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.

 

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.

 

Understory

Understory

Understory

Within these riparian depths, you press
through the ditch weed & grasses that shadow
the river in greens, trying to listen
for rustles of life where dead branches lie
gathered in bands along the banks like smoke
from summer’s fire that stripped the hills to stone.

This windless spring day voices strange like stone
breathes; its bufflehead-queer, top-heavy press
across the stream’s glassy gape damps the smoke
trees’ plea for breezy reprieve in shadow—
red buds purpling with their own blooms’ weight lie
flattened to their boughs, assuaged to listen

for a far-off storm’s faint peals. You listen
for a reason to turn from your cold, stone
descent—do the unearthed cedar roots lie
about the travails of erosion? Press
them for answers, you’ll get back the shadow
of your own doubts cleaved in moss thick as smoke.

Is silence its own story, or a smoke
screen for more forbidding fables? Listen
to the garter snake slip into shadow—
when its shift through the weeds turns up a stone
that no one sees, does it make a sound? Press
your palm against a garbled trunk & lie

about the story your closed eyes see; lie
supine like tinder on a pyre until smoke
wafts from the ashes you become; or press
past the bank’s last thorny thicket & listen
for bitterns to make their water-gulped-stone
intentions known, as if your looming shadow

could spur their ardor. What is that shadow,
if not the sun’s scorn for your darkest lie?
No river embodies hope for the stone
waiting on Sisyphus to outrun smoke.
Hope is a myth the robins tell their hatchlings: Listen
at your own peril—for when the flames press

in, bearing tidings of shadow & smoke,
the first lie you listen to will make you
their stone shrine to the robins’ skyward press…

STEPHANIE L. HARPER

Robin's Nest

“Understory” was published in Issue 13 (Fall 2019) of Panoply. Thank you to editors Jeff Santosuosso, Ryn Holmes, and Andrea Walker for selecting this piece.

Instead

Stephanie L Harper 1
Instead

if i decided to stop being a poet
what would i do instead?     i asked
(my husband) the other night

the other night when it was late
it was too late to start cooking dinner
& the cattle dog     who lives for order

requires order      & feels its lack
like her hackles feel static    she was pacing
between us     resorting to vocal admonishments

to higher-than-usual-pitched chortling     cajoling
someone to get with the program     the other night
after gymnastics     & martial arts     & driving

driving in gridlock on multiple highways
after the shopping wasn’t done
after—& we were too hungry to cook dinner—

after hunger became the side dish of the night
after my husband had worked all day
& beer number three hadn’t staved off his hunger

& hunger was a side dish      the kids snacked
on chips     & played redundant games on their phones
& the floor was unswept     the dog was anxious

her nails clicked on the unkempt floor
the cat meowed to be fed     the shopping wasn’t done
& so a can of tuna was cracked

the cat’s bowl was filled     & we gave the dog the juice
the dog lapped     then she went back to clicking
& minutes ticked another hour

while my fingers ticking on the keyboard
whooped up a frenzy of words on the screen
with hurricane intensity they swirled

they dispelled into wisps against cold fronts
& re-galvanized in isolated updrafts     but rained nothing
because meaning always slips drily away from the words

& escapes like sly prey into the woods     because
the words bravely give chase     but they were never cut out for this hunt
& they get lost     & hungry

they go hungry like an injured wolf separated from its pack
like a cattle dog lacking order     & teenagers not-talking on phones
like groceries that can’t shop for themselves

like the cat settling for tuna
well     not like that
like clacking keyboards churning up dry storms

like computer screens adrift
at the mercy of tidal waves of hunters
& peckers     & especially delete-ers

_____like a poet who can’t do anything instead

like the shift key     & the alt key
like the fourth beer needs to be the ctrl + alt + delete keys
like delete is a kind of key

they go hungry

like a husband

STEPHANIE L. HARPER

“Instead” was first published by the brilliant editor and poet and fabulous human being d. ellis phelps in Formidable Woman, and appears in my debut chapbook, This Being Done.

On a more solemn note, my Cattle Dog, Sydney, crossed the rainbow bridge this week at the ripe old age of 15 years 1 month. Being a part of this loyal, quirky, intelligent, beautiful, fascinating canine’s chosen family has been the honor of a lifetime. I wouldn’t be the poet or person I am without her influence.

Sydney Beggar

 

Hypochondria Blues (with recording)

badger

Hypochondria Blues

What you’ve got is only a touch of neurosis,
so don’t get your knickers all bunched in a twist—
such worries will give you a deep vein thrombosis!

Do you think there’s a prize for a self-diagnosis?
Stop looking for lesions; don’t palpate that cyst!
What you’re dealing with here’s just a bit of neurosis…

That smart phone is gonna cause spinal stenosis!
The search engine’s warning that if you persist,
you’ll likely wind up with a deep vein thrombosis!

You’d have known it by now if you had halitosis—
like a boil, it’s something not easily missed.
Better face it, you’ve got a small case of neurosis…

Now, what would possess you to google psychosis?
Let me guess… The voices submitted a list?
Are they helping you summon a deep vein thrombosis?

It’s not a news flash you’ve got some type of -osis
but the poking of badgers is what gets them pissed…
So give it a rest! Embrace your neurosis!
Who needs all the fuss of a deep vein thrombosis?

(Just to be on the safe side, look up
pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis…)

STEPHANIE L. HARPER
Instrumental: Disquiet by Kevin MacLeod

 

“Hypochondria Blues” was published in peaceCENTERbooks’ 2018 anthology THE LARGER GEOMETRY. Thank you to editor d. ellis phelps for including this piece in such an inspiring collection!
Author note:
This is one of those rare poems that was in no way whatsoever informed by my real-life experience… 😉

Nominated for a Pushcart Prize: Concerning the Delay of My Self-Immolation

prometheus1994-elsierussell

Concerning the Delay of My Self-Immolation

“Ich kenne nichts Ärmeres
Unter der Sonn’, als euch Götter!
~ J. W. von Goethe

when i sacrifice myself
as a gift to my fellow humans
i promise it will be for nothing
so hackneyed as to protest
some hypoxic septuagenarian
hunched on a mountaintop
mistaking every garish tendril
to wisp from his head
for a well-honed lightning bolt

not that i imagine
there’s any portion of my no-longer-
combustible flesh i might set
upon the balance    that could be
tendered for passage to Elysium

but you can believe i’d pluck my own eyes
from their conceding sockets    send
the fabrics from my padded scaffold back
to China    & traipse forever    a blind
naked-as-a-mole-rat gnome in the garden of
unscented flowers    if the stygian prophecies
were to divine any semblance of purpose
in chaining my corpse to the cliff face

& though these desiccating seasons
have yet to assemble
me into fuel for Helios’ pyre
if ever my splitting spurs should cease
to cry out dragon’s blood

i will crescendo
my twilight’s fury on the horizon—

my flames will soar
like an eagle on a Titan’s breath

STEPHANIE L. HARPER

Crescendo

“Concerning the Delay of My Self-Immolation” was published by editor Robert L. Penick in the 2019 edition of the print journal Ristau: A Journal of Being, and now enjoys the terrific honor of being nominated for a Pushcart Prize, for which I am ecstatically grateful!

Dilated

Dilated

To think that we see them so often    yet so rarely
consider how those piebald songbirds     so at home
on a snow-scape in their portable parkas     are made of
the exact same stuff we use to fill up our electric sky & neon
watermelon nylon winter coats     which must be designed
expressly for us to go out there looking ridiculous
not to mention callous (clothed     as it were     in outright exploitation)—
is the thing I’m pondering as I observe through the window
a little house finch     all feathery & poofed with his flushed cheeks
flitting over the snowy patio     pecking among the abandoned
bench-feet for invisible     if not entirely non-existent morsels
& hawking an air of self-possession that is obvious even to me
in my current     incapacitated state 

As for whether the red-crowned retina specialist
who conducted my examination was young &/or fetching
the prospect was murky (his brisk entrance at the climax
of my dilation     coupled with his expertly-executed clasp
of my hand     inspired my fleeting impression he’d been both)
& all bets were off the very moment the white-cloaked     smeary
hulk of him ambushed my defenseless retinas with an impossibly
aggressive radiant device     thus affording me the pivotal elucidation: 

that a). the anomaly on my fundus autofluourescence images
is simply an unremarkable patch of variegated pigmentation 

b). it was only natural to expect that the definition
of such a lexical wonder as variegated would elude the layperson 

& c). I am indeed obliged by gratuitous pigeonholing
to take categorical offense 

Not that I’m usually so bold as to co-opt medical jargon
but I’m pretty certain variegated is the only word that could
aptly account for what’s right now comprising the better part
of my visual experience     as embodied by this polka-dotty
aberration     also known as a scone     I resorted to purchasing
in the hospital café     thus affording myself the pivotal illusion:

that a). I’m quite absorbed in an earnest task
while waiting here in the lobby for my ride 

& b). I wouldn’t otherwise be averting
my freakish     black gaze from passersby

because c). I’m the kind of person
who always smiles at everyone     as if to say
I accept you for who you are no matter what…    

I’ve gathered that the dark splotches must be
cranberries—however vainly their vague sweet-tang
serves to redeem their crumbly substrate’s alleged
alimentary function

Still     the finch remains staunchly committed
to my functional blindness     as if by sheer force of his
impending command     its concomitant scone-silage
would transcend the glass     & sift to the frozen ground

STEPHANIE L. HARPER

“Dilated” was published by CatheXis Northwest Press in November 2018 (they seem to be having difficulties with their website). Thank you to editor C.M. Tollefson for accepting this piece!

Rhapsody in Bone

Rhapsody in Bone

Beneath the frozen fathoms of the sea,
a maiden’s body swells in rhapsody;
her father made her sustenance for fish
and creatures yet unseen by human eyes,
who feed until the carrion is spent.

The maiden’s bones roll over with the tide,
entwined with deep-sea coral colonies,
and where her eyes were, now are dwellings kept
by denizens who have no need of light
beneath the frozen fathoms of the sea.

Though water’s currents quell the dolphins’ calls,
the doleful cries her fecund corpse intones
uncoil the sodden hearts of others’ souls,
while hers, forsaken, flounders in the dark.
A maiden’s body belts a rhapsody,

because her father threw her from a cliff:
butt-hurt that she’d flat-out refused to stroke
his ego (teeny-peeny sack, he was,
of whims that changed as often as the winds),
her father made her sustenance for fish,

yet could not stop his daughter’s sunken bones
from breathing sirens’ cantos on the waves
and luring hunters to her icy grave—
that home to lonely spirits of the depths
and creatures yet unseen by human eyes!

A hunter plunks his line into the sea,
where deep below, a bony treasury
still bears the stench of murder’s milky dregs,
a tangy lunch for urchins clinging fast,
who feed until the carrion is spent.

Upon the swaying surf the hunter waits
with hero’s grit,’til suddenly, a lurch—
he’s hooked the skeleton woman’s rib! This catch
has heft suggesting banquets fit for kings,
who feed until the carrion is spent!

Oy veh! He hoists her bones onto his skiff
and shits his britches fearing he’s been cursed
by Death, herself, arisen from the depths—
her salt-worn bones a host for writhing eels,
and creatures yet unseen by human eyes!

Try as he may to toss her back, he finds
her long front teeth affixed—and can’t deny
this woman he’s revived deserves to live:
those naked, tangled limbs, her smooth, bald head…
Her father made her sustenance for fish,

yet could not stop his daughter’s sunken bones
from going viral with their exposés—
though water tries to quash the dolphins’ calls—
for songs of fuckhead fathers make us sick,
when maidens’ bodies swell in rhapsody!

Though many hunters know the songs of bones,
scarce few boast true cajones, fewer still
behold the face of Death with steadfast gaze,
and grow to love and keep all she became
beneath the frozen fathoms of the sea.

STEPHANIE L. HARPER

“Rhapsody in Bone” was first published in May 2017, in editor Nate Ragolia’s awesome journal, Boned: A Collection of Skeletal Writings, and was subsequently included in my chapbook, This Being Done.