Two Poems

Two Poems

                   an elegy

1. Back Room at Monster Pets. My Mother is Dying.

A snake’s complete nutritional package is mouse
but my girl’s was weaned on earthworm
by the Hurricane, Utah, breeder who overnighted the garter
in a dampened petri dish packed in a cooler
with dry ice, and so refuses mice.
“Eating worm for snake’s like eating donuts,”
my girl says, worried as a mother. She’s discussing the problem
with Buck, reptile expert at the pet store,
crap job he loves, newly identifying boy,
new name. Buck has an interesting
but inessential part to play in the poem.
“Sure, we have nightcrawlers,” he says, tossing
his bang back. Ring Bell For Feeders says the sign
on the swinging back room door he came out of.
“Live in dirt in tins,” he says. “You cut a chunk.
A snake will like its scent and wiggle.” Says:
“Or try feeder fish: pop them live in the freezer,
cut chunks and thaw. Some snakes prefer it to worm.”
In the back room, live mice in cages, peach fuzzies,
hoppers, L, XL, like clothing sizes, feeder chorale,
diminuendo, crescendo, Red Hots eyes, squeak aria
when a hand comes in. “I wouldn’t get involved
in live ones, then you have to stick with them,”
says Buck. “Anyway, your garter snake’s
too small.” Crickets shatter around in packets.
Buck hoists a jar in which a teal hornworm,
thick as a finger, climbs the glass above a horrorsea
of brother hornworms. Remember Bogart
near the end of The African Queen,
shuddering with leeches, expelling gasping odium
as he slides back into the teeming swamp
to drag the boat from the muck it’s stuck in—
he and Hepburn think it’s their only hope
for getting back to open water. Which turns out
is just a few feet away. But they can’t see that yet.
“Or grubs,” says Buck. “Twenty cents each, six for a dollar.”
Grubs—waxworms—look like dead flesh
in a 19th-century novel subjected to galvanic experiment.
“Fatty,” says Buck. “They’ll fat your snake right up.”
Or superworms, flexing their segments, prized
for moisture and protein. “But I don’t recommend them,
less you crush their heads first. They bite.”
Hepburn and Bogart think they’ve
come to the end, lying in the boat bottom
in the buggy buzzing delta reeds, filth-smeared,
thinking they’re dying—then it starts to rain?
My mother was thinking of dying. I am thinking
of me as a kid in my room, listening late
to my mother pound down the stairs
in her nightgown again to my sister screaming
in terror again, terrified, my mother says,
of time. The tick of the clock and the frozen
swick…swick…of its hand
and my sister trapped in it. I am thinking of my mother
holding my sister and pulling her out of it
and of me listening to her loving her
while Buck says my girl can pet the ball python,
Warrior, while she decides what snake feed
she wants, till Warrior hides her head
under her neck in fear or overstimulation.


2. Another Day at Monster Pets

Buck at a wall of slide-out reptile terrariums
on custom runners, Buck putting in feed, changing water,
staring into a terrarium fitted out with rocks,
a twisted branch, plastic vine and tiny waterfall,
his belt buckle a rampant cobra, bolero tie
amber-clasped, in which a fossiled wasp.
Insignificant Buck Burgomaster. Who doesn’t
love his name. While Buck and the girl are talking snake,
I’ll mention the dream: we’d all forgotten for weeks
and months to feed our pet pot-bellied pig.
I jerked part-way out of the dream,
literally leapt out of bed like a kangaroo rat, sproing!
and ran to wake the girl, remembering just before
I pounded on her door that we’ve no such pet,
no pig, also that she was snuggled in my bed downstairs
around the little heap of cat
having wakened to what she called “a tiny clapping sound,”
whereupon she turned on the bedside lamp
and found a ladybug trying to escape out the window.
Scooped it with a bit of paper, she was always
casting paper around her bed saying spells to repel demons,
and now she ran to rehome the ladybug
on a potted primrose out back. Bug saved, she grew
freaked at night sounds, so climbed in with me.
Awake, I went back to bed, faint-ish. Next morning,
I told her the dream. She laughed, quite grown in daylight,
eating a donut, mouth sugary, and ever since,
“Mom, stop feeding the pig,” when I try
to solve problems that don’t exist. And here’s as good a place
as any to mention—she’s gazing rather wiggly
into the gecko terrarium—that her father, unsolvable problem,
mostly absent because mostly sick, maybe losing his mind,
makes us what? lonely. And tethered. And free.
And makes me shout. Doesn’t make: I let myself shout.
So think of me shouting, snake with mouth unhinged
to fit a universe of mice. Not at her but do we think
anger is a good green place for her to live in?
Check a box: Yes? No? Maybe?
Dialogue: “Where’s Warrior,” says the girl—
“We sold her,” says Buck, “How’s your garter?”
So the girl gets to tell her brilliant story,
swells with the pride of it. “I gave her live worm chunks.
After a few days I rubbed a bit of mouse gut
on the worm. Heather, I named her, glumped.
The worm segued down her body, diminished as it traveled.
Next I made a stew of worm and mouse…”
That slightly formal way she sometimes talks.
Bogart: What happened?
Hepburn: We did it, Charlie, we did it!
Bogart: But how?
“…and then,” says the girl, “she switched entirely to mouse!”
“Perfect!” says Buck the Encourager.
“So,” says the girl, “we gave the worms to friends
in Germantown with chickens.”
Buck: “So what do you need today?”
The girl: “A black light to warm her at night
that won’t keep me up with its light.”


3. In Her Room. My Mother is Dead.

In her room with the blackened light,
what the girl sings:
And the ship the black freighter
disappears out to sea
and on it is me

then switches off from Blitzstein/Brecht to Edward Lear:
And everyone cried, ‘you’ll all be drowned!’
royal blue rubber glove drowning
her hand, singing now and turning poem
to slow low blues. She sings when interested
and happy. They called aloud ‘Our Sieve ain’t big.
But we don’t care a button
we don’t care a fig in a sieve we’ll go to sea.

What she does: slides the screen off the top of the tank.
Far and few far and few are the lands where the Jumblies live
slow jam slows Their heads are green
and their hands are blue and they went to sea in a sieve.

What Heather does: smites head at the girl’s blue finger.
And mouse: spreads Heather’s maw.
What glove does: when the girl flings it, hangs deflated
over the trash can edge.
Weather: sultry summer.
Windows: up.
Cat: spreads its little knives against the snake tank.
“Meow,” says the girl to the cat.
“Now we have to leave her alone,” she says.
“Or she’ll throw up.”
Heavily dragging, husband pokes his head in,
bright eyes bright blue, his crossness
letting us know he’s all there today.
Remember the African Queen
cruising putt-putt through jungle, hippos, gunfire
threatening from the banks, through headache sun,
chucked whiskey bottles, busted boilers, over rapids,
over falls, stalling in weeds, rising on rainfall
into the big lake, headed for the German boat…
…oh, what’s she singing now. Back to Pirate Jenny.
Askin’ me, ‘Kill them now, or later?’
What she figures:
That there’s an adventure downriver,
a brave joking pal, rapids to ride, wipe out on,
coming up laughing, looking for open water,
an enemy ship to blow up.
What to do with the boy Buck?
with the asymmetrical hair, nose and ear bling,
buckle boots and cracking adolescent voice?
Leave him upriver, like life. Not everyone has to mean something.
Some come in, then fall by the way,
like a beautiful house lit up for the season
you saw on your roadtrip you never went back to…
What’s in her head? All of it,
grubs, worms, snakes too wild, really, to cage,
geckos, fish, crickets, mice, shed skin,
shed skin, crap jobs we were half in love with
even as we hated them,
can’t we grab more and more of life—
all the stories and the holding. I worry
she feels trapped but know it hardly matters. Where we live:
by a church. They’re singing.
What we said when the girl was little:
“We don’t believe in God, but you can.”
Show tune turns to something someone hopes is holy.
Fire above water. It’s the permanent silences, the prospect
darkening, blink, lights out. Mother dead.
Can’t go to funeral. That’s what I’m saying.
Glory. River’s end. GLORY.



after we slumped like Bacchantes
on benches in the big room
at the Imperial War Museum

after we waited for the walls
to turn light show, sound show,
scared for what was coming
because our bodies were not daring,
our minds and ears not daring
minds and ears

after walls lit with sirens,
explosions, big guns

after stills of men’s bodies torn apart

after dark then bright then whistling

and newsreel faded and maps congealed
on walls tangrammed
with trench systems

after we looked several directions,
saw battlefields bloom around us

after hostile batteries, targets, defenses,
marked in scratchy calligraphy—
some exhibit designer noted their beauty!

and making sure we could see the children
squirmed in the flashing—
one cried, out of boredom we thought—

after longing at the playing
of the longing song—the scratches
and rustle in the old gramophone recording

after longing went back in its hole and hid

after no real resolution and everyone
looked around, discovered
their backs hurt

a sippy cup hit—
bang! juice on the espadrilles!
the one-legged man struggled to get up

did anyone jump?
everyone did not, and I froze in my remove—
still as a tree stump

nothing to move me


the kids were mad
guards wouldn’t
let them climb
on the small battlefield
pumper truck
(World War I, Battle
of the Somme

the kids decided the red rays
leaking from under its platform—
as from under the chassis
of a pimped-out convertible—
marked the place
(one informed us in a whisper)
where they’d found a portal
to another dimension
we don’t know what’s there yet
her lips close to our ear
spitty and delicate
and they waded in the light,
bathing their ankles in that dream

the kids, being gross,
loved the trench smell exhibit:
dared each other, lifted flaps,
shoved noses in:
old socks, mustard gas, rum,
cordite, human remains

the kids gagged, “fainted”


we saw embossed
on reflective black glass
the smell of death was all over me
saw ourselves shadowing,
shadowed by the words

what was the one-legged man
doing, just looking?

we have always
watched ourselves, always
been watching ourselves,
after swinging, swayed,
sung into a hairbrush
to see if there were another
us to us
we saw
that what bled in a window or mirror
glass panel
with our reflection
          Somme death
deli meats
little girl dresses
wedding rings
double rainbow
man begging
crash test
Kissinger as outmost nesting doll
Obama bobblehead
light difficult to source
changed us not at all


mirrors have always drawn us
the way the magnetic
wand that comes
with the cheap toy
draws iron fillings across

a cartoon face
(and you can give it
a beard, hairdo,
give it a face
that looks filthy
as faces of dying men
on the exhibition wall)

we turned away
from the rumbling exhibit’s
darkened light,
new tour, new wars
forever starting
behind us

release the iron
all retreat

the one-legged man stumped away

searching for a way out
when at the War Museum
we tried to see war.


Daisy Fried‘s latest book The Year the City Emptied, adaptations of poems by Charles Baudelaire, is forthcoming from Flood Editions in 2022. She is the author of three other books of poems, Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, My Brother is Getting Arrested Again, and She Didn’t Mean to Do It. A past Guggenheim and Hodder Fellow, she teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

[photo credit: Richard Adler]


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