Julie Gard's prose poetry collections include Home Studies (New Rivers Press), which was a finalist for the 2016 Minnesota Book Award; Scrap: On Louise Nevelson (Ravenna Press); and the chapbooks Obscura: The Daguerreotype Series (Finishing Line Press) and Russia in 17 Objects (Tiger's Eye Press). Julie's essays, poems, and stories have appeared in Gertrude, Fourth River, Clackamas Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, Ekphrasis, and Blackbox Manifold, among other journals and anthologies. A former Fulbright Graduate Fellow in Vladivostok, Russia, she lives in Duluth, Minnesota and is associate professor of writing at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
no sudden revelation but the slow
turn of consciousness, while every day
climbs on the backs of the days before:
- Adrienne Rich, “Turning”
I wake each morning and write to myself in bed, in the dark. As I text I choose each letter, feel the breakdown of each word. Every character is its own box. Thumbs seek like antennae tapping at pane, bat like moths against bulb. Each morning I push on glass and try to break through.
I spent an hour yesterday talking with a counselor and a suffering student. It's true what she said, he can do anything—live in Ireland, ride a freight train, camp by the sea. He must find his next home because there is no more running water, no more toilet, in his old one. The decision is utterly practical. The signs in my dreams last night were blue with silver letters, every one in a different language. There was a great ragged bend in the water. We touch two oceans and countries. I drove up to Winnipeg once. All these years, I thought, this world has been above me.
This morning there's no gradual wakening. The nails of the dog on hardwood are a scatter, a staccato. My joints are sore and I try to ignore them. The telephone wire slants north to where our calls for help go. The phone line droops and scrapes the peak of the garage. Dried petals spin. A cardboard box empties its papers into the wind. The election brings the urge to prevent disaster, to open to hope. Invocations of power do all sorts of things. I bear down on my own, yet surrender. The imperative commands with an implied actor only.
'Tis the season of leaked tax returns, burnished vines, and homeless men carrying amber water through the woods. A student dies in the heart of the city, and the summer months chill but don't go away. I wake to an apparition saying, Just trust me on this one. There’s a shady byline on the story she waves before me. We'll get it cleared up, she says, and everyone will vote as they please. She props her unfurled flag against the dresser. The folds of her white gown are creased with 90 years of storage. I'm campaigning again, she says, leaning on my dresser. It's an experiment. Take a chance, she says, then lies down and disappears into the floorboards. The paper she leaves behind tells of the Truman election, and I read it here in bed.
I trace the edge of the dresser, the spine of a knife, and the matching jaw lines of potential Vice Presidents who tried last night to appear reasonable on a stage. Our beleaguered national conscience contains such multitudes. In Poltergeist, the father pushed the television onto the deck of the safe motel. The bones rose out of the ground because the land wasn't theirs anymore, like the bones poking out of a cardboard box in my grandfather's garage crawl space. Bevel, plunge line, edge.
Chili for the first time in months is all cumin, sweaty mouthful of green pepper. I chew up warmth. The dog will love his world today, a gold tint to the dog park air, hounds racing in a pack. My full mouth opened last night. I coughed and sang after dinner, the oldest songs I know.
Across the water in Wisconsin, lights come on at the top of the hill. A truck crosses the EPA parking lot, throwing leaf patterns onto my window. The lake is blue in the half-dark and people drive along it, steadily into town. The wind is strong and self-assured. The ancestors knock at glass, take form. I ask myself, now that I'm 42 and no longer becoming, what's the plot? Please, teacher. I hold up a blank piece of paper, that third grade book report I never wrote.
It's not that I think any less of the world, but the floods have occurred and some people are gone now, just gone. The old man in his pine shack wouldn’t leave, sound reason for fatal decision. And I wouldn't take apart this moment, his, mine, if it weren't required for my science project. Since it is, I search in the back of the sock drawer, pull out beaker and burner and tubes. Add water. Liquids and solids separate, leaving bed and phone and glasses behind in the strainer. What moves through is a viscous gray liquid and grains of dark sand. On the big lake, a barge floats by in ether and steam.
Who would I be in a world without panic, in a world not constantly ending? I am far away but also at the joining. There is so much symmetry in the body, parts mirrored. I long to stand in the wood with the deer, so quiet. Give in. Make talk. The bomb is ours and the means to disable, so let’s extract the wire with a careful hand and look at what we’ve saved.
Monday morning I am sane again, but part of a club that tortures. In the debate last night, a woman my mother’s age, who could almost be my mother, was all that stood between us and a fascist. She is complex and brilliant, loving and brick. I trace my own double standards. But an actual hawk would never brag of a kill. All I want from the dark this morning is the slow reveal of one magic concept, hidden in misspellings. A sound keeps coming, a radio hum. It is the exhale of earth releasing her last human captives. I quietly breathe along.
The question comes: what do we really want? Self-justification? Compliance? Where has my grandmother’s Tupperware gone? I could make a map of ancestral homes in Ohio and New Jersey, mark their longitudes and latitudes. I could walk the dog in pajamas since it is still dark outside.
I watch a spoof of the second presidential debate on my phone at dawn. According to autocorrect, it is in Michigan, not Missouri. All of the lights in the house are off and the sun is still off. Why must progress, at some level, come from rage? The personal becomes the most enunciated part of the seminar conversation. How do I talk when my throat is on fire? Almost everyone I know is sick.
Now I remember my dream, where people I love stood on a platform held up by brightly colored sails. They could have fallen at any minute but looked perfectly happy, as if receiving awards. There was a house in the dream. The lesbian cabin, someone said. Someone else said, Nelson, you drive us all to this. And I murmured, if I can clean out the candle and napkin drawer, I can do anything.
The corner of the bedroom, that right angle, is the upright spot where two planes come together as one. How bare the birch forest in the late afternoon with all of its yellow on the ground. Every angle does its job. Straight lines do not exist, and tree trunks tilt and shed. The ground waves.
Anyone's life is smooth from far away. Anyone's life close up is cracked. Here we are in the post-lecture age, longing for orally conveyed content. Will I ever feel desire again? Desire for insularity: that is my desire now. How does one create change on a limited budget? Can I eat everything in the cabinet and still get to work on time? Autocorrect replaces dull with full. And I say to the students, ignore the forms I love and write like the textbook. How monstrous to control young people who simply want to go their own way. Let's explore the situation from a different angle, my imaginary mentor says. Let's break it down so we can build it up, your soundwave and your confidence.
Even a shabby house is beautiful when one comes to it as a stranger. The yellow light in the windows, tip tops of wooden fence posts. I know nothing of the people inside, but there is something to that nothing. My life has meaning in exactly that light. So tired of self as reference point. Long for a train on shaking tracks and rumbling bearings and metal toilet, blurred window, the big lake the Russian lake the most water lake, and chicken from an old lady. Her sad, racist story in my second language, under a burnt pink sky.
There is another country in this country, my own family. Election season shows how many countries we are. The weight of the problem is the weight of my body, down a pound today, up one tomorrow.
In the dream I just woke from, there was a big gathering of women and a delicious bunch of lettuce. We made smoothies and hummus and planned. Lots of us cooked, in the basement and upstairs, opening drawers full of old kitchen implements, and I rooted around for a bowl. For what? A woman was making fry bread, and I decided to try it. I could only find whole wheat flour, so the dough turned out purple. She helped me fry purple dough.
Sometimes we need to step back. Sometimes we need to step in. Sometimes we need to name longing, the door and the mat and the cleaning bill, the brush and the sponge and the sliver of soap, the cry and the scratch and the end word. Implied denouement, shriek of no sound, scratched voices at first world fair. We build and recede. We enter to exit and evolve to drink tea. Ghosts speak, or we imagine the words we are dying to hear. The terms are full circle, embrace, home and edge. We record every message we can.
The current U.S. President’s estranged brother will be attending tonight's debate in support of the opposition candidate. Four students were shot at a high school in San Francisco named after June Jordan. I am hungry. You would think I could fast for the dead young people, for the dead in West Duluth, but there isn't another side to things, there are ten. The 80s were the 80s and they're over. That is what they tell me, that I'm done being twelve years old.
When we wake to pearl-shot sunrise, we take a picture and post it. Are we welcoming people into an experience / asserting that we made a good choice about where to live / showing that we have a good life / insinuating that our life is better than theirs / illustrating that life in general is more than just bearable and providing concrete evidence for everyone's benefit / trying to prove this to ourselves? I am overwhelmed by media, but this is not to blame the media, who have not only had to witness this election season but write and speak about it ongoingly. It’s been exhausting for everybody and certainly for them. The media must want a break by now, hot cocoa on a faded couch.
Today is Halloween, but this is not my costume. I am simply a woman of a certain age. I am parenting a young dog through blastomycosis and indoor urination. Everything is in place. Is it time to start over? I breathe and put my glasses on, say good morning, darling. I lower my body into the bath, into the season after the time change, into my anger and its exclamation points.
My thumbs are the mechanism of my new voice. I must flip to a separate screen for commas, as if they are not important. You can't trust the side of a mountain to feed you the way the edge of a field would. There is a role and a use for each body and tool. What is my use? I find I love argument after all and have foregone concrete imagery. This could be a weakness or just a shift. When you think change will never happen, your despair means it's about to.
James Baldwin on today’s America, on a yellowed page from 1962, and the outline of an unfamiliar tree. Nothing fell but everything's falling. Morning, who have you come to this town to talk to? Give me a sign, some residual love. Scrape at the window with sunlight.
Today is the day of deciding. What have we learned of our country through this? The announcer counts, takes stock, balances pomp with sentiment in a radio voice. Downstairs, my partner reads out loud. There is a resonance to her. The walls soak poetry in.
The animals argue through a closed door. They talk back and forth, plead, whine and submit. What would change even look like? What do all of our hopes amount to? This election will soon be over, but how awful the way that it might be.
The window is cracked and the crack is a line of light. The line is straight and crooked. I got to vote with my daughter. My partner kept her arm around me all night. The cat licked my nose this morning. All this, but the world is not real. Our choices have narrowed to one. What will become of us now, and I mean all of us.
At six a.m., the leftover moon takes the edge off. Yesterday on campus, a sweat-shirted gray figure smoked and studied, hood up, boots strong. That student read to save the world. All of them walked to class, somber, spitting. Their major was the next four years. Their major was fury. Their major was a crumpled leaf. Their major was my car started and there were some Cheerios left, so here I am, in the middle of heartbreak, in the middle of joy. For them it is just beginning. A transwoman in white lace-up heels walked head up across campus. In her poli sci paper due Friday, she makes patterns from what has shattered.
The dark has five shades: cerulean, olive, midnight, rouge, and amber. The colors join and press, like my top and bottom teeth. I want them to last forever. I don't take any chances, but I'll take one right now. Fury galvanizes, is steel. What is there left to do but learn? The second half of my life commences.
Seven on the Monday before Thanksgiving. I don't know where to look right now, in whose eyes. Do reasons matter? What are ideas? We need the people who lived through the old times, who knew what to burn.
To those who have long been fighting: I want to hear your voice. To watch you go. To see you seek shadow. To watch you strike and release, not tense but relaxed in conflict. I want to stretch into the world, and if I break to break open, like you have. I know this bores you. I learn about myself, what you already know.
Today I make yams and cranberries, clean the house. Tomorrow we gather; what we long for will be what we have. Time examined closely does this. What is your hope, and how does it fit in your day, in your hand? Hold all of the parts and keep holding.
Thanksgiving is a day for trust, yet Standing Rock. I make mashed potatoes and salad. Change comes in a great smacking wave, yet here I am cooking and writing, typing. Change is no change at all, and they knew this, tried to tell us. I will be grateful without being stupid, and stir.
Today is a day not to rush but to rest. Today is a day to unfold the sheeted heart of the matter as it rustles with holiday sound. The brush of snowflake on eyebrow, the rustle of car tire banked with snow, deer paused at the edge of the road. Their hooves press into a yard of unraked leaves.
Hearts are breaking and some people think that's funny. Mine might be a lung since it is hard to breathe some mornings. My family is my family. I am from and of Tremont City Ohio, Williamstown New Jersey, and Ashland Kentucky. Some left and some stayed. White poverty, white affluence, white privilege, white loss. Every time, we vote both ways.
Fingers pause over nothing to say. I feel the edge that I made real through hours of cutting, trace the line that begged for the slice. I see an old lover in a shadow place. I touch her with a feather, but I doubt she feels it. Pour myself another cup. In this made-up life, I'm a coffee drinker, and I bear all sorts of things I never could.
The world hums and shudders, dear reader. I hear the high sound that the dog hears. I think of that summer, of talk under trees, of where he was headed and where I was going, how both of us found our way. It wasn't about being saved, but just about air, space and water. So what do we need this time? Be my teacher if you know something.
They have put a sharp edge on justice. I keep it close to my chest facing out, hold the edge of knowledge just so. To elect, to select, to choose, to appoint, to put (up with, on), to endure.
One reaction: I eat. I consume the election aftermath in cookies, pancakes, oatmeal, yogurt, beans, soup, roasts, granola, tomatoes – lots of tomatoes – and ice cream topped with chocolate sauce, Christmas sprinkles directly on the tongue, office gingersnaps, slices of lemon and ribboned cake, caramelized cabbage and fried brown rice and tuna melts and polished apples and holiday clementines in thin net bags. Always aching for more and less.
The sign above the door of increased awareness reads welcome to the movement and fuck you. We attempt to dismantle disaster, to engage with each other as thou, not it. It's almost like an autopsy. We are here for that purpose. And we: another shimmering and problematic choice.
A writer I know makes birds of peace from her pantsuit. She has made a new shape from the old one. I type with stiff fingers this morning. The pipeline is not going under the river today. It will, but not yet. A phone call a day, a march a month. Ongoing attempt to stay well. To change form.
I mark a white screen with black letters. Only out of difference can anything be said. To be needed just right is best, not all of the time, not first thing. This is all I have wanted, just time while awake and the audible presence of love. There are no enemies where the paragraph starts, when nothing’s been made but a letter.
The room around me is filled with want. I want sleep. I want meaning. I want to achieve while doing nothing, to exist while being nothing. The woman who lost hikes in upstate New York in no makeup.
I think about waking. I consider light in theory. We are the center of a home, have come this far, are almost full. Yesterday I thought I might go crazy, but today is new and hardly even chilly. I’ll get up and eat apricot jam with a spoon. As my love said last night, it'll be okay, and even if it’s not, it will be.
I wake up with a sugar hangover the day after the electoral college. Met with friends yesterday, not sure what I was looking for. A just law, a warm palm, to be safe in another house. To clarify what I can only give to myself. Now it’s Wednesday of finals week, and I’ll grade like the wind after lunch. Puppy and his wilds reflect the planet’s constant tilting. It takes a lot of postage to send presents across country, a lot of gas to get to work and back.
I watch light grow at the edge of the shade from the bed where I've done all my writing this fall. There are better and broader options than my voice, this worked-over pitch. But I think I know something, like the silent woman who sawed the dry end from our Christmas tree. As she cut, she let her secret go.
There is magic in dim pink sky. I could love everyone if I could love myself. We would look at each other differently. We would never want more than we have. We would scale our houses and dreams just so. Utopias are not exclusively American, of course, but I saw them in what I had and what I wanted.
Many countries accept they have fallen. This too is a form of greatness.
After hours of diligent research, a believer will laugh in your face. Do nothing with that laughter. They gather, the people I love, for all reasons. They watch for the ships. No one listens to words just to waves.
Falling numerals at attention. Cicadas in memory. Populous husks. Milky water. Sentient cloud. Heat on lower back and the lightest cramping, expulsion, the rest of the story. The snow is not invisible because it falls against a backdrop of pine. Dense needles create a sharp outline because they are surrounded by white sky. Difference, existence, manifestation. Contrasts are sources of knowing. Power lines cut and convey. Snow falls and falls, while choices compile. I could rest for the rest of my life.
A lengthening day, just a bit. Light seconds collect in the deep, broad north. We watch them happen. The snow makes light from the moon. The little tree is lit, time is ours, and anyone who wants to understand can enter our house at the edge of what’s coming. We all live this way. We offer each other this.