by Kate Gale
“In Kate Gale’s Mating Season, life is lived without the illusion of romance or sentiment, yet the urge for grace is an addiction still not kicked. Its language brings you into a world of fetid beauty. Its odors cling to you long after you put the book down.” –Terry Wolverton
Kate Gale’s work reverberates with a conscious passion. For her, language is a way of conveying the raw anguish that is underneath the surface of all living, the violence that occurs behind closed doors, the way human beings claw for survival. These poems hardly float on an ocean, they are down there in the ocean’s depths where big fish wait for smaller ones and where life was born.
I was the first child to swim out to the raft
in the crazy spring water.
The rest watched me from shore, wet to their ankles.
The water wasn’t alive with leeches,
as it would be later, with heat
and us all growing out of our summer clothes.
Then the leeches would cling to your legs and back.
Up on the raft, you’d pick them off one by one,
knowing they’d be on you again and again
as you descended into the brackish water.
The air was tree sweet and in the shallows
rocks rose and pine needles floated.
The raft was makeshift and roped on oil drums.
We slipped underneath to talk secrets and peer at
people from below, their feet and their legs,
them padding around like so many penguins.
Later too, there would be frogs’ eggs
and frogs croaking all night.
But that morning, it was liquid cold and very quiet.
There was the ticking of my first waterproof watch.
There was the sun not yet fully risen.
There were shadows huddling in the ankles of trees.
There was the cemetery looming over the pond,
those old gravestones.
I wondered if bodies or souls slid down into the oozing water,
the black decay I swam in.
The water was dreadful, eyes staring up from the bottom.
But I was growing, finally and that winter
I’d begun to cycle with the moon
so the water seemed no more terrible than that.
The girls on the shore watched
as I walked out dripping and we moved into the cemetery,
our fingers feeling gravestones for names.
The water in my shoes, sour and compressed. As we walked,
the air grew violent. A new snow fall was surely coming
and the gravestones would vanish until another thaw.
Winter breaks and closes all through
New England spring
Wretched light coming in by the half open shutters.
Light saying get up. Daniel not moving.
Most days, Mother saying nothing.
Mouth full of cigarette, eyes full of alcohol,
Daniel’s truancy of little matter.
Finally enrolled him as home school.
Most days he stared at the Sunflowers
above the bed. Climbed on a step ladder to touch.
Sunlight bruising the color until it faded.
An invitation to Van Gogh’s country.
Early in the morning.
Running against the broad stairway.
Feels painfully slow. Rain against the windows.
Mother in a bathrobe with a coffee cup discovers the letter.
All running stops in the back of an ambulance.
Sirens and the woman’s screams. Sirens get shut off.
She moans on like a rooster
who goes on announcing morning at midday.
Keening and moaning. But the running feet
are arrested. Questions asked. Explanations demanded.
Daniel drew a sketch of depression for the doctor.
Himself. Down a long deep hole.
Slowly filled with dirt.
Arrow with little words. Hole full of dirt.
Water seeps into hole here.
No air. No shovel.
Daniel went home clutching a bottle of pills.
With these, the doctor told him,
You’ll be able to ignore the hole everybody falls into.
You’ll be able to imagine yourself breathing and walking.
You’ll walk around with a smile. Won’t feel
like a misfit. Just be like everybody else.
That’s what we want, don’t we?
Rats. Daniel said. Rats.
Now let’s stay rational, shall we?
Ah yes, Daniel said, Let’s call these moments when we feel
soil in our mouth, fantasy, the moments when we’re lumbering
along side by side with some cow with a fat lopsided smile
on our way to a burger and a sporting event,
let’s call that socializing, the good life.
The doctor’s smile plastered on like a clown’s said,
Eat sarcasm. But he patted Daniel gently and said,
It’s a long journey, but you’re in good company.
Daniel remembered the grand staircase he’d ascended
so recently. The pills will slow the running feet.
He wants to climb the stairs into Van Gogh’s Sunflowers,
the tips so thin and shaky.
He’ll no longer be a danger to himself,
the doctor told his mother. In the ambulance,
His mother’s face very close to his.
Looked yellow, the froth of her hair like petals.
For the last time, he let go of the edges.
Felt reality lift away like a loosening anchor chain.
His boat rocking gently on the shores of oblivion.
Surely all that was left wasn’t eating dirt.
Learning to enjoy the taste.
Van Gogh, he says to himself at night.
Hears the yellow sunflowers whispering.
I’m all right, he tells them.
They haven’t got me yet.
HOTEL ROOM, PATTERNS OF LIGHT
And now you whose face I have nearly forgotten
Remember how you said you would change the world?
Remember how you smoked weed and drank tea and told me
in one hotel room after another how glad you were
you knew your purpose?
Remember how you painted me a picture on birch bark,
a canoe paddling upstream carrying light in the stern?
As if one canoe could make a difference.
Remember how you went to Flagstaff to visit your mother?
When you came back you said, I slept with this hooker
over the holiday, Sweetness, had to see what it was like
to order a woman around.
I remember the pattern of light on the hallway floor
shadowed with these little slivers of darkness
that kept disappearing. I opened and closed my mouth
several times without speaking. Like a fish I was.
Before I left, I dropped the birch bark on the floor.
You left it there, sat rocking back and forth.
Don’t go, you said. But you looked all hollow to me.
I could see the door right through you.
Your voice sounded faraway, like a radio station
you can never tune in. I walked out into the cold air,
open sunlight. Last I heard you were in furniture sales.
Measuring success one couch at a time.
LILAC SEASON IN CATALINA
The man with the boat called Lilac Season fell flat on his face on the plank wood floor of a Catalina bar. His girlfriend leaned over, her breasts the first things he saw when he opened his eyes. Her friend, a topless dancer from Phoenix, apologized to the crowd for lack of class, said she had hoped to make a good impression on the good people of Catalina. Ms. Lilac Time cried out that she had no money and ordered Miss Topless to buy her another Buffalo Milk. The sunlight was heavy, the air full of ocean and boat gasoline. Ms. Lilac Time swigged her drink and ordered her husband a tall beer. Miss Topless held the old man, his hands travelling the decks, and Ms. Lilac Time was ready to fight for the old fellow with his red rimmed eyes. She had her silicon, her blond hair, her unravelling mind, and her full prescription of Prozac. Fuck you Miss Topless. I can smile too. Watch me smile. Watch me hold him on the dance floor. Watch me, with such grace I dance darling. At forty, can you do this? Can you hold a fucked-up man in your arms and smile and dance?
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“Drive out past the edge of town while twilight gathers. Don’t speed too fast past the house with the falling down porch, vines creeping under the eaves, shotgun blasted TV on the weedy front lawn. Dim your headlights and creep onto the driveway, ‘til you hear ice tinkling in the half-full glass, the laconic argument spilled from the kitchen. Come closer, sounds of sex from an upstairs window, whispered prayers from behind the bathroom door. If you stay past dark, you might hear weeping. In Kate Gale’s Mating Season, life is lived without the illusion of romance or sentiment, yet the urge for grace is an addiction still not kicked. Its language brings you into a world of fetid beauty. Its odors cling to you long after you put the book down.”—Terry Wolverton