Lisa Lewis’s books include The Unbeliever (Brittingham Prize), Silent Treatment (National Poetry Series), Vivisect, (New Issues Press), and Burned House with Swimming Pool (American Poetry Journal Prize, Dream Horse Press). Her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, including Kenyon Review, Washington Square, Third Coast, American Literary Review, Fence, Seattle Review, Rattle, and Best American Poetry. She has also won awards from the American Poetry Review and the Missouri Review, a Pushcart Prize and an NEA Fellowship. She directs the creative writing program at Oklahoma State University and serves as poetry editor for the Cimarron Review.
I state this as absolute fact: there was no money in that house.
Everyone thought my grandmother had lost
three hundred dollars, maybe stuffing the twist
of bills where the rocking chair shivered its arms and spine
and forgetting all about it. She might’ve sewn it
into the cat’s belly, and if she had, it was going
to have to come out. Nobody noticed the Blue Ridge
bowing its ancient head to our broken cradle.
Everybody saw a stroke, a stump, a long wait,
poor prognosis. I’m not going to claim
anyone was beaten. I’m not going to talk this time
about the rapes. It doesn’t matter anymore
that the wealthy side of the family got away.
This morning I woke to three hot drops out
one nostril, the deposed royal purple of my secret soul.
It’s not a tumor, the doctor said, though I hadn’t asked.
He touched matchsticks to the mucosa, silver nitrate,
and the flow dried for the sake of hex,
cold magic bittering my back tongue.
But the worker I almost was might not be so lucky.
When you pour down out of the hills and open
your mouth and the tune rattling out
piques the refined ears of the sister you never met
and she turns back to the children borne late in life,
the business embroidering tote bags, the initials
of the families you wish you knew, pure as soap
or as caustic, you end up handsanding
bedsteads in a factory and breaking bread
where trucks back up laughing at their own jokes.
There’s no money in that either unless you own stock.
I didn’t inhale enough to catch the disease, did I, Doc?
How long do I have? My affairs are not in order.
I could not imagine the way out of this place, or any.
Cancer did not kill my fat white German grandmother,
racist too but at the time we didn’t know it,
who was once elected treasurer of the Thursday Morning
Music Club and later spied through my childhood’s hell,
the back yard’s blighted plums, and she refused
to bake biscuits, all anyone ever begged for.
Admire, then, with me today an excess of prudery.
It scalds inside the nostril, little hairs sizzling and stenching,
chemical drying and stanching, and just deserts.
I hitch my hip to the edge of the bathroom counter.
I shine the flashlight up my torn snout.
I don’t know about fans or fumes or the rough
dust paving the sinuses of the hungry who need to live.
It’s not easier to die of a common cancer,
but on this morning when the pressure bore down
like the hand of a pilot finding the runway,
I leapt up knowing as my grandmother did
there’s no good reason to serve the sated,
even if they’re your relatives. What they’ve got
is incurable. They will keep you up late
telling what they saw and how it was spelled
on ornate signposts the nice ladies puzzled out
with guidebooks, and expect you
to stand, at last, as someone clears her throat
to hide her stomach growling, and flour
your generous palms and roll out a triumph of dough—
you even slice it the country way, a can!—
and speak of it at their next stop and the audience
tastes the slip of oil on their own reminded tongues
and someone puts forth the proposition
that this—this—is her reason for living,
which she pronounces as you know by now
she is forced by the milk that washes her dry throat.