And, scene!

Ten years ago, approaching my 50th birthday, I was in a rut. Not suffering from writer’s block, just too long moored. I’d written poetry for almost as long as could remember, in whichever country and under whatever circumstances. Writing on a computer if I had one, on scraps of paper if I didn’t, composing lyrics in my head walking to class if there was no napkin or envelope. I called the walking variety “street poems”, and I recommend them: they improve memory, and your words learn their rhythm from your feet, uniquely yours, always idiosyncratic and metrical. But ten years ago I had reached a little backwater of self-image, feeling as though each new piece, instead of stretching my own mythology a little farther into Middle Earth — new landscapes — barely extended beyond pale middle age. Too lacking in energy to touch even the last boundary.

And so I did something I had never done before, on impulse. I decided to write under a pen name. There was no forethought. I didn’t wake one morning thinking I had to call myself Zebeedee Galileo Starwinger now, and that Zebeedee was the product of a brief union between interstellar Comic-Con attendees, gender indeterminate. Instead, I turned in the chair and caught a glimpse of Lili, our Russian Blue, stretched out on the back of the sofa. Cat and couch. And so it was Kat Couch — although I’ve tended to pronounce the last name like Cooch, as in Hoochie Coochie — but less Muddy Waters and more Arthur Quiller-Couch, the Cornish novelist and editor of The Oxford Book Of English Verse (1250–1918). Like my parents, Sir Arthur was a Bard of the Cornish Gorseth Kernow, and devoted to the county.

The pseudonym had an effect, although I can’t say it had any predictable effect. Who was Kat? Was they a she? Twenty? Thirty? Older? Two principal things happened. I stopped writing first person confessional poetry and began to tell stories. In one, a girl in Las Vegas stares at a reproduction of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, once attributed to Bruegel the Elder, and the subject of poems by W.H. Auden and William Carlos Williams. She’s bored; she texts a friend. In other poems, a woman tidies the kitchen after her husband leaves on a sales trip; in another, a homicidal country girl takes revenge for social media bullying; parents taking a walk with their young son Dylan lose sight of him when he wanders off in search of a bear. A perplexed mule deer observes a man living on the property come and go from a great “unnecessary” house. And so on. Subjects ranged wide and wildly. And that was good.

Gradually, Kat began to come home again, absorbing the middle-aged male, and accepting him well enough as long as he continued to write about the three-leaf sumac and the black-billed magpies of these foothills. I still defer to her: she has no tolerance for self-indulgence; she wants to spin a good yarn. And if she shows a preoccupation with animal death and, for lack of a better word, “bioempathy,” she at least doesn’t require room and board. And she never eats the last ginger snaps.

Over the past six months or so I’ve posted one hundred and twenty of Kat’s poems. They fall into three sets of forty, and one day soon I’ll publish them in print, in a slipcase edition. Fewer than ten were written this year; some date from that 50th birthday. I’m not inclined to move on from Kat. She may be it for me now. But I do know that the poems here amount to a distinct body of work, and everything from this date will be something else.

lili_door_071019_01_964
Lili, miffed, royalties unpaid.

I’ve been making videos lately — for introductions and job interviews, and I marvel at my favorite ASMR folk, how generous and expert they seem in their digital skin, in their public personas. In my brief clips I am a slow-witted neanderthal who rarely smiles. I bite the ends off words like cheap cigars; pauses reproduce, begetting ums and ahs. That public persona is as strange now as Kat’s was in 2010, but I plan to get to know it a little better. So I am going back over these poems — I hope near-weekly, if not daily — and recording a video reading of each one, to be posted. Expect an occasional disembodied head, a pair of hands, an Apache pepper plant on the sill, words tumbling from curtains and cactus. Lili, still with us, may show up, demanding an appearance fee, salted crackers, royalties, naming rights.

Body Temperature

Every morning, I take my temperature
with a digital thermometer I stick in my ear:
there’s a nasty bug going around,
and I try to stay ahead of these things.
My left ear is warmer.
I favor my cool right ear, a full nine degrees
below what they tell us is normal.

Somewhere between these two extremes,
the outer limits of left and right,
I imagine a sun
like a bright yolk in the vacuum
of my galaxial head,
space and not gray matter,
and a succession of planets.

You live on the most beautiful blue pearl
in a broad, righteous orbit.
You send out signals into the void,
telling us of magical trees,
your love of animals, falling water.
Some of your messages reach the right ear,
the cold one, where a few drifting bodies
collect in the ice belt,
like homeless men around a grate.

They’ve just heard
that they are no longer considered planets,
perhaps no longer even a part
of this distant sun’s system.
They complain.
I hear their voices when I untie myself
into sleep, on my right side.

They listen to news of your impossible oaks,
cascades that make men weep,
the mothering whisper of the wild,
a lullaby they might hear just this once,
this winter-shortened night.

Wyoming Border, Bison

I drive late, going north,
winds so strong out of the foothills
you’ll see eighteen-wheelers
tossed on their sides in the median.
One or two at least, before we make the border,
snow bleaching the Front Range.

The very dead of winter now,
like the chaplain said.

Where our headlights empty,
the stations of my commute drift by:
Carr, Owl Canyon, Buckeye Road,
and the electric shock of the great plains:
they train astronauts in Wyoming,
folks who feel at ease in our cold, cold spaces.

On a high ridge, before the Welcome sign,
a rancher has erected the silhouette of a bison,
knocked together with two-by-fours,
blank, branding even the grass.
And below it, the real animals move
like shades in the underworld,
dozens of them, shrugging off the squall
that’s closed the highway from Casper to Wheatland,
closed the 80 west, all the way to Rawlins.

We’ve brought them back, the bison,
to say goodbye.

My hands itch to touch the coarse mat of their hair,
to finger the frost-crust on the crown
of their siegehammer heads,
the ears that may
have finally stopped listening
to everything we loved, to everything we feared,
to everything we said.

Suburbs, Cheyenne

Whatever happened to Kimi, I wonder?
The kid across the canyon from us
in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains.
We never saw him when he wasn’t making surfboards,
their white and yellow stripes
bright as Christmas wrapping.

I’m not sure he even surfed,
but a builder, in his garage,
sure hands laying fiberglass on polyurethane foam.

In southern California folks ease
Buicks and VWs into carports
after doing time on the Santa Monica Boulevard,
and when they take them out,
dreams attach.
They come spooling like coaxial cable.

It takes me back, these corn maze sidewalks
on Saddle Ridge: block after block,
the perfume of someone’s laundry
side-venting into the street,
tidied lives, tapped up, tucked up
against one another.

And how I love them in retrospect, the way
I love big data, the sprawl off Highway 80,
close enough to smell sweet-crude,
Emerald City winking of refinery towers,
turrets topped with flame.
There are football stadiums
that hold more people than this city does.
We’re in the nose-bleeds:
by the school house dark,
a night-shift cop, cruiser gone.
House dark, shades down, house dark, another.

But then blazing, on a leatherette couch
where the garage door would be, some guy
with a video console, eyes fixed like a ferret’s
his eight or nine-year-old brother
on the lawn with an electric gun
flashing pinball lights, gunning me.
Yeah, you got me, kid.
But I’m a poet.
I got you first.