Rebecca Lehmann is the author of the poetry collection Between the Crackups (Salt Publishing, 2011), which won the Salt Crashaw Prize. Her poems have been published in Tin House, The Gettysburg Review, The Iowa Review, and other journals. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a PhD from Florida State University, and has been awarded residencies at the Millay Colony for the Arts and the Vermont Studio Center. She lives in Wisconsin, USA, with her husband.
“Between the Crackups is a frolicking romp through the abandoned factories, overcrowded highways, and forgotten rural landscapes of America. This provocatively voiced book explores themes of sexuality, gender, class, pop-culture, and aesthetics. Some of these poems are sonnets, some are multi-voiced elegies, others are meditations on loss. From the balmy swamps of Florida, to the snowed-in forests of northern Wisconsin, and back again, Rebecca Lehmann captures a feeling of cultural unease and personal panic in tight, smartly worded poems that banter casually with the tropes, traditions, and authors of the Western poetic canon. In the book, the Old English poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’ is re-imagined as a two-part, modern-day fever dream, the classic pastoral landscape morphs into an apple orchard occupied by off-putting children, and the entire season of autumn goes missing. Part serious meditation and part carnival fun house, these poems will make the reader chortle, chuckle, snort, and maybe even blush.”
“These poems read like just-fashioned old-fashioned letters – not e-mails, not texts, not tweets – from one’s neglected, slightly pissed-off subterranean self. They are bold, agitated, self- and other-mocking, artfully raw, nonchalantly inventive, infused with necessity, and altogether stunning.”
– Mark Levine
“Rebecca Lehmann is an advance scout in the war between the heart and the intellect. The heart wants peace, but the mind wants to blow us all to kingdom come, because we are working in factories, we are lost in Detroit and Memphis, we are driving South. What can save us? she seems to be asking. Not God with his wafers and hymns. Not sex with its tricky ambushes. Not anger that is setting the world on fire. Maybe it’s love, she says, or maybe words with their euphoric brew. Or maybe not.”
– Barbara Hamby
Letters To A Shithead Friend
I broke a glass this morning, and it reminded me of you, sprawled across the kitchen tiles. I’ve been keeping this news for a year and a half—my neighbor rifles through my garbage cans at night, and I sleep with a rusted scissors beneath my pillow. You want the truth?—mostly I am writing angry poems, hoping your teeth will fall out.
Sky blue is a stupid color. I don’t care what burlesque girls have to do with ping-pong balls, you’re still a shithead. I put a magnet over your face on the picture of us at the Lion’s Hall dance on my fridge. Your attempt at communicating with me via crossword puzzle is lame. I’m sure you can think of something better than that, like skywriting or a parade of circus elephants.
I received the bouquet of balloons and have already popped them all. My long needle for sewing leather purses worked best for that. I draped the broken rubber parts over my houseplants and sang Happy Birthday to myself while chain smoking unfiltered cigarettes.
P.S. I can’t understand you when you talk with your fingers in your mouth.
The ten kittens did not impress. I let them loose around the neighborhood, and got complaints. Now I have to go to a neighborhood coalition meeting and explain the whole situation to them, about the failed skywriting, and what a total shithead you are, and how I Magic-Marker all over your letters and send them to the children’s wing of the local hospital to cheer up the cancer patients.
Please stop. I got sick off the cotton candy at the county fair I went to with the tickets you sent me. Let’s face the golden clothed trumpeters; you’re not going to win me over like this. I am tired of being angry. Not lions nor zebras nor cobras nor mongooses. No soda fountains. I can’t touch your new jacket—don’t mail it.
I have been in touch with an old lover. He has propositioned me. I don’t have an apology, he said. He said, I would have moved to Iowa with you if I had known about the tornados. He is driving a motorbike here posthaste. He said, Sidecar, tomato, bulgur-wheat, bumblebee. I’ve picked up aviator glasses and a leather dolly. Good luck finding me ocean-side.
Your perseverance is stupid, because I don’t like you anymore. I was just telling my dentist about the peppermints you left lining my porch railing. Luckily, they did not rot my teeth because I fed them to the local roosters. My old lover and I are building a boat to sail to Cuba. I am a tiny communist with sunburned shoulders. We are leaving our apologia under the southernmost boulder.
I have joined the ballet. Water from the secret piscina baptizes my esophagus. I am cleaner than you.
I can’t express how much anger I feel towards you. After my stag leaps through the open-air courtyard, my record-breaking pike jumps off the rusty box spring of the used bed my old lover bought me. Let alone the frustration for getting me kicked out of Cuba. Back off. I left you a roll of pennies to throw at the pigeons by the fountain, so go use them. My watercolor class meets in an hour and I don’t have time to stroll the boardwalk backwards with you.
P.S. My lazy eye will always watch the plum dish—don’t even think about it.
The Youngest Girls In Memphis
The youngest girls in Memphis
wear bridal veils to afternoon tea.
They wake up from naps with double
vision and balled feet. We call them
brats, and mean it. They are all
too bold. At night, they drive hail-
dented cars across the fog-laced
highways of southern Tennessee.
They gulp cans of cherry pop. They sing
Heartbreak Hotel in falsetto, and smoke
in the airport lounge, although
they are travelling nowhere, and fast.
One day we notice their boots
have cut into their toes. Their feet
are bleeding. One day we notice
their eyes losing pressure, the filmy
sheen of glaucoma dressing
their pupils. They hang garlands
above their doorways, mark
an X in ash on each of ours. But,
they are just girls, after all,
we shouldn’t expect too much.
Though their lips may purple
and peel, though their ears bleed
with the pain of the South,
though they are waxen
and unruly, still we want them
to sit at our breakfast nooks,
braiding one another’s hair. Still we
want them to sing in soft coos
to our infants. We never expect them
to erupt like angered volcanoes,
their vomit and loose teeth pooling
on our tabletops. This is a surprise
every time; this is the event horizon.
The Devil Is In Detroit
For instance, you fucked me with my feet
up by my head, but never gathered me to you.
Often, when you fucked me from behind,
you imagined I was a man. When I was on top
you imagined I was younger. You wanted my breasts
to be perkier. You wanted me to get rid of my moustache.
When you did fuck me and you were on top,
you imagined I was a doll, with ringlets in ribbons.
Put this pink smock on, you said once,
and, The Devil is in Detroit. He must have been
riding in a Cadillac. I’ll never forget
what your limp penis looked like in the bathtub,
a wet puppy nestled in your testicles. You didn’t
like disturbance. I put my feet in anyway.
You put your hands on my face,
like this, and they left a mark. You put
your hands above my heart, like this, and pushed,
1, 2, 3. I didn’t know what you thought
when you fucked me while I slept. I was
asleep then; I could only smell you.
If saffron could come like that, clinging tightly
to my buttocks, then surely you could too.
With your puffed up fuck fingers
you left red welts on my fanny,
flopped your penis back and forth before it hardened.
When you were fucking her, you were looking down
at her tiny teacups jiggling up and sideways.
You slapped her forehead. You slapped her throat.
The birds outside the windows chirped,
the curtains blew across your back.
You could hear me moving through the floor.
You called her Bully, pushed in harder.
Between the crackups, a light came,
strong enough to cut the blight.
I had my legs open, like I was.
The air filled, the smell of hot plastic cups
and sickbed. And tissue. And if you could
have touched me there, you did.
I never told anyone the bruise you made,
but wished I had a bone to break against the wood.
Ten Bells Tell
Visions of lovebirds and prickled pears,
an inability to spell or tell
time, a heightened sense of hearing,
as in to hear the little tweets
upon the grates.
Had they but singsong
equal to their greeting.
To hear ten bells tells
we are falling, the bruise
on the leg like an angered owl.
The fingers peeling back,
weird human tricks, in the palm
a scar the shape of a supernova.
A pocketknife cut through.
Inability to hold one’s head up.
To hear ten bells tells
we are not dying after all.
We may believe we are.
One’s hands like jackrabbits
ready to hop and bite
the nipples of one’s lover.
One’s head in silhouette.
In the maelstrom. And all the birds.
To hear the tin cups.
of the bells, bells, bells.
Not signaling apocalypse.
To scar the face. An inability
to hold one’s head at bay.
On the offensive, the pungent
smell of a body in a southern summer.
The odor like rotting cacti
and cat piss. The weather a crash.
The face in place. To cut
the hands. To pull the skin
back, spit in the wound.
Inability to bifurcate during times
of stress and resolute paranoia.
Inability to stay within one’s shoes.
Cover up the face with a scarf
like winter. The stink. Inability,
the hard-song. The coming together.
The equation of our lives is expressed
as a measure of something—
we just can’t remember what.
Perhaps it is something easy,
like sleep or joy. The peeling
laminate of the shower wall
would not qualify. Or maybe it would,
if, underneath the cheap plastic,
between the mold-bloated studs,
there were something truly beautiful.
Maybe there’s a basket of kittens,
certainly not dead and maggot ridden—
maybe an old library book, a smudged
due-date stamped in red on the ivory card
tucked inside its paper pocket.
The morning that I found out
the man I’d once wanted to marry
was marrying someone else was like
a sheet of black construction paper.
I thought about the bigness of the universe,
about the astronomy professor I had
in college who presented the class
with an impossible equation
to track the speed of a star
exponentially moving away from us
in the expanding ether of space
(imagine the universe like plum pudding,
the textbook read, in which the plums
represent stars; as the pudding bakes,
the plums move farther
and farther away from each other).
I couldn’t solve the problem,
only made it as far as 1/∞=0.
The terror that brought. Later,
that night, I woke from a dream
I’d had of a snarling monster
nesting in my oven, its matted fur
spotted with light and ice, its snaggle-
tooth a mess of old skulls, forced together.
The History of Yesterday
Origins have no location in this history:
a story of who did what, and when, and why.
The impetus could be orange blossoms, or cockatiels,
or a short story set in Texas; it doesn’t matter.
All we have are fragments—the aluminium
melted under friction, and the paint, rust resistant,
left a burgundy splatter. A man named
one poem Yesterday, and one Pussy Juice.
School children fretted over spelling rules.
The zippers on their backpacks and jackets
broke as simultaneously as destructive orgasms.
Sometimes we remember the loud scream,
sometimes the loud scream remembers us.
Sometimes the sky is a dirty slut, sucking off the sun.
from Between the Crackups (Salt Publishing, 2011).
Order Between the Crackups here, here or here.
Visit Rebecca’s website.