I-70 Review

Writing and Art from the Middle and Beyond

Lisa Fay Coutley

Lisa Fay Coutley is the author of tether (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), Errata (Southern Illinois University, 2015), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition, In the Carnival of Breathing (BLP, 2011), winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition, and Small Girl: Micromemoirs (Harbor Editions, 2024). She is also the editor of the grief anthology, In the Tempered Dark: Contemporary Poets Transcending Elegy (BLP, 2024). She is an NEA Fellow, Associate Professor of Poetry and Creative Non-Fiction in the Writer's Workshop at the University of Nebraska Omaha, and Chapbook Series Editor at Black Lawrence Press.

Dear Mom—

It's been an hour since the storm sirens

began, yet I've felt freezing rain for days.

Outside my window, the plastic bag

snagged in the neighbor's tree is filling    

with wind then letting it go over & again.  

I cannot stop breathing. It's been so long

since we've spoken I've given up trying

to remember the last words you slurred.

Your voice a broken shell I cut my ear

against. You & I both know I hope for

no ocean. Now that you're dead, do you

think love is wasted on the living? I have

pretended to look for you in every face

since I left the last room we breathed in

together. Remember when you dropped  

your favorite dress at your ankles & stepped

into the street without me? Each night

some woman stumbled home & tried

to cook your recipes. Her hands just cut  

you. I was seven. I promised then I'd never

let her hold me. My life began inside you. What

else is there to say? When I listened to a machine

beep your last heartbeat, I never rested my head

against her chest. Dear Mom—I'm still waiting

for that horse in my heart to stamp its hooves

again. I can drop a potted plant from my roof

a hundred times, though it takes just once

for it to learn to brace against the next impact.

I'm sorry the world made it so hard for you  

to know the difference between a caress  

& a closing fist. I'm sorry you left yourself  

alone. Lonely. Briefly, today's rain gathered

on the slats of the deck, & I admired the sky  

twice. Still I wish I didn't need to see the trees  

dark as charred bones, poisoned veins. I'm sorry

I made you a disease I wasn't willing to admit

I had for so many years. I close my eyes & try

to summon your face—a hole blown through

the center of every floor in this endless sky-

scraper inside me. Sometimes, in the mirror,

I stick out my tongue & widen my eyes & cry

like a baby who needs her mother to see her

need, to be her initial witness, to prove she

exists, so she can stop hauling her body

from city to city, bed to bed, searching

for herself in the faces of strangers. When

the temperature finally dropped, the rain  

froze a mosaic, angry fragmented second

sky the snow is working hard to cover now.

The sun never showed today. Still I feel her

setting. As a girl, I'd sit by the shore & study

her early bruise & her evening blood spilling

under a door to another room of the universe,

as if I knew every gray day to come without her.

from tether

(first appeared in Pleiades)

Total Solar Eclipse

Every shadow will sharpen

its blade against our strained

faces, plastic glasses & necks

craning toward the Mother  

who refuses to be seen

otherwise. Mystery is her

bitch. Tight leash. Biting

tenor. Forgive me for how

wet I get just imagining

the day drained of itself,  

the way city lights are fires  

burning endlessly from space.

New perspective, same place.  

They say Play-Doh in the palm

calms a child with autism.

A paperclip over a fingernail

for a nervous speaker. What, then,

for the woman each of us tries  

to see, even in her hiding, woman

of untouchable temperature—all

that collapsed matter flattened

& fierce & always made to stay

at the center of every mistake

her children make—what could

soothe her? Does she remember?

Can she forget? Does she hope,

every time she cuts herself

to crescents, that we will see her

new, so alone with her own gravity,

giving all of herself to the dark?

from tether  

         (first appeared in 32 Poems)


Father said the more love the more

     work & worry. Don't tell me again  

          how another woman would have

known. Some secrets sit so still  

     at the back of your knee. Hall

          leads to hallway. Ask me why

light can pour warm through a cold bay  

     window while water under sun is dark  

          as a closed door. A man's hand

erases a girl's thigh. The trees start starving

     themselves into everyone's favorite color.  

          Her darkest room digs itself

below her throne. The body knows no

     wrong move. The more love, the more.

from HOST, section **

(appeared in The Missouri Review)

To the Friend Who Sent Me Goodwill Forks As a Gift

I'm not embarrassed to live alone

with my three mismatched forks.

I'm not sorry you had to wash one

to eat the omelet, I fried for you.

I want you to wait until your son

is asleep, then quiet into his room

to his bed's edge & try to see him

without that cosmic nightlight

inside him, in a now that does not

involve you. As they do, my sons

outgrew me & the home-cooked

meals I might throw in their faces

for the way a single mother grinds

her teeth to pieces in broken sleep.

I'm breath locked behind wiredrawn

ribs. The dark welt of alone. Blemish

even to women like you who believe

they know what going it alone means.

Co-parenting. I keep waiting for

this dark fist in my chest to pearl.

I could be baptized a second time

just to let someone hold my weight.

God, how we ruin you with words,

though we like the rhyme of saying

meth den or meth head in theory

even if I'm cursed to see a hive

of bodies pulsating around the same

hanging dime. You cannot possibly

dream there'll be a time when you will

be asked to wrap your spare silverware

& mail it to your son in his new city,

his new place, his new him, the sweet

smell of yellow smoke the only warm

blanket around his shaking frame.

from Host, section*

(appeared in Waxwing)


People make a lot of claims about writing, as if there's one correct way to approach the page. So many rules and opinions. I've been told, for example, to stop writing poems about my dead mom or about birds, etc. Other writers have brought to my attention that, at times, I repeat specific images and lines verbatim, as if this were in error.

In the space of this generous feature, then, I chose to share Mom and trauma poems that repeat with intention because over the years I've come to see how loss/trauma parasitizes, living in my body, resurfacing as it will, often in unexpected places and at inconvenient times. I allow it to infect my work as such, recurring and calling in image and phrase not just across one poem or collection but across books and genres and through time since grief never ends; it just assumes new shapes.

I tell my students that their work needs to find its shape given their particular identities and unique content. I hope to help them let language, sound, image, inter alia, show them what the work needs in order to be its most effective self. So when I was invited to group some poems for this feature, I selected work from each full-length poetry collection I've published—Errata (2015), tether (2020), and HOST (2024)—with my students in mind (practicing my preaching and all that).

Since we've just finished our section on epistles, I've thrown in some letters, as well as poems about motherhood, another constant urgency for me. Early on I wrote poems about being a young, single mother as a way to survive. Then—once I realized I needed to write honestly at the frayed edges of motherhood—I wrote with an eye toward challenging the conventions therein, though over time those poems showed me deeper compassion for my sons, myself, and for this planet that hosts us.

To track my obsessions over time and to show the continuation of intentional textual parasitism, I've ended with three pieces that are spread over HOST's halves, stitching certain hurt through various relationship dynamics and losses. HOST is forthcoming from University of Wisconsin Press, March 2024, and you can read more poems from the collection at www.lisafaycoutley.com/host.

Thank you for featuring and spending time with this often complicated and painful work.

My Lake

My lake has many rooms and one, which is red

with a door that's always open but chained.  

My lake owns boxing gloves. She owns lingerie.

She can swing, she can cha-cha, she can salsa

and tap but refuses a simple slow dance. My lake

learned early to rest the needle without a scratch.    

She has been classically trained in lovemaking.  

When she wants to ride a rollercoaster, she does

it alone. When she lets her hair down, men go

blind. My lake doesn't take any shit. She wears

stilettos in ice storms, does crosswords in pen.

She eats red meat. Her porch needs painting,

her flowers need weeding, but my lake reads

palms in twelve different languages. If my lake

puts her hand to your chest, she decides. At times,

whole days can pass when she won't let anyone

near her. She freezes just before she murders

her own shore. It's been years, and still my lake

won't name the delicate sound of ice taking

then brushing away. She might say it's the train

of a wedding dress, or the rain falling on a glass

slipper. There are times she sees the grace of two

loons gliding—their bodies a duet over breaking

water, and she slows herself. She makes a cradle.

from Errata

(appeared in Cave Wall)

Shooting Geese,

          I'll maintain, is a thing I did for love.

               At fifteen, a girl will crouch in the blind

                    until her toes go numb, eager

          to prove her aim. It's hard to know how far she'll go

               over slick rocks at the shore's edge,

                    lugging her bodyweight in decoys,

          for a boy. A boy who'll later trace with his finger

               the white smudge growing inside her, nothing

                    more than a sonogram, & ask if it is

          too late.  Changing my mind at the right time

               has never been my strength. I'd wait.

                    I'd hold my breath with the water

          as my witness, my finger loose against the trigger,

               taking direction not from that north wind

                    or whitecaps or silhouettes circling

          plastic geese, so when that boy mouthed now

               through clenched teeth it never occurred to me

                    that I might have been their first

          warning, might have pointed toward the sun

               rising & fired both rounds, as if to say no,

                    I won't bait them, won't

          watch them glide toward those empty shells

               so much like themselves, but I let them fall

                    one by one to the dark of that water.  

          By their necks, like bouquets, I held them up  

               as proof, then lay them in a row on shore.  

                    There, on my knees, I gripped them

          each in turn & spun their bodies counterclockwise

               against the stillness of their heads,

                    just in case, just to be sure.  

from Errata

(appeared in American Literary Review)


As the story goes, the raven's wings

aren't black. They're waves capping

dark omens. Crows with curtained throats.

Who knows what falls from the shelf

inside us. Even gods skin their knees

to bleed. The man at the end of the aisle

is pocketing two-for-one toothbrushes.  

The cashier is hand-perking her breasts  

& picking her teeth with a receipt.

I'm sorry you won't see your son, his skin

peeling its white scarf through blizzards.

I haven't sanded the road, won't

strut across town in my ballet slippers.

Your shape in this bed is my shape.

Erase my whole notes from your page.

Two stoplights ago, the wind

off a pickup pulled us further from home.

When I said the moonlight made graves

to square off the night, I meant to say

pull over. Listen: my heart's a gutter

of ravens tugging at the firmament.

from Errata

(first appeared in Linebreak)

On Home

All winter long my sons have pointed guns

in my face and with their mouths popped

the triggers. The oldest wants to spoon me.       

The youngest wants to change his name

to the playground pimp. When we circle up

for dinner, I'm careful not to say chicken breast

or meatball or anything they can follow with

that's what she said. Consider the going rate

for hormones, then picture an eager group

of eBay bidders. I joke, but someone should

tell these boys—in a wake of black mascara,

mothers drive away. All winter long I've left

feel-good Post-its on the bathroom mirror,  

the espresso maker, the edge of my razor.  

          Every day, I've given myself reasons to stay.

            from Errata

            (appeared in The Hollins Critic)

Driving Drunk, & a Dozen White Crosses

from her purse to her palm, she revs her cemetery  

     toward a gauzy daymoon, curves our Buick


the hipbend home. Mouthfuls of ditch flowers

     purple & passing, cottonwoods spilling

that moon's confetti, the coal in Mother's eyes

     whitening. This is the fire I warm my hands by.  

Clear the deadwood & you'll see: nothing but a girl

     with a mouth dry of music. Let's pretend

this is thirst, when a girl might stagger three, maybe four

     days before paving her own mirage: a single drop

of oil down a harp string. Rain. Under this influence,

     it will take years to learn she's a room she drags

with her. Wall-to-wall nettles she's shaped into banjos,

     maracas, a flute. When it finally comes time to sit

to the river, she'll have to finger her throat, snap in halves

     all the notes that woman sung into her—

granite specks from hammer to chisel to headstone—

     until the horse in her heart stamps its hooves again.

from Errata

(first appeared in Clackamas Literary Review)


according to my therapist, is my body's / way of saying I'm a gazelle, head bent / to long grass, eating but heeding the puma / who's tracking me, so I often stop, raise my / face & wait, unable to chew until my brain / scans the landscape to see I'm free / from teeth. In the tall window of this / office, Lucinda the magenta orchid screams / or flames or celebrates even though it is / January & there is no sky. There's an elephant / straight ahead, Buddha to the left, a trampoline behind me / where once I rocked myself still for the dull pain / in my pelvis. There are two silent clocks / & no foul smells, no reason to fear this room / wants to hold me by my wrists / still light pours in from the north / when a man's hand erases a girl's thigh / until she's the fish with a fluke for its will / forcing her to flash her shimmering fins / bald at the water's top for some lucky bird / come pluck her my parasite inside / I'll be the bird flying a half life / singing against my own desire.


Or I am not a gazelle. I am pinned

to the bed in a way only one of us likes.

I am breath locked behind the wire

drawn ribs of knowing you're running

out of this week's money to feed

your babies. I am learning to cry

quietly so as not to hurt everyone

around me. Each year I grow more

sunflowers for the faces I'm holding

underwater inside me. A bird of prey

in the house is one less in the sky.

from HOST, section *

(appeared in Gulf Coast, winner of the

2021 Gulf Coast Poetry Prize)