Valedictorian by default,
I knew I’d blow the speech: the honor
wasn’t mine. I wanted to talk about
Bobbie, not yet twelve months in the grave,
but found myself sleep-walking down a road
of “the first day of the rest of our lives,”
a generic blue graduation gown
swallowing my gold-tasseled lies.
I remember her birthday
was in February
and she was scared
sex might be messy
I remember my letter
waiting in her mailbox
the day she died, how
I confided the love bite
on my neck from a summer
crush, but said nothing
of his hand down my pants,
not wanting to leave her behind
Some days I dream of a do-over
for that speech and think what I’d say:
how on the June afternoon her chestnut
gelding threw her, she’d left a list of things
to do: clean room, apply for college
scholarships, polish boots. Or maybe I’d read
Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane,” his student’s
death so like Bobbie’s own.
I’d find my way to honor Bobbie, finally,
by standing — speechless — on the stage, dead air
recalling for us all how she saddled up
and rode through the practice pasture, horse
and girl fluid dancers making perfect turns,
until the horse stumbled, missed the jump,
and Bobbie skimmed the clouds, hair floating
out in ribbons, contrails slicing the sky.
A Texas Girl on Central Avenue
The plane touches down in Albuquerque
and we drive through the old part
of town where adobe is trimmed in pure
turquoise sky or rose-dusted
mesa, where great lobes of dark chiles
Next morning, fresh
from Bible-Belt West Texas,
I walk down Central Avenue,
old Route 66, gawking at girls
with nose rings, loving it
when dark tattooed men whistle
and call after me, Hey, Babe!
Meandering through tourist shops
in search of Indian trinkets,
I hear a harmonica, some rich liquid
blues tune running quicksilver
down the street.
Around the corner, a street musician
and his girl sit against a wall,
wanting nothing more
than to play for me all day.
Too cheap to throw coins
their way, I window-shop,
walking back and forth
just to hear that sound.
Finally, I duck into a store,
choose earrings from Taiwan
for my little girl, deeming local
silver just too expensive.
Back in Texas, my daughter loves
the gaudy shine of dime-store trash,
never missing what I couldn’t buy:
that harmonica’s hard throb sliding
through me before it hit the street.
Letters from My Father
Periodically they arrived, scalding installments
in my complimentary subscription to dread.
Slitting open envelopes, I iced my heart
against scriptured advice, read slantwise
his scrawls, burying terror with squinted eyes.
Though my father never made it past
eighth-grade math, his calculus of sin
was immaculate, proofs underlined
on thin-skinned King James pages.
Even wadded up, sealed and shoved
behind my eyelids, unread, they steamed
themselves open in dreams. I knew
each epistle weighed me in the balance,
found me wanting. Knew his equation
for grace, buzzing along the x-y
axis of a flickering neon cross:
I must paper my body with inked
admonition, slide back into church
pew, let varnished hardness trance me
into dancing in the spirit, let glossolalia,
first poetry I ever spoke,
flood my throat, a feathered
messenger choking me as it clawed
its way free of caged teeth.
We believed in the supernatural,
angels and demons, even a ghost, though
only the one — a turbo-charged member
of the Trinity giving us a boost,
magical fruits — love, joy, peace, and so on.
I’d been told I should want it. I’d been told
I would like it. So one night at age 12
I got down on my knees and asked for it.
I guess I missed the warning: be careful
what you wish for. I begged for the secret
language, till empty as an open womb,
a torn hole, I floated above it all.
Looking down, I saw myself, a dripping
blister rubbed raw and glistening with the wet
tongue of the Holy Ghost shoved down my throat.
After teaching high school and college English for twenty years, Janice Northerns left academia last year to spend more time writing. Her first full-length poetry collection, Some Electric Hum, is forthcoming from Lamar University Literary Press. Awards include a Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts residency, a Sewanee Writers’ Conference scholarship, second place in Southwest Review’s 2017 Marr Poetry Contest, and the Robert S. Newton Creative Writing Award from Texas Tech University. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Laurel Review, Southwestern American Literature, descant, Cold Mountain Review, and elsewhere. A native Texan, she and her husband now live in southwest KansasRead more of her poetry at www.janicenortherns.com or follow her on Twitter @JaniceNortherns.