In this podcast, we discuss three of Laura McCullough’s poems. The box score above is the spoiler alert: though today’s podcast crew spanned from the east coast to Iowa, included an undergrad and people who’ve done this work of editing for more than two decades, we were unanimously enamored of all three poems.
Present at the Editorial Table:
Kathleen Volk Miller
PBQ Box Score: 3:0
Welcome to Episode 11 of PBQ’s Slush Pile! In this podcast, we discuss three of Laura McCullough’s poems. The box score above is the spoiler alert: though today’s podcast crew spanned from the east coast to Iowa, included an undergrad and people who’ve done this work of editing for more than two decades, we were unanimously enamored of all three poems.
“Leafless” moved us and took us on a journey that also spanned decades. “Reclaimed Wood” told a tale we only want even more of, and “Maggot Therapy” simply left us thunderstruck. Read along and listen in—these poems are even more breathtaking aloud.
She hates the word feminist and she’s no stranger to PBQ! Laura McCullough is an award-winning poet with six (!) poetry collections which include her most recent, Jersey Mercy, which narrates the lives of two people affected by Hurricane Sandy. Watch a brief interview after her first book or watch part of a reading from this past spring.Check out more of her work on her website.
The fact that we were going to discuss Laura’s work and we’ve known her for years, spurred us to invite Jennifer L. Knox to join us for this episode, as Jennifer fits a similar profile: she’s a poet whose work we admire and the added bonus—we can call her a friend.
We discussed the conundrum many of us find ourselves in—how difficult is it to be a poet who wants to send work to journals she loves and respects, but whose editors she knows well. No one wants to be published out of obligation or to put her friend in an awkward position. The flip side is just as bad: no editor takes pleasure out of rejecting anyone, let alone a friend. Our discussion focused on social ties and aesthetic taste—or, as Jennifer put it, discerning the “heart-to-brains-to-balls ratio” of any given magazine or press in order to find the right home for your work. Listen in as we explore our practices, then chime in on our FB event page and share your own.
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In the end, my mother’s shoulders, barely covered and quivering, were like birds. Once, I made a dress for her, the fabric creamy white, the print a single brown tree spanning the width, with stark branches. It was 1974. I was fourteen. Each night, I taught myself to sew, feeding the fabric through the foot, thinking how surprised she would be. I remember seeing her in it, how we’d both loved the gesture, the achievement, and though it fit poorly, the print was enough for us. She wore it once and never again, let me see her walk out the door in it. Maybe love’s architecture is exposed when we try and fail at what we mean. Outside the hospital, winter had flayed everything, the trees charcoaled against the sky, their shadows thumb smudges on the institutional snow hid lawn, and inside the air was redolent of shit, flowers, and chlorine. The first time I changed her clothes, peeling back from her shoulders the blue flecked cotton gown, then sliding a clean pink one up her arms, we held each other in the oily light, spent. Reclaimed Wood I confess now I have begun to henna my red hair gone dull in parts and penny bright in others. And I always tried to subdue its wildness. But when the hull of our marriage busted rock and began to leak, we both thought it was a good idea to renovate the kitchen, together, by ourselves. We closed up the hall to the back rooms to create more privacy and took down a load- bearing wall in hoped of opening the “flow.” My husband looked like Christ hauling the salvaged timbers from a warehouse deep in the Piney woods one by one up the front stoop, laying them in our suburban living room, posing as a Brooklyn loft. We framed the new wide space: one as header, two as column braces, then sat on the floor cross-legged looking at our work in progress, the way the wood had aged, the colors and striations, notches and hammered pegs. We felt our fifties ranch had a new story now, something with weight, and we held hands a little while before getting up, heading to the shower, falling back into our routine. Maggot Therapy Near death, sometimes the hands curve into themselves like claws. I held my mother’s open, smoothing the fingers, trimming the wild nails. Once, years before, my husband and I awoke to a fawn caught in the family compost, a hole on its back end festering with worms, and he pinched each one out swiping his little finger in the bowl of the wound, then coating it with antibiotic salve. I loved him, and how he saved this small thing. It’s a story I have told over and over. Today though, I’m thinking of the medical uses for maggots: biodebridement and extracorporeal digestion, their enzymes liquefying dead tissue in wounds, and wonder, do I feed off the dead who live inside me? When my mother was dying, she had a vision of her non-corporeal father, brothers, sisters. Her last words, Why have you left me alone? She never opened her eyes again, her chest a drowning well. The bodily signs of death: the skin mottling as blood flow slows; breathing, open mouthed; jaw, unhinged. I won’t recount the signs of a dying marriage, but he left two days after her funeral. Physically, he returned but told me he’d fallen in love with someone else, that his love for me had passed. Above my mother’s body, orange mist had exhaled and dispersed, a light bulb busted open, its luminescent gas escaping. The word fluorescent is so similar to the word florescence, meaning flowering, and somewhere between these two, there is a splendor I can barely stand. Inflorescence refers to flowers clustering on one branch, each a separate floret, but if they are tightly clustered as in the dandelion seed head, they look incomplete alone, though the whole is an illusion. The word for this—pseudanthium—means “false flower.” Infrutescence, its fruiting stage, gives us grapes, ears of corn, stalks of wheat, so many of the berries we love. This morning my hands ache as though in the night I’d been trying to claw my way out of a hole I am down in, having lost the body I came into this world through, and my husband’s as well. It’s almost as if my body had come to believe his was a part of its own, a connection he would have to break or die. Medical experts say it takes two moltings for maggots to do the job well, to feed enough to clean a wound. I do not feel clean at all, though in our shower, my husband and I still huddle some days, hunched into the spray. We call it watering. When we do, we scrub each other, grateful for the living, dying flesh, but trying to get clean of each other. That fawn he saved way back when we were new in love was released into the wild. Surely, it had a scar identifying it, evidence of what flesh my husband was willing to enter in order to keep something alive. Lately, he seems more clear-eyed, and it is as if a cicatrix husk is cracking. Neither of us know who will emerge, but he seems luminescent, a kind of light created by the excitation of the smallest elements, and not giving off warmth, but a cold glow that at least illuminates.