Back to Issue Thirty-Four

Rough Draft as Caeneus Abroad


“Grant I might not be a woman: you will have given me everything.” 
    —Caenis to Poseidon, Metamorphoses, Book XII

“He did not understand that there is as much liberty and latitude in the interpretation as in
the making...” 


I have this theory: everything I’ve written
is really an acquisition

of language  Or   acquisition
    of one language over another.

Like when I watch skiers laze down
Snoqualmie’s slope    like melt,

like Kees’s bathers
stuck in the wrong season. Or the way

a former student writes me to say 
she’s experienced a traumatic event

& my hands stiffen & begin to ache
on instinct. How do we make sense

of tragedy in writing she asks me 
over iced coffee, expecting

I know.        A steamer wand screams
into milk, a muffin cools on a blue plate—

    she was the first neighbor to respond 
to the father’s yell & she is shaken.

The real question:
what is the poetic voice in excess of?

    I am three thousand miles from the place

that made me. Now
in a place with a windy season,

a fire season,
brim of the high desert,

I can see scorched earth & whitecaps 
from the same June lookout. 

That which takes us captive
shapes us, too.  Out here

no Poseidon ever makes good: I'm refused

service at the brewery off 3rd
in my oversized clothes, an ex says

         how could you possibly
over FaceTime & I have both

a your kind & no kin
while missionaries find my doorstep

twice a week. Who is there, 
in this place, to grant me

release?    The dirtfloor arena waits 

below a bluff, empty
fifty weeks a year, and I watch the day sink, 

thinking, Ravisher, make me anew
in the shadow of high mountains, grant me

liminal-unthinkable, take this, 
all of this besides—

& that body, released
    dismissed       discarded    might

just become mine. 

            This same student emailed a while back 
& signed off in the real world I’d like to think

we would have been friends.
Naming’s a whole affair, you see—

it matters what you celebrate

in a thing, too. Name me a god
who hasn’t thundered.    That one may speak

and be heard becomes a demand 
    to speak and be heard.


My student tells me that a father
    backed over his daughter with his pickup.
She died, chest-split staining the grass black.

My student talks about the hush 
    that smothers a block

even weeks later.

The mind, tethered
            to the body, officiates
our myth-making. Surveillance buffs

mythos from physical container— 
    the body is nothing
but a marionette. In my head,

I’ve got hellhounds
    on a pack lead
strutting down Pine:

all transition is violence,
    erosion, & origin at once—two mirrors
facing out from opposite walls—cause 

            & invention.

I try to search up the name 
            of the child:

accident father death girl Seattle,
    pickup truck neighborhood accidental death
but come up empty. Name me

a god who hasn’t plundered. 

Tragedy & spectacle:
            these twin puncture wounds. 


Cast out, I begin each day with an invocation 
for what I’ve lost—passing:

Let my captors have the legend
if I may keep the sound which marks

my life like a bell.

The quarter I’d had this student
I shaved my head for the first time:

homemade undercut, radiation carryover. 
Two years since the scare of a tumor

in my chest, the body bears the mark 
of every way it’s been:

I look tough and tired. 
This tradition

of the Narcissian pool 
obligates a final reflection—

Chase down the name

so that we can have power over it,
draw the force of the thing right up to us—

& so I swallow hard when my student admits
she Googled my name, a name

which is no longer enough.    I cannot tell her 
that every Thursday for all those weeks,

classes let out to the sweep
of a weekend, I drove the canyon road south of campus

with my lights off, I took every rock-wall turn 
lastsecond swearing, sometimes,

            I never touched the wheel at all. 


Rebel Poseidon, defiler
of the genderedbody, wield 
your sharpest knives. Cut away 
& remake in the image
of that which you fear most. Avenge 
your boundary with doubt—
all those titles which never fit: 
necessity of reinvention    a hard year

fleeting emotional response    this container with its own rules. 
Name me a god who hasn’t pardoned

and cursed in the same breath. 
Every idea is a question, too,

& my top surgery is denied
a third time—too risky amid the body’s constant 
sway between well & ill
& I tell myself never mind. I tell myself

you are seeking comfort
in a body incapable of such things. Some days

I tell myself there is nothing
to be done. There is so much work

to becoming.


When the buzz grew back 
& decisions had to be made,

I tried boy. Hair pulled tight, smoothed 
to one side, I thought yes, body as

boy, which became boi, then then,
then was, then just maybe, then just vessel, then

nothing more, then just this once, then 

Thing is, we don’t have canyons where I’m from, 
just the junk of melt and migration:

passivity, inevitable landscapes. Appalachia 
is all slow creep. But ridges—

the exposed rock of a canyon wall 
is what remains

when a river has bored its way through. 
Name me a god without design:

I have learned to take, too.
My night drive carved its shape

from red desert and basalt,
riparian zone: the surrounding biome

of this foreign earth, a strip of habitat 
between the river & the land beyond.

An interplay,
a margin: Space to remake,

right and revise
the narrative—cell mutation, bones hollowed,

chest cracked open like a seed 
in surgical—I deadname

girl    belle      proper 
frailmeekthing    deadname

diagnosis    relapse and recur. Instead take up 
them, of consequence, reluctant then a made thing,

then threat, then body between.
Is the line not so very thin

between making again    & making new? 
Galvanized, then forged, rewarded

for a long and searching gaze.    Taking 
& taking up, armed—

I have acquired. Name me the god
who says Yes, and.

Worthy animal.
I have learned

all sacrament rests on the tongue.



Caeneus Struck by Side-Effects at a Late-Night 7-Eleven


Between retches, I study the frosted window to my right 
as if for the first time: etching

sallow, nicked and private. I’ll look anywhere 
but down. Here, on the tile floor of a pitstop,

I divide my loneliness into parts. Section off 
the havebeen agonies, the stillare

regrets, lace-delicate: just weeks into gestation, 
my radiated body rejects

what it might not bear. The neverwouldhavebeens, 
the probablyshouldn’ts. The nevertobeagains.

                                No, my body is not a vessel 
it is a canyon, particle ricochet rising to the edge,

DNA split, each invalid afternoon 
a mortal souvenir.    But why

attend this constant vigil
for myself?     No one says buck up

to the faithless. Anointed by bleach & a testosterone patch, 
I imagine a mammoth skull dug up

& drug through midtown. A crowd 
stares on as the crane hoists, the tusks

make miniatures of us all. Asphalt buckles
mile after mile, baring in noon light the century’s graves.

                                It’s not fair to say excising
when it may have been unearthing,

uncovering, discovering—strangeness
evolves by degrees:    I was dug up spitting

red clay, voice choked down
an octave from silt.    But I have proven,

time & again, unfit. Inviable. Each biopsy
sews up a question—this body not quite danger, not quite

deathtrap.    Is it that my body, if it could bear 
would bare a thing incomplete             as girl?

But uncertainty is not a menace
in itself. Over the sink I remind myself, take heart:

A window is not a mirror, and who am I, anyway,
to disrupt the wonder of this, all this        becoming?

These poems appear in Victoria C. Flanagan‘s Glossary of Unsaid Terms, winner of Beloit Poetry Journal‘s 2020 Chad Walsh Chapbook Prize. Flanagan earned a dual-genre MFA in poetry and creative nonfiction from Virginia Commonwealth University, and their writing has been awarded the Catherine and Joan Byrne Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, the 2018 Emerging Poets Prize from Palette Poetry, and a Sewanee Writers’ Conference scholarship, among other honors. Flanagan’s work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Boiler, New South, Crab Creek Review, Palette Poetry, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Blackbird, among other journals. A North Carolina native, they are the 2020-21 Ronald Wallace Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.

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