Maybe you don’t go back

Each section is based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the day from July, 2021.

I. placcy, adj. (and n.)

You’ve avoided
the inside of grocery stores
for over a year.

A pickup order every week,
Fred Meyer insists on
using their own plastic bags.

Your bag of tote bags in the trunk
remains unused;
your stash of plastic bags under the sink
steadily grows.

II. pseudosopher, n.

Your brother’s podcast plays
as you drive up Meridian,
back to your apartment,
so you can know which propaganda
the algorithm served him this month —
which arguments to have and avoid
at the family reunion.

III. zizzy, adj.

The engine revs louder
as you climb the hill
passed the fairground.
As you pass
the assisted living facility
across the street
from the private Christian school,
the sky —
orange with wildfire ash —
comes into view.

IV. bearding, n.

Your brother’s voice
becomes a yell
as you turn
down the side road
to your apartment.

He yells about 
a fraudulent election
orchestrated the bankers
and Hollywood elite.

You know he
means Jewish people.

V. off time, n.

Your Absence has been Approved

This email is to notify you that your requested absence has been approved. The following are the details of the absence:

Leave type: Personal
Start date: Friday, August 13, 2021
End date: Monday, August 16, 2021
Confirmation #: 611391225

VI. baku, n.

You watch
as buildings shrink
under the wing of your plane.

You sigh
as the hypothetical
gender critical rant
by your aunt 
in your head
fades
under Antonioni’s "Malcomer"
as you secure earbuds
in your ears.

VII. lotophagous, adj.

You read
the same line in your book
four times
without realizing it.
The words unfocus into
ridges of a nurse log along
a trail you’re hiking
alone.
You swear
your partner was with you,
but they’re gone.
Their voice flows
through ponderosa pines;
you feel calmer.

VIII. goombay, n.

Awoken by the thumps of
wheels against runway.
Your heart carries the rhythm
as your book falls
off your lap
onto your bag between your feet.

IX. chicken rice, n.

Among the din of impatient passengers
waiting to leave,
you feel so alone.
You start to text your partner
to tell them you landed,
unsure whether they’re
sleeping or driving to work —
you feel like an inconvenience.
You wish they were here,
but remember
how they said
during their first post-reunion dinner
they couldn’t do it again
after last time.

X. muharram, n.

Your father meets you at baggage claim.
Happy to see you, but somewhat hurried,
he keeps staring
beyond you.
Following his gaze, you find
a hijabi woman
waiting for her luggage.
He remarks how
she’s “just been standing there,”
wonders how
“those people are even allowed on planes.”
You gather your thoughts enough to start
explaining how wrong and racist he’s being.
He waves his hand at you,
says, “Better safe than sorry.”

XI. oscines, n.

His truck is loud;
his radio is louder.
He attempts to yell over
the hair metal shaking the door frames
to ask you about your flight.
You struggle to focus
on anything.

XII. machinina, n.

When you arrive at home,
you ask for some time to unpack and nap —
the problem with red eye flights is
the sleep you get is always subpar.
Your bedroom is as it was
before you graduated.
Posters on the walls,
notebooks on your desk,
a stack of novels on the floor by your bed.
When you sit on the comforter,
you remember the nights you couldn’t sleep,
where you’d watch Red vs. Blue
until three in the morning.

XIII. owczarek, n.

Groggy, half-awake,
you hear paws pat at the door.
A head rush as you sit up.
You barely turn the knob
before the door flies open,
a white blur rushes in,
lunges at you, licks your face.
They somehow still remember you.

XIV. chinchy, adj.

You finally feel prepared for your family.
You leave your room,
walk down the hallway
toward the dining room.
Around the corner, just in earshot,
you hear your parents
tell your uncle
how much you all still owe
on your student loans.
He groans about how foolish they were
to pay someone
to poison your mind.

XV. queenborough mayor, n.

When you were younger,
they’d talk about how intelligent you were.
When you were younger,
they’d praise you for your computer skills.
When you were younger,
they talked about your bright future.
When you were younger,
they repeatedly said college was important.
When you were younger,
they cheered when you got accepted.
When you were younger,
they implored you to reconsider your major.

You walk tentatively into the dining room.

XVI. oppo, n.

The subject of their conversation
shifts abruptly
when as you enter the room.
They greet you, tease you for napping,
ask how you’ve been,
how and where your partner is.
You make up a story:
they couldn’t get off work to come.
Your family accepts this and
your other short responses
to their questions.

XVII. changkol, n.

Guilt
about lying to your family.
Guilt
about how easy it was.
Guilt
digs into your bone marrow.
You
feel seedlings sprout on your forearms.

XVIII. gentlefolk, n.

Quiet for the rest of the night.
Claim to be jetlagged,
but really
just lament the actual reunion tomorrow,
when your grandmother gets there.
What questions will she ask?
What lies will you have to tell her?

XIX. busybodyism, n.

Your extended family start arriving
throughout the morning —
a caravan of pickups and trailers.
As you help
set up the food table in the garage,
you are bombarded with questions
when each new group arrives.

XX. freemium, n.

You fill a kiddie pool with ice
for the various potato and macaroni salads
when the news breaks:
The Taliban have encircled Kabul
with little resistance;
the US sends troops
to evacuate citizens from the capital.
You hear it from your father
complaining about
ungrateful savages who can’t appreciate
all that the US has done
to give them democracy.

XXI. pythoness, n.

Your mother chimes in,
says she knew
it would be a disaster
after Biden “stole” the election.
“Incompetent,” she calls him.
A bang
as she open a bag of salt and vinegar chips.
“Senile bastard.”

XXII. dangdut, n.

It is constant —
dog whistles and foghorns,
racism and conspiracy theories
you had filtered from your Facebook feed.

It is overwhelming —
your heart rate increases 
with your internal scream.
You don’t know where to begin
or how.

It is bewildering —
you’ve read so much,
but your throat tightens.
You are in a cage.

XXIII. ophiolatry, n.

Your grandmother finally arrives
in a minivan driven by your brother.
He helps her get on her Rascal scooter,
then she slowly drives herself
by each picnic table in the yard,
excitedly greeting and hugging every person
she can reach.

You brace yourself for her proximity,
her embrace, her questions, her theories.

XXIV. tom tiddler’s ground, n.

You hear your name.
She exclaims it
as soon as she turns
away from your cousin’s table.
She brings up
how long it’s been since she’s seen you.
Her questions are rapid-fire:
How is school?
What can you do with that degree?
How’s your partner? Where are they?
Why aren’t you married?
When are you going to have kids already?

You struggle to catch your breath.

XXV. irritainment, n.

They seem so coordinated,
they must have spent weeks
planning, rehearsing
what to say
to upset you.
It must be funny
to see
you silently fume,
to see
if they can find your breaking point.

XXVI. spinback, n.

When your brother
starts explaining how
Jews corrupted the US military,
siphoned off billions from the budget,
and made us lose in Afghanistan,
you’re done.
A quick rush of air catches in your throat.
The dam’s concrete fissures.
The dregs at the bottom of the lake surface.

XXVII. antwacky, adj.

You see red.
Your brother is yelling,
but he sounds far away.
He’s saying something
about his First Amendment rights.
Now, your mother is telling you
to not ruin the reunion
by taking things too seriously.
Your uncle tells you
to stop forcing your beliefs on everyone.

XXVIII. genteelism, n.

Walls are rebuilt
one goosebump at a time.
You offer an empty apology,
excuse yourself,
head back to your room.
The closed door,
a silent monolith of judgement.
Its corona filled
with shadows and laughter of people
happy to be around one another,
probably happy to not be around you.

XXIX. bonny clabber, n.

Things get quiet as night falls.
Your room’s ceiling darkens
the longer you stare at it;
you stay wide awake.
The afternoon keeps replaying,
every comment echoes.
You miss your partner;
they’d know what to do or say.
You can’t stay here anymore.

XXX. cantopop, n.

Hastily pack your suitcase,
download Lyft,
request a ride to the airport.

Leave a note on the kitchen counter
apologizing for ruining the reunion
and leaving early.

To stay awake, your driver
plays loud, uptempo music
by an artist their dash calls Zpecial.

It’s enough to make you feel far away
from that house and those people.
You can breathe again.

XXXI. merdeka, n.

In your partner’s arms barely
through the threshold of your apartment.
Welcomed. Accepted. Loved. It’s all here.
Why did you ever leave?
Maybe you don’t go back.

Asleep in a Campfire

The sun is orange, the sky a textureless grey.
	Haze. It’s hazy.
	‘Haze’ is a kinder word than ‘smoke.’
		What does a deep breath feel like?
		When was the last time you had one?

The sun turns red, the sky a uniform pink.
	Tree line looks rubbed with a cheap eraser.
	Ash floats soft as snow.
		Will it bury you?
		Will you ever see light again?

All is greyscale.
	Lay awake. Toss when you finally fall asleep.
	You may not wake up.
		Will smoke consume you?
		Will embers swallow you whole?

There’s always a chance you’re wrong

Each section is based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the day from July, 2021.

I. hen scratch, n.

An omen,
they say,
crawling across the sky.

Hard rain,
thunder, lightning
will scar our cropland.

II. baksheesh, n., adj., and adv.

To stop the storm,
we offer a loaf of bread
wrapped in

a ceremonial woolen cloth
buried beneath
an ancient cedar’s roots.

III. zinger, n.

“You actually believe in
the burying bread thing?!”
my son laughs.

“You might as well ask them
to make Monday follow Tuesday!”
He shakes his head.

I sigh.
“You’ll understand when the rain calms
and the clouds burn away.”

IV. noctambulist, n.

Moon walks behind the layer of
blue-black clouds —
a bruise across the sky.

Stars appear, sprout rays toward the moon,
which set clouds ablaze —
a sheet of pale flame.

V. astrogator, n.

I point at the clear morning sky.
“You see! You see!
They took the offering”

My hands wave back and forth.
“They cleared the storm
with the moon’s fire!”

“Preposterous. There must be
a scientific explanation for all that,”
he dismissively shakes his head.

VI. seven-pennyworth, n.

“Look here, right here!
An explanation for the storm!”
He points to an article in the newspaper.

“An abnormal weather pattern
brought about by the changing climate.
It’s science, Dad.”

VII.  amazingness, n.

I scan the article.
“Reasonable, I’ll give you that,
but you cannot be certain.”

Pointing to the final paragraph,
“There’s always a chance you’re wrong.
It’s science, Son.”

I sip my coffee.
“The climate, the moon, or the stars —
The fact is: the storm is gone.”

VIII. dunger, n.

A quiet drive in my old truck,
a Ford whose red paint has faded
to the hue of a house finch’s breast.

Its motor’s hum,
the only sound
between my son and me.

IX. okada, n.

The truck hiccups,
comes to
a complete stop.

“Did the moon and stars
kill your truck too?”
He laughs, pulling out his phone.

I pinch my eyebrows.
“So what if they did?
We’re stuck either way.”

He calls a friend who lives nearby,
who can get him to the station
on their loud motorcycle.

X. krump, v.

I stay with the truck
to poke at it, see if I can
figure out what the problem is.

I turn on the stereo on the seat
which I bought after the built-in one broke
to find a radio station to help me think.

It catches when I try to start it up, and
I pop the hood to find
something moving around the engine.

XI. odditorium, n.

A bushy tail.
Eyes red as arterial blood.
Two long claws on each paw.

A claw cuts a cable.
A hiss through sharp teeth.
Two wings unfurl, carry it all away.

XII. seventhly, adv. and n.

Dave arrives to tow me home.
“What the hell happened?
Leo said your truck just died?”

I completely forgot the plan
we came up with when we saw
Leo only had enough service to text.

I can’t keep my voice down.
“I don’t know! Did you see that?!
Why are there so many omens lately?!

“What
is
happening?!”

XIII. ovulite, n.

Dave cannot draw
the connections himself,
so I help.

I talk about the storm, the stars,
the creature in the truck,
every weird occurrence around town,

how each element
fits together
like sedimentary rock.

XIV. dogleg, v.

Dave listens as he tows me home,
curves around the backroads,
nods politely as I talk.

XV. automorphism, n.

It can’t just be me.
Everyone must see it too;
it’s too obvious.

Dave gets it.
He doesn’t say so,
but he does.

XVI. staycation, n.

“I think the sun might be getting to you,”
Dave says as he maneuvers
my truck into the driveway.

“You might need to rest a while.”
His sentence punctuated
by the grip of the emergency brake.

XVII. papri, n.

Dave leaves. I pop the hood,
the knife of my leatherman
unsheathed, ready to strike.

Nothing emerges.
I find the broken cable,
unattach the loose halves.

I get Leo’s road bike from the garage,
ride it to the AutoZone by the strip mall.
Its thin wheels hum in the wind.

XVIII. mandela, n.

The stereo on the counter
blares some talk radio voice in the store;
its antenna pokes over the register.

I pace through the aisles ’til
I find a replacement cable,
then return to the counter.

Ger methodically rings me up, grumbles,
“Always namedropping insteada
doing anything to change anything.”

XIX. custard pie, n.

Ger holds the cable
in his callused hands.
“How this happen?”

I sigh,
“The truck died, and
a monster under the hood cut it.”

He looks at me, then at the cable,
raises an eyebrow, then guffaws.
“Musta been one scary squirrel, Harv!”

XX. butin, n.

Not wanting more ridicule,
I notice the month with no clouds,
but say nothing.

At least
the storm
didn’t destroy our crops.

XXI. buster suit, n.

Midafternoon.
Condensation pools around
a glass of water on the table.

In the waves above the road,
I see myself as a child
running in the soft rain of early fall.

XXII. star shot, n.

An omen, a message
from the stars, hanging from
the sitka spruce branches, I say.

A common mold, a fungus
without meaning or purpose,
Leo says, showing me a picture on his phone.

XXIII. olive branch, n.

Lift my cap, scratch my head,
“It wouldn’t hurt
to leave an offering just in case.”

“A loaf feeds us for a week.
We can’t afford to waste it.”
He rubs his eyes with both hands.

XXIV. rebetika, n.

Midnight —
when the moon and stars meet
to discuss their plans.

Midnight —
when crevices and faults open
to release demons to our realm.

Midnight —
when I take our last loaf of bread
to bury under the ancient cedar’s roots.

XXV. genteelness, n.

“Dad. What the hell?
Where’s the bread?”
Leo slams the cabinets shut.

I rub my shoulders.
“We can get by without it.
The offering had to be made.”

Before he speaks, I hold up a hand.
“Now hold on. Listen.
Rain will come and save us and our crops.”

XXVI. roman à clef, n.

I try to read the stars
as they appear just after dusk,
to see if they’ve listened.

Without a cipher,
I don’t recognize any of the names
they mutter to themselves.

XXVII. unplug, v.

Leo makes breakfast the next morning:
coffee, eggs and
toast.

I stare at the plate.
“Where did you get more bread?
I thought we couldn’t afford it.”

“I dug up that loaf you buried.
The soil kept it cool, the cloth kept it clean.”
He smiles at his own cleverness.

He has
no faith in the process,
no idea what he’s done.

XXVIII. Henatrice, n.

A hellish caw
echoes over our acreage,
shakes the window frames.

In the sky, a winged beast,
feathers and scales
and menace in its eyes.

It soars over the house
toward town,
death in its wake.

XXIX. ang moh, n. and adj.

Looking at the window,
blood drains from Leo’s face,
now pale as calla lilies.

“I- I don’t-
I don’t understand,”
he stammers, wide-eyed, mouth agape.

XXX. Parafango, n.

I get out of my seat.
“You took its offering.
Now we need to fix it.”

I gather all the pieces of the loaf,
blend a mixture of
wax from a prayer candle, ash from the wood stove.

After coating the bread in ashwax,
it’s wrapped in a woolen cloth,
reburied at the cedar.

Shielding my eyes
while running back to the house,
I hear its caw as it returns.

XXXI. Greeze, n.

“How did you know that would work?
It’s nonsensical,”
Leo scratches his head, as the beast flies away.

I take a deep breath.
“It’s drawn to the ash and wax,
something the elders said worked long ago.”

“That’s all superstition though!
That’s not scientific at all!”
He grips the hair above his temples.

I put a hand on his shoulder.
“Science isn’t an answer;
it’s a question.”

A Calm Lake

Stillness permeated from the lake.
Trees stood still, branches stoic in the wind.

Actually, it felt like wind died as it approached the lake,
or maybe
all the molecules found their spaces to be.

No evidence of animal life anywhere —
no tracks nor droppings or food.
Not even insect bites on leaves.

You’re sure the ecosystem ought to be suffering,
but it’s lush and green.

Ali Shuffle; Or, When We Met

At the edge of the forest,
I saw a madrone bent by ancient winds
and remembered the way you danced
at the festival by the palace
when we met.

I wondered what you were doing —
whether you were serving tourists
in your family’s tavern —
whether you missed me.

When we made camp that night,
the firelight shimmered on cedar trunks,
and I saw your hair 
reflecting in the sunset again.

When we threw a fir branch on 
as it got dark, its pines popped so quick—
like your feet when the beat picked up—
like my heart when I saw you.

This poem is part of a collection called Shards of Kardpaz, which are texts I’ve written for the world of the Dungeons & Dragons campaigns I run with students at my school.

Padkos; Or, You left so suddenly

I hope you’re alright.

You left so suddenly —
you needed to go somewhere to save something —
it’s what adventurers do.
I know that;
I’ve worked in this tavern my whole life.

I hope you’re not hurt.

News came in from a scout
that a chasm opened along the trail south,
where you said you were going.
They said they found a modest grave
a couple yards off the pathway near it.

Before you left, I got up early,
split our family’s culture, 
kneaded it into some dough, let it rise.
I sang songs to it
from my family —
stories of tavernkeeps from long past —
and from my favorite local bard
who can never settle on a name —
songs of decaying drow corpses
and sacrificing souls to Nerull —
before baking it in my family’s hearth
as old as the grove itself.

I snuck it into your pack before you woke up,
so that maybe when things got dire,
you might find a second wind
and be able to ride it back to me.

This poem is part of a collection called Shards of Kardpaz, which are texts I’ve written for the world of the Dungeons & Dragons campaigns I run with students at my school.

During a Heatwave

You step out into the yard,
feel the heat’s weight descend on you.
The grass is warm, dry between your toes.

You think about how the only way for an individual to escape
the effects of climate change is to add to it —
a never-ending cycle that you may not live to see humanity escape.

You check the weather app
every five minutes
to see if all of this is even real.

You try to read a book on the couch,
feel the heat seep in through a gap in the caulking of the window,
fight the temptation to sleep.

You try to think about cold things, because it worked
for Gus in that one episode of Recess you watched as a kid;
it does not work for you here.

You imagine what you would do if the power went out,
whether you would secure what cold you’ve collected inside, run away,
or just lie down and wait for the sun to consume you.

Ninety-three degrees in your apartment at 10 pm.
You scramble to turn on and adjust ever fan inside.
You cannot find any air.

at what cost

click enter on your search —
	an electric impulse through an algorithm spanning an incomprehensible index,
	maintained in server farms across the globe —

scroll through results —
	the first ones the most profitable for the engine’s parent company,
	the second ones bought by other companies —

on your phone —
	put together by child labor in Asia
	from materials mined by forced labor in Africa —

to view a content —
	for which the creator makes fractions of a cent,
	if they are compensated at all —

which will vanish into the ether —
	as soon as you close the tab
	or open a new one.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

A poem

by a white man in his thirties

with undiagnosed depression— undiagnosed because he’s afraid of seeing a therapist and discovering that problems are deeper, more destructive than he thinks they are—

who works through his feelings and insecurities in his writing; 

who buries himself in work because it’s the only coping mechanism he knows for quieting the spiral inside his head;

who puts the needs of other people ahead of himself, telling himself it’s the polite thing to do, when really he believes he is not worthy of the time, effort, and support everyone else is.

You’re Old Now

You realize it
when the belt you’ve worn for a decade breaks —
the buckle torn through the thin, separated layers.
You sigh,
lament the trip to Target you’ll have to make to buy a new one
before asking yourself why you need one anyway.

Because men wear belts? 
Because your eighth-grade history teacher humiliated one of your classmates who didn’t wear one?
Because you always have?

Have you just been stuck in a pattern— recessive, repetitive — this whole time?
Are you just a shipping container carried by someone else’s freight train?