July 2023 Update: Sarah is preparing to appear at the New York City Poetry Festival at the end of July. Sarah will read a poem and be interviewed as part of an appearance with the monthly poetry show “There’s a Lot to Unpack Here”. Sarah also has a new book of poetry, “The Familiar”, coming out from Texas Review Press in Spring 2024.
Welcome to Episode 19 of Slush Pile! For this episode, we have two “creepy” poems submitted for our Monsters Issue by Sarah Kain Gutowski.
Listen to the outcome, but one thing is for sure: these poems are stronger together.
Comment on our Facebook event page or on Twitter with #frogtongue and sign for our email list if you’re in the area, and even if you’re not! Read on!
At the table: Kathleen Volk Miller, Lauren Patterson, Tim Fitts, Caitlin McLaughlin, Jason Schneiderman, and Marion Wrenn
Sarah Kain Gutowski is the author of two books, The Familiar (forthcoming) and Fabulous Beast: Poems, winner of the 14th annual National Indies Excellence Award for Poetry. With interdisciplinary artist Meredith Starr, she is co-creator of Every Second Feels Like Theft, a conversation in cyanotypes and poetry, and It’s All Too Much, a limited edition audio project. Her poems have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Threepenny Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and The Southern Review, and her criticism has been published by Colorado Review, Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, and the New York Journal of Books.
Chapter VI: The Children Have a Request
The season stretched itself thin, weakened by storms and heat.
Inside the damp, shadowy space of the children’s fort,
the woman with the frog tongue wove baskets and bowls
with tight, interlocked laces, while her silk stitches
began to fray and lengthen. The gap between her lips
widened to where the children could see the white of her teeth.
They stared at her, sometimes; she saw them clench their jaws
and try to speak to each other without moving their mouths.
Before long they’d begin to laugh, and she’d shake with relief at the sound.
Then one day, when the trees broke into glittering shards
of gold and red and green, and light spun pinwheels above
their heads as they walked together between the falling leaves,
the girl looked at the woman and asked if she had a name.
At this, the woman jerked to a stop. The old surge,
the impulse to speak that rose within her belly and chest,
overwhelmed. She wanted the girl and boy to know her name.
Her tongue, rolled tightly and barred from moving inside its cage,
strained against her teeth and cheeks, contorting her face with its rage.
The boy stepped back when he saw the change on the woman’s face.
The girl moved closer, though, to pat the hand she held
like she might a frightened kitten or skittish, fallen bird.
Let’s guess your name, she said. The woman’s jaw fell slack,
as much as the stitches allowed. Her panic passed away.
The boy saw her relax and began to hop around.
A game, a game, he chanted. Across her eyes the sun
sliced its blade, and though her vision bled with its light,
she felt cheered by the girl’s hand and the boy’s excitement.
Aurora. Jezebel. Serafina, guessed the girl.
Her brother laughed and grabbed a fallen branch, whacking
the moss-covered roots of the trees surrounding them.
The woman laughed, too, short bursts of air through her nose.
Her happiness shocked them all. The boy laughed again,
a raucous sound, and she looked the little girl in the eye.
A curve tested her mouth’s seams, more grimace than grin,
but the girl smiled back and sighed with some relief. Then she reached
toward the woman and pulled her close, until they were cheek to cheek.
The girl’s face, cold and smooth, smelled of the moss and earth
her brother lashed and whipped with vigor into the air.
The woman with the frog tongue hugged the girl loosely,
as if those little shoulder blades were planes of cloud,
a shifting mist she could see and feel between her arms
but couldn’t collect, or hold, or keep for her very own.
The girl stepped back yet kept her hands by the woman’s face.
Her small, thin fingers hovered before the fraying threads.
Why don’t you take these out? she asked, as she touched each ragged end.
At this the boy stopped his joyful assault of the trees
and ran to see for himself what they discussed each night
when walking home: her muffled, choked murmurings,
the gray lattice unraveling across her mouth.
He peered closely at each loose stitch, searching beyond
her lips for whatever monster she’d locked so poorly inside.
He found no monster, just a hint of pink tongue.
So he shrugged, said Yes, and spun on his heel to resume his game.
The girl jumped up and down, shouting: And then you’ll tell us your name!
The woman watched the boy whip tree roots free of moss,
the tufts spinning into the air and separating,
becoming dust, the dark green spores like beaks of birds
that plummet toward the rocky earth without fear.
She watched the girl’s hair lift and fly away from her head,
the wind dividing its strands, the way it hung, suspended
like dust in the sun, then sank like spores: a sudden drop.
She worked her mouth from side to side, and by degrees
opened her lips enough to burble a sound that said: Maybe.
Chapter VII: She Grows a Second Heart
That night she woke to find another oddity:
during sleep her heart had split or twinned itself,
and where one muscle pumped before, now beat two.
Her blood coursed through her veins twice as fast as before,
and over those paths her skin buzzed and stammered, like wire
strung tautly between two poles and charged with load.
As if she’d run for miles across rolling hills,
as if inside her chest two fists beat time all day,
beneath the bone she sped at death in the most alive way.
The day crawled while her two hearts raced. Above the fire
she set a series of clocks to ticking. She watched the flames,
sometimes leaning close enough to feel the heat
singe her stitches a deeper shade, their fibers scorching
until they curled, like dark froth spilling from her mouth.
But when her hearts began to flicker more, and faster
than she could stand, she turned her eyes to the clocks’ marked faces
and drew comfort from the second hands’ neurotic twitch.
Every minute witnessed meant another minute lived.
Beneath her breastbone her strange second heart pulsed harder.
She sensed the muscle, like her tongue, would leap and fly
away from her body if her body let it go.
She took the silver-handled knife and incised a cross
above the cavity where her hearts ballooned together,
jostling for room and dominance. The flaps of skin,
pale as egg shell, trembled slightly. A head appeared.
A bird with obsidian eyes emerged wet with her blood,
shook to shed its burden, and leapt toward the rafters above.
She watched the bird and felt air seep into the space
it left behind, her single heart unrivaled but lonely
in its great room. The wound bled slowly, healing fast
to a pale silver scar, flaps falling back to close
neatly over the bone, which laid itself again
like lines of track or scaffolding across her chest.
The bird flew to the window’s sill, and ticked its head
to look back at the woman. A slight breeze, cool and calm,
caressed its dark wings, and it leapt for the steady branch of that arm.