Read an Excerpt
Perpendicular As I
By Marjorie Maddox
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 Marjorie Maddox
All rights reserved.
Simple as a globe spinning
or a quick sketch of the country:
thick black lines as borders,
an ocean here, there,
maybe an interstate running through
and a few rivers, towns.
An entire state scratched on the back of an envelope,
rough, rough draft of an atlas. You trace me like this,
don't expect a dirt path in Kentucky,
freeways wrapped around Chicago, stretched to the East Coast;
don't expect veins like roads, heel prints,
boundaries as strong or flimsy as fingernails, as lies.
I'm pinned to place like girders on a bridge,
steel become cold, colder,
like concrete stuck to earth in basements, construction sites.
Sometimes, tugged in and out of coves
in a current too much like a lover,
I float, half-eroded, mouth full of pebbles.
True, the shape of my face is in mountains, sand,
and I sleep to the click of an SOS, or not at all.
Because of you, I apply bruises to my cheeks like blush,
to my brow ash from the oldest volcano.
There is more to this than silhouette, than map.
What of your outlines?
An inch into Ohio, you pinpoint cities. You're wrong.
This circle is the pond I first made love in,
the dot a patch of poison oak I wore;
a millimeter away: the line where train and Buick
ripped even the sky, severed then from after
while I watched, a car behind.
We draw and redraw maps to keep our footing,
define who and why we are:
thud of fist, jagged cry of a child,
whoosh of water taking in a body — here on paper.
These coastlines are fainter than breath, the barest stencil
of all we want to remember or cannot forget.
The Lines in Your Body
In the shadows beneath
your eyes — three rivers floating
into what we never were
and are, small pebbles of words
tickling the current. It is the sound
we wake to ask who? when only breath
is talking. In its streams, we drift
roughly, rise to wade, wander. What you are saying
comes from beneath
the nails, from out of the eyes,
drips off the nipple we can't refuse.
I am in love with the lines in your body,
characters etched into these
many tributaries, your scrawled message ebbing
upstream, unsealed, each letter bleeding
into another as thin and winding. At the last
bend — which is never the middle or beginning
and has even less to do with the end of what we know —
I wait, my ear to your side,
and listen for singing:
the hushed underground tones. I cup
myself, am ever thirsty.
You are talking about happiness, mine.
As if it were real. As if you could
see it: smiles looping 'round lines in Iowa, Illinois, Ohio,
curling like cord, ribbon on a maypole, your spirit 'round you.
You hand-over-hand my name like sheets out a turret,
Rapunzel's hair. It all comes
undone — this wish for living
weaving through the Midwest: a mirage in voice.
What's happiness but ghosts we see through, specters hovering?
Everything alive haunts. You want it.
Daylight bright as fear. Color other than wall.
You think outside is real, more.
You are the one peering in from the window
at you: bedridden, sixth floor of Saint Anne's.
By the time your voice gets here it's gone or almost,
but so am I, half a country away from pulse or breath,
the only facts you have.
All touch is less than solid.
Words at twilight: shadow, apparition.
Stay where you are.
There a heart hums and stops.
More real than blood, thicker than us.
Growing Up Dying
You taught me to breathe
with the sirens when I was ten —
you with your shirt ripped wide,
you flat on your back like a beach bum
but pale as a shade less than sand.
By twenty, I marked time by your pulse,
clocked years by the waiting:
the color of your eyes
like the underside of a shoe
your tongue clumped uncomfortably
against your teeth,
and me —
kneading the beat from your chest.
This is the wire we hop from,
twirling between the twigs,
towards ground, sky.
Like an almost-good dancer,
the lopsided thump of your heart
pumps behind mine,
gives me fear, and breath, and fli
The Minister Preaches His Wife's
Funeral at Night
He is not
blinking, steeple in his eye,
a sky of half-notes
broken. What thickens
song? Spire and night; sharps;
liturgy in the grooves of this movement;
sound, sense, sentences cut out
or into. What he remembers of her hair weaves
rhythm, words; hymns and sermon tangled, swerving.
Again, he sways into that vision:
headlights and stars
splattered; windshields. Dark
the turning into, that driver's face,
gospel in his throat, a hope so close
she listens, notes curving
Beneath bells, words come out,
Everywhere white and stained glass.
Here, on this page,
notes dip like a child learning to swim.
In these sounds, I feel her
drop to her knees, sink till eyes touch water,
till she blows all air from her lungs.
Or, on the next page,
bells humming on a summer night
in circles: louder, softer, farther.
On this pew alone, a girl
twisting her hair like a chain; a man,
his voice a groan; a woman,
pushing half-notes past the stone walls, out, over the hills.
The boy beside me breathes in, out, loud,
migrates toward the aisle, leaves me
alone with a hymnbook,
words I've known too long,
trying hard not to breathe you in,
not to breathe at all.
January: the moon emptying itself onto the back porch,
away from snow, afraid of whiteness it senses in itself.
I know this like I know a story,
real apart from the fact,
how truth and tale now move together,
now pass all that the other is,
as current, as the slow, cold twirl of water under ice,
and even like this envelope,
small in my hand, violet,
my grandmother's script curling toward embrace,
toward all that no longer is.
Three days after her death she can't catch up,
her voice in the creak of paper,
the flap she kissed unsealed, and me
believing, really believing, she sits:
waiting, rocking, dreaming of a reply.
On crisp stationery,
I write her skin, scent, smoke, and ten-year dresses.
Carefully. Letters large enough to read
without glasses or squinting.
Tonight, I'll walk to the box in my robe,
slip the letter in:
the envelope shiny in this moon,
clean and white and blank as new ice.
By Reply Mail
As you walk away
from the post office, a woman runs
up the stone steps, trips, drops
her baby. This is how, at 12:40, the world splits
in two, ends too all the would be's you have not yet
stamped and sent. What went and what you wanted to go all come
back rerouted in the moment you fear most: the child midair
heading for stone, the adult hands and arms almost there but not yet.
You a stranger lunging at the parcel you cannot catch or keep. And a third
woman, across the street, her shrill whistle of a voice a referee warning: not safe,
not allowed. You want the official
carrier, the protector of all
birth announcements, report cards, crayon scribblings,
through all messy weather and yearnings stained only occasionally
and seldom lost, especially so close to home,
to the place you were born. But the mailwoman
(forty-something, graying ponytail out her cap, never late) left early
in the rain, her canvas sack of writings as full
as the diaper bag flung out like a postbox flag
when the mother stumbled
into your note-taking sight. And fell.
Her ankle swelling, the child starting to scream.
Here is an envelope already
addressed, stamped. Tell her you're sorry
to read of her misfortune. Or tell her you're glad
the child's OK. We're waiting to hear
from you. It's been a while.
Corresponding with a Stranger
Listen: we'd pass on the street without blinking.
Thinking someplace else, we'd step on a bus,
not see words, not know when, where to look.
Like others. Like everyone.
My fear in your blood, my name
curling from your pen like age.
Your script worms its way between lines of my replies.
Where is your face in these vowels? Your voice?
I dream your eyes as print,
as map, someplace other than here,
your signature bending with the river
just beyond these hills.
She Misses Calling Herself I
How an hour can open up into so many names
you call yourself, perspiring sound.
It's the option of nothing
that seeps out, stains the space between words,
so beautiful she does nothing with it.
As always, time is the favored lover
because it will tell.
Which makes it nothing
but letters linked into men she could or couldn't
be, the option of other
broken in speech, wanting to be broken,
perpendicular as I.
There, stuck in that class,
chalking circles on a board so high your toes ached,
an inch of sock exposed,
all for the sake of subsets, intersection.
That teacher with the tie too bright for day,
wide as your fingers spread
he knew. How even now
worlds swerve in, out, curvilinear,
a trajectory, an extrapolation from that fourth grade:
cowlick, shy wink, lunch box, desk carved with initials,
stacked, bisected, bisected again into lives or
one life divided recursively,
your miracle, you
halved like loaves and fishes.
Mornings you sit, slicing bread,
point in a line between you and
Through the window the world juxtaposes itself.
Drill perpendicular to concrete.
A jay: coordinate in the grid of an oak.
You part your hair diagonally, unfold the paper.
Those Venn diagrams,
circles with the double cross,
shaded gray, are now.
The overlap: same mouth, nose.
You tilt into different lives without breathing,
love ten people at once/no one.
You eat an apple,
tap your foot to Zeppelin,
fingers to Bach.
Do you see? The circles shift.
Pry your fingers in.
Behind the chalk.
Behind the two dimensions.
It's only age that adds the distraction,
loosens dirt around the iris,
"silverfish" fintailing across a sky,
blank screen, face.
So he tells me, this doctor who knows
nothing but numbers from my eyes.
"The cure of cutting into is worse.
Let the body let go what it does."
I shift in his chair,
watch what once was held in
swim across air he breathes
And this is how they come,
the last bits of you,
unasked for, thin and spinning,
what's left in a voice untwisting into autumn
and its half-specks of
dust, light, leaf:
the stems that vein vision,
that hold together the eye.
This Is the Color
Blue and purple and black and all that bruises in a voice.
Here. Where the edge of words smeared across air
become sky. Where the slight swirl of cloud
divides not night from night, but layer from layer
as if a sound could be peeled into grays so thick
you could sift out teaspoons of light. No more.
This is the color I talk
summers when the heat sticks like a screen door,
prickles like a burn on the bottom of my foot.
This is your breath, left behind on a back porch,
your steps clicking.
Wrap me in the folds of a big black skirt,
quiet as cotton, as clothesline sheets
catching wind on an August night,
any sound but this: a man, crows in his eyes,
a woman, face eclipsed; now apart, now together,
hissing the day into dark.
Again, the first snow is (my great-aunt's prediction) sleet
and, yes, it's the inside of the world we're seeing
on the inside of rain —
slick as a faucet in ice, steel not even clicking.
What is there that's warm but you
into spring, the swell of flood?
Even your heat sweats cold,
splits skin into a shiver.
Tornadoes up Your Windpipe
Mornings, I can see the inside of your skin
and how your words spin like tornadoes up your windpipe
before you speak, and how your glands sweat
like the slow leak in a hose.
I know where your pupils lie at the back of your skull
before your lids open.
Even your heart valves flap conspicuously
and your lungs, rough like dried mud, bubble geyser-like
inside your ribs.
Likewise, I've seen you
counting blood cells
sliding through my veins by the thin light
that curls through the curtains.
Elegy for a Man and a House
Everything in my voice: antique.
It cracks like the static of your sleep
the last time you rolled over,
away, curls into something older
than wood, frame, this empty square:
roof, door, a wall to measure
how and why we grow, windows
slit like an eye on the side of the moon
that caught us young, let go
before your breath dipped, stopped.
Oh, Giacomo, though it's winter
and this rough floor cold,
I walk with my shoes off
to catch your splinters.
Undressing a Death
February, the click-clink-click of
zipping up the pretend-death I made for you
wakes me. You are not dead enough
not to haunt. Tight in the body-
sack of my abstractions (my thin-lipped grief
strapping you to what you are),
you breathe too easily. What I wished, lied, twisted
together into the key that got me here
scrapes now at the zigzag of
you: my teeth caught in your skin,
in your sheddings, uncoiling of cells,
while you are slipping, none-too-quickly,
into something old.
The Truth of Lies, The Lies of
Almost thirty, I still hear
my voice at thirteen,
hushed on the phone,
that were no more than six or seven teens
hurling toilet paper through the limbs of a quarterback's oak.
Still, I hear the dial,
the promise to sneak out the screen door,
mumble something about ice cream,
or movies, or math homework due at 8:00 a.m.
and you, Dad, in the next room,
listening on the other line.
At thirteen, I couldn't ask why
different lies were different,
so I gave up on them all
— expecting an ear at the phone, or the door;
eyes scanning the lines of a diary.
I am the only one I know accused often
of being "honest, faithful, kind,"
as if you could mix the three
and drink them down like poison.
Born to, married, compelled,
I lie by omission: tell my secrets,
shove yours/his in a dark corner of the cupboard,
beneath the sheets in someone else's house.
Listen, I am not fine;
the scratch by my eye
was not done by a cat;
I don't have one —
and I sawed my own heart in half
cutting paper-doll excuses
from words that looked like love.
For five years, no fifteen,
I chiseled myself into strong
but mixed up the words.
It is your breath, and his,
that whip like the wind through my eyes,
my mouth, carve truth and lie
on the same stone,
carry them from Sinai triumphant.
Cardboard sketched into keyboard
caught you. By the fingertips.
Corrugated "Chopsticks," "Three Blind Mice,"
Brahms for a brother young even into old age
if he gets that far. If you do.
What good does it do to listen? Ever.
Notes folded in four-time,
tucked behind the eardrum of someone else.
Your father with scissors aimed at middle C,
his shadow crammed between the black keys of what isn't.
Put music to that.
And once a week you tapping on the real thing,
keys actually pressing in,
sound stumbling off fingers a little like joy,
what it might be.
Did he tell you how, halfway through Beethoven's Fifth,
Old Burnett made him stand (still
playing, box ticking),
tugged at his trousers,
stuck it in?
Excerpted from Perpendicular As I by Marjorie Maddox. Copyright © 2013 Marjorie Maddox. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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