Terry Ann Thaxton’s The Terrible Wife

© Image by Don Stap

© Image by Don Stap

 
 
 
Terry Ann Thaxton is the author of Getaway Girl and The Terrible Wife, both from Salt. Her book Creative Writing in the Community: A Guide, due out in October 2013 from Bloomsbury, is a result of more than a decade of work, training college students to provide creative writing opportunities to community members who might not have the means to attend fee-based classes. She and her students have worked with alternative populations throughout Florida, including homeless shelters, nursing homes, treatment facilities, public schools, prisons, and domestic violence shelters. She is associate professor of English at the University of Central Florida.
 

Her poetry and prose have been published in numerous journals such as Rattle, The Missouri Review, Connecticut Review, Comstock Review, Hayden’s Ferry, West Branch, Tampa Review, Cimarron Review, Main Street Rag, Cold Mountain Review, Teaching Artist Journal, Connotation Press Online Artifact, and others.
 
 
 

The Terrible Wife 
 
 
 
The Terrible Wife, in this new collection of poems by Terry Ann Thaxton, has married four times and imagined marriages to a soap opera star, her brother-in-law, and any man who will give her a ride because she “wanted to be/ part of a wall of women dancing/ water falling from the sky or a fountain”. Taking cues from her own mother — who is, to this troubled soul — “an argument against becoming a wife” — she sets out to find meaning: “We march out into the trees/ or fly off our balconies looking for a man,/ any man”. But still she judges herself through the lens of the men she clings to for comfort like “a woodpecker … clings to [a] hollow/ tree”. Thaxton does not find easy solace for her terrible wife, but instead lets her confusion and weaknesses clink and jangle like wind chimes in an approaching storm. This broken resonance with its disarming images and unpredictable movements is given to us in a voice devoid of self-consciousness and posturing. Thaxton’s poems are as compelling as a lifetime of snapshots spilled on the floor, discovered in a box that, moments ago, one didn’t know existed.”
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
“Terry Ann Thaxton’s new poems are uncompromisingly tough self-reckonings, unsentimental but always vulnerable examinations of how the past invariably haunts us. They are about what Richard Ellman labels the “controlled seething” from which enduring art must derive. They are also marvelously inventive in their ability to let the memories of Eros morph into occasions for exorcism, and to allow straightforward narrative to suddenly swerve toward the surreal. In other words, these are the durable and always impassioned poems of a grown woman — and the sort of poetry that American verse very much needs these days.”
 
— David Wojahn
  
 
 
“Tangled in lush Florida landscapes and laced with birdsong, Terry Ann Thaxton’s rich new book is as toughly accepting as her own small town protagonist girls, who are unforgettably beaten, duped and finally opened into a womanhood that makes them too smart, too sad, and too dangerous for any one man or lifetime.”
 
— Terri Witek
 
 
 
“Terry Ann Thaxton’s new poems are filled with birds and silence … she is open with herself, even about the hard things … She shows us how it went, from young fantasy to brutality to more fantasy to betrayal (sometimes her own) followed by near-despair. Finally, she settles into a quiet joy which she proceeds to undermine because she is wise enough to know that everything, even that, changes … Thaxton says that what we think about all this is up to us, but we know what’s true. We hold the tenderness to our chests and take it home.”

— Lola Haskins
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
The Preacher’s Wife
 
 
He is kind. They have been married for five years,
but she no longer wants
to be saved. His smile keeps telling her he’s
 
comforting the dead, but really he’s watching
skirts for hire in dark rooms,
hung in all their glory, while she totes a child
 
through rhymes. This wins her a riot
and the water shivers
away from this life that she thought she wanted.
 
She lets her hair stand on end, then her dress stinks.
She and the crows in the yard scheme,
but suddenly, the preacher ends it all
 
by whining. Rumor insists she have a knife
in her hand, instead she finds a gift:
warblers swerving in tribes, and when she opens
 
their bedroom door an old wound
opens. The birds wait outside.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
The Night I Married Jasper Jax
 
“And he took a woman with him. It’s so damn typical.”
          — Jasper Jax, on the American soap opera General Hospital
 
 
We had to switch hotel rooms, but Jax had already unbuttoned
his shirt, revealed his soap opera body. Sure his hair
was a mess, but at the wedding,
 
I was in my gown, a few ruffles,
and even though I’d bought it at Wal-mart
it stood out. Someone chanted African songs
from down the unseen hallway
and a woman danced instead of a flower girl.
 
The only part I did not like was the poster presentation
of my previous four marriages. I didn’t want everyone to see
how cute my first husband was,
how stupid I’d been with husband number 2,
how husband number 3 had grown fat. And where was
husband number 4? Why didn’t he get
 
a poster? The poster for husband number 1
included a video, and someone at the wedding had seen
him recently. Told me he’d widened in his age. Good,
I thought. Someone that cute should get fat.
 
And then our hotel room was a public place,
the wedding guests wanted to see our bed, which
is when they applauded. It took a while to convince
them that the reception was somewhere else
 
down a long road. My sister drove me and a few guests
through mountains. She kept swerving too far
off the side. Someone next to me, not Jax
kept yelling at her to slow down, to stay on the road.
“This works,” she kept repeating. “This works.”
 
Last thing I remember was a big turn in the road,
Jax back there in another car, wondering where
his new bride was headed, and the road, endless,
all of my husbands far, far behind.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
The Terrible Wife
 
 
Something is dragging me
into a room, screened in — a dream
in which I am about to have
an affair. I run my fingers
through the other man’s hair while
my husband circles
the building, and I realize
we’re in a picnic shelter,
like the one my family
went to when I was
a girl, at the state park, where
a friend of mine jumped
into the pond at dusk and
was killed by an alligator.
 
The room laughs, and I kneel
in the corner, curl into a ball,
like a hog-nose snake and hope
my husband will not
see me. He keeps his face
turned away
from the screen, as if
he is refusing to return
phone calls of long lost
friends. I stay in
the corner until the
man I’m with is handed
a note along with a flashlight,
the message: shine the flashlight
in the corner so you can see
who’s there, and it’s me,
of course, still huddled there
as if I am mud
tracked in on the back
porch, but it’s more
like I’m standing
naked in a field
of pond apple. I go back
to rubbing the man’s temples,
and we both realize there are school
projects to be completed
by morning, and he helps
my brother while I help my son,
and then I am in my car
but I can’t quite
catch the bullfrog that jumped in
beside me, so I go back
inside. I want to
stay here. I know the note
and flashlight were from
my husband who, now, obviously
knows about the affair, and I
think I should wake up,
end this thing, but right now
I want to be terrible.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Haircut
 
 
Once when my husband left town for a week
I adopted a dog. She followed me
around the house, and even though
it wasn’t a child I’d picked out
and taken to the store where I bought new toys, food,
and a bed; even though it wasn’t a child who rode
in the back seat of my car, we returned her.
We had not discussed adopting a dog.
Instead, we signed papers, agreeing we’d never call to ask
whether the dog was adopted again or euthanized.
Weeks later when I left town for a business trip,
I returned home with a new haircut.
In the distance, the Indian Temple’s chants
steamed through the trees, over saw palmettos,
across the dirt roads toward our barren house.
Even after my husband assured me
over and over that my hair was wickedly smart,
I dreamed I brought home two more dogs, hid them
from him, and an elephant — easier to hide,
only its gray trunk a problem. When I was a girl,
my cousin and I cut each other’s hair.
We wanted “Shag” cuts, layers across the back. It was the
mid-’70s, cutting hair seemed easy enough. Two girls
with scissors. Lines stacked in our hair
like on pieces of notebook paper, lines so straight
you could write on them. The teacher
at the elementary school where I volunteer says
with my new haircut I look like Tina Turner,
cropped with highlights, and I dance for her:
“What’s love got to do with it?” I don’t tell her
what Tina and I share — how my first husband
held a gun to my head, how he demanded
we have children and then beat one of them out
of me. Instead the teacher and I laugh,
and the children tumble into the room
from lunch behind my back — their sweet dark heads
covered with cornrows, Zulu knots, braids,
locks, Bantus, extensions, finger waves, twists,
and weaves. They run their fingers through my
stringy never-stays-where-I-put-it hair.
These children are all hugs and pouts
and pictures they draw of me —
sometimes, in their drawings, my hair is yellow,
sometimes red, sometimes curly, sometimes
long. I’m there to write
with them. We are strangers, and soon
their stories become letters on the page,
and nothing else in me needs to be filled.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Burden of Memory
 
 
One day you will lie on a boardwalk over marsh
 
you will hear a spring of blue-winged teal
rise from water like leaves of corn stalks
touching the wind.
 
The birds will tell you how much
they have lost in this life:
we can touch clouds
but, destined to the earth,
we cannot go beyond the sky
even on a clear day
 
you will remember that as a child
you lay in cornfields looking up, needing birds.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Displaced Housewife
 
          after Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique
 
 
 

1.     Displacement
 
 
The amount of water a vessel displaces
expressed in displacement tons. But usually it is merely
the act of displacing, the state of being displaced,
or the amount or degree to which something
is displaced, as in, I have displaced my feet,
lost ground, can’t find footing.
 
Physics was the first known use, in the 1600s
of displacement, and it was displacing space of one mass
by another, as in a housewife of the 1950s or 1960s exiled,
voluntarily or forced, and then she replaced her mass of a husband
with the mass of a typewriter or an order pad.
 
Compare Archimedes’ principle which is, instead,
and thankfully came earlier — 287-212 B.C., the law
that a body immersed in a fluid is buoyed up
by a buoyant force equal to the weight
of the fluid missing in the body.
 
And now, displacement is the linear or angular distance
in a given direction between a body
or point and a reference position. Bodies floating
in a single house or in separate houses would collide
if they were not displaced. Now we have distance,
the distance of an oscillating body
from its central position or point of equilibrium
at any given moment. Instead of blades on a ceiling fan
it could be four or five human bodies oscillating
from the central motor, where humming drives
all of us mad. A husband, a wife, three kids.
Like machinery, like clockwork, but specifically automotive,
displacement is the volume of the space through which
a piston travels during a single stroke in an engine
or pump. It is the total volume of the space traversed
by all the pistons, all the children sure they’ve
created the displacement.
 
 
 
2.     Exile
 
 
Prolonged separation from one’s country or home
as by stress or circumstances: like wartime or a burning house
or anyone separated from his country or home voluntarily
by stress of circumstances. Work can be exile.
Expulsion from one’s native land by authoritative decree
a woman who’s burnt the toast too many times
or not set the plates out by the time her husband
returns from his exile of drinking at the bar with the boys.
To live in exile. A person banished from her native land:
disagreements exiled her from her family. To expel
or banish from her home/family.
 
The French, in 1300, created essilier — to drive away, as a wife
who drives away her husband if she does not
spread herself open for him. Sometimes she wanders off
voluntarily, roaming about, and in her own
way finds a place to land, or more like the Ancient Greeks
who created exile from solum, meaning soil, meaning where I
decide to put my own foot, how a woman walks out
of her own house, finds a different path, her own displaced soil.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
The Empty Trail
 
 
The empty trail is an opened scarf
that carries me into the oak shadows
until the day is lost, and I am lingering
in a bed of straw and leaves.
 
At home, my housedress became a floating umbrella,
a memory from the heavy cart of night,
but here summer brushes my face.
 
I’d trade all of my wedding rings
for weeds and dirt and swamp.
 
I do not call on anyone’s worn hands to hold me up.
I have no one to follow into the air.
Here, light opens upon vines.
 
Hunger is one swoop, an osprey pounding water,
and I keep walking down the long thread of the river
toward the grass of forgiveness.
 
 
 
 
from The Terrible Wife (Salt Publishing, 2013).
 
Order The Terrible Wife here, here or here.
 
Visit Terry’s website.
 
Read eight poems from Getaway Girl (Salt Publishing, 2011).
 
 
 
*
 
 
 

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