EXCERPTS FROM “THE ELSEWHERE ORACLE”
This town wants its feasts, but it’s never eager
to dirty the kitchen. The judge and the sheriff prefer
our iron rendered for pots, never mind how we fill
them. The veins inside
the mountain. I dream they are liquid.
Not like blood. Like blackstrap molasses, a slow shadow
I can plunge an arm into. Pull out a dripping fistful. I used
in a factory. Everything measured, neat
inside their molds, not even a thin spatter
of residue to scrape away. Now, the barrels from my forge
exhale smoke like a trademark, my affinity for flaws,
for wild muscle. Tendrils spent and caught, still
dangling. My husband said most things about me
should be hard, but I prefer silver to steel, earthworms
to rods, the scent of sweated leek
to a baby boar
chop, bones hardening, skin squeaky between teeth
after the cooks scald off the bristles. But this town
and their feasts. All tripe
and gristle, grease, wing.
I can barely watch the children stab at the meat, fat
trimmed ruthlessly and chucked into the woods.
The hunters come to me, specific in their desires.
What in your nature defies the path you’ve mapped for yourself? What are the expectations of your loved ones that cause you to revolt in small, spiteful ways? The violence of the gun may repel you, but the violence of the forge is more frightening and more fascinating. It is time to bring into the world what you want but perhaps feel you don’t deserve or haven’t earned: a painting, a business plan, a poly-hearted love affair, a journey, a baby. You may need to break and remake your tools. You will risk a flawed product. Some cherished part of the self must shrink to make room for the part of you that is birthed alongside any new creation.
There were more of us once. When orphans
were a thing. After the war, the pandemic, the gypsy
killings, yadda yadda. Once we were emblematic
of a common fate. No one hated us and we hated
only the lucky. That was before an aberrant
offshoot of individualism branded us defective,
symptomatic of a degraded system, more unsavory
than tragic. Which is to say we grew older, free
ranging, exhibited signs of early puberty.
It rankles young families in town—
our prime real estate. The orphanage a pillared
Greek-revival holdover of civic charity: a town takes
care of its own. Our gardens are expansive
and well-maintained, a row of catalpas hiding
a tall fence established the same year
as the endowment. It is airtight, our benefactor wise
to the town’s evolving priorities and adaptive
municipal processes. The staff are, for the most
part, caring and handsomely compensated. The smallest
orphans have the most say, and we developed
necessary efficiencies to handle a minder whose services
requires improvement or whom we prefer
gone. And we benefit, more often than not, from excessive
and anonymous kindnesses. Hunters bring us
fresh sausage and haunches. The older children
benefit from music lessons funded by donations.
I have been learning piano, but I am not in charge.
It is easy, and often preferred, to assign responsibility to others. Blame is buoyant and fun to fling about. There are some who find you an easy target to scapegoat, and sometimes all they need is your proximity to invent a poor turn of events and call you the cause. On the flip side, assuming guilt has its attractions. To be guilty means to have power. To claim responsibility is another way to claim control. You are not that important most of the time. Which is to say that some times you have grave responsibility and must wield it—and its impact on others—carefully. Other times, however, when the finger is pointed at you, go ahead and roll your eyes and turn away. Your energy is best spent elsewhere.
The woods pretend to be the end
of things. Boles rot, fungus mottles
rock and stump, decay softens
the ground to a soggy carcass. What light
the overstory permits
is tepid and littered
with spores. Children are warned
away. Hunters keep shared landmarks
in sight, carry long blades to hack
encroaching vines that sucker and stick.
The Council reluctantly
governs the ungovernable expanse
that fills and overfills the stretch
between Mt. Iron and the lake. The hermit
lives there. The beasts
they worship and the beasts
they eat. Gloríana’s cures locked up
in wild herbs and seeds. But beyond
the woods, the factory. From
the factory, the soot.
What are you scared of? The dark? Strangers? The spotlight? Dying alone? Discovery of your secret fetish? A near-empty parking lot at night? What we fear can help us develop strength, foresight, and vigilance. Hyper-vigilance, however, can morph into anxiety if we are not careful, which is, clearly, counterproductive. But even vigilance can be wasted. Because the danger that will level you is not the one you’ve anticipated.
Catastrophe blindsides us. Disaster is rarely foreseen. You can’t determine which threat will find you. You can only accept that something will get you someday. You can take this in two different ways. 1) Fatalistically. 2) With relief. Either way, look past your primal fear, and you may glimpse the manageable threats that you have, at one time, told yourself are better ignored than dealt with.
Sediment and lime scale
slow the pump. Water,
stagnant in fragments
of aquifer, takes
on the character
hard. Brittle with arsenic
leached from soil 67
miles away. Joe Bodi abandoned
the back fields long
after the well showed signs
of drying up, the reach
of ditch water and pollinators
shrinking each season
until the one when Joe
had no choice but to roll
his shoulders and wrench
off the center
pivot. The well
is not safe or easy
to locate, lost to an aspen
stand taking back
furrows root by creeping
rhizomatic root. The pump
still works, still sputters
out groundwater for those
thirsty enough or dirty
enough not to worry
about the other side
of the rotted
platform. Mostly hunters
the tree line
or a feral pack of students
shoving the small ones
first. Some say
uranium. Some say small
decaying animals fouling
the well. A few say
nothing, suspecting something
else beneath the surface
that waits for whatever
wanders near the woods.
No source of sustenance is infinite. Wells dry up, fields go fallow, friends turn away, pets sicken, idols fall. Always before we are done needing them. What remains are fragile and ghost-like structures. Memories. Shadows. The past. It can be difficult to leave them. It can be difficult to stop asking them to nurture and nourish us. But unrelenting need can turn them monstrous, can force them to transform into something ugly and hateful as their only defense against our outgrown dependence. It’s possible your overreliance on something or someone is threatening to ruin the both of you. Or it could be that you are the well without one last drop to send to the surface.
The Robber Baron
I love them by the dozens, itty
bitties and big ones. They swarm
the grounds tilting always slanty
toward the fence. Scrappy up
the catalpas for a view. Higher
is worth more. Highest is worth
claw and tooth. I love it
when they grapple, fling another
down. I tell the hunters, bring
them meat! I tell the lawyers,
ironclad the deed! I tell
the teachers, more music! Make
them softer at the edges, blunter
instruments, last them longer.
Funny little big ones all, some
making in my image, the parents
all gone. Myth has it into the woods
gone. The fact is not so easy.
Isn’t that the case of every
orphan? A bit of myth, a bit
of fact. They shriek like so many
birds guarding their trees. My
tree, the orphans shout. I say
to the lawyers, my trees,
my assets, my orphans running
the garden paths always
to the fences, never to the gate.
Big and little ones love what
they know and what they know
is safe. I made this
town, stick and brick and storefronts
and asphalt. Smokestacks and
mosses. Bones in the ossuary.
Bones in the woods.
It is reassuring to think of identity as self-defined. We are who we believe ourselves to be. Who we say we are. We are revealed by our actions, words, and deeds. We are the choices we make, the options we reject. We imagine ourselves, and we transform our selves into that image. We embody and act out archetypes. We want to change and we succeed. Or we fail. Even if we indulge in self-hate or self-pity or self-blame, we believe the self is in control of capital “I” identity.
But what we believe and what we know are two different things. Our loved ones, those we cared for, those who care for us, people who have harmed us and people we have harmed—they are all a part of our identity. We can do little to control their impact on our lives. Someone has an outsized influence on your identity, and by extension, your fate. It’s best to figure out who that someone is.
Bones of creatures before
the wanderers. Bones of wanderers
before the town. A collapsed
femur. Infant fibula.
Nested vertebrae in their canted
tracks. Circling. Circling.
Circling. Bones ancient
and unidentifiable. Sternum
like a palm frond. Scapula
like moths. Beneath
the steps, a shifting beach
of teeth, shoreline jagged
with incisors the length of a small
woman’s foot. The father
knows which storm
cellar. The sister knows
which lock. No one knows
why the piles, why the alter,
why we might need them
for what is to come.
The body is ephemeral. But only if you think of it as a singularity. A distinct vessel containing the self. If you think of the body as an integral part of the earth and—by extension—the universe, its material cells destined to break down and nurture new cells—loam, grass, trees, stardust—the body is infinite. And our bodies persist. After death, they mean something to others. Both profane and sacred, our bodies are laden with significance and myth and superstition. In death, your body is part of your legacy, your continuation.
So in life, your body is precious. Not for meeting aesthetic or athletic standards deemed culturally valuable. But because it is, simply, you in the material world. You can’t predict the challenges your body will endure as it ages and evolves, the joys and pleasures it has yet to encounter. What is your body telling you? What somatic needs or desires have you put aside? Do not take your body for granted. Leave behind remarkable bones.