Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Yours, Mine, Ours: Who's Driving This Thing?

I’ve been thinking about Little John lately – specifically, the animated-bear-version from 1973, when Disney was on a mission to tell little girls it was totally cool to have crushes on bears and foxes and orangutans and tigers. But that’s not what I’m writing about here.

There’s a particular scene, right after the archery contest, when, in the chaos of Robin’s exposure as a fox only disguised as a bird (seriously dude?), the whole carnival erupts in madness and Little John, caught up in a striped tent so packed with animals it begins to run away poles and all, pops his head from the top of its little roof, looks around and shouts, “Hey! Who’s drivin’ this thing?”

This Little John one-liner comes to mind often when I see things slip out of control. I yell it when I almost back into my mailbox every morning. When I see a leashed dog running ownerless down the trail, when my computer turns on without being touched, when I trip over my own feet. And I thought about it Monday night, in front of a ballroom filled with three hundred donors, artists, board members, and invited guests of the Broome County Arts Council. Sharon Ball, the Director of the BCAC, had invited me to read one of my poems as a representative of the Binghamton Poetry Project, an organization they graciously support.

The stage manager pushed me lightly on the small of my back after I was introduced, and I stepped up to the podium under the glow of so many crystal chandeliers. I’ve always appreciated poets who talk candidly (and briefly) before reading their poems, if only to smooth the reading out and give the audience some context – a perk we miss when reading a book. So I gave a few sentences about my poem, “Phantom Limb,” soon to be published in an issue of Rattle. The poem is about the Afghan people Tom worked with so recently, and what they can build using mostly rubble. In it, the speaker confesses she is a phantom limb, there and not there, practical but not really helpful.

“I write often about my husband’s experiences as a soldier deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s a capt – wait, he’s a major, recently promoted, in the infantry—” and the ballroom burst out in applause for Tom and his accomplishments. “I’ll tell him you said that,” I chirped. I read my poem and went back to my seat by the pasta bar, where I selfishly wondered whether the people here connected with me, the poet, or my husband, the soldier at the center of so many of my poems. I think about this every now and again, when I’m riding that chaotic circus tent of poetry, when I stick my head out of its open roof to shout, “Hey! Who’s driving this thing?”

By the time I drove home, it was dark, and the night was cold. The approach of autumn put me in a better mood, and I called Tom to tell him what had happened.

“So, this ballroom full of people wants me to tell you you’re awesome,” I said. I have a real way with translation.

“What? Why?”

Tom, for the record, has never really appreciated the handshaking and thank-you-for-your-service-ing he gets from so many strangers. He never knows what to say – I wouldn’t either – and he often gets caught in awkward confessions and conversations that isolate him more than they comfort or inform. His trauma isn’t something he knows how to give to people like a dropped wallet or a lost cat. But he puts a good face on, every time, and tries to escape the situation with grace and speed.

“Because you’ve been to war.”

“Oh. What’d you tell them?”

“When I got up there to read my poem, I just gave a little background to the piece by telling them I write often about your deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“But you don’t.”

“I kind of do. You know Little John? In the Disney version of Robin Hood? That time he pops out of the circus tent when it starts running away and he yells, ‘Hey! Who’s drivin’ this thing?’”

“What?”

“Dude, I’m Little John! I don’t know who’s writing this stuff. It must be you.”

“Why don’t you just own your poetry and start saying you write about your experiences of war? You aren’t writing my experiences. They’re yours.”

I feel like he missed out on my Disney reference. But.

Let me say here, in writing, on the Internets, that I hate it when Tom is right like this – in an unprompted, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that kind of way. Also, let me say that Tom, while a very thorough reader, doesn’t often offer such poetic advice. When another poet insults me or disappoints me in any way, his response is an explosive “fuck them!” If someone criticizes my writing, he dubs that person asshole.

Experienced poetry mentors, beloved past professors, have given me the kind of insight Tom gave me on Monday. Marvin Bell, Dorianne Laux, and Joe Millar. Peter Sears. Sharon Cumberland, who, when I cried in her office as an undergrad because I had married a soldier I loved but felt, at best, passionately conflicted about his career and the social expectations of officers’ wives, said, “Abby! Snap out of it! You’re on the inside now – you’ve got to write about this. Don’t you see?” Let the record show that, back then, in Sharon’s office, I felt like a sneak, a liar, a greasy fraud who stole everything she heard and gave it away as her own. (Isn’t this how all women are made to feel when they find their voices? That they are so clear they must not be their own?)

And yet, I continued to write poetry because, well, I couldn’t stop. And if I was going to do it anyway, I figured I may as well be my best version of honest, and my feelings about a war that swallows up so many lives demand my attention when I sit down to write. I write what I see in Tom and all men and women who fight because those stories won’t go away, and they don’t follow Tom the way they follow me.

I think there was safety in thinking these were Tom’s stories and not mine, in seeing the reader as someone concerned about Tom and not me. I could forfeit loneliness that way, imagining myself picking up what he’d dropped and putting it together again. I didn’t make the thing; I just reassembled it after it broke. If they weren’t my stories, I wouldn’t have to be by myself with them, which is good because they’re scary. 

I hate it when Tom is right, but today, I need to admit that he is. A couple weeks ago, he started writing his own creative nonfiction in earnest, and I realized then, too, that he is the only one who can write his experiences. His stories are his own. My poems, my stories, tell what I’ve seen, done, heard, felt. They are retellings of my own horror, loneliness, confusion, helplessness. They show my humor, love, faith, desire for something good.


Turns out, I’m driving this thing. I’m moving forward without knowing how, shouting from the busted rooftop.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Prose & a Poem for Flynn

When I was five or six, our family cat, Cotton, was euthanized after being attacked by a raccoon. She came running into our yard from the tree farm next door, her back right leg ripped clean from her body, blood dripping into the dirt. My sisters and I screamed and screamed and screamed. It was April Fools Day. I hate April Fools Day.
That’s the earliest I can remember not wanting to go to sleep at night, hating bedtime, and not understanding how I was supposed to feel about animals – that they should be cared for and loved even though we ate meat, that they were family members even though their deaths shouldn't be as traumatic a loss as a human relative’s passing. I seemed to only be capable of loving in one gear, and it scared me that I thought of Cotton no differently than one of my sisters or my mom. I couldn't bear to lose anyone. Everybody, people and animals, suddenly seemed too easy to lose. It’s the earliest I can remember trusting animals more quickly than I bonded with people.
*

Six years ago, Tom and I drove into the empty, dried up fields of Paulding County, Georgia, to a dog shelter that sagged against a rocky hillside. The facilities and organization were both soon to be condemned, and we’d heard there was a seven-year-old German shepherd available for adoption – the oldest dog under their roof, the only one that wasn’t a pit bull or lab. We walked through an outside hallway lined on both sides with chain-link kennels and found her, curled up in a ball that seemed sickeningly small for the size we expected of a large breed. About thirty pounds underweight and hunched around an infected spay incision that hung from her underside, her reproductive parts were infected and swollen, her ears were pocked with engorged ticks, and her skin crawled with fleas. When we opened her gate, she stood at attention. We put her on a leash and left the kennel door swung open over a standing puddle of urine.
On the way home, my cell phone rang. The police were waiting at our house in Atlanta, where the bedroom window had been smashed with a brick and our belongings ransacked for the second time in a week. Flynn panted in the rear view mirror, ears up, broken teeth catching glints of afternoon sun. It was the last time we’d be broken into for years.
*

[The dogwoods in bloom outside our Atlanta house.]


The one condition we adopted Flynn under was that she had to get along with our two cats, Suvi and Lunchbox, two rescues from Alaska, near the army post Tom had been stationed at for the second and third years of our marriage. Within two months, Flynn had not only desperately tried to make friends with Suvi (to no avail), she had learned the command “Go find the kitty,” and could be sent out into the neighborhood at dusk to gently bring Lunchbox home for dinner. The two of them would sit in the yard like old friends, underneath the dogwood trees that thrashed our windows during tornado warnings; some mornings, the white petals swept across the yard in arcs like the patterns of migratory birds.
A month after adopting Flynn, during one of our walks, two pit bulls flew from the screen door of a small pink house in our neighborhood. One bit into Flynn’s neck and the other circled me. I kicked the jaw of the dog attacking Flynn and screamed, surprised at myself. The other dog nipped and yowled; the kicked dog came back for another bite of Flynn. Two women in a Cadillac pulled over and yelled honey we’re calling the police, hold on. A man carrying a belt staggered from the pink house and said Smoke! Smoke! Get the fuck back here!
I couldn’t believe I’d kicked a dog. I watched Smoke circle us, his back bumpy with scars. Flynn and I ran to the post office and hid in the lobby until a clerk told me my dog had to leave. We sprinted home.
*

[As close as Flynn usually got to befriending Suvi.]


A year later, we moved to Columbus, Georgia, where Tom was stationed at Fort Benning. By now, we had gratefully accepted Flynn’s virtues as cat herder, house guardian, and my unyielding shadow. She slept on the floor at the foot of our bed, refusing to snuggle, resting with her eyes half open. She followed me so closely her nose bumped into the backs of my knees.
We began to accept, too, the relentless aggression Flynn showed toward other dogs and many people. She allowed our friends into the house but snarled at anyone we didn’t know or didn’t like. In Georgia, going for walks at lunchtime was near suicidal because of the heat; instead, Tom woke up at 4am five mornings a week to run with Flynn for six miles, bringing her home focused but calm for a day of patrolling the house and yard.
*

Six months after we moved to Columbus, we left for Colorado Springs and Fort Carson. We were still living in a hotel when a middle-aged couple walking a blue heeler puppy through Garden of the Gods called me a dumbass as my dog lunged through her muzzle at their pet, nowhere near touching it. They lifted their noses as they said it, their jawlines parallel with the red clay trail. A week later, a woman on Colorado Avenue muttered bitch when her cockapoo yapped and clawed at Flynn as we passed by their storefront. Flynn bristled and I pulled her closer to me. I knew no one in that town. I had a job teaching writing at the community college, but I would spend most of the first year there alone, wishing Tom wasn’t in Iraq and I wasn’t so far away from home, wherever that was.
I spent days in my office, writing, with Flynn sleeping under the desk. She was starting to show her age. One morning, as I sat at my desk sending out poetry submissions, a whitetail deer tapped its antlers accidentally against my office window and cautiously peeped in the glass, waiting for me to fly up from my seat with a rifle, I suppose. I looked down at Flynn. She continued to snore. The deer relaxed, ducked its head below the sill, and munched in peace whatever brush had grown between my house and the alley.
*

Flynn continued to bully other dogs and intimidate people. As I gradually made friends in Colorado, Flynn got in more trouble, biting a skateboarder on 22nd Street, snapping another man on Colorado Avenue. Both men deserved it, but that’s neither here nor there.
We started taking her to a trainer who worked with her in a group setting – ten dogs and their owners in a large room filled with obstacles, stunt vacuums and mailboxes. Flynn was the only one, some nights, who had to be chained to the wall, muzzled, and leashed. She adored the trainer. She wanted to kill Vino, the sophisticated Rottweiler who could smell grand mal seizures before they happened. When the trainer brought Flynn to the middle of the room, all the dogs sniffing toward her, she panicked, snarled in every direction, barked and spat until she could return to my side. The trainer said Flynn was a “bite-first-talk-later” personality. I had spent months feeling my patience with Flynn slip until that moment. I looked down at her, her muzzle dripping, eyes wide. She wanted to go home, she wanted her cats and her bed, she wanted these strangers to leave her alone. I saw myself in her, the self that was tired of being uprooted and replanted and expected to get along, figure it out, and be nice.
While Tom was training for his third deployment and first mission in Afghanistan, our cat Lunchbox died of lymphoma. Two weeks before he showed any symptoms, Flynn started herding him onto her bed at night, refusing to let him move away. We thought she was being bossy. We took pictures and let her guard him closely. On the morning Lunchbox died, I didn’t go to class for the first time since I’d miscarried two years earlier. I felt as if a part of my mind or memory had wandered away in the nighttime. I started looking forward to thunderstorms because they were the only event that could persuade Flynn to sleep on the bed with me. I’d pretend to sleep, my back to hers, glad she was there.
A month later, we adopted Bill, an adult male cat who didn’t seem to sleep for the first week we had him. He played endlessly, following Flynn like a puppy, pushing his way onto her bed at night.
*
[Lunchbox's first time going outside in Colorado. He ran straight for Flynn.]

[Flynn and Lunchbox.]

[Flynn meets Bill in 2012.]

In August 2012, I moved to New York to start my PhD in English. Tom was in Afghanistan and I was comfortably terrified, a sensation I’d grown used to after moving so many times. I wasn’t scared of the PhD as much as I dreaded executing the move while Tom was deployed, potentially in mortal danger every minute of the day. I had to transfer the pets and all our belongings halfway across the country to a house my husband would only technically live in and had never seen, I had to meet new people, I had to be nice. My mom and her husband, Paul, flew to Colorado to help me. Paul drove the Uhaul and I drove the car, my mother in the front seat, two cats and all my suitcases in the backseat, and Flynn in the trunk, panting against the dog gate.
We arrived in New York late and spent the first night in a hotel. The next morning, Mom, Paul and I went to breakfast, mentally preparing ourselves for a day of lifting boxes in 100 degree heat. When we returned to the hotel, Flynn greeted us at the main entrance, paws up on the glass, happy we’d returned. No one was around. A cart of clean sheets and baskets of shampoos and soaps was parked in the hall. My room door was open, the cats were hiding underneath the bed, and a piece of the doorknob had been clawed off the door.
I quickly pieced the doorknob back together and we packed up, checked out.
*

[Not sure I can count how many screens we replaced when I first moved to NY.]


I’d been in New York for about a month before I started trying to leave Flynn in the house alone for short periods of time. I’d noticed, as we moved from city to city, Flynn became increasingly anxious when left alone in each home, clawing at the windows, pacing, having accidents. She had no interest in sifting through garbage; all the signs of her anxiety were left in failed attempts to escape the house and bring me home. Once, in Atlanta, when we’d tried to leave Flynn in the fenced yard during the day, she’d scaled the ten foot woodplank fence and Tom had found her on his way home from work, halfway between our house and the army post. She'd followed his scent for hours.
A colleague in New York invited me to dinner at a local Thai restaurant and I decided Flynn would eventually have to get used to being alone in her new place. Before the spring rolls were brought out, my landlord called my cell phone. “Abby? Your dog has broken through your upstairs window and is on the roof. The neighbors have called the fire department. Are you very far away?” I sped home, met my new neighbors in the yard as they pointed skyward at Flynn, who had her paws in the gutter and couldn’t get any closer to falling. I tore upstairs and carried her back through the window, noticing, oddly, that she’d lost weight. She was happy to see me. The fire department was called off.
I already don’t remember how many times we practiced leaving and returning before Flynn got to the point where she would reasonably tolerate my going to school each day. Every time I came home for a year, the couch cushions had been thrown off the couch and her nose prints clouded the windows. Everything this dog broke was an effort to find me, bring me home.
*

Three weeks ago, I noticed a slight limp and a ping-pong ball-sized knot on Flynn’s right front leg. She pulled her paw back when I felt it, and I brought her to the vet that same afternoon for x-rays. An osteosarcoma, not good, the vet said. The longest they can go with one of these is four months, she said, and I never see them go four months.
My face got hot. We stopped at the CVS drive-through to fill prescriptions on the way home and for most of the month of January, Tom and I kept her comfortable with Tramadol, Deramaxx, and Xanax. A week after the diagnosis, Flynn woke up every 3-4 hours at night and I would get up with her, sit on the couch and read while she whined, waited for the pain meds to kick in, and eventually fell asleep again at my feet. Two weeks in, her appetite started to wane. We did everything to make her eat. I started syringe feeding her once her appetite was completely gone, mixed prescription dog food with water and fed her 10cc at a time. She let me feed her, let me put pills in the back of her throat, followed me from room to room though she could barely walk, her limp getting worse every day. Sometimes she would fall. When she woke up at night, I would follow her to the water bowl and hold her back end up while she drank. On her last night, I let her out to pee at 3am and she wandered, confused, into the road. I ran outside in the subzero cold wearing nothing but a t-shirt to bring her in; when I reached for her collar she seemed surprised to see me there in the dark and walked me back to the door, leaning against my leg. Her tumor had swollen and her bones seemed to scream with every step.
On Tuesday, the vet came over with a technician to do an in-home euthanasia. They laid out a towel on the kitchen floor and Flynn tried to curl up quietly on the other side of the room. I brought her to the towel and she laid down in a sphinxlike pose, uncomfortable, waiting to be told she could get up and go, limp with her lemon-sized tumor to the corner. The IV was put in, and I cradled her head in my hands as the vet injected that bright pink serum into the line. I told Flynn she was going to get tired, that it was okay, and she’d been so good to me. Tom ran his fingers through her fur and she lowered her head into my lap. The edges around one part of me, the part that wandered off with Lunchbox but had healed up around the seams, crumbled.
*
[Flynn and me, post-hike in Red Rock Canyon.]

We’ve donated most of Flynn’s things to the no-kill dog shelter here in Broome County, even though we know we’ll adopt another shepherd soon. We’ll look for another adult dog who needs a home, who’s been abandoned or given up on. I’ll let that dog be whoever he or she is, but I know I will look for Flynn in its eyes.
I am still useless before going to bed or leaving the house, unsure of what I am supposed to be doing if it isn’t letting a dog outside for a bathroom break in the snow or tucking her in on her bed with her dragon, her favorite toy, which we’ve kept. Every night, even when she had spent the day driving us up the wall with her aggression or anxiety or neediness, we brought her to her bed, ran our hands over her ears and said she was a good pup. I am still too accustomed to being on campus, working, then pausing every hour or so to look up, count how long Flynn has been alone in the house, wonder when I can get home. In the past few days, I have become a small girl again, uncertain how I'm supposed to sleep or live in a house that has been left behind by an animal.
When Flynn’s tumor was first diagnosed, I wrote a poem. I don’t want to send it out to journals. I figure, if I put them here, where you can see them, I can always come back and see her again, check to see that she’s waiting for me, like usual.
*
[The stuffed dragon, whom Flynn often invited to dine with her.]

Poem for My Dog

Say you skip breakfast
and sometime around 3 o’clock
a friend asks how you’re doing.
In German, you would not be hungry,
you would have hunger.
I learned this when I was a teenager,
when everything I read
went into imaginary saucepots
on an imaginary stove
to stew until it burned,
until it sent smoke signals
to the part of my brain that understood.
Fifteen years later,
the first week of January,
ich habe hunger begins to blacken
and a blue wisp of readiness curls
across my white yard.
I’m standing at the living room window
with coffee, watching heat escape
from the shadow of our chimney,
a brick chute that leads
to the memory of a fireplace
someone sealed up with concrete.
My dog sleeps by the stairs,
dissolving in a newfound bone cancer.
She is hollowing herself
from the inside out.
I tell her about the difference
between being hungry and having hunger,
between being and having,
about the language that says
when you are empty,
you have something new.
I tell her, this year,
I will lose so much.




Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Royal Baby, a Good Poem, and a Rough Draft

Most people I know couldn't care less about a royal baby being born this Monday. And I basically feel the same. My uninformed opinion is that the royal family is whatever the media would like them to be, mostly a glamorous-celebrity / charity-spokesperson hybrid. They seem like nice people, but I'm not interested in what they're wearing or whose party they've attended. I would have forgotten a royal baby was being grown if I hadn't been working out in a gym with TVs dangling from the ceiling, or eating in diners with the local soft rock station tuned in above the tables. All I know is, the Duchess is really pretty, the Queen says funny things now and then, William has manners, and Harry has red hair.

I woke up yesterday a little earlier than usual and read the news. Every other article proclaimed the royal birth. (I had the same reaction as many people, especially Americans, I think: "Oh, they had a kid. That's so nice! Good for them. Will I be home in time for dinner tonight? Did I save that Excel spreadsheet I was working on? I wish I had a coffee pot on my nightstand.") All the other news, however, was the kind that reaches for your throat, squeezes your gut. A man had ridden a donkey loaded with explosives toward an Afghan security post, then detonated it himself.

Then I checked my email. I subscribe to Poem-a-Day, a service maintained by poets.org that drops a poem in your inbox every day of the year, and Karyna McGlynn, this gorgeous blonde I graduated from Seattle University with, was the author of that day's featured work. Here's a link to it. The poem was fresh and weird and that perfect combination of surreal yet completely sensible. I also loved how, in the blurb Poem-a-Day offers at the foot of the email, Karyna mentions that it's a poem she'd been "trying and failing to write" for some time. It reminded me that every poem is a draft, that no poem is permanent, poems are not people, and aren't we so much better off that way? Shouldn't we be able to play and say something serious at the same time?

I got out of bed and made it to campus a little over an hour before I had to teach my first class, and I decided to write a poem, any poem, that wasn't quite real but not quite unreal either. And the royal family seemed like the perfect subject. This morning, I realized that I so rarely post rough drafts on my blog anymore, and wouldn't it be nice if I threw a poem online, one that wasn't necessarily something I wanted to pursue, send to journals or magazines, but something to remind myself that I still write.


THE DAY AFTER THE BIRTH OF AN UNNAMED PRINCE

When the duchess gave birth
to a small donkey, the Queen had lemonade
brought up to the delivery suite. The nurses
marveled at her sense of humor.
Like God! they said, licking sugar
from their chilled glasses.
The foal weighed as much as a large sack
of flour and was just as easy to handle,
didn’t cry, took to the breast almost immediately.
The country rejoiced. We all did.
We shook our dinner-napkin flags,
poured champagne into mugs with painted donkeys
trotting around and around Buckingham
on a trail of red and white stars.
When the next morning’s news announced
some other donkey had been loaded
with explosives and detonated
near an Afghan security post, all of us
remembered how far we were from the desert.
We prayed for the soul of the far-away donkey,
his noble character, a cross burned down
with a man still living on top of it.
Then we waited by the television
for the hospital doors to swing open,
for the unnamed prince to wobble out
with the duke and duchess balanced on his back,
waving westward into the black eyes
of a thousand cameras.