Poems from the inside

 

From October 2015 through April 2016, I taught poetry with the Pongo Teen Writing Project, serving on a team of five mentors at the Child Study and Treatment Center (CSTC), Washington’s only public residential psychiatric facility for youth, located in Lakewood, Washington. The experience was life-changing – at times depressing, occasionally frightening, constantly emotional and ultimately redemptive. For the privacy of the students I don’t disclose very much about the process of working with them, or the reasons they more than many others benefit so deeply from the ways writing can help us process trauma and find our voice.

Teaching writing in this environment, as in any detention facility (including juvenile detention, where I taught again with the same organization in fall of 2016), is very stressful and can produce in teachers feelings of fear, anxiety and rage, and memories of past trauma. To cope with these effects, we are encouraged to respond to the experience with our own writing (we don’t share this with students; it is for us). The poems we write are often created using the same prompts we give students, or navigate the same themes, or converse with the students’ own work. These are a few of the poems I created while teaching in the youth psychiatric facility through one winter.

 

Pantheon

Every night there’s a space when the light is

Flickering like a gaslamp, turning the laundry heaps gold

When the plug-in heater is clicked on just as the rain spills

Outside and it’s time to open the faucet so the old cat

Gets a drink before bed

The doors of our daughters’ bedrooms creak

As you move in to pull the covers up dodging the mortal danger

Of Legos and a book about Apollo, Artemis, Poseidon

This antiquated house groans at every passage

But silence would trouble us more

The large hands of a father also pour a careful cup of tea

Just as a moon bulges over the mucked-up yard

Where we forgot to disappear the puppy’s poop

Oh well. The chores are shelved, there’s leftover

Ramen and chicken strips for tomorrow’s lunch

Soon I’ll draw a bath and scatter salts like a water goddess

You’ll come tripping up with mugs, dog-tired

But impossibly happy in the dimming day

 

Welcome 2016

Cosmic:

The flipping

Of another page

Came to me

On the darkest night

A turning. I whispered

I will let it be

Surely freezing rain

Might hit

If it does

I will let it

Just now an

Old chicken is

Dying

Out back

The planets are

Spending themselves

In the daylight

Bodies are being

Killed by other

Bodies

Deep inside

My chest is an

Angry muscle

The short days are here

I will let them be

But this year

I will seek out

Women

Supernovas of the system

To constellate myself

I will let them be

My asterism of

Hope

 

Not a pleasure cruise

If there is one thing that makes me blink

It’s the word forgiveness, with its demands,

Extended middle syllable and serpentine tail

You might as well add a capital F every time

 

It’s the word forgiveness with its demands

To release broken toys and feuding brothers

You might as well add a capital F every time

To Ferry the Friend with cancer I Forgot

 

To release broken toys and feuding brothers

You must stand at the bow, toss your luggage over

To Ferry the Friend with cancer I Forgot

Demands a solid hull and well-sewn sail

 

You must stand at the bow, toss your luggage over

The sea of regret is a monstrous seiche, a Leviathan

It demands a solid hull and well-sewn sail

And a map to chart safe harbours

 

This country is so

Anthropologie is selling a rusty trash can for $200 The brand initially offered the West Village Corrugated Can for $148, plus shipping, it can now be had, however, for the starkly reduced price of $99.95 A family of six built a tiny house for a homeless man they never met and hauled it this weekend from the country to the city intending to give the hand-built structure to a “down-and-out” homeless person The house was meant to be a gesture of love? But in the end it felt like a coffin because it was shaped just like one and the tent under I-5 felt more like home so the man went back there saying the donated house was “a good prototype” Across the lake a family built an upcycled urban beach cabin after, for one thing, life in the city proper became too wearisome “With four people in 1,000 square feet, we were living in Tokyo standards,” the father said For another, someone was building a giant city seawall, all day, every day, right outside their windows Now happily light pours down the second-floor birch ply stair treads inside the home clad in charred shou-sugi-ban Douglas fir Bernie says be unhappy and dejected about the 1% A children’s picture book just released by Scholastic shows George Washington’s smiling slaves happily preparing a birthday cake for him A Hungarian woman does seven types of blackface to prevent Africa from going extinct Poverty porn is addicting our channels are dialed in 24/7 so don protection if you can My magazine editor posts a picture of an Israeli mother of six killed hours ago in her home in Otniel by a Palestinian terrorist but did not want me to assign a story about racism that brown and black families face every day in Seattle This country is so safe said my same boss who went on African safari for Christmas and posted pictures of herself cuddling a large-eyed African boy in her lap Luckily we wake up every morning and have almost nothing to be afraid of in this country she said.

 

Beauty Mask

It is good for a woman’s skin

To apply a nightly mask

Now and then they say

I find after a long day at work is

When I most crave the proper

Combination of water

Butylene glycol glycerin

To say nothing of Peg-40

Phenoxyethanol

Glycosyl trehalose and

Brassica oleracea (Broccoli!)

A magazine-clean face

Is the perfect canvas

For the bitter, gummy weight of

Matte lipstick made from

Rootbark, pig urine and

God knows what else

Ionic hair dryer revving

Like the Harley under a guy

Stalking you after the bars close

Follicles smelling of meat

Forgotten on the grill

All night long

The girdled clutch of angry

Seams and overpriced Spanx

Leaves our waistbands

Pocked and swollen and

For beauty

Asphyxiates

My

Vagina

Razor burns

Nail acetone

Gas pump perfume

Tarantulas dangling off my eyelids

A desperate James Bond heroine

About to lose her grip

Off the lip of a skyscraper

Fuck me heels start like a

Saw to the Achilles

Finish off the night as a nail

Pounding into soft foot flesh

With money these too can be yours

We will go as far

As we will go

Tight neck

Pleasing smile

Lively breasts

Sexy retinas?

 

The Willow

According to mysticfamiliar.com

based on my birthday my assigned tree

is the ash (for Ambition) ― uncommonly attractive

vivacious, impulsive, demanding

does not care for criticism, intelligent

likes to play with her fate

 

One year I was six at summer camp

While the gum chewing counselors with

cities of rubber neon bracelets up their arms

looked away I got lost

The day was so hot the grass died

right there around my ankles

Past dandelions, mushrooms, an elephant slide

Air like warm butter

The midday temperature so high the ground

steamed, heavy and wet,

the way the un-air-conditioned backseat

of our wood-paneled station wagon

off-gassed its leathery sweat.

Add: insects buzzing, and a

long-off lawnmower

 

Why is the one day I disappeared

three decades ago

so important?

Did the counselors lose me?

Was I a confused camper

poorly supervised?

I could have gotten lost

on purpose!

Wasn’t I after all the girl who

pressed a pudgy, indigo-smeared hand

onto the concrete pillar of the school

after finger-painting?

Vivacious, impulsive

likes to play with her fate.

In the Ogham alphabet the willow is

Saille, anglicised to sally which means a

sudden outburst of emotions or action

(to sally forth)

The Old French “saille” also means

to rush out suddenly

The Latin “salire” means to leap

Which girl then was I,

would I become—

A girl who roamed parks, sneaking off

A girl who would be lost,

or choose to lose herself?

 

While ash is the tree of life (or death)

Willow is the tree of enchantment

Old Man Willow

Whomping Willow

Wisdom of the Willow Tree

This is where I land

Lime-colored braids encircling

Mossy veil sweeping the ground

Inside a tree a room a hush

tiny heart bucking along

The whisper of space cordoned off

by green lace

I wait

 

To learn more about the Pongo program, listen to this PBS podcast.

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