On the work of Kate Atkinson

On the work of Kate Atkinson

When I was fourteen, I bought a copy of “Human Croquet” after reading about it in a magazine for girls (unexpected choice by the editor, I’ve come to realize). I had the original receipt for a while and jotted down the exact time, down to the minute, and place where the book was purchased.

I came back to that inscription in my senior year at Duke, when I was writing my (let’s face it, terrible) honors thesis on “Human Croquet.”

“Acquired at 7:33 p.m., May 17, 1998, Barnes & Noble, Arboretum, Charlotte, NC.”

There wasn’t much I understood at twenty, but I did understand why I wrote down the contents of the receipt. I was recording a life-changing moment. I met Michael Cunningham once when he came to give a talk at Duke, and he jovially discussed having his life upended by Virginia Woolf, and I was grateful for that, because it meant I wasn’t weird. Kate Atkinson just happened to split my particular atom.

Her work has changed over the years, gone both wide and deep, but some familiar themes have circled back this year: the handsome RAF pilot, the complete disaster of men and women, the cruel and lovely ambivalence of nature, the question of death and stepping sideways out of time, the tedium of children and how there’s nothing more important, Englishness (and how observing it changes it), the strange way men separate passion and love (like unspooling threads), the importance of getting on with it even when you’d rather lie down and melt back into the landscape again, lying down and melting into the landscape at a later date (though perhaps having helped someone in a way, so as to not have your existence be entirely without point), the fact that we are all so fragile as to almost be fiction.  Continue reading “On the work of Kate Atkinson”

Home, briefly

Home, briefly

To paraphrase a silly movie I loved:
Dark matter, actually, is all around.

What if the tremor in my hand
Are unseen particles passing through
Having previously traveled through you.

I sat by the Washington Monument
And wanted someone to ask why I was crying
Even though I’d stuck a pair of big sunglasses on
And was doing a good job
Of pretending I had a raging cold.

I didn’t realize how nuts the years away were driving me
Tree rings like nooses, grating sedimentary rocks
Here the echinoid, and here the mollusk,
Here that crack running through
That nakedly splits me in two
(You’ve made another dirty joke in your head just now
Not clever enough to share on Facebook this time
And poured another girl more wine).

You’re damned if you don’t
You’re damned if you do
That’s why I only surrendered
An earlobe to you
My left breast
Went to someone else
My soul to the soldier –
Who never takes off his body armor
I feel it when I drape a leg across him
Before the dawn, when darkness is thickest
For God’s sake
Why do men have to be so complicated.

There are things one shouldn’t do without:
Love, friends, oyster lace, waiters that make small-talk, America.
America at dawn, with a small Baptist church
Like a dunce cap its too-big steeple
Being circled by – you guessed it – an eagle
As I stare dumbfounded with a plastic cup of coffee
Thinking “I need to come home again, finally, finally.”

My love, my love, America
Your reproachful security guards
Have a Hopper-like solitude in their eyes
Figures on a canvas together
That couldn’t be more apart.

What if all that you’re missing is on the other side
Of the particle divide?
What if dark matter is God
What if I one day learn to shut up.

There is no point in revealing
Only the safe, taut, irreproachable parts of oneself
The parts that ripen and grow heavy
For someone else’s pleasure
Before peaking and bursting and spilling
In a quick, ineffectual rain
Pounding the sidewalk in vain.

But there is equally no point
In thinking the elaborate, unreadable, too-personal patterns
Of your pain are worth someone else’s time.

We all walk through our own labyrinths
Just a few of us smart enough to carry string.

I’ve failed at everything I wanted
And I am so relieved.

Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Evening, 1939
Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Evening, 1939

A song for your birthday

A song for your birthday

On your birthday I want to be together again
The others’ birthdays are all vague to me
Hahaha, I say, I’m bad with names and dates, you guys
And start getting drunk in too much of a hurry.

An old fortuneteller said the whips of hell been chasing me
But it was when I was extra good that you took off your belt
What the hell do those bitches know anyway?
Slavic women swear by them – which would explain a lot.

They say you throw some impressive shadow, babe,
Giants can’t help it if all their gestures are grand
That’s why your ladies-in-waiting carry poison in their rings
While you let your pets sharpen their teeth on your throne.

Power is power, was it the heat of your whisper in my ear –
Or just summer creeping up the back stairs again?
Those grass stains never did come out of my jeans
My mother has her own score to settle with the delivery man.

I’m a big girl all the way, but I bite the pillow at night
It was you who taught me that some stories must wait to be told
Those seeds of the future you brought me on your tongue –
I kissed the red clay ground and still wait for them to grow.

Baby, do you remember, stars dropping like recon units from the sky
You and I, the hood of the car cooling, transferring energy to us
I didn’t know this kind of beauty was even possible
Let alone that it was a product of the laws of physics.

You didn’t know your strength, I didn’t know my weakness
We got by alright. Killer, painter, singer, soldier, moneychanger you were
Scientist, dreamer, reaper, slaver, shaman and winemaker
And me in your lap, braiding roses and rattlesnakes into my hair.

Baby, on your birthday, it was always you who gave the gifts
Some I wanted, some you pressed into my hand anyway
And when your sleazebag accountant said the balance was due
I put my hair up and decorated the sidewalk with my bags

I had a dream I was in the backseat with Nabokov
Hot leather stuck to my bare legs
Your smile in the rearview, those expensive teeth
Asking – Darlin, will you spring for the gas?

Rules are only for children and good Protestants
You said when I saw you last, teetering on the stair
I had that funny walk and I have it still
Ain’t no room inside me for a bigger affair.


I miss carbohydrates
I miss the conviction
That rotten floorboards beneath my feet
Will give in at some later date
When I’ve moved on to greater things
That are owed to me by fate.
I miss kissing him
Outside that restaurant
(See how I’m not addressing him?
It must prove that I am repentant).
I miss saying “no” as easily
As sliding hand into glove;
Come to think of it
I miss my good winter things
And how unlike other phenomena
They could always be counted on.
I miss staring contests with the bottom of the glass
And I equally miss losing them.
I don’t miss pouring my own wine,
But I do miss choosing it.
I miss when rebellion meant
A nothing that came of nothing
As worn beneath my coat
I miss taking for granted
My ability to rain down a bit of destruction
In an insignificant corner
Of an altogether backward
Permanently twilit
Part of the world.
I miss being nobody’s vassal
Unless you counted those pale moth wings
Like the evening’s fluttering eyelids
And I’m sure you didn’t.
I miss split ends cut off by that woman
Split ends like golden forks in the road
Either way beset by trouble
Either way portending love.
I miss not missing my handsome jailer
Feeling for keys on his belt
And saying “it’s over” to my friends
Like an apology
For a terrible screw-up
A disaster so immense
That they had to cancel
Important dinner plans.
While I’m at it, I miss real friends
Those who don’t mind putting a blanket
Over my shoulders and theirs
To go and watch meteorites
Tear through the dark seams of the sky.
“One undone, another undone,
They’ll say it about us someday –
They were lovely as they shone
Why couldn’t they stay.”
And I miss the force per unit area
We had from sitting next to each other
When it felt that should it get a little colder
We could pull down the sky together
Spread it over our touching knees
And I could quit worrying my caged predator teeth
And bite its soft corner.
I miss the men
Who’ll think it’s about them
But not all, not all.
I miss the dog paused on the stair
Gazing into the changing shadows of the hall
Waiting for whatever was next
And whatever was next was nothing at all –
And how lucky that was for us both.
I miss the Carolina spring
Beautiful like a woman in a bar with someone else
Beautiful like only that which cannot be possessed
Leaning against the fence
And describing the sun
To disbelieving gnomes and spiders beneath the leaves
See, I knew I was going to write
I didn’t know there’d be a price like this.
The snow is already busy concealing the footprints
Of boys who won’t return from war
Having hidden behind their broad backs
I have missed them all.

winter thaw kuindzhi
Winter. Thaw. By Arkhip Kuindzhi, 1895.