This week in the PEN Poetry Series, guest editor Dawn Lundy Martin features two poems by Nicole Callihan. About Callihan’s work, Martin writes: “I first met Nicole Callihan over 10 years ago at a beach house in Southampton, New York, where I’d come to write with my, then, very new girlfriend, Stephanie, and her friends from graduate school. During the evenings we’d all drink and dance by the pool, pausing for writing exercises. Late nights all. Stephanie, Kristin, and I slept until noon or so staggering out of bed to find that Nicole had been awake for hours writing and drinking coffee. The kitchen was clean, no remnants of what had transpired the night prior. I begin my introduction to Nicole Callihan’s work there because it’s good evidence of the rigor and attentiveness of practice that fuels her poetry and her poetics. The poems in this selection enact what might be called a ‘precision of the fragile,’ as they attend to the ineffable quotidian: finding a stick, riding the subway, or, really, what it means to be (a woman) alive. In both poems, however, what breathes right up to the surface of the quotidian, but refuses to spill over, is the buried—what packed earth won’t allow air. ‘I must bury the animal with its bowl,’ Callihan writes, even while elsewhere, ‘flies on blackberries.’ Hers is a poetics of a stirring beneath the placid lake, a bruise unseen underneath skin.”

The Stick

At the mouth of the cave was a stick.
These are the things I did with the stick:
chewed it, waved it to the sky, poked myself
in the eye, pretended it was a daisy, pretended
it was an orchid, a tulip, lily, cigarette,
made it into a gun and shot my brother,
nudged my brother to make sure he was dead,
nudged my brother to make sure he wasn’t dead,
licked it like a lollipop, sang into it like a microphone,
brushed my hair with it, brushed my tongue,
gagged myself with it, gagged myself again,
made myself throw-up, made myself cry,
made myself look pretty, made myself
sit in the car alone, made myself practice
writing my first name with the last name
of a boy I loved, whipped my knuckles with it,
my thighs, dug little stars into my forearm,
tried to beat off a man, tried to beat him harder,
tried to use it as a megaphone, tried to pry
my mouth open and say the words out loud,
made it into a Calculus equation, an airplane,
a gun again, pointed it to the sky,
prayed over it, moved to Brooklyn with it,
took it to the bar, punished it, ignored it,
pretended it wasn’t mine, put it in the corner
of that dirty little apartment on 12th Street,
let the cat piss on it, wrote bad poems about it,
slept with it, let it touch me in places I had never
been touched, let it scratch the very itch it made,
took it to a candlelit dinner, packed it up into a U-Haul,
turned it into an altar for my wedding,
danced with it instead of with my father,
took it on my honeymoon, didn’t breathe a word of it
to my husband, shoved it to the back of the junk drawer
in our new home, forgot where I put it, searched for it,
found it only after I forgot I was looking,
let it accompany me to the hospital, bit on it
while the baby was being born, bit on it
while the next baby, the sick one, was being aborted,
bit on it when the littlest was born, tried to prod myself
awake—my God, I was tired, all those years of nursing,
of thermometers and backrubs and mommy,
mommy don’t go—started sleeping with it 
under my pillow, took it to therapy, gave it a name,
hid it behind my back when my husband walked in,
danced with it, wrote it an inappropriate email,
wished I had buried it by the mouth of the cave
when I still remembered where the cave was,
used it to call my mother to see if she remembered
the cave, turned it into a peace offering, until finally
I tied a string to it and dangled the string into the river. 
There, after one thousand years, I caught a fish. 
But the fish was too small, so I threw it back in.

While Commuting I think of Taxidermy and Desire

Of the things I thought of on the F-train:
my brother who boiled skins off wild raccoon;
my mother, who even in dreams, it rained,
as she dug holes to bury men cocooned.
A preservation of the mind and heart—
what shall we do with what little is left?
I make remembering you into art.
I turn trophy into what was your heft.
If the weight of a body is unknown,
and the dimensions of the legs and arms—
if the crunch of desire is crunch of bone,
if only in what is dead is their charm,
then forgive me for savoring you such,
to recall without your flesh is too much. 

To recall without your flesh is too much,
but I try. In L.A., I swam through air.
Home, I busy myself with such and such.
Body is to soul as this is to there,
and yellow to apple, and wrong to right.
What I could not love in you I could not
love in me, could not do, in day or night.
The hollow places of earth come to rot,
but holes in the sky fill with fiery beams.
What you cannot be to me on the street,
you are to me in nearly all my dreams:
here, you comb my hair; here, I wash your feet.
O my love, my never, my long lost friend,
my plum, old fool, will I see you again?  

My plum, old fool, will I see you again?
I press the flat of a comb in my mouth.
Been thirty years since I washed away sin,
since I pulled up my roots and left the south.
Now, two daughters’ hair to braid, a garden
to tend, meat to thaw. I cut fresh peppers,
julienne cucumbers. I beg pardon
from new desire; my fingers: a leper’s.
Remember the story? Me as a girl?
That bucket of blackberries wild and sweet,
how I wanted nothing more than to swirl
the juices in my mouth, wanted to eat
‘til I grew sick. But, closer, they were flies.
I still feel the buzzing behind my eyes.  

I still feel the buzzing behind my eyes
and in the flat place beneath my sternum and
down in my calves and deep in my thighs.
I feel it in my soft wet belly and
in these age old breasts, in my ribs, my hair,
the bones of my feet, slight arch of my spine.
I feel it between each breath, in the flare
of my mouth, in all that is yours, is mine.
And yes, in my pussy: there I said it;
the wild buzzing place in my gut that burns
from too much wanting; bite by bite, I bit;
I’m weak. Oh god, this strange blue-balled soul churns.
Listen: prince is dead, and my body aches.
Got nothing in the end but what we make.

Got nothing in the end but what we make.
I’m on a beach. M. calls, tells me she wants
to take a thousand photographs and shake
the dumb world awake. We’ve all got our haunts.
In the hills, a jackelope: half-rabbit,
half-deer. I am ten when I find out the truth.
I’ve never seen one in real life. I sit 
on a porch. It’s a fake, you old bucktooth.
And Aaron’s got one leg, and Josh is dead.
In my dreams, all the recently deceased
eat meat: a slab of pork above my bed.
My heart stops beating; I stare at the beast.
M. says, to cure the dark spot on my soul
I must bury the animal with its bowl.

I must bury the animal with its bowl.
But what can the dead make of their hunger?
If I told you these pieces make me whole,
if I held your hand to my deep under,
would you know me then? Would my form become
familiar? On the street blooms push through branch.
I walk to the place I’ll become undone.
My brother boiled bones: to scald is to blanch.
If the wolf’s tail is attached by wire,
if it is all pelt and stuffing and eyes,
if the eyes are marble but still have fire,
then the truths I hold may as well be lies.
It is under the earth we have landed.
It is only myself I’ve abandoned.

It is only myself I’ve abandoned. 
Headed uptown to nowhere, but alive,
so alive. Beneath the earth and stranded.
But only stranded until I arrive.
The buzzing, the yearning, the wanting to be,
the ache, the rhythm, the dream where we fall,
our bodies moving beneath the city,
writhing, flies on blackberries. This we call
living, and this we call being, and this
we name want. There is only this paper
and only this pen. Listen, what we miss
when we are not making turns to vapor
or dust. And so here, I empty my brain
of the things I thought of on the F-train. 



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