I-70 Review

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.


Oxbow lake.

When the river

shifted, it left

an elbow of water

and this here

part of the state

was stranded

and stubbornized


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

Michelangelo's eyelashes

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

Blood Sonata

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

Flood Plain

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

Michelle Boisseau