Poetry: Selections from Christopher Sturdy
I Slept as a Defense Tactic
After Khadijah Queen’s “I Slept When I Couldn’t Move”
I slept in Grandma’s den. My hand cupped in hers,
a nested egg. Tie blanket & her hum strum lullaby
of the only Swedish songs I remember.
I slept in between my parents’ calves, back when
their bed wasn’t full of dusty boxes and cat piss,
back before cancers & debt ripped our house in two.
I slept in the tub with Dad, brushing his hair
after one of his waves of nausea, the ones chemo
gave him, the ones he still gets.
I slept in a ritzy Minneapolis condo with a woman who defined love
as infatuation, & every time I woke up next to her I felt
undeserving—not of her—but of the comfort streaming in
through the window, like her trust fund rented the sun.
I slept after getting roofied & woke up trembling next to
shame & muscle spasms.
I slept as a defense tactic.
I slept at Aaron’s & Kendall’s & Scott’s & Larin’s
when their parents didn’t know.
I slept under foot stomps & sounds of throttled throats & knew
not to call it love.
I slept coke-hearted under a park bench pattering
in and out of dreams, sweat pooling on the nape of my neck
in between shivers & fogged breath.
I slept with my arms around a human I loved & took it for granted.
I slept with my arms around a human I loved & didn’t take it for granted.
I feigned sleep as a hand fumbled around
my waistband hoping my silence was loud enough.
I slept as a defense tactic.
I slept in the mountains and woke to layers
of amber & silt & salmon.
I didn’t sleep much during the years my family used words
like mastectomy & melanoma & metastasis. I can’t
sleep like I did before them.
I slept next to my brother while he played
video games with stick clicks & mashed buttons.
I slept in a sleeping bag, all tattered & broken
zipper at a church lock-in where homophobia was planted
in us like palm trees on the way to the crucifixion.
I slept with my head in my sister’s lap as she traced
my buzz cut like new constellations for the night sky.
I slept in basement forts of pillows & sheets
with friends & ticklish laughter & innocent
love while boys at school defined
their favorite slur as a pile of sticks.
I slept as a defense tactic.
I never slept while Grandma was dying. I held her
hand & read her poems against the soft whir of machines.
Eventually, I fell asleep humming her lullaby, a defense
playing in my head even if I don’t remember the words.
If we’re done lying to ourselves, we should admit
our silence the year Davey took a baseball bat to his shin,
effectively reupping his Percocet prescription. Truth: we liked
percs perks. Truth: we liked the power
to turn off life with a pill and malt liquor, scrambling
life’s rabbit ears until we reached that fuzzy, warbled frequency.
The warm drone swallowed our attention. Lie: I don’t think about that
feeling anymore. That humdrum numb-
ness we won state with that year, Davey crutched
up on the sidelines, eyes melted together like street tar,
his smile see-sawing, and our bodies cracking at the line
of scrimmage, personalized car crashes dulled
by perky local anesthetic. I’ll admit, sometimes
I think about his moment of contemplation. The bat
shivering above his head as he figures out what he’s capable of.
If we’re done lying to ourselves, we deserve this
week of constant acid reflux as we all wonder
if maybe we’re somewhat responsible for Davey’s blue
face and rubber hose bicep cuff. At least we got that
picture from 2005, our forefingers up high, grasping
for the trophy. We got that picture at that school
we’re all too old and afraid to visit anymore.
Truth: I almost told someone
once. Truth: I almost told someone before
we won state. Lie: I don’t think about that
feeling anymore. That feeling of almost saying it
out loud. After his funeral, my parents asked if I knew.
I held my forefinger up high, faking for a moment
to gather myself. And then all I wanted to do was go back
to that school, empty halls and shattered plexiglass at my feet,
holding that damn trophy above my head, contemplating
what I’m capable of, wondering
if I have it in me to break it like a shin.
Your room door squeaks like a bleating lamb. You don’t
wear it yet. You don’t know what it is, but the boys
at baseball have been talking about what they saw
in the house behind the homerun fence. Your dad
snores in conversation with old episodes of Dirty Jobs.
Your dad, bearded, shirtless in the recliner,
his chest the color of slate, chiseled, reminds you you’re soft, flubby.
Coach says this is bad, but dad doesn’t say anything, which feels
worse. Lately, you’ve been trying to deepen your voice to command
thunder like your dad. You get a few sentences in only for lightning
to crack your throat back to its church mouse whisper. Outside,
you run. New moon darkness sucking street lamps into nightmares.
A hundred yards past the outfield, the rickety rambler—all chipped paint
and faded brick—holds spent casings, plastic bags, and used needles
in the palm of the porch. The windows glistening gold, a secret
or dream or joke or promise—alluring in the night, this burning
medallion of the dark. Through the first floor window, you see
coats of armor lining the walls labeled by what you assume
is weight: five, fifteen, thirty, eighty. The blacksmith, his back turned
to you as he hammers iron on anvil, metal bending to his will, a firestorm
forge to reheat, and water to finalize form. He flings the first piece behind
him. A thunk. A tumble. A roll. A haggard helm—sleek, steel, with slats
for eyes, two pools holding the night’s terrors, waiting to shroud
the head of boy or man. An electricity flings from you, delightful
energy, a pain-free promise disguising poison as pleasure.
Your limbs shock into motion, you reach out only to thump
knuckle to glass, then retract. The hammering halts, eyes on you,
not the swampy helm holes, but the blacksmith’s, reddened retinas
leaking from iris. The electricity railroads to your lungs, skipping,
spiking, seeing the beard, the chest, the blacksmith. Junior? The voice
of your father through the eyes of war. You run. Home. Away from armor
that will beckon for your return. Back to a father you hope is reclined
where he should be.
Aubade for where we choose to plant flowers
It can take two to five years
for daffodils to bloom.
When starting from scratch, daffodils must grow
indoors for at least a year. It’s always best to use
fresh, rich potting soil. Pick a spot in your home
where it can get a half day’s worth of sunlight.
Mist the soil daily to keep it damp. Pay attention
to the bulbets, as you’ll need to repot them when
they outgrow the current pot. I know this
because the girl who carries seeds in her pocket taught me.
She says you never forget the first time you see
Daffodils bloom. She says to imagine sitting in its petals
like a warm bath. You get to wake up each day
and their yellow heads grin and follow you,
small sunshines caught in your shadow.
Each morning, I visit the girl who carries
seeds in her pocket. Each morning, I test my memory
of all the plants she keeps: palm tree, peppermint, peace lily.
Each morning, we sip coffee and practice yoga
and read poetry out loud. Each morning, before I leave,
I ask to see the seeds she’s selected
today. Beady piles cupped in her hands, she tells me
the names: Orchid, Bluebonnet, Daffodil.
I’ll probably mess this up, but I’m practicing
relationships as yardwork. You see, her yard
is—to put it bluntly—a cemetery. Tall Shumard Oaks
bury her driveway in a blanket of honey and rust.
Leaves suffocate her grass into dehydrated yellow tufts,
brittle arms extending through quicksand, begging for one
final dose of sunlight. Her gutters cough
up deciduous Hickory and Magnolias, and all of this
is to say, Where will she plant
I rake her leaves like a graveyard
groundskeeper, forming piles of refuse
into burial plots, revealing rich soil underneath.
I’ve filled a few yard waste bags before her
spindly forest fingers wrap my wrists like vines, her hair,
smelling of burnt sage and rosemary, climb
my shoulders and neck like ivy. I point to the dirt
I’ve piled. For your seeds. You can plant
in fresh soil.
A finger to my lips. Her free hand plucks
seed from pocket, holds it up for me to inspect.
Daffodil, she says. I point to the soil for planting.
She shakes her head once, twice, pulls at my chin
to open my mouth, pressing seed to tongue,
and closing. There was delight in the closing,
the planting, the choice.
And I realize she’s practicing relationships
as gardening. And I remember,
it can take two to five years
for daffodils to bloom.
Christopher Sturdy resides in Minneapolis, MN where he teaches creative writing at Hiawatha Collegiate High School. When he’s not teaching, he can be found with a soccer ball at his feet in an attempt to see if “he’s still got it” or guzzling down an espresso tonic to appease his mostly under control caffeine addiction. His poetry can be found in Press Pause Press and Emerge Literary Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram