In Response to Nadia’s Misdirected Email, I State Exactly What I Am Looking For

Robert Okaji, brilliant poet and devastatingly gorgeous human, has exactly what this world needs!

O at the Edges


tulip

In Response to Nadia’s Misdirected Email, I State Exactly What I Am Looking For

Balance. The ability to stand on one foot, on a tightrope, and juggle AR-15s,
ethics and dollar bills, while chanting the U.S. Constitution, in tongues.

Or good health.

Unweighted dreams.

A mechanism for disagreeing without needing to annihilate the opposition.

Doorways without doors, truth without fear.

A simple tulip.

One word to describe that instant between thought and pulled trigger,
intent and wish, the elevated pulse and sense of diminished space and time.

Sanctuary. Regret. Apology. Respect.

A tonic to the bitterness, a foil to the sweet.

Fitted sheets that fold. Uncommon sense.

Love in the abstract. More bacon. Smiles.

A closet that embraces everything you place in it. Everything.

The means of unfiring guns, of reversing wounds to undamaged flesh,
and rounds to their magazines, full and never used.

Self-organizing drawers. Due process.

Mothers who…

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3 Poems Up at Literati Magazine!

Many thanks to editor Renée Sigel of Literati Magazine for featuring my poems, “Rewording,” “Titanoboa cerrejonensis,” and “Ghazal of the Lost,” in the publication’s Portfolio Series of previously rejected poems. Yes, a majority of my poems that make it out into the world tend to experience a healthy dose of rejection before seeing the light of day, and I greatly appreciate that Renée saw fit to bring these three stragglers in out of the cold.

While “Ghazal of the Lost” was a cooperative child, Literati Magazine found the formatting of “Rewording” and “Titanoboa cerrejonensis” to be somewhat combative, so I’ll provide the texts as they should appear below:

Crocus in snow, purple spring flower.

Rewording

_____Your laugh is the child I never knew,
a promise kept nascent like a crocus
__________beneath a winter of detritus—

_____I never knew a crocus
could reword the daylight
__________with spring’s first mist.

_____How I’d wished the earth’s iron bellows
would recast the sky’s crimson artefacts
__________my lost will had smelted into slag,

_____until living through my bitterest nights
of seismic heartbeats weathered into stalagmites
__________finally tempered my breaths alive!

_____Now, their embers light my way
to the tenderness you well in your eyes:

_____Amassed like snowdrifts
the rising moon velvets in her white hush,
__________it is the naked quiet of us

rewording the daylight

_____into ash branches
__________lustered with dusk’s winter cloak;

_____a crocus sheltered in warm mulch
__________beneath the moonlit ice;

_____your laugh,
__________the child I never knew;

_____a promise kept
__________nascent in winter’s womb.

***

Titanoboa

Titanoboa cerrejonensis

_____When this restrictive skin
of self-pity refuses to slough off
_____& relinquish its groaning contents      my pain

sends me to my prehistoric depths—
_____sliding through my black     encapsulated veins
with questions of utility & necessity forking my tongue

_____into a device primed for maximal receptivity
scouring the fossil record
_____for evidence of fortitude       where I find you

fifty-eight million years ago
_____at the height of your dominion
in the Cerrejón Rain Forest     in what is now

an arid sweep of Northern Colombia

_____There     your legacy swims its secrets
into my stagnant heart     transforms my
_____mudstone back into supple blood

& re-designs me in your magnificent image
_____that I may waggle my muscled girth
_into a forty-eight-foot-long series of esses

_____effortlessly conveyed upon the swamp’s
vast network of currents     slip out
_____of my twisted     anthropic pelvis

& encumbering limbs     & vanquish
_____gravity’s inflammatory breath
_in the clutches of my cold     unshakable coils

STEPHANIE L. HARPER

 

 

Letter to Bowers from the Pandemic’s Underbelly 

Juniper Bonsai

Letter to Bowers from the Pandemic’s Underbelly 

March 26, 2020

Dear Audrey: Four days ago, when I first attempted to write
to you, I got as far as penciling the date at the top of a blank
page before returning to the fevered oblivion of uncertain
breath. I’ve since been fortunate enough to have avoided
the chaos of a hospital emergency room—having providentially
back-doored my way into an out-of-network respiratory clinic,
where chest x-rays yielded a pneumonia diagnosis & an ensuing
test for the dreaded novel coronavirus came back positive—but not
the nightly bane of alternating chills & sweats & not knowing
what further cause for alarm the next hour would bring, including
but not limited to the question of whether my son, standing outside
at ten o’clock at night in a severe thunderstorm with wind gusts of
fifty-miles-per-hour, would have enough sense to come indoors
before the quarter-sized hail began pelting him… I’ve managed to stay
vertical for a full fifteen minutes while eking out these lines, & now,
as I begin to fade, I’m feeling a strange combination of triumph
& lament: while I’m optimistic about my recovery finally heading
in the desired direction & more than relieved not to be adding
at least one particular undesirable statistic to my repertoire, I also
never imagined I’d live to see the day I’d discover that my beloved
Poetry is not so much an actual element of my own blood, as it is
an exotic other, a separate life form, however precious, I’ve only
known the luxury of cultivating like a juniper bonsai in a relatively
oxygen-rich environment. Poetry, it turns out, is not some elixir
for a richer life to be procured & casually sipped; rather like a sapling,
in all its tender precariousness, it requires our fortitude & right orientation
toward the entire living, breathing world (breathing, to my mind, being
the operative word) in order to survive—an inclination which, for my
foreseeable future, will be predominantly horizontal in nature…
In the meantime, I shall count on the selfsame atmosphere that feeds
the breath of Poetry to keep you healthy & safe, as I remain
your reclined & convalescent friend, Stephanie.

STEPHANIE L. HARPER

For some reason, I’ve been extra preoccupied with ruminations on the meaning of life and mortality lately…

Oh, and please help me wish my son a happy 22nd birthday today! 

Starlight 02

Matthew, age 6

How to Be a Malacologist

Snail Buddy

How to Be a Malacologist

Remember when
your child’s heart led your head
like a garden snail’s head leads its footed belly.

Think back to when you were seven
& your adopted pet/school project, Kiddo,
gnawed away at a slice of banana on a glass slide
as you watched, thunderstruck, from beneath him
(find out on Wikipedia that he was using his radula
a structure akin to a tongue used by mollusks to feed).

Recall how proud you were of Kiddo when he not only lost
the school snail race, but redefined it, by turning around
at the half-way point, staying in his own lane, & crossing
the start-line before any of the other snails reached the finish.

Wonder why your teacher didn’t mention anything about Kiddo
& his compatriots being hermaphrodites, or how (if they chose)
they could all be both father & mother to their tiny-shelled progeny,
& realize how simple it would have been for her to call a snail’s powerful,
innate mechanism of retracting its tentacles into its head for protection
by its technical name: invagination.

Then, understand, finally, that if you’d been born with the ability
to operate yourself like a puppet, & pull yourself outside-in
by drawing your head down into your belly & out
through your foot, to invert your once-vibrant
body into an empty sock, how many times
you would have done exactly that.

STEPHANIE L. HARPER

“How to Be a Malacologist” first appeared in Panoply in January 2018—thank you to editors Jeff, Andrea, and Ryn for selecting this piece!—and is the opening poem of my first chapbook, This Being Done.

What a Patriot Dreams

Desert Flags2

What a Patriot Dreams

I saw the flags come down—
their masts falling like the trees
flattened by shockwaves
in those clips of old footage
from military nuclear bomb tests,
spliced into high school history documentaries.

They weren’t projected celluloid etchings
that teenagers confined to plastic chairs
could summarily cancel
with one hand motioning No
in the universal vernacular…

Caught in a wash of floodlights
on the indigo summer dusk,
the red-white-blue swaths crushed
in on themselves like torn parachutes
& vanished at once—deposed

by morning’s first, grainy insinuations
that breached the blinds’ periphery
& accreted into a silent force
creeping along my bedroom walls,
as if to thwart illumination:

In this country of my own
birth & citizenship, I’ve, in turn,
given birth to two, precious children—

my riven heart’s two halves now trussed
in a spectacular fiasco of feathers & wax.

STEPHANIE L. HARPER

“What a Patriot Dreams” emerged from a dream I had just after the “orange pustule” (to borrow the apt terminology coined by Rebecca Raphael) pulled the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord. What unholy hell have we descended into since then?

Thank you to editor C. M. Tollefson of Cathexis Northwest Press for publishing this piece.

Terminal

NORTHERN-FLYING-SQUIRREL-3

Terminal

What is the terminal velocity of a squirrel?
my son once asked

(only the gods know what
precipitated his inquiry),

no doubt hoping
for a literal response;

but I couldn’t help
wondering

whether the fall that fails
to attenuate its consequent

landing, misses the mark,
or strikes true?

While certain Rodentia have
inherited the uncanny

fortune of built-in
arm-to-ankle extensions,

evolution withholds
such membranous solutions

to our own, inborn
predilection for doom.

What profit is to be
won of our climbing—

of so much inching along
the highest branches until

they can no longer bear
our weight—

much less of our retreats,
our blunderings, our plummets?

Does the sole stepping
forth create the target,

or obliterate its imprinted
eons from the forest loam?

Terminal is an attitude,
I wish I’d known enough to tell him,
 
having little to do with velocity,
& much to do with trajectory.

STEPHANIE L. HARPER

 

“Terminal” was published by editor extraordinaire Barton Smock in Isacoustic* in October 2019.

 

The Hobgoblin’s Guide to Indemnity

Hobgoblin Heart

The Hobgoblin’s Guide to Indemnity

__________Once upon a time,
a family with a boy my age
moved in next door.

__________That day marked the inception
of a years-long, late-night comedy series
featuring the bedroom window antics
of flashlight-haloed preteens in pajamas,
framed in harvest gold & avocado green—

for it was a day when
two eight-year-olds needed no longer
than a heartbeat to find themselves
allied in a baseball-bat crusade
on the neighborhood’s dandelion population…

__________Today, I make-believe
those weeds into having been proxies
for the bigots that were rooted
in our Northern Californian cul-de-sacs
like neoplastic glands
we somehow thought better to ignore;

though they crept about in the cover of night
defacing properties with gasoline crosses,
as if to exorcise some incognito beast that might be
masquerading as an innocent third-grader—
a ritual they performed on my neighbors’ front lawn
one night in 1979;

though the adults filed a police report,
declining in hushed tones to speculate
as to the perpetrators’ identities,
& hatched designs for disguising the scars
with green food coloring;

because, before I was through elementary school,
I’d already made an art-form of refusing
to be fazed by most breaches of decency:

__________Forged in the foundry of public ridicule
(where, once upon a time, a girl paid for her crime
of playing Little League Baseball), fueled by
the combustibles my schoolmates & their parents
knocking back hi-balls in the bleachers would purvey,
ranging from conjectures as to the nature of the equipage
my corduroys concealed, to indictments of my
supposed nine year-old prick-teasing wiles—

my cast-iron answer to the question of insult
was no different
(of this I was convinced)
from my response to the astonishment
my friend’s fastballs seared into my glove-hand,

that no matter how much it stung, I could take it…

__________The time my friend’s mom spent nine hours
taming my tawny wisps into cornrows, I took
her twist-tugging resolve for a tenderness I craved;

& when I sported my sunburned nakedness
adorned in shiny beads at the ballfield,
I took the prepubescent boys’ inspired torments
deep into the heat of my belly, billowed white
like cumulonimbus gorging on the afternoon sun,
& engulfed the horizon.

__________Once upon a time, I took everything,
assuming it was mine to take.

 

__________Only now as I watch my country
bending before a fascist onslaught
like a Floridian palm in a hurricane,
does it strike me to wonder about the light
my best childhood friend must cast
on his memories of me—

if he recounts in his version of our ever after
how we’d laugh-sputter milk from our noses
at an ad hoc Looney Toons riff; or how
I’d cap-off my Foghorn Leghorn renditions
with their signature disclaimer:
That was a joke, Son, I say, a joke!

__________I wonder if his heart of hearts—
my cherished idol emblazoned
on the gold backdrop of a burning cross—
can even make out its counterpart
in the darkness

of that fairy-tale world
where, once upon a time,

a young girl pretended

that giant, white cock on T.V.
was a cartoon chicken who lived in a barnyard,
far, far away.

STEPHANIE L. HARPER

 

“The Hobgoblin’s Guide to Indemnity” appears in my chapbook, The Death’s-Head’s Testament.

Matthew in the Fountain

Matthew in the Fountain

Matthew in the Fountain
August 1999, age 14 months

In the spray’s scattering
of afternoon rays
_____you pass before the sun
a toddling pointed-toe satellite
eclipsing all
but its faint red ghost

Summer haloes you in sun-white down
mottling the concrete’s cool glisten
like a memory from the womb

Watching the world swim into focus
in your smart brown eyes
_____your round cheeks
flushing with the kisses of angels
showering from the sky          I realize
in a shutter’s split-second
__________I’ve traversed eternity

My child     you burst open my heart like the sun
bursts infinitely open each fountain drop

STEPHANIE L. HARPER

Happy Mother’s Day! Today, I share this poem encapsulating a life-defining moment for me as a mother, in celebration of motherhood in all its beautiful wisdom, generosity, and complexity in our world. 

“Matthew in the Fountain” appears in my debut chapbook collection, This Being Done, and was published in the 2019 Transcendent Zero Press anthology, EPIPHANIES AND LATE REALIZATIONS OF LOVE. Thank you, Dustin Pickering, for selecting this piece.