“Short Cuts” and other poems

From The Red Issue

Erika Rier

Short Cuts

What kind of girl1 is allowed2 to traipse3
through snowy4 woods5 alone?6 Why7 wasn’t
she briefed8 on proper9 procedures10 for fearing11
wolves?12 What good is a picnic13 for witches?14
If you keep the mouth15 talking,16 can appetite17
be forgotten?18 Is it wise19 to depend20 on a man21
who makes his living22 on the keenness23 of his axe?24

1 Boy or girl. This is not a poem about gender. 2 You’ve been denied so many permissions as a child—do not love those people, beware that side of the family. You may now say what you mean because nobody loves a liar. 3 You’ve tramped about for years, moving from Point A to Point B. You’ve left too many footprints on the highway. 4 The snow is real—metaphor fails you when the snow refuses to be replaced by something else. It builds nearly to your knees, stranding you between Points A and B, marooned in empty space. Learn to live in empty space. No one lives in empty spaces. 5 To arrive safely at Point B, you must stick to that path winding through snowy woods where beasts feast on the succulence of witches. 6 Sometimes, the difference between autonomy and alienation is the recognition of hunger. 7 Rhetorical questions are poor substitutes for definitive statements, short cuts you use when you don’t know how to say what you mean. 8 Listen: You’ll freeze to death unless someone teaches you the difference between sickness and emptiness. 9 You’ve been taught too much propriety as a child—say please, say thank you, say I love you, but only if you mean it. 10 The safest way to Point B is a circuitous route to confuse the wolf—do not trust talking animals. 11 Listen to fear. Listen to questions about your grandmother’s longevity, about cold and cancer and diabetes, about the stale air of hospital rooms, about ______. 12 The wolf is not a symbol. Ignore him. You can’t ignore him. 13 Periodic moments of rest will distract you from that bleakness of travel. Enjoy your lunch. 14 Witch is never appropriate shorthand for grandmother. Use it anyway. 15 It’s impolite to talk with your mouth full. Stay hungry. Keep eating. 16 Questions about eyes and ears can stave off a meal, but eventually, you’ll slip up and ask about the teeth. 17 You are driven onward by the needs of the body, this rumble of tummy, that slickness of guts. You are driven by fear, by ______. 18 Point B is inevitable. Look back on Point A with hope if you can ignore the wolf hidden somewhere out there in the snow. 19 Remember: wise men need not have a f lawless memory. 20 It isn’t wise to depend on memories of the map’s contours—Points A and B are real places on real maps. 21 The Man is not the wolf. This is still not a poem about gender. 22 Living is no excuse for dying. The wolf says this is not a poem about dying. 23 The hand is more likely to be injured by a dull blade than a sharp one—creases of love and life, both waiting permission to be severed. 24 The axe strikes like a thunderclap, like winter, hewing Point A from Point B leaving ______ where wolves prowl for road-weary children, where hunters strike without surgical precision. What exactly is the difference between the sick and the dying when you are too far away to hear? Is it ever too early to honor the dead? Is there any point to grief at all?


Lycanthropy

I didn’t know I was a wolf until that woman was in my belly. She had it coming, as do the rest of you who do not know you are wolves. The evidence: two thighs succulent like lamb chops, breath sweet like tongues of lilies—you do not blame fire because it burns as much as your hands fear licking flames. You do not grieve for the dead as much as you loathe that hollowness creeping from groin to breast. I didn’t know that girl was in my belly until the heartburn set in, acid foaming into my esophagus and escaping in a huff of steam wafting silver moonward. There is no such thing as regret for a predator, just hunger that chews its way through offal the way seduction seeps into your underpants. I didn’t know that girl was in my belly—not until the night was besotted with clothing rent from trunk and limb, with sheets covered in juice and gristle. You either know you are a wolf or you traipse through meadows picking monkshood and foxglove for those who would be eaten by wolves. Or you wield a hatchet, as if that poor proxy for teeth can protect you from hunger. There is no protection—not bullets polished with starshine, not sprigs of mistletoe or gypsy talismans. Not the knowledge that you are a wolf.


Checklist for Picnic Baskets

☐ A map to your grandmother’s house
☐ A slice of cake
☐ A bottle of wine
☐ A birthday card you never sent her
☐ A bouquet of buttercups
☐ A hooded sweatshirt in case of winter
☐ A get-well-soon card you won’t ever give her
☐ A drawing of her done by you as a child, to remind her
who you are
☐ A snow globe, forests under siege by glitter
☐ A sliver of moon
☐ A sharp knife
☐ A First-Aid kit
☐ A letter from your mother forgiving your grandmother
for the injustices of childhood, forged by you
☐ A poem that you may or may not keep to yourself
☐ Wolfsbane