Heidi Johannesen Poon

The Kind World

Travis gets a sticker on his helmet
for knowing the color

of the river on the puzzle his little sister
puts together:

Dublin under the northern lights.
Terns held like wicks on the tall bridge lamps.

What did he miss? Brown?
How many people are already asleep

on the seizure unit? How many people
need an institution more than a home?

I do. The clock answers the prayers
from the hallway. The clock answers for God.

The television keeps up. Tics keep retaining
the one neuronal bed

they have grown to love. His little sister
had better call it a hockey helmet

so the doctor can come in his soft linen jacket
and say, there are many ways to live a life.

White

Two cabbage steaks
zapped. The lanes collapsing
along the white plates.

The cook smelling the changes
in spasm and sweating and outpouring,
nutrition only by the element,

by the ultra-trace.
And you still need two drugs
to keep the chin still,

three to sleep,
another two for hell,
so that’s really seven.

Jesus said it was easier for a camel
to get through the eye
of a needle than a rich man

enter the kingdom of God.
So is he supposed to go
all the way back?

I see God again,
after decades,
in the black eye of a donkey.

Don’t seem surprised,
when I kneel down
so he doesn’t feel intimidated.

Compass

Institutional air. One loud motherfucker.
I remember it snowing

so I couldn’t really see down Locust Ave.
where the Poet Charles Wright lives.

I had a salt and pepper crocheted blanket
that didn’t really make a square

covering me in Psychiatry,
also on Locust Ave,

and so my son, tucking my shoulder in, said coziness
is the right way to feel the cold.

Prostitute

God, keep us from being assholes,
calling people fake

for throwing us under a bus,
a pretty natural space. We ourselves

eyed the ground. Wrote the poems.
One cannot understand

that scramble from human suffering
as anything but way, come on,

over-planned. There are long delays
toward equality but we got an appointment.

Damnit. We got the next one. Like therapy for years
on end we iced our names on the cake.

We equally hated.
Life wasn’t even then.

Your God of Frances and your Golden Rule.
We didn’t see that gold as color. And sold. And stole.

Open House

The chair won’t get up
since it collapsed,

since years went by
and luckily the town can’t see

(Lord it isn’t funny!)
how much light was let in there:

Mother washes and washes,
my son tugs at the misalignments—

he has the sheet by the neck.
By the time this is a home again

the screens will fill with rain,
little mercury stars

will burst
through the silver crosses

then all the wood wet
from those splats

will be more human
and immediately wanting again.

~~~

Author’s Note

I became interested in Poetry forty years ago through a simple poem by Yevtushenko in the 7th grade. I don’t remember the poem but it had the kind of direct intense voice which still startles me. The voice matches something I’ve known in some other way, even before I was introduced to literature. Hearing that escalation in Yevtushenko’s lines I somehow believed I could do something in that vein myself, because it was so deeply familiar. I imagined poetry, once heard, to be universally loved.

I attempted to write my own poems, trying to match the expectations of the imagined readers. I had to match their boredom, meet them somewhere where we were likely to be awake. I didn’t know how hard that would be.

I attempted to write poetry for forty years. When I began high school, there was immediately the additional aspect of wanting to win twenty-five dollars. I found this intense focus on making something worthy of twenty-five dollars most satisfying because it assumed a sizeable audience (the prize seemed rather big to me).

Poetry slowly began to seem crowded with so many negative attributes which are obvious to anyone reading this. In addition, I can’t write a poem and then X it out as Charles Wright does. I do the million tries until it’s practically luck. I dwindle the lines until it sounds like someone else is talking back to me. I make myself as separate from the poem as possible. Self-recognition would bring out too much to erase. Stuff I personally cared about had to leave.

Now at 51, it’s hard to say I’m a poet, because the next question is: Do I have a book to prove it? Ha!  Well, I kind of have one. It’s around.

I always had a manuscript even in late high school but each poem, threw off one or more others like a barrier island rolling in an unlikely direction. I couldn’t get most of those versions published. I did have one version of that manuscript taken by a press five years ago, which I removed in a fit of moral hubris. And I’m glad of that as I think hubris has its place. It also took on things that I genuinely cared about. It’s a book where I could write about a psychiatric admission and continuing to stand there as a person and a writer. It’s about myself and those close to me in the way that I think is true and often against my own self-narrative.

I tend to write about the cyclical problems inherent in family, which later comes with a wonderful stasis. I write a lot about mental illness although I don’t think the term is accurate, but usable colloquially as it carries and conveys the shame which is the worst part of living with it. I don’t feel too embarrassed anymore because the audience for poetry is so small, really a private room, and it is impossible that anyone would recognize me on the street. I wish I had known this in high school.

There’s also the delusional wonder, I’m so grateful for, that occurs almost precisely in poem openings which are revealing. With age, I find my concerns allowable. Poetry obviously doesn’t need to get a prize or a book jacket, though the lack of another person’s response can be lonely. I try to keep reading to find other people, and writing, knowing I can’t make myself write.

Some internal system that gets broken can still step outside itself and report, to speak of my interior as if it is equally true. Either way, we love. Either way one’s insistence on the outlier of poetry may seem a little bit rude. Maybe that’s still to poetry’s credit.

~~~

See Heidi read her poem “Prayer” at the 92nd Street Y after being named as one of the 2018 Discovery Prize winners.

Heidi PoonHeidi Johannesen Poon lives with her husband and 16-year-old son in Charlottesville Virginia. She received Fellowships from Brown University and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop where she earned her MFA. She also received support from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, Rona Jaffe at Breadloaf, VCCA, and a Carlow University Residency in Ireland as the recipient of the Patricia Dobler Award.

Her poetry has appeared in journals as well as anthologies such as McSweeney’s Poets Picking Poets and Best New Poets. She has one chapbook, The Good News of the Ground, with the Poetry Society of America’s National Chapbook Competition. She is looking for a publisher for her first book of poetry.

%d bloggers like this: