Chameleon Skin

Sometimes
just when I feel I’ve finally made a home of my own body,
I meet someone so brilliant-blinding I think
“this is who I need to be.”

And maybe that’s okay,
maybe it’s all right I’m always changing
and shedding loose skin,
trying on new selves like clothes
to find out which fits best.

My first year of college I exchanged
whole outfits
but now it’s just pieces;
bangles over beads,
boots instead of sandals,
and maybe it’s okay
that I’ll never be quite comfortable
in my metaphorical wardrobe,
that I’m always searching the racks
for something better,
something tighter or looser
or bolder or camouflage.

I’ve worn skeptic and cynic
and while they cloaked me confidence
maybe it’s time I open back up.

I’ve tried tragic, victim, damsel,
and while
they made me feel poetic
maybe it’s time I try strong.

I’ve tried hardened, callous, stone
because I thought
the people who’ve hurt me
should get hurt back;
but now I think forgiveness
is the jumpsuit
waiting in my shopping cart,
the one I’ve been too scared to buy
because it’s such a hard
ensemble to pull off.

I want to feel beautiful no matter what I’m wearing,
but I know some colors won’t complement my skin
and some styles won’t show off
the favorite pieces of my being I want to be seen
like my shoulder tattoo
and my bottomless laughter
and my capacity to be kind
which could use a good flexing
because I’ve been keeping it dormant
since I mistook it for a weakness.

Maybe it’s okay to have chameleon skin.
Maybe shape-shifter is fine.
Maybe to take a few steps back –
try on childhood skorts
or mom’s old saddle shoes –
is permitted
as long as it’s followed by a few
sturdy leaps forward.

Maybe change is okay,
and progression is key,
and we all outgrow
favorite sweaters we’ve worn holes through
and sometimes it’s all right to feel
a little out of place
or just a little bit imperfect
because what knocks us off-balance
is what keeps us grasping out for something more.

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Sorry I Pronounced Your Name Wrong This Morning

So I’m a substitute teacher, which means I’m constantly having to walk into a room full of kids I don’t know and read their names out loud and of course sometimes I mess them up and I always feel a little bad and they sometimes get pretty upset and thus springs this poem. 

Sorry I got your name wrong reading the attendance list.
Sorry I got your ee as an ah
and sorry the class laughed
although neither of us found it funny.
Sorry I reshuffled the grouping of letters
that’s been
synonymous with you since birth.
Sorry I used your first name, Samuel,
somehow painful to you
for reasons that are hidden to me
and will never be revealed and
you prefer Jake.
Sorry I couldn’t take context clues and realize
India, S R I isn’t sree it’s shree
or China, your x is sh
and all those little sounds
and beats
and pronunciations
that make up the label of you.
Sorry you sighed or rolled your eyes
or angrily corrected me
because this is the hundredth, thousandth time
someone’s misrepresented,
misread the most straightforward symbol
of identity
in a place where it can be so elusive
clawing to be formed.
Sorry I cannot look at your name on paper
and know you,
cannot read your history with my fingertips
on the ink of your surname
cannot feel your mother or your father
or what your front lawn looks like in that
conjunction of consonants and vowels.
Sorry I don’t know you and you don’t know me
and when I leave all I’ll be
is the one who got you wrong,
who looked at you
and spoke the name of a stranger
and asked that you raise your hand.

Please don’t shake

Strong emotions like
anger
or sad
or jealous
or love
are shaken-up soda cans,
swirl up all your insides,
swath your stomach in bubbles,
get your organs all tied up
till it feels something has to burst
like firecrackers
shooting stars
12th grade classroom when the sub walks in
“Thank God”
“Hallelujah”
“I am filled with joy”
but bursting isn’t always a luxury.
Bursting is not appropriate
for grocery stores
or college lecture halls
or family dinners.
Sometimes all those bubbles crowd up
and you tighten and twist
like champagne that needs to pop
sometimes we shout just to break the silence.

How many teeth are in the human mouth,
how many scars lie on your skin,
how many hairs have been forcibly pulled from your scalp in the course of one lifetime,
how many whole truths have fallen from your mouth like peach pits you had to eat around,
how many different ways are there to say “help?”
How many can we get through before we stop trying?

How do you calm what needs to break,
put to rest what begs to be breathed
and beats
and barrels its way through brick and bone
and seeps its way into your brain
not the physical which is pink and squishy and permeable
but what it holds
what can’t be touched
but is somehow so easily shaped
by things like words and pictures and untranslatable glances
from boys from girls from strangers on the street and
drivers in cars whose gaze you accidentally met at stoplights.

I am usually in bed.
I am an unstuffed scarecrow
that can’t stand up straight
unless a chemical reaction propels me upright
and threatens to tear the fabric of my burlap body
and it’s a fight to survive but
my inanimate pieces have never been more alive.

I cherish what can be taken in
and soft things that conform to the curves of my body
like a memory foam mattress
which was invented for people
who have been launched
like pebbles in slingshots
David and Goliath
a blaze of fire
through the barriers that hold our world together.
They have left home
which is earth
been expelled
which is death
and been resurrected in
the coldness and silence of space
cradled by a bed
that loved their reborn shape
although it was not where it belonged.

I do not belong
and I’ve learned to always carry
a hammer and a chisel because
I will build a place I will belong
I will scrape into your rock
and set up pitons in the cracks I make
I don’t mean to intrude
what I mean is to survive
and I will build me a home in you
like loving parasite
but try to build me a part of your temple
and I rappel away to the next cliff face.

It is not a piece of what I am
and you’re my harbor for the storm but
things I do not need:
assimilation
fusion
there is too much in me to combine with you
I am almost always overflowing
and I might leave marks
but that’s
action reaction
cause and effect
my teeth marks are not strong
there is no bitterness there
the impressions I leave are
writing in sand
that is to say I touched so much of you
but the evidence will shake
into a jumble of microscopic pieces.

I am like shaken soda can,
I’ll burst in an explosion
to rival Pompeii
but when my carbon dioxide fizzles out
you’ll hardly notice I was there at all.

This is love

There are many different kinds of love.

I didn’t know that when I was young.

When I was little love was
man and woman,
scattered rose petals,
cartoon floating hearts that pulsed
and doubled, tripled in size,
a swell of music
and wind-swept kisses.

It was something magic and private
and although I could see it there in the movies
or on TV
it was a mystery I couldn’t get inside.

I was scared to get married,
and I knew I would get married,
because I got shaky thinking about having to kiss a boy
actually kiss,
lips touching lips,
in front of a crowd full of people,
the strangeness and the scandal and spotlight of it.

Groping a stranger in the packed concrete patio
of a decaying frat house
the memory strikes me
and I laugh
to think that love seemed something
so personal and concrete.

Love is intangible.
Love is only theory
like gravity
The Big Bang,
like God.

We think it’s there
but we can’t touch it or see it or kiss it
only the vessels it had been poured into;

shaggy-haired boy with the crooked smile and bad news written all over his v-neck and skinny jeans,
mother who brings the cookies out of their hiding place when she finds out you’ve had your heart broken for the very first time,
friend who knows you were wrong but believes you when you say it felt right.

Now I can tell there’s a love in
“Miss you,”
in “can’t wait to see you,”
in “get out,”
in hellos and goodbyes in all their loud and hidden forms,
there’s a love in one night stand
and in that poisonous boy
whose jaws you leapt into just to get close,
whose venom, years later, you’re still trying to suck back out.

There’s love
and like everything in life
it’s not always pure or good.

It’s not apple
it’s orange,
encased in layers
and broken in segments
which vary in size and in sweetness.

You can weigh it in your hand
and tear away the pith
but you still won’t be sure what you’re getting
until you take a bite.

I’ve tasted my fair share of fruit —
soured love,
pickled love,
pitted love,
saccharine love that hung on my tongue long after it was wanted,
love just greening
and love long past its expiration date.

I watched
my fair share
of homogeneous true love’s kisses
and while they write it over and over
like it’s the only story they know,
I know that there
are different kinds of love.

Glass World

Careful darling,
step light.
You’re walking on a sea of things easily broken;
china pavement and colored sugar glass.
The slightest bit of pressure and it might all fall away.

When you hum here
the ground picks up the vibrations
and the louder your song
the more violently everything shakes
beneath carefully-placed toes.

What lives beneath those lucent panels,
swims in those hurried currents.
From what direction comes the wind
that hurls itself at your back
screaming, “Go, go,”
as you peer over at what might as soon become a ledge
as your next landing place.

It’s a quiet world.
The rain needs only drop once
and the echo resounds
like a thousand storms.
The clouds are made of thin stuff
which is for the best
since every shiver of a breeze
or particle of snow
wears away so slightly
at a paper-thin floor,
held together with resin
and sheer force of will.

Don’t let it break,

don’t let it break,

don’t let yourself careen into that pool below
of unknown substance
if it even is a pool
and not a sheer drop,
nothing but air
for miles and miles down.

Love in the Wild

Can’t we be
as eagles or gibbons or barn owls,
who latch on to one another and stay.

Can’t we lock eyes
and from the patterns of one another’s retina
find all the raw materials one might need
to build a happy home.

Can’t we fight
and then slink away
to hunt and gather
and when we return to the
cliff/
tree/
barn/
we can drop a mouse at our love’s feet,
our token of affection,
all our poisonous words
dissolved into its
soft skin and still, fragile heart.

Can’t we live
in gentle contentedness,
in steadiness,
venturing out time and again
but returning always
to a place where nothing changes
and neither truly leaves.

Little Red

Every Red Riding Hood has her wolf.
It waits in the shadowed crooks of a well-worn path,
breathing secrets from curled lips,
and promising excitements
from beneath hooded eyes
and charming, fanged smiles.

You may wear whatever apparel you choose;
dresses, mittens, blazers, hoop earrings;
and your wolf will still find you,
honeyed voice sewing promises
out of thin air.

Listen to it,
to the lilting, razor-edged voice
that draws and repels.
Be seduced by a chorus of what-ifs and the unseen.
Leave this trodden ground
which has been stepped across so many times
that the grass no longer grows here.

Step off a path
forged of monotony.
Explore a world
rife with treachery and with beauty
and with shadowy patches of dark
and bright canopy-breaks of sunlight,
of chase and flight
and fleeting moments of tangible silence.

Let your wolf shed the villainous coat
it’s been made to wear in your winter;
let him be made new for spring.

A wolf is well-versed in the ways of this world,
A guide to it’s secret cracks
and hidden troves,
blackest pits
and rolling valleys.

Only arm yourself,
for a wild creature’s never truly tamed.
Only sharpen your senses,
only take up keenness and caution
to defend against idly snapping teeth
and crooked claws.
Adopt strength and a discerning eye
with which to block heavy blows
and violent shocks
you may not see coming.

Fear it as a weapon,
love it as a friend.
Allow it in its own musky way
to show you things you’ve never seen,
things wondrous and lovely,
twisted and terrible.
Keep your wolf at arm’s length
as it details for you a sprawling map
that was, til now, hazy and unclear.

You may slay your wolf
with a well-placed knife,
with a bubbling of apathy
and deadened curiosity.
You might leave it dying
on the roadside
in blood-matted fur
and shallow breaths.

You may be safe.
Sidle to grandmother’s house
and again back home.
Wander the same path,
follow the same footsteps,
for a lifetime’s worth of
precious, transient time.

Notice the trees,
their blossoms in the distance
and the willowy nature of their trunks,
but don’t dare to step out of track;
lest anything changes,
lest you be changed,
lest you grow and learn
and become wounded and hurt
and then perhaps not healed but certainly made whole,
be not found
but become spectacularly and beautifully lost
in such a gruesome,
magnificent,
dark
and breathing
wood.