Winner, 2020 Joe Bolton Poetry Award
I doubt my father thought much about genetics
before the making of me, in his boyhood dreams,
only that Shiksas have the nicest teeth and dove-soft skin,
white outline of Jayne Mansfield’s bosom burned
into his brain after a picture show. So put off
by his big-boned grandma, he wanted vanilla,
the towheaded cream this rises with blue/green Aryan eyes,
and maybe his Rabbi was right about the sanctity of sex.
He didn’t feel dirty pretending, hands held under
the cotton linen his dear, dark mother had bleached
and folded. Imagine, the downy texture
and snowy peaks of American breasts, pale flesh
gentle as orl, so clean you can barely feel it.
Even the pearly seed that sprung from him
when he dreamt about blondes felt cooler to the touch,
leapt like the scurry of an arctic hare, pure enough
to lure my father to the bathroom with girly magazines,
hiding from the homely housewives of Rhode Island,
but I too have been filtering beauty. Born with an eye
for boldness, I chose a coppery man with umber tones
and a Marlon Brando stare. When we laid down
in the wilderness, under blue/black skies, I let him burn
in me the way wood chars, cast from the heat like coal.
I wanted to pull the sweet darkness out of him
like ribbon cane and bear proud bronze babies with dirt
brown hair. I wanted the mud in his blood, to soil history
with our skin, and we did, we made a child
in my father’s image.
Until he touched me I thought my feet should behave
like hands, to serve like cups, dutiful as roots.
And when he did they made new gestures:
raised the balls, arched their backs, flayed
the toes away so that each one had its own neck,
own mind, a well lit face. They got busy flying,
visited my shoulders, my nose, the ears too
found themselves blown away by wind.
Blood came travelling with them,
made them fit and rich as livers.
Without shame, without doubt
for their beauty, I watched my feet
close in like fat geese looking to roost,
wings shuddering open and wilting closed.
And the man falling in rhythm like rain, one
hand bound to my mouth, the other hand standing
on my throat like a foot, let me float without air.
We laid on the flat tar roof in November
splayed like cadavers, knotted together
like two halves of a pit hoping to fuse.
He washed a few nodes of my toes in his mouth,
let them quake like animals held under water.
Until then my feet had never filled
like lungs, never flexed at death, sung
the different dialects of pleasure.
Now that they knew how to ask for it
they could not remember how to run,
so I gave them to the sky, decided
if God wants a whore he can have me.
It’s not a miracle. I knew you would be this:
glossy-haired biped roaming the lawn
in jelly sandals
picking me pulsey buds, pretending
they’re roses, count them to 20
then start over.
We draw maps on the asphalt with chalk,
plot points like the grid of your palm,
our necks browning like butter
in the backyard.
I gave you my cousin’s ear lobes,
another’s knees, patches of velvet
on your arms. I tell you the story
of two birthmarks born inches apart,
drifting across my leg like moons
pulled to opposite poles.
I watch a clay crescent descend
from your chest and grow down your belly
the way lands are always moving.
You yawn and I have to mirror you.
You bleed in the thicket and I remember
bleeding, stuck in the gut
as though by a thorn.
This day is not special. My shoes
have always been here, with my feet inside
them, chasing you through the brush.
There is a bruise on your calf
the color of dusk. There is too much
to be in awe of here
to ignore the freckle under your eye,
a prick of rain between clouds.
This is no accident, no random, cosmic
calculation. All month I’ve listened to grass frogs
singing their tadpoles into creation
while the ants collect their dead. I don’t know
how else to love you without digging
my hands through your hair,
bringing your cheek to my mouth
like suns who smother their planets
in fire before they go.
Blood or Fruit
But it’s red, she said, pointed finger
like an arrow at the spot—
ink blot on the kitchen floor,
It’s the kind you make in the toilet, I’ve seen
you waiting for the drop, the sound
like a rock in water. Not squeezed from
juice, I think, you made this red
like teeth squash food, pressed your thighs
together and clicked three times.
I wished for brothers, you brought me
dolls, dresses, ruby slippers,
spun cherries in the blender
with creme, I don’t know how to
tell one month from another it’s like
every stain tells another to replace it,
even the skin on my knees is missing.
I don’t want to be old,
bleed or scab
if every day I wake up
it’s one more year I could be
dripping, like you, mouthful
of berries, hands bright
Like A Child
After the divorce, my father made a list of everything he hated,
lined the windows with tin foil and sat under a naked bulb,
dumbbells gleaming heavily on the tile floor like clenched fists,
a rubber hot water bag hanging from the bench like a dismembered bladder
while he balanced checkbooks in his bed, a nest of envelopes and overdue bills
saying, We’re fucked. They’ve fucked us again.
I hated his whining, his pills, the mysterious afternoon migraines
and boiled blood, eyes blistered with anger. I hated his hernia,
his enema, milk of magnesia, the blanket of corkscrew hairs
covering him like fleece. I saw my father hairy, hungry, dismantling
and could not love a man who goes hoarse crying down the hallway,
dragging the raw nerve of his heart behind him to the bathroom,
to the medicine cabinet, to the toilet where he puked up all the feelings,
conscious as he was of his high, hard gut—a man pregnant with worry.
He might have carried me in it my whole life, his womb made of blue jeans
and outstretched pity, fed me on pink bismuth and shredded wheat,
taught me dirty jokes and doo-wop until I came out of him
hard as a kidney stone, woman unlike any he had courted.
Less like his wives, more like his mother. I found the man
in his mess and saw a middle-aged baby, unloved, unclean,
made to worry all his joy away just to be fucked, as he put it,
like a child who would never understand
that the world is not out to hurt him.
In the Back Seat
The back seat felt like a crime scene—mud on our boots, my hair
spilled like pine needles, saliva smeared on the upholstery,
fingerprints all over. DNA giving him away.
My meat hung in flanks—a thigh, a wing. The sun
leaned west behind a palm tree, beaming,
cooked my feet. I was a metaphor
for something dead. Duct taped, blind and dumb. I was his
evidence of love, golden in the afternoon. Thing
he could smother and would let him.
I liked the way he dragged me around, a body built
for pleasure, throat bored open and quiet. I liked
being occupied, one finger, two,
a mouthful, a fist. He could keep me all day
in that sex-drowse
until cover of night brought me to the ground
and he’d rustle his whiskers against my cheek.
I liked drowning in the crook of his neck,
sweat on and ashed on, singed with cigarettes.
Like a corpse, I did not hurt.
I was a prize,
I was winning
naked beneath his arms like the tree
that was chopped and kept giving.
When it was done, we lowered the windows to watch
shards of pneuma escape from our lips.
Like good prey, I offered my tongue. He bit it.
I am not selfish.
JENNIFER GREENBERG is a Floridian poet living in New England. Her work appears in O, Miami’s “Costanza: A Zine About Nothing,” The New Southern Fugitives, Pussy Magic, Literary Mama, SWWIM Everyday and others. She is an associate editor at the South Florida Poetry Journal and a Best of the Net nominee.