November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Svea Barrett/Poetry

Digression on a Sign:  Welcome to Sea Isle City

Where the sea grass by the bay can get to be twelve feet tall
and the dogs are so old  they can’t be bothered to bark at passers-by.
They just come out to look at you and turn right back into their houses.
There’s something welcoming about a quiet dog.

My grandfather used to say most animals are nicer than most people.
Black bears, for instance, won’t come near you in the woods if you
sing loudly or clap as you walk.  And if you’re a stupid, 19 year old
camp counselor and walk back out to your unit after a night off  in
Main Camp with no flashlight and you come right up on a bear she’ll
just run like hell in the opposite direction you’re running.

My son might disagree—he was trapped in a latrine once, a black bear
scratching to get in—but he disagrees with me on most things, so maybe
I should tell him his teacher is wrong and you don’t need trigonometry
to be a functioning, happy adult.  I don’t think I’ll tell him how I got
a fifty-seven on my trigonometry regents in high school, though.
He couldn’t keep that secret.  Animals are better secret keepers.
My dogs, although the smaller of the two is pretty verbose in the
barking department, haven’t ever told any of my secrets, even after
they’ve  had a drink. It’s disconcerting when animals are like people—

sheep cough, for instance, and when they’re mating porcupines laugh
like perverted old men. Trust me, this is not a good sound to hear
when you’re camping in the  middle of nowhere in the middle of the night
and you’re the only one awake.  I always hated being the only one awake
at slumber parties when I was ten.  I’d hear a weird noise and say “what
was that” and when no one answered I knew I was the last one awake
and I was responsible for the others, like the designated driver or the
mom who sets up the carpool.

Some moms try to make you feel guilty because it’s your third child
and you know he won’t die if he drops his pacifier and you just blow
off the bigger pieces of dirt and pop it back in his mouth.  I wonder,
were these women really concerned for my baby’s welfare?  I wonder
why they felt welcome to make such comments to me.  I wonder too, at
road signs that say things like “Welcome to Sea Isle City” or Welcome
to New York State” or “Welcome to Pennsylvania,” as there’s no way
every single person who crosses town or state lines is actually welcome.

Some people are about as welcome anywhere as a porcupine in a latrine.
Did you know that if you don’t keep the outhouse doors shut porcupines
will come in and chew around the seat?  They like the salty taste of the wood.
My ex-husband used to laugh about the time at his uncle’s cabin in the Catskills
When his uncle caught a porcupine and swung it around by its tail and let it go
and then it was stunned enough so he could bash its head in with a rock.
“They eat wood and wreck things,” he told the kids.

This uncle wasn’t all bad though, he once gave me “mountain coffee”
(with a shot of whiskey) at eight A.M. and said I would always be
welcome in his house because I helped him wash the cabin windows
with newspaper, which is the best for ending up with no streaks.

Porcupines don’t have too many redeeming qualities.  They aren’t
really welcome anywhere, especially if there are dogs, even though
dogs are way more stupid than porcupines—case and point—my brother’s
dog tried to bite porcupines at least five different times, you’d think she
would learn, but you love them anyway, dogs, even if they’re too stupid
to stay away from what hurts them, unlike bears, who run from people
given half a chance and we don’t love bears, we love dogs because we
can leave them home alone all day and forget to feed them and they’re
still supremely happy to see us and welcome us unconditionally home.

 

How I Could Do It

He slept in a plastic crib-sized bed.  It was like a racecar,
and the mattress sank with our weight as we read to him,
the smell of urine faint but definite. His dandelion-down
hair tickled my nose and I knew I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t
even read to him without choking. “What’s wrong, Mommy?
Sing!” he said, and I said “just a tickle, just a frog taste
in my throat,” but I sang a little, then he slept.

It was as if he knew. What if he wanted me in the night
on his father’s night? He wasn’t even four. Later I heard
small, soft vibrations–feet pajamas on carpet. “I can’t sleep,
he said.  It was two AM.  I was still up, still trying to decide.
“What’s wrong?” I said. He grabbed me. His neck smelled
like aspirin. He said “I had a dream about hands. I was afraid,”
which is why I decided not to decide, at least not tonight.

Then in preschool later that week: “He doesn’t listen.
He stands on his head. He laughs when we punish him,”
his caregiver said. “He hit Sarah with a train today.
Is there anything wrong at home?” They say children
internalize tension.  I say, hey, he is loved. I pick him up early
when he bites the black-haired girl on the arm. Her mother
shows me the marks—two berry red half moons. He blinks
like he’s never seen them before.  He says, “She tasted sour.”

 

About the poet:

Svea Barrett is a writing teacher and a mom of three teenage boys. Her chapbook, Why I Collect Moose, won the 2005 Poets Corner Press Poetry Chapbook Competition, and her work has appeared in The Paterson Literary Review, Samsara Quarterly, The Journal of NJ Poets, Caduceus, US 1 Worksheets, Ariel XXVII, and other online and print journals.