Visceral

Pertaining to the organs,

in the body, not the immense pipe organ upstairs

 

of the congregation of my grandmother’s Lutheran church

 

but just as intense, and that instrument penetrated my body

 

surgically.

I was taking anatomy and physiology towards a medical coding degree

 

and a stable day job,

describing how we copied pictures and plastic models

 

though not cadavers

 

while he had me drawing a cow skull in charcoal

 

to distract him from his feelings I talked about the organ systems

I was learning.

The heart, huh? he said. And the lungs

 

I replied quickly in one breath.

I drew him the pancreas and put it in an envelope, said

 

Happy birthday

 

And the professor brought in a real heart

 

ripped from a dead man’s chest

 

for us to examine.

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I live for the 3rd

Wake up wake up. It’s the third of the month. Got my deposit last night, can pay the phone bill all right. Nobody’s gonna tell me We don’t know what to do with you. I don’t wanna hear We don’t know how to help you. I don’t know what to do but I want your ears not your mouth. I can figure my own way out. I may get a guvment q but I ain’t living with mama or workin for a defense contracta. You dig my new style? I been watchin 8 mile. Rhyming while waiting for the bus, can’t drive cuz my brain made a fuss.
My brain left my body at the least opportune times with no one manning the controls as I tried to ring up on the register put in the code to turn off the Alarm every morning.

  • We don’t know what to do withi you is what my cousin’s sister in law said her brother, married to my cousin, said to her when she was staying with them. No job, no marriage, no family of her own. I felt angry and hurt but also helpless because there was nothing I could do.

I’d rather be homeless than work for your insults.

Unplottable

I woke up slowly
Late morning sun seeping in
Through the curtains
In an antipsychotic haze.
There was no time to work on my creativity
I thought, peering out
At the cold light.

Outside the parking lot was a sea of crumbled glass
Blue green and gray,
My window gone
Just a few small pieces remained
And a rectangular empty space
From which music once played.
On the passenger seat rested a screwdriver
The only evidence.

No time to call the cops.
I was running late.
This was already the third home
They’d sent me to
After the guy who ran away
Who scratched me with his fingernails
When I tried to get him to come back home
After the one who threw a glass at me
The one who thought I was a new client.

These guys I was going to see now
Couldn’t talk
And I worried I might be molesting them
As I changed their diapers.
I was still in my overmedicated state
As I reached the street
Still in shock from the morning’s crime.
In my haste to leave
I’d forgotten the scrap of paper
With the address.
4219 I repeated to myself. That’s it
As I passed 4215, 4217, and then
Wait.
I’m not sure how this happened
Because houses on a street don’t skip numbers
Do they?

I saw 4300 next
Turned around.
In my head the psych resident said
That word
Schizophrenia.
A life sentence to homes similar in a way
To where I worked.
Young people my age started to get it
In their twenties
A progressive disease.
We’re waiting to see if you get worse
She denied saying.

I went back up and down the block
Several more times counting house numbers
Not seeing the one I needed.
I became convinced
That I was in the midst of psychosis
That the house was really there
But I was having a delusion that wouldn’t let me
See it.
I got more and more afraid
Each time I turned around.
Finally I saw no choice but to give up
Go back to the office and tell them.
They’d have to understand.
If I was schizophrenic it wasn’t my fault
After all.

C. Arlaina Ash 2016

Band Nerds

In band I played the baritone.

I joined band because the physical therapist said it would help my coordination

if I played a brass instrument.

The director said in front of the class that the baritone would be the right instrument for me.

I never got to choose.

I didn’t believe I could make a sound on the flute or clarinet.

 

My father taught English.

I had to wait in the classroom after school with the kids in detention.

The band director knew my father.

My dad probably told him about my coordination problems.

If I was less self-conscious,

I’d probably just think, aw, he cared about me.

So nice that people were trying to help me.

 

Some good things about band:

when my section got the melody on “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

 

The worst parts were:

Lips swollen from the puckering, buzzing, and blowing.

And I wasn’t even getting laid.

I can see how could’ve turned it to my favor.

It probably made me better at kissing, fellatio than other girls.

I probably could’ve gotten the stoner guys I stared at

but was too scared to approach to talk to me that way.

And do more than talk.

 

My father and stepmother were progressive,

would’ve told me about birth control.

I can see myself being too scared to have an abortion.

It’s fun to imagine a different teenage-hood than the one I had.

 

The guys who beat me up in band –

“Hey, ugly!” they called to me, and laughed when I looked.

probably liked me

I get that now.

 

I would have been like my college roommate freshman year.

Her nickname was “Team Bitch,” probably the “manager” of her school’s team.

 

So I found out after high school that band kids are “nerds.”

There’s supposed to be this camaraderie.

They stick up for each other – supposedly – when the jocks pick on them.

Instead it’s really just another case of the cycle of abuse:

Dad hits Mom, Mom hits kids, kids kick the dog.

c. Arlaina Ash 2011

Tentative

Tentative touch
so your hands don’t leave
black and blue marks on my skin.
Tentatively avoiding my eyes so
as not to frighten with your intent.
A lilt of the voice,
again a light touch on my hands to stop their trembling
as you savor my trepidation’s
gooey center beneath a hard, brittle shell,
so bittersweet it hurts your teeth.

You back away and I run to the door
and stand, shaking, my back to you,
waiting for someone else to unlock it,
but mercilessly you turn, leaving through another exit.

c. Arlaina Ash 2016

Feminist Poem

By the time women are allowed to be ministers
People stop believing in God.
So many influential
Women in my life were not feminists.
My mother lived alone for many years without a man
Which I can’t help but see
As a sign of strength
Yet fiercely believed that man was the head
Of the household and women should submit.
She once told me that my younger brother
Had authority over me because he is a man.
Mom made us go to church —
What was that poem by Alice Walker
About women whose hands were strong
And who had clean words to say
And dragged her off to church?
She only had eyes for the Bible.

Mom tried to get her Papa to stop drinking
When she was a kid.
He told her if she didn’t stop being so religious
She’d end up in the mental hospital like his mother,
Her grandmother, who was in an institution for 20 years.
That was back when they could lock you up for good.
Ironically Papa’s unkind prediction came true.

My mother said in therapy that she wanted to talk about gender roles.
The therapist tried to redirect her to talk about her case manager
Whose appointment she’d missed.
Mom just said the caseworker was a good friend.

I’m going on about my anger at anyone who says women can’t be ministers
Speculating that in that case I have a calling
Thinking in 5 or 10 years I can see myself as a Unitarian minister.
I called God She to my stepfather once
And he said, “That’s a deception of the Devil!”

I reject this.
I reject my mother’s gospel of non feminism.
I reject her gathering up the wretched of the earth,
The rejected of our small town
Into her arms and her red car and carting them off to church.
I reject the husband who would beat his mentally retarded wife
Leave her doubled up on the kitchen floor
Then pose beside her in the church directory.

I reject this.
I reject submitting to your husband.
I reject the man as head of the household,
Even if this means I will live in my own solitary household
With no man to call my own.

She says she’s praying for me to meet a Godly man
And I think of dear closely held Southern archetypes
Like the Gentleman Caller who I’d sip ice tea with
On a cool summer evening
In a veranda wearing a white lace dress surrounded by jonquils
And A Good Man is Hard to Find
Who Flannery O’Connor writes about as a serial killer.

But that’s not what she means. She wants a man–
And it must be a man–
To pray and read the Bible with me
And go to church and raise a family,
Like she wrote on a wipe-board magnet on her refrigerator:
My future spouse and children.

c. Arlaina Ash 2014

Too Sweet for You

My blood’s sticky sweet like the corn syrup used

for pigs’ blood in Carrie.

I feel kinship with her because we were both the ultimate outcasts

and both had psychotically religious mothers—

but my blood is not from pigs.

 

(Do pigs get diabetes? My cat has it.)

 

I have never tasted my urine to see if it is also sweet,

though that’s one of the diagnosis criteria,

but I do regularly prick my finger, though not on a spindle,

squeezing out a crimson bead.

Then the countdown begins:

 

5-4-

 

Sugar courses through my veins,

granules scraping the tender walls of blood vessels

like I imagine sickle cells do.

 

3

 

My heartbeat is audible and if I exhale slowly

I don’t have faith that my lungs will ever again fill with breath…

uh-huh  uh-huh

breathe in, breathe out

slowly.

I’m here, she says offering her arm for me to hold

onto for dear life.

 

2

 

“Obesity,” accuses my list of diagnoses, “This is of your own making.”

I have eaten myself to death.

I want to show the doctor photos from seven years ago:

123 pounds; model beautiful; shaved head only accentuating my conventional attractiveness.

Those photos—and a closet full of size-six jeans and dresses that no longer fit—

are my only proof of how for years

I kept this disease at bay—adding a prefix,

a preview of a movie I never wanted to see

that made me check the backseat for the man with the knife

in the dark who crawled into the car window while I was

still in the theater.

But now I got front row seats for the feature,

so I sit back, sip Diet Coke through a straw, and can’t look away

from the jump shots ’cause what my imagination comes up with

will be worse that what’s onscreen.

 

1

Here. Eat this granola bar. You bottomed out.

 

Beep!

 

Omigod, I can’t look!

 

c. Arlaina Ash 2015

Broken Toyland

This is an Ekphrastic poem based on the work of Valery Milovic

I’m the girl with pigtails and x-ed out

eyes of death, clutching red

heart to chest, with long thin striped arms,

and he flies over me, an angel of death. First we sit on a park bench,

a nuclear reactor in the background, and he holds my heart, tiny,

in his arms which like mine are also striped, and he smiles.

Then we stand

next to the corrugated fence covered with graffiti, which encloses

what is his and my heart is large and pale. He smiles

in his round pale face, and holds one hump of my engorged heart, and I the other,

and it tears like the babe in the story of Solomon the Wise

didn’t.

My heart is not anatomical, pumping

blood through aorta and valve. Rather it is two-dimensional and tame,

a constructionpaper cutout for a schoolgirl valentine. Sometimes

he’s an albino rabbit with cranberry eyes, and I’m alone, just a pale girl.

My red heart is my only gift.

c. Arlaina Ash 2013

Trepidation

Trepidation means spine-tingling fear and trembling.
If trepidation was a color, it would be pale, cold translucent blue.
Trepidation makes sharp blue ice run through my veins.
If trepidation made a sound it would rattle like a Day of the Dead skeleton on a stick.

Trepidation is pale, cold translucent blue,
Like how I feel when they try to draw blood.
Trepidation sounds like dry bones rattling in the wind,
Possibly left from a cadaver in a lab.

Trepidation’s how I feel when they draw my blood.
I’ve always been a hard stick,
So it feels like it’s from my cadaver once I’m long dead,
And an amorous zombie nurse is my one true love.

I’ve always been a hard stick
When jagged blue ice courses through my veins.
Until my undead lover draws it from my corpse.
Trepidation means a tingling in the spine; fear and
trembling.

c. Arlaina Ash 2014

American Nightmare (after James Arthur)

The red, white, and blue lights
of a white Ford Crown Victoria
flash in my rearview.

A mix of local punk from a student ghetto free box
“You and I could be lovers on the run in 1933”
drowns out the roly-poly siren.

Ford decided to retire the model this year.

I pull onto a side street. I got a warning last time.
The news won’t be good.
I expect citations, but not handcuffs.

He makes me stand against my sky-blue Hyundai Accent
and pats me down.
Boyish with a crew cut,
he reminds me of my brother, the Army captain.

It is night.

Soon I’m in Orwell’s place of no darkness.
The sun shone as I drove to Carlsbad
one of the last times I saw my mother
before she died of stage four liver cancer.

Speeding on old Coors, I got pulled over.
Life and death happen and make one forget
trivialities like unpaid traffic tickets.

In the holding cell, I tell a woman
about something I read online:
warning signs that one is in a bad relationship.

A good feminist, I say she doesn’t have to stay
with the boyfriend who gave her the bruises she displays
on her body.
I can’t remember where.
I have always had problems with insomnia.

I watch the waif coming down from heroin,
in my black cashmere sweater.
Valerie Stevens,
a thrift store find, but still.

Thinking my experience was interesting
is a defense mechanism.

c. Arlaina Ash 2012