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.


Celebrating, sharing and inspiring poetry throughout Wisconsin.

Letters from Vietnam - a pantoum

Letters From Vietnam – a Pantoum


She said, “Mothers still worry about their little boys, you know”
and cried for a week when he got on the plane,
worried herself sick to keep him safe.
My brother wrote home of snipers and ambushes.

 And she cried for a week when he got on the plane.
The postman would ring the bell, when a new letter arrived.
My brother wrote home of snipers and ambushes.
And she kept his letters in the safe deposit box.

 The postman would ring the bell, when a new letter arrived,
My brother came home, but was never the same,
and she kept his letters in the safe deposit box.
Cancer from Agent Orange came later.

 My brother came home, but was never the same,
she worried herself sick to keep him safe.
Cancer from Agent Orange came later.
She said, “Mothers still worry about their little boys, you know”.


ALG 5/18/2017 (At the workshop last week I worked on my responses to my Brother's letter s from Vietnam.) Might send to Bramble;  does it fit with the theme of "hanging on"?

Hormone Doctor

Hormone Doctor

Mother hugs her purse in her lap,
a thing she does when nervous
or out of her element.
She is mostly unassailable
in her pressed slacks and blouse, matching jacket.
She makes me wear a dress
for the appointment. She is always making me
wear dresses. My bare legs stick
to the leather chair.
A teen of the 70s I'd rather they flare.
The office is different
from the examining room of our family doctor
with cherry bookshelves and books, a globe.
I think of the places I would rather be.
Mother thinks I'm fixable.
Perhaps I am.

The doctor breezes in
as doctors do.
I sit in a chair and don't bleed.
The doctor considers me over the rims of his glasses,
his eyes full of bark and fizz like root beer.
Squares of midday light fall on a leather reading chair and hassock,
a plaid blanket spilling to the floor.
The doctor clears his throat,
unseals a jar of butterscotch from his desk,
ring of dime store glass,
smell of burnt sugar.
Despite myself, I salivate.

The doctor tilts the jar towards me, eyebrows raised.
His tweedy jacket and trousers don't match.
I look to mother, who shrugs.
I unwrap a candy, golden cellophane crinkling,
calculating how much farther I will jog later.
The doctor asks questions.
Mother answers, and I don't interrupt.
I do stash pork chop in a napkin at the dining room table.
I can subsist on an apple a day.
I jog for miles at dusk, up and down our hilly suburban streets,
eternal light of the catholic church shining at my back.
I read cookbooks for recipes I won't eat.
Clothes hang on me.

The doctor paces behind his desk.
Mother balms her lips.
I am good at starvation,
but I don't mean to disappear.
I don't know what else to do
when a boyfriend says we weren't meant to be.
I take it as a sign,
the undeserving kind.

Enough, says the doctor.
See this? He points to a print in a frame.
I am the doctor of chemical messengers.
What you see here triggers response.
Cells are activated.
How does this make you feel?
I see a bridge
and lilypads.
The private space of a gardener.
Perhaps I'm the gardener.
The foreground is almost too verdant for words.
This being a woman.
Perhaps I'm afraid of my own lushness.

Did a woman paint that?
I ask the doctor, my voice weedy.
She could have, he says,
steepling his fingers, convinced of the the body's
elegancies. Mother looks at me,
seeing a thing change in me,
her eyes the same brown as mine
like dark chocolate
like poignancy.

The Honor of your Presence is Requested, Invitations Found in my Mother’s Desk

(Tori-this is a found poem; of a small stationery box with invitations and replies in a box of my mother's things, retrieved when we cleaned out her house in 2006; I've toyed with this idea of a bygone era of formality, and cursive penmanship...I think it needs a punch--I'm left feeling "so what?" about this poem--how could I better convey this period in time that will never return? They were so formal with their parties and get-togethers.  It'sfresh write--so I know it needs editing. BTW my formatting wouldn't roll over here... I had indented stanzas for each separate invitation. )

In 1950s small town Wisconsin
wives were Mrs. John Last Name,
their first names lost to housewife,
homemaker,  raiser of children, mistress of the stove.

The lucky ones were Mrs. John Doctor,
Mrs. John Lawyer or Mrs. John Businessman,
as they might have had some household help.

Their days outside the home were filled with
You are cordially invited for cocktails in the evening,

The honor of your presence is required for
an autumn buffet at the country club.

You are invited to Christmas Tea
3:30-5:30 p.m. on December the eighteenth.

The pleasure of your company is requested at
The Bachelor and Benedicts Ball on
Saturday evening the twelfth of December.

Please join us for a St Patrick’s day party for a gay time.

to which perfectly, penned notes reply:
We would be honored to accept your invitation
to the picnic on the eighteenth of July at eight.

It is my sincere privilege to accept your invitation
for the party on the eighteenth.

Signed Mrs. John Doctor/Lawyer/Businessman.

Copies of reply drafts line the stationery box
in the bottom drawer of the desk. Emily Post’s Etiquette
tucked alongside.






The instant catches fire
like twigs,
floats off,
a skiff
of ash,
c r u s h i n g.
I fall into
the same questions.
Rowing and rowing,
He pushes away
from the table.
Nobody gets
what they want.
Sticks left behind
by the thaw.
Ice floes melt ugly.
Dirty with the soot
we exhale,
capsized debris.
I leave quietly.
Brittle things,
We have run out of words
to say to each other.
I read in the flickering
This typo,
stuck in the machine,
intends to be

Gender Bias

Gender Bias
Teachers pat me like a loaf
Especially the chalk-dusted
I learn early who has authority

Behaving is more important
than the Theory of Relativity
The length of my hems is a topic

The only teacher who doesn't care
is music, pounding me on the back,
Exhorting me to inhale from some place deeper,
past the usual shallows of the ribcage
He listens when I try to improvise
Scarring just visible behind his beard,
dismissing the reprimands

Psychology wonders why I work so hard to disappear
The obsession with food, careful preparation, niceness
Only to leave it all untouched, picture perfect

Physiology hands me a tube
I learn my lung capacity is half
My male classmates have lungs like bellows
They are able to move more air with less effort
Teachers used to comment I talked too much
I consign myself to a smaller envelope of air

In college I go to a party at a professor's and do not speak at all.
A blustery instructor of European Literature
Not a single female author on the reading list
Anger takes a lot of air
The airless version is mute

My grown daughter has an outburst in a supper club
"Why is it even a thing?"
Quizzed by her male relatives for no good reason
Diners at the salad bar turn to stare
My daughter doesn't care
Claiming the air she inhabits


Many years ago I wrote a series of short shorts I called "4 Letter Words." Been thinking about it again. Rereading them I don't think they can be salvaged. I was in a different place. But I think they could be reinvented. Let me know what you think. Sorta maybe stream of consciousness. 


Long years of nothing much to say.
Long ears. Nothing touches. You stay.
Words and their catcylism.
Words are inadequate.
Complete honesty is an uneasy state between two people.
Maybe impossible. Maybe ill-advised.
Early days, we called it, in our propulsion of beachcombing,
sleeping under a net
of stars, each
with a satellite,
two blades on our feet.
The promise of a relationship
is bigger than the relationship.
How much of a person should exist?
How much amorphousness?
The flare of you is in my nerve impulses.
You think by association
you can tell me what to do,
what to think.
I hate you for that.
I mean, I really, really do.
Alone is a different kind
of agitation.
Hate doesn't mean
I can't live with you.
Part of our admixture,
My indistinct edges overlap
your indistinct edges.
We are rising air,
water droplets, dust.
I cloud you.
I nimbus you.

Endless Summer

We were eleven
growing into boy crazy,
sunbathing in baby oil
adhesive tape on our thighs
making a W on our skin that
tanned everywhere, but there.
The white W reflected the boy we liked: William.

It was the summer of
"Where the Boys Are"
"School's Out for the Summer"
“Johnny Angel”

It was the summer of camping out in the back yard,
olive green pup tent pitched under the big maple.
Popcorn, pillows, flashlights,
transistor radio singing "Big Girls Don't Cry"
and "We Sang in the Sunshine ".
Next morning sun rose hot on the dark tent.
We flung the door flaps open to remnants of
a scattered deck of cards,
rumpled sleeping bags and
popcorn seeds lining the bottom of the bowl.

The cat was out early, hunting.
We heard her little bell and I cooed
“Inky.  Inksby. Kitty. Sweetieeeee!”
evolving into screams as a
small gray mouse scurried into the tent,
little claws scratching up Becky’s back,
inside her PJ top. More screaming,
as the tent bulged like two watermelons
in a Super Valu bread bag.
Inky ran off, the two of us scrambled out of the tent
transistor radio crackling the Beach Boys’  "Surfer girl",
hot sun beating down, adhesive tape gone,
white W’s blaring on our thighs,
not a boy in sight.


Not 100% sure of the title. Could also be Kinko's? Or Rerouting? Thoughts? Also I made the line length deliberately ragged to add to the uncomfortableness. Works? Not? 


I conjecture a body advancing
in skateboard shorts and fugitive hair.
Ghost holds his phone over his head,
marches Helen of Troy, red-rimmed fervor
in his eyes. We are trying to find Kinko's
in downtown Cream City. I hold
my tongue, tight as a root
in my mouthful of silt. He missed a delivery,
forwarded  to the nearest Fedex outpost.
A male tourist asks if I need help.
No, I say, he's my son.
I'm sorry pockets his hands.

Ghost interrogates the clerk at Kinko's.
Do you know? Or do you speculate?
He stabs at his phone looking for proof
of identity. The clerk shakes his head
on the verge of walking away.
Ghost soothes with the flipside
of his personality,
charming as shattered glass.
He questions the box in his arms,
the meter where I parked the car.
Do you know? Or do you speculate?

Keyless he rattles the door.
His landlady dumpling rounds her worried eyes,
refusing to cut any more keys. The city jangles
with the keys he's lost.
Her large pores beg for help.
He was so happy a year ago.
Ghost waves her away like smoke,
like a stray dog.  Do you know?
Or do you speculate?

County tells me to call the crisis line.
The crisis line tells me to call the cops.
Lady cop stands erect as a gym teacher
while her partner confers sotto voce
with ghost camped out on the front stoop
of the apartment with his box, a legal tenant,
laying down his mosaic. Do you know?
Or do you speculate?

Lady cop and her halo of health explains,
nicely, that my son is within his rights to be crazy.
They can't make him go home or get help.
Also her apology asks me to leave
the premises. Ghost does not want me to stay.
I have meetings in the morning. I turn aimless corners,
watching my GPS try to reroute me back
the way that I've come, dazed with what I don't know,
scared to speculate.


(I tried something different. a mindfulness poem, based on some observations this weekend. A modern art museum in Mpls. and a snowy drive home)

Empty space
opens up
clutter gone
making room for muse
a white wall,
floating palette.

What rainbow
of word
hovers just out of reach
arcs across
horizon of space
slowing thought
or even absence of thought

artfully brushed into bliss like
fresh snowing
painted on trees
not clingy
just there
for beauty sake
words in waiting




Suite of Imperfect Being

Suite of Imperfect Being

The texting is hopeful but not the pacing back and forth.
He feels removed, a memory of a memory of a memory.
(A ghost.)

                    Not the high forehead with the scar,
slash of an upside-down grimace.
He can't stop eating cookies, the kind with raisins in them,
large chunks of nut.

                    Not the smoking like he's chewing on sticks.
He tries to read, turns pages, important books with heft,
what else is he's supposed to do.
                    Not the fog of not knowing his own brain.

How the scar disapproves.
Mercy is for pussies.
Denial is what he doesn't understand,
like any father.

Oh, brother, he resents the upstaging by disease,
buys a big house, kicks out compassion like a squatter,

joins the church of unforgiving.

She lives inside her own head, under the covers,
bed head, sister feeling, leaving

for the unlearning of it.

Mother is another word for example,
                    reconciling the unreconcilable,
                    embracing the mutually exclusive, by not choosing: choose.

The inevitable always happens. The regretted words. The blindsided errand. The party crashing.

We arrive at a diagnosis.

But who has a prognosis for the rest of us?

Facebook Says We've Been Friends for Three Years

Yes, it has been three years my daughter, since you told us,
changed your name, grew your hair long, and
started hormone therapy, transforming your gender.
You changed your driver’s license, passport,
set up a new Facebook account and Email address.

But of course,
we’ve been “friends” since conception,
you growing within, then around me, for three and a half decades.
Facebook congratulates us on our “friendversary” of a whole three years.

One hot day last summer you tucked your braided hair
close to the crown of your head.
Hair pushed back, I caught a glimpse of my son,
the broad nose, firm brow, the well-known forehead freckle that
is now, almost always covered with curls.

It has been three years with a new Facebook persona,
where you started over as a woman, virtually and in reality.
In that time, Facebook says we’ve exchanged 653 “likes”.
Well, of course we have.
And in three years I've learned, my beautiful child,
that life goes on.
It goes on,
as if nothing ever happened.



Sunflowers reinvent yellow,
flowers within flowers,
florets sun-gold,

Your fourth sister, your accomplice,
Your life and death and longing.

We all know the story,
that line in the leaf.

Consult the sunbutter,
     spun summer,
     sizzle of seedpods.

Two kinds of flower,
Two kinds of seed,

spiraling in two directions.
a golden ratio of means,
what adds up together,
what perpetuates,
what turns heads.

Sunflowers gallup
towards the sun,
tap you on the shoulder,

look you in the eye.

Swimming on Limestone

Tori-- after this horrible election and outcome, I have turned to words these past few days for comfort. I'm working on some poems to submit for the calendar (deadline fast-approaching!).  Need your thoughts-- did I use the word venerating correctly? as in I'm worshiping the water, (nature). I also tried to use "musical", undulating words (edge, ledge, submerged etc). I added a photo too.


Calm for a Great Lake, we paddle across
unruffled water of Lake Michigan
as morning pours down on a late summer Sunday.
We linger above limestone ledges
that extend far away to Niagara Falls.

We pull our kayaks onto a tight shore cove,
slip out of our clothes and into
the skin of August-warmed water,
treading in our reflections.

On the edge of a watery ledge,
arms waving to find balance
in the subtle shift of water trying to knock us off,
we stand in the light on this submerged cathedral of rock,
venerating the unsalted sea.



Today, a Tentative Bridge Across

Today, a Tentative Bridge Across

     two sides
of what's possible.

          On long walks in the woods
     he can see ahead
to the red flash of her shirt.

          Stacked trees
    like bookends protect
him from any panic.

          He chants words
     that describe the smells
of pine and cedar.

          Rhythm of his stride,
     her awkward smile,
he can't help but reach

          for a curling leaf.
     You know there's something
wrong with me
, he says.

          Yes, she answers,
     naming the birds,
the wildflowers,

          the other streaks of color,
     blue sky especially a blessing,
Waves of water undulate

          below their feet in a pulse.
     He is a shore. She is a shore.
Today, a tentative bridge across.

To the Moon and Back

The August full moon really spoke to me.. (Sept 12 was the 5th anniv of my mother's death.and now this week it is HER full moon, the Sept moon).  Actually I sent this in for the Triad contest--wanted to enter and didn't have anything so I wrote this. I'm still not liking my last line. Wanted a better "turn or punch" at the end. (And I think it needs more images?)

She loved the full moon.
Late at night my mother stood in the driveway
gazing up, just before heading to bed.

Sometimes it was an orange ball
other times a bright turtle egg.
Watching TV in the summer of ‘69

she saw Neil Armstrong walk on it,
the same summer her son was a soldier in Vietnam.
She lived through nine decades of full moons

During her last days, I pushed her failing body
outside to the hospice garden.
Crickets and grasshoppers fibrillated like a racing heart

nearing the end of their life cycle.
For seven days she held on,
we listened to cricket wing and grasshopper chants.

But it was the moon that finally called her
on a warm summer night,
I told her it was her night. Her moon.

 I pulled the bed close to the open window
moonlight shining on her face;
late that night, she went out on the moon.

Now it is I who stands in the driveway on my way to bed,
listening to crickets and grasshoppers all legs and wings
vibrating on warm summer nights,

and when the moon is full it brings me to my knees.


Cooperate with the Inevitable

A Dale Carnegie trainer floats his own boat,
skimming the sea in front of us,
blonde as a lifeguard. We take notes
in the Golden Book. I turn myself
to the practiced smile, open cup
of his voice, pretending to pay attention,
untroubled by shifting shadows, lost sons.

The silence has been days, ghost missing
in the city, too white for back alleys.
Maybe he lost his phone again,
maybe he wants zero reminders of family:
parents, sister, grandparents. 
Caring is an obligation.
He must agree to be loved.

My compartment is not so day-tight
as unknown-tight, complicit-tight.
I am just another woman who has done him
wrong. Twenty years ago, I shouldn't have said
what I said. My words reverberate the girlfriend's,
whose number was done on him. Number is
an unknown quantity, damage.

I would rather not be sitting next
to our manager. He mouths the listening
exercises. I do not admire longevity
but say that I do. We stack and unstack
the conversation. I call him by name,
not a number. I don't share everything.

Somewhere out of frame ghost runs
like a fox, furtive and quivering,
his best and worst self, darting
past the garbage, knowing
a secret route back to the forest,
what he believes to be foliage.
Leaves shred as he passes, not even.

A lifesaver is useless in the woods.
I have all the wrong skills.
Wounds are visceral.
She had some idea of cutting him out.
Rejection is disorder, repudiation.
Ghost chases the open spaces, not finding

Blind Spot

This was the start of the nightmare... sadly it has gotten worse... was trying to make sense of it here... can't write about all of quite yet... just bits... let me know what you think. Writing does help, and whoever said "poetry is light in the darkness" knew what they were talking about.

Blind Spot

Ghost gets into the car with me at the bus station
with scabs on his knees like small medallions. 
There is no overnight bag, only a longboard,
a cell, headphones looped around his neck.
He takes a shower. I wash his T-shirt and shorts.
His feet are ruined, green and  blistered.

Ghost is hungry and eats a tray of appetizers
that a relative fries in an outdoor deepfryer.
Ghost thinks I should open a restaurant,
serving only the bacon-wrapped hotdogs.
I see desolation in his eyes like haymowing,
deadened chaff, thrashed and left to dry.

The sun is a raised vesicle, hot, 
almost too hot for a party. 
Ghost sidesteps the periphery,
dribbling a soccer ball with his disasterous
feet, muttering that we must hear
his story. Must. Hear. His. Story.

The party is not about him.
His party-elect sister rolls her eyes
like small, boiled potatoes. I am complicit,
inviting him with intent, worried.
His erratic texting made me afraid.

Some of us are the standard-bearers.
Some of us are the broken.

His girlfriend left him, taking their toddler son with her.
All day he directs large men wielding chainsaws.
He forgets to take his medicine.
He takes his medicine all in one week.
The job is a lost cause.

His story is garbled, full of factuals,
things he wishes were true.
The footbridge to reason is out.
He has frayed the regard of everybody
he knows. Even the Black Angus low
mournfully in a neighbor's farm field.

The sun sets in my eyes. 
His sister doesn't want him near her.
Somebody calls the cops,
thinking they'll bring the help he needs.

The cops can't help him.
They can only release him into the night,
longboarding his long lonely road,
while the rest of us watch
in our silos of helplessness.

Tweens at the Lake

This is becoming a series, I seem to write a poem about these girls that I only see once a year at the lake in Minnesota.  This year they asked me to write a new poem for them! They are 10 1/2, 9 1/2 and 6. Tweens--the two older ones.  The six year old acts like she's 15!  I don't know if you are up for this with all you have going on, but here a new poem anyhoo. It's short. I'm thinking I'd send to Ariel Anthology. (a dark and light theme I read in the guidelines.)

Tweens at the Lake

They cartwheel everywhere:
Around the yard to play games,
across the floor to the kitchen, living room
and out to the patio. Walking in whirls,
their legs fly up and over, pinwheels of appendages.
Like rolling stars they spin across
green grass to the lake and back,
do splits mid-air then toes touch down like sprites,
up and over again, constant twirls.
They even cartwheel across the lily pad mat
floating on the lake, light as air,
they appear to walk on water
generating their own light,
bright like water lilies, centers spinning.



Two new poems for Becoming Trans-Parent

Here are those two missing poems-- for the book: (Both fresh writes.)

This one goes right after "Dad Speaks". I emailed Drew for his thoughts on Anna's transition--I worked in his words and ideas into this poem.  I expanded the "shared experiences" comment into their childhood details. Hope it isn't preachy but rather a window into the two of them. The questions at the end are Drew's.

Younger Brother Speaks

I didn’t see it coming;
she caught me completely by surprise.
A lot of things changed but nothing has changed --
she's still my sibling.

We shared the same love of LEGOS, Micros Machine towns,
played street hockey on roller blades,
went on the same family road trips, inching our hands
over the imaginary middle line of the back seat.

We shared the famous Cheerios fight in the station wagon
as Dad drove the treacherous gravel road of Independence Pass.
We hunted bugs and fossils, skipped rocks across a lake,
hiked trails in the woods, played Huck Finn on a river,

found a gigantic toad that scared our mother
when we dropped it in her hand.
My sister said this is who she was all along.
No one else is the expert on who she is other than herself.   

Even in a dress, with longer hair, a higher voice,
she's still the same, our shared experiences still happened.
We're still siblings. Does gender really matter?
Does it have any effect on how we live our lives? 

 and this one--
I had a tough day recently at a family reunion--too many of other peoples' grand kids running around and I was feeling the losses

Some Days

This hot day our daughter braids her long hair
away from her face, tucking it close around the crown of her head.

For a moment I see in her the son I once knew:
he broad nose, firm brow,  

the well-known forehead freckle
that is
now almost always covered with curls.
Some days my heart aches for all of it: 

The years on the couch,
her struggle to transition,
the hormones, electrolysis,
concern for her safety,
the employer yet to hire her,
the children they won't have
dear memories of a boy I raised.





The Sales Poet

The Sales Poet

I shake his enjambment.
His eyes are curious. I feel his humanity, warm in my palm.
He excuses the wait. I disclaim.
I am lead to an office above the garage,
to the other side of a stanza
where a chair is set.
I see roof lines, sky analogies.
For a tall man his voice is lilting.
I sell attention.
This is our first meeting,
but I have seen him in the general store,
sniffing handmade soap with his wife.
They have five children.
The business is a closed loop.
He is solicited for bucket trucks,
black earth removal, snow.
He has all the attention he needs.
Maybe he would buy interruption,
if his sons agreed.
I show him how interruption works,
the units of sale, the process
of placing an order.
He is polite, asks me pertinent
(and sonorous) questions.
He gives me a tour of the high concept,
the smell of newness like absorption,
rumble of loud engines.
I do not make a sale,
but I will write a poem
about his large hands
clasped like doves.

© 2017 House of the Tomato