Goddess of Open Mouths

 

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“I dig because I am hungry”
– Margaret Atwood, from Digging
(Selected Poems, 1965 – 1975)


I was nineteen
when I first saw the ocean.
My fingers locked with my lover’s
that night, and the wet grate of sand
on my feet
was a new satisfaction.

She was nervous.
I held her hand,
felt her thumb rub circles near my own,
and I knew
we wouldn’t last the year.

Ten ‘til midnight and falling clocks
ticked down from ninety-nine
to a new millennium.
It was supposed to mean something,
they said,

but there was no apocalypse at dawn:
we did not return to caves;
tails did not sprout from our asses,
nor gills from our throats;
we did not club one another
in the streets
for scraps of bloody meat
and clean water.

Around us, fish-reek and musk,
seaweed sex smelled
like the beginning of life,
not the end. And when the gold
and red spiders
finally lit the sky, nothing
had really changed at all.

When the world grew quiet
again, the distance faded gray,
and in the place of night sky
stood a green lady—
a mother colossus wading
towards shore.

Sea glass eyes, thick
blue bottle-bottoms
fused together in her big frog face.
They caught sparks of light
from the ashes of tiny sky fires.
She was monstrous
in her beauty, with shiny scales
like polished armor to seal her curves.

Her skull was oblong, fused
to her shoulders, it seemed,
in an interminable shrug.
Ruddy feelers, mouthy suckers
snaked gorgon around her head,
while others bore faces, tiny,
independent, blinking and staring,
asynchronous and laughing,
independent of the mother’s body,
of each other, as are we all.

She nursed starfish at her breasts.
They gripped and sucked, their little points twisting.
They gripped and sucked, like babies pulling milk.
So hungry. Hungry.

Something writhed
where her body met the water.
I thought of eels like a tree skirt,
of leather whip-cracks
cutting the air and skin
electric gifts, weeping
blood for drink in primal delivery.

Hundreds of vermicular bodies
spewed from her mouth.
They spilled into the waves as
new births joining
the thrashing spawn,
the sea water life, and she, I knew,
was endless.

My lover couldn’t see.

She couldn’t see her,
and my heart shattered.
I already knew
she’d not worshiped at the temple,
never turned herself
inside out with wet stinking fingers,
ripped her own throat raw
for the sake
of some small kindness,
for a chance to be filled.
But I’d hoped. I had still hoped.

I swallowed briny spit,
ever patient, and watched
for the great lady’s wave.
I mourned her retreat,
and promised to wait.

Traditional Geomancy

 

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Surprising Spectral Illusions (1865)

The stone rolls over and
and then settles.
There’s a tender moss growing
on its underside, delicate,
like a secret,
spreading. It is spotted
with gray pillbugs—
the tiny creatures
we called rolie polies when I was a kid.

The centipedes pass like traffic.
They weave in and out and on through,
cross limp roots like dirty bridges,
slide down the fat, white things to chew
like cows. Their antennae lift
only for a moment,
startled at the open air;
then, the long, slithering creatures
scritch-scratch back into the dirt
unconcerned.

Flowerheads break the soil
in a circle and compete with new tree roots
that grab, stronger, at the air
like desperate fingers, long and pale,
pulling at moisture, life. Lady fingers,
I used to say. They are boneless yet stiff
ready to pluck and suck.

The stone rolls over,
and beneath the moss,
beneath the tricking green,
writhe the worms’ waving bodies,
their mad flailing goodbyes,
their blind mocking dance.
Timeless. Almost trite.
And I want to run my hands over them,
feel them flick forward and back,
like broom bristles
or blades of warm grass.
I want to feel them, tubular and fat,
roll them between hands,
alive and resisting.

Stronger than they seem,
they do not sleep on satin
but sometimes break concrete.
The stone rolls over, and if I wait
I may just see them
move the earth.

Seining

“My mother is a fish.”
-William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

I seined the Luxapalila for bait
with my father
each May. We netted frantic, silver minnows
and scooped them into buckets
by the dozens.

I liked to stick my hands
into the mass of life.
I liked to feel the cool, slick jump
of the tiny fish,
their firm flesh struggling
against the moment. Their mouths
opened and closed, opened
shocked at the big god of death
with blonde hair, a sunburn,
and dark eyes.

I liked the sharp prick of those fins.
Sometimes.
I liked the needle points of blood
that turned the water pink around my fingers.

Harvest, nightfall,
we dumped survivors into coolers
alongside cups of fat liver
that smelled like iron,
alongside red worms with no faces,
alongside catalpa worms
that were curled brown
but still oozing green
onto everything.

Surreptitious grabs, I’d snatch
a few here and there when he wasn’t looking
to play savior, let them loose again
and watch them swim away.
My father’d yell some shame, and then
we’d lift  the net using thick branches we’d cut
straight, or close enough. They’d serve
until one snapped
into two,
and I prayed it wouldn’t be mine.

Snakeheads broke the water sometimes
but usually later in the day.
They surfaced
and trailed tension triangles.
We froze to let them pass,
with only an inch or two between
our bodies and the watery wriggle.

If the light allowed,
if the cooler was full,
we walked to the lake
and hooked food with food,
played at luck and patience.
We always seemed to have one or two bodies
to cut and bleed for dinner those nights.

My mother joined us
on the river
the last summer she was alive.
She talked too much,
took up too much space. Lost
her breath and caught dark looks
from the old man holding his pole.
She looked to me, then,
in some kind of conspiracy. A game,
but he was still mad at her
for dying. And so was I.

She smelled like medicine
and covered her bald head with cloth
so that it wouldn’t burn
and peel-away.

I remember the catfish she caught
near nightfall—
a monster of a thing with whiskers,
full of spikes,
covered in hooked scars.

She lifted it up, a victory,
huffed breath she barely had,
lifted it up for the picture. And it
barely moved, resigned I thought,
or maybe biding time.
But then
she let me squat at the edge
and let it loose, let it go
after all
back down below to wait
for another hook, a net,
or some other kind of mercy.

In the Fields, Growing Green

Take the biting creatures
netted from the brackish water
in the bay
and carry them, still writhing,
to the empty fields
where they’ll rot in the Sun.
Let them feed the earth if it’s hungry,
and what’s beneath (if it’s hungry),
and come again at daybreak to gather-up
the bones.

Smell the edges of decay
through the open windows, the curtains
tied back with silk sashes,
breeze-blowing:

what was half-salted
and thrived in that warm water,
in that living soup,
what fed the hungry lips
beneath the surface, angled teeth,
now oozes swampy green, then black,
then turns red dirt.

Take a walk
through those soppy fields
at daybreak, when droplets hang
from drooping leaves.
When steam rises
between the browning windrows,
remember that there is
something breathing there
just beneath your feet.

Take a walk again at sunset,
after the grass has cooled quite a bit.
See it sweat again soon, ready for night,
ready for the crickets
and sing-song cicadas,
ready for the things
that raise their quick little heads,
more confident come dark.
Wait for the sound of screeching owls
and throaty frog sex.

The holes are everywhere.
Watch your step.

They thrive on nothing, wanting;
they take whatever’s left behind.
See the holes too big for rodents,
far too big.
Watch, now, and be careful
not to turn your ankle
when you’re stepping so far down.

Geophagia

She squatted with her hips
turned-out, froggy
and studied the corners of the house.

She sought shadows there—silhouettes
lengthened by a setting Sun, longer memory.
She knew there should’ve been arms
there stretched out,
with their fingertips pointed sharp
to snatch and hold.

But she was selfish, after all. No roots.
Everyone said so.
No roots.

The yard smelled like home, anyway,
like green, juicy stains on summer-bare feet,
like charcoal,
like bug spray,
like home enough, anyway.

Blades spun, trimmed,
and freed some small life
while it decapitated others
with cool steel swipes.

A green snake slid to new ground.
It coiled fat, oblivious.
Crickets leaped, frenzied,
with their shelters lost
to the whirring machinations,
to the cutting madness from their tiny apocalypse.

She was close to the chaos
down there,
down close to revelation
but still set apart, untouched.

She bounced on the balls of her feet.
Her knees popped, and she bent lower
to scoop the dirt she’d dumped
from slick plastic bags
that afternoon.

She grabbed a handful
from the neat flower beds
and it was almost black,
that prepackaged decay.
She held it to her nose and breathed.
She licked into it
like frosting
so it coated her tongue—
thick and soft like velvet.
She swallowed once, then searched
the corners of the house again,
the neighbors’ front yards. No one.

She grabbed handfuls like candy, then.
Frenzied,
she stretched her mouth wide,
so wide that the corners split,
so wide that her bottom jaw cracked,
so wide that something under her ear
shifted loose
to swing.

The sweat ring around her neck
turned bloody. She loaded her throat
to brimming,
packed her gullet
until her stomach distended,
until the soil rose level with her teeth,
until she could feel a heartbeat
behind her eyes.

She could feel the bottoms of her feet
itch and twitch,
and there:
the reaching and rooting
from the inside out,
the thready tendrils
met and meshed
between her bare feet
and the dirt.