I am trying to teach my brother Micah to write poetry. I don't want him becoming one of those tape measure men, coiling inward, showing nothing to no one. He’s only fourteen, but he's at risk. He says that every time he meets someone new he sizes them up, calculating whether or not he can take them.
"But you've never taken anyone," I say. "Or needed to." Micah shrugs.
"Maybe you could write about it," I tell him. This is my new thing, suggesting he write about it, whatever it may be. He gives me another shrug. Dad is still at work, Mom is still in rehab, and I’m splaying chicken thighs on a sheet pan for dinner. It’s the only reason I’m not on campus, though I can’t admit that to Micah. All I told him was that I missed him too much and he nodded.
“A good poem,” I explain over dinner, “needs imagery and emotion. Imagery makes it interesting. Emotion gives it meaning. You put it down and people feel what you do.”
“Chicken’s dry,” Micah says.
“Yeah, I know.” I say. “Like rubber. That’s imagery, by the way.”
He nods, which technically is emotion.
In the morning, I wake amid the same piles of books I’ve woken to all semester, stacked and leering, the books I need to read by midterms, the books I’ve yet to crack open. Every day is the day I’m going to start and today is that day too until I notice a piece of paper halfway under my bedroom door. Micah wrote a poem.
I jump over my books to read it. The poem is full of words like obsession and obsolescence and ob-ob-everything. I read it again. Obscurity pushes me toward oblivion. It sounds nothing like Micah. Obligation obstructs my brain. Who is this person? There’s no objectivity in obliteration. The poem gets worse with every reading—more raw, more awkward and contrived and sad. My books stare at me. Aren’t I awkward and contrived and sad? I lie on my bed, poem in fist. Maybe majoring in English was a bad idea. Maybe college is too much right now. I stare at the ceiling, which looks like the floor, which makes me the structure underneath.
I turn Micah’s poem over and write everything I think: this is embarrassing, this is not what I meant, I can’t fix this, I’m so scared. I sigh and tear the whole thing into shreds.
My trashcan looks like a mouth and like a good mom, I feed it. The poem joins the villanelle I tried my hand at last week, two plotless short stories and an unresearched research paper on the nature of failure. I have no words for Micah, only judgment I swallow with shame, only shame-digested silence. When I take the trash out, he is on the couch, clipping his nails.
“You read it?” he asks, head down.
“Yeah, it was good. Keep going.” The words trickle out of me.
“Can I have it back?”
“No,” I say too loudly. He stares at me, at the small trash bag in my hands.
“I want to keep it,” I say, coiling inward.
Micah nods and returns to his toenails. I stuff the trash bag in the kitchen bin, then pull out the crockpot knowing full well we will not talk poetry again. We will not talk hard exteriors or soft interiors, or what it means to be let down by someone you love so much it feels like a jump kick to the kidneys. We can't. Or I can’t. The idea is too obscene and I am too obtuse.
Micah walks into the kitchen and pulls out a cutting board, looking at me. He has never done this before and we both seem surprised when I hand him an onion. He cuts slow, careful slices, a child making a paper snowflake. It is strangely beautiful, the way the slices fall into the crockpot, how they collect in little clumps.
“Like this?” he says.
I nod. I can see his eyes water as he chops, so attentive, so determined, then feel my own do the same.