Poems by Katrina Murphy, Natalie McNeill, and Megan Drevets
Photos by Kat Grabowski
Poems by Katrina Murphy, Natalie McNeill, and Megan Drevets
Photos by Kat Grabowski
"What do you want, Jack?"
And silence rippled out
from the pastor's hands
on my father's shoulders—
well used to perched toddlers
and hard labour—
now skin and bones hunched
under soft green flannel.
Silence caught comfortable
Sunday conversations mid
caught serving spoons
caught each of us separately,
as we stilled and turned
"I want to live, Vern."
"And I swear," she says
to the room of quietly crying sisters—
around a shared loss—
"he looked across the room directly at me."
But he didn't.
Live, I mean.
Not long enough
for me to know that's what he wanted.
I want to live in a house of windows,
to see breezes born and watch them whip
around the corners and slide along my walls,
trailing ponderosa needles in a turbulent wake
from west to east.
I want to see lightning break the sky into
shards before I hear its thunder.
I want to watch storms roil
the lake and fall in sheets across
genuflecting trees before I feel
the first faint gusts on my own face.
My house will have its roots deep
in the hillside,
its peak brushing against branches,
nestled neighborly in the clouds.
I would have my house harmonize when
the wind blows and reverberate to the
buffets of the soughing trees.
It should inhale the summer months;
barn swallows should swing and swoop
through open skylights and never know
they’ve come inside.
I live in a curtained house,
where inside light fights outside
light until hours dark by rights stretch electric and bright
and we know our sky
in picture frames.
A careful crater constructed
of flour awaits—
not white flour, characterless and stripped pure,
whole wheat flour, once encased, complete,
still warm from its traumatic transformation,
once individual, now
crushed, broken, reborn:
A stainless steel bowl borne
dimpled rippling sticky beginnings—
upends into the crater.
My mother’s hands
deftly corral the living liquid
as it attempts escape.
She’s making two things one,
and it’s messy, almost violent:
flour on the floor, on her apron,
on her feet.
What witchcraft or trickery happens
covertly under a cloth in
windowsill sunlight is just
ingredients and chemistry,
only homemade alchemy,
only the life-giving death
of a thousand tiny breaths,
working a secret, tiny purpose
away from doubting eyes,
like a sealed tomb where
death turns to life.
Their feet only crumble so completely
because I built them out of clay
and they were only flesh.
They only fall so far
and break so much in their descent
because I raised them high.
But where you go I will go;
your folly will be my folly,
and your sin, mine.
The flesh of the apple fresh from the tree
is mealy and ashen in mouth.
The water is warm
and sickly in the glass,
and there is no health in us.
I could do without
my surface calm concealing
a riot of turbulence,
wrought and over
I choose everyday dreams:
the climbing—sometimes plodding—stretch
It’s June and hot in the car
the afternoon I notice our hands match.
Most days I imagine she is invincible, yet
seeing the skin on the back of her hands
relaxing into wrinkles,
I understand again.
In February her hot body shakes
in a hotel turned hospital room
under three layers of white sheets.
I feebly offer nothing, press our legs together,
keep my hands folded in denial,
and focus anywhere else:
the moth hole in the arm of my shirt,
the memory of the thorny morning’s moss
hanging on wet fences, the sound
of laundry water
draining out of a tub.
Remembering the back of the bathroom door at home
holding all her different robes—
threadbare and wilting
on the hook.
During descent, the first thing I notice is the web of lights
splintering in every direction through the sprawling dark.
Carpinteria is 84 miles from Los Angeles, but we take the long way,
down Sunset, through Beverly Hills, and along Malibu’s sprawling coast.
Palm trees crane their necks over the billboards and your hands
grip the wheel just tightly enough for me to remember
you never were a big city driver.
Unspoken things cause hidden splinters that move
unbidden, eventually towards the heart.
Bougainvillea languish under the morning sun’s gentle slope
on the wall of your childhood home, and also climb the side of
the old apartment where you stayed every other weekend.
Your memory of watching his car retreat down the driveway
echoes my own. All day we drive twisted dirt orchard roads,
through rows of avocado trees, windows open,
no air conditioning in the old truck. Along the curving back roads
through Montecito we swap thoughts about Paul Newman’s salad dressing empire
and I remember how carefully
you doled out vinegar into our homemade jar.
I am reading the layers of your old life like discarded reptile skins.
“The Carpenteria tar pits are one of five in the world,” you explain
against the murmur of waves breaking,
then go into detail about geologic faults, subduction pressures
and offshore oil fields resulting in asphalt soaked rocks that line the beach,
creating stories of accidental fires that men tell 50 years later—
flashes of boyhood in their eyes.
The heat has cooled considerably by the time the truck stops
to linger in front of the house on Camellia—
and as you marvel about your old landscaping work, now undone by
new owners, I wonder what life exists where you two stay
I am amazed by simple things this trip:
that lemons grow on trees, perfect, unblemished
that tar eventually reaches the surface naturally, unprovoked
that tonight we sleep under a shared roof for the first time
in twelve years.
When we were six and twelve,
the ice still formed over the lake
every winter. We strode with gloved hands
under the skeletal brown trees,
then waded through the soft taupe pastures
to where the fence broke, exposing the
cattail consumed peninsula.
The horses ignored us, choosing instead
to stand like sentinels near the bare
poplar trees, warm in their winter coats.
I used to marvel at their ears, extra
soft from November til March.
My royal blue jacket was just a child’s—
noticeably stained at the ends of the sleeves.
Yours—deep forest green,
like your bedroom walls—was the first indication
that one day you’d be a man.
Your smile came easily, then.
This was before the swans arrived at Christmas,
after the pheasants had been eradicated
by our two cats. The mud under our feet
was hardened by the cold and you shooed away the
lingering geese while collecting rocks from the frozen banks.
These are the last years we will spend
exploring the limits of childhood in
the reaches of our backyard.
Soon I will lose you behind a closed
bedroom door. Soon I will lose you
to how easily family photos
are replaced on a mantle, and a decade
of depression. But for now
We are just kids—we know nothing and
everything. Soon we will discover just which
stones are heavy enough to break the ice,
and which ones won’t.
Garbage cans across the world collect what we
are eager to lose: potato skins, the rough backs
of carrots, pencil shavings that ten year olds
touch with reverence like a snowdrift. A shoelace
with the ends broken off. Fingernail clippings and
the hard ends of cheese.
Then we sit and talk about loss,
holding it gently like a broken glass--
our palms never completely hardened to its edge.
Spring is a constant relearning, a reiteration of everything before.
Winter’s yearning fingers unfurling into something softer.
I check the weather before stepping outside, saying to myself,
“This is what ten degrees feels like.”
The body forgets.
I want to open a palm up to where God is
but discover my hands hesitantly clenched.
God is close and ignored. God is far and
longed for. God is here but silent yet all merciful.
All presence and no words.
God is such an introvert.
Still, the body remembers the weight of old words,
the miles and miles of archived feelings that no one touches.
How pressure and heat change sand into something so breakable.
All weekend I leaned into an unasked question,
while you walked through the crowd to pause
in front of Seurat without looking back at me.
And me, left holding all my want in both arms:
consistently throbbing with its hunger.
to a new house's peeling paint,
there is no screen between me
and untrodden nostalgia.
Coats hang solemnly on sturdy pegs
pounded in a century before us.
The dog greets me at the door
like she's already forgotten her old home.
The kitchen spills warm light
from art deco light fixtures.
There's a new stove now, and it
doesn't match the oldness around it,
but this one’s oven closes tight
(though those burners stayed lit
when the trees were bent with ice).
I go back and forth between
rooms full of memories I never knew.
A pause at the foot of the stairs to touch the railing,
raw and unfinished, like my train of thought.
Just two steps up, a landing,
a window that doesn’t open,
I find my bedroom, painted in pinks and purples
by the sister who is, all of a sudden,
no longer a tomboy.
A small turn toward light where
an old bathtub waits, lavender and ginger in the air,
a collective shriek, boys watching football.
It’s hallowed here.
I tried to think of a joke
in that distance of just a few feet
between the car and the new welcome mat.
"Numbers can be artistic,"
I said when I wrote you
algorithm love letters.
These equations calculated
splashes of pigment into your fingers
when you read them.
But you didn't know that, to me,
2 was faded watercolor euphony,
like the way the fog cools
over train tracks and turned into black, and that 6 was
not quite green or blue, but resonant like
the turquoise face of the southwestern sun god,
fashioned from the melodies of native flutes
and pots made of sun-baked clay.
Then came double digits: 15 was like
an almost perfect sunset's fatal flaw:
exquisite, yet bearing the weight of all
the nighttimes and sorrows and endings
in the world - that place on the horizon
where all the crimsons and carmines melt and
become faded reflections of themselves.
And 36 was like liquid sky --
a painted cerulean cadence of sound and color
where square roots are formed,
not to be outdone by 90, brilliantly conformist in its
perfectionist, boxy angles, creating balance beams
for the flawless ten point oh swan dive of 101
into a piano key pool the perfect shade
of binary blacks and whites.
I imagine each of these numbers, all lined up,
jettisoning streams of colors into the cosmos,
creating a numeric aurora borealis that you
cannot mistake or ignore, so that when these
irrational numbers fall from the sky, you are
compelled to collect them into winsome piggy banks
and then empty their contents into your veins.
But I cannot expect you to understand
the cranial womb from which these
unlikely visions are born into existence,
so please just sit still because while
I count the ways I love you,
I am also painting you into the universe.
It's April, the last drops of rain.
You put together two or three
shafts of wood, the souls of trees
married to the blinking flame.
A cowl around your head,
you could be a monk,
growing more vertical and hewn
until one day, by storm-light,
you will have become your work.
There's spring-moist grass,
trilliums by the stream and sorrel,
stars exploding into glimmers of unruly plasma.
We are engulfed in whirlpools of ferns,
the corollas of unknown wildflowers,
gray eyes of lichen on rocks,
ruined cities of moss;
redwoods sailing the fog
like resurrected Viking ships.
The flow of damp wood
guides your kindling hand,
the red-stained grain
so silent I begin
to imagine its sound,
a primeval syllable
older than the first word.
In my childhood I learned
the opposite of art is dictatorship,
the generals saluting
from a flag-draped platform.
Art, the shock of a shape that insists
something within the rim of our breath
knows more than we do.
In silence we speak
this unsayable language,
And we find it in the darkness between stars,
the interstices in our thoughts,
and the fog-steeped scent of the forest.
We come in twos and threes this night
A gentle crescendo of persons
More and more to the fold
The incremental chemistry of gathering,
A slowly escalating critical mass
In the room above the garage
Of one house on a planet
Spattered with land and water
A world of unyielding
Life and death
We gather in placid but joyous fire
This unruly symbiosis of harmonies
And musing melodies
We are immune to time
The illuminated air of this room
Now for a while,
The very contents of eternity
Our small, magnificent rite,
Consecrated in the agape of mutual voice
Transcendent, yet as arduously simple
As taking a deep breath
We band of brothers and sisters here
In our slender compact against apathy
This, our beachhead of song