My poem, “Travel by Starlight,” which just so happens to be the inspiration behind my original illustration serving as the banner on this blog (above), is live at Rootstalk Magazine, an online publication published in conjunction with the Center for Prairie Studies at my alma mater, Grinnell College in Grinnell, IA. Thank you so much to editor Mark Baechtel for accepting this piece!
Twenty years ago
I received a birthday gift
from a close college buddy-slash-sometime lover
(What on earth were we thinking?).
Back then, our past was already in the past
& twenty-four was already not young.
He gave me a coffee mug
covered in chickens—
yes, painted chickens—
three plump specimens posed around the outside,
& one that looks like an index finger
with an eye, a comb, a beak, & a wattle,
slapped onto the bottom.
How, I can’t fathom,
but my friend knew that those chickens
with their orange-red, expressionistic bodies
would be a boat-floater for me—
the one time I had slept with him
had been an epic shipwreck,
with a silent drive to the airport in its wake;
on the way, we choked down pancakes,
& I stifled sobs in my coffee,
averting my eyes
from the helpless horror in his.
I then flew off into the wild, wide sky,
Somehow, for years to come,
his southern gentlemanly charms
still served to allure:
he kept his promise to write
& took pains to catalogue for me
the details of his worldly escapades
& various, accompanying sexual conquests,
always making sure to emphasize
the ways in which they were hot for him,
so as to prove those trysts’ relative rightness.
Then, came the birthday gift—
the unexplainably gratifying
Still burning hot
& feathered in their chili-pepper red,
royal purple & verdant green cloaks,
my static & impossibly happy
blush like lovers on a Grecian urn;
My southern gent,
now so long ago flown from this callous coop,
wooed another & had his own brood,
as, in due course, did I,
but the mug, no worse for wear, remains
a spectacular feature—
like a bright birthday piñata
(with its promise of sweet reward)—
of my sacred morning ritual.
still ecstatically surprised,
letting out unabashed, open-beaked caterwauls,
adorn my most aged & prized coffee mug;
a vessel, perfectly-sized,
it cups its contents so adoringly,
like an egg enveloping its cache of gold,
as I take privileged sips.
The big chicken on the left
might actually be a rooster,
& that one on the bottom,
a middle finger.
STEPHANIE L. HARPER
“Painted Chickens” was first published in the winter 2014 edition of Sixfold magazine. I was inspired to post it on the blog today by a dream I had the other night involving a brood of chickens who were all trying to ingratiate themselves to me with their eggs, all of which were severely malformed and/or proportionally impossible to have been laid by the given, proud clucker presenting it. One of the eggs gifted to me was shaped like a tiny, raw roast that fit in the palm of my hand. Trying not to snub this sweet avian’s generosity, I remarked, with all the casualness I could muster, “Oh, it looks like this one isn’t quite done yet,” and I gently set it back in the nest. From the slapped expression on my friend’s feathered little face, however, I’m pretty sure she knew the score… A viable analysis of this one as yet eludes me, so I’m definitely open to suggestions!