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Jan Freeman

The Queer Picture


Because she adored me

she will marry me when I’m dead

She will find me stamping

like a stallion in a petting zoo

my father said to my mother

who said to me

when the eulogies ended

and the guests departed:

Chaps on, cowgirl, you have pleasure

and happiness waiting

Giddyap, cowgirl

lasso yourself our stallion

and marry him marry him marry him

now that your father is dead



The Unspoken


When I was a girl, my family camped

on an island in Lake George

We grilled fish for breakfast, read comic books

swam off the stony edges beside the dock

I loved one book: The Swiss Family Robinson 

During August afternoons, I tumbled through its pages from my nests of pine needles

as the others swam, searching for dimes and minnows


Dear falling down tent

Dear campfire and speckled metal kettle of boiling coffee milk

Dear bats that watched over me, dear Milky Way, dear sunrise

Dear memory that erases what the heart cannot bear

Dear second-grade teacher, Mrs. Reif, who showed me

how to write poems, which proved I was alive

Today a breeze pulls me from the east shore to the west, from the future to the past


I loved my father up to the sky and back

When I grow up I’ll be like him, I said to myself

at seven, at twenty-three, at sixty

Now the lake is covered in tiny waves

It swallows the clouds, the herons, the dime-shaped sun

When I grow up I’ll be a boulder in the forest or a bear or a lake

When I grow up fishes and grasses will bloom inside me, dragonflies will touch my skin


On a recent morning infinite O’s of light reminded me

I too contain multitudes

You’re such a worrier, my father said, my mother said

my sisters, my brother teased

in the brick house, in the stone house

in the toppling tent on the island

A cougar shaped like a cloud ran across the sky


The cougar became a headless horse

The horse became a woman resting on her back

with a child on her belly

My mother wept and didn’t weep enough tears to fill a lake

My father’s sad and angry patients wandered in and out of the telephone

over the front lawn, where they followed the sheepdog to the basement office

and into the chair across from the desk that once was the dining-room table


The patients’ lives were written in pale green steno pads and stacked

on shelves, then stuffed into filing cabinets

All the voices in the house rose through the floors, they sank through the ceilings

One little piggy, two little piggies, three little piggies, four

Happiness rolled us between the lightning bugs and treetops

between the dock and the long flat stones we leapt from each summer

as I imagined we were the Swiss Family Robinson, with no need to be saved


Then happiness released us to the concerned, the kind

to the seemingly unaware, to the cruel, to the perpetually cheerful yet miserable

who released us to the buoyant loneliness of our sky-blue suffering

which released us into a current of perpetual solitude

as if we were little beavers swimming into the absence of everything

believing in our connection to each other, to childhood and the lake

that had long ago reflected our bodies and faces into the dumb anguish of forgiveness



The Sisters


I am the no in the throat of their eyes

fractals of fences, ceilings of string

Three heads smile from a wooden frame

then fall asleep in solitude’s scheme


Wherever they are—on a boat on a beach

at a metal table on a city street

I remember them in their naked need

at three at six at seventeen


The cards in our hands fell over the house

and scattered like bunnies in the fox’s dream

There was no one to catch us except for ourselves

Like cards we scattered, weightless with need


No to the palm of kindness and love

that carries the bag for payback’s high price

No to the I-owe-you of strife

as if sacrifice can forfeit time


No to the thrum of hunger, greed

No to pleasure: what gives will take

No to the penalty: joy as pain

No to anyone calling our names


No to friendship, debt’s thick breath

No to the rage of attention’s reign

No to his thumbprints’ virile gain

No to her melodies of blame


No to the voices like flocks of birds

whose decibels fall and rise unseen

No to isolation’s domain

with its choke and throttle and empty brain


No to the condemnations claimed

when achievements mollify childhood’s mark

Comfort? The solace of memory’s gain

This is our twisted rope of shame



Family as Fractal


Who is the dreaded, the loved, the cruel?

Is the murderer father?

Was I murderous, too?

Was I his rescuer, rescued, participant?

Am I my mother?

Was I murdered too?


If I am my father, if I am my mother

if my sisters and brother are mirrors, one face

Can one aberration offend replication

and alter it fully?

What is pity or hatred?

Is loyalty warranted?


If sister is mother, if brother is father

if father was grandfather, everyone, same

is my difference their difference?

my failure their failure?

Is their hatred self-hatred?

Is my sanity sane?


If my niece is my uncle

is my nephew my aunt?

Is my uncle my grandmother?

My lost child myself?

Whose laughter and boredom

spin silk with disdain?


Is my shame my brother’s?

Is his shame my father’s?

Is my rage my sisters’

my mother’s, my own?

Does geometry prove that we replicate history:

family, oligarch, innocent, mute?


Then the future is written

my life is determined

my desire, my love

my own grief like row houses

precise replications

of what I escaped



Jan Freeman is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Blue Structure, which was championed by Ilya Kaminsky (Calypso Editions, 2016). She completed her new manuscript, The Odyssey of Yes and No, during a recent MacDowell fellowship. Poems from this collection have appeared or are forthcoming in Barrow Street, The Brooklyn Rail, North American Review, Plume, Poetry, Painted Bride Quarterly, Salamander, and other publications. She is the founder and former director of Paris Press. Long ago, she earned an MFA at NYU, studying with Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, Ruth Stone, and Nina Cassian. The work of David Shapiro and Louise Bourgeois are her constant companions. Currently, she teaches ekphrastic poetry workshops and the MASS MoCA Writing Through Art Poetry Retreats.


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