House of the Tomato

If a woman wants to be a poet, she must dwell in the house of the tomato. -- Erica Jong

Regional website for the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, in partnership with the Reader's Loft.

GREEN BAY / NORTHEAST

Celebrating, sharing and inspiring poetry throughout Wisconsin.

Smiley Face

Not sure of the ending. LMK what you think.

Smiley Face

We watched TV in the bunker
of the basement with only the blue-
green glow of the boob tube.

We fancied the well windows
were two eyes staring at us
from the cinderblock. 

The basement was mostly finished,
but father had a hip idea
and handed us each a spraycan of paint. 

Yellow. Blue. Red. Mother shook
her head, sorting dirty clothes
into small piles in the laundry room.

She agreed there was a time and place
for happening, but perhaps it did not include
pre-teens and indelible aerosol.

My sisters and I were each assigned
a stretch of wall. Every squiggle, every curlique
had meaning in our lexicon of graffiti.

Father and little brother were in charge
of black, lines of definition. The long walk
to school. The boy I liked. My sister's

struggles in speech therapy. She couldn't
say her s's. Mostly because she was missing
front teeth. Colors had rules.

Like combining primary with complementary
colors gave you brown. Brown was not
a color that could be undone.

Father in a brown study stepped aside
for mother disheveled by whites and darks.
She held an extra spraycan of black in one hand.

Mother drew a smiley face on the wall
with the word "shit" underneath. The rueful look
of parents with dripping paint connected them.

"Not my best idea," conceded father.
Something they laughed about for the three
nights it took to repaint the basement.

A Child, Maybe Your Child?

 

Somewhere a child, maybe your child,
is wandering the streets with a backpack
looking for a doorway to settle into
out of the wind and the chill.

Somewhere, there are two or three who
find each other under the bridge in town,
huddled together, afraid someone might attack
because of how they look, who they are.

Somewhere a teen or twenty-something
told their parents they are gender fluid
or not their gender assigned at birth,
dressing in a dress now, wearing dangly earrings.

Somewhere a child, maybe your child,
has spent hours, days, years knowing
what they needed to do, just to keep themselves alive
trusting you, as they came out,

Somewhere a child, maybe your child
is hungry, and needs a good night’s sleep.
Did you think about where they might go
the day you turned them out to the streets?

I think of my son-now-a-daughter child, safe and warm.
She tells me about her trans friends hugging their packs
for comfort, bone cold on a bench, hungering for dinner,
a real bed and unconditional love.

 

On This I Weep

On This I Weep

 

New parents marvel at their joy,
bonding, counting fingers and toes.
He is named, nursed, diapered,
swaddled and cuddled; bathed and kissed.
Oh, the happily-ever-after of it all!

He is bright, creative, and clever,
growing into all of nature’s unique gifts.
He’s told stories of what he can achieve;
he can be anything he wants to be.
One day he tells his parents he’s a girl.

He tells them again, and again.
In shock the mother asks, How do you know you’re a girl?
The child says, How do YOU know?

I just know, she blurts. The child shouts,
Yes, me too. I just know!

 This child, named, birthed, loved, and cuddled
is written off, pushed away.
Living in the streets across Wisconsin
this tale repeats. Too many wander hungry,
with no bed, cast out in their teens and 20s
just for being who they are.

A few kind souls might help re-write a story,
taking in one or two when they can; but
many are left to the streets, often in danger.
These fledglings trying to fly on their own
sadly hunger for meals, for a real bed,
for the return of unconditional love.

(note: I kept playing with line length and form. A boxed, prose poem, couplets, and now I am back to stanzas, but the lines are all different in number....ragged..perhaps that illustrates the situation.)

Sweet Sixteen

This one got a little rambling... good? bad?

Sweet Sixteen

Mother called him Johnny-Baby,
as if he was a lounge singer
and could riff with his voice
and the strange tilt of his head
as if he was considering me for song lyrics.
Mother crooned the refrain.
Johnny-Baby, Johnny-Baby.
My first serious boyfriend.

*
His Adam's Apple told me things.
What books to read, what tunes
to listen to. Every boy I ever dated
wanted to reinvent me, as if I wasn't
already here and personal and me.

*
Mother liked him despite her qualms.
He worked summers as a cameraman
for the local TV station.
He was always rolling.

*
Johnny-Baby jingled when he walked,
a collection of coin and keychain
in his pocket. He kept a folio of topics
his prominence wished to discuss with me
stashed inside the visor of his Pinto.
My answers decided if we would kiss
or park or stroll the shore
of a rocky beach.

*
To celebrate my birthday
Mother decided we should doubledate.
Johnny-Baby called at the house
in his blazer and turtleneck.
Father in his bemusement
drove us to Duck Duck Goose,
a new bistro in town,
spilling big brass jazz and
drinks in jam jars.

*
"I throw these away," said mother,
eyeing a jam jar and Johnny-Baby's hands
on the table.

*
We pretended to be adults
above and below the table.
Johnny-Baby pressed
our knees together,
later he would press mine apart
like leaves in a book
as we roiled with the surf.
What new questions could
we ask?

*
How mother knew
like there was a hinge in my heart?

Footwork

Would this make a better essay, than a poem?   Or keep it a prose poem.  I could change line length--making it a box of prose. Thoughts?

1.
She made me wear “boys’ shoes”,
those brown oxfords, with boxy toes.
Sturdy, orthopedic, with hard soles, laces up the front.
Mother preached, “You’ll thank me some day
when you don’t have fallen arches and sore feet.”
Kids teased me, showing off their
arch-less Keds or cute ballet flats.

2.
I carried green suede gym shoes
stealth, in a brown paper sack out the door.
Cutting through the back yard on my walk to school,
I stopped at the evergreen hedge,
switched out the shoes,
sliding the oxfords into the crumpled sack, then
stuffed them hideously out of sight under the bushes.

3.
Those gym shoes grew thin and worn,
my baby toes poking out through holes on each side.
Teachers asked, “Can’t your parents afford to buy
you new shoes?”  I said nothing.

4.
After school, sneaking home through the back yard
I donned the oxfords, rushed in the door,
greeted mother, heading to the basement
with a manicure scissors and the concrete floor.

5.
My work began, snipping the stitching, and dragging my feet
across concrete, scuffing tops and soles, which
occupied me until dinner, every day after school.

6.
When mother saw the oxfords were wearing out,
off we went to Wally’s Shoe Repair on 6th.
Those sturdy shoes were re-soled, stitched and
polished shiny like an apple, in oxblood red.

7.
The death of my shoes revived by the name
"Oxblood" turned my stomach.
 The shoes wars continued until junior high when
I tearfully begged my dad to
Take me shoe shopping.

8.
He felt some pity I think.  It was awkward
enough just being thirteen without even
being teased, wearing "boys shoes".
He took me to Mayers Shoe Store downtown.
Soon I was slipping shiny copper pennies
into the front of new Weejuns.


9.
In the years since, my arches have fallen,
bones crunch, feet hurt, spurs rise up
and rub painfully upon my feet.  I wish my
Mother had made me wear “boys shoes”,
brown oxfords, with boxy toes,
sturdy, orthopedic with hard soles and laces up the front.
She said, “You’ll thank me some day
when you don’t have fallen arches and sore feet.”

Happy Hour

Wrote this poem as a *continuation* poem after "Goulash."

Happy Hour

Hunger cast a shadow
like mother and father
at the breakfast bar during
happy hour, that fluctuating time
when father came home from work
and they'd "catch up."

We gnawed our tongues
having already used up our
TV time, knowing if we asked
for dinner, mother would pour them
another drink, and we'd wait, wait.
At first it was Rhine wine, then
gin and tonics, and for a sweet time
Black Russians, which made them
hungry quicker. We'd eat when the sky
was still sherbet, lemon or raspberry.

There were only so many
Little Brother Specials we could drink,
his moniker for ice water we'd take turns
dispensing from the outside door of the refrigerator,
mother giving us side looks from her cat eyes.
Children should be seen and not heard.
Really why did they need to catch up?
They saw each other every day.
This bubble of time they preserved
for their couplehood.

We came second.
Mother reinforced this every day,
every tepid meal,
every bowl of congealed gravy
when it was a night
for gravy.

Goulash

Goulash

1.
Mother dog-ears the pages.
Recipes with worldly names
like stroganoff, cassoulet, ragout.
In between housewifely articles about
how to clean grout, the perfect smile
and the problem with no name.
Slick photos. Dangerous game.
Father doesn't like his food touching.

2.
Mother has a way of cocking
her hip at the stove.

3.
I'm roused from my reading
to set the table. The flutter of blue
tablecloth in a room of exotic birds,
low-hanging candelabra, curio
cabinet with the good china and silver.
Dinner is mother's insistence
despite how late father gets home.

4.
We have our places at the table.
Mother and father at each end.
My two sisters, me and young brother
arranged around the provincial edge.
Father stares at the casserole dish
in the center of the table, bubbling and bloody.
The eerie translucence of cooked cabbage.
"What is this?" he asks, that thing
with his jaw when he's angry,
even into the light of the window behind him.
"Goulash," says mother, lighting a cigarette,
staring back in a standoff only they
know the meaning of.

5.
Father divines with a serving spoon,
parting the ways of cabbage, ground beef
and tomato sauce, distaste set in his chin.

6.
The spoon in slow motion. The spoon in a flash.
Catapult of casserole onto mother,
who doesn't flinch at first.
We hear the fancy clock tick, tock,
hand nudging incrementally while
we're all afraid to move. Or laugh.
Or anything.

7.
The wideness of our eyes,
sitting on our hands.
Mother slowly reaches,
retaliating with the spoon.
Father splattered with casserole.
He throws down a napkin,
unable to speak past his clenched jaw.
The squeegee sound of the station wagon in reverse.

8.
Mother eats a small portion of casserole.
We feel for each other's feet beneath the table,
trying not to look at each other.
Clumps of casserole cling to mother,
the tablecloth and the wall like scratched scabs.
We have no ideas about appropriateness or response.

9.
We are excused from the table.

10.
Mother clears, taking her time
on the back stoop, shaking out the tablecloth.
She watches the purple martins streak and swoop
in the dusking sky, searching for bugs.

11.
Mother doesn't have to search for father.
She knows where he is.
They sashay home after bedtime,
following each other's headlights.

12.
Meal planning takes a turn,
alternating nights of food that doesn't touch,
with food that does.

13.
We ask for more peanut butter.

14.
Mother buys crunchy
for a change.

 

Deaf Nation

Epigram: in 2018 from January 1st – 25th  there were 11 school shootings in the United States. In 2013, there were 300 school shootings in our country.

 Deaf Nation

Gunshots echo in schools,
common as the pledge of allegiance.

Gunshots ring like school bells,
marking time; for too many, marking the end of time.

 Gunshots are breaking news
and breaking us.

Gunshots in schools average one per week.
Our Legislators have gone deaf.

They do not hear the cries
where anyone can pack heat, even the mentally ill.

Gunshots are breaking news
and breaking us.

Gunshots ring like school bells
marking time; for too many, marking the end of time.

Gunshots echo in schools,
common as the pledge of allegiance.

Our Legislators have gone deaf, cannot hear the cries,
where anyone can pack heat, even the mentally ill.

 

The Slap

It wasn't all rainbows and shamrocks with my mother... we had our confrontations... believe me. I wish there was a dang tab function.

The Slap

 At the crossroads of coming and going
               Here I am vacuuming again 

I mutter something impolite about mother
       “What did you say?” she asks 

The look I give her
                            Searing scorn of a teenager

The trap of my silence
       Either I speak or I don't 

She slaps me
                            Hard

The bulwark of my face,          arctic plane of my cheek,
        teeth grinding to never ever land 

                            “Apologize,” she says
The green of her eyes sparking 

like copper under flame
       My infidel eyes rimy and unrepentant 

She slaps me again
                              Harder

My head jars
       Glass in the instant precariously

I can only vacuum          steadying 

                                  “Apologize.”

She will excavate respect if necessary
        The pickax of her glare 

I muscle my tongue with my sharp teeth
              We scrape metal

       The next slap knocks me
to tears

She walks away, satisfied, 

believing she must break me down
to build me back up

 

Back Room

Not sure about the title... but you know I'm a sucker for double entendre... I felt I really had to strenuously edit the scene in the writing to get at the essence... hopefully I included enough.

Back Room

I'm embarrassed by the prophylactics.
Father keeps them behind the counter.
The drawers are extra-deep and slide with an engineered glide.

Boys I recognize from the high school come into the drugstore and ask for them.
I stay in the back room with mother and Mary,
who's worked for my father since the beginning.

We package pills in tiny bubbles and slot them in trays
for easy administration at the old people's home.
Mother drinks diet cola in a tall glass that beads condensation.

We pretend the room isn't as small or as blue as it is,
floating between and behind each other in our tiny lagoon
as we reach and bend, reach and bend

to retrieve the pills organized in alphabetical order.
Mary forgets I'm there and complains to mother
about her husband, his demand for sex in particular.

Why does she have to bother? She gets nothing
out of it. She'd just as soon watch a movie.
Mary enounces the word 'sex' like it's a fatal disease.

Mother lights a cigarette and lets it burn in the ashtray.
Her byzantine eyes squint at Mary without encouraging
or discouraging. She asks us what we'd like for lunch.

Mother and I sit outside the back door on the cement stoop
to eat our lunch. She unwraps the foil of her hoagie
and lets it steam on a paper plate. She watches me

fold back the foil of mine, caressing the bangs out of my eyes.
"It doesn't have to be that way," she says, "between a man and a woman."
She sips her cola, and a wet napkin drifts into her lap.

"I orgasm every time," she says. I lift a shoulder at the word,
even though I know what it means. "A woman should claim
her own pleasure," I nod silently, trying not to eat the foil from my sandwich.

The Mighty Oak Aches

(This break up is eating away at me today--so thought I'd post this one too--I've edited all day...what do you think?  I coincidentally ran across a  symbolic photo on FB, it's not my photo, but I put it here..for you and me. One of their songs at the wedding was " Satisfied" BTW)

for their gentle love joined in the heat of summer solstice.
They floated with music, carried on a breeze so light
we wanted to linger a bit longer to hear that song, so satisfied.

In a dry land on a frigid night of winter solstice,
we hear creaking wood break under the weight of one’s grief.
The other has turned cold with boredom and wandering eyes.

The forest of their together-life charred by lightning
spills salted water across a desert sky,
far removed from that mighty oak day.

 What was, can no longer be,
the trunk of trust broken with promises scattered
like dry leaves into the spinning wind.

Arms that once embraced, now out of reach.

 

Star Struck on a Below Zero Night

(yesterday jottings, today's rework-- a fresh write for the new year. Do you get my hidden reference in stanza 4?) (big clue- see image added to this title)

The voices of the stars whisper magic
all day while hidden behind the sun

But it is the night that brings out their rich dialogues
stories spilled across the sky. Pictographs of perception.

What are you telling me this eve of a new year
after weeks of bad news?

Do I find hope in Orion hunting for answers?
Or Sirius, the she-bear, brightest star telling me
to stay strong, defend my pack?

I wait and watch, shiver in the dark, my breath a bloom of cloud.
Listen, the seven sisters speak,
I can almost hear their woman-wise words
in the brittle cold, leaning into the new year.

 

 

Side-by-Side

Annette, I am writing these as they come to me...

Side-by-Side

Mother contributes to progress
by upgrading to a new side-by-side refrigerator.

She's enamored of the many compartments,
the labeled drawers for lunchmeat

and fruit. Baby sister stands next to a wall
and answers questions none of us ask.

Mother suspects extreme myopia and
honey-harangues her away from the wall

with the promise of bananas suspended
in jello. I pull the door of the new fridge

like it's still wide as a Buick. An egg flies
out of its keeper and lands on the floor.

I see after the fact there's a sliding lid
that isn't completely closed. I turn to mother

to share the discovery only to find her gagging
into her hand. "It's just an egg," I say.

Mother desperately points towards the paper towel.
"Don't make me look at it," she says.

I think it's funny how she wretches, the egg
almost beautiful, broke neat as a pin, yolk a high dome

of vivid yellow. Baby sister puts her face
right next to the egg. "Poor baby," she says.

Bath Night

Weird memories of my mother coming back... she was a wonderful, complicated and infuriating woman...

Bath Night

Mother helps us wrap our hair
in towels like Queens of Sheba.

She stomps the shag carpet in her pincurls
and drifting cigarette.

We half-dry.

Towels belong in the bathroom
or down the chute.

The clean scent of softener on our pajamas,
flouncy babydolls with elastic leg ruffles,
some slinky, newfangled fabric.

We tip over in a pile of girl
with our damp skin, legs and downy arms,
long necks with our hair pulled up.

Mother hands us hairbrushes,
watches us pull at our scalps.

Father, outnumbered, works late.

I know the patterns of both my sisters' tan lines,
their nipples neat as coins.

Our mother reads us One Eye, Two Eyes, and Three Eyes.
Two Eyes is supposed to be the heroine, but Three Eyes uncovers the truth.
Only two eyes close.
The third eye is curious.

"Vaginas need air," says our mother. Light's out.

We kick off our pajama bottoms,
feel the night air between our legs.

She kisses us goodnight,
glancing kisses with her dry lips.

She smells of Viceroy and Dippity-do.

We imagine the ecosystem of our private parts,
part eye, part channel to a hidden chamber.

Family Quilt

Tori- I was going thru an old notebook from 1998. saw some notes about this event, and wrote a completely new poem. I read an interview of Karla where she wanted to write a poem using the word 'Judder" -- I love that word-- so had to use it in a poem. That's not plagiarism--to use one word, is it?   Line, 3, Should I leave the word "scraps" in, or take it out? does it give the idea of blended family? Also 2nd to last line, I took out "of disapproval" and then put it back in. is it redundant (understood)  with the last line? keep? or not?

 

Death from diabetes and influenza
became the patchwork of Mimi-grandma’s life
with scraps of two families stitched together.
To make ends meet, she and her mother
sewed for sustenance. Hard work
pressed into the fabric of their days.

 For this second-hand life
her mother took in washing and mending
from two women who later shook their heads
and clicked their tongues
when Mimi said “yes” to marry their brother
fresh out of dental school.

 Moving to the better side of the tracks,
Mimi hemmed up a prosperous existence.
The spinster sisters-in-law
juddering their lavender heads of disapproval
looking down on the help.

Fork in the River

My great-grandparents lived in Little Suamico. Driving back from Milwaukee yesterday it struck me how close I ended up settling to them. My memories of my great-grandfather are sketchy. But I remember this. And how he died. Too disjointed?

Fork in the River

My great-grandpa Bazi comes in from the pump
with his large hands and whiskered mole.
He ducks beneath the door, a clapboard man
in a clapboard house. He bends down to kiss
my great-grandmother on the top of her head,
frying eggs and hash browns on the farmhouse stove.
Sizzle and sun join up together to make the kitchen yellow.
What is that on my head. I touch my hatless crown.
I see out the window my boy cousin racing for the river
with a fishing pole. Great-grandpa spits towards a spittoon.
Is it a beaver? A rug? I appeal to my mother,
helping great-grandmother lay out the breakfast dishes.
Answer, she motions. I wished I was catching bullheads.
The spittoon gleams. No, not a beaver or a rug.
A skunk? I'm affronted at the skunk question.
It must show on my face. Great-grandpa slaps his bony knees.
Just hair, says my aunt. He wants you to say just hair.
Just hair, echoes great-grandpa, laughing some more,
laughing like the wind in the trees, laughing like the river
named by the Menominee for tail of a beaver.
It's his favorite joke, his bald head speckled
like the egg of a barn swallow, forked tail
like the fork in the river where my great-grandpa
lives and eventually dies, staggering for the river's rocky bed
instead of the hospital's, to become my first funeral card.

No Parade

(Another one in my series.  Sense of place, my position in it, is that OK? We were actually on campus together that year when he came back--he told me firsthand, does that come through?)

When my brother came home from Vietnam,
injured but recovered, we hugged and hugged,
cried relief, he was in one piece. 

We gathered at home around the table,
it was July, windows open,
a summer breeze brushing over us. 

He flew flat on the floor under the table
before I could even blink
when a fire cracker went off outside during supper.

He shouted out during his sleep
in subconscious madness where he
flashed back into some blood-filled horror. 

He enrolled in law school; UW Madison, his alma mater.
Moved back into his fraternity of happier undergraduate days
where he received a diploma, and a low draft number.

His brothers now hissed,
“How could you let yourself go to Vietnam?”
As a grad student, he was spat upon

had his watch stolen
his room broken into, belongings trashed.
War Protests continued on campus.

 They called him “baby killer, war monger”.
He went to class, tried to study but the flash backs,
violence on campus, the stolen things, the spit,  

turned him bitter. There was no parade
no light at the end of the tunnel,
everyone came home alone.

 

Haircut

Haircut

     I sit on a special stool with a low, curved back.
Grandfather fastens a towel around my neck with a silver-toothed
clip. He combs my bangs down smooth, straight.   

     I can see the Teutonic pores in the dark skin of his
face. He smells like the fir trees in the backyard, leaning
next to the pigeon house. I show him my page from a magazine.

     His shiny scissors open and close against the hard ridge
of my brow. He trims around my face in practiced snips.
Grandmother brings him a saucer of coffee from the kitchen,

     blue and white and delft. They keep us for the night,
their only grandchildren. My younger sisters follow grandmother around,
enthralled by the glass bauble percolating on the stove.

     We sleep in the coldest room. I climb to the topmost bunk,
wood planed by our grandfather. Grandmother tucks us in with her
tuberous knuckles, fussing about how fey we are.

     I smile with a lost tooth, ruffling my new hair.
Grandmother brings us milk and windmill cookies. My sisters
pinch me through the half-railing, painted a high gloss like taffy.

     I turn and twitch, imagining fur and forest,
startled birds.  I slip through a gap in the railing, landing on the
rug of knotted wool, fast and far asleep.

     Grandfather hears the thump and bears me
with his faun arms to a lower bunk where I curl up with a sister
already warm. He whispers sleep good to me in German.

     Clippings rain down all the next day
at his barbershop. Grandfather tells the story of how I fell
from the sky and never woke up, so deep was I dreaming.
 

 

 

It Was to Die For

"It was to Die for"...is a phrase that bothers me..mostly it's in reference to someone having a decadent chocolate dessert. As I watched the Vietnam war series...that phrase came to mind..what is something you'd really die for? People interviewed in that series said what a waste it was-- no point in the battles. A line said was " To die for the biggest nothing" -- that stayed with me.   In this poem, is the last line too abrupt?

It Was To Die For
(in response to the Ken Burns Series on the Vietnam War)

 LBJ and Rumsfeldt
knew it wasn’t winnable
kept sending them to Vietnam
for another decade,
so many sons and daughters
mothers and fathers,
dead on both sides,
the innocent, the poor
the uniformed
the uninformed
bloody boots on the ground
bullets in bone
flesh on fire
tirades of air raids
glorification of body counts
quantifying the unquantifiable.
How can you measure a life?
War protestors trying, trying
but killing continued,
even death at Kent State, 
Stalemate.
Leaders hell-bent to save face
while soldiers had theirs blown off,
it was to the biggest nothing to die for.

 

Interior Design

Interior Design

Before she leaves for college
our daughter rearranges
her room, a signal
that things are changing.
The wonder of white furniture,
what she might learn
from the shift of a bureau,
slide of a desk.
Her bed is a nest
of blankets, pillows, and quilts,
even her receiving ones
buried somewhere deeper.
She leaves the shell
of a stereo, castoff clothes, candles,
an empty lighthouse
abandoned on its pebbled beach.
We consider our own rearrangements,
the tables and chairs, beds and curios.
Seesaw of acquire, heave-ho.
Trace of colors in the corners
of all the walls of every vessel,
imbuing the ever-changing circumstances
of joy, frustration, sadness.
The yellow years. The blue.
Who we moved in, who moved out.
These furnishings,
objects we navigate around
like thoughts, aspirations.
We watch our daughter
sift her possessions,
making room for different.

© 2018 House of the Tomato