True, Tara A. Elliott

Mark Terry, “Venus,” 4 x 2 x 1, terra cotta

 

True

All you have to do is write one true sentence.

–Ernest Hemingway

Another hurricane arrives today, and yet Hemingway’s cats
will remain prowling around, arching their backs against
the doorways, clawing after mice.
The house now silent and free of tourists, rests
with its shutters firmly closed, wrapped up as tightly as one
might hold a clenched fist.

You never would have evacuated. Even if the governor
demanded it; you would have stayed
sitting in your recliner, weather radio crackling
beside you. You’d read a novel
while keeping an eye on the storm. This would be after
the nailing of plywood upon plywood to the windows, the flinging
of outdoor furniture into the pool, the filling of each bathtub full to the rim—
cigarette, an endless red ember between your lips, coffee thrumming
through your veins. There was a careful madness
to the way you prepared. This was survival,
and you lived for it.

Like Hemingway, we once owned a six-toed cat—
you brought him home as a good luck charm, a scrapping tabby
with a black M tattooed between his grey ears, and feet that loomed
so large, it was as though he were wearing white boxing gloves.
At night we would hear him hissing and spitting
on the roof as he took on whatever creature
came across his path. In the morning, he would
leave gifts on the porch: the tuft of fur from a squirrel,
half a bird’s spidery rib cage, the small white stomach of a bunny.
It’s how he showed love.

I can’t remember how he died, but I do remember
how he once scratched my mother’s arm, and how that scratch
rose white and long, blood piercing the surface in a straight line,
so that it bled from wrist to elbow. As she whimpered, you snatched
that cat by the loose skin of his neck, slid
the sliding-glass door sideways so that it bounced backward on its track,
and threw him out into the night with such force
that he landed in the branches of a tree.
He didn’t come down for two days.

Hemingway wouldn’t have left either—
he would have lingered long over what he built,
cursing at the fucking storm. There at his house,
cemented to the concrete trim of the swimming pool
his first wife wanted, is a coin. The pool, which workers
pickaxed through dense coral to hollow out, took over two years
to finish, during which he reportedly threw the last of his money
down on the incomplete flagstone, and yelled that the bitch had spent
all he had, so she may as well take his last penny. We once camped
in the Keys, and when we left, we had to cut the straps
from our tent with a hatchet, because the stakes which took
hours to hammer in the same coral, simply wouldn’t let go.

My cousins told me that you once drove your Jag
all the way from New York City to Key West in less
than fifteen hours. You pissed out the window
so you wouldn’t have to stop. You were on leave.
You wanted a drink. In plain sight in Hemingway’s
garden is the urinal he carted home for blocks from Sloppy Joe’s,
where he said he pissed away his money—now a drinking
fountain for those six-toed cats.

Upstairs in one of his bedrooms,
a single ceramic statue of a cat rests on top of a chest of drawers,
watching everything, a gift from Picasso. It’s mane vibrantly flows
in signature black, yellow, and red. It’s nose, a simple rectangle.
It possesses a perfect heart painted on the left side of its chest.
And though it only displays three toes on each
of its front feet, and lives under a case of plexiglass,
it will weather this storm.

You each were larger than life,
and it’s already outlived you both.

___________________
Tara A. Elliott

 

Review by Deborah Bacharach

With the epigram “All you have to do is write one true sentence” Elliott sets out a hard mission for herself—the truth. And of course, we don’t mean just true like where Hemingway flung his last penny or whether the you in the poem had a Jag, but whether the poem rings emotionally true. For me it succeeds on both levels. I love being told a story in a poem, and in this one I got to learn all about Hemingway’s pool and how the you prepared for a hurricane. I believed every word. The Hemingway details I could look up (I did; they’re true), but it doesn’t matter whether the you actually flung the outdoor furniture into the pool, Elliott made me believe it. I also believed the reverence with which the speaker holds Hemingway and the you, and the edge of fear. I think this poem’s greatest strength is being able to hold these two opposing emotions with small moments. The cat flung into the tree is a painful truth that will stay with me.

 

Review by Paul Nelson

This fine poem stands out for me, not because I have overly special dictums, but because, in this issue of TCR, there are many first person poems.  In this day when self-identity is a factor in publication, Tara has written with imagery “that will do” to get us feeling and thinking because the poem is an experience, not about experience seen from first person perspective. Her poem allows us to roam within it. This is not to say that first person is always dangerous (there is always Whitman) as long as poets can overcome dominating “self” by finding imagery and analogy that works to get at what they can barely say. The way Simon Perchik’s genius works.  Maybe the best poems are so immediate that they are “without a past, without faces.”  Reviewers always seem to have to satisfy ego by finding something negative to say, and often enough that criticism is valuable, so I’ll risk that Tara might cut the last two lines because they do some unnecessary summing up. Better to leave the door open at the end of the former stanza?  Referring lightly back to the hurricane in the opening lines? Or is that too much “bracketing.” We all worry such, and maybe too much? Nah!  Difficulty creates tension and attention. Tara succeeds brilliantly, immersing us in cats and bathtubs and bad weather, rodent left-overs and cat-scratch. With an impeccable ear. We have to stay there, in her poem, and figure out what this all feels like and could possibly mean.

 


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