Look at Me

Look at me – I am young,
forever young,
a glossy smile frozen in a moment
of manufactured abandon
dancing motionless, still, unravished,
across airbrushed pages, pop-ups,
billboards, until all you see is me, me,
I am young – look at me.

Look at me – I am young,
far too young
to wear what she doesn’t wear
a million skin-baring times,
to gild this unbudded lily
with nature-hastening agents,
urge men to their urges give in, give in,
I am young – look at me.

Look at me – I am young,
forever young,
made 39 with white-out,
29 with scalpels,
19 with my daughter’s clothes,
9 with diet,
so I have earned it, earned it,
I am young – look at me.

Look at me – I am young,
far too young
to stitch a 16-hour day
that lasts well into the night,
making clothes for models,
little girls and old ladies
too far away to hear me plead, plead,
I am young – look at me.

The Inconstant Gardener

I came to believe women were flowers,
fragile things, ever ready to wither;
the briefest neglect, the slightest insult,
and the petals would darken, fall away.

My father was a gardener; I learned
of the flower’s fickleness first from him,
who had hurled curses at his rosebushes
and drank when they ceased to bloom at his touch.

He still likes flowers; he still talks of them,
of their briars and thorns and soft sadism,
but no more of their beauty, their perfume,
the feathery caress of inner down.

So I, too, came to see them as a task
and when I came to the garden, I came
to work, to till and plow and sweat and bleed
for precious things that had lost all value.

I spent years in that garden, hating it,
hating the bees and the heat and the ache
felt only by those who have shouted hoarse
at ever-almost blooms, ever only almost.

I never bothered to water; tears sufficed,
as I watched joy thrive in my neighbors’ lots,
where flowers were tended like so many weeds,
vivid hues struggling past discarded beer cans.

I envied them their tattered, brilliant blooms,
marvels bursting uncoaxed from harsh soil,
and I would scale the fence, from time to time,
to liberate a lone, forgotten beauty.

I adored these stolen lives, every one
a shard of stained glass, ready to shatter
at the touch that, in my ardor, always came
too soon, and I would weep as they wilted.

I thought the love I bore gave me license,
as my father did, to lay claim and lament
when the transplants longed for foreign soil,
growing again only when given away.

And so, my garden became a graveyard,
and I, a drunk, content to curse and wallow
and preach the inconstancy of flowers
to fellow failed gardeners, broken men.

I walked through fields of light, bottle in hand,
and saw only colored tumult, the blues
of bruises, the rouge of whores, brassy golds
filling my absent heart with fresh loathing.

In my youth, I had dreamt of a garden,
a garden of my own, full with but one bloom,
one perfect flower to last forever,
but dreams are for children, and I had grown.

My garden had grown, too, in my absence.
A single seed careless sown, then left wild,
was now in full flower, and through dull eyes,
still I saw the glory, the grace, that could be.

But I had broken so many of them,
and I blamed myself for each fragrant corpse
and feared for the fate of this fragile sprout
in the care of this calloused gardener.

I became ill with her, when she fell ill,
neglected her, when I felt neglected,
repaid imaginary slights with real ones,
and spoke of love, when I felt only fear.

Each day, I awoke expecting her gone,
another victim of an inept gardener,
and when she lasted through another night,
I would smile, and say, “So, tomorrow, then.”

I have since lost count of the tomorrows
that have passed in my garden, now called ours,
where she rises like the sun, constant and warm;
still, I doubt even the surety of sunrise.

She never doubts the sun, for she has faith,
and where there is faith, fear cannot take root,
so each day is the first of all the rest,
rather than one day closer to the last.

Oh, to have the faith of such a flower,
to stop plucking petals of love, love not,
to sit in our garden, watch the sun rise,
and rest assured it will again, my love.

I am a gardener, like my father before;
I worked so hard to grow one, as he did,
yet now that I have it, work is all that I know.
Teach me, love, to have the faith of a bloom.


Wakened again by the cicadan scream,
I crawl from under the broodmate’s forelimb
to scrape away the prior day’s detritus
and climb in the awaiting carapace
of flayed cows and mothchild effluvia.
I exit the cell; I boil black bones,
one hive-traverser among the millions.
I arrive; I am chittered at by drones,
and I chitter back the same nothing sounds.
Directives spawn tasks, and the sun-hours
bleed away in the doing, and none ask
why, for there is no why, only the must
of the moment that demands an action,
forgotten even as the action ends.
Then there is night: but the day ran reverse,
chittering leave, boiling back, and home,
that place of intervals where I consume
what remains of an abandoned repast,
dead matter to coal the embers of life,
then enter the room where the larvae sleep,
half-shed of their cowboy-coated cocoons;
I stare at the silent forms and take note
of how each is as alien as I
before returning to where I will rest,
where I will climb free of this silken shell,
prime the cicadan cry, replace the limb
left when the day was new, and, as I fade,
wonder if I will ever leave this bed
a human.


There is a house, and – spoiler alert – the house is you,
and you don’t own it, and the rent is too damn high,
so sometimes you leave to wander the moors – if you have moors –
and if you don’t, you just go down to the bus station
to accept hand jobs in exchange for – whatever – pay?

But you always leave the door unlocked, when you go,
not because you don’t value your things, but because
you value your freedom more – it’s worthless –
so when you come back, people sometimes have read
your diary, and sometimes, they’ve stolen your shit.

Sometimes, you sell your own shit – you make a sign –
you stand in the front yard, rudely hawking your wares –
and go back inside, pants pockets filthy with lucre,
and continue painting your Mona Lisa.
She smiles – they never notice her.

Only sometimes, they do. Or at least, someone does.
Sometimes they pay – usually not – but it’s okay.
This Mona Lisa ain’t gonna paint itself.
But when they see you, shirtless, a sack of organs
like everyone else – there goes romance.

One of these days, the house will burn down,
and you keep spending the insurance money on smokes.
Back to the bus station – back to the moors –
back to wearing a name tag. Back to black.
You open all the windows. Turn on all the lights.

With any luck, when you die in a fire,
strangers will get bummed out – majorly –
before continuing to not give a shit, as usual.
What did you expect? A statue? A cookie? Salvation?
Sola fide or GTFO.

… and that’s writing.



We were beasts, hired for our memories,
gentle even before the goad;
lumbering and gorgeous,
we went where we were led,
went where we were taken.

We had power; we bowed beneath
our burdens, nonetheless.
Still the citadel rose, pallid
blocks of accrued capital
bearing witness to our labors.

We were promised a home,
promised a hermitage;
minds innocent and quiet,
we saw the shrunken garrets,
and still, still said nothing.

We could say nothing;
our tongues had been flayed,
commodified, and auctioned.
We no longer knew our names,
no longer knew our worth.

We slept; we dreamt
of glories gone by, glories
to come, vanities, all.
We woke; we had coffee.
We waited; we had liquor.

We watched the wrinkles deepen
in the hides of our comrades,
listened as the wind failed them,
felt the tremors as another gray
mass was claimed by age, by gravity.

We worked harder, worked longer,
worked faster, worked cheaper,
worked for peanuts, worked for good-girls
and atta-boys, worked for nothing,
worked for love; worked for nothing.

We were in crisis; we were the crisis.
We blamed ourselves, blamed each other.
We turned on each other, gored
the flanks of our neighbors,
drew blood. Went back to work.

We rolled our jaundiced eyes
as rogues were put down
in the periphery. Not us.
We were too tired to stampede.
We were money; we were spent.

We deferred, demurred, declined;
decided to be undecided; abstained.
We needed to study the problem.
We were the problem; we hesitated.
We bought lottery tickets.

We watched the tower climb
and called it progress, fell
at the base and called it fate.
Once, we had wondered:
where did they get all that ivory?

We wondered no more.
We had stepped over scores
of carcasses, shorn of their teeth.
So much indentured meat, rotting.
Not us. That way? Madness.


Redneck Blackface

For a quarter I will dance for an hour
in my native garb of tartan flannel
and distressed tractor ad trucker hat,
and you can laugh, and you can laugh.

I will bray a sound like language
in a series of comic hoots and grunts;
“Aintchallinnertained?” I’ll drawl,
and you can laugh, and you can laugh.

I will parade the usual grotesques,
the incestuous tree of chaw-chewers,
spouse-abusers, the quasi-human et al.,
and you can laugh, and you can laugh.

I will unveil the ignorance of a people,
provincial and bigoted and crass
and so, so unlike other Americans,
and you can laugh, and you can laugh,

and you can laugh, and you can laugh,

and I can have my precious quarter.

Tongue Ring

Her words, barely audible beneath the bar band,
circle sharks and her thesis and some shared teacher
whom I had hated having, a point we argued
only toward the needlessly necessary end
of exchanging dull fact for whatever fancy
she had projected on me from across a glass
that had led her across the room on a pretense
as overtly covert as the hidden black ball
that appears again upon her clenched, smiling lips
whenever she must wait for my part in this farce
to concede, forcing a regretful retraction
of an anglerfish lure, shamefully effective.

The Unarmed Education Mercenary

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Nathaniel C. Oliver

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