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.

I See the Face of Nefertiti in a Lawn Ornament

I pulled this randomly out of my journal…trying to establish a better morning ritual of writing… something of a departure…

I See the Face of Nefertiti in a Lawn Ornament

The beautiful woman has come
to me in my errand, spinning roads
in the old neighborhood,
turquoise probability of the sky
slowing down slowing down
for curbs
and sidewalks,
bike nostalgia in yards,
white-painted chairs on porches,
lawnmowers,
reservoir of ancient history
occurring in my side vision,
sliding past the plastic cast
lawn ornament,
I see Nefertiti,
Queen of Egypt,
perhaps king
it is speculated
from a bust unearthed in the ruin of a sculptor's workshop,
her crown of blue diadem,
single gaze of quartz,
portraying her sovereignty,
her equality,
her love of a Pharaoah, six daughters,
absolute belief in the one and only sun god.
As I revolve in my mission,
distracted by headlines and deadlines,
signposts to missed turns,
she comes to me as an ideal of womanhood.
Yet she was powerful.
Yet she was powerless to stop the next generation
from undoing all she had done.
And so it goes.

Mail Call

Tori--I've had this one percolating for a long time. I was stuck so today I just sat down and wrote it. Is it too simple? or maybe simple is good? It's how it was.

 

Everyone lived for letters,
the soldiers in Vietnam,
the families back home.

It took four days for a letter
to travel from Vietnam to Wisconsin
if everything went smoothly.

Soldiers had times to write and times to fight.
Some letters arrived regularly,
some had long gaps of time in between.

My parents rushed to the mailbox daily,
disappointed if there was no letter.
Peter said, The only thing to look forward to in war was Mail Call.

The postage from Vietnam was Free, a measly perk of war.
When Wally our family mailman
saw APO, San Francisco, on the return address,

Free in the top right corner
and Peter’s large scrawl across an envelope,
he rang the doorbell, a gesture of such kindness.

History Lesson - How To Measure War

Tori, I hope this "shows", more than "tells" and I hope it isn't preachy. It's a fresh write from my free write notes. Does it grab? Educate?

 

History Lesson – How to Measure War

Secretary of Defense McNamara,
former whiz kid of the auto industry,
measured his worth by objectives,
by production of cars made and sold.

In his new role, how would he measure
the Vietnam war? What was the Objective?
The red scare? Fear?
What could he count on for success?

My brother wrote home about daily sweeps on jungle patrol,
no objective or purpose given by the platoon leader.
What were they trying to accomplish, he wondered?
McNamara measured what he knew, tangibles.

Auto bodies transferred into human bodies.
He counted human lives lost,
the opposite of production, 
a measure of destruction.

Enemy body counts were his highest measure of success.
Our body counts were measured too,
by Walter Cronkite on the evening news.
No wonder my mother was on the verge of hysteria that year.

No wonder students were protesting.
No wonder I walked in a daze on campus then.
Peter was counting down the days,
Mother feared another statistic in our family.

McNamara and President Johnson
with their precise, slick-backed hair
told us progress was being made,
through the common denominator of death,
where every body counts.

 

 

Music of Vietnam

Tori--For the book. Do I need to give song credit to John Denver in an epigram in I?  Music of Vietnam encompasses lots of music of the era.   That's why the  Roman numeral I, II .   I am researching more songs of that era to write about. The music of this time was a huge deal for soldiers while in war.  John is VALUABLE for this knowledge too.  We Gotta Get of This Place was THE signature song in VN. That's why I mention it more than once.  II  is a mixture of song titles and lyric lines--do I need to call that out in the title?

         Music of Vietnam
              Leaving on a Jet Plane, Written by John Denver,
 I
Leaving on a Jet Plane

Peter, Paul and Mary’s
signature song for going to Vietnam
resonated through the Coliseum
in Madison to a packed house,
their three-hour concert
gave us an evening of unity
for our youthful ideals of
peace, love, harmony, justice.
They gave so generously,
in concert, encores, and more encores,
then invited us to the campus
for a sing-in, an all-night vigil. 
I sat up with Peter, Paul and Mary,
goosebumped, singing, crying,
for the war to be over, hoping peace
would be, Blowin’ in the wind.

II

Top Ten Songs of Vietnam, a Found Poem

 We Gotta Get Out of This Place
You'll be dead before your time is due
I Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die

1,2,3,  what are we fighting for
don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
next stop Vietnam
We Gotta Get Out of This Place

head to the Green, Green, Grass of Home
leave behind this Chain of Fools
so we can be (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay
We’ve mailed The Letter
From the land of Purple Haze
I am a Fortunate Son to be
Leavin’ on  a Jet Plane for Detroit City
All my bags are packed I’m ready to go.
We gotta get out of this place

If it's the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of this place
'cause girl, there's a better life for me and you

Coming Home (for Peter 1945-2004)

Tori--I've worked on this poem for years, and recently, weeks.  It was a short 2-stanza poem that started with the first stanza here. "Coma is the Comma". The ministers/orthodox priests (his wife was middle east orthodox) at the funeral loved that line..Coma is the comma., so I'm trying to keep it). I read a shorter version at his funeral in 2004. I've expanded, added info.  now and wonder if it might be a strong last poem for the Vietnam letters/poems book.  I hope the ending doesn't sound sappy.  I know I jump from Christmas to Autumn at the end...but autumn was his favorite and he loved the coolness, in contrast to the stinking heat in VN. Or maybe I should just end it at, the 2nd to last stanza?  (I'm thinking of doing a sieres of Haiku in the book--that last stanza could be one to include in that.)

 

Coma was the comma
before you crossed over,
this, a sad leave-taking,
for those of us left behind.

For you, no more nightmares,
no more Vietnam flashbacks,
or stinking heat of the jungle you hated.
No more chemo, cutting, cringing, IVs removed.

You’ve come home again,
this time to the cocoon of a hospital bed
in the living room, a week before Christmas.
Your head turning toward the window
a spark of recognition seeing the tree lit and decorated.

There were no words left in you.
Your wife whispered, “You’re home for Christmas”
as you quietly slipped into a twilight coma,
Sheeba, the cat, curled
into the back of your contracted legs,
purring. She never left your bed.
You didn’t make it to Christmas

or maybe you did,
traveling your last R & R,
learning the mystery of death,
that I ache to know.

On crisp autumn mornings, I think of you,
in our shared memory of the cool air you loved,
kicking up leaves under chrome yellow maples,
comforted by deep blue skies.

 

The Shortest Distance

I wrote this for the Unity Walk... not my usual style... but I thought I *should* be able to write a poem for a specific occasion... if I'm any kind of poet. Right? Is the ending too trite? Or appropriate? I can't tell.

The Shortest Distance

The shortest distance between two people is story.
— Patti Digh

In the beginning is hesitation.
    A knowing you, knowing me standoff.
Why are we afraid of each other?

Between two people is a measuring.
    We default to a scale of difference.
Why the stranger danger?

Between two people it's easier
    to see the closed door body talking --
averted gaze, turned shoulder --

than the half-smile invitation to connect.
    I see you walk with a slower step,
and I think feeble.

You see me with a bold eye,
    and you think difficult.
Between two people is fear.

*

The middle is often circumstantial,
    a stacking of events that force us together.
We find ourselves at the same wedding in the woods,

compelled by the bride to sit across
     the picnic table from each other.
The shortest distance is the hollow of your throat.

The shortest distance is you toying
    with the keepsake necklace given to you
by your granddaughters, who live with you.

The bride is like a daughter to you.
    You did all her flowers, including the garland
of eucalyptus, giving off its medicinal scent.

You and your partner moved to Upper Michigan
    from Georgia to open a greenhouse.
The shortest distance is you giving me a flower.

*

All at once I'm woven into your story.
     I have moved between states.
I have wished I was a gardener.

All it takes is knowing one person in common,
     asking one question, noticing one detail.
Humanity, I am your story.

Humanity, you are our story.
     Narrative is larger than race, or age, or gender.
Together we can create a happy ending.

First Bra

Your poem last night inspired me!  I'm thinking of adding some "growing up" poems to the Vietnam MSS to break up the heavy topic and demonstrate our brother/sister relationship. This could be one of those poems....

Breast buds have started to show,
two small bumps point through my summer top.
Mother takes me downtown to Johnson Hills
to buy my first bra -- it’s more like a wart holder
than a full-on brassiere.

At home in my closed-door room,
with newly blossoming womanhood,
I begin in front, fasten that one hook
then turn the bra around to my back.
I slide the straps up and over my shoulders,

pulling the flat cups over my chest,
admiring the white outline
under my pale yellow, sleeveless blouse.
I saunter into the livingroom,
bend over the low coffee table,

pretend to read the cover of Life Magazine,
wrap my arms around my sides in a hug,
pulling my blouse tight against my back.
My brother walks past; he teases,
I see we’re sporting something new!


Red-faced I turn, feigning surprise he noticed.

Why

Tori--I'm trying my first Haibun.  Editor of Haiku Mag once said at a WFOP conf. Haiku is not about arithmetic. but the turn.  I'm struggling with syllables...and the turn. I've written many versions of both haiku...here's the latest.  Am I even close?

Why

Hurling shouts and rocks
students on campus
National Guard marching

After discharge from the Army and a year in Vietnam hell, my brother returned to the Madison campus filled with nightmares and shrapnel. Fraternity brothers’ hate-filled faces called out killer, and how could you go to war?

It was not a choice, caught in the draft of war. He served because it was required.  He thought about conscientious objector. He thought about Canada. He thought about being a citizen.

Protesters, if your draft numbers were low, would you have gone or fled? Whose boots did you wear while protesting? Were they covered in dust, mud and blood? Did you  scream in terror because of what you saw? Did you hear mortars whistling, exploding? Were there snipers on your way to class?  Why did you shout hate and spit?  

President commands
shocked solider in fox hole
trying to stay alive
 

Sex Education

Another mom poem...

Sex Education

The sanctity of the living room

like an open page of a picture book.

Everything in its place.

Mother calls us to her,

cross-legged on the plush carpet 

in front of the stereo console.

Sister and I are 6 and 7,

downy-limbed, 

still creased by dreams of trees.

The cellophane cover crinkles

as mother turns pages.

The book came from a special section

at the library

and tells us things about our bodies

and the men we might love some day,

tumescence seeking our secret folds.

Making love not sex says mother

with the urgency of a sneeze.

We were made this way.

We will make our own babies this way.

It seems like second nature to us,

more of the poplar leaves rustling 

outside our window.

Mother almost tells us too much.

But we are girls 

and she doesn’t want the world 

eluding us with misinformation.

When I go up a grade 

I have sex education as a class

which can’t teach me anything 

I don’t already know.

The Roarers

Hi Tori--this poem came out of a free write a couple weeks ago. I edited it the past 2 days. I've had the "Dear Abby" part in and then taken it out..don't know if it fits..but it's true. Does it add anything?  The point being the embarrassment  of a 13 yr old me, my last resort being to write Dear Abby.

It was worse in summer, everyone’s windows open.
It started  at dinner with mom and dad picking at each other
like fingering chicken off the bone.

He left his fly rods leaning in a corner of the living room again.
She didn’t want to go boating with him; a storm might come up,

escalating to how worried she was (she was always worried)
that he could have died on that unforgiving Lake Superior

in a small boat with two buddies, heading up the Brule
for the steelhead run last March .

She starts crying at the point about being left alone at home
with two kids and two hunting dogs, all needing to be fed.

She railed about putting on her WAC trench coat, belt cinched at the waist,
lips pursed, shovel in hand traipsing across the back yard

on frozen corn snow to the dog pens, shoveling shit into a bucket,
saying shit under her breath.

At thirteen years old, I called the picking and yelling, Roarers;
as a last hope it would stop, I wrote Dear Abby a letter about it.  

The Roarers continued on hot summer nights,
my brother and I choking down chicken, peas, and potatoes,
dining room windows open, the neighbors all ears.

 

What to Believe

Jesus, the Tooth Fairy,
Santa Claus and being saved,
I used to believe they were all real.
The Tooth Fairy saving my teeth,
Santa Claus saving presents
Jesus saving my soul.
When I was 6 my older brother told me
None of it was true.
I tried to believe again, the Jesus part,
but saw how love-thy-neighbor
christians treated others and us
in the name of Christ saying
my daughter is perverted, going to hell
along with the rest of us,
as they read Bible verses that sounded like hate.
Another bathroom bill was passed.
Another trans teen hung himself.
Another transgender woman was murdered.
It’s all really hard to believe.

Note: (christian is purposely lower case to make a point)

Four Leaf Luck

For John, Honor Flight #45

 Plucked from peaceful land
I was pressed into his wallet,
flew to Battle of the Bulge with your Dad,
a darn good medic who saw too much blood,
looked death in the face, yet saved many.

Still pressed and passed along,
I joined you in Vietnam,
where fear was again defined,
Viet Cong snipers marked you with a bounty,
you were damn lucky to make it back.

Still in service I went with you
to the hospital for chemo, sniper drugs
every three weeks, six-day tours,
six cycles, for six months,
killing Agent Orange’s cancer.

 Though I am brown and frail,
I will continue to be with you
at the clinic, at your scans and
check ups, tucked inside your wallet
pressed to keep you safe.

 (This is for John. Honor Flight does a Mail call.. cards and letters from family and friends, given in a packet to each vet on their flight home. This will be in one of the envelopes. I've been collecting cards and letters from his Vietnam buddies, and fam and friends for the past 2 weeks). What do you think? Does it makes sense?

 

 

 

A Child, Maybe Your Child (my big edit. 4.25.18)

Epigram:  One in five transgender individuals have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives…due to Family rejection, discrimination and violence….that accounts for 20-40% of 1.6 million homeless youth in the U.S --- National Center for Transgender Equality:

 (Tori, Note: I went for feels. alliteration and explosive consonants. )

A Child, Maybe Your Child

Somewhere a grown-child,
maybe your child,
wanders the streets with a backpack
like a cast out kitten, your kin, kicked out
looking for a doorway, a ditch

a bridge to crawl under
away from the chill, the curl of wind,
needing to curl up
for sleep, or find supper and shelter.

Somewhere there are two or three
who find each other under that bridge
huddled, hungering, horrified,
afraid of

“What If”
someone comes over,
comes on to them,
to harm, hurt, hurl insults
because of how they look,
who they are.

Did you know
a child, maybe your child,
spent hours, days, even years
depressed, discerning, dreaming
how to escape
from the person they pretended to be.

Trusting, they came to you,
then came out, confessed, cared
enough about themselves
to push forward with genuine gender.

Perhaps you reacted
with your expectations around
their dress, their hair,
who they should like, even love.

 Did you think about
where they went that day you yelled,
and slammed the door,
that day, you shut out,
forced out, sent your child
to the street?

Somewhere a grown-child,
maybe your child
yearns for sleep without sirens,
begs for a bed without bright lights.

Somewhere, they are out there,
hugging their backpacks for comfort,
bone cold on a bench,
hungering for home.

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.”

© 2018 House of the Tomato