American Familiar

You don’t think you know me, but you do.

I’m the one who threw bedclothes to branches,
suckled the catbird with the space between my fingers.

You think that black dog outside your door
is a pillar, one leg of your table of grief.

I crack a window in my eye, make the milky trees whip like panic.

It’s not possible to hate everything.

See how the sheets hang from the limbs like a girl’s cartwheel,
like a wrecked ship?

For years your past slept. You dragged it behind you
like wet firewood. But I lived on, chiggering in your dead skin.

It’s the curse of the familiar: everything you’ve cast off,
I’ve become. I rolled the layers of your skirt back and left

your legs kicking on the ottoman. Now the house can barely contain you.

At night you’ll drink in rooms, listening for fingers digging, a beginning.
A sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before, ringing

in your own voice. The place where the bird first lighted
tasting like horsehair, spice, broken stems.

Stump Speech

Never wear rat skin. Don’t point a mirror at the sun.
If you lose a tooth, crush it and throw it into the sky.
Never call mice or snakes by their names.

If a bear comes into your house in the morning, feed it milk.
To remove poison, drink from the egg of a vulture.

It’s true I slept with Abe Lincoln.
I now know everything there is to know about this country.
Believe me, I carry a tapeworm for you the size of Kentucky.

When I walk up hill, I carry an arrow. If I can’t
walk, I put a few donkey hairs in my shoe.

That black stone in my path is the iron house of hell.
I have always been kind to the black dog, whom I resemble more each day.

When I hear a cuckoo, I pray for happiness.
When my donkey brays, I say “I believe you,” three times.

This consoles the donkey.
When chased by wolves, I tie my shoes behind me.

If you want to find treasure at the end of the rainbow, cover yourself
in shit and ride a shit-covered dog.

You should offer, they say, your Cuisinart body each night to all beings.
I promise to give up this gigantic barge of sadness.

I will keep your secret my entire life.

Sarah Messer is the author of Bandit Letters (poems) and Red House (hybrid memoir/history). She teaches in the MFA program at UNC-Wilmington and is at work on a novel and another book of poems.

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