a two lane highway up a hill and at the top of the hill was a park and a cemetery.
The cemetery had big shade trees and I figured I’d cool off a minute before heading back.

I was listening to a playlist on my iPod I’d named ‘party 2013.’
‘party 2013’ contained 82 songs by Mariah Carey and Cobra Starship and Missy Elliott and Bobby Brown and I listened to it on airplanes and when I took walks around my neighborhood at night.

I couldn’t remember having a party in 2013.

I was in the oldest section of the cemetery, which contained most of the shade trees.

The gravestones in the oldest section had quotes like “grow old with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made” and inscriptions that said nice things like “a gracious lady” and “a just man of keen intellect.”

“Party in the U.S.A.” was playing on my iPod.

I couldn’t imagine anyone using the word ‘gracious’ or ‘lady’ to describe me.

I didn’t know anyone who would quote Robert Browning to me either (in life or death).

Side by side were a pair of headstones that read “a kind and thoughtful lady, librarian and teacher” and “and above all, a gentleman.”

There were several small headstones on which the years of birth and death were four or less years apart.

On one of those headstones was a carving of a lamb and under it the name Eleanor.

I remembered six years earlier walking through a graveyard at night with my daughter and her friends.

I had parked a few blocks away in case we were caught trespassing at night and on the walk back to the car a woman in a minivan had rolled down her window to ask if we needed a ride.

“I’m a mom,” she had said. “It’s safe.”

I was a mom too but I was dressed like a teenager, the same way I was dressed in the Findlay cemetery.

‘Now That We Found Love’ was playing on my iPod.

I was walking back toward the freeway.

There was a long rectangular plot of land with a modern-looking headstone in the middle of it and a park bench across from the headstone.

I stopped to read the headstone.

It said ‘Andrew Guglielmi: 1980-2000’, and I stood there wondering how a twenty year old might die: drug overdose, car crash, suicide…

I walked on, out of the cemetery, along the freeway.
The sun was behind me now and soon I could feel a puddle of sweat forming on my back.
I used my t-shirt to soak it up.
There were three songs by Katy Perry in a row and I was grateful for them.
By the time I reached the corner on which my motel sat I was starving.
I went into the McDonald’s and bought a hamburger and an iced coffee and sat in a booth alone with my earbuds still in (“Irreplaceable” was playing on my iPod).
Imagining what it would be like to live in Findlay, Ohio…

(I was romanticizing small town living again now that I no longer lived in one.)

Later I looked up the name of the boy whose gravestone I had seen.
There was a magazine article about spring break accidents in which he was included: a drunken fall from a third floor balcony in Panama City, Florida.

Somehow the reality of his death was less romantic than I’d made it in my head and I apologized to him, silently, for trying to make it romantic.

 


Yesterday


I was sitting in a hair salon waiting for my daughter to get her hair cut. There were magazines stacked on a table in front of me and on the cover of the top magazine was a photograph of Kloe Kardashian and I didn’t have any interest in reading about or looking at photographs of Kloe Kardashian even if she had lost weight so I took out my phone to text Tanja instead.

Do you ever feel like your life is like Groundhog Day? I said.

You mean like déjà vu, Tanja said.

No, like every year it’s the same pattern and meaningless, I said.

Sounds dreary, Tanja said.

Yeah, I said. It didn’t seem like Tanja ever felt that way.

Later my daughter asked if she could play me EDM music in the car. She had just bought tickets for an EDM concert. I said, “Are you going to take molly?” And she said, “Probably not.” And I said, “Why not? I think you should.” And she said, “I feel like if I took it now I would just feel guilty and I want to wait until a time when I won’t feel guilty.” I wanted to tell her there would never be a time in which she didn’t feel guilty if she felt guilty now but the music was about ready to drop and I wanted to concentrate on that so I stopped talking. Part of me regretted not taking more drugs. “Besides,” my daughter said (she wasn’t waiting for the drop). “You never know what you’re getting. Look at Luna, she thought she was taking molly and later she found out she’d taken crystal meth.” “Yeah,” I said. I’d missed the drop but somehow I still felt better. “I think the EDM music is making me feel better,” I said. My daughter laughed. “That’s good,” she said. “It’s really uplifting,” I said. “Yeah,” she said. It didn’t seem like she ever felt that way either.

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