Swarm By Jeanann Verlee

Learn how to say “no.”

Cram that word inside your mouth,
the whole thing, make sure all of it
gets in there. Let it walk on your tongue.
Practice with it in the mirror, push it
out, make faces, learn to love the salt
and bitter of it. Teach it to perch on your lip,
buzz, collect pollen from your sugary gloss.
Make it swarm between your cheeks.

Then, when the days come (there will be
many) where he pushes too hard, speaks
too sweetly, when the hand at your thigh
draws a thump in your stomach, when
the bitch gremlin inside whispers ‘it’s not
worth the fight,’ says you can barter
for your worth tomorrow, when your ribs
shrink, when he unfurls his Almighty Smile,
when four come at you at once, when
you love someone else, when the bar
is closing and your name become ‘Take
What I Can Get,’ when the girls hate you
anyway, when you want him until the burn
if only he wore a different face-

pull back your lips, bare the teeth you have
sharpened to their perfect points, flick
your stinger tongue, set free your swarm.

The Dolls, for Elisabeth Fritzl By Jeanann Verlee

Josef Fritzl imprisoned his daughter Elizabeth in the cellar of their home for 24 years. Among countless other abuses, he repeatedly raped her, resulting in the birth of seven children.

“The cellar in my building belonged to me and me alone – it was my kingdom…”
-Josef Fritzl

I built you a brood.
Used a tiny hammer and miniature chisels,
smoothed each little elbow with sandpaper,
hinged their joints with twine and wire
clipped from hangers.
Gave then button eyes and marshmallow lips,
made their clothes from tissue and the string
I once pulled from a pigeon’s nest.

Six perfect toy soldiers, just for you.
Seven, if you count the one in the incinerator.
He was blue as a robin’s egg. His limbs,
limp as an unstrung marionette.
When you burned him, our home bloomed
with the scent of chicory and cloves
like Christmas.

The six survivors
hanging from my breasts
do not know my name.

The three you took away
used the word “lost” as if wandering
the supermarket or a parking lot.

Yet there they were: perched canaries
at grandmother’s window,
slurping spiced pumpkin soup,
calling you “Uncle,”
wearing their faces inside-out.

The three you left in the dungeon with me
have grown into ghosts.
Veal calves, raised without sunlight,
born for slaughter.
They stroke the rats like puppies,
play hide and seek with roaches,
eat each other’s scabs.

You clever craftsman,
built me a doll house.
Turned me into doll maker.

Puppets with hinged jaws,
painted lashes that never blink,
porcelain hands, wooden feet,
and Father, look!
they all have your eyes.

Holy by Jeanann Verlee

Sometimes we eat each other’s lettuce
straight off the plate. Or french fries,
or whole halves of sandwiches, drink wine
(and whiskey) from the bottle, add hot sauce
to everything. Sit on the floor in the poetry aisle
at Barnes & Noble, the lady with sharp points on her feet
carefully overstepping spread fingers, the nanny sighing a heavy
infuriation as the six-year-old in her charge whines,
but THEY’RE on the ground!, and we have never been this holy.
Not even on those nights on the chewing gum steps
of Union Square exchanging epic stories about girls with butterfly
wings and boys made of turpentine until the sweet arc of dawn
bronzes this city’s rusty skyline, the sticky grip of holy cradling us,
belly-up, like sunstroke, like a wriggling pup, like a god we sit
cynically disbelieving but laughing with over late-night beers.
This is the stink of forgive me, the shirt drenched in sweat
and sometimes sobs. This is what it means to have love.
There is nothing in you that says hold me, no unfolding bulb
of flutter; this is not the agonizing thrum of heartache,
not the tricky misgivings of future; this is the answer
to why we came, why we stay, why each morning
is a reason, and why friend is the weakest word between us.
You glance across the table, smile in the knowing
that I, too, will never eat meat (wouldn’t matter, but I won’t)
and it’s easy. How I know we will walk, regardless the rain or the ice,
there is no room for taxi, for subway, when four good calves
and a long conversation are the only measure of distance
between Eighth Avenue and the Lower East Side.
How I know you’ll always come home, always, even when home
means riverbed or volcano or passenger seat of a 1993 Camry
or floorboards in a bookstore where you read poems aloud to me
from Rosal’s My American Kundiman until we are belly-up drooling
and a six-year-old boy witnesses holy
for the first time.

Graham By Jeanann Verlee

Three years.
A flat-black
punk-rock
love-mobile
Dodge Dart.
Tattoos and
blue hair—
your
nicotine taste
made me high.
We moved in a
slow-mo frame
of hardcore and
hallucination.
Smirnoff
was our rummy
partner.
On special
occasions,
Southern Comfort.
And it was fun.
Until the
psych ward
at Porter
Memorial—
slashed wrists
and liver
rot. After
two years
of detox
and Hide-
the-Booze,
I quit.
You didn’t.
And I’m sorry
it was
Christmas
but I had
to go.

Unsolicited Advice To Adolescent Girls With Crooked Teeth And Pink Hair By Jeanann Verlee

When your mother hits you, do not strike back. When the boys call asking
your cup size, say A, hang up. When he says you gave him blue balls, say
you’re welcome. When a girl with thick black curls who smells like bubble
gum stops you in a stairwell to ask if you’re a boy, explain that you keep
your hair short so she won’t have anything to grab when you head-butt her.
Then head-butt her. When a guidance counselor teases you for handed-down
jeans, do not turn red. When you have sex for the second time and there is no
condom, do not convince yourself that screwing between layers of underwear
will soak up the semen. When your geometry teacher posts a banner reading:
“Learn math or go home and learn how to be a Momma,” do not take your
first feminist stand by leaving the classroom. When the boy you have a crush
on is sent to detention, go home. When your mother hits you, do not strike
back. When the boy with the blue mohawk swallows your heart and opens his
wrists, hide the knives, bleach the bathtub, pour out the vodka. Every time.
When the skinhead girls jump you in a bathroom stall, swing, curse, kick, do
not turn red. When a boy you think you love delivers the first black eye, use
a screw driver, a beer bottle, your two good hands. When your father locks the
door, break the window. When a college professor writes you poetry and
whispers about your tight little ass, do not take it as a compliment, do not wait,
call the Dean, call his wife. When a boy with good manners and a thirst for
Budweiser proposes, say no. When your mother hits you, do not strike back.
When the boys tell you how good you smell, do not doubt them, do not turn
red. When your brother tells you he is gay, pretend you already know. When
the girl on the subway curses you because your tee shirt reads: “I fucked your
boyfriend,” assure her that it is not true. When your dog pees the rug, kiss her,
apologize for being late. When he refuses to stay the night because you live in
Jersey City, do not move. When he refuses to stay the night because you live
in Harlem, do not move. When he refuses to stay the night because your air
conditioner is broken, leave him. When he refuses to keep a toothbrush at your
apartment, leave him. When you find the toothbrush you keep at his apartment
hidden in the closet, leave him. Do not regret this. Do not turn red.
When your mother hits you, do not strike back.

Exit Wound By Jeanann Verlee

you are an exit wound

the extra shot of tequila

the tangled knot of hair that has to be cut out

you are the cell phone ringing in a hushed theatre

pebble wedged in the sole of a boot

the bloody hangnail

you are, just this once

you are flip flops in a thunderstorm

the boy’s lost erection

a pen gone dry

you are my father’s nightmare

my mother’s mirage

you are a manic high
which is to say:
you are a bad idea

you are herpes despite the condom

you are, I know better

you are pieces of cork floating in the wine glass

you are the morning after
whose name I can’t remember
still in my bed

the hole in my rain boots

vibrator with no batteries

you are, shut up and kiss me

you are naked wearing socks

mascara bleeding down laughing cheeks

you are the wrong guy buying me a drink

you are the typo in an otherwise brilliant novel

sweetalk into unprotected sex

the married coworker

my stubbed toe

you are not new or uncommon
not brilliant or beautiful

you are a bad idea

rock star in the back seat of a taxi
burned popcorn
top shelf, at half price

you are everything I want

you are a poem I cannot write

a word I cannot translate

you are an exit wound

a name I cannot bring myself

to say aloud

40 Love Letters By Jeanann Verlee

Dear Dennis,
I still think of you.

Dear Andre,
I saw you kiss her.
I haven’t looked back.

Dear Patrick,
You’re just too young.

Dear Eric,
I said horrible things about you.
Your teeth are fine,
it’s the rest of you I don’t like.

Dear Greg,
Thank you for the poem, for every single scar.

Dear William,
I love you, simple.
I like that we will never be we.

Dear Jay,
The bruises fell off eventually.

Dear Michael,
I’ll never be enough to fill the shoes
that will one day stand at your side.

Dear Ben,
I did read your letters.
All of them.

Dear Freeman,
I’ll never stop looking over my shoulder,
boots laced, ready to run.

Dear Jon,
I’ll always love you.
You are all there ever was.

Dear Derek,
There was no one thing,
your everything is impossible.

Dear Eddie,
We are refracting magnets.
We will battle this to the end.

Dear Dennis,
I still think of you.

Dear Ryan,
Sex under the streetlight was a delicious accident.

Dear Kevin,
Your kiss came too late.
My lips were already dancing in the other room with Jon.

Dear Ethan,
No.

Dear Joseph,
I said you were too pretty.
They said to try it anyway.
They are fools.

Dear Avery,
You are the definition of unrequited.

Dear Skippy,
I’m sorry about the whiskey
and the tampon.
I’m sorry I never called you.

Dear Nate,
Until you mocked my smile, I was yours.

Dear Marc,
I like your wife too much.
Is your brother still single?

Dear Mitch,
You were my biggest mistake.
I’m sure that only makes your smile more sinister.

Dear Allen,
While you poured Guinness for Patrick,
I pictured you bending me over the bar.

Dear Graham,
I’d have swallowed that bullet.

Dear Miguel,
You said a man never forgets his first redhead.
What color are my eyes?

Dear Dennis,
I still think of you.

Dear Francis,
I’d have broken you in half.

Dear Chris,
I’m sorry I stalked you.
I’d try to forget me, too.

Dear Dex,
I can’t be with you again.
Just accept it.

Dear Dr. Matthews,
No.
I’ll have you fired.
Again.

Dear Aiden,
I wrote a poem about you.
It’s everyone’s favorite.
I find it trite.

Dear Logan,
I think I finally stopped wanting you.

Dear Cynthia,
I was drunk.
I thought you were, too.

Dear Ricky,
Maybe it was the red dress
or because I was fifteen.
Your brother married my mother
on the same day I first touched your cock.
Maybe you’re still a pervert.
Call me.

Dear Jeff,
I was your biggest mistake.

Dear Robert,
You are more than beer and vomit.
You are more than I could ever put into a poem.

Dear Dennis,
I still think of you.

Dear Dennis,
I keep your photos in a box.
Each one, still in its frame.

The Telling By Jeanann Verlee

She is a tornado.
He is a man. He is solid and humble.
She tells the story three times, convinced
he does not understand. He is trying.
The story is about an elephant and a mermaid.
No, the story is about a millipede in a thicket of roses,
a prized buckskin horse and fifty lashes.
She is talking gibberish. He is trying to understand but she
is thunderbolt. Her tongue, a spear.
The dog is hiding in the back corner of a dark room.
The man wants to sit with the dog. She is melting.
Her face pools in her lap. Freckles pile at her feet.
There is nothing in the room that has not been hurled.
She is science like this. An atom, separating.
Finally, the story comes, like flood. Its mud seeps in
from under the doorjambs, rising. They are standing
ankle deep in water and sludge. He understands now.
He is a spiced wound. He wants firearms. Hit-men. A brutal justice.
All the while, the window is sitting with its mouth open,
spilling their hot storm into the courtyard,
where the neighbors have come to their sills,
elbows propped, hungry
like vultures.