No matter how tight your good arms are around me: three poems by Alison Townsend

My Ex-Husband Asks Me Who Reads My Rough Drafts

No one, I say, over Thanksgiving dinner at the Fess, the rhinestone ear-
rings I bought to please my lover brushing my cheeks like cool, knowl-
edgeable fingers. Then I amend that to: Well, my writing group does, of course.
But mostly I read my own rough drafts now.
I don’t know why he’s asking or
what it matters, the two of us poised at opposite sides of the table,
polite and wary, but still family of a kind, thrown together this holiday
by circumstances too complicated to question.

Dinner arrives, with all the trimmings, and we talk of other things. His
job and mine. Econometric models for utility companies. The business
of selling books for a living. He wears the navy blue sweater with a
snowflake design that I helped him pick out at Brooks Brothers. I wear
a bargain, teal-green silk from Shopko that he’s never seen, the weird
alchemy of divorce making strange what was once most familiar.

Pumpkin pie comes, followed by decaf–sweetened, with lots of extra
cream–and all the silly things we know about one another float,
unspoken, in the lamplight between us. We do not talk of the future.

But as he bends to sign his half of the check, I see again how he bent at
our kitchen table, going over my manuscripts, pencil in hand, teaching
himself about poetry because he loved me. And how it is for love’s sake,
and because no one in our lives can ever really be replaced, that he asks
me this question I do not know how to answer, except with the words
of this poem, this rough draft I am still in the process of revising.


No Matter How Much Sunlight

We watched a program about depression last Friday, sitting together over
pizza and beer. It wasn’t about those blues we all get–aching scat-songs
of frustrated desire–but about the real thing, illness opening its black
rose in time-lapse, rank garden where the brain chemistry’s gone bad.

The program didn’t tell us anything I hadn’t already discovered, groping
my way through the fog those two years, tapping my fingers along earth’s
musty ceiling, searching for the combination that would release me into
the meadow where I’d been standing the day the ground fell through.

It was the same old information–drugs, talk therapy, the electrocon-
vulsive shock I’d once begged for, desperate for a cure. I watched, dis-
tant, critical, bored, demanding “more depth,” words that could describe
the mind as tar pit, moonscape, a smoldering slag heap where the world
goes silent, empty of color as a 1920s film.

But afterwards I couldn’t stop crying at how close that underworld still is,
and how clearly I remember the taste of dirt in my mouth. And how the
predilection for sadness is embedded within me, an obsidian arrow lodged
in the heart, no matter how tight your good arms are around me, or how
much sunlight I stand in, or how far I’ve traveled away from the dark.


Jane Morris Poses for Rossetti’s Prosperine

He wanted to paint me.
Though I was married to his best friend,
I felt his eyes follow me everywhere,
his gaze like a sable brush on my skin.
He undressed me, though it wasn’t me
he wanted at first, but the way my body
arranged itself under my clothes, my bones
and muscles struts for the teal velvet
drapery he dressed me in. And my hair,
of course, that cloud of auburn
I let loose, coppery strands
floating around me like opium smoke.

I could tell right away he enjoyed
making me pose, his directions godlike
and stern, as he moved me about like a doll,
saying, Turn this way, now that. Look back
at me over your shoulder as if I were the last
person alive. Now lift the pomegranate
with one hand, but clasp your wrist
with the other. As if trying to stop yourself
from eating something forbidden.
As if you are offering it to me.

I must confess it bored me, standing
that way for hours, hand bent slightly back,
neck arched and aching. I did what he said,
lifting the fruit he’d slit with his penknife,
its skin pulled back like a scab to reveal
the wound’s garnet-pebbled surface. It was even
my idea to press my mouth to the seeds, staining
it red, the tart juice puckering my lips
into that downward pout he loved
because it was sensual and sullen.

I stared back at him from beneath downcast
lashes as he painted, my eyes the color
of my robes, knowing he wanted me before he did,
desire before it’s admitted an animal
that doesn’t know it ought to run, every
moment ripe fruit about to be broken open.

I stood there before him for hours, tendrils
of ivy brushing my cheek. I stared
at him as he stared into me, pulling
out a sulky darkness I hadn’t known
I owned, the brush rarely still on the canvas,
the scent of sweat and turpentine
and oil paint filling up the room.

I was so good at keeping still
you could hardly see me breathe
as the brush slicked across my skin.
I made time stop, the way it’s supposed
to in art, that auburn hair I’d later
drag across his body merging
with the shadows of the other
world looming there behind me.

But though I may have seemed his prop
or plaything, some object he arranged,
like the sticky fruit bought fresh each day,
the footed brass dish, or the mirror
behind me, reflecting light from the world above,
we both knew he needed me. I was Prosperine,
the woman mythologized, a goddess on canvas,
flesh and blood frozen in time’s chipped
gilt frame. He couldn’t have painted
the picture without me, my eyes on his,
their teal green gone almost black
and taking him down, pulling him under
into the sensual muck, everything about
the underworld different than he’d expected.

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No matter how tight your good arms are around me: three poems by Alison Townsend

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