so I opened the one marked ‘museum,’ found myself
face to face with a field of dead deer. Of all the pelts I touched,
the skunk’s was softest—softer than the square
of brown bear, softer than the river otter
bereft of its disastrous teeth. I could have sworn
a bird flitted from one branch to another, but it was just
my lone reflection in the display case. I saw two magpies that day:
one pecking at pavement for edible scraps
as I watched through the diner window, scraping mayonnaise
from my vegetable sandwich; the other perched
in an avian tableau. I looked it in the eye, which is what
the YouTube videos say to do to avoid attack. If magpies
are among the animals that recognize their reflections,
would they know their kind through museum glass? The heart
has many doors but few windows. Eye pressed
to the knot-hole, ears pulsing with white-noise buzz,
I studied every specimen in that wilderness
of preserved beasts as though I’ve never
crouched on a trail, arms flung to shield my head
from a puffed grouse protecting her chicks.
I looked every dangerous thing in the teeth: the wolverine,
the cougar, the bear so like the one that once
rose to meet me at the edge of a river. It was so long ago,
I’d almost forgotten how every door in my heart flew open
in that moment. “You’re beautiful!” I shouted over
and over. It’s the first time I remember wanting to be alive.
* “The heart has many doors” is a line from Emily Dickinson.
I’ve Got the Joy Joy Joy Joy
Among the lies I told in childhood: that joy resided
within me, quadruple-deep and un-dislodge-able.
From the beginning, a gully carved itself through my
metaphorical heart, steepening, impassable. A leap
across would leave you ankle-wrenched and scrub-
welted, skin a sear of superficial red. Behind my
grandmother’s house—no fence, no sign, no
indication of boundaries or what the rules were—
my sister and I would clamber to the heart
of the gully, rise mud-smeared to the backyard
with its Gravenstein tree, each apple holding
a predictable worm. It wasn’t a lie if I didn’t know
the truth yet—couldn’t know what lived way down
in the depths of my heart. Leaves and limbs
clogged any sign of the stagnant creek. No magic
healing waters. No otherworldly passage.
No lasting scars. Just an ache in our hands
from the cold grip required to pull ourselves
earthward, grasping at branches
that did not look strong enough to hold us.
Less dramatic than a chasm but more dangerous than a ditch. A glitch. A word that gets caught in the throat. Rhymes with sully. Variant of gullible. A meeting of valley and gulch. Place of no passage. My insides, a gully. My inner life, gullied. Riven. Each inner cliff or cleft or cleaving visible to every other, but unreachable. And the in-between: unknowable. Parts of myself impassable. Fit for trash. At the base, just a trickle of a creek. A trick. A treek. A crickle. A gully is a sack of bones. A sack of bones. Scattered. Clotted. Litter and bones. Overrun with bramble. A gaping gap. The scrub brush my hands clutch, carrying myself down the muddy slope. Clambering. A gap inside me. A crack in the paneling. A gape in the body. A misguidance. A blotted-out memory. An average darkness. A dull ache. A small discomfort. A lack.
Among the Lower Classifications
The world can be divided into those who remember
their dreams and those who scuttle the ocean floor, feeding
on death and detritus. When darkness comes, we humans
close our light-accustomed eyes, while nocturnal animals
sniff out our dreaming bodies and seabeasts rove
the morningless deep, dragging their fins behind them.
Earth splits into land and sea, and land splits into soil and sky
because some land-dwellers prefer their feet not touch it,
living so far up in the trees the rest of us thought them extinct.
Of water: there’s fresh and salt, and of salt and its strata
of unpronounceable names, more and stranger creatures
than we could know. Oh, but we want to know. We want
swivel ears and inner eyelids and membranes within the eye
that manufacture light. We want to know what our dreams
mean: those that disturb and those we don’t remember.
There are creatures who want and those who wander.
The forgetful and the forgotten. Species of anglerfish
inhabit every layer of ocean: Epipelagic, Mesopelagic,
Bathypelagic, Abyssopelagic, Hadalpelagic: as prehistoric
to the ear as the anglerfish is to look at, appendage grown
to lure both prey and mate. For those who understand
the universe better in terms of sky, the layers are colloquially
termed sunlight zone, twilight zone, midnight zone, the abyss,
and the trenches. The anglerfish’s lure emits a bioluminescent glow.
Among its lower classifications: frogfish, monkfish, handfish,
goosefish, Atlantic footballfish—named for what the namers
can more fully grasp. Fish of the land-dweller. Fish
of the sports fan. Fish of those who mourn their gill-slits,
who dream of flight. Male anglerfish act as sexual parasites,
several orders of magnitude smaller than the females,
and there is room in the world for such relationship. Consider
seahorses with their prehensile tails and males who bear the young,
hermaphroditic earthworms with their twinned hearts, froglets
fed their mothers’ unused eggs until they grow into frogs.
There are one million species of insect we’ve named and counted,
and countless millions more we haven’t. Humans evolve
among the animals, awake in the dark, imagining our own deaths.
The anglerfish can depress its teeth to let an object glide
unhindered toward the stomach. There are the malleable,
and there are those whose rigidity defines them. Those who believe
we can comprehend the depths, and those lured by the anglerfish’s light.
On the Classic Rock Station as I Drive Home from Welding Class, All the Songs are by Men
Some days I mourn the whale with its cut-open belly
full of plastic and some days I thank someone
else’s God I was not born whale. This is what it means
to have it all. Some days I mourn the whale held aloft
for days on its mother’s snout and some days I mourn how
many hours we spent waiting for the mother whale finally
to let go. Some mornings I wake in the stench
of my own body knowing a multitude
of fears and toxins have leached through
my skin in the night, and I cannot strip
quickly enough, repulsed by the stink. My stink. Look
at the All that I have: muscle spasms and entrails and massage
therapy appointments and migraines and the highest
dose of the latest antidepressant. My white skin my blue eyes
my gay wife. My small town my urban chickens my organic
insecticides. Even nature needs a push now and again.
And again. This is what it means
to pursue progress. I feel my privilege
at welding class when the paint I haven’t sanded away
catches fire. When the flight path of an errant spark
sends it behind my safety glasses and a tiny burn
stings the sensitive skin millimeters below my left eye.
Thank Gilgamesh. Thank the Gilmore Girls. Thank
Grendel. I’m making a heron out of dulled saw blades
and rusty garden implements, while in the booth
beside me, someone is learning to work for a living.
Kathryn Smith is the author of the poetry collections Self-Portrait with Cephalopod (Milkweed Editions, 2021), winner of the 2019 Jake Adam York Prize, and Book of Exodus (Scablands Books, 2017), as well as the chapbook Chosen Companions of the Goblin, winner of the 2018 Open Country Press Chapbook Contest. Her poems and visual poetry have appeared in Gettysburg Review, Willow Springs, Fugue, Poetry Northwest, The Journal, Brink, Permafrost, and elsewhere. Find her online at kathrynsmithpoetry.com.
Header photo by Tereza Koudelkova, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Kathryn Smith by Dean Davis.