“I took advantage of being at the seaside to lay a store of sucking-stones….I distributed them equally between my four pockets, & sucked them turn & turn about.”—Beckett, Molloy
My arms are so weak / truly weak, like the stems of dandelions, the milky O / of their hollow / I’m not sure I could push you off me / if I had to / Will I have to? / I’m not sure / I’m not physically attached / to the field or the grass that makes the field a field / But I sit on a picnic table every day / If it’s snowy I dust it off, a little circle for my bum / in the picnic of the field / & I look up / usually something is falling on me / like leaves or snow / or the last time I spoke to the person / I loved—that face splatters all over me / like a bucket of paint.
I don’t ever eat at this picnic / I watch my dog lope around unleashed / He sniffs various chunks of moss / I feel my keys in my pocket & my Lake Michigan rocks / I would never rotate rocks / in my mouth like Beckett’s Molloy but I do grip them / I do squeeze them in my pocket as I walk /down the street, the rock’s weight a reminder of my own / The same way, as a child, I’d prick my palm / with my fingernail at moments when / I feared I was dead / No, I am alive & stinging.
There are too many keys / on my chain right now / I am waiting for the person I loved / my ex, to ask me / for his key back or rather, he has asked me to pick up my glasses & dog bed from his house / & he will forget to ask for the keys / then I will be stuck making the symbolic gesture / & if I don’t, am I not ready?
There are few things we’re ready for: I was not ready for Ben to die / in a bus stop in LA / Or Billy, with the weapon of his choice / Or when my ex, the civil rights lawyer, showed me his long, rebellious list of speeding tickets, the splash / of horror, But you get the cops in court; taunting them in your car could kill you / He says, I always pay the fines / I squeeze his shoulder, You know that’s not the point / I was never ready to talk in any class / until the class ended/ Sitting there with all my notes, annotations, doubting/ if my thoughts had any value to others, or maybe/ not knowing how to puncture the air/ with my hand or an army of words/ not wanting my words to be an army.
I was not ready for my mother / to fall down a flight of stairs / or onto the cobble stones or through a marble table / so many prepositions propelling / a turbulent body addicted to pills / insomnia leaking out of her like sap from a maple / my mother the feminist / my mother the thoughtful psychologist / who read to me every night before bed / who brought us together each evening for dinner / my mother with dirt on her hands who falls over / into her garden, holding roots that still need / to be planted.
I was not ready to tell her I was afraid she would die / that I wanted her to live to meet the children I don’t have / to be on her knees with them— child-height—& not fall over / Picture dry soil on an expansive trampoline / Picture wisteria tangled in a trellis around the trampoline /A picture of impossible safety / each pill replaced with bouncing seeds / I pictured her with the children I wanted / to have with my ex / whose key is in my back pocket / whose face is wet paint falling / on me here at the picnic / whose face is the face I saw in miniature / on our children I told my mother to live for.
I was not ready for my mother to say / directly, I don’t want to see a therapist/ I’m not ready to deal with certain things/ meaning, not ready to sleep through the night / to stop sluggishly swipe chunks of bread through a tub of butter at 4am & fall off a chair / I am terrified to know what it is / that she’s carried 75 years / inside of her body, as her body /what she is willing to die to avoid.
When I crawl inside this picnic / I can have complete thoughts / I can think the same thought over & over / hoping each one adds another ring around / the expanding universe / No one can interrupt me here, inside these slats / under this red & white checkered pattern / If you blow on my face / it might break apart into a 1000 seeds / & parachute into other corners / of the field.
I hold weekly grocery bags in my arms / I hold my dog / I hold my slumped laundry as I walk / down the stairs to the washer / sheets twirlaround each other / like cinnamon dough / My ex’s key looks identical to my laundry room key / I keep one towel so I can shower / while my laundry whirls inside a warm machine / I feel my non-muscles as I dry my arms / rubbing oil into my shoulders / The times I’ve been assaulted / didn’t have anything to do with strength / strength gets you nowhere when you are / surprised by someone you know.
These arms felt useless / when I could not push the hips away / to get the dick out of my mouth / when my mind was convincing me / maybe I owe him this/ maybe the sooner I can make him/ cum the sooner I can lock the door behind him/ Or when I could not roll a body off of mine / my mind was trying to convince me / maybe my childhood friend just wants to sleep / next to me/ then:maybe I sent the wrong message/ then:maybe he doesn’t hear me say no/ With these arms, I am a terrible scarecrow / A terrible headwaiter / A terrible coat rack / A terrible tree / Is some part of me always floating away? / I grip Lake Michigan in my pocket / No, this time I am alive.
I think refusing to exercise is like admitting / you are willing to die before you have to/ my cameo engraved with someone else’s cardio / but I like to sit here inside this picnic / & think instead of moving my tempestuous body / I am not ready to date strangers / I am afraid of what is hidden / rather, the lengths people go to hide themselves / so afraid of rejection when / they reveal who they are / their anxiety tapping at the heart’s bark / like a meticulous woodpecker / all I want is for people to reveal / who they are / whoever you are / you can blow on my face! / & each seed that parachutes off / into the field of your green sweater’s arm / will reveal who we are, how / we hold each other.
We are being pelted constantly / by pollen or sleet or insults / & we absorb them like an ocean / that cannot close / I remember an entire decade / I played sports / had muscles / I trusted the language people gave me / that they would tell me what I needed to know to know who they were / but I did not raise my hand in class / I kept my notes in their binders / I was not ready to admit / that I was afraid of sex / afraid to admit that I had built / myself like a stone fence around a field / to protect it, only to realize / I had locked myself into the periphery.
Before going to court, my ex / would surf in Lake Michigan / while I walked on its shore collecting rocks. I kept his keys dry / On our first date / I felt safe enough to go back to his / house, & we made midnight pancakes / & watched Twin Peaks/ It’s possible to feel safe enough / to have your fence unfold into a foundation: Touch shoulders in the moth’s belly of / a black metal show/ Talk each other through the anxieties / we carried from our last relationships / like awkward air conditioners into the next season / Huddle around a computer screen / & look at photos of the first time my ex / met his dad in Nigeria / as he explains, I was 28 & so unsure/ of what to bring my dad that I gave him/ a copy of my resume.
It is also possible to feel safe with someone / who buries feelings decades longer / than the cicadas I hear from my picnic / I ask myself why its possible / to feel safe with someone / who sings to no one / to also feel very lonely inside that song / like a petal fallen into the cloudy water /of its vase.
I want to be open like the ocean / Let the sky trick us not / into thinking the horizon is a ribbon / around a hatbox, we are not a closed system / Picture the first people who reached / Lake Michigan, were they confused / by the sand & the tide that pulled the sand/ across their toes? / Did they wonder whether they reached / the first salt-free ocean? Were they ready / for this drinkable horizon? / Or did they miss the salt & lick / each other’s cheeks?
I’m readying myself to tell someone new / about my mother, the pill-shaped cocoon / she crawled back into like a confused moth / The flashlights I shine in to coax her out / seem too dim & I replace their batteries / with rocks from Lake Michigan / The flashlights I shine into the soft egg of my memory / where she taught me to ride a bike & to use the word “ramification” in high school essays / told me that whenever I was ready, sex should be playful & fun.
Here is an invitation to this picnic / The paint’s fallen & dried like December moss / Here’s a smock for my dandelion milk/ spilling out of my arms / At this picnic I have held exes against my chest / after fun & playful sex / At this picnic I have held/ together the wrists of a friend as we rode / to the hospital / I have held countless meetings with students who are too shy to speak in class / So I ask them: I know how deeply you’ve considered this text/ what do you think is holding you back? Could this picnic be an archive of/ how I am no longer afraid / to ask or tell you anything? Alive with the milk I am made of.
Julia Cohen’s most recent book is a hybrid collection of lyric essays, I
Was Not Born (Noemi Press, 2014). Her poetry books are Collateral Light
(Brooklyn Arts Press, 2014) and Triggermoon Triggermoon (Black Lawrence
Press, 2011). Her work appears in journals like Nat.Brut, Juked, Jellyfish
Review, The Rumpus, and Entropy. She writes an interview column with
Tarpaulin Sky and can be found at www.juliacohenwriter.com