Two Poems by Lisa Lewis
This is the second month of the year I turn thirty-seven.
Already the weather is warming in southeast
The weeks along; the trees have to work to keep up. One day
I'll look over my head and the elm will be leafed out,
And then it will be summer. And probably I'll be working
On my birthday, probably teaching a couple of classes,
And I'll say to myself, it's just as well, who needs to think about
Turning thirty-seven, and I'll go back to my regular life,
Smiling and talking to students in the hallway,
Breaking a sweat on the short walk from the door
To the parked car, rolling all the windows down
But not without glancing at the sky for stormclouds,
Because a storm will be breaking every day then after noon,
Lasting about an hour, and subsiding back to sun. You learn
Such things about the weather when you've lived in a place
For a while. Or maybe it's really what some people say,
It's like that everywhere; I haven't been anywhere near
Everywhere, and maybe I'll never make it.
But there were years when I liked to search out danger,
Late nights I learned each secret worn-out cars
Bouncing through the ruts of logging roads could take me to.
I learned about love like that; the full moon pierced
The windshield like a spike and I knew it was love
When the strong, agile boy above me sighed
And pushed deeper inside me. I knew it was love
When I didn't want to close my eyes. I learned about trouble
And I knew it was trouble when I dropped out of high school
My senior year and took to prowling the roads with boys;
We took to shooting heroin under the spring sky,
We'd lie back together in the roadside grass and all let go
Of our suffering, we were having a hard time growing up,
It felt good to do a terrible thing together.
No one could find us there. No one was looking.
We would've counted the stars, but that was work.
Instead we talked about loving one another, and I guess
You'd say it was the heroin talking, but we thought we felt it,
We were free together, we knew how we were when no one
Could know us because we were doing evil. I took myself
Far from those foothills the first chance I could.
I didn't find out what became of my friends, it looked like
Some of them were headed for prison; I loved them once
But I wouldn't love them now, and I didn't want to
Think about mixing love and trouble, the trick I learned
And never gave up; I just got older, and stopped
Getting into the trouble of the young; I discovered
The trouble of the older.
This is the second month
Of the year I turn thirty-seven. Already the little fists
Of leaves are forming inside the knotted ends of twigs
Again there was no freeze. And tonight it's very late,
And it's Sunday, and no cars pass on the big road
By the house, but out there in the night
Some kids about seventeen are doing terrible things
They'll get by with, and grow out of, and remember
The way they'll remember what love felt like at first,
Before it stopped being the surest path to ruination,
Before it had done the worst it could and passed away.
And to them it's as if those who lived this life before them
Moved with the jerky speeded-up gestures of characters
In old-fashioned movies, their expressions intense
And exaggerated; they roll their eyes and loll their tongues
When the heroin hits their blood. It's as if the beauty
Of evil lives only in the present, where the drop of dope
Clinging to the tip of the stainless steel point
Catches the light like dew; and it doesn't matter
That the light falls from a streetlamp with a short in it,
And the impatient boy with the syringe in his hand
Will touch the drop back into the spoon
So as not to waste it. It's his instinct telling him
How much it means to live this now, before he knows
Better, while he still has a chance to survive it.
It's the moon over his head with its polished horns
That would slip through his skin if he touched them.
It's the trees leaping to life in his blood, greenness
Unfurling so hard it almost bursts his heart.
I had no business there in the first place—
I'm putting on weight—but the counter help was all smiles,
Having survived the lunch hour crunch. My husband and I
Ordered burgers and fries; I was in front, so I chose
A seat on the far side, back to the window.
I picked off two thin rings of onion; the fries were limp.
Something about the car, maybe, both of us
Interested, me a little bitchy, so it was almost the way you turn
Instinctively, say from a spider web in a darkened hall,
How I looked across the restaurant and found her face,
Left cheekbone swollen to a baseball, the same eye blackened,
Heavy make-up, front tooth out in a jack-o-lantern grin
As she tried to look friendly to the young waitress
Her husband motioned over. He rested one hand
On his wife's shoulder, solicitous, the other waving
A lit cigarette, a small man, dark-haired, now laughing aloud,
Glancing at the uncombed head of his beaten wife again
Turning her back to the room, though not crowded,
All suddenly staring, reading the last few hours
Of those lives in a horror of recognition.
She cupped her hand shading the side of her face,
You could see lumps of vertebrae through her t-shirt,
And he kept on talking, smiling at her, with a slight tilt
Of his head, as if saying poor baby, something happened to her,
Good thing I'm here to take care of her, a car wreck,
A bad one, a smash-up, and all of us looked
And knew better. At the table with them was a little girl.
The man, the woman, the five-year-old daughter—
Even the man and the beaten woman had the same features,
As people do who have lived together for years. I couldn't see
The child's face. He was jotting a note on a small pad,
The waitress's name, as if to write a letter praising
Her fine service, and she smiled through her horror, she
Hardly more than sixteen, with clear pale skin. Next to us
A woman in permed hair and suit rose to leave, lunch untouched,
With her daughter. She carried a leather legal-sized folder.
We left soon after, heads turned, not looking,
Because sometime the man and woman would go
Home to the privacy of a city apartment, no neighbors
Home all day to hear, but first I said, in the restaurant,
Across the room where he couldn't hear, If I had a gun
I'd blow his brains out, and I thought of that moment
Familiar from movies, the round black hole in the forehead
Opening, the back of the skull blowing out frame by frame
Like a baseball smashing a window, but no one near
Would've even been bloodied because no one was standing anywhere
Near him, his hand on the beaten woman's shoulder
Might as well've been yards from his body.
I was taught not to write about this. But my teacher,
A man with a reputation who hoped I would make
Good, never knew that I, too, have been hit in the face by a man.
He knew only my clumsy efforts to cast what happened
Into "characters," and he loved the beauty in poetry.
Maybe what I had written was awkward. Maybe my teacher
Guessed what happened and forbade me writing it
For some good reason, he cared for me, or he feared
He too might've slapped my face, because I, like the character
In that first effort, was bitching to the heavens and a redneck
Boyfriend, and we argued outdoors, near a stack of light wood
Used to kindle the stove like everyone has
In the foothills of North Carolina. That day I railed
Like a caricature of a bitching redneck woman,
Hands on hips, sometimes a clenched fist, I was
Bitching, I think, as he planned some stupid ting
I hated, like fishing, pitching horseshoes, driving
To visit his mother on Sundays, her tiny house
Tangled in dirt roads, where she sat in the kitchen dipping snuff.
Whatever he wanted to do was harmless,
But so was my shrieking, my furious pleading, an endless loop
Inside my head rolling I want to be rid of him, and he slapped me
Across my open mouth, I felt myself shut up and staggered,
Because he was a large man, and I was a large woman,
He had to make sure he hit me pretty hard,
Both of us strong and mad as hell, early
One Saturday morning, when he wanted to do what he wanted to do
And I wanted to keep him from it. He slapped me
Twice, open-handed, knocking me, open-handed, to my knees,
In kindling, so my knees were scraped bloody and my hand
Closed on a foot and a half of inch-thick pine, and I stumbled up,
Swinging, my eyes popping wide, till I brought it down
Hard across his shoulder, I saw how the rage on his face
Flashed to fear, just that quick, a second, or less,
And he turned to run but he made the wrong choice,
If he'd gone to the road I wouldn've followed, but he ran
Inside my "duplex" apartment, an old country house
Cut in two. So I cornered him upstairs and knocked him out.
It was simple. He fell so hard, I thought I've killed him;
I was throwing my clothes in a paper bag when I heard him
Sobbing. In the bathroom mirror I found the black eye and lop-sided lip,
And it seemed as if I might still take it back, the last ten minutes,
The chase, the beating, the high-pitched screaming,
The stubborn need to go fishing. But the make-up I disdained
In those years—I had just turned twenty—didn't do much
To cover the bruises. His face was clear. The knot on his head
Stopped swelling under ice. It was easy to tell him
To get the hell out and only regret it every other minute
Since there were no children, no marriage, even,
And I was young and believed I had proven
I was strong. I had beaten a man to his knees.
Months later I would go to college and stay safely there for years,
Not letting on to anyone the terrible things I'd done, until I wrote
That clumsy poem with the unbelievable characters, and now I've tried
To do it again, this time with different characters, I've defied
My teacher, who meant for me to learn to write well,
Who meant for the world to think well of me,
And I am not sorry. If he asked why I would say
I had to do it, and that lie would be like the lie of living
Without telling, till one day seeing the beaten face,
What scared me most, the missing tooth, the tangled hair, the vertebrae,
The daughter. There is no use thinking what it means
About me to say this: I am not sorry. I might have killed
That man. I might have blown his brains out.