Cat Update

January 21, 2013 § Leave a comment


Mouchette is toughening up. We took her to the vet for a check-up and once in the carrier, she meowed in distress and complaint, but didn’t emit that otherworldly howl, with accompanying fear-stench, that once marked her dislocations.

In the office, on the steel table, she fought back, as she never has before. It used to be, by the time we got there, she’d be terrified into paralysis. But when the doctor insisted on looking in her mouth, she dug her claws into the woman’s arm—the gentlest, calmest vet I’ve ever been to—and I remembered the arrogant doctor at the last place who said she didn’t struggle with him because he knew how to handle her.

Mouchette struggles when she’s certain she hasn’t fallen into the hands of Nazi torturers, but is with those humans who won’t punish her for self-defense.

Her tongue mass hasn’t grown and she’s perfectly healthy. “Do they usually keep growing?” Charles asked.

“Sometimes they do. Sometimes they go away, and then come back. Sometimes they stay the same. They do whatever they want.” Oh, to be a benign mass on the back of Mouchette’s tongue, able to do whatever I want!

We brought her home and she hissed ferociously at Fitzroy, a good comeback to how he treated her when she returned from having her teeth out, then stalked restlessly around the bedroom: all that adrenaline, no place to go. “How’s her energy level?” the doctor had asked. Way too high. She races across the top of the bed and the bureau and around the room and jumps over me and is on the top of the bed again, and I know I’ve lost pills or glasses or pens again, that I’ll have to check under the furniture before going to sleep.

And then she sits on my chest, staring at me with her yellow eyes, her black/white nose like a graffiti tag, her fangs showing between her lips. The doctor had admired her fangs, as well as her whiskers and eyes and velvety fur. I didn’t say, “Don’t you think her chest is like angel feathers? What about her paws—aren’t they the most delicate and feminine you’ve ever seen? And the way her butt sticks up when you rub it—her slim haunches between my hands like a vase on a potter’s wheel…oh, I love that.”

I didn’t say any of this. It was Charles who solicited the doctor’s opinion on her beauty. Charles who feeds her five times a day (because she can only eat a little at a time and if you leave it out, Fitzroy will eat it) and stands over her watching like an anxious chef, like a chef auditioning for the President.

The President gave a speech today. I didn’t watch, but I read it.

“Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.”

Good luck with that, Barry. You can cherish all you want, you can confiscate and destroy every gun in the country, but our children will not always be safe from harm. The inevitability of harm is why children exist in the first place.

I do wish Mouchette could have kittens.

A lovely, strange poem

What the Angels Left

At first, the scissors seemed perfectly harmless.
They lay on the kitchen table in the blue light.

Then I began to notice them all over the house,
at night in the pantry, or filling up bowls in the cellar

where there should have been apples. They appeared under rugs,
lumpy places where one would usually settle before the fire,

or suddenly shining in the sink at the bottom of soupy water.
Once, I found a pair in the garden, stuck in turned dirt

among the new bulbs, and one night, under my pillow,
I felt something like a cool long tooth and pulled them out

to lie next to me in the dark. Soon after that I began
to collect them, filling boxes, old shopping bags,

every suitcase I owned. I grew slightly uncomfortable
when company came. What if someone noticed them

when looking for forks or replacing dried dishes? I longed
to throw them out, but how could I get rid of something

that felt oddly like grace? It occurred to me finally
that I was meant to use them, and I resisted a growing compulsion

to cut my hair, although in moments of great distraction,
I thought it was my eyes they wanted, or my soft belly

—exhausted, in winter, I laid them out on the lawn.
The snow fell quite as usual, without any apparent hesitation

or discomfort. In spring, as expected, they were gone.
In their place, a slight metallic smell, and the dear muddy earth.

–Marie Howe

Gun Appreciation Day, Take Two

January 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

Women Against Gun Violence

Women Against Gun Violence

At the end of this post, instead of a poem, is a list of people injured and killed on Gun Appreciation Day. It will make you appreciate the times you use your hands to caress a shoulder, change a diaper, cook a meal, pat a dog, open a door. If you want the heft of a weapon in your hand, try forgiveness. It’s much harder to acquire, and very hard to hold onto, but when you wield it, the results are quite spectacular.

I’ve put in my application, but I only get occasional visits. But even instants of that experience make me deeply appreciative that my violent tendencies stay in my swampy psyche, where they belong.

Oh, how I used to treasure my imagination! Now it’s a survival tool—my outlandish fantasies distract me from the more boring repetitive emotions, bleed off pain—but I don’t like being me, and if I could get out of it in an acceptable way, I would.

Maybe you can’t imagine you could shoot your own child, or that your child could shoot his brother, her friend, herself. Maybe you don’t know your potential for rage, for what happens the day your beloved says, “I’m in love with someone else—but I still need you.” I bent my favorite carbon steel knife stabbing a book instead of my heart. Every time I use that knife, I remember. No amount of guns falling from the sky would make me kill someone, but myself? Who knows? Stabbing oneself in the heart is very difficult. Pulling a trigger, not so much.

It’s late to be learning the things I’m learning, all of which I’d read about repeatedly by the time I was 25. I devoured all the great spiritual texts and understood them intellectually, felt their emotional pull. I remember quite distinctly thinking something akin to St. Augustine’s, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.” I thought the age I am now was the proper age for “goodness,” assuming that by now I would have had success, passion, exciting experiences, and so on. And I have, though not as I imagined them.

It used to be, for crimes of passion, you got a pass (if you were male). That once made me furiously indignant, but now I kind of get it (and probably would get it more if I were male). Jealous rage and brokenheartedness are unbearable feelings, and just because most people feel them at one time or another and bear them doesn’t change that. They are unbearable; we get through. They return in dreams and are still unbearable. It’s almost enough to make you believe in the Old Testament God. Who else but that asshole Yahweh would create such a set-up?

I keep stopping the writing—the larger piece of which my gun dialogues are a part—thinking: I need more time to heal. But I want to get it done. I would like nothing better than to abolish the past, erase it and fill those years with pictures of waves at dusk, pine trees in sunlight, the scampering of green monkeys across a road…but the past is real; we saw the monkeys; I have to meet and match it with something big and inclusive of joy and sorrow and stupidity and terror; 11 years of believing that if I lost or left this person, the pain would kill me—

And only slightly over the line of believing that it won’t kill me, though never certain it won’t in some roundabout way—I’m strengthened, maybe; weakened, no question.

But to get back to the positive—there is still and always good news—I haven’t shot anyone, nor will I. My swampy psyche polices its dangerous characters, manhandles them into stories that will eventually dazzle.

And when Charles plays his guitar on the street, people stop and thank him.

(I’m sure you’d rather read a poem than what I’ve copied below. Maybe you should go buy a poetry book.)

Gun Appreciation Day, as it played out

• A 14-year-old suburban Atlanta boy shot and killed his 15-year-old brother while playing with their mother’s handgun.
• A 26 year old was shot and killed while driving in San Francisco.
• A man was found dead from a gunshot wound in his home in Kansas City, Kansas.
• A woman in an El Paso County, Texas shooting range was hit in the knee by a bullet that ricocheted off a trash can.
• Two women were shot to death in a Dallas-area home.
• Two women were injured after someone opened fire at a crowded soccer field in Las Vegas.
• A 15-year-old girl was shot while sleeping in her bed when her Anchorage home was shot at.
• A 7-year-old boy in Tallahassee shot a 5 year old with a gun he found in a 22-year-old relative’s room.
• A Huntsville woman shot her boyfriend after the two had an argument.
• A 23-year-old man died after being accidentally shot in a Greshman, Oregon home.
• A Cleveland father has been charged in connection with the death of his 6-year-old daughter from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
• One man was shot in Elyria, Ohio, just west of Cleveland, early Saturday morning.
• A man was found shot dead in a parking lot in Greenville County, South Carolina.
• Two people were shot and killed outside an inn in Hampton, Virginia.
• At least 10 people were shot in Chicago, at least two were fatal.
• A Colorado Springs man was driven to the hospital with a gunshot wound.
• A Jackson, Mississippi police officer was shot while responding to a disturbance call.
• One man was shot at a Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Jackson.
• Two men and one woman were shot at a home in Oakland.
• An 11-year-old boy was shot in an Oklahoma City apartment complex.
• Police in Richmond, Virginia are looking for three men who shot another man in his thirties.
• Police believe gang violence is to blame for the shooting death of one man in Santa Ana, California.
• An early morning shooting in Tuscaloosa injured two teenagers.

Gun Appreciation Day

January 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

Detail from Liza Lou's Kitchen, a full size replica made of tiny beads.

Detail from Liza Lou’s Kitchen, a full size replica made of tiny beads.

I decided to have a chat with my imaginary gun on America’s first Gun Appreciation Day. I know that January 19 was chosen as a fuck-you to our better-than-most President, who has proposed gun control in response to the deaths of 20 children, but guns are a vast territory, an American wet dream, and I am not immune.

My gun is red, dirt-cheap, and can’t shoot straight due to hungry-ghost emotional problems. Her name is Christine, after the deceased wife of an ex-lover who once told me (Christine, not the faithless husband) that she was a rock-ribbed Texan with a powerful & persistent fantasy of shooting men. She was drunk at the time and reminded me of my Aunt June, the lesbian feminist writer, who was also very intelligent, charismatic, obsessive, Texan, profoundly angry at men and drank too much.

“So what do you think about Gun Appreciation Day?”
“It ought to be a national holiday.”
“Why’s that?”
“So women and children can stay home from work and school, hide in the trees.”
“Good idea. I’ll write the President. But about today—you think I should take you out to dinner? Buy you chocolates?”
“Shoot him.”

We all know who “him” is. He, too, was once real but is on the way to becoming imaginary. It’s harder when they’re still alive, but I can do it. I’m like the artist Liza Lou who spent five years creating a portrait of her kitchen out of tiny beads. Bead, words: very similar. It’s why I bought too many of the former, being accustomed to an infinite number of the latter, but that’s another story. The takeaway is: five years. Obsessive focus. An exact replica, but utterly different. Liza Lou’s “Kitchen” was so beautiful it made my whole body light up.

I answered Christine. “As you once said, I’m a mousy sort of person. I can’t shoot anyone and I don’t want to. I understand that the moment of aiming the gun, pulling the trigger, seeing the man fall might be a thrill, but one minute later I’d be terrified of being caught, mauled by guilt, and I’d miss knowing he was alive, much as I hate to admit it—.”

“Shoot the other one, then.”

“Ditto, except I wouldn’t miss her.”

“Then put me back in your subconscious where you have her staked out naked in the sand for the red ants and the pterodactyls, where you’ve installed control-bots in his brain so you can make him cry like the proverbial girl whenever he’s criticized at work, and be inundated by images of drunken chimpanzees watching porn at moments of attempted passion.”

“That was last year. I don’t have those fantasies anymore.” This isn’t true, but I don’t have them quite as often. I also imagine hammering nails into their foreheads, filling their orifices with cement, and weaving a spell to make radioactive worms crawl out of the flesh of their faces.

“Once a fantasy, always a fantasy.”

“That’s what my friend Lisa said. She thinks gun control is admirable but doomed because there are already 10 billion guns out there.”

“Exactly. Your past fantasies never leave you. They build character, as it were. You’re stuck with me, and someday I’ll shoot someone.”

In the leg, maybe. Her bullets always spin sideways and down. “You’ll shoot me.”

“That would be my first choice.”

“I like you, you know, now that you’re dead.”

“You don’t like me, you like your imaginary gun. It soothes your overwhelming awareness of your own powerlessness.”

“I’ve accepted that. I never liked power anyway. I wanted it, but having it made me feel lonely and guilty. What I really wanted was to be in a big love-fest with the world, Valentine’s Day cards for everyone in the class.”

“You’ve accepted it maybe 1%,” she sneered in that special way only a gun can do, the lip of the barrel lifting an eighth of an inch.

“I’m trying to appreciate you, you stupid gun.”

“You’ll never appreciate me. You have no idea. In life, in death, my experiences are beyond the horizon of your mouse-sized imagination.”

“This is also true of the lives of dung beetles, Iranian clerics, and rich men who buy little girls.”

“Try harder.”

“I could get an assault rifle bra, but I prefer writing.”

“You’re way too old to wear Lady Gaga’s bra and look anything but ridiculous.”

“Sometimes I miss being so full of hatred. It had fire and teeth. Now everything feels pointless. Posthumous. I listen to the newscasters gabble and I think: does anybody really care what the new social trends are? Why don’t we all avert our eyes in embarrassment? America, America. You want to shoot the way other people want to fuck. You want to be free to kill your children or other people’s children, or the neighbor’s dog or your ex-lover. You’d shoot the stars out of the sky if your guns were long enough. America, your poets forgive you and then die, and you just keep getting stupider. What are we going to do about you?”

“How about if we just shoot some cans in the backyard? Okay? This conversation is depressing the fuck out of me.”

“I talk to cats, to the dead, to the figments of my imagination. Don’t deny me simple pleasures.”

The gun squirmed and jerked, knocking itself off the bureau into the kitty litter. She’s going to shoot my cat in the ass, I thought. Bury herself and wait…the bitch…but what can you expect from a gun named Christine? (I assume you’ve all read Stephen King’s novel of that name. No? Hint: King’s Christine is a 1958 Plymouth Fury, but, oh, so much more than that.)

I stuffed her back into the primordial ooze and thought about applying to a writer’s colony in Wyoming.

Never imagine that you know what you will be like in the future, I read recently. What you hate now, what you fear now, what you crave now…it will all be different. Except, of course, that it won’t all be different, just some of it will be, and you don’t know which parts. Isn’t it delightful that the future offers nothing to the present moment, that it is unmade, wide open, that you are suspended in fog and see and hear only a minute fraction of what’s happening around you and inside you; that you are almost (but not quite) an unplanned Lego monstrosity created by a bored 7-year-old boy who will soon kick you to pieces and turn off the light?

The Children’s Hour

Soldiers with guns are at our door again.
Sister, quick. Change into a penny.
I’ll fold you in a handkerchief,
put you in my pocket
and jump inside a sack,
one of the uncooked rice.

Brother, hurry. Turn yourself
into one of our mother’s dolls
on the living room shelf. I’ll be the dust
settling on your eyelids.

The ones wearing wings are in the yard.
The ones wearing lightning are in the house.
The ones wearing stars and carrying knives
are dividing our futures among them.

Don’t answer when they call to us in the voice of Nanny.
Don’t listen when they promise sugar.
Don’t come out until evening,
or when you hear our mother weeping to herself.

If only I could become the mirror in her purse,
I’d never come back until the end of time.

–Li-Young Lee

Is My Heart Asleep

Has my heart gone to sleep?
Have the beehives of my dreams
stopped working, the waterwheel
of the mind run dry,
scoops turning empty,
only shadow inside?

No, my heart is not asleep.
It is awake, wide awake.
Not asleep, not dreaming—
its eyes are opened wide
watching distant signals, listening
on the rim of vast silence.

Antonio Machado
(translator unknown)

Animal Highlights of 2013

January 7, 2013 § Leave a comment


Mouchette decides she will spend as much time as possible on top of me: on my front by day, on my back by night. I feel like a mama possum. Both cats begin to show a rudimentary understanding of English. The family weave tightens.

Visiting my beautiful niece Delilah and her fiance Nick for dinner, we hear their story of how they ended up with ten gerbils. They bought two females. One turned up pregnant. But the pregnancy was so early that it didn’t occur to them at first that she was pregnant when they got her—they assumed they were mistaken about the sex of the unpregnant one, so they separated them and bought a male to keep the supposed father company. “I thought he had really weird genitals for a male,” said Nick of the unjustly accused gerbil, and indeed the real male then promptly impregnated her. Both gerbils had their litter and that was already a lot of gerbils. A couple of weeks later, Delilah and Nick went away for Thanksgiving. They returned–surprise–to a third litter. Apparently gerbils can get pregnant when they are already pregnant, so girl gerbil no. 2 had popped out a 2nd litter, which suffered from having to share a womb with the first, half-done litter: two of the three babies were tail-impaired. Nature is careless and in a hurry.

Charles and I had evil desires to take one or two home for the cats, but changed our minds after the little guys came out to play on the dinner table. “Nick, please take the gerbil off the cookies!” said Delilah, as I watched the dark, stub-tailed rodent steady his tiny pink paws on a biscotti. I can’t remember that one’s name. I remember Jasper, the color of ash, with his long, succulent tail (lucky gerbil to have a tail!): I wanted to tuck him under my chin, hide him in my bra.

Nick told the story of the death of Archimedes, his sturdy hamster. “That fucker lived 5 ½ years! They’re only supposed to live about three years. He did NOT want to die. At the end, he had this huge tumor on his chest and he was trying to chew it off. Really! It was all bloody…I got some sedative from Davis and put him to sleep. I held him in my hand, put the needle in, he gave a little sigh, and stopped.”

Archimedes is in the freezer. “Nick is waiting to give him a Viking burial,” said Delilah.

“On Chincoteague”–where they will marry this summer–“I’m going to put him in a shoebox, set it on fire and launch it out to sea.”

On the way to the A train, walking down crowded Saturday night Nostrand Avenue, we passed a TV in a shop window showing a preacher in a golf shirt. “I’m ASKING you not to wear garments that EXPOSE your body’s BEAUTY that makes dogs bark and HOWL.”

Lastly, from the Sunday Times, my name in print

A Book Said Dream and I Do

There were feathers and the light that passed through feathers.

There were birds that made the feathers and the sun that made the light.

The feathers of the birds made the air soft, softer

than the quiet in a cocoon waiting for wings,
There were feathers and the light that passed through feathers.

There were birds that made the feathers and the sun that made the light.

The feathers of the birds made the air soft, softer

than the quiet in a cocoon waiting for wings,

stiller than the stare of a hooded falcon.

But no falcons in this green made by the passage of parents.

No, not parents, parrots flying through slow sleep

casting green rays to light the long dream.

If skin, dew would have drenched it, but dust

hung in space like the stoppage of

time itself, which, after dancing with parrots,

had said, Thank you. I’ll rest now.

It’s not too late to say the parrot light was thick

enough to part with a hand, and the feathers softening

the path, fallen after so much touching of cheeks,

were red, hibiscus red split by veins of flight

now at the end of flying.

Despite the halt of time, the feathers trusted red

and believed indolence would fill the long dream,

until the book shut and time began again to hurt.

Barbara Ras

My 2012

January 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
Francisco Goya

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
Francisco Goya

The year the world didn’t end, but showed us how it’s done.
The year the word “superstorm” was used more often than “superstar.”
The year a black man was re-elected President
The year Charles moved back from Florida
The year I realized how lucky I was
The year I was still heartbroken
The year wicked stepsister Lola came to join my pampered cats
The year Mouchette moved into my bedroom
The year the kitty litter moved into my bedroom
The year I started thinking about when Medicare will kick in
The year Mouchette had 13 teeth removed
The year read my poems in public for the first time in 35 years
The year I baked a lot of pies
The first year of my adult life in which I did not have sex
The year I stopped worrying about that
The year our credit card debt surpassed our income
The year Charles was finally happy, playing guitar all day
The year I decided if they want my apartment, they’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands
The year I didn’t kill myself, after all


“You’re not going to kill yourself. You’re stronger than dirt.”—Philip Russo, January 2012

How strong is dirt? It endures, yes, but it just lies around, becoming soil, creating dust, actualizing the ground of being. Dirt enfolds. It nurtures, keeping seeds safe in the dark, then encouraging the thready roots to move through as they will, toward sun, water, each other. Plants talk. Dirt is their language. A fine element, no question, but a woman as strong as dirt—if she doesn’t kill herself, what does that mean?

That she knows the names of the dead
That she finds the doll in the coffin and the bullets in the poet
That her brain holds lost cities of antiquity
That she still lingers under the bed
That she’s as dirty as a street orphan
That she’s as dirty your most secret fantasy
That just because you walk all over her doesn’t mean she’s forgotten the concept avalanche
That someday she’ll fill your ears and mouth and nostrils
That she commands an army of beetles

Public Transportation

She is perfectly ordinary, a cashmere scarf
snugly wrapped around her neck. She is
a middle age that is crisp, appealing in New York.
She is a brain surgeon or a designer of blowdryers.
I know this because I am in her skin this morning
riding the bus, happy to be not young, happy to be
thrilled that it is cold and I have a warm hat on.
Everyone is someone other than you think
under her skin. The driver does not have
a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in his metal
lunchbox. He has caviar left over from New Year’s
and a love note from his mistress, whom he just left
on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 14th Street.
When she steps off his bus to take over the wheel
of the crosstown No. 8, she knows she is anything
but ordinary. She climbs under the safety bar
and straps the belt on over her seat. She lets
the old lady who is rich but looks poor take her time
getting on. She lets the mugger who looks like
a parish priest help her. She waits
as we sit, quiet
in our private, gorgeous lives.

Elaine Sexton

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