Like a snuffling hound after
game or an escaped
convict, you followed the signs: the toothpaste commercial
smile, broad and brilliantly white.
The rejuvenating mussing of your remaining
hair. The standard nudge
assortment. Your own slow growing
excitement before seeing
her again. Promises. She threw
ice cubes at your head
and questioned your virility, she told you stories—
growing up in poverty
just outside Altoona, the time she, quote, copped a squat
in front of a cop,
end quote—and every charged gesture
shone like a winking nickel
you tucked in your pale porcelain
piggy bank back in
the day when a penny meant the world to you, given
the going price of wishes.
You should have seen the alcoholoquacious love song
about her boyfriend
coming—yay tall, so many stone,
she was into measurements—
and you could let go of most of
even treasuring some of the, in retrospect, weird
evenings you spent together,
but for the fact you remember how when she wanted
your attention, she
never used your name, but instead
whistled for you like a dog.
I found the plastic bags beneath the cellar stairs,
Stacked in an alcove hidden by some boards.
The cellar tingled with the clean, ethereal smell
Of gasoline mixed with the sprouty stink
Of mildew, and across the room from where I stood
Tools hung on hooks in crooked rows like letters
Typeset too poorly for a sentence to appear:
Claw hammer, handsaw, power drill, hedge cutter.
The nauseous shock was the first thing I’d felt in months
Unless you count indifference as a feeling—
I’d grown so inattentive, so withdrawn. Vague. Listless.
No one suggested anything was wrong,
But sometimes in the mornings I’d feel groggier
Than one scant nightcap warranted. The bags
Were plump and shiny, full of yellow liquid looking
Disturbingly like urine, and whoever
Had hidden them had done a hackwork job of it,
Almost as though he’d wanted me to find them.
The nighttime bruises and the bumps I thought were bug bites—
Itchy, discretely tucked above my hairline
Or puzzlingly placed between my toes—made sense
Now more than ever. Everything made sense.
The needles must have been as small as an idea
Before its thinker knows he’s thinking it.
The bags were labeled in a bold, black script, handwritten,
Although I didn’t recognize the writing.
ELATION. MELANCHOLY. CURIOSITY.
DISGUST. SHAME. FEAR. HOPE. They’d been draining me
God knows how long, and as I goggled at the bags,
I couldn’t comprehend the who or why,
Although I had suspicions; nor did I know where
They’d come by such advanced technology;
But in a heartbeat I could see the way to end
The months of blunted affect, how to best
Counter whatever spell had kept me disenchanted.
I put the corner of the bag marked RAGE
Between my teeth. I tore. Some dribbled down my chin.
I drank the rest. I warmed inside, and stretched,
And looking at the cellar in a hard new light,
Started to see what else might be of use.
One of Many Tender Gestures
After he left a notebook in the rain,
He never trusted fountain pens again—
So many jottings lost!
Now when he buys a pen,
It has to be a ballpoint. He’ll complain
About the feel but can’t decry the cost.
(Surely some sparkling phrases, or their specters.
Perhaps a page of stream of consciousness
That, drawing from the wells
Of what he can’t express,
Held depthless images. An epic’s nectars
Or grist work for a batch of bagatelles.)
Not even gifts he’s given are exempt:
Presented with a pen, he’ll scribble some
Frippery, think tart, spit,
And drag his calloused thumb
Across the page in something like contempt.
The rain he writes endures because of it.
(The storm erased so much of what he meant
To say. He pines. He muddles through the murk
Of whethers and what-ifs.
He redefines his work,
Swallows the waters of his discontent.
Inkless pen-scratches glint like hieroglyphs.)
Success has followed, like a beaten dog,
His every book, yet nothing satisfies.
His paragraphs are spare,
Incisive, not unwise,
But always seem to form an epilogue
To something finer sparrowing the air.
(What he remembers from the notebook: blue
Ink-washes, woods of missing words, a pun
On pain and windowpane—
And that was only one
Of many tender gestures, trite and true,
Sharpened by the whetstone of the rain.)
Stephen Kampa is the author of three collections of poetry: Cracks in the Invisible (2011), Bachelor Pad (2014), and Articulate as Rain (2018). His work has appeared in the Yale Review, Cincinnati Review, Southwest Review, Hopkins Review, Poetry Northwest, Subtropics, and Smartish Pace. He was also included in Best American Poetry 2018. He currently teaches at Flagler College.