THE PROSE POEMS
PAGE 3 PROSE POEMS BY: Michael Estabrook, Rochelle Hurt, Ori Fienberg, Karen J. Weyant, William Panara, Rigby Bendele, Lindsay Butenhof, J. C. Arland, Robert Scotellaro, G. Davies Jandrey, Alexander Kwonji Rosenberg, Bri Traquair, Joseph Shaffer, Liz Scheid, Alan Elyshevitz, Mercedes Lawry, Will Cordeiro, Sara Dailey, Garrett Quinn, Howie Good, Diane LeBlanc

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Michael Estabrook

baby elephant

Little pine tree off in the gloaming looks like a little person, a dwarf maybe or an elf, while a bumpy, gnarled tree root appears to be a skunk, and then over on the side of the path is a rock that looks so much like a baby elephant I stop and stare. Nope, no, not a baby elephant. I look around, hope no one is watching me. Either I’m going senile or it’s simply a matter of wishful thinking.


 

THREE by Rochelle Hurt

The Smallest Sister Meets the Favorite Father

and he is perfect. He is all clanging and steam. He is working in the kitchen, climbing through pipes beneath the sink. She follows him out to the heat-wilted yard, where he welds his feet to the soil with guilt. “I’m going to stay this time,” he says to himself, not sure yet how to speak the language of daughters. The smallest sister reaches down with her finger, wipes the red dust from his work boot and studies the way it settles into the grooves on her fingertip. It looks like a solar system, a red ringed universe, she thinks — or a wound, glowing orange, seething. “My favorite,” she says.
 

The Oldest Sister Smashes Cans

on the sidewalk with her spindly boyfriend. They crunch them beneath their feet, wincing at the sharp squeal of aluminum crumpling. Each can lets out a wheeze as it folds into itself, a burst of breath that whooshes the rust-laced pollen on the ground around it away, clearing a spot of pavement. Soon a long stretch of sidewalk is dotted with flattened cans, glinting silver among the red dust.

The smallest sister has been watching, counting the cans dead. She spots one yet half-crushed. “Here,” she says to the oldest sister, and points to the can at her feet. “This one’s still living.”

“You do it,” the oldest sister says.

So the smallest sister lifts her left foot, sees the metal shell go dull in her shadow, and steps on it, quick. The top tab snaps off and laughter flings into the air with a ping. The smallest sister picks the top tab up and shoves it in her pocket like a dime as the oldest sister’s boyfriend unravels with laughter, draping the scene: laughter cast across the sidewalk, laughter lying in strings, laughter strewn like garlands over crowds of crushed aluminum.

 

At the Edge of the City

wastewater tanks squat like the sorry fists of old men, time-peeled, dead-skinned. Lustrous water seeps from them as between clenched knuckles — an inevitable dribble — and the ground dazzles with it — amber, chartreuse, aubergine, puce. The smallest sister weaves between the fists, wind-kicked, a black leaf. She spots something in a tank a few yards away. It is a girl, skimming. Her arms don’t move, but her body drifts in lazy circles. Her black-coated back travels the circumference of the tank, cutting liquid seams, but the water stitches itself together in her wake. How tired she must be, the smallest sister thinks — the work of separation never complete.


- Rochelle Hurt
 

Ori Fienberg

Brick Harvest

They are in bloom; pinks and reds, some touched with green fuzz that begs to be rubbed away from weighty fruit. They provide no food or shelter. Their only juice is history.

Rarely do they have the exposure necessary to come into full bloom, and those who covet the properties of aged mortar run off with the finest samples.

Here is another pile: broken pieces masquerading among potatoes, there a storage shed beyond repair. On the horizon a red sunset walls off the earth from gray rain clouds.

 

William Panara

January 16th, May 2nd

In the evening, my father looks at his yard, thinking of his mother. When the sun begins to set, he can tell what he’s done, how he’s pruned the shrubs, sprayed the crab grass with weed killer, started to put down the mulch for when it gets hot. He wonders if he should cut down the deciduous tree because he doesn’t like how it looks in the winter, when it turns to a white spine, with long thin arms covered in ice. My father doesn’t even see the leaves that have grown back, thick and vibrant, still picturing it as bare and weak. Tomorrow, he will work more on the yard and, just like today, he will think of his mother, the way she looked, the things he thought when they took her body away. The tree will lose its leaves again, my father will do his work, the sun will set, his mother will die again. Everything, it seems, will be repeated.

 
TWO by Mercedes Lawry

Dust

I used the duster to dust. It was my job — dusting — tables and chairs, dressers, china closet, headboards. The duster was a rag and the rag had once been something else, often a diaper. Diapers made very good dusters. The dust would cling, not just be shoved around. Dust was a sign — of laxity or poverty — of chaos, which came naturally with many children. Hence I, the eldest, dusted — less than willingly although I did want to be helpful because the promise of sainthood had taken up residence in the far reaches of my mind. But I found the repetitive nature of the task intolerable. For the life of me, I could not fathom where dust came from and why so often.

 

Gumbo

Carbon dating, speed skaters, icy resolve. The variables of life concoct a stew, mish mash of opposites with no preferred spelling. The schoolyard harbors grim business. Quiet lies line up with the boisterous and when the neighbor boy runs past, we blink and imagine a chapter unworthy of anyone who loves language. Beware a profession of faith suitable for framing. It is no protection from the floods — filthy water, debris, germs of unknown origin. The stings we suffer leave small scars and a collection of those scars might suggest a map or possibly just the dream of pain. Down the road, several workers make a commotion of hammer and saw. We might all benefit from restoration. The hours sometimes stray from their paths and we’re left to figure out what’s next and how badly we should care.


- Mercedes Lawry
 

Rigby Bendele

Knead

The dough was what fascinated me; the constant pulling, pushing it down, my mother’s fingers covered in flour, then her, shooing me out, not wanting me to upset the rising dough. I still snuck back in, pressed my fingers into its flesh, watched it fill out again, swell against me. She caught me doing that once, started putting it in the still-cool oven, so I could watch it rise but not touch, knowing that it moved so slowly that I couldn’t see its breath, only feel it stir in me.

 

Lindsay Butenhof

Phoenician Tea

The tea was a gift from her friend overseas: paper-pale buds once fresh, crumbling leaves, red-lipped petals from far away. She filled her french press with boiling water and a tablespoon of tea. The glass fogged as the press exhaled. She reached toward the cover, fingertips hovering over the plunger, and applied a gentle pressure: it resisted. She wiggled it free, lifting and twisting. As the seal broke, the lid shot toward the ceiling. A stream of birds, petal-bright, erupted from the press, steam spilling in tendrils from their feathers, throats thick with chamomile and honey.

 

J. C. Arland

Drowning

Swirling watery colors of odd amoeba shapes. Gasp.
Bubbles and more bubbles all around me, coming from me, I kick them with my short, chubby toes. Gasp.
There’s silence and echoes and darkness. Splash.
I’m yanked from my swampy grave and frantic confusion brings cold tears in the puddle running down the hall.

 

Robert Scotellaro

Simple Directions for Assembling an Existential Angst

Attach the cold dishwater you are dropping from the battlements to part (B) — the mad hordes scurrying up ladders and the lunge of battering rams run amuck. Secure the splintery sounds you hear in tight with the tool provided.

That fictitious sunlight (as shown on page two) may be layered over/and glued to the mirrored highway you travel. The blinding sheen in a vacuum-packed bag is included. Fasten the collapsible vistas to the tricky landscapes sheathed in Styrofoam and marked with a blood alphabet as indicated. Use the colossal bolts, washers and lock nuts as illustrated. Hand tighten — shaky-hand tighten. And there you have it! Handy-dandy and ready to display.

(Paper hinges are optional. And an emergency number is provided at the back of this booklet.)

 

Will Cordeiro

Balloon

The three of them climb into the basket, the chords are unnoosed, and the canvas tilts upwards then wobbles away. Bon voyage! Shouts and fizz of champagne. People, waving. They become children, then — a bit later — they shrink to dolls the children are cradling. The wake of powerboats cut white scars on the lake, which are instantly healed. Herringbone parking lots; sun-glint off the cars. A river thins into a strand of gray hair. Father takes out his map and nods and notes well the orchards in tidy rows, the abundance of virgin forests, each gable and spire of church-steeples or Victorian homes. Father keeps looking back and forth between map and earth, wondering which has the greater precariousness of a toy. From here, the boundaries of fields seem real things — at least, they are as real as each color is, but the colors saturate and fade by turns with the coming of evening. The little town begins to wink with lights, as if stars were being turned on above and below. Lightning bugs explode and vanish at the bruised edge of dusk. The boy, hanging his arms over the edge, wonders if the girl will kiss him; after all, the balloon ride was his idea. Waves swelter and fidget below them, meadows and grain. The girl, almost smelling the faint salt from the ocean, stands amazed that just air is enough to make them rise, and that the flame which supports them all is invisible.

 

Sara Dailey

The Spider

At the end of web, slick filament holds; the body caught thus barely twitches in the breeze, bobbing to its motion, a cadence of insect corpse. The spider spinning the world ignores you as it unspools its glistening thread, the heat of your humanness, like a failed and fading ember, blinks unnoticed. How heavy your body, calcification of bones inside bag of unsung flesh, how cumbersome the weight of you, compared to the spider, dangling its brown being like wonder thrown face first into the wild and winding wind.

 

Alexander Kwonji Rosenberg

Dora

When my father knew her, twenty years ago, she went by Doris and kept her paintbrushes in coffee mugs by the bathroom sink. She lived in a vertical apartment overlooking the multicolored rows of laundry strung out like flags for a sparsely attended parade.

There was no room to lie down or stretch out, not even on her corduroy couch that was overstuffed with magazines, documents, photographs, as if it had given birth to paper children and sat, fat and dejected, taking up room so that in the summer, when it was quiet and hot out, she would lean against its side and fan herself.

 

Alan Elyshevitz

Phenomena Nearly Beyond Comprehension

The cantilever terraces of Frank Lloyd Wright, his concrete slabs, float on a warm bed of air. Even when water and winter arrive at once, and liquid molecules fatten like gluttons at a wedding buffet, the structures withstand the temptation to crack.

In July I visited Salar de Uyuni, the great salt desert of Bolivia divided into natural polygons like the whitest of bathroom tiles. A finger to my lips, I tasted the surface in disbelief that it wasn’t a grooved sheet of ice.

The Australian frilled lizard, a remarkable reptile I saw on British TV, unfurls a parasol of skin around its neck to bluff and bully predators before it turns and flees for its life.

To make an impression on Frederick the Great, Immanuel Kant and Johann Lambert predicted an archipelago of galaxies at a time when the outline of Andromeda could barely be discerned.

Last week I submitted to an echocardiogram. The technician showed me the real-time chambers of my restless heart hiccupping in the backwash of a valve deformation that will kill me someday.

 

Howie Good

Fog Area

A green-and-white cop car approached, but blackbirds had already afflicted the trees with nestlings. Someone no one knew smiled half-apologetically. Later a mother drove off the fishing dock into the river, the three young children in the back seat clinging to each other. The sincerity of thunder and lightning was what impressed me. Go ask the girls’ choir — it was raining when they entered the street at a run. Maybe it still is.

 

Bri Traquair

I’ll Trade This Sweater for Your Torso; These Sleeves Suck at Hugging

Around nine o’clock I throw your clothes in the dryer so they’re warm by ten. I pile them on your side of the bed and shut off the lights. They smell like you. For a moment, with the warmth and the smell and the darkness, the pile inhales and exhales, pulses ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, an Edgar Allen Poe kind of lullaby. When the clothes cool, I sleep alone.

 
TWO by Diane LeBlanc

Blue Parrot Wound

A man and a woman are walking the streets of an unfamiliar city when a blue parrot materializes above their heads. The parrot isn’t entirely blue. It wears a skirt of orange feathers. Harmless as a balloon, it floats along until it catches a leg in the man’s hair and begins to flap and shriek. No one has taught this parrot to say, “Untangle me please. Untangle me please.” So it sinks its claws, not the dark crescent moons of parrot nails but sickle-like eagle talons, into the man’s shoulder. Because they are foreigners who don’t want to call attention to their foreignness, the couple just keep walking, the parrot embedded as if it were a pet.

They wander until they find a mobile hospital in this strange city of roads and drifting people, a city with no houses where people in bathrobes are making beds and buttering toast. The couple may have wandered into a Hemingway novel. A starched nurse removes the parrot. No questions asked, only a momentary uncertainty about disposal before she mounts the bird on her forearm, moves to the door, and tosses it into the sky. She fills the man’s wounds with salve and wraps his shoulder in gauze. Only then, after the nurse leaves the two alone in the tent, the man cries as the woman has never, in nineteen years of marriage, seen him cry.

 

Work in Progress

All summer they talked about the red barn’s fading paint, peels dropping like dried feathers into the gravel where the chickens fed. They said they should get to it before it molted completely. So one morning in August she looked across the kitchen table, his newspaper drooping with heat, and said, we could at least scrape and prime before fall. After the paint was bought, the ladder lifted from its nails on the barn wall, and all the putty knives tested for edge, they scaled the lower roof and began chipping away at the boards under the eaves. These things are always worse up close, clapboards rough as winter arms and window sills pulling away from their frames. They fell into a wordless rhythm, scrape, scrape, scrape, not much different, really, than a typical afternoon, until the end of the day when they climbed down the ladder, walked to the end of the driveway, and turned to assess the day’s work. Mottled, in some places raw wood, and in others pink where his priming followed her scraping. That’s when one said to the other, Do you remember our first cat? She got in a fight with Napoleon next door and we thought her fur would never grow back over the stitches?


- Diane LeBlanc
 

G. Davies Jandrey

Consider the Dace*

Imagine the voice of water, its purling lullaby, and a pool where deeply lobed leaves of sycamore float bright against the dark, a pool where water beetles paddle beneath the surface like the reflection of gondoliers, and tiny dace dart, fins aquiver, among the others. From this pool, imagine waters narrow, mercury tendrils splash into the dashing stream where light dimples amid horsehair ferns and indigo damselflies flash in the air full of sweet decay and the rusty fragrance of wet stone. Then somewhere up canyon, imagine a dark folding, the roil of clouds, and in the distance, light splitting light, deep thunder thrum, as rain tunnels granite interstices, funneling faults and fissures though paths of least resistance. Now a slurry of water, boxcar high, brown and foamy as café latte descends, a plastic water bottle surfing the spume. Imagine within the whirl, how boulders, branches of willow and ash twirl and pulse in the great liberator water has become, pushing, ripping, swallowing until everything is flushed or flattened, cleansed of its opulent debris: Imagine insects gone, gone, horsehair ferns, frogs, crayfish, cottonwood, willow, all gone, gone the pool itself. Imagine roots and snags draped like torn lace about the pale but sturdy limbs of sycamore, grasses parted and combed by the flood, at once cataclysm and its opposite, quiescence. Now consider the dace, two inches of scale and bone, finning from a sheltering eddy only the dace might consider, as if the giant wave were no more than a wrinkle across the water’s brow. Then consider how the language of water must be written in double helix, eons of history recorded there, every error lost to extinction, and all that remains, honed equally by drought and flood, is a tiny body and brain engineered for these precise contingencies. What remains is the dace.

 

* after reading The Secret Knowledge of Water by Craig Childs

 
THREE by Karen J. Weyant

In the Salvation Army on South Main

There’s a bin of mismatched socks, another of scarves. Vases and ashtrays wilt on wobbly stands. A shelf of Harlequins sags under the weight of women who throw their necks back, thrust their chests forward. I walk through the thin rows, my shoulders brushing unraveling sweaters, loose buttons, spaghetti stains on white shirts, lipstick blotted on old collars. Tank tops lay limp in piles, straps so loose they would fall to elbows if slipped over shoulders. I see old jeans faded at the seams, denim skirts that ride up their hangers, and I’m seventeen again. That summer my shorts cupped the curve of my thighs, I wore my t-shirts with necklines scooped low. Leave something to the imagination said my mother when she caught the comma of a birthmark near my right breast. The mannequin by the door tilts her head to the side, strangely seductive even with a chipped smile. Satin blouses reach for one another, drawn by static cling, grope.

 

At the Street Carnival, 1982

The gypsy takes two quarters for two fortunes, pulls my hand forward first, palm flat, turned upward. The line curved around my thumb says I will live a long time, she explains. She’s a local girl, a young volunteer fireman’s wife, maybe. Or a college student home for the summer, hoping for cash for both booze and textbooks. She knows woolly bears that predict winter with wide bushy stripes, that soft rings enveloping a round moon means rain. Dressed in a long skirt and hoop earrings that hit the hollows of her neck when she turns, she pushes stray strands of hair back under a purple scarf, sighs in the thick air of her tent. My baby sister, smile blue from cotton candy, presses a hand into hers. The gypsy touches a white scar nestled in a palm, a thin piece of skin that chokes a notched fate line in two. Outside the tent, an Elvis impersonator sings “Hound Dog.” The August dusk cracks, thirsty. I think of our family pet who disappeared two months before.

 

Portrait of Valentine’s Day, 1977

Hail hits the kitchen window, wind cracks the forsythia bush outside. My mother stands at the sink, hands soapy, hair gray, pulled back tight. She’s barefoot though the floor is cold beneath the braided rug. The neighbor’s kids have appeared this morning, dropped off on the front steps in a flurry of snowsuits and winter boots on the wrong feet. The oldest sits across from me, the table between us littered with scraps of red paper and glitter. She’s wearing bell bottom pants, her Big Bird sweatshirt turned inside out. I am still in my pajamas. Her sister toddles across the room, chins herself up with cinnamon toast sticky in her hands. She stares at us with brown eyes, her cheeks pinched from the cold. I slide the scissors away from her grasp. My mother cracks an egg, sighs when her thumb slips into the yoke. The teakettle whistles. I have just learned my letters at school, can write my name, spell snow and sad. I break my pink crayon in three parts, so I can share all the pieces.


- Karen J. Weyant
 

Garrett Quinn

Ornaments

My father was a real bastard back then. Snow twirled outside and he was on top of me, choking me, I mean really throttling me. My head bouncing off the tiled floor, glass shards and sugar cookies. Between pops of light were his teeth, grinding, a sickly sour wafting through the air. Sweat oozed from his brow. His hair jet black, angry. Curls of his ears red. The tree we set up just days ago, my father and I, ornaments dangling precariously on thin limbs, blurred in my vision. Somewhere in the distance Elvis sang, “You’ll be doin’ all right, with your Christmas of white.” The house smelled of cinnamon and pine. My mother wailing. A wreath fell from a door.

Five years later he hugged me and said, “Oh God, I’m so sorry.” His hair was wiry, gray, like old cobwebs ringed around window sills. His skin was wrinkled and loose, dangling from his skeleton. I held him tight, not like a life preserver but a straitjacket.

 

Liz Scheid

Passing Through

Insomnia has me in its grip. Exhausted and delirious on Day 3 of no sleep, I watch the ceiling fan whirl and whirl until everything spins. Soon, I’m in a field of windmills. A pool of water. Minnows float on their bellies. Cold moon. Suddenly, headlights. Bees. Have I finally crossed over into insanity? The sound of tires. Screeched brakes. A woman snores. My god, this must be where the dead sleep. After all, this is my dream. As the woman steps closer, I realize it’s the same woman I saw earlier outside the grocery store, selling fruit. “Only a nickel,” she’d said. I didn’t stop. Now her face begins to shift into other faces. It swells like a new bruise. Holy shit. It’s you. I try to tell you that it should have been me in the car. But in this strange space, there’s a gap between thought and action. You hand me a lemon. “Eat,” you say, your voice, hollow and distant as if it came from the trees. “Am I in Eternity?” You laugh, the way you always did, eyes slanting, head falling backwards, as if to say, “No little sister, none of this is real.

 

Joseph Shaffer

Long Distance Memory Reprise

The red light is blinking furiously. I think about it as I pour a glass of iced water while looking out into the dawn of twilight. I return, sit, reach, trigger my answering machine. Your voice half-apologetically eases its way into the room. My senses sharpen at the sound. The first time I hear how it’s just you, checking in. You miss me, luncheon went well, the weather is gloomy, baby is cold as she eats her second popsicle. Is she now from a broken home? You begin your sign-off, your voice like a screw in wood, tightening hard as you say the words, I love you. It is the heat of the evening: imagination rules at twilight. The second time I listen, you appear here as you are there. I see you as I have before, in profile talking on the phone. You are seated on the couch, head tilted back, lips forming words perfectly. Your long, graceful neck flows into your nightshirt, revealing soft contours there. Your legs stretch lazily across the coffee table to those beckoning toes, sharply pointed in the tenseness of this one-way conversation. After you sign off, you linger. A deep sigh catches your chest. You gaze into the gloom for so long, I wonder if the man at the console in Oz is reaching out for you now. It is the heat of the evening: imagination rules at twilight. The third time I listen, I will myself to you, touch your arm softly to lend some courage, strength. It is all I can do across this chasm of miles and years.

Ice water does not help: in the heat imagination rules.

© 2011 The Prose-Poem Project
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