“A Day at the Beach,” a poem for Side A by Nicole Callihan

A Day at the Beach

The nurse says I’ll likely feel okay, a little tired, very warm.

Like you’ve spent a day at the beach, she says.

But it’s winter in New York. 

After treatment, I eat two street tacos on a cold wet corner, walk to Chinatown, pay cash for burn cream.

There’s a nickel-sized blister on my clavicle.

When we were young, my brother liked me to peel his sunburned back.

Long sheets of dead skin.

We could waste a whole afternoon this way.

Sometimes, I sit very alone, rub my arm in pain, worried I’ll die, worried I won’t.

Translucent in the light.

It’s hard not to press a blister.

Thumb & pus. Sand & snow.

But no one wants an open wound.

Baby oil & Iodine. The little playboy bunny sticker girls used to stick above their bikini line, the pale beneath.

Waves. Breaking.

A bucket full of still sandy seashells.

The fishes, too. And, God. And, you.

I can’t admit how many times I’ve abandoned those I love to walk along the shore, willfully burning my shoulders, feeling the ache of my legs, walking so far and for so long that I might reach the edge of the world.

And then, turning back, the walk always so much further, wading into the ocean only deep enough to splash water onto my face, to pee, stare up into the sun, and walking again. 

Finally, arriving. Sand on the blanket. My novel facedown.

No one realizing how far I’d gone.

Mini-interview with Nicole Callihan

HFR: Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?

NC: Early in the pandemic I was diagnosed with breast cancer. September 2020. It was such a strange and exhausting time for everyone, and I was baffled about how to share my news with far-flung friends and family. The teary calls to my closest few felt untranslatable to a Facebook post. I had noticed videos of some of my favorite poets popping up in my newsfeed on Kai Coggin’s Wednesday Night Poetry series, an in-person open mic out of Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas which became virtual during the pandemic.

One day, after a particularly uncomfortable breast MRI, I wrote a poem on the train: “Everything Is Temporary.” The next week, so raw I felt like my skin was being peeled off, I recorded a video of myself reading the poem and sent it in, then shared it. I was reminded that poetry is meant to share—meant to say, I have been here; I am here; I am a nuanced complicated being; I have cancer, yes, but I’m also thinking about cranes and honey and getting to the mailbox and little egg-shaped soaps. I continued to write and share poems throughout my treatment (a double mastectomy, radiation, ovary removal, and estrogen suppression therapy), and those poems are collected in This Strange Garment which is forthcoming from Terrapin Books.  

HFR: What are you reading?

NC: So much of what I read is work from friends, via post or google doc, who are some of my favorite living writers. I love the immediacy and how we speak to each other across space and lines. One of those writers is my dear friend and longtime collaborator, Zoë Ryder White, whose new chapbook, Via Post, will soon be out from Sixth Finch. This month, I’m also doing a close and deep dive into James Schuyler’s “Hymn to Life;” it feels wild and life-affirming and just right in its massive interior and exterior scope. And always, Jean Valentine, Linda Gregg, C.D. Wright, a splash of Rilke & Ruefle. I just finished Gabrielle Bates’ Judas Goat (omg so good). When I need to space out (& The Bachelor isn’t on), I read novels. Most recently, I finished Melissa Ginsburg’s The House Uptown, which I love.

HFR: Can you tell us what prompted “A Day at the Beach”?

NC: When I started radiation therapy in January 2021, I asked the nurse how I’d feel. She told me I’d likely feel warm, a little tired. “Like you’ve spent a day at the beach!” she said. Being that it was dead winter in New York City, the first winter of the pandemic, I could think of nothing more antithetical to a day at the beach. Afterwards, eating tacos on the street corner, images flooded me—peeling my brother’s back, bucketsful of sandy seashells, my tendency to leave my family so I can walk miles and miles in the sand, turning back—and I thumbed the poem into my phone. 

HFR: What’s next? What are you working on?

NC: Poems, poems, poems. I think I have a new manuscript—a little sorrow—coming together bit by bit. My beloved college professor, George Economou at the University of Oklahoma, used to say, “You’re only as good as your next poem,” and I take that to heart, never resting on the last thing, always thinking about the next thing. Also, I’m working on an essay about boobs (or “the bodied artist,” as an academic might say) which may turn into a memoir called RACK. It contains everything from Edward Hopper to the saw-a-woman-in-half trick to the time Andy Dick grabbed me in an elevator to the tiny fear before my big surgery that my poems actually LIVED in my breasts and once they were gone, I’d never be able to write again. Oh, AND a short story about a ghost writer who’s actually a ghost. Ha. I guess plenty!

HFR: Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?

NC: Share your work. Life can so lonely, and the life of a writer perhaps even lonelier, but the work matters; it makes life less lonely; it reaches across spaces; it accompanies in times of sorrow and grief and pain; it says, Not only am I here, but I am here with you.

Nicole Callihan’s most recent book is This Strange Garment, published by Terrapin Books in March 2023. Her other books include SuperLoop and the poetry chapbooks: The Deeply Flawed HumanDowntown, and ELSEWHERE (with Zoë Ryder White), as well as a novella, The Couples. Her work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Colorado Review, Conduit, The American Poetry Review, and as a Poem-a-Day selection from the Academy of American Poets. Find out more at nicolecallihan.com.

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