Writing and Art from the Middle and Beyond
Michelle Boisseau was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1955; was educated at Ohio University (BA 1977, MA 1980) and the University of Houston (PhD 1985); and now teaches in the MFA program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City where she is Senior Editor of BkMk Press and Contributing Editor of New Letters.
Her fifth book of poems, Among the Gorgons, won the Tampa Review Prize in 2016. Her A Sunday in God-Years, University of Arkansas Press, 2009, in part examines her paternal ancestors's slave-holding past in Virginia--back into the 17th century. Trembling Air was a PEN USA finalist, University of Arkansas Press, 2003; she has also published Understory, the Morse Prize, Northeastern University Press, 1996, and No Private Life, Vanderbilt University Press, 1990.
Recent poems, interviews, essays, memoir and commentary have appeared in Best American Poetry 2016, Poetry Daily, Poetry, Gettysburg Review, Huffington Post, New Ohio Review, New Letters, Southwest Review, Shenandoah and elsewhere.
You can also find some of her work on the Poetry Foundation website. Her textbook, Writing Poems (Longman), is now in its 8th edition, this edition with her colleague at UMKC, Hadara Bar-Nadav. Boisseau has twice been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and was recognized with a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2017.
In Her Parachute-Silk Wedding Gown
She stands at the top of the aisle
as on a wing. The white paper
carpet is a cloud
spilled out. The pillbox hats
turned to her are the rows
of suburbs she falls into.
She is our mother,
or will be, and any of us
stumbling upon this scene
from the next generation, would fail
to notice what makes even her
tremble, with her silver
screen notions of marriage—
where all husbands scold
to hide their good natures, and wives
are passionately loyal.
Her groom, after all, is just a boy
home from the war,
his only trophy, the parachute
she's made into her dress. It's a world
of appetites, she knows
all too well, waiting there
watching the flowers
bob in her hands, dizzying.
Despite herself, she's not thinking:
Go slowly, pace it,
a queen attended to court,
Bette Davis. Nor of the $20 bill
her mother safety-
pinned to her underpants.
But: My God,
a room full of men, looking,
each will ask me to dance--
your hand tingles
when you touch their close-
clipped heads. And the men,
nudged to turn around
and watch the bride descend,
see a fellow parachutist
as they all drift
behind enemy lines,
stomachs turning over as they fall
into the horizon, into the ring
of small brilliant explosions.
--No Private Life, Vanderbilt University Press 1990
Across the Borderlands, the Wind
My present field of consciousness is a centre surrounded by a fringe that shades insensibly
into a subconscious of more. –William James
Fringe planet. Shifty river. Bright shade.
The notes between the notes we hear
loud as the bird song. Bright shade
then morning blaze. This time of day
our shadows grow us tall and even
the seams between close-laid stones
in the dawn street are touched,
light-honed and articulated.
Mountain range and threadbare frontier.
Foray, skirmish, raid. By war, treaty,
algebra and surveyors in knee britches.
Stay out of my yard! City limits, state line,
double electric fence, high wall
and watchtower where bored soldiers
insult each other's sisters on schedule.
The eastern woods give way to the long grass
that gives way to the short-grass prairie,
gumbo lily, whistle of the meadow lark
riding and falling on the wind.
Last gas for ninety-three miles.
I'm half asleep as I watch them crossing
the border into Kansas. Coming out
of the night woods, they're the dark
coming apart, the avant dark, ahead
of a dawn ordinary to an old man
who presses a cheek against his cow's flank.
Warm milk threads his fingers, a breeze
drags the dust around the farmyard
where Quantrill's raiders ride in.
In earshot of the town they'll burn, they don't
shoot him like the nine others but club him
with the butt-end of a Sharp's carbine.
A flash of wood, the sleek shaft gripped,
and I look away, again the aerial view,
the stream of riders like wind through grass
as they gallop up the streets of Lawrence.
The tent tops of the recruit encampment
(a plot now shaded by a parking structure),
I hover till they're the size of screw heads,
and the pursuit and slaughter and fire
jumping roof to roof become a gray
business of graphite and margins
gradated by the thickets of sleep.
The tideline makes the gull bold
to snatch a sandwich from a child's hand,
and the sandpiper anxious,
drilling its shining self on the wet berm.
Wetlands, momentary land
of leggy tadpoles.
When they was kids, him and his sister
would beg their daddy to drive down
State Line Road, and they'd stretch out
in the back seat of the Hudson,
heads in Kansas, feet in Missouri
where the peachy moon was rising.
Ordinance and algebra. Along the dammed
and channeled river where I grew up
you could look down from Eden Park
on Kentucky. The bare rooftops
and vertiginous spires of the poor
former slave state offended
the good sense we had to be born
in Ohio. And yet the crooked smile,
like someone who'd brushed up
against a splendid outlaw,
Dad would make a wistful crack
about his grandfather's rumored
riches, slaves lost in old Virginia.
Latching on to a likely host
wafting past, it sucks a door
out of the cell wall: not alive but living
off life, the virus attacks passively
like in-laws. Next thing you know
you're tripping over their suitcases
and they've broken up your bed
for fires under their roaring kettles.
A note pinned to a dead jayhawker,
“You come to hunt bushwackers.
Now you ar skelpt.” When the worst
border war guerilla was killed,
Bloody Bill Anderson, they reported
eleven human scalps fluttered like ribbons
from his bridle band. Tucked in his watch case
a lock from his buxom wife. Townsfolk
lined up to have a picture with the corpse.
When the river
shifted, it left
an elbow of water
and this here
part of the state
The way smoke rising from many fires
is blown in tangles and scuds
like a blanket dragged across a floor
of rooftops and competing spires, the chiming
from churches on one side of the Green Line
wed the singing from minarets
on the other as the crackle of vespas
and blaring Euro hip-hop tried to amp up
the coolness factor of the strobing stores
of the South Nicosia shopping district
that gave way to the silence of warehouses,
workshops where a few machines whined
under low lights. When I walked past,
Western woman with a water bottle,
workers glanced up then back to the making
of laminated furniture for seashore condos,
then a dead end at the Green Line, barrel
barricades, streets of weeds, walls crumbling
like cake and feral cats wending through
the way looping thoughts wake a sleeper.
Trees eagered from de-glazed windows.
I heard a cough. At my elbow, wedged
into a slit of shade, a young man with a gun
and a water bottle--a sweating sunburned blond
in a UN uniform--we'd startled each other,
and now humbled by the heat, befuddled
by a goofy sense of guilt, we scrambled
to nod obliquely and look away.
At the last station before Holland,
a voice on the speakers announced,
Alle Juden heraus. The train hissed,
doors slammed, and because Bertha,
the oldest, had the presence of mind
to warn her sisters to sit still, they made
Amsterdam, and later the Twin Cities
where they lived to old age. Their neighbors–-
who'd obeyed, gathered up their coats
and stepped off–-were not heard from again.
Drips and drains. Late night, deep
into that frayed frontier, the ICU's
screens measuring his body's forecast
in slim crests and dips: Still, still, still,
there's comfort even in the steady
mechanical breathing, the stalwart
ventilator leashed to my brother,
the terrible comfort I will take
from time slipping at the door.
Ticking off centuries like seconds,
the great slow plates clutch
and shift intent as lovers, seas open,
mountains climb and fold. Elephants
broke fences, monkeys raced
for high ground: everybody except people
knew it was coming. For weeks after
the quake, the earth rang like a bell.
From a dock on a lake
on an island in a lake
I dive into the stars,
scatter them and gather them
between my arms and legs,
then watch them heal themselves
in place. Venus rebounds
on the water, the wet dock,
the low islands of my breasts:
we're all in a reflective mood.
Even centuries past the fringe
planets like Pluto, the sun,
dim as the last
gas station we left miles back,
tugs and grips,
oh, the gravitas of edges.
When he blew clean
the borderline between stone
and body grown from stone
were dusted with desire
like the hair of a honey bee.
The tiny wellsprings dimpling
the ridges of our fingertips mist
the air that touches us. Lying in bed,
tracing a vein that crosses your arm,
I'm the ocean in love with the sky.
Seamless ripples, a rise and response,
clouds are the trade of touch, exchange
rate of kisses. Never, There, or Once
and for all though we sweat and murmur,
That should keep you fucked a while.
--A Sunday in God-Years, University of Arkansas Press, 2009
Plump envelope, baby
folded twice in flannel,
tucked into a glass box
(though she won't wait for kisses
to wake her), and wheeled in
to us, the nurse's crepe soles
lightly smacking the polished floor.
The bed sits me up and you
lift her to me and settle her
above the incision. Unwrap
the crystal flutes and let's
knock them into music
as you kick off your shoes
and scoot in beside me.
* * *
And if she bear a maid child,
then she shall be unclean
two weeks . . . and whoever toucheth
her bed shall wash his clothes
and bathe himself
and be unclean until the evening . . .
and if any man lie
with her at all
and her flowers
be upon him he shall be unclean
for seven days and all
the bed whereon
he lieth shall be unclean.
* * *
On the operating table they curtained
me off from myself and I played along,
pretending to be blinded while I watched
them work in the silver hood
of the hanging lamp, a little window
to my body. The surgeon's hand
crossed my belly and presto,
a widening smile of blood the nurse
patted with gauze. Then the hood
was shifted, the anesthetics
coiled in my head and I saw only
a white corner of the room, an envelope flap,
until the pediatrician appeared with her,
blue, gluey, and blinking.
* * *
The female is
as it were
a deformed male.
* * *
No wonder the riddle tripped them up:
Not of woman born. Not of woman
as in not borne through
the narrow canal? The bearded
physician scooping the baby out
streaming into the damp room.
Faces flickering by the peat fire,
the hushed women dabbed the blood and gel
from the soft head, the toes. Only afterwards
do they turn to the one laid out
on the plank table (not of woman
born, for woman no longer?)
and tuck her back inside herself, wind her body
l ike a spindle in fresh linen.
* * *
Contact with it turns
new wine sour, crops touched
by it becomes barren, grafts
die, seed in gardens
are dried up, the fruit
of the trees falls of,
the bright surface of mirrors
in which it is merely reflected
are dimmed, the edge of steel,
and the gleam of ivory
are dulled, the hives of bees
die, even bronze and iron
are at once seized by rust.
--Pliny the Elder
* * *
Where's the shame for it?
A shame instead to flush away
this bright excess flowing
from me without first stopping
to steady myself against the dizzy tiles
and admire the red tethers tumbling
through the watery world, the blood
pooling at the bottom like a dropped robe.
Wet plums in a white bowl
and I the orchard. How could I feel shame
in the fact of it? As the sky's
a blue fact stretched tight as silk
above the hospital and the green facts
of pines pouring down the hillsides.
⏤Understory, Northeastern University Press, 1996
The land lies flooded and fat. The sun
jumped from the earth when the plane took off
and now flashes from soggy fields–
someone behind a fence toting a lantern–
now it flares out in a pond, now a river,
now a slow, steady looking from a lake,
then it plunges away from me
until the next flooded furrows.
How was I ever gloomy? How did I
let myself forget this quickening?
Flickering fields, luscious umber mud,
already a few trees decked in that aching
green of early spring. Gray and dutiful,
the plane drones around me. Far below
its shadow skims and bends over barns,
brave solitary farmhouses, highways
and nervy cars. How can it be
that we die? How is it that we can shush and set
our faces toward the north, the shades
drawn down after us, while all about us
is fluent and flashing and vast?
--Trembling Air, University of Arkansas Press, 2003
The goldenrod shivers under the attention
of hundreds and hundreds of bugs flooding
its powdery yellow towers. Some float in,
some zigzag. They bound, they crawl grip to grip,
they dive like owls into a meadow. Wasps, beetles,
bees, hornets, hoppers, butterflies, they waggle,
can-can fashion, their butts in the air, nuzzling
and combing packages of pollen. Bumbling thumbs,
wisps of commas, they hook the hooks of September
that fetches and plumps its shadow: slowly hurry,
all of us alive together at once, speeding through
like comets we guide our own undoing.
--Among the Gorgons, University of Tampa Press, 2016