LAUREN MCKENZIE REED
Dear Phonologist, It’s not your fault I keep forgetting
the cursive ʒ sounds like an electric razor,
the motor muffled by bathroom door
while he lets me sleep late,
light slipping under, over the grey carpet like sunrise.
It’s simply: all this “tongue body, tongue body”
and I think of the muscle lying
in my mouth like a woman, the morning
after he said I love you in his dream.
I want to occupy the warm /u/ in the bedding
he left behind, and the moment when
a bilabial nasal fills the mouth,
with the gentle, irrepressible hum
one makes from pure joy.
FACTS ABOUT TRANSLATION
His name will not look the way it sounds in your mouth,
letters playfully pushed together in ways you’re not used to.
In the taxi queue you’ll meet a girl that has much more in common with him,
but he’ll tower over you, arms squeezing you tighter, despite her perfection.
His voice will sound like things you’ve always wanted to do in the dark.
He will do these things; after a bus, and walking, you’re home.
Has it been too long? Will he have thought better of you?
But then, you’ll climb under the covers like its routine,
his hands searching for parts of you no one has before
with ease, he’ll know the outline of you, revel in it,
tell you it has been so long: the watching, the speculating;
you’re smart, I’ve wanted to know you he’ll say.
As tiny broken phrases come out, you’ll wonder why didn’t I study him
and his language in school, why did I choose… the one you’re not sleeping with.
The next morning, you’ll wonder what he wonders, but he’ll
throw you from your mountain of neuroses, again
and again. Then, with time, you’ll realize
there will be some things you can’t translate between you.
If he calls, does not call, says something that is short but could be loaded,
you will bury yourself beneath papers and books that can’t
translate the language of bodies and bars,
or a bedroom that suddenly will always look different to you,
like he rearranged your furniture, hid something you forgot the name of,
though you’ll keep your eyes open, hoping for it to come back.
UNTIL THIS TIME
I was something solid. Now remember Echo
in all her disappearing:
we were both left ashamed.
Didn’t I always know it would end up like this?
Some bit of toes, my fingers before me,
the scar under my chin since childhood?
I need to leave myself here
by way of crumb or word.
There is a certain pull to this dirt,
this sediment from the river:
ashes of my previous body.
My story is horrible.
People will love it because of this,
A sudden visit to my father’s house
Memorial Day weekend. While friends play ball
in city parks, I’m passed back and forth
between parents, Sesame Street suitcase
in hand. Summer of 1985.
Dad dines with Mom for late morning breakfast
at a dive just off the I-40 freeway.
I struggle to slop the greasy sausage sopped
in sawmill gravy, sliding a chunk of toast
through pale streams of egg. Then Mom reveals
a letter from the state’s attorney, threats
of garnished wages, unsettled child support—
and their perpetual squabble reignites.
A cardinal skips across the parking lot
to a clearing flanked by Winged Elms and hills
rolling down to the interstate below.
My folks don’t notice my empty chair, or me
slipping away toward his metallic chip.
His cool whistles slice the August air—
the cheer, cheer not muffled by parents’ swears
or silenced by submachine gun fire of semis
Jake Braking across the busy overpass.
Edging toward the grove, I hear them call
for me. The skittish bird escapes into brush
just out of reach, his crimson streak ascending,
fading into the mass of midday traffic.
I watch as cars scream past—families en route
to Memphis, Nashville; I marvel at their speed.
My mother sat in the pavilion
smoking half a pack of cigarettes
and reading TV Guide while I hung
upside down from the jungle gym
or joined other children straddling
painted ponies on springs or astride
the teeter-totter. I was seven.
Now Templeton Park chokes on leaves
from hundred-year-old oaks above
the vacant mass of memories
annexed by rust and chipped paint.
No neighborhood kids, or those from towns
like Hollow Rock and Sawyer’s Mill,
are here this first day of spring.
I press against the rear window
of the L&N caboose, removed
from service to commemorate
the debt owed to the railroad
and later, too, the three who saw
their deaths ahead on the track—no time
to brake. His best friend among them,
my grandfather mourned with all of us
till called out on the next train,
through the same stretch of track to Memphis.
It faces a granite Sam Siegel,
Bruceton mayor memorialized
for his family’s denim factories
where many parents stitched and pressed
pants and shorts until the plants closed.
The shrine sticks out like a lone emerald
cornstalk in a field full of browned shoots—
Siegel’s face but one reminder
of the half million in back taxes
the bankrupt business left behind.
Today, the spring festival begins
at Bruceton’s new Memorial Park.
Adults in cotton sweatpants and tees
jog a half-mile track punching buttons
on phones and music players.
A barbeque pit smokes and teens
rush to open concession stands
before the hot rods and drag racers
arrive. Children swing away
from their parents’ push or ride ponies
loaned out from farms in Buena Vista,
and out-of-work seamstresses drop off
homemade pies and casseroles
to sell at booths for bargain prices.
I’d rather spend the afternoon here,
several blocks away and past
the factories half-concealed by weeds
and rows of deserted tractor trailers.
Engineers pass through to the rail yard;
a boy bounces a baseball off
the broken theatre marquee.
Talk of commuter rail service
and food processing plants moving in
brings little hope. I hear their prayers,
and then my mother’s voice calling
me to the car, the engine running,
and my never-ending pleas for more time.
I’m doing this because I love you.
You punch a guy square in the jaw;
he’ll drop like a sack of potatoes.
You get upset like this
because he lies to you.
Every other weekend.
You’re getting on my last nerve!
She’ll make you hate me—just you watch.
I’ll make a man out of you yet!
Your anger comes from him.
One of these days when you’re
a parent you’ll understand.
God answers all our prayers; you just
got to have some patience with Him.
Some day we’ll look back at this and laugh.
He doesn’t love me; he loves
the thought of loving me.
You get that crap from your mom.
I’ll help you buy that car, and then
we’ll drive across the country in it.
Give him time and he’ll cool off.
You think that way because
your mother lies to you.
I’m not made of money!
Your mom will never let that happen.
I’ll bust that door down if I have to!
We’re going to live with Mom and Dad—
just for a little while.
I’ll have my own company,
with you as my right-hand man.
I wouldn’t miss your game for the world.
God answers all our prayers; you just
might not always like His response.
It’s all about money.
I promise you. One day
we’ll be a family again.