Laura Orem is our National Poetry Month Poet and she lives in the great state of Pennsylvania. She teaches at Goucher College in Baltimore where she's a major force in American letters - getting students to recognize commas as essential life elements. While wrestling grammar to the ground (and winning) Laura is a contributor to the BEST AMERICAN POETRY Column and is known for her expertise on popular culture: especially cinema, music, celebrity - well everything actually within the 20th and 21st century. Laura's poetry is powerful, intense, ambitious, complex and impeccably crafted; and, we are proud to present her work as it is amazingly both personal and universal. -- Grace Cavalieri
Laura Orem is a writer, artist, and teacher. She is a featured blogger at The Best American Poetry Blog and is managing editor of Toad Hall Press. Her poems and essays have appeared in many venues, both online and in print. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and teaches writing at Goucher College in Baltimore. She lives in Red Lion, PA.
"Do a Little, Make a Little..."
If we didn’t know who we were, we knew
we wanted to dance.
Here, a world made up
of light and color, music and movement,
a casino of the imagination where the wheel
always came up red. The songs were mindless
but pulsed a rhythm like sex, like breaking away
toward something else – we weren’t sure what,
but we ached to go there.
Such clichés now, four decades on,
but how we threw the artificial stars from mirrored globes
across our shoulders and boogied down on electric floors –
do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight.
We drank cheap lambrusco with 7-Up, sloe gin fizzes,
and gave the bartender our tiny purses to keep safe
while we prowled the room – girls made up
like baby drag queens, all hairspray, glitter, and slick
lipgloss, checking out boys who dripped fake gold chains
from their bare and skinny chests –
How many polyesters did you kill to make that suit?
The foxiest girls slipped outside
to sniff cocaine from tiny silver spoons
in the backseats of candy-colored muscle cars.
We coveted their feathered hair and perfect skin,
their grace on platform shoes, the way
the beautiful boys took their hands and
led them out the door.
When we hit the dance floor,
we sang along as if we knew real loss –
I will survive – as long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive –
waiting for that thing to happen
that would make all of this, whatever
it was, come true.
(This poem first appeared on The Best American Poetry Blog)
Cosmic Background Radiation
for Liam Rector
In the crackling murk of static it makes
itself heard – not an echo but
the thing: creation’s roar caroming
through the universe, the auditory everafter
of cosmic birth.
Do you know sound
and light can be distinguished
only by a length of wave,
the interpretive tools of an eye, an ear?
The big bang is no theory – it’s as real
as it sounds, the distant past impervious
to argument and reproach,
implacable as starlight.
And the heart? It receives
metaphor like a red antenna
and tries to decipher meaning in poetry,
tea-lights burning in fancy shoes,
a sad guitar.
(This poem first appeared in Atticus Review)
The summer has been hijacked –
not by a knife-wielding crazy who wants
to crash in a blaze of Jihadist glory,
but by ill-health, the disease
that gives license for lurid tales
of how grandmothers died of the same thing,
mothers, aunts, sisters who were only thirty and left
three small children.
Not that that will happen to you,
they are quick to say, as if that erases
the vivid detail of the kind of misery
you might face,
They Mean Well
a billboard on this road to hell
that you will do your best to bail off
long before it actually goes anywhere.
It could be worse.
It could be so much worse,
you repeat like a Buddhist koan.
You have that precious ticket so many don’t,
the way out, access
to the exit ramp that leads
back to what is normal. You look
at the ticket to remind yourself
by fall the treatments will be over,
that your life will again belong to you,
that you will live.
This is something.
No, it is everything,
but still this summer is a lost season,
the birdsong minored
by suffering and illness, even the colors
of the flowers slightly off, as if
they too are feeling it deep in their roots
where the damage is invisible and does not heal.
(This poem first appeared in Barefoot Review)
Remember, remember that boy
who could not love you
because you were not pretty,
whose terrible honesty you’ve carried
for thirty years, the truth you mined from him
like some strange gemstone made of your
own desperation that you still wear
around your neck.
And now this boy, your boy, who carefully wields
the electric razor until, stroke by stroke,
your head is shaven, austere as a nun’s,
beauty or lack of it as irrelevant as it is to God. This is
about power. This is about mess. This is what you do
to claim some purchase on this absurd slide
down a hill of talus looking for meaning
or Jesus or some way to make sense.
The boy reminds you as he shifts
to a disposable razor and, surgically careful,
scrapes away the tiniest stubble, black and gray
as a prophet’s beard. Your choice, he says. My choice,
like forcing truth from another boy thirty years ago.
See, says my son. Look. It’s not so bad.
You can stand it. You already have.
Stand it some more.
(This poem first appeared in Dos Passos Review)
First the earthquake tore
the Alaskan ground, spitting
out the shoreline six feet down in half
Next the great wave swept
the houses from stone to shingle,
drowning the mountains
a thousand feet up.
For a time landscape
was ocean floor.
Then the water rushed out
Turnagain Arm to the proper sea
leaving just one crippled tilting house
and a rim of skeleton pines,
their groping roots awash in salty poison.
When the Alutiiq saw the whale,
breeching in bone-cold water,
the door to understanding one word wide.
blubber blowhole baleen
fins tail the blood-red meat
sacred spirit of essential whale
In naming, perception, -
So we believe, and swallow
dictionaries whole like medicine,
scour the Web for definitions
and wait to know the thing, as if
vocabulary and syntax
forge keys into insight.
here I have words,
adenocarcinoma, carboplatin, taxotere
but this language, my language
neoplasm, taxol, neuroendocrine differentiation
curves its clinical tendrils round the frame
but cannot unlock the why, the what next, the will I
Like a stone into the sea
it disappears within the murky green
and finds the secret place
where terror sounds the astounding deep.
Two cuts to place the metal
disk, stitched down tight
into my breastbone. An opening,
a secret known only
to initiates, its password spell
a Latinate cantation
to ward off the evil eye.
Two snaky tongues feed
their venom through the larger vessels,
light chemical backfires
burning burning burning
no tidal wave can quench.
Two nurses, gowned and masked, float
near and then away, then near again
like blue paper lanterns on an unseen current.
The TV’s drone cannot drown out
the simplest of facts: You must
let in the beast to kill the beast.
My mouth corrodes like rusted metal.
Timor mortis conturbat me.
Don’t come in. Come in.
Even now there is no easy passage, no
fathoms-deep canal carved
to let the gravid oil tankers through.
Even now, the only way is over.
A thousand generations of footsteps
imprinted on this beach,
where the first Alutiiq
hauled ashore their boats of bark and skin,
strapped them tight across their shoulders
to navigate a route to
more distant water.
That night they watched
the sparking embers of their fire fall back
hissing in the frigid snowmelt.
They wondered when they would find
the sea, when what they carried
would carry them again.
(This poem first appeared in DMQ)
© Laura Orem, all rights reserved