“Four Poems by a Middle-Aged Woman”: Laura Lee Washburn

After the Surgeon Cuts You

or the bone snaps in eight places,
the world recognizes you
as the vessel for their trauma.

Strangers say, Chasing the dog,
my third toe snapped right
in half. Or Straight up! No break

but seven stitches between
the smallest and next. I was
stabbed in the head
by a guy in a white mask.

Or, Doctor said, We’ll just
twist out the pin,
no anesthesia necessary—I about

shot out of the room. Like when
that feller came with the chainsaw.
Put him under, I hollered.

Put him under, Doc hollered.
And the bones rise out
of the grave, worm and maggot.

You, injured one, you’re
holding your arm over your heart.
Bandage, big as a man’s foot.

Remember the swamp creatures
and the knives through the shower
and the old mother dead in her chair.

You are one of the ones
who knows birds are for pecking.
Cover our eyes. You know swelling

means pain. You have wound care
solution on the bathroom counter.
It never heals the ones the clown
and the bedroom dolls attack.
Someone’s showing you their scar,
how it turns left from the third time

when the surgeon broke it on purpose.
You’ve seen the blue antiseptic
on a grinning man’s chest, the yellow

blurring the skin of arm and face.
His femur broke the outer thigh’s skin.
She told him there was abscess.

He sent photos of black stitches
in his cheek and nose, the kidney stone,
the gash in his back and his heal.

No one believed her before pus.
You’re still holding your hand
over your heart, so you swear to God,

you hear the one about the pills
left in the pocket, the deadly
constipation. The blood

and the doctor who didn’t wait
for anesthesia. Everyone
can tell you the lash and the cut.

You listen so hard while the wind
whips up bats and mice, snakes
and fangs that they don’t ever,

not even with the full moon howling,
ever have to tell it again.
Again, their lonely stories, again.

 

Linens

Such a fine word to wake to,
lounge in, shroud yourself in.
The white white white of soft
cotton under and over my legs
like a Sunday morning reading,
old-fashioned paper, stories,
the bound-in-stitches kind.

The art of netting
was our first art, families
knotting for seines.

This morning’s smooth white
sheets have applique edges.
The pillow cases stitched
with butterflies have edges
crocheted by someone’s hand.

Women used to iron everything.
A woman not twenty years older
than me tells me they took in ironing
big baskets, 10 cents an item.

She hates ironing, too. My aunt
irons her sheets, her jeans, her—
if you iron your sheets, what
won’t you iron, starch, and smooth?

At the Fall harvest fair, pumpkins,
cinnamon rolls, tented booths,
clothes racks, lines, and stands,
are filled with ironed pressed
embroidered linens. The women
have brought old table cloths.
The women have dishtowels
with kittens mopping, cats ironing.

Bluebird pillow cases and cats
in slippers recall grandma or
great grandma stitching. Look
at the handiwork, threading the needle,
this color for the eye, that French knot
cluster. Snip and tie, and thread again
for the pink bow on the cat’s neck.

All day it spits rain. And though tents
cover the handicrafts, the women’s work,
many people don’t come in,
don’t stay or check. Passing, they say,
Look at that. I’d never have the
patience. I’d never have the time
.

At home, the vendors load pressed
linens into dryers, the day’s damp
softening and chilling the fabric.
The vendors hang the damp on lines
to save the ironing. They’ve
come home with most of what
they’d hoped to sell.
Who feels
the value, keeps drawers full, who
loves the makers’ old and knotty hands,
stuffs cedar chests, keeps uncoiled
thread on cards, imagines time and care,
keeps needles ready in felt books.

 

Winter in Middle America

This year I am focused on fire, the black
shell of the hoarder’s home. Trapped,
they got him out. Twenty years ago
I lived two doors down or maybe next door
where the siding is black and curled up
like eyelashes.
Also, I wanted to see the fire
on Christmas Eve near the party when trucks
screamed down the street, so I stood
watching mostly smoke billow. Flame
in the attic window swept like a blown
curtain right to left. I was watching
the babies in the car and the mother
shivering to the police clipboard.

Since last year we have no homeless shelter.
The city says the midrange housing
shortage—they swear there’s a shortage—
sends workers to other towns.

This week someone broke in next door, stole
tools, work boots, everything but the blinds
bagged for later. He or they pulled
down the curtains for a blanket,
took a shower, slept in the empty house.

Houses in this town are cheap enough
people leave them sitting empty. I feel lucky
our next door left some heat and the gas
for water because in the next town at six below,
they found a house aflame. Squatters
escaped when their fire went out of hand.

I curse the industry of pain, the careless doctors
who’d mask care with pills, the roots
of greed and ownership that affords
neglect but not love. I give
you my curses to sit heavy in this book
of no solutions in this failing town
where I can’t make you open the doors,
turn on the heat and let the wretched live.
I probably wouldn’t even like it if you did.

 

Ode to My Left

Months after the accident, the bones
have skelegrown themselves,
the plate has settled in for the long
(perhaps) haul. Sometimes we see
carpal definition below the last knuckles.
Sometimes we don’t.
The last scar
that shocked me is fifteen years old
or the one on someone else’s elbow
not this white purple line over radius.
I am still remembering the wooden hand
of the actor in my favorite movie—brown,
cold, dead, he reached the symbol out to her.
I
am old enough that my house is full of things—
quilts drape chairs and beds, plates
litter the walls on sprung hooks, and
I am the same whiner my mother
slapped at thirteen.
I have used garden tree trimmers,
the keyboard, the can opener, toothpaste,
and not one of them is easy for me. Nail
trimming results in failure of all
but the smallest thinnest nail and tantrum.
Many nights I wake and wake and curse
and back to sleep. I have grown used
to gritting my teeth and trying hard.
Did I mention a propensity for whining?
We should form a club, those of us
with no probable permanent handicap
experiencing prolonged and irritable pain,
inconvenience, ineptitude. We’d carry
our standard from a short spike at mid-head,
hands free, always hands free. We’d use
the sign of the tear. We’d go by the sign
of the smallest violin.
A different poet can praise the miracle
of regrowth, explicate the fascinating
entropy, tell you the Chinese say pain
is a friendly message from our bodies. Me,
I’ll frown and stare, wrap the gel pack
around the fat wrist, prop it all up, laugh
at the sign in the massage therapist’s window:
Peace [outline of fingers and palm] is at
hand.

 

 

***

Laura Lee Washburn is a University Professor, the Director of Creative Writing at Pittsburg State University in Kansas, and the author of This Good Warm Place: 10th Anniversary Expanded Edition (March Street) and Watching the Contortionists (Palanquin Chapbook Prize). Born in Virginia Beach, Virginia, she has also lived and worked in Arizona and in Missouri. She is married to the writer Roland Sodowsky and is one of the founders and the Co-President of the Board of SEK Women Helping Women: facebook.com/sekwhw.

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