unreal city Kristy Bowen dancing girl press & studio, 2022
Based in Chicago, dancing girl press & studio creates a variety of open & limited edition books, art, and paper goods, as well as various ephemera-inspired gifts and accessories. The dancing girl press chapbook series was founded in 2004 to publish and promote the work of emerging women writers and artists. The series seeks to publish work that bridges the gaps between schools and poetic techniques—work that's fresh, innovative, and exciting. The press has published numerous titles by emerging women poets in delectable open-run handmade editions. Our books are available via our website, at select independent bookstores, Chicago area literary events, and through author readings. www.dancinggirlpress.com editing & design: Kristy Bowen email@example.com
And bats with baby faces in the violet light Whistled, and beat their wings The Wasteland
1. When we were still people, our drinks glittered in the christmas lights above the bar, and a stranger said, Wait, do you hear it? as the snowplow slammed past and metal scraped the concrete.
Later, my feet wrapped around yours in the bed, we wedded some monster I kept beneath the covers. My shower ceiling leaked all spring and still the water sloughed my skin soft as a peach.
At night, I'd lie in the bed we never made and listen to sirens. When we were people, the rats collected in the alley, then scattered in a million directions. The cats rolled over on the rug and wondered at our routines.
The curfews and the coffee and the grey light of the laptop. In summer, my fire alarm wouldn’t stop humming in the humidity. But failed to sound when the cats brushed the stove knobs and nearly killed us. When we were people,
we were scared of nothing that couldn't get its hooks in our spine and shake. Scared of car accidents and water spouts, and the strange silence on the line of unplanned calls. When we were people, the other people ran
their hands over us looking for bruises or blood. They found nothing, but our own hearts in our throats.
2. Back when we were people, all the mothers were still alive. The lovers wrapped soft in tissue paper and laid in suitcases stretching for miles. The mothers, they coddled us with baked goods
and twenty-dollar bills tucked into the lasagna. My own took the party when she went, abandoned bottles and torn streamers in the rec room. but still we spun beneath the disco lamp all night. When we
were people, we breathed heavy on birthday cake and made ash trays out of soda cans. The girl down the block was belly up in the swimming pool for days. Her mother searching the house, but never the yard. How hard it is to drive a stick shift or make yourself
throw up. The mothers that taught us to lie down in the grass and hold our breath. They are still counting.
3. When we were people, the days lined up like dominoes. You'd give a push, and they'd lie down. Perfect, the windblown leaves collecting near the steps of the catholic school, stuck oddly in my hair. If I placed my feet perfectly on the curb, it was almost like flying.
The tip into traffic and down through the valley of concrete and steel. I was so light, you could tug my arm like a balloon down the alleyways and aqueducts. Downing shots in the dark wood cabins of downtown bars. When we were people, the wind stuck in our throats
and came back as poems. We'd cough and the grackles flew out one by one. The body was incidental until we didn't have them anymore, cast off in the blue glow of the screen we used to light our way back through the woods we invented
to hide the body when it grew too heavy to lift.
4. When the world was full of people, they leaned over restaurant tables and made out in back rooms. Ran their fingers along the sweater buttons of a stranger. After all, when we were people, we could wash off whatever touched us by morning. Emerge from the shower
scented like oranges and still, we were inviolate. All our crooks and hollows swept clean like a church. When the world was full of people, we lurched through turnstiles and into the world unafraid of monsters and men's hands pulling the ropes.
We'd descend into the belly of the city, and emerge into sunlight we thought, for sure, was fake, it was so bright and unyielding.
5. When we were still people, there were still too many ghosts in the cafe across from the museum. Where the ad salesman joked about fucking me in the tiny bathroom. Where I choked on my coffee, then placed my napkin back in
my lap. But then it was always some desire licking the veins, moistening the tongue where it slid along the pale rim of the porcelain cup. When we were people, too many wants in the blood, in the bodies we twisted against each
other when his wife was out of town. The food poisoning I once got in the same cafe, the soup that left me feverish and shivering. It was like dying. It was like love, The body faulty and in need of repair. In need of rapture and fade to black behind the eyelids. The body shook so hard from the tree, it was exquisite how easily it bruised and peeled open.
6. Back when we were people, the sinew of the body held us inside, but now, we spill. We fill and fill with water each week, leaking from the joists and sockets. Rainwater in our pockets, seeping from our hair. When we were people, the bones
were solid, but now they break easily. Bruise without touch. I opened my mouth, and unleashed a river floating with women I killed to keep them dry. When we were people, they'd line up on the cliffs, but never jump. Now
they thrive underwater but aren't very sound. You could shake them and they'd break apart like a ship too long at the bottom of the sea.
7. Back when our limbs were solid, I'd float, sprawled out in hotel pools. Spool one day into the next. My hair would bleach green in the chlorine glow, and we'd all spill our drinks in the garden, where the swallows nested underneath the roofline. Their shadows drawing the afternoon like a sheet. When we had bones they'd break and quicken. The ring finger I busted in the back screen door. The man I once loved whose back was a seam split down the middle. The car accidents and missed trains. The blissed out liquor of his gaze. All of it so much simpler
with flesh, spilling out the sides of our jeans. So much we'd wrap ourselves in towels and long to be smaller, to be less spacious, spread against the plastic lawn chairs that lined the endless backyards.
8. When we still had limbs, we'd slather them in coconut oil and bake ourselves in the sun. The undoing of tendon and sinew, the sleep we cast ourselves blindly into each night like death. When we had fingers
they'd find their way into the hair of strangers at the supermarket. Spark against the elevator buttons and set the carpets aflame. What beautiful hands. What beautiful bodies we were when everything came off– the dress and the feathers I shed like a snake each night in the bath.
9. When we had bodies, the bodies were always at war. With themselves or with other bodies. So much blood in the body, and there on the field. So much waste. We'd collect the bodies and burn them in stacks. What good the body
unless it was bleeding out? When we had eyes, we'd pluck them out onto plates. Hate the body for its flesh and appetite, its flex and tuck. Fucking in the afternoons and then fighting all night.
When we were bodies, the blood ran us like machines. Like tiny plastic green men softening in too much sun. Too much languor in the body when left too long untouched. When we were bodies, we'd light ourselves on fire to satisfy the body, just this once.
10. Back when we were people, the soprano on the floor above poured from the windows. Soared the treetops and settled into the creak of every hinge. No one had money, so we all made do. Fried eggs and creditor calls echoing the halls, double-bolted against the burglars
who rifled through our drawers but took nothing. At night, they scaled the fire escapes of our dreams, knocked softly against the glass. But still, we lost our shoes in the subway after too much wine. Reckless with all that space inside us, So much music
there, but silence in our kitchens where onions burned in the pans we'd stolen from our mothers. The butter knives we hid beneath the mattresses. The ax behind the radiator, there when we moved in, too heavy to lift, so we left it there for the killers
and the poets, but who knew which was which?
11. Soon, we long to become people again, after so much static and power lines. So much kettle hiss and bone weary. Long to reach an arm out and sweep it across a distance filled with other people.
With other bodies, brushing up against each other in the bars where we wrote our names on the bathroom walls. The hallways we wandered beneath the city that lit up from the inside with heat. So much
glow, we’d pass it to each other on our lips, swirling in our glasses. The moon that never held its own light, but took on enough that it would shine.
12. When we were people, we were wild, blowing out candles and caressing the handles of hotel room doors. On the floors, fucking like our life depended on it. And maybe it did. Of all the things we left behind, we missed
the misshapen ones the most. The only man to break my heart completely never laid a hand on me. Pressed our thighs together on the subway at 1am. What confessions we granted in dark paneled bars, what intimacies unfolded
in crooked doorways. No way in and even less of a way out. I could feel whiskey burn through through his body in proximity. Each turn of the wheel on the track where we waited for trains that never quite arrived.
13. Back when we were people, the roads opened themselves like a throat. Like a boat we sailed into the horizon and back. I've never been to Vegas, but still wanted my Vegas tawdry. Like a 1970's mobster's girl, feather headed and strung out on narcotics.
All velvet Elvises and bright pink cocktails heaved into desert scrub. New Orleans, pretty as a picture, smelled like stale beer and vomit in the gutter, but oh I loved it. The dead in their stone boxes, the houses full of ghosts. How I'd lie down and let it ravish
me in beignets and magnolia blossoms clogging up my throat. But I couldn't love any other city but this one perched on the lake. her fakery and finery, all cashmere and aqueducts, the smaller cities we shed and bloom
each spring with a flick of our coats.
NOTES: In the fall of 1998 I found myself in a grad school seminar at DePaul devoted to Modern British Poetry, for which we read a lot of different poets ranging from Yeats (not really that modern) to Seamus Heaney (who was, of course, still living.) At least a chunk of the semester was spent wading through The Wasteland, which always feels a bit disingenuous since Eliot was, in fact, a very American poet despite his expat life in Europe. I had read pieces of it previously as an undergrad in similarly themed courses, but had never warmed to it. The fall of 1998, I was at crossroads, deciding what I wanted to do with my life. A year into my grad studies, from which I’d intended to emerge with either a teaching certification for teaching English or, alternatively, plans to pursue a Ph.D. Neither, after years of literature studies felt completely right. Writing poems, however, which I had been doing for years, felt like something I needed to do, and I spent that autumn writing what was probably the first poems I’d written that were any good at all. While I’d been writing and submitting poems unsuccessfully years and even winning a couple undergrad contest nods, I entered that semester still scrambling to make sense of things. Queue Eliot’s entrance, where we spent at least a good portion of a couple weeks of classes listening to a scratchy recording of Eliot himself reciting The Wasteland, a feeling that left me shivering and inspired with almost a strange creative fever coursing through me. I was only 24, and there was still much to come in terms of finding and building that thing we casually call “voice,” but a match had been lit somewhere. Some sort of permission had been granted. I’ve always joked that for someone espousing a rather stridently feminist poetics, its hilarious that the deadest of the dead white guys of poetry lit that spark, but I cannot read Eliot even now without feeling it. This year, the 100th anniversary of the publication of the poem in The Dial this November, it seemed fitting to pay homage to Eliot, especially now in this strange time of pandemics and disconnection. In a world that 100 years later, makes just as little sense to me as it did to him. While my aims are not quite as grand as the scale of The Wasteland, nor my sources as vast, think of this poem as yet another footnote to the original. Or maybe a 21st Century echo.
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