Michael Mlekoday

Runner-Up, 2014 Greg Grummer Poetry Award

Jaime Bennati
Jaime Bennati

 

The last time my brother
had to bind his breasts,
he and his girl waded out

 

into the ocean. They unwrapped
his binder and let it drift off
like exhaust, like old skin.

 

The first time he was
finally himself, the ocean
had carried away the remainder.

 

:::

 

When the ocean comes to me
in the form of a pretty girl
asking if I have a cup of sugar,

 

even if nobody does that anymore,
my hips will say yes for me.
When the ocean comes to me,

 

promising a ride home from the bar,
biting his bottom lip, pierced nose
and smelling of vanilla, I will imagine

 

looking up at him from the hard cradle
of my knees in the parking lot out back.
When the ocean returns to me

 

as a blue jay. When the ocean clothes
me, closes its eyes as I enter it gentle
and temporary. When the ocean

 

settles on a form, it unsettles,
the moon looking on from above
like a spotlight in drag.

 

:::

 

When my brother became
my brother, he showed me
his scars, stretching across

 

his ribs like shoreline.
The ocean did this, he said,
my body is proof of its magic.

 

He went down and rose up
new, his skin woven back
together, his body lighter

 

but the opposite of a ghost’s.
I touched my brother’s scars
and I thought I was ready.

 

:::

 

When the ocean hands me my first
vinyl, my first black eye, first shot
of vodka at fourteen, first paycheck.

 

When the ocean is a mirror in the dark.
When the ocean drops me to my knees,
changes my name. When the ocean

 

hands me my first pearl, my first
breakbeat nativity, first dusted-off
dress, first wind, first body, when.

 

:::

 

I found my body like a secret
beach. I found my body not my own,
arising from earth and returning

 

to it, cells cast off and regenerated
daily, the human I see in the mirror
really mostly non-human, mostly

 

microbe and bacteria, mostly
groove and appetite, landscape
given freely and reshaped at will,

 

this muscle and curve and salt
renewed, this sex, too, renewed,
this dark and dainty anchor.

 

from I Think I’m Almost Ready to See the Ocean

The glaciers are melting,
I read. If there is one thing bigger
and more capable of destruction

 

than humanity, it’s the ocean,
and in our dumb greed we’ve simply
managed to add to its power.

 

:::

 

There was a season I never undressed
save for the occasional shower.
I didn’t look in the mirror. I had

 

no partner to reveal my skin to
and I was glad. It wasn’t anorexia,
though I did want my body to melt away

 

and become something less ugly,
maybe the way an apparition
evaporates without dying.

 

:::

 

The North Pole is now a lake, I read,
and for a moment I forget this
is a bad thing. Where I’m from,

 

the lake is the closest thing we have
to a Christ, its seasonal transubstantiation
from ice to water and back again.

 

The lake could walk on itself if it wanted,
could fish itself empty, could blind a policeman
on his way to arrest dissenters, though

 

only the ocean could drop him
to his knees and change his name,
I’ll bet. The wet, bewildering voices

 

that were here before us will be here
after us, lonely in fever dream,
thrumming with hunger.

 

:::

 

First came El Niño, then superstorms,
then megastorms. The number
of billion-dollar weather disasters

 

rises and rises, the planet sick or rebel,
and I remember thinking the fat globe
of my heart had gone haywire

 

when I looked in the mirror and studied
stretch marks and scars, moles
and the general degradation of skin.

 

:::

 

As seawater temperatures continue to rise,
marine species need more and more food
to survive. In the next century, scientists predict,

 

the collective mass of sea creatures who die
from climate change will outweigh every person
on earth combined. A pound of fish for a pound

 

of flesh. A pound of fish for emissions,
for air conditioning and bliss, for factories
sweating into the sky like their workers.

 

:::

 

When I wanted my body
to melt away, it wouldn’t.
I kept eating. Later, I loved it

 

again, dirt and fat, ache and rattle,
even in its frailty, its nakedness,
its dumb ability to survive even me.

 

I took food and prayers and partners
into my mouth and grew with them all,
I swallowed even my own blood.

 

from I Think I’m Almost Ready to See the Ocean

What do you say at your coming out party
if your gender is endless and flowing,
jewel-crested and metaphor for everything?

 

Maybe I’m just like my father. Maybe I’m
just like my mother. Maybe I’m so slick
even wetness can’t weigh me down,

 

maybe I burn in Cleveland, maybe
my mouth unfolds as I am pulled
religiously south, as I spill everlasting,

 

maybe I am emerald black sapphire
at the same time, maybe the sound
of me haunts the landlocked.

 

What do you say when everything in you
is a mirror held to the horizons, when
you glitter in all directions at once?

 

:::

 

Purple the skyline. Purple the dirt
that birthed this body. Learn
to curve and curse with eyeliner,

 

to paint the body a holy icon
of mess and sweat, a fresh fresco
in post-hallelujah brushstrokes.

 

Purple every rigid edge until our bodies
and countries and names are smudged
over and across and into each other.

 

:::

 

Once I was a man
and now I am a body.
Once I was a man

 

and now I am American
landscape, American
as Prince, Biggie, and

 

the Blessed Virgin,
American as my
Polish great-grandmother.

 

Once I was a man
and now I am
this intersection

 

of the laws of physics
and music and the Midwest,
degradation and renewal.

 

:::

 

I am at home in the in-between,
the both-at-once, the border
effacing itself under foot, the shoreline’s

 

morphology, erosion and accretion, trans-
formation, fluidity, the dance’s graceful flux,
the drum loop’s circle from first to fourth

 

and back again. Democracy of bodies,
democracy of signs. I am hungry for
everything together. I am pure current.

 

:::

 

The only funeral
we need here is
for the straight

 

lines that box us
in, that keep us
landlocked.

 

The body
crosses over
and is new again.

 

This shape I make
in the water
is only temporary.

 

Michael Mlekoday is the author of The Dead Eat Everything (Kent State University Press, 2014). Mlekoday is a National Poetry Slam Champion, serves as Editor of Button Poetry / Exploding Pinecone Press, and has recent work published in Ploughshares, The Cincinnati Review, The Greensboro Review, Verse Daily, and other venues.

You’ll find biographies for all contributors to Phoebe 43.2 here. 

from I Think I’m Almost Ready to See the Ocean
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