About the Author
CAKI WILKINSON graduated from Rhodes College and Johns Hopkins University. She received a 2008 Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Her poems have appeared in The Atlantic, Poetry, Yale Review, and other journals. She lives in Cincinnati.
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Circles Where the Head Should Be
By Caki Wilkinson
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2011 Caki Wilkinson
All rights reserved.
A ball of yarn, a hill
maintain an equipoise until
their neatness starts to bore the gods
of potential and energy
who hedge bets, reckoning the odds
of when the rest will be
set in motion, and who,
first stumbling upon this clew,
constructed both the incline and
the inclination to unwind.
Like most gods, though, they haven't planned
to stay; they mastermind
the scheme, ex nihilo,
then slip behind the shadow show
and designate an agent, chief,
remaker of their mischief made.
Each time, disguised, this leitmotif
gets salvaged and replayed,
a universe begins,
for orogens and origins
suppose a Way Things Were before
some volatile, untimely That—
sweetness perverted by the core
or the belfry by the bat,
or here, a hilly green,
whose still life, eerily serene,
completes their best contrivance yet:
from high above, a williwaw,
a hiss, and then the silhouette
of one terrific paw.
Lares and Penates
The suburbs? Well, for heaven's sake
who wouldn't choose the absolute
convenience? Cheap, a quick commute,
and close to Lowe's, a Steak and Shake,
our own police and DMV,
a library, a lake.
Esteemed domestic diplomats,
we trump conundrums (His and Hers)
and smother any fuss that stirs
the air of habit-habitats.
It's not an easy job; in short,
we wear a lot of hats.
Our curb's appealing. From the street
you'd miss the issues we're ignoring:
termites and week-old dishes mooring,
barnacled with shredded wheat,
the bunch of brown bananas stuck
with a yellow Post-It: Eat!
We dictate chores, but understand
the clock moves faster than we do
and focus on those old and blue
dilemmas of the second hand:
inheritance, ill-fitting pants,
smoke, rumors, foreclosed land.
Winters, we help keep track of taxes,
sort copies Xerox-hot in piles,
or prune unruly hanging files
(a fixture of our weekend praxis).
There's always something. In this house,
only the cat relaxes—
because the clutter drives a need
for more, more room, more hours, food,
more faith in the subjunctive mood...
tomorrow, yes, we should succeed
in keeping peace and making time
to garden, and to read.
Still, every spring our porches spawn
insects we can't identify
and ferns turned freeze-dried octopi.
They spill into the arid lawn
with diasporic fliers, clover
and choirs of woebegone
house sparrows whose incessant cheeping
recalls the gloomy Ubi sunt,
our soundtrack to the nightly hunt
for whatever is downstairs, beeping.
(As if the sleepless needed some
reminder they're not sleeping.)
But don't fret; clarity, if brief,
is possible. With luck, you'll see
an artfulness in entropythe
rust, the dust, the bas-relief
of Aquafresh-encrusted sinks.
So when, in disbelief,
a woman skims new catalogs,
convinced her luster's fading, faded,
and, afraid to end up jaded,
doughy in orthotic clogs,
she gracefully accepts her fate
and rises early. Jogs.
Old news, the midnight warblers worrisome
to introspective bards, the nagging taps
and jugs that left so many haunted, dumb,
behind their coppice gates or chamber doors—
but witness, now, this feathered architect,
a bricoleur, exotic, who ignores
convention, working long before he sings
to gather fragile lumber, sticks and seeds,
although, part larcenist, his favorite things
come from the human world: milk caps or pairs
of pearly buttons once attached to tags;
matchsticks, cigar bands, red synthetic hairs
uprooted from some coconut baboon
or other Florabama souvenir,
stripped screws, receipts, even the jagged moon
of a fingernail blown, dusty, from the Hoover.
And steadfast to the finders keepers rule,
this passerine Houdini will maneuver
through apertures in transoms, cracks in attics,
encroaching on such odd forgotten hobbies
as medieval reenactments, numismatics
Hummels, and paint-by-numbers, hauling back
whatever he can muster, though he's less
a petty crook than kleptomaniac,
since unlike history's most famous thieves,
Prometheus and Charlie Peace, Capone
and Robin Hood, he's charmed by gingko leaves
the same as blazing gold, for he equates
the value of a find with how it fits
into the complex structure he creates.
Bizarre, this art through which he resurrects
a story of disjointed parts, the cause
extracted from his manifold effects—call
it a burnished hut, a self-made cage,
a bachelor pad; in fact, his bower's nothing
but a vehicle, the decorated stage
where he's transformed. The undisputed prince
of bric-a-brac, his solo trill persists
whether or not he has an audience,
the coda rocking walls designed to glisten
yet hardly strong enough to house his hope
those finest plumes, on their high perch, will listen.
Lady on a Unicycle
Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line,
unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.
—Newton's First Law
So Esse Pearl gets snowed in at the chichi condo
of that married man she sees,
and-you can filter this however you think fitshe's
upstairs, toweling off burst-bubble film, her chest
chafed from his monogram,
and he's shut in the parlor, leafing through sheet music—but
just the glockenspiel, he says, to swallow all
the woodwinds in his head—
when, glancing towards the porch to contemplate a scale,
he sees a woman poised, it seems, above the fluff
of shrubs before the sheer
pink streetlights show her high boots turn a single wheel.
Now here's the kicker: he goes back to reading, forgets
even to mention it
until they take a holiday months later (months!),
like it wasn't worth writing home about-and that's
the kind of man he is,
Esse Pearl says, a mess of grandioso themes
the rest of us can't hear; and (bless her heart) wrapped up
in his wife's terrycloth,
she never knew what passed: a whistle-trill of spokes
turned over salted asphalt, the easy lean achieved
by holding on to nothing,
the freedom of a body that can stop itself.
Same Lady, Different Unicycle
Reaching the metro station, soaked, galoshes
sloshing, commuters stop to empty things—
a hood, a tote-into the sidewalk grate;
the overhang ladles their hair with rain.
Bevies of wet umbrellas ruffle past.
They hurry underground, all trundling
the same dark luggage, and learn the Red Line north
is making only local stops. Enough,
they think: another morning's ticker tape
looped with bad news. Too soon, they've had enough.
Squinting through platform steam, they hate to wait,
heads spinning, phones flipped out like hands-Back off,
I'm searching for a signal—never mind
the squatter by the bottom stair who thrums
his old guitar. Hard to imagine how
one finds an opening through coats and ponchos,
but she does, this lady on a unicycle.
A child tugs his mother's sleeve, points, Look!
and they watch her thread the madding masses, drop
a dollar for the song, and pedal on,
tilted into the gray, available light.
The Truth About Effects
Hens form one of the minor tragedies of the floods.
—The Dearborn Independent, June 1927
There's hardly rhyme or reason for a flood
or what it swallows. Water rose in spurts,
then leveled everything. A gust of mud.
The lucky were called spared: they hadn't drowned
on rooftops. From high ground, some raised their shirts,
comparing watermarks; some made a mound
of salvage—heaped, but dry. You had to choose,
one man would say. He left his hens in runs
and hauled his father's anvil, which he'd use
to prop the basement door—though, like the levee,
he brought it up some nights, bestowed on sons
who found it unremarkable, but heavy.
It had to do with little leaden things,
a belt unbuckled, rumors, epithets
they tried and stuck with, their inheritance:
nearsightedness, short fuses, long regrets.
One said, you know, I'd hoped for more than this.
The other, why'd you think you get to hope?
It had to do with what they did, and didn't,
a mirror's smears, hair nested in the soap.
Out of this blinkered logic, they begot
the whole town's whispers. Spoken like a curse:
Knocked up. A waitress at the Dairy Maid
spread it (her second cousin was their nurse).
The baby, it was no surprise, grew up
on powdered milk, saltines, government cheese—
since lonely's poor is worse, she bore another,
as if bless-you was meant to cure a sneeze.
They tried. And stuck with their inheritance,
but not a lick of sense, they reinvested,
hell-bent to break the cycle, make ends meet.
She went to Junior College. He got arrested—it
had to do with what they did, and didn't.
One son took sides. The other never kept
a promise or a steady anything.
He quit the church league, grew a mustache, slept,
knocked up a waitress at the Dairy Maid.
Head Majorette, she twirled, but looked a wreck,
didn't return after the baby came,
the birth cord wound around its purple neck.
Since lonely's poor is worse, she bore another
and stole away to live with kin, her past
forgotten when she tied the knot again:
a man's man who hung on (unlike the last),
hell-bent to break the cycle, make ends meet;
who had AC, four boys, and dogs that hunted;
who strategized, ascending through the ranks
to hold his father's post. It's all she'd wanted:
a promise or a steady anything.
But children leave (tied down, sewn-up) a void,
the referent of needs no longer needed.
She caught a lump. Her husband, once deployed,
didn't return. After the baby came
(their last surprise), she left the bills and yard
she couldn't face (his legacy, or hers?),
skipped town, and cropped him from the Christmas card,
forgotten. When she tied the knot again,
she framed the news; her new man worked with solder
and flux-their life: clippings, memento mori
turned paperweights, stepsons, a whip-smart daughter
who strategized, ascending through the ranks;
who read Theogony, said autodidact,
sought refuge in big-city-life-but driven
to get a job with benefits, got carjacked.
The referent of needs no longer needed?
Husband. Too soon, she wished she'd never married.
It had to do with little leaden things,
the fumes a body runs on, grudges carried.
She couldn't face his legacy—or hers,
it seemed-and, scotched, they opted for a gloss.
One said, you know, I'd hoped for more than this,
but there it was, refulgent in the dross
and flux—their life: clippings, memento mori
assembled like a line nobody drew
out of this blinkered logic. They begot
a tough, bow-legged brood. The middle two
sought refuge in big-city life, but driven
to bouts of rage, found mediocrity.
The baby, it was no surprise, grew up
sore as the dickens, hating kids. Had three.
Girl Under Bug Zapper
This haywire night, she's back from church
with neighbors, plain-faced Pentecostal types
whose scowls cut through the windshield's smears
when her door slammed, no thank you ma'am or wave,
who'd still be scowling, could they see
she kowtows on rotten boards, the porch suffused
with purple-blues no regal soul
would praise, to maim a wayward gypsy moth.
She likes to watch them die, the stunned
and stunted, slugs betrayed by falling salt,
cicadas gutted, anthills razed
like circus grounds after a hurricane,
and while a kinder child might stray
from incantations, cataclysmic winds
of aerosol, or soda froth,
her heart's a mudcake shrunken in the sun.
Besides, she's seen enough of them
hooked onto eaves and storm doors, dull as leaves,
and knows they'll drop, spun from the shock
of pain, or rapture, creatures slain in spirit.
Besides, she'd rather celebrate
the world unhinged, its crooked scales and stakes,
party-of-one who plucks these wings,
confetti in her folded palms. Frail things.
Portrait of the Artist with Toothpick Bridge
Last place: in retrospect, I could've thought
about the laws of Statics and Kinetics,
or drawn a blueprint. No, I chose aesthetics,
hung up, like all new kids, on first impressions.
But decorating sticks with sticks, I grew
concerned: my trusses barely bore the glue,
much less a brick. Poorly conceived, and wrought,
the thing was lucky it survived the ride
to school. And while I'd gain perspective, years
after I faced the junior engineers,
the meantime left me to my indiscretions:
minor, but of a very public nature.
Despite my having learned the nomenclature
of tension-turned-suspension, I relied
on other terms: an ornamental apse
and ziggurats, I said, were more my style.
Thus, holding it together for my trial
was difficult. I tried to make concessions
for shaky hands and braces, but fell short—a
lesson, not in how to build support,
but how to stand back, watching it collapse.
He's driving, one hand down an Arby's sack,
and—Jesus Bleeping Christ—we're nowhere close,
sentenced to Kansas. Kansas: home of wheat,
the nation's largest prairie dog, and plains
that lend some credence to the pancake-world
hypothesis. I need to pee. Again.
You stick two people in an F-150
for three days, lugging pets and plants and far
more baggage than they're willing to admit,
their separate self-reflection starts to breed
apotheosis or abomination—
and usually the latter: we're both pissed.
Who died and made you king? I say. He says,
Sometimes your big mouth bites you in the ass,
and then he pegs me with a chicken finger—
not at me, near me, he'll maintain for weeks
after the incident, but either way,
it whips my left ear, hard, a deep-fried dart,
before it's sucked into the floorboard vortex,
that point of no return between our seats.
Excerpted from Circles Where the Head Should Be by Caki Wilkinson. Copyright © 2011 Caki Wilkinson. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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