The doorbell would ring, and my mother and I would slink into the living room trying to muffle our giggles until, peeking out the kitchen window, we’d see the backs of their white short-sleeved shirts as they walked toward the street and their next stop. We’d been on their list my whole life, my mother the daughter of a church matriarch whose father had been a polygamist in a Mexican colony, having migrated south from Utah when polygamy was outlawed. My grandmother used to tell the story of how, about age five, sitting on a fence rail shortly before the move, she’d been asked about the whereabouts of her father by two marshals, and how she’d shrugged, shaking her head as if she didn’t know who they were talking about, until the marshals rode off on their horses.
He was small, small enough to cup in my hand, and yellow, lightly striped, a tabby, the M between his brows the mark of Mary (when she couldn’t settle the baby Jesus, I read, a cat leapt up to comfort him so that he slept, and Mary, in gratitude, inscribed her initial), the pink of his nose the softness of new skin, the paws at the ends of his legs puffs of white, the eyes inky, large, out of proportion, as in many species (evolution’s gift, as large eyes move adults to tenderness), his vocalizations the wiry cries and whimpers of an infant, sounds he produced night after night, nipping at my neck, kneading with needle-sharp nails as I tried to sleep, until on the fifth night, crazed with insomnia, I slapped him off me, then flew to retrieve him on the bedside rug, weeping at what I’d done, made frantic by the sight of blood at his nostrils.
Two Fogs (1961)
There were two fogs, one, milky like the fog some mornings on California beaches that might burn off by noon, might not, though what spewed from the nozzle of the truck driving up and down our street at dusk while we darted from shrubs to parked cars during Capture the Flag, edging toward the enemy goal, had a chemical tang that drove us toward our houses gasping, laughing if we failed to hold our breath long enough to make it in the door before inhaling. The other one seemed never to catch us out-of-doors. Or at least I don’t remember running. Rather, I see myself cranking the handle to the metal-sash windows to keep out the dense cloud of pulverized manure the herd in the nearby stockyards kicked up when on the move. Though I always turned the handle slowly. There was something about that smell, rank but sweet, a body smell, that I wanted a least a little of before shutting it out.
Last Dream of the Night (3/28/20)
“Will this be alright?” I asked the expert, a silent form at my side. “Will this be okay?” I asked again as the mountain lion, a female, straddled my outstretched body on the bed.
Last Dream of the Night (4/5/20)
Having unzipped the body bag, as I reached to touch my father’s chest, my hand took hold of a plate on the lower rack of the dishwasher. I proceeded to unload the dishes one by one.
Seven years before Morgan died and long before his friends, also former poetry students of mine, knew he and I were lovers, he threw a party for several of us at his studio apartment, which included a small walled patio beyond sliding glass doors, a patio dominated by a towering tamarisk under which we gathered. The doors were open so we could hear the music blasted from a player perched on the trunk at the foot of his bed, which took up a quarter of the apartment. On all the other surfaces—a blond wood coffee table, futon couch, bookshelves, TV and TV stand—the silver of CDs glinted as people rambled through Morgan’s extensive collection, playing favorites then tossing them aside, arguing over the relative merits of such groups as TV on the Radio, White Stripes, and others I barely knew, being nearly thirty years their senior and familiar, primarily, with classical music. I sat in a lounge chair on the patio drinking glass after glass of whiskey as the others drank and smoked around me, the conversation turning from music to film, poetry, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under. Everything about these young people, of whom I was so fond, charmed me, their happy intensity, the glow of their faces, the way they brandished their cigarettes while talking. “Give me one of those!” I shouted to Miriam, who looked startled but amused. I inhaled the smoke in great gulps, finishing the cigarette in seconds, my head dizzy with a drug I hadn’t experienced in twenty-five years. “Give me another!” I shouted, and now they all gathered round as I inhaled the second one. “I want a pack!” I announced, exhilarated, “I’m going to smoke again!” Whereupon, apparently, I passed out, waking to Miriam’s tug on my arm as she helped me from her car and up the steps to my house.
I would wake in my attic room, the wood-slatted ceiling overhead sloped to the small window overlooking the side yard and street, a tree by the window whose naked limbs in winter like a graceful line-drawing would leaf out in a glorious green ebullience in spring; I would wake and feel the strangeness of my body, yet the familiarity of it, a young man’s body, running my hands down to my crotch. I’d feel slightly shamed, guilty for my relief, though oddly happy too, or lucky, or maybe I don’t know the word for it, since again in this house of six college men, all of us in our senior year, I’d awakened from a dream in which I was a woman.
First Dream of the Night (5/2/20)
To cross the river, I had to pay the ferryman a coin I didn’t have. How long had I been reading through closed eyes on the bed?
The Artist (1956)
In the black-and-white photo I have of her, she is seated, draped in a black gown that falls to the floor, light rivered along its wrinkles and folds as in a portrait by Ingre, sleeves to the wrist, the neck cut low in a rectangle framing an oval stone pendant in an echo of the pale oval of her face, her torso obscured by the pear-shaped body of the lute on her lap, the fingers of her right hand poised to pluck, those of her left spread in a chord at the top of the fingerboard, though the way she glances up to her left in a forced tight smile, clearly the photo is posed: There is no music at the moment, though there had been. I recall the slender ribbon of her voice, how it seemed to thread among the notes she plucked in a program of Renaissance love songs and laments. I’d been permitted to stay up late with the adults at the small reception, to ask questions and offer opinions, as my parents were proud of their confident, precocious boy with the formidable vocabulary. For weeks after, upon waking, “Willow, willow, willow,” I sang, a lyric from the anonymous 16th-century song I’d heard that night. Years later my mother would tell me how, on the drive to the train station at the end of her stay, the artist had said, “The other children need to be protected from Boyer.”
War Games (1970)
Pull out, Dick! Pull out, Dick! we chanted on the Washington Mall five days after the killing of students at Kent State. We’d hitchhiked, my girlfriend Darcy and I, from Oberlin College, each ride, as I waited out of sight, secured within minutes by Darcy, her luminous smile and dark hair to the waist as irresistible as her spirited conversation when we climbed into a car or truck cab whose driver always took us a little farther along our route than he’d planned. The third-floor dorm room at George Washington where we crashed was strewn with bodies in sleeping bags or wrapped in sheets. We slipped off to the bathroom to clean up, making love in the tub, the porcelain surface leaving a bruise at each vertebra, tear gas seeping through the windows from the conflagration on the street below, the whop-whop-whop of helicopter blades above the building faintly audible.
First Dream of the Night (5/27/20)
“But you have to see this,” I insisted, as we passed through another enormous glass-walled room, pointing to the towering water jets that swirled above rolling green hills. And then my voice was smothered by the clank of gears, a mysterious machine like a giant printing press. “Stop yelling at me,” he demanded above the din, whereupon I realized he was a total stranger, this elderly Black man trailing me room to room against his will inside an impossible palace.
I awoke one July morning in grief. Not for his death, which was eight years in the past. Grief for the opportunity lost—to touch him. “Step away,” I’d said, and then again, “step away,” panicked. We were in a room of someone’s house, awaiting dinner. Morgan had taken ahold of my outstretched hands. We were much too close, breathing the same air in an enclosed space. It wasn’t safe.
Last Dream of the Night (6/28/20)
I needed to say something true, something loving, to a favorite cousin. But the maple cutting board was wet, and though I used a fork to form words on its surface, the moisture closed over, erasing each letter as soon as it was inscribed.
First Dream of the Night (7/18/20)
I saw cross-hatchings, like red pickup sticks, at eye-level, on a white muslin curtain. And then I was outside, and saw more of them on a rough, whitewashed wall. I felt certain there was some significance to the color, that it could be blood. But I didn’t want to believe it.
Boyer Rickel is the author of two book-length poetry collections, remanence (Parlor Press) and arreboles (Wesleyan), a memoir-in-essays, Taboo (Wisconsin), as well as three poetry chapbooks, Tempo Rubato (Green Linden Press), Musick’s Hand-maid and reliquary (both from Seven Kitchens Press). In addition to recent awards from Prairie Schooner and Tupelo Quarterly for lyric essays, he has received poetry fellowships from the NEA and Arizona Commission on the Arts.