A Season in Hell III

by Elizabeth Kirschner

I’m crawling all over the house searching for my meds, still screaming like a child in a burning building. My brain is on fire. I can smell its stinky smoke like seared meat. Where are the firemen? Who’s going to save the very life my husband wants to kill? Should I call 911? No, too hard. My hand is in my purse, I’m throwing its contents everywhere—checkbook, make-up mirror which shatters like a fallen star—searching for the pillbox. Now there’s shooting stars in my head, zapping me like a bug zapper. I’ve finally got my meds, swallow three without water. How did I do that? Swallow my pills while my husband is choking me? I don’t know, I simply don’t know.

The Mandatory Lesson Plan

by Publius 

            I have to turn in the weekly lesson plan that nobody reads, the one everybody knows nobody reads.   But I got to do it anyway even though the district office hasn’t hired anyone to read lesson plans, and, even if they did, I don’t give a wank.   It’s mandated.   So I pretty much copy word-for-word the lesson plans the district office bought — they paid millions — so I can send it the district office.   I just realized that I’m late with it.   This will take maybe an hour.

            I turn to this 600+ page curriculum.   I look up what I’m not going to teach.   According to the curriculum, I’m supposed to be teaching the Odyssey, which I finished last month.  

            So I fill-in the mandatory “Public School Curriculum Data Based Lesson Design Tool (Weekly)”.   I dutifully note the pages I’m not teaching.   In accordance with the “State Standards”, I more-or-less copy word-for-word “Comprehension And Evaluation”.  

                        The students will comprehend what they read and write.  

                        This will be evaluated when the teacher and the students

                        exchange information, questions, answers and ideas.   The

                        students will speak and write in Standard English.


            About three-quarters of the way through this form, it asks for the vocabulary I won’t teach.   There’s this big box for words.   It’s the only thing I actually get to choose.   So I start with odyssey-like words, canto, invocation and such, when I’m suddenly overwhelmed by this passive-aggressive civil servant thing.    I insert Klingon, photon torpedo, red alert, phaser, and, of course, Beam me up, Scotty.   I do finish with the word Trojan, but note that I’m looking for the rubber not the person.

            I actually am teaching science fiction this week.   I have developed a pedagogical rational.   Star Trek is the American Odyssey.   Captain Kirk is the new Odysseus.   I’m actually quite serious about that.   But that’s my own thought, so I can’t put that down.   Then I realize –

            I’m getting into a strange area here – extraneous existentialism.   I’m rationalizing a lesson plan that will never happen, that contains vocabulary I’ll never teach, a lesson which I largely copy out of a curriculum nobody reads and which, in any case, addresses a lesson I taught a month ago, all this so I can place my lesson plan in a pile no one reads, a pile which will be boxed and mailed to nobody at the district office.


Volume 08: Shelter

by Gigi Marks
(winner of the 2010 Coal Hill Review Chapbook Prize)


A Welcome

I like the look of sadness
on a face because I know it,
can welcome its shape against
my hand and feel its smoothness.
I like the way my fingers can
knead its doughy cheeks and
softened jaw, the way my own
breathing changes to its slowed-
down breath. I like that I can
kneel down right beside it
and look face to face and see
myself, as if it were a mirror.



I watch you down the row,
picking, chest close to leaves, legs
close to straw, fingers red and busy,
and I am glad for that hot sun
distracting me from all the thoughts
that have made me angry hours ago
and makes you beautiful, a figure of
desire, steaming with sweat, smiling
up to me with a bucket full of berries
while I have been waiting to see you
look up and show me what you have.



Because she was the first
I did not know it as familiar,
how quickly the body takes in
a different kind of breath that is
the beginning of a different kind
of breathing that will not change
back again. Pulse changes, shifts,
blossoms in that surge of rose-
red blood, and the skin I wore
darkened, flushing
from that first sight of her.


In the Garden

The way the bees
in the lavender are so
intent on nectar that they
don’t notice me: I am
not one of them, I am
not the wind that knocks them
off their flower, slows them
down, and I am not the sun
speeding the flowers
past this bloom.
I am a shadow, a footstep
or two, I am not here
long enough to really matter.



They hook into my back and shoulder,
press into my temples; they move up
and down me along with the other fingers;
they are filled with full-moon nails and
scrape along my cheek, and when they
are done with me, they are easily taken
to other tasks; they are busy with work,
and when I stop them and hold them
for a moment, they bend too easily back;
when they are in my fingers they pry away.
They are busy or they are at rest, but they
are never mine; even when they are close
at hand or in my hand, they belong to
palm and hand and those other fingers there.



Where I was born,
out of the opening wings of my
mother’s legs and into the hands
of someone I would never see again,
was a place I would not go back to,
and later, a hundred times, a thousand,
I was in my mother’s arms, like
wings that folded over me,
but mammal-warm. Because there are
places that disappear, the ones that
I go back to stand out in relief,
but what says mother, mother,
also says feather and wing and fly,
fly off and away.



Hyacinth grows up with its heavy
head, so solid even with its
dome of star-like flowers and
fragrance lighter than breath.
The wet ground is not far enough
below it; it becomes part of
the hyacinth’s appearance and
breathes its own heavy odor.
When the wind blows, it shakes
from base to top and cannot bend
without breaking. Poor flower
that cannot save itself. I stoop
down face to face with it, mine
so clearly blemished in this clean
spring light against the hyacinth’s
pearl-smooth petals. What the flower
finds to mingle with: the spring wind
that rushes by, the blown up leaves,
the dirt black ground that crushes
its one poor foot planted there.


Close By

In finger reach I kept you—
as a small thing beginning,
your hair weaving
my hands to you,
your hands knitting my arms—
you were the beginning of growing,
laced into the gaps I had, and then
you were the how of growing:
out of my arms but still no further
from me than a finger. And then
you were unwinding, unraveling
and growing into everything that
opened and reached out to you,
even the things past where
I could point a finger to.



She’s up against her mother’s legs
sucking milk. She’s walking the pasture
just barely steady in deep grass.
Look at her black reflective eyes—
you can see the fence wires there,
a line stretched across her sight.
There’s her mother back the other way,
swaying to the sounds that cows move to.
She hears it and shakes her head to toss
the flies away. She’s got a tail to do it, too,
and her mother’s tongue will clean her
of the sticky milk that brings the flies to her.
When she’s back against her mother,
she’s got to move the way her mother does,
the way all cows do, and then, from here,
you can see her eyes are closed and
she’s not seeing any more than you or I
would pressed up so close to one another.


One Hand

Reaching into the bush, separating
healthy branch from what is
overgrown, holding steady what
the other hand, with saw, will cut.
The sky is blue, leaves are pale
green in the drenched spring sun
and that one hand holding the saw
belongs to the world—firmly
gripping what is useful for its work—
and the other belongs just to me,
one hand figuring what is healthy
and strong and what is unnecessary,
and then one holding on with a tight grip
to what it is that nobody wants.


Field Oats

Into the windblown oats, a pattern
is only there because two boys
are walking in there; they are
small green figures in the silver
topped grasses, looking to find
their way further afield. Bent
at the ground, those damaged patches
are what they skirt; they are not fast
like the fox or aware as the deer;
they slowly take their summer
bodies away from the house that is
as big as a box and as dark as a shadow,
that held them all winter long, and go
into the light that is finely diffused
by water and air. And they are touched,
each limb and their trunks, by those
grasses left standing, whistling
by wind and all the wetness being
dried by their green skins.



Very quickly there is the sensation
of nothing underfoot, and the realization
begins, and then there is the fear that floods
the body as quick as rain in the river drives
past the river’s banks: trunk and limbs
can hardly contain it, until the sudden
meeting, less than a minute later, of arm,
back, butt, leg, and the hard ground, a broken
branch lashing out at the final swing of head
and neck. And then there is so much time
to feel the waters recede: the sun has come out,
and although the body has sunk in itself,
it also rights itself against the familiarity
of roots and rocks and the geometry of dirt.



Shelter is the warm night on the deck
of a boat that has sickened me with
sea swells all day, that has settled late
to let me sleep along with the others:
kicked aside shoes, thick coils of rope,
the stars, the moon, the steady call
of water, the shape of my lover after
he has made our bed behind the captain’s
wheel. He breathes like the sea breathes.
Tucked against the cove of his arm,
I see the dark sky lit up one more time
before I drop anchor, shut the roof of
my eyes, and then rest before I sleep.



runs from the middle
of my head, splits
into different paths
on my forehead where
so much of the work
of piecing together occurred.
I was a grown woman
with both my parents
around me as if I was
a child again as the doctor
worked post-car crash
sewing and knotting
and picking out turf and
ground from where
I met the ground
as if to root there.
There it is—a path
I can trace my fingers on
now that I am without them—
top to side to side to bottom—
as if the journey
is finished and I am old.



They keep working, folding into palm,
reaching out, free for moments at a time;
while you cannot speak with your mouth,
they grasp the hand that is offered;
they remember how to move to a song
you’ve forgotten, how to touch and hold
and let go. They are your last extension,
the furthest reach you have, and they are
trembling, opening up, getting ready
to be born and new again while the rest
of you is, at arm’s length, slowly dying.


On Her Face

If the table’s edge were not there,
she would have caught herself with her
hands, and I could have picked her up
and kissed her sore palms. If her foot
hadn’t twisted and turned her
body as she looked the other way, she
would have walked over to her brother
and joined him playing. If I had carried
her on my hip from outside, asked her
what she wanted inside, I would have
felt the warm quiet rush of her heart
and seen the clearness of her baby face.
What happened is written on her face,
the deep purple streaks of bruise,
the black eye, the swelling that comes on
with tears and doesn’t disappear.



My skin was pulled taut
to cover, and my feet were
staked to the ground, and once
they were gone, they still came back
to me for shelter, until they were
grown, close to full-size, and then
I folded up those sections, flaps
that were my skin, pulled up
stakes, and they became feet again.


Gigi Mark’s chapbook Shelter. To purchase the chapbook please visit the Coal Hill Review chapbook catalog.


A Season in Hell II

by Elizabeth Kirschner

His hands are at my throat, choking me, slowly choking me to death. He’s squeezing me so hard I can hear my neck break–snap, snap, like a chicken bone. Will he pluck me, too? I see feathers, many bloody feathers on the ratty grey rug. Each of them has a bone in it, this I am sure of. Now I see my husband’s hands, the reddish hair on his hands, how it nearly bristles. Now I see his long boney fingers, the cracked nails bitten down. The hiss of his breath is pissing down my neck. I’m trying to buck him off, but he’s strong, like a wrestler, and I’m just a lightweight pinned to the exploding floor. Where are my meds? I’ve got to down my meds. Gobble, gobble. Gobble, gobble.

These Self-Same Keys

by Arlene Weiner

Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.
— Ludwig Wittgenstein

In the early 1980s I went to the Third Annual Conference on Computers and Writing. A well-known computer guru—can his name really have been Chip?—was the keynote speaker. Against expectation, he told us that across town they were holding the fifty-third annual conference on ballpoint pens and writing. He was wittily warning us, a roomful of writing instructors who were mostly enthusiasts for computers, against exaggerating the difference that “the computer” might make to writing.

And yet it has. Why not? Even the ballpoint pen made a difference, at least to this writer, who remembers the messy process of filling a fountain pen with ink from a bottle on her schoolroom desk—a desk that had a groove for pencil or pen and a vestigial brass flap that opened to a hole where previous generations had kept their ink, dipped nibs into it, and wiped them with penwipers. And had blotters! Even with a fountain pen, I’d often be left with ink on my thumb and middle finger. With the ballpoint pen, goodbye to all that—to the blots and the laborious care, the difficulty for left-handers—the beginning, no doubt, of the era of instant gratification.

Would Jack Kerouac’s On the Road have been the same if he’d written it by hand instead of typing it? And didn’t the typewriter affect poetry? Were e.e. cummings’ typographical experiments composed on a typewriter? I don’t know. But I do believe that the way typewriting and computing present a poem has influenced poets’ sense of form—the aim to have a visual form and less attention to aural form.

As we write, the instruments with which we write are our immediate environment, our experience, and so they can influence our metaphors. In Hamlet, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to him to “whet [his] almost blunted purpose.” I’d read or heard this many times before it occurred to me, aha! that Shakespeare wrote with a quill pen, which would wear down and need to be sharpened.

I had such an aha! thought about a poem of Wallace Stevens’. I remembered it as beginning, “Just as my fingers on these self-same keys/Make music…” Aha! I thought. Stevens was sitting at a typewriter “making music”—“feeling, not sound” and obscured this by titling the poem “Peter Quince at the Clavier.” I made some attempts to find out whether Stevens typed his own poems or whether he hand-wrote them and turned them over to a typist. I think he probably did not do his own typing. Still, isn’t it pretty to think so?

A Courtship Dance with Damnation

by Elizabeth Kirschner

 Bones. Decapitations. The tip of the knife running down my jugular vein as if de-veining

a shrimp. Bones, my bones, delicate as the spines of feathers, taped to paper, hung in old musty museums. The decapitation of my beloved, his face like that of an elephant gouged of its tusk, my fingers dabbing the blood like fingerpaint. The rock face of memory, its bald cliff so shiny it’s a mirror and in it I see the ghoulish visage of the child I once was, the harrowing, chiseled cheekbones, sickly grey complexion of the complex young woman I couldn’t help but be, whose dreams haunt my dreams like swirl art. 

Where did that young woman go, she who mothered the angel of all poverty, whose fox-colored hair cascaded down her back, her tears like shattered jewels, her shadow encasing her, her ratty garments, buttons missing, holes like ghost eyes, her tragic pen, the words scorpions with stinging tails? 

Men cloyed to her like flies on sticky paper, coils of which hung like ringlets from her water-stained ceiling. Flies can turn into maggots and the many lewd fingers prodding her here and there did, each a bloodsucker while man after man grew fat on her sweet fat, pricked her heart with one of Sebastian’s deadly arrows. 

I see her walking into the sea, head hung low, the sun a lion’s head, clouds on the prowl. She looks down, hunched over, shoulders shaking as she takes off her long blue dress, the one with seams worn, torn, fetal birds folded deep in its pleats. She stays there a long time, in monolithic loneliness, her lips moving as if speaking in Penecostal tongues, but she is stuffing silence down her throat while longing to sink in the empty deep that roils around her. 

Hours are time bombs, days rear themselves like Leviathans, years bleed along the bleak horizon, veer into steerage where she is stricken, starving. When she writes and she is always writing, she is in a mud hole, the walls slick as shit, the words being mucked up in the muck. She cries out, but her voice goes up into smoke. She cries again, but no one cares enough to hear her and she chokes on that smoke. It is though she were invisible and all who she knows walks through her as if hers were an existence made only out of absence. She is a doorway in the demise of her sighs, the hinges her shackles, her mouth a keyhole fit for the skeletal key her demons crank all night long.

 Mute, beautiful, brilliant, her octopus brains squirm in the crustacean of her skull, each tentacle a liquid muscle greased with slime. Her desk from the junkyard is up on cinderblocks, she wears old sweats, a worn chemise and when she pushes the pen across the page, the ink is glue.

 Everything sticks to her with sticky tape—the stinking kisses of the stinking men who toy with her, her body an old shoe or a Chinese junket adrift the River Styx. No one wants her, no one will keep her, even dream ever so remotely that she is anything but worthless. She is destitute debris, tossed asunder, scattered like torched seed into winds so fierce they whip her hair against her face with a slap. 

Even her words are slaps, the endless rejection notes her only wallpaper in the dungeon of her rooms. Still she sits at her desk, her back an iron rod, the sentences sweating from her skin and she is entombed in her stories, boxed up in her poems, the blue lines on the yellow paper, bars in a cage. 

Outside her window, there’s always heavy weather on the move, the air she breathes is waterlogged, her gaping gasps marble the glass with fog and her pages, her many, many pages do not bear the news that only poetry can, they are gobs of moldy newspaper she wants to form into spitballs, the letters smudged and smeared, illegible, irretrievably lost. 

One day on a day I do not remember, I walk out of her, go far away from her, leave her for dead. Why I do this I do not know, but there she remains, a still life at the writing desk, staring at the chained dog next door as she turns in frantic circles, yanks against the cold cuff of her metal collar, digs in dirt. Years go by and I do not even think a wink about her, years that for her are like being in a war camp where her blood slowly, ever so slowly starts to freeze. I forget her entirely till the echoes of her nightmares fully fade. 

Such abandonment is a courtship dance with damnation. Her long ago cries fall like curses and I deserve them the way I deserved Mother’s head-on blows, Father’s dirty worm. She is my most terrifying nightmare, my dangerous chimera and to bring her out of hiding, which I must do if I am to survive as a grown woman, as a writer, is something I’m not sure I’m brave enough to do. My bond to her is bondage and yet I call to her as if into a cave out of which the bats out of hell will fly. 

Slowly I am coming to know I need her beauty, her brilliance, that she is my true mouthpiece and that even in her Ice Age isolation, she is stronger than I am. Everywhere I go, I stumble into the gauntlet of her shadow which I want to strip off her like mummy rags. 

We must teach each other to speak in a big, big voice, we who have been voiceless for decades, violated far too often, but never again and assaulted by pain so gargantuan, its has blown our head off. Even now, I hear it thud down the stairs, decapitated by yet another searing dream. How do I search and rescue someone who is a hole in an empty pocket, whose brainwaves are electric shocks too hot too touch? 

I shall lure her with bread and milk, leave it out as if for a scraggly stray, open my wallet, jingle change in my hands, show her my leather writing chair in my room with a view, give her my fountain pen studded with a diamond heart. I will wash her feet with my hair, open my wardrobe, let her fondle my clothes-horse clothes. Then I will gently lay her in my big iron bed, open the dormer windows, let in billowing sea air, light that is always swimming upstream.

 She will sleep for days on end, wake only to eat and put down words that are now power plugs. No man will touch her without my permission and just now, I permit no man to do so. No one will ever use her again, break her like a rubber band stretched until it snaps.

I will tell her she is golden and we will walk, arm in arm, by the sea she will no longer long to sink in until someday we finally enter the dawning of my golden years. I will pay her the homage long overdue her because I am destined to do so. I will shower her with accolades, turn my home into her grotto, plait garlands in her hair and if I’m lucky and truly earn it, those curses will turn into blessings one hundredfold.




A Season in Hell

by Elizabeth Kirschner

The floor is exploding and I’m on it, hiding beneath my writing desk. Scraps of brain scattered everywhere, chunks of meat for vultures. The sunlight is scared, also hiding, everyone is hiding, terrified by my terror. I’m screaming really loud, the dog is barking also really loud. Screaming like an animal whose throat has been slit and that’s what I am, an animal, mammal animal and my husband, the one I am divorcing, is upon me the way father was upon me, husband who doesn’t even know where I live. Did he screech down the chimney, fly through a window, shattering glass everywhere? Is my violated mind also shattered glass and will it be stitched back together with a glass needle whose threads are spun by spiders, many spiders? Poisonous. I’m sure the spiders are poisonous, I taste their venom on my tongue—it’s burning, I’m burning like a house on fire. Is my house burning? Will I be buried in its ashes? No, it’s my husband coming at me like someone who’s come back from the grave.


The Last Week Before Finals

by Publius 

            This week, the district is doing everything it forgot.

            For example, every school is to average six fire drills per academic year.   Which  someone forgot.   We’ve had five fire drills in two days, including two back-to-back in one period. 

            Most of the teachers aren’t angry.   We’re dissociative. 

            It’s Wednesday and first period my kids had to retake a standardized test.   Apparently it wasn’t standardized enough yesterday.   During 2nd period, the school gets a show.   Yesterday around 6 PM, the district found out that it forgot that it had a grant to put on a show.   The deadline to use the money is this week.   So, second period, they put on a show.   Today is Senior Ring Day.   That started second period also.

             I had second period free until I didn’t.   Helen the vice-principal asks me if I can hold a few students.   I have a planning period, but, more importantly, I can’t ever refuse Helen a favor.  I say ‘Yea, OK, sure.’   She’s real nice, a rarity among administrators, a trait that needs to be cultivated.   She sends 63 kids.   ESOL kids, English As A Second Or Other Language kids, immigrants waiting to be tested.   That’s all I’m told.   I just tell them to chill.   They do.   They’re nice.   Some listen to iPods.   Two play “Monopoly”.   And like that.   This goes on for a bit.   Then an announcement for all the kids to come to the gym for the show.   The ESOL kids get up to go.   They got tickets.   They bought them at breakfast.   They don’t know they’re here to just wait until they’re funneled into a test pit.   This is the first they’re hearing it.   I got to herd them back from the hall, thus turning me from the cool teacher who lets us play into — Poof!   Zap! — Instant Wanker!   At which point, Helen comes back and they’re herded into some test abyss.   I’m left with no time to plan, a wrecked room, and that Wanker thing.        

          It’s third period.   Which it really isn’t, because now they changed the schedule around in order to accommodate yet another show this afternoon   I’m told it’s really 6th period.   They changed this because 6th and 7th periods are often canceled because of shows.   So they changed 6th period into now.   But that’s OK because the now morning show just ran over into the not 3rd period that is really the 6th period but just for today.   But that’s OK too, because they’ve just scheduled an afternoon show, which would have taken up the old 6th and 7th periods anyway.   It seems downtown just counted and found out there’s a little more leftover money for shows.   The kids are a little confused, and don’t know where to go until they show up.   I’m left with a few minutes to review a question from their final.           

            Speaking of vice-principals.   Helen’s nice, right.   But the other vice-principal, Alicia, is given to truly incomprehensible ramblings.   Like for half an hour.   So when Tim is in her presence, he gets this dissociative look that is as fixed as Big George on Mount Rushmore.   He claims that, when it comes to Alicia, he’s “developed an on/off switch”.   So third period Tim gets into this long, one-on-one meeting with Alicia.   He switches off.   But he switches off too good.   A half-hour into the incomprehensible bits, she stops.   She panics.   She runs out into the hall, stops the first teacher who walks by, and asks if she should dial 911.   “Because Tim is totally unresponsive.”   Like he’s got a brain seizure. 

            On the way to lunch, I turn a corner and can’t turn back fast enough.   Alicia tells me that, for the rest of the week, I’ve got to give a standardized reading test “because my computer is finally working.”   I was planning on reviewing for finals.   Instead I say, ‘Sure!   Why not?   What the hell – I say standardized tests all around – on the house!   In fact, like Ernie Banks used to say, Let’s Do Two!’   Alicia looks at me like maybe we should have some quality one-on-one time.   So I just chill and mumble, ‘Ah, anyway, yes ma’am’.   And I move. 

            There’s a memo posted inside the door of the teacher’s lounge.   To save money, the district plans to lay-off all non-tenured teachers.   That includes my lunch buddy, Sally, the 2009 Teacher Of The Year.   So we eat in silence.   Except when our choral “Kiss my ass!” is drowned out by the fire alarm.


The Sign

By Songyi Zhang

I did not realize how often I had seen the parking sign for disabled people in America until I started driving around to look for a parking space. On a busy day, it’s not easy to find a parking space near my local library. Cars are parked back to back on the street and side by side in the one-story garage. Yet, the parking space for disabled people is baldly empty. If this happens in China, eight out of ten non-disabled drivers will take the space without hesitation.

It is a law in America to give way to disabled people. Their parking space is especially reserved closest to the entrance of supermarkets, malls, movie theatres, post offices, restaurants, hospitals and any other office buildings. Buses have special access for disabled passengers. Museums, galleries, theatres, stadiums and other public venues, both indoor and outdoor, are accessible to disabled people. I saw more passengers on wheelchairs in the airport in America than in China.

On my way last year to Pittsburgh for grad-school, I stayed overnight with my family friend at a Best Western Inn on the outskirts of Grove City, PA. We were put into a room for the disabled on the ground floor for the convenience of my four large suitcases. A parking space with the disabled parking sign was right in front of our room. I knew that space was for whoever stayed in the room. But we could not park there. The woman at the reception desk clarified this to us in an official tone, “You can’t park there. It’s only for the disabled people who have the approved disabled license. The cops will cruise around this area at night. You might get into trouble for that. We can’t take any responsibility for you.”

Okie dokie. I learned a special license is required for the disabled vehicles. From then on, I have great respect for the sign in which a man sits in a wheelchair. I might exaggerate this. The sign halts my moving action in some way. Like the other day I saw the sign on a coffee table at Starbucks, I immediately turned away as if I was a mouse that saw a cat coming along. “Let’s sit over there. This table is for the disabled,” I said and removed my companion’s suit coat which was hung on the chair to reserve the table. I’d rather walk all the way to the back of the bus with five or six bags of groceries than take the empty seat for the disabled people in the front of the bus behind the driver.

Every day I am aware of the sign for the disabled people. I am not surprised that I have grown accustomed to this sense of priority for the disabled in America. I will feel strange and more aggrieved at the “equal treatment” toward the disabled back home in China.  


Susan Kelly-DeWitt

Susan Kelly-DeWitt is the author of The Fortunate Islands and eight small press collections, including Cassiopeia Above the Banyan Tree, Poems About Hawai’i. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, her work has appeared on Writer’s Almanac and Verse Daily, in journals like Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and The International Literary Quarterly, and in a number of anthologies, most recenly Afghanistan: A Window on the Tragedy and the forthcoming Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. Her visual art has also been exhibited in Northern California galleries for over twenty years.

She lives in Sacramento, California, where she is currently a contributing editor for Poetry Flash and an enthusiastic blogger for Coal Hill Review. She also just completed a second full-length collection, Gravitational Tug.

The Animals in the Tank

by Elizabeth Kirschner

 The house I grew up in was a blue aquarium, my mother and father, the tanked up animals, and I was a child of the hinterlands where winter was always howling like a pack of hungry wolves. A baby veteran, I was always under siege, the attacks brutal and my screams from being beaten or preyed upon were my only arias.

All I wanted were animals, my own little Children’s Zoo. I dragged them home—the injured, abandoned, skittish strays—I who was perpetually running away, getting lost in the forest on purpose, a fairytale child in a living nightmare. Half-starved, I sucked down the yolks in fallen eggshells, wanted to stuff my mouth with fireflies, even drink up bugs like the bats swooping through dark summer skies. Terrified, nocturnal with red, red eyes from crying so hard, I wanted to suckle baby squirrels or raccoons, even salamanders, soft as my pinky, but Father had turned my nipples into nail heads and pain was pounded, driven into and through me.

Abuse is crucifixion, but the animals I adored were my little Christs. Some were savage—I would pull apart the bloody guts of murdered creatures like taffy, watched my guppies be devoured by bigger fish and believe me, in this world there are always bigger fish, circling, forever circling. I stared at my fish tank for hours through the slime of algae on the glass, longed to be a mermaid, have shimmering scales glitter my battered flesh. The underwater world was the one I wanted, me a girl Ophelia buried in her bed of water, water everywhere.

 Always the little mother, I knew the animals would come to me in the dark, be my only suitors.  Clouds were infant elephants, an army of ants a parade of tiny pilgrims and I was not the only orphan in my Dantesque orphanage. There were the turtles I won at Turtlle Races, their hard shells like lacquered green roses that I would press to my chest during nights so long the walls turned into scrims behind which was a shadow dance of monsters.

I sat on the cement stoop for hours, hands cupped, thoroughly believing if I sat still long enough a bird would build its nest there. This, too—I hung peanuts on string from the clothesline for chipmunks, planted watermelon seeds in dirt, waited for the magic stalk to plunge up, burst into blossom for the honey bees to feed upon. I wore skulls on my fingertips, my own cracked up with fault lines from Mother’s pummeling with rocks, pots or my brothers’ baseball bat and my stinging anus, burning from what Father jammed in there, crawled with snakes.

I watched flies turn into maggots, studied spiders weaving webs on rotten garbage and the sticky sweetness inside honey hives was the cloying saliva of the vampire who sunk his teeth into my juicy fruit neck. I could not lick myself clean, wanted a hummingbird to thrust her beak down my throat, pump me with the red sweetness she stole from sun-stunned flowers, I who forever flung myself against the windowpanes that held me in, ready to fly, far, far away even in the wildest storm-stricken skies.

Instead, I lapped up the sour milk I left out for the critters, knew my cells were rotten fish eggs stinking to the high heavens. Surely I was not one of God’s little creatures—rather I was Melville’s little bitch of a child, echoed the cries of whales, which one by one, were slaughtered and their blubber was my animal hide, I who longed to live in one of their bellies, scribble by candlelight the initiations of the damned. I was runt, cunt, had hooded eyelids, pretended that I could sink poisoned fangs into the ungodly ones who had begotten me.

Bestial in the worst sense, I made rubbery creepy crawlers from a plastic kit, was bait, carcass, a hairball caught in a kitten’s gut. Once I snuck a lost one home, hid her in the milk box in the cellar, fed her milk from an eye dropper, gave her crusts of stale bread. When Mother heard her squeak a piglet squeak, her rage was outrageous. She snatched the kitty from my hidey-hole, broke her neck, then plunged her into a dirty toilet bowl, flushed again and again.

It is Mother’s Day and I can still hear the snap of that cat’s neck. Mother long dead, I try to mother myself, fail far too often, fall into myriad forms of self-abuse. To the left of my writing desk, is my brand new kitty, a creature who has attempted to nurse on me more than once by latching onto my nipple in the middle of the night. On the other side of me is my dog nestled in the Portuguese shawl my once-upon-a-time husband bestowed upon me as a courtship gift. My only son is probably still asleep in his bed miles upon miles away, each one tiny heartbreak, and of how I long to bestow the waking kiss upon his cheekbone as I did on so many years of school day mornings.

How I learned to mother both animals and my beloved boy is a mystery I will not solve in this lifetime. It has meant being Super Woman when all I wanted as child was to be Super Girl so I could rescue myself, get to the homeless shelter I imagined Limbo to be. There I would be in a family of other battered children, be mothered by Mary, fathered by God.

Instead I was a butterflied angel, pink as a cold shrimp, its entrails gutted.

Now my dog is learning to be a little mother and I am a childless Mother remembering the half-strangled wildflowers my once young son gathered for me on Mother’s Days past, his crayoned cards, his gleeful cries at my delight. No such flowers or cards today, no call, no sound of his voice. Although it’s May, the Ice Man Cometh to sink his pick into my heart and gut me once again.