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.

Infection

Yesterday evening I just know
I was fighting off something:
remember? at King Soopers,
bumping into Billie from the hill,
who’d moved away —
and the small animal clinic
where we had to take the cat,
his jaw swollen, the possibility of an abscess
and the threat of lockdown looming.
The man at the counter, way too close,
sniffling and hawking,
or mid-morning at the computer store
after my laptop had crashed,
each black letter of the alphabet,
once it had been fixed
and gone god-knows-where,
a poison pill, the whole keyboard
a box-cabinet of contagion.

Take your pick.
It could have been anywhere.
I only know I was fighting off something,
throat hot, tongue dry, my head
a late summer nest of soiled feathers,
twigs, the egg sacs of incubating spiders,
the birds gone, the fluid morning
giving way to inflammation,
the curtains and the dark.

I braved the digital thermometer in the end,
one of those things you stick in your ear,
the result announced freakishly
in a child’s voice:
“Your temperature is 98.2 degrees Fahrenheit,”
she said, as though speech was still
a little strange: she lived in a world
of ones and zeroes that never met.

Still, I’m sure there was something,
though I feel better now. Thank you.
All that may be left to fear
is my uncharitable skin,
this chamber, the chrysalis of our separateness.
The place where sex and philosophy
and streetfights all begin.
You over there. Me here.

Winter Storm Warning

The Ides of March and the week after,
this great hinge of the seasons,
as though checking the mail,
I’m on my hands and knees,
the sun on my back and the windless
grace of Colorado morning,
measuring the daffodil shoots:
a few inches high now,
but several new,
a full twenty or so to follow.

The daybreak chorus of house finches,
chickadees, and dark-eyed juncos,
like the approaching hum
of day visitors to the park,
motorcycle boys along the dams,
swells almost imperceptibly.

We spent the whole of winter waiting
and now the stork’s bill is here,
the dandelion’s rugged rosette /
they’ll overtake us soon,
too many images to catch — we might as well
gather all the falling snow.

And the weather report says it’s coming.
The wind picks up by five,
the brooding cloud and then
the pale, insidious skin of the sky
above the foothills,
the coughing of the pines
in the depth of the night.
Eight inches, they say. Maybe more.
Shelter in place, avoid travel,
stay off the interstate.

I take up my spot
at the south window, then,
where I can see the daffodils
before the snow comes and covers
their height three or four times deep.
There they’ll sit, jacketed with cold,
quiet as death, their green mouths
smug and smiling.

Camera

Every morning, as I go out,
I catch sight of my Nikon
on the hallway dresser
where I have deliberately left it,
charged with promise,
the magic lantern of schoolkids’ stories —
knowing that if I don’t take it
I’m sure to see something astonishing
and only have these dubious words.

I am always right:
the cones of the blue spruce
in the late winter light
drape on the top branches
like streetseller wares, plumbed fruit
hanging from his shoulders.
Or along the base
of our eastern slope,
where stubborn white pelts of snow
depress the prairie grass,
the veins of deer tracks
trickle out and finger.

I take the camera, then,
convinced that I have made
the whole world suddenly dull.
And I am always right:
what I saw in the spruce
I couldn’t tell you,
the tired interminable drupe of the bough /
not at all like vulture wings,
or the ratcatcher swinging
from a shoulder yoke, by their tails,
this late winter catch of cone.
How the deer are gone again,
and left us the mundane definition
of their feet, more loss
than lotuses.