Ashley Kunsa's recent poetry appears in Massachusetts Review, Southern Humanities Review, Barrow Street, Cream City Review, and Radar Poetry. Originally from Pittsburgh, she is currently assistant professor of creative writing at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, MT, where she lives with her husband and two children.
One Fifteen a.m., Three and a Half Weeks into the Stay-at-Home Order
I find her, finally, your wife. The girl our theory professor confused
with me. Same wire-rimmed glasses, same hair. I was thinner
(though who’s counting?), she, less loud. Somebody mentioned a likeness
to Gillian Welch; I didn’t know which way to take that. This was,
of course, before she was your wife. Before she was anyone
worth putting into a poem. There’s no lying my way through this: you don’t
stumble upon a person who’s changed her name (maiden shortened
to middle initial) in Chrome incognito after the whole house has trickled
to sleep: I was hunting her. And what’s the third thing I do? (First: audible gasp;
second: finger my worry lines—this late-thirties’ reflex.) I drag
a recent pic side-by-side and execute a decade’s worth of comparisons
in the span of half a dozen blinks (we never get very far from things
that show us who we are). And as I’m writing these words, the baby erupts
down the hall, pure fury, it’s chasing two o’clock and she’s pissed,
and I’m staring into a mirror, but doubled, and I grow motionless and silent
and let her cry like that until the sound wakes my husband and he coos
her name or rocks her to sleep or whatever manipulation doesn’t require me
at this hour. You never called me cruel, but this evening I ignored
seven texts out of pure spite. I never called you soft, and perhaps
this is where we most missed each other: through silences that allowed
diminished versions of ourselves. Now, two thousand miles and ten years
gone from a hallway where someone shouted R— after me and she and I
both turned to look, I want to throw a stone into the stillness
of that distance, I want to tell you things I couldn’t even imagine then.
Like, you can love a person—really love them—but love yourself more,
and eventually the seams will show. Like, I am so glad you got a good life,
even though I’m not in it. Three twenty-seven now, and I teach
in the morning, as I imagine you must, but still I’m writing this poem.
Which could end a number of ways. Maybe I make peace with choices
chosen long ago. Mine, yours, mine. Make peace, slap shut the lid
of the computer, off to bed. Maybe I refuse peace and fashion
a rousing metaphor about sacrifice and simulacra and desire’s
inability to recognize itself, or represent itself, or anything at all. Or
maybe I just keep on writing until it feels like I’ve gotten to the end
of the night. Until I do get to it. We taste the inevitable sunlight cracking
the blank page of the morning, hear the baby’s early rising, smile-
courted this time, witness sweet recognition as her eyes land
upon my hair, longer now, and wavy, my glasses, big, rectangular tortoises.
Maybe this is where I find whatever it is I’ve really been looking for
all these years, and maybe—why not?—it feels okay to have this new thing
stitched tight into the fabric of my belly, this thing that can never be
digested, that will never go away, but isn’t going to kill me.
Danger Seeks Its Own Level
Maybe I’m alright. Maybe the sky is just a sky,
not a spread of black punched by stars.
Maybe the night turned colder than we expected faster
than we expected, and we were caught, dark-huddled,
on a trail, in a pasture, the room behind his shop.
Maybe he snagged open my button-fly a quarter mile
from the trailhead and pressed me toward an uprooted trunk,
kissed the backs of thighs not shaved since seventh grade,
stood me spread eagle and spread me open,
his tongue mapping that less-loved hole, while I whispered,
This is so illegal a dozen times. This is so illegal puncturing my moans.
Maybe he was a cop. Maybe he was a cowboy. Maybe he
was a pawnbroker. Maybe he drove us fifty feet from the pond’s edge
and I asked him to gag me, bind my hands, the cows
pouring a circle around us as he scoured the truck bed,
my skin electric with gooseflesh. Maybe my wrists choked
on baling twine, and he forgot his erection, and maybe we blamed
the wind, the Coors, the cows’ preposterous lowing.
Maybe the dumbshits on the flight in asked if he was
bringing BLM to Montana, and maybe he played dumb.
Maybe he didn’t tell them he was coming for me. Didn’t tell them
to mind their business, and nodded, earnest,
as they whispered, earnest, They’re a terrorist group. Like al Qaeda,
the granny seated catty-corner shaking her head into her bird hands.
Maybe he was a black cop, or a cowboy professor,
or a pawnbroker with a heart of gold. Or at least
a display case of gold coins and hunting knives, one of which
he unsheathed, then pressed the hilt to my palm,
my alabaster thighs offering themselves
to its gleaming smirk. Maybe I took the long way home,
not a mark on me, crossed a river I could only hear.
Maybe he reclined the driver’s seat of my car and tried to drive me
to orgasm. Which is what I felt like: an animal
being prodded toward the desired end. Maybe desire,
and not its answer, was the point. Or should’ve been. Maybe
he wrote a poem on the plane back east, filled it
with Bolshoi acolytes and brook trout, lipstick vibrators and Kevlar.
Maybe he was a black (no-such-thing-as-ex-)Marine poet cop. A cowboy
professor guitarist. A pawnbroker obsessed with emotional intelligence.
Maybe there are three men in this poem, each of whom I loved
for an instant. Three men, each of whom I left.
And I’m writing this poem because love is supposed to be
electric, but the only lightning I’ve known whispers, Fear, fire,
pain, death. Okay, and beauty—for an instant. But what good
did that ever do anyone? Maybe this isn’t an explanation
but an excuse. For starlight, and loneliness, for the stupid words
we mouth to strangers, and ourselves. Maybe I meant
only what I said: not all right but alright.