June 30, 2016
In this podcast, we discuss three of Laura McCullough’s poems. The box score above is the spoiler alert: though today’s podcast crew spanned from the east coast to Iowa, included an undergrad and people who’ve done this work of editing for more than two decades, we were unanimously enamored of all three poems.
“Leafless” moved us and took us on a journey that also spanned decades. “Reclaimed Wood” told a tale we only want even more of, and “Maggot Therapy” simply left us thunderstruck. Read along and listen in—these poems are even more breathtaking aloud.
- Laura McCullough
She’s hates the word feminist and she’s no stranger to PBQ! Laura McCullough is an award-winning poet with six (!) poetry collections which include her most recent, Jersey Mercy, which narrates the lives of two people affected by Hurricane Sandy. Watch a brief interview after her first book or watch part of a reading from this past spring.Check out more of her work on her website.
The fact that we were going to discuss Laura’s work and we’ve known her for years, spurred us to invite Jennifer L. Knox to join us for this episode, as Jennifer fits a similar profile: she’s a poet whose work we admire and the added bonus—we can call her a friend.
We discussed the conundrum many of us find ourselves in—how difficult is it to be a poet who wants to send work to journals she loves and respects, but whose editors she knows well. No one wants to be published out of obligation or to put her friend in an awkward position. The flip side is just as bad: no editor takes pleasure out of rejecting anyone, let alone a friend. Our discussion focused on social ties and aesthetic taste—or, as Jennifer put it, discerning the “heart-to-brains-to-balls ratio” of any given magazine or press in order to find the right home for your work. Listen in as we explore our practices, then chime in on our FB event page and share your own.
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In the end, my mother’s shoulders, barely covered and quivering,
were like birds.
Once, I made a dress
for her, the fabric creamy white, the print a single brown tree
spanning the width, with stark branches.
It was 1974. I was fourteen. Each night,
I taught myself to sew, feeding
the fabric through the foot, thinking
how surprised she would be. I remember
seeing her in it, how we’d both loved the gesture, the achievement,
and though it fit poorly, the print
was enough for us. She wore it once and never again, let me see
her walk out the door in it.
love’s architecture is exposed when we try and fail at what we mean.
Outside the hospital, winter had flayed everything, the trees
charcoaled against the sky, their shadows
thumb smudges on the institutional snow hid lawn, and inside the air
was redolent of shit, flowers, and chlorine.
The first time I changed her clothes, peeling back from her shoulders
the blue flecked cotton gown,
then sliding a clean pink one up her arms, we held each other
in the oily light, spent.
I confess now I have begun to henna
my red hair gone dull
in parts and penny bright in others.
And I always tried to subdue
its wildness. But when the hull of our
marriage busted rock
and began to leak, we both thought
it was a good idea to renovate
the kitchen, together, by ourselves.
We closed up the hall
to the back rooms to create more
privacy and took down a load-
bearing wall in hoped of opening
the “flow.” My husband looked
like Christ hauling the salvaged
timbers from a warehouse deep
in the Piney woods one by one
up the front stoop, laying
them in our suburban living room,
posing as a Brooklyn loft.
We framed the new wide space:
one as header, two as column braces,
then sat on the floor cross-legged
looking at our work in progress,
the way the wood had aged,
the colors and striations, notches
and hammered pegs. We felt our
fifties ranch had a new story now,
something with weight, and we
held hands a little while before
getting up, heading to the shower,
falling back into our routine.
Near death, sometimes the hands curve
into themselves like claws.
I held my mother’s open, smoothing
the fingers, trimming the wild nails.
Once, years before, my husband and I awoke
to a fawn caught in the family compost,
a hole on its back end festering with worms,
and he pinched each one out
swiping his little finger in the bowl
of the wound, then coating it
with antibiotic salve. I loved him,
and how he saved this small thing.
It’s a story I have told over and over.
Today though, I’m thinking of the medical uses
for maggots: biodebridement and extracorporeal
digestion, their enzymes liquefying
dead tissue in wounds, and wonder,
do I feed off the dead
who live inside me? When my mother was dying,
she had a vision of her non-corporeal
father, brothers, sisters. Her last words,
Why have you left me alone?
She never opened her eyes again,
her chest a drowning well.
The bodily signs of death:
the skin mottling as blood flow slows;
breathing, open mouthed; jaw, unhinged.
I won’t recount the signs of a dying marriage,
but he left two days after her funeral. Physically,
he returned but told me he’d fallen
in love with someone else,
that his love for me had passed.
Above my mother’s body, orange mist
had exhaled and dispersed, a light bulb
busted open, its luminescent gas escaping.
The word fluorescent is so similar
to the word florescence, meaning flowering,
and somewhere between these two,
there is a splendor I can barely stand.
Inflorescence refers to flowers clustering
on one branch, each a separate floret,
but if they are tightly clustered
as in the dandelion seed head, they look incomplete
alone, though the whole is an illusion.
The word for this—pseudanthium—means “false
flower.” Infrutescence, its fruiting stage,
gives us grapes, ears of corn, stalks of wheat,
so many of the berries we love.
This morning my hands ache
as though in the night I’d been trying
to claw my way out of a hole
I am down in, having lost the body
I came into this world through, and my husband’s
as well. It’s almost as if my body
had come to believe his was a part of its own,
a connection he would have to break or die.
Medical experts say it takes two moltings
for maggots to do the job well,
to feed enough to clean a wound. I do not feel
clean at all, though in our shower,
my husband and I still huddle some days,
hunched into the spray. We call it watering.
When we do, we scrub each other, grateful
for the living, dying flesh, but trying to get clean
of each other. That fawn he saved way back
when we were new in love
was released into the wild. Surely, it had a scar
identifying it, evidence of what flesh
my husband was willing to enter
in order to keep something alive. Lately,
he seems more clear-eyed, and it is as if a cicatrix husk
is cracking. Neither of us know who
will emerge, but he seems luminescent,
a kind of light created by the excitation
of the smallest elements, and not giving off warmth,
but a cold glow that at least illuminates.