March 2024 Poetry Feature: New Poems by Our Contributors

New poems by our contributors DAVID LEHMAN, MATT DONOVAN, JULIA KOLCHINSKY DASBACH, and GRAY DAVIDSON CARROLL

 

Table of Contents:

  • David Lehman, “Honor Code” and “Rhode Island is Famous for You (for Denise Duhamel)” 
  • Matt Donovan, “Looking at the Statue of Athena in Nashville’s Replica of the Parthenon, Waiting for Something to Happen”
  • Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach, “What does the vulture say to the snowman(?) or how my son is learning to tell jokes(.)”
  • Gray Davidson Carroll, “November 19, 2022,”

 

Honor Code
By David Lehman

The couple had their code. When she wore hoop earrings,
it meant “lust in action,” from “past reason hunted”
to “past reason hated,” and she needed them to meet
ASAP at the London flat where they conducted their affair.
Or he would phone, hang up after two rings, call again,
hang up after one ring, and she got the message, told
her husband it was the survey takers, the time wasters,
and he, an Oxford sociologist with a little piece on the side,
understood. There were rules they had to observe
even as they broke the most important of them:
no recriminations, no eulogies, no self-pity, no lies,
the honor code of the adulterers’ league.

 

Rhode Island is Famous for You
By David Lehman

for Denise Duhamel

The blue forest, chilled and blue, like the lips of the dead,
show life when brought to the public eye in June,
the month of twins who divide their lives in two
or spend hours pursuing the ghost of a lover. Stacey
and I drive to the swimming pool and Blossom Dearie
sings “Rhode Island is Famous For You,” which always
makes Stacey think of Denise Duhamel, born this day
in Woonsocket, R. I.  Other children of June 13 include
Yeats, Pessoa, and Tony Towle, each of whom is a cousin
of yours, Denise, pursuing the arrow of greatness, but of none
of them is it true that Rhode Island, smallest
and possibly most underrated state, is famous for you.
And the lips that were cold and blue when this poem
began have the warmth of June and the charm of a kiss.

6/13/23

 

Looking at the Statue of Athena in Nashville’s Replica of the Parthenon,
Waiting for Something to Happen
By Matt Donovan

After Uber-ing across town, paying my ten bucks,
and pausing long enough to read a sign that explained
this Parthenon replica was part of the one-year-too late
centennial celebration of Tennessee, I worked my way
upstairs to stand dwarfed beneath this gilded goddess
of wisdom—forty-two feet-high, wide-eyed with red lips,
pleated robe, and one hand resting on a shield adorned
on both sides with gold-plated scenes of war, all of which
we believe resembles the actual Parthenon’s actual Athena
from ancient times. Now what? I’ve been lingering here
for about an hour, peering up at her garish face
and already I’m restless, less awe-struck than itching
for yet more Nashville hot chicken with a bad-idea
spice level of Shut-the-Cluck-Up. At the Louvre, Rilke
once stared down the abs of a headless Apollo,
then wrote a sonnet which veers through similes—
a lamp, a star, a wild beast’s fur—as a way to describe
what it feels like to stand in proximity of art until
the carved stone’s headless gaze made him proclaim,
in a surged-forth sudden truth, the poem’s final words:
You must change your life. I think I need to change
my hotel room, I remember thinking decades back
while pressing my face against the window, able to see
only a scrap of the real-deal Parthenon that looked,
with its columns aglow at the edge of a sheared-face hill,
exactly as I expected it would. I’d traveled to Athens
for a wedding, and the only part of that trip I know
I’ll never forget is how on the night before his marriage,
my friend began wrestling with a guest who’d pushed
his bride-to-be into the pool, which turned into a game
of we’re-just-fucking-around-ha-ha-but-not-really
that became something else when my friend’s legs buckled
beneath him and his head bounced off the cement.
Later that night, a hotel doctor sipped a glass of wine
and insisted, due to the extremity of the concussion,
we had to make sure the groom didn’t sleep because
he might not ever wake up. Even then, that phrase
seemed like a line stolen from a myth in which a god
takes a moment to declare, more or less, Buckle up.
Your life is going to turn to shit. In the end, though,
everything was fine, aside from my friend appearing
in his tux the next day with a black eye, a battered jaw,
and two cracked ribs. On my flight to Nashville, after
telling me the Parthenon in his town was far better
than the one in Greece, the guy seated beside me
in the exit row swore that Athena was an absolute
can’t-miss must-see. Her eyes will see into your soul,
he said, no goddamn joke, which wasn’t what I expected
to hear, given, yes, his red MAGA hat, but also how
after the flight attendant asked us for verbal confirmation
that we’d be willing and able to help in the unlikely event
of an emergency, he bellowed out Hell yeah! before
passing the rest of our choppy-air flight in silence,
staring into space, and, for a long time, studying
the figures in his seat pocket’s safety instructions,
all of whom are stepping forward with practiced calm
into little wedges of blue meant to be an expanse
of sea. More and more, today seems like yet another day
in which I won’t know what it feels like to be guided
by an absolute-must, or to have the somewhat-grey eyes
of a statue snooping through my soul, or how I might
ever begin enacting the kind of change demanded
by Rilke’s poem. It doesn’t help that Athena’s eyes,
more than forty-feet up, stare down a bare patch of wall
while I’m eye-level with her gigantic toes protruding
from between these gilded flipflops which are, I notice,
decorated with still more battling men. In the center
of her shield, there’s the head of Medusa—a woman
forever cursed by the goddess in her wisdom over some
petty grievance or, depending on the story, unhinged
jealous wrath—depicted with her tongue sticking out,
making her seem less like a monstrosity and more like
someone with a bad taste in her mouth that can’t be
washed away. Although there’s a posted list of FAQs
mounted to the wall—What’s the best way to clean the gold?
Why was Athena built much later?—I want to ask what
exactly we mean when we say the word soul, or how,
according to the wall text, when President McKinley
pressed a button in the Oval Office that sent a charge
to a rigged-up cannon back in the Athens of the South,
he not only officially opened the fair, but also kickstarted
a hope to lure desirable citizens to Tennessee. The Palace
of Illusions and Mirrors, a gold mine, and something called
the Ocean Wave. A cyclorama of the Battle of Gettysburg
and a café featuring scenes from Dante’s Inferno—who knows
how this would have worked—and meals served on coffins
beneath chandeliers of human bones. There was also
the Giant Seesaw, which carried riders two-hundred feet
into the air, offering the best view of the fairgrounds
with its spires and domes that were never meant to last,
and of the Black men and women working through the same
rows of the same cramped cottonfield, demonstrating
to visitors what it would have been like to have been a slave.
Right now, I wouldn’t mind some voice booming out
almost anything other than Hell yeah—maybe, for instance,
a few thoughts about how it’d be better to avoid hitching
the word unlikely to emergency, given our emergency
began long ago. Near the end of Robert Altman’s Nashville,
a man stands near the Parthenon’s steps at a political rally
before removing a handgun from his guitar case and shooting
at the performers onstage. One person is killed, and another
wounded, and a wannabe country star, wanting to help
restore calm but also seize the opportunity, grabs a mic
and leads the crowd in a singalong of It Don’t Worry Me,
a phrase that repeats in a drawn-out chorus as the camera
rises to reveal wisps of clouds adrift in godless blue. OK
crazy-ass statue, belated goddess tourist trap in whom
I have no faith, although there might have been some comfort
in a sonnet-length poem in which the promise of a volta
ensures change is never more than thirteen lines away,
that moment disappeared a long way back, and since
there’s little chance now I’ll summon forth any blindsiding
new truth while hanging out by your oversized toes,
I’ll mention instead that I once plucked a miniature groom
from a wedding cake and, like a towering hungover god
enjoying the chance to inscribe someone with a wound 
they already carried, used a pen to blacken the space
around the figure’s right eye. My friend didn’t laugh
when he saw it, but instead yanked it from the frosting
and, without a word, stormed across the same beach
where he’d just proclaimed his vows and hurled it
into the waves, not unlike—or perhaps very much not like—
Perseus, who, in one version of the story, takes the head
of Medusa and rather than hauling it back home to Athena
whose hunger for worship will never be quenched, tosses it
into the Aegean where it’s discovered by sea nymphs
who take turns swimming past the rage-snarled face
and touching it with strands of kelp which—who knows
how such things work—transform into bright pieces of coral.
This matters, someone once said, because it’s a story
jampacked with bloodshed and death that swerves into
frivolous delight. Bring it, I want to say, even while knowing,
as with any story, one can always find yet more joy or grief
with only a small pivot of one’s gaze. A crowd rises shrieking
into the sky on a seesaw that resembles an oversized crane
while people below in a two-acre field push cotton deeper
into burlap sacks not far from this space in which today
a young girl spins, chanting over and over, as if in invocation,
the words mac and cheese. Lured by the promise of music
and ice cream and the chance to be an extra in a film,
people poured in from all over town for the final scene
in Nashville, not knowing the script involved a prop gun.
When the shots began, right on cue, some people screamed
and sprinted across the grass, and a few others, it was later said,
crouched or stood where they were, holding up their kids
as shields. In the end, though, everyone was fine—totally fine—
and a voice spoke through a megaphone, explaining ha-ha,
there was no need for concern, and the day slowly began
to feel yet again like any other day. It’s never enough,
I know, just to say it, but it’s always worth saying once more:
sure as shit our lives must change.

 

What does the vulture say to the snowman(?) or how my son is learning to tell jokes(.)
By Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach

He is trying to wrap 
his mind, like a blanket, 
around humor. Knock Knock! 
You have to say: Who’s there? 
He instructs if answer 
isn’t immediate. Orange. Orange 
who? Orange. Orange who? 
Orange you glad I didn’t say… wait 
it was Banana! Let’s do it again. 
And again. And again. He will 
repeat until he gets his version 
of right. Get it? He will ask
laughing, mouth crow-open 
and bellyful shaking, sometimes 
falling on the floor others 
just falling. He won’t notice 
whether you laugh in response. 
What did the chocolate chip 
say to the pancake? Even if 
you aren’t listening. You’re brown, 
get it? Because they’re both 
brown. At the evaluation 
they said, he over-exaggerates 
expressions, exclaims, and repeats 
things he doesn’t understand. 
You hadn’t noticed. 
That’s just his way 
of telling jokes you thought. Dead. 
Dead. Dead. His teacher asks you 
to make it stop. Our cat
is dead. Grandpa is dead. Great-
grandpa and great-grandma 
dead. Dead. Dead. Dead.  
He’s making others 
cry. He scares them, she writes, 
and tells you he enjoys it. 
He just wants 
a reaction, you try
to explain, What did the caterpillar say 
to the butterfly? You’ve changed. 
You want to show her he’s reaching
for humor. You want 
to remind her of the seven 
purple butterflies he drew 
after she told him 
they remind her of her dead 
mother. Told him seeing 
wings made her happy. 
You haven’t moved
in hours, said the vulture, guess 
I can eat you. Get it Mama? 
Because vultures eat dead things 
and a snowman isn’t dead. 
The way “dead” fits 
in his mouth 
like a punchline.     

 

November 19th, 2022,
By Gray Davidson Carroll

A twenty-two year old walks into a nightclub in Colorado springs.
Anti-Hero by Taylor Swift is the number one song on the Billboard Hot 100.

He is eleven months my senior and we both have the world ahead of us.
Naomi Biden gets married to a man no one knows the name of and I call this progress.

In September 2001, the Twin Towers fall and the boy’s parents get divorced.
Mine move from Boston to a town with a population of 700 and a median age of 50.

In May 2007, the boy’s mother files for child support
and his father is ordered to pay $300 a month without visitation rights.

My mother knows she has cancer but doesn’t tell anyone yet.
Two months later, the boy’s half-brother is born.
His father gets custody and the boy barely knows him.

I send encrypted nudes to people whose names I don’t know
and ask how much they’ll pay for goods and services.

In 2010, the boy moves to Denver,
where his grandparents assume the role of primary caregivers.

I’m making straight A’s and take this as confirmation
that what I’m doing matters.

In 2012, the family is in Texas where the boy enrolls in 5th grade
for a month before disappearing.

A poll closes and Elon Musk Tweets that Trump will be reinstated on the platform.
The boy is eleven and his mother commits arson in San Antonio.
Court records show she is jailed for an unspecified amount of time.

The winning Powerball numbers are 7, 28, 62, 63, 64, 10
and the total payout is $93 million.

After attending high school sporadically, the boy drops out in October 2015.
There is no indication he returns to formal education following this date.

My brother is newly-minted nineteen and full-throttled man bun.
On April 28, 2016, the boy petitions to change his name.

I have an affair with a woman five days younger than my mother and start reading Yeats.
Relatives report the boy punches his grandfather in the face,

while he tells emergency personnel that he fell down the stairs.
I smoke cigarettes for the first time
and learn what they feel like if I look like a faggot.

In June of 2021, a frantic relative calls local police to report
that the boy’s grandfather is hiding in the closet and afraid for his life.

Police arrive but are sent away by the grandparents who tell them that the boy is sleeping.
I spend my days teaching kids about safe sex and dedicate my nights to forgetting.

The police are back on a bomb threat.
The boy’s grandmother says he’s going to kill them.

That evening, the boy is jailed
with a million-dollar bond.

My grandmother is 83 and we repeat the same conversation every couple minutes.
The boy’s grandparent’s sell their home to bail him out of jail before fleeing to Florida.
I sit on the subway scribbling poems onto paper till my veins look like the ink.

The boy moves in with his mother
and my friend is stabbed to death by her housemate.

On November 16th, his mother writes on Facebook
that the boy is missing with her phone and credit card.

A twenty-two year old walks into a nightclub in Colorado springs.
He is wearing a bulletproof vest and wielding an AK-47.

When he opens fire, the dancers mistake the gunshots as part of the music.
They are gleaming light, queer-joy-sweaty.

When their bodies start to fall, the sweat mixes with their blood.
One thousand miles away,
I wake up from a dream in which I am falling.

At 11:56pm, local police receive a call that there is an active shooter inside Club Q. At
12:02am, the boy is reported to be in custody.

During this time, five people are killed and another twenty-five are injured. I
sob into the pillow and fall back into disassociation.

On July 20th, 2023, the boy will be ordered to pay $85,000 and
sentenced to five consecutive lifetimes

followed by 2,208 years in prison.
I lean into my partner’s chest and ask him. Why?

 

 

Gray Davidson Carroll is a transfemme writer, dancer, singer, organizer, activist, cold water plunger and (self-proclaimed) hot chocolate connoisseur hailing from Philadelphia by way of western Massachusetts and other strange and forgotten places. They are the author of the poetry chapbook Waterfall of Thanks (Bottlecap Press, 2023), and their work has further appeared or is forthcoming in The Common, new words {press}, Sage Journals and Frontiers in Medicine. They have received fellowships from Brooklyn Poets, The Good Listening Project, Columbia University and elsewhere. When not reading or writing, you can typically find them drinking copious amounts of coffee at all hours of the day, or otherwise pedaling a bicycle down forgotten backroads and singing at the top of their lungs.

Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach (www.juliakolchinskydasbach.com) is the author of three poetry collections: 40 Weeks (YesYes Books, 2023) available for preorder https://www.yesyesbooks.com/product-page/40-weeks, Don’t Touch the Bones (Lost Horse Press, 2020), winner of the 2019 Idaho Poetry Prize, and The Many Names for Mother, winner of the Wick Poetry Prize (Kent State University Press, 2019) and finalist for the Jewish Book Award. She is currently working on a poetry collection as well as a book of linked lyric essays, both of which grapple with raising a neurodiverse child with a disabled partner under the shadow of the war in Ukraine, Julia’s birthplace. She is the author of the model poem for “Dear Ukraine”: A Global Community Poem https://dearukrainepoem.com/. Her poems have appeared in POETRY, Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, and AGNI, among others. She holds an MFA from the University of Oregon and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory from the University of Pennsylvania. In fall 2023, Julia joined Denison University as Assistant Professor of English/Creative Writing.
 

Matt Donovan is the author most recently of The Dug-Up Gun Museum (BOA 2022) and Missing Department (Visual Studies Workshop 2023), a collection of poetry and art made in collaboration with the artist Ligia Bouton. He is the recipient of a Whiting Award, a Rome Prize in Literature, a Pushcart Prize, and an NEA Fellowship in Literature. Donovan serves as Director of the Boutelle-Day Poetry Center at Smith College.

David Lehman is a professional writer. His most recent book of poems is The Morning Line (Pittsburgh, 2021). His nonfiction books include One Hundred Autobiographies: A Memoir (Cornell UP, 2019).

 

March 2024 Poetry Feature: New Poems by Our Contributors

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