Heidi Czerwiec: If I could ask everyone to please turn off your cell phones, or put them on vibrate, so that they don't ring. And remember tomorrow morning from—or at 10:00, there will be and open mic community reading in the River Valley Room. If you're interested in reading, just show up early to sign up for a slot. You'll notice blue evaluation forms are on some of the seats—or there might be some on seats near you; if you wouldn't mind filling one out we'd greatly appreciate it. You can leave them on your seat, or you could drop them off at an envelope at the information desk on your way in. We would like to thank the College of Arts and Sciences, the Red River Valley Writing Project, and, of course, the North Dakota Humanities Council for their continued support of the Writers Conference. However, we would like to point out that none of these conferences since 1970 would have been possible had it not been for the late John Little, who began it all. You can help say "Thank you" with a contribution to the John Little Endowment Fund, today, which will help fund one author each year—a fiction writer each year—to come read. There are donation levels starting at five dollars; please stop by the info desk if you're interested.
And now, I would like to introduce Lee Ann Roripaugh. How do you make insects sexy? Take a Japanese heritage imbued with centuries of female courtesan poets like the Lady Murasaki, who wrote such erotic classics as The Pillow Book, add a lifetime spent in the upper American west, where the extreme weather and landscape adds to a sense of the transitory, mix in a detailed obsession with—and observation of—all things multi-legged: mayflies, jellyfish, octopi; and a highly trained musical ear given her training as a classical pianist—and the sexiness? Well just look at her. [Laughs] The result is lines of poetry that get stuck in your head for days, like this image from her poem "Crows Who Try to Be Cormorants Drown:"
the windowpane, a wasp, arms and legs akimbo,
cleans her satin-banded body with the same
seductive gesture as a woman smoothing down
a cocktail dress over the swell of her hips.
Please join me in welcoming a poet who can make even silverfish, an insect I find particularly repugnant [Audience laughter] seem alluring, Lee Ann Roripaugh.
Lee Ann Roripaugh: Thank you all for being here, and to the University of North Dakota for bringing me to this wonderful conference, where I've been having a fabulous time. Thank you to Heidi and Crystal for coordinating all of this—I do a conference at USD, so I know how much hard work it is. And a special shout-out to Laurel for driving me around and taking such good care of me this conference.
I think that sometimes...
Lee Ann Roripaugh: [Laughs] Let's not do, I won't do that again. Alright, I think that sometimes animals teach us something about how to love, but it's also true that animals frequently teach us about death as well, and those deaths are frequently haunting. I think perhaps some of you all can remember an animal death or deaths that haunt you, and this is a poem about that.
My father made me keep
the bright orange Sanka cans,
with holes in the lids
for ventilation, on
the back porch overnight.
But by morning, sunlight
had steeped my frogs
like tea bags, their bodies
hot to touch as I laid
them out under
the Nanking Cherry trees
and tried to revive them
with cold water
from the garden hose.
When my father took
them away to bury,
my mother asked me not
to cry. That night
was the Fourth of July,
and my mother and father
and I went up to the attic
to watch the fireworks,
each with a plate-sized
circle of watermelon.
I remember the rusty smell
of metal and dirt from
the attic screen windows,
which were rarely opened;
how they were littered
with the clear, silver skins
of mayflies, who had shed
the boundaries of their old
bodies so easily. I remember
how silent it was in between
the sporadic, bass drum putter
and teakettle whistling
of the fireworks, and how,
like some exotic, spangled
desolation flowered again
and again over the roofs
of our neighbors' houses.
There's a traditional Japanese story about two young women, and one of the young women loved butterflies and made pets of butterflies, and the other young woman loved more of the creepy-crawly sorts of insects. And this other young woman was sort of a mess: her hair was disheveled, and she didn't blacken her teeth, and generally she wasn't performing gender the way that she was supposed to, and everyone worried about her and despaired because she would never get married. So you can sort of guess perhaps the woman that I identified with. This is a poem, then, in her voice about the courtship ritual that she desires. It's called "The Woman Who Loves Insects."
If you stand outside my gate
and peer between the slats
you might see me in the shrubs,
gathering up the caterpillars
who disguise themselves
as bird-droppings, to tuck into
my kimono sleeves. I will not be
the kind who makes pets
of butterflies. They only leave
a glitter of dust on my palm
that makes me sneeze,
and they climb at night inside
my rice-paper lanterns, quick
as I can snap my fingers,
explode into a curl of bitter-
smelling incense. (Even Buddha
would wrinkle his nose.)
And if you take care not to
trample the garden beetles, tear
the spider's glistening veil,
you may come up to my window
and leave me a token—a snail,
a locust, a cockroach.
I know the dragonfly's song,
the war-cries of grass-crickets,
and will sing them to you
through a chink in the blinds.
And if my favorite caterpillar
should accidentally drop
from my kimono sleeve and brush
past your face—and you do not
let him break open
against the pebbles, but unfold
your fan in time to catch
his fall—then I
will be the praying mantis,
who wears a mask on her wings
to scare off birds.
I will pull away the mantle
from my face, and if you
are not afraid of my fierce
eyebrows, my disheveled hair,
my unblackened teeth that give me
a white, barbaric grin,
I will feed you tender leaves,
nestle and stroke you in the palm
of my hand until you
are plump with nectar. Kawamushi,
my hairy caterpillar.
Insects have all sorts of amazing abilities to deflect or protect themselves from predators. For example, there's a certain beetle who has two chambers inside its body, and each chamber has a different chemical which, kept separate, is completely innocuous, but when put together become highly combustible. So these beetles, when threatened by a predator, will then spew out this toxic chemical out of its ass, which this poem isn't about, but this is a poem about the protective mechanism that insects use when threatened by predators, and this is a poem then in which a speaker imagines what it must be like to have these different ways of protecting herself when she feels vulnerable or threatened in one way or another. This is called "Insect Postures."
If I could, I would have stopped myself, like the ladybug,
from being consumed, by leaking pungent,
bitter tears from my knee joints; or coated my body in
a whispered sheen of oil, like the cockroach, so I could
have slit myself between a paper-thin crack
and simply disappeared. If I could have eaten the leaves
of passionflower vines to make myself toxic, sprouting
fierce prickly spines and neon-yellow skin
so I could slumber in the shade like the postman butterfly's
caterpillar—filtering light and dark with a semi-
colon of six eyes punctuating each
side of my head—I would have. Perhaps if I had super
powers, and could leap sixty-five times my own height, flea-like,
to the top of the Empire State Building
in one bound, faster than a space rocket; or if I had
the strength of a rhinoceros beetle and could bench-press
850 times my own weight;
or maybe even with the housefly's less-pretentious-yet-
uncanny ability to taste with my hands and feet,
I could have rescued myself in the nick
of time. Maybe, if I were royalty, I would have been
declared exempt, spent my days like the queen wasp, nestling eggs
one at a time into their six-sided
paper cells, like snuggling truffles into crinkly, gold-foil
accordion wrappers in a fine box of chocolates.
I wish I'd found some way to escape—
stowed away in a hummingbird nostril like the tiny
flower mite, riding from bloom to bloom as if they were bus
stops, hoping to finally arrive at
a more desirable flower on which to disembark.
If only I had ears on the sides of my abdomen
with which to hear the sonar of hunting
bats, so that like the moth, I could simply clasp my wings shut
and fall—a tight quiet triangle plummeting down from
the sky, no longer a blip on the radar,
light as a small paper note folded around the word No.
I'm very interested in traditional Japanese myths and fairytales, and there are a number of stories that function as animal bride or animal groom myths in which an animal shape-shifts into human form and then takes on a human bride or groom. Usually something goes wrong, and some sort of taboo is broken—a do-not-peek taboo, typically—and then the marriage falls apart, and the animal bride or groom returns to his or her animal form. This is an example, then, of one of these Japanese animal bride stories that I created, and I tried to create a voice then for this woman who is able to shape-shift between fish and human form.
The sting of the hook in my lip,
and then the parched, awful burning
as I was pulled
up and torn through the roof of one life
where the lovely rainbow of my skin
congealed to slime
while between thumb and forefinger
you spread the webbing
of my fins, measured my twisting
weight in the palm
of your hand, then dipped me back in
to the cool balm
of my familiar realm, to quiver
for one moment
of surprise, my tail unfurling,
before I darted
away. But I had seen too much
already, and so
I returned to repay your kindness
in the disguise
of a woman, with hands and feet
and hair, a blue
iridescent kimono, let you take
me for your wife,
and for awhile, you didn't seem
to mind when I
lunged at dragonflies, or nibbled
on the creamy,
vanilla edges of gardenias.
Who can tell what
makes a man become suspicious?
I knew that you'd
begun to spy when you refused
to eat my soup,
the one you used to think was
You hid in the rafters, watched me
grind out a nutty fragrance from
with a mortar and a pestle,
cut out carrots
into the shape of plum blossoms,
lift my robes to
urinate into the soup pot
so you could have
the best of my fresh, brothy stock.
Before I left
I gave you a lacquerware box
so heavy you'd think
it would be worth my weight in gold.
I packed it
full of earth worms and damsel flies
and gleaming coils of fine, silk twine.
The joke at my English department at USD is that I'm not allowed to bring soup to the pot lucks.
Dramatic monologue, people, but, you know.
This is a somewhat newer piece. It's a prose poem. I think that sometimes our interactions with animals become encounters with the Other and we bring all of our fears and our desires and uncertainties into that confrontation, which is sometimes uncanny and unsettling. This is a prose poem, then, that is based on an encounter I had with a swallow who became trapped in my upstairs landing outside my back door to my apartment.
Young swallow stuck deep in the craw of your stair landing's untidy diaphragm.
All day, cats shoving throaty vowels through the back door's scrim.
At first, a mysterious disconsolate rustling among plastic sacks. Glimpse of sideways eye. Pull back a box to release a twittery ricochet around the bare light bulb before a tired black fan tacks itself to the wall.
(Something bat-like about this flat cling to vertical, photographer's cape of dark wing.)
You open the mouth of door on the landing below, hoping fresh air will guide the swallow out through the narrow stairwell's slender neck.
More awful swoop and bash when you try to shoo it down the stairs.
So you scoop it up in a checkered dishcloth. Scared to hold too tight. Or not too tight enough. Small blunt head's panicked swivel between your thumbs.
Confusion on the damp lawn, then a crooked launch to rainy trees.
(An opera singer whose voice was permanently wrecked in a car crash keeps a medical model of the human head on the piano. Dizzying flower on her silk turban leaning in toward the bright whorls of muscle, ribboned brain, and basted vein. Her fingers smoothly unpack the throat for her students—unpuzzling muscles, larynx, palate, epiglottis.)
Swallow: How strange to hold something not meant to be held.
Exhale: Breathing out the bruised bird. Was it a song? Or was it a choking?
Glottal Stop: Too-long held breath. The letting go, the unraveled kite-string unsorrowing.
There's a traditional Japanese story about an artist who painted only fish, and his fish were so exquisite and so lifelike that he became famous and people would come from all over the country in order to see his paintings or to buy his pantings of fish. Like most artists, he was somewhat obsessed with his subject matter, and so it came to the point where he would start to dream that he was a fish at night. So maybe this is a poem in many ways that is also about being an artist. It's in his voice. This is called "Dream Carp."
People traveled from miles away to see
my paintings of fish—
the jeweled armor of their scales, the beadlike
set of their eyes in
rubbery socket rings, the glimmering
swish of fin and tail
so real it seemed that you could almost dip
a net deep into
the paper and pull up the arching wet
weight of a golden carp,
a shiny trout, or the dark muscular
heft of a bass with
its mouth stretched into the surprised, wiry
"oh" of a child's wind
sock. I captured my models from the sea,
lake, and goldfish pond
in the back garden, so careful not to
let their mouths be torn
by the hook, their scales chipped, or the silky
tissue of their tails
ripped by a clumsy hand. I kept them in
large glass bowls, fed them
mosquito wings or dry silkworm pupas
offered from chopsticks,
and when I was finished making sketches,
I quickly took them
back and set them free again. Every
night I dream I swim
with these fish as a golden carp—black spots
on cloisonné scales,
pulled to the surface by the deceptive
creamy luster of
the moon or the sizzle of firefly lights
across the water.
And every night I am tempted once
again by the smell
of the baited hook, by my predictable
hunger for earthly
things, and each time I am surprised again
by the stinging hook
in my lip that pulls me mercilessly
into the bright air,
setting my gills on fire, the sharp, silver
pain of the knife that
slits me open so easily from tail
to throat to reveal
the scarlet elastic of my raw gills,
the translucent film
of my air sac, the milky rise of my
stomach, and the gray
marbled coil of my intestines. I rise
late each day, and work
in brighter light. When I die, I will
have my paintings brought
down to the lake and slipped into the water.
First the edges of
ink will blur, and then there will be a great
flurry as the fins,
tails, and bodies begin blossoming in-
to life again, each
fish detaching from its canvas of silk
or rice paper—a
swirl of color, motion, swimming away.
After I finished my MFA, I lived in Columbus, Ohio for a while, where I worked as a legal secretary, which was kind of awful, and [laughs] I was usually late every day to work and would be running to catch the bus. And in the neighborhood where I lived in Columbus, there was a family of albino squirrels, and so occasionally I would see an albino squirrel running around in Victorian Village. And it was rather magical, and for a long time, when I read this poem people thought I was making up the squirrel, and I was very relieved to meet someone, who had gone to school at OSU and knew about the albino squirrels.
This poem, I think is—well, it's a couple things—it's a Seasonal Affective Disorder poem. I realized I really need light, so when I was living in Indiana and Ohio by around—when you get into November or so, it's overcast every day, and I kind of, I was probably one of those people who needed to humiliatingly wear one of those headlamps in order not to want to shoot myself, but [laughs], so every year, for awhile, I wrote a Seasonal Affective Disorder poem. So this is one of the annual Seasonal Affective Disorder poems. But, it's also a poem I think that's inspired by Elizabeth Bishop and some of her animal poems. So, she has a poem called "The Armadillo" and also "The Moose" and so there's a magical encounter with an animal, but it doesn't happen until the very end of the poem, so this is a similar strategy.
Pumpkin after pumpkin crumples into the rows
of front porches, lopsided faces like stroke
victims, and it is the time of the year when I avoid
their drooping gaze because I, too,
feel disconsolate—scooped out and overblown
with too much ripeness. Maple leaves palm
the wet sidewalk with red, splayed wing--fingers
as if to keep the mold and damp from rising,
and my mind stretches taut as the lines of web
that spiders pluck and tap with bent, clever legs—
their nimble pizzicato a Morse code of desire
and fear. Last night a possum bared its teeth
to me and hissed from the corner of my back porch
where it crouched, all shiny tin-foil eyes
and terse, bald pink tail when I surprised
its meticulous inventory of the neighbors' trash.
Each time I tried to sneak out to the dumpster,
ridiculous, armed with a broom in one hand,
a Big Bear bag full of cat poop in the other,
it was still there, crouching, nocturnal
and vigilant, hiss spiraling into a growl. I left it
and went to bed where my lover cocooned
in the brown tick and hum of the electric blanket,
tightly rolled and snug as an enchilada—oblivious
to my attempts to unwrap her, to the shift
and held-breath tension of the bed as I hunched
into my own, separate blanket and touched myself.
Delicate flickering to ease down the slick,
fragrant warmth until everything was satin, swollen
ripe fruit, and desire uncoiled its heavy braid
in dull, furtive pulse beats. Sometimes it seems
as if there is no warning, not even a slender
line of thread whose vibrations I can decode,
and I woke in the morning desiccated and numb,
tangled in bedclothes. On the way to the bus stop
toward the certainty of another day measured
in tea bags, timesheets, the endless bony click
and clatter of computer keys—a day I know
will fade as easily as regret—I am startled by
leaves hitting asphalt as they plummet from trees.
I can't help thinking this must be like the sound
of all those butterflies sprayed with insecticide
at the end of the summer exhibit, cascading
onto the conservatory floor—the soft, brittle rain
of color, motion suddenly stopped. I've carried
this peculiar sorrow in my heart as if it were
a sparrow in a cage, and on mornings like this
I can feel it swell its breast, puffing out feathers
against the chill. I see an albino squirrel weaving
its way through the rush-hour line of cars,
leaping onto the sidewalk to pause in front
of me—like white velvet, with sleek muscular
haunches, a glamorous plume of tail. Red
jeweled eyes glittered like pomegranate seeds,
and he gripped an enormous acorn in his mouth
as if it were everything—carrying it toward
the promise of his well-lined nest, toward warmth
and sleep, the solitary ambrosia of oblivion.
In Vermilion, South Dakota, where I live, we're in Missouri River Valley country, and there's a place that the locals call Firefly Alley—it's sort of an open lot where you can see all the way down into the river valley, and the fireflies really love it there in the summer, so if you walk by at night you can see it's sparkling with fireflies. So, this is a firefly poem. It's in the style of linked tankas, and it's in four very short sections, each one named after one of the properties of, of bioluminescence. Fireflies use the light to woo and attract each other, but the funny thing about fireflies is sometimes, for example, fireflies are very good flashers, so they can put on a great light show, which is very attractive then to female fireflies. But some fireflies are not good flashers, but they're good fliers. So the good fliers have evolved to hang out with the good flashers, and then when the flashers are doing attractive lights, the good fliers kind of hone in and, and pretend that they were the ones doing the flashing, because they're fast, but. That's a little pop-up video moment, okay. [Laughs]
The eggs burn softly
in the earth, and when glow worms
hatch out, ravenous,
each one comes with a tiny
bright square of light like
the view-hole to a
furnace notched in its belly.
Can you feel their heat?
Their hunger for the tender
moonstruck flesh of slugs and snails?
Sometimes at night, fire-
flies are startled by lightning,
the tympani-drum flutter
of thunder rumbling the storm
home, and they all flash at once
in surprise—a quick
blinking open of sleepy
green nocturnal eyes,
a phosphorescent murmur:
Go back to sleep. It's just rain.
we would all be if longing
shone through our bodies,
if our skins were translucent
lanterns flushed with yellow flame
leaping in the strange
and unpredictable winds
of our desire, like
the neon Morse code fireflies
use to brazenly flick the night.
You are a dusky
angel drawn to the gleaming
beam of my porch light,
a brief embered orange blaze
from your cigarette, sizzle
of sparks splattering
the asphalt of my sidewalk.
Your touch like sooty
moth wings, and I glow, suffused
with your heat, your scent, your light.
This poem is called "Hope," and I promised I would read it tonight. It's my goldfish poem, which probably I would say owes a certain tribute to Mark Doty's poem "Brilliance," which is another beautiful goldfish poem that I love. This, for a while after I moved to South Dakota, I was keeping those Japanese goldfish with are beautiful—they have the puffy heads and the gorgeous fan tails—but my cat kept drinking out of the top of the tank and stressing out the fish, and they kept dying and after a while it was just sort of depressing, I was like, you know, killing all of my goldfish, but...this is also tied in with the idea that apparently the goldfish memory lasts approximately only three seconds.
There are nights I dream of goldfish,
and in my dreams they sing to me in
fluted, piercing sopranos like the Vienna
Boys Choir. Although in the daylight
they are mostly silent and ravenous—
the suction-cup grip of their mouths
on my fingertip like tiny rubber bath-
room plungers when they rise to strike
at an offering of chopped green peas.
Sometimes a frenetic clicking of marbles
nosed and nudged across the aquarium
floor during scavenging sessions for food,
sounding like the rack and crack of a game
of pool. Such hunger. Such extravagance.
Their ovoid bodies are like Faberge eggs
filigreed with flakes of hammered gold,
a glittering armor of polished gill
plates, their dorsal fins elegant ribbed
silk fans that open when in motion,
and fold themselves shut in repose.
Clever pectoral fins maneuver and oscillate
like small propellers, and the circling
tails flare and twirl with the hypnotic
flourish of the toreador's cape. All
is endless metaphor here. All of it.
I once read the goldfish memory span
was three seconds, and does this mean
each moment is an astonishment
in a series of quick incarnations spiraling
outward the way water ripples away
from a disturbance, so that, in the end,
each brief flicker of awareness
is long enough to learn to simply be,
and isn't this really, after all, enough?
One morning I woke to find the red-capped
oranda in distress—fins clamped sadly
down, listless tail, gasping on the back
corner floor of the aquarium. I netted
her and put her in a glass bowl sugared
with a quarter cup of sea salt crystals—
the way my Japanese grandfather once
showed my mother, and the way my mother,
years later in America, once showed me.
And several hours later, the sheer veils
of tail and fin began to bloom, to resume
their arabesques and veronicas around
the sleek shimmer of her white satin body—
the scandal of her scarlet cap dipping
coquettishly, onyx beads of eyes swiveling
in their turquoise socket rings. She swam
around and around the clear glass bowl,
until my heart swung left and followed her
around and around from above the way
red-throated loons on the Island of Seto
circle and follow the fishing boats, tamed
by the fishermen, and calling out
with their strange and mournful cries.
In my most recent book, On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year, I'm writing a lot of poems in dialogue with and in homage to tenth-century Japanese women diarists and writers. And one of these writers, Sei Shōnagon kept the famous Pillow Book, and she had lists and poems and snarky musings on other Japanese courtiers. I have a number of poems then inspired by her list poems. She—this is one of them, it's called "Squalid Things," and Sei Shōnagon also had a poem called "Squalid Things." Tenth century Japan, the courtiers were exceedingly neurosthenically refined, so her list of squalid things was very delicate. So for Sei Shōnagon, she said that the inside of a cat's ear, for example, was very squalid; or, you know, the piece of embroidery where you can see all the stitching and the knots on back, she said that was very squalid; or, a nest of little pink naked mouse babies, she said was very squalid. This is a contemporary version of the poem, so it's probably going to be way more squalid than that. I'll warn you in advance. Alright, so, "Squalid Things."
A long glossy line of fat ants who've squeezed
the back-door crack, clambering up into
the bowls of cat
food to wallow about, all the while ges-
imperiously with their antennae.
The cats look down
in their food bowls and refuse to eat, then
look up at me
in shock and disgust. A fly who's been trapped
in the sticky
gum of flypaper—struggling, contorting
the twisted poses of a Mannerist
painting, or as
if it were playing a game of Twister,
buzzing so loud
it becomes impossible to ignore
of its predicament, until one starts
to feel stricken
with remorse, but can't think of any way
the situation other than to hum,
at top volume,
the tune to the Alka Seltzer jingle
just to drown out
the death rattle until, at last, it stops.
Needless to say,
this is very squalid. The crisp Texas
that one sometimes likes to eat in secret
are really quite
squalid too, as their green skins are ever-
disturbingly furred, just like the tender
flesh of earlobes.
The ex-girlfriend who incessantly made
to her former lovers: so-and-so's breasts
were more floppy,
or that it took at least four whole fingers
to fill so-and-
so's vagina, was hopelessly squalid.
When one's toilet
overflows it is so depressingly
squalid that one
simply wishes to move to a whole new
eating Lime Green Tostitos in bed while
Rock and reading books of questionable
merit is squalid as well, even though
one can't always
help oneself. Also, a cat who will eat
vomit, thinking it a form of soft food,
and hence a treat,
is a very squalid cat indeed. And
one has been looking forward to having
dinner with one's
lover at an elegant restaurant,
but once there, she
starts to pick a fight while one is maybe
little, and perhaps imagining
that one is Jean Rhys
in Paris about to order absinthe;
the waiter discreetly arrives with news-
the decanter, brilliant emerald green
the pristine snow-white sugar cube nestled
in the curve of
the metal spoon...and one's lover is now
angry and says she thinks she's still in love
with her ex-girl-
friend, and one notices that the waitstaff
are all starting
to smirk—well, this is perhaps the most
squalid thing of all.
There was a gentleman earlier this afternoon, who wondered why people were writing about dogs and not cats, and maybe that's why, because the cats just end up doing something squalorous I guess, I don't know.
Okay, two more poems. In researching insects, I read about an entomologist who worked with moth pheromones, and moth pheromones are incredibly powerful. Cecropia moths, for example, they're—if, if a little drop of moth pheromone were a teeny little drop of blue dye in the Grand Canyon, the male Cecropia moth would be able to find it—just that little teeny blue drop. So, this seemed like it had to be a metaphor for something, because it's sort of terrible and powerful. But there's a scientist, an entomologist, who was working then, and studying moth pheromones and he accidentally dropped a little eyedropper splash on his blue-jeaned kneecap, and he became permanently marked, so after that wherever he went, like, moths found him incredibly sexy and attractive [Audience laughter] and they, like, follow around and kind of circle his knee, like a three-dimensional tattoo or something. And so this got me to thinking about, you know, what are the things and who are the people that permanently mark us in one way or another. The title of this poem is "Irezumi," which is the name of Japanese traditional full-body tattoo, which is kind of the, what you see here on my second book.
"Irezumi (Or, Tattoo You)"
What happens when someone indelibly marks you, and you become invisibly inked, like the ultraviolet that tattoos the petals of certain flowers?
In the dark, you phosphoresce.
Honeybees read your mind like a neon sign. They swarm, clatter, and hum about you like a cluster of lovesick grapes.
The song you're usually so careful not to sing out loud now chorused in harmony--a swelling of sound and polyphonic counterpoint, lyrics prismed into infinity as the graffiti scored onto your body is read through the multiple facets, the ommatidia, of curious, compound eyes.
And really, what will the crickets think of this insurgent, cross-species mating call, when their ears--tiny swollen drums in their knees--begin to throb in response?
Once, a man I thought I loved with all the awful rasp and moan of a Billie Holiday song, even though (or maybe even because) he belonged to another, pulled an apple from his book bag, offered it to me in his office behind a shut door. Simple as tapping a chocolate orange to fracture it open. Simple as peeling off the shiny rind of foil.
(Even though I prefer the flecked grit of pears--especially Japanese pears, that miscegenation of the apple. Their round bottoms cushioned against bruising at the grocery store in white Styrofoam fishnets. Spiral of freckled skin curling in even, green coils onto a quiet plate.)
Once, I left an apple out for the squirrels, and later, it reappeared on top of a nearby telephone pole--red, emphatic point punctuating an upside-down exclamation mark.
Word problem: An entomologist accidentally spills an eyedropper's splash of moth pheromone on his knee and he's marked forever. Wherever he goes, he's trailed in a skirl of moths, skittering and flickering around his kneecap like a three-dimensional tattoo. As in most cases of mistaken identity, he's mildly embarrassed. The moths, though, remain
resolute. In light of this given, is it better to be (a) the marked one trailed by a cloud of moths, or (b) one of the moths . . . so absolutely fixed in your certainty about who and what you wanted?
My final poem is about an octopus, an octopus from my childhood. I'm sure that many of you are familiar with the sound that a furnace makes, particularly in the middle of the winter when it's very cold out and it kind of thumps and clatters and clunks and sort of struggles into life in the middle of the night. And so, I grew up in Laramie, Wyoming, where it is very cold in wintertime, and sometimes the furnace would wake me up in the middle of night. And it was, I was an over imaginative child, so instead of thinking, "oh, that' s a furnace," what I thought was, "oh, that's a frozen octopus that my Japanese mother is keeping in the freezer, and it's bumping its head up against the freezer lid." And I'd, I'd forgotten about that for a very long time, until I moved to South Dakota to take my teaching position at USD. And I was living in a little rental cottage and about three in the morning, the furnace woke me up, and it was bumping and thumping down in the basement and kind of firing into life, and I thought, "oh, that octopus is back," and so I felt like I needed to write a poem, and this poem is directly addressed, then, to the octopus in the freezer.
"Octopus in the Freezer"
What could you possibly have been dreaming of
as you slumbered coiled there, tentacles
furled about your large soft brow, bashful
and pink, ruminating in the back corner
beneath an arched shelf of antelope ribs--
snugged between headless-bodied broods
of sage grouse, the icy bright pillows
of Shur-Fine lima beans and the buttered
currency of carrot medallions? What were
you thinking down there in my parents'
basement, blue blood's pulse stilled to a wiry
tangle of navy ribbon, the syncopated bongo-
drum thump and thrum of your three hearts
on break between sets and resting silent
on the stage? By what unlikelihood
were you frozen solid in this tightly-wound
pose, like a multi-limbed Hindu goddess
in lotus position, riding the plains by freight
truck to Sakura Square in Denver, where
my mother admired the brawny circumference
of your arms, the snow-white firmness
of your inner flesh, the rubbery erect grip
of your suction cups? And what were the odds
that you'd be packed in dry ice by the ojii-san
behind the counter, tucked into our avocado-
green Igloo ice cooler and driven home
across the state line to Wyoming? You remain
frozen in time in my parents' freezer--totemic,
statuesque, infinite and apocryphal--even though
you've been eaten many times over, one arm
at a time, sliced thin into cross-sectioned slivers
for sushi on birthdays and holidays. As a child,
I used to think the dull muffled thud and clunk
of the furnace firing into life at night was the sound
of your head bumping up against the freezer lid,
the cold grate and clash of meats shifting,
scraping against one another in the wake
of your thrashing tentacles' lash and whip.
What error in judgment took you from your cozy
niche, your eclectic garden arranged with such
compulsive precision: the slender-necked
and lush-hipped wine bottles, the shiny winking
bits of mirror startling back your placid mild eye,
the pickle jar whose lid you loved to screw
and unscrew--dangling in a tapered arm,
your exquisitely sensitive, ganglia-rimmed
suckers quivering, to check for tasty things
to eat? Did you become snarled in a fisherman's
net, or clasped tight in the steel embrace
of a lobster trap--caught in the careless
kleptomania of your endless lust for crustacea?
And did your chromatophores pulse first white,
then red, to semaphore the blushing flush
of fear flaming to anger? Were you caped
in a smoky swirl of spewed blackness dispersing
the way sumi-é ink curls away from
the tornado whirl of a horsehair brush
being twirled clean in water? Today the snow
just falls and falls, and I think of you
as the relentless volatile wind lifts the flakes
into blinding, shimmering white veils that spiral
and mist--so cold the fine spray delicately
burns for one moment against the skin,
and frozen feathery etchings are flung up
against the windows like splayed bits
of goosedown. Cars and trucks cough and come
to a halt, my back door freezes shut.
The barometer drops and empty wine bottles
line the kitchen counter like bowling pins.
How odd, I keep thinking to myself
as everything around me creaks and groans
and shivers, then stills to ice and frost.
How odd that it has all come to this.
And then I wish for someone, anyone at all,
to dream of me, if only for a moment,
to unfurl my rigid aching limbs and melt down
all my hearts, taste my salt on their tongue,
let ice transubstantiate to breathing flesh,
and resurrect me back into the living again.
Thank you very much.
Thank you, you've been great. I'd be happy to take some questions if you like--I think we have about like ten minutes or so. Yes?
Audience Member: [inaudible]
Lee Ann Roripaugh: I haven't thus far, although it would be, I'd be very excited to see if someone set some of the poems to music, and thank you for that. I was trained in music, so my Bachelor's degree is in piano performance, and so I think a lot about the idea of lines of poems kind of functioning as musical phrases, so I'm definitely trying to kind of feel it out and try feel the music of the line as much as possible. That's a good question, thank you. Yes?
Audience Member: [inaudible]
Lee Ann Roripaugh: [nods and makes a sound of agreement]
Audience Member: [inaudible]
Lee Ann Roripaugh: [nods and makes a sound of agreement]. Yeah.
Audience Member: [inaudible]
Lee Ann Roripaugh: Yeah, I think maybe it feels presumptuous of me to actually enter into the psyche of, of the animal, perhaps. So, and I do do a lot of dramatic monologue poems, where I'm thinking about another character that is human or at least partially human, but I think I'm a little bit more cautious about wanting to enter the mental space of, of another, of another species. It's tricky. It's hard to pull off, and maybe in part I'm just not a good enough writer to do it properly, but there's that, yeah. Yeah?
Audience Member: [inaudible]
Lee Ann Roripaugh: Yeah, absolutely. I think mayflies were one of the first insects I was fascinated with. When I grew up in Laramie, Wyoming, mayflies came through around late May and early June and, and, and there were so many of them, they kind of were migrating through and they were molting and, and mating, so I was fascinated by them, and I, and I watched them. And so I think they were maybe one of the first insects that I, I witnessed and, and spent a lot of time thinking about, so that's drawing I think both on a fascination with insects, but also very much a childhood memory and a sense of place or home as well. Thank you. Yes?
Audience Member: [inaudible]
Lee Ann Roripaugh: [makes a sound of agreement]
Audience Member: [inaudible]
Lee Ann Roripaugh: [makes a sound of agreement]
Audience Member: [inaudible]
Lee Ann Roripaugh: Yeah.
Audience Member: [inaudible]
Lee Ann Roripaugh: I think that they seem unusual, and maybe less written about, so that is part of it. The, the insects fascinate me and, and, and may, Japanese literature is littered with insects, so in one sense I might be situating myself within a non-Western literary tradition in terms of being fascinated by the insect world. And the documentary I chose for my movie is definitely about the Japanese craze or fascination with insects. But I think also, for me, what I love about the insects is they are so other-worldly; I mean, they, when you look even at science fiction and you look at the science fiction creatures that have been imagined, frequently you'll see that they, there are a lot of similarities in how they've been imagined to insects, so there's something so other-worldly and strange, yet they're also small and exquisite, and I think that, for me, the idea of paying attention or being attentive to something that small and really kind of getting in there and seeing how, how fabulous, how exquisite, how full of, you know, facts that you couldn't even possibly begin to give up as a writer, they come along with--that world, then, seems very rich to me and so those are I think some of the reasons that I'm attracted to the insects.
Any other questions? All right, well thank you so much, you've been a wonderful audience.
[Transcription by Alex Cavanaugh; Reviewed by Dr. Crystal Alberts 21 October 2012];
Associate Professor of English
Director, UND Writers Conference276 Centennial Drive