ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

A journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998.


"Slapping the Hide of the Horse" with other poems by Janet Buck


Slapping the Hide of the Horse

I'm pondering the hottest burner on the stove:
to stay alive or give it up.
Five long years of surgeries,
a shoulder locked they cannot fix,
a back that's curved in crescent moons,
glaucoma stealing telescopes of tired eyes,
I wish my body off this earth.
Yet there it stays, a limping mare,
chewing hay inside a barn.

Whatever strikes for tragedy,
family scatters in the hills as deer
that sense a forest fire before it starts.
Touching me might spread the flames,
sear their rosy fingertips.
Maybe I drove them away from the wreck.
I sometimes picture easy outs:
I'll pummel bottles of pills,
mix them with ice-cream,
shovel it down quickly enough
to leave the dinner table for good.

A private, petty Armageddon rules my day.
Self-loathing sets in custard molds.
On better days, my other side's a raging itch;
I'm scratching hard at what is left,
knowing well a drug dump's not
a postcard from a clean resort.
A wheelchair sits in our garage:
I stare it down, grab a roll of paper towels,
kick the tires, clutch a rail, climb the steps,
firmly slap the hide of the horse.



Wet Matchsticks

I had the celebration planned,
but dinner with his favorite crêpes
would sit above an empty chair.
I know he was old,
but love is not a numbers game.
A perfect dad's the tallest of all irises;
clipping the stem ruins the garden for good.

His date of birth, his date of death
hit all in the same week of the year.
The roulette wheel was stuck on black
when I was stupidly betting on red.
Near the end, his palms grew into petal silk,
dark blue veins speaking of the twilight hour
he let me touch to comfort him.
The more I write, the more I paddle 'cross a lake
in circles with a single oar.
White-out never clings to pages soaked in grief.

November comes around again.
Ahead of time, the nightmares
block all hope of sleep.
You just can't waltz when the music stops.
His suffering is over now,
but mine is still in childbirth.
Every effort to forget--
wet matchsticks striking nothing close
to sparks of merciful light.
Moving on is reading a newspaper in the dark.
I wonder why I even try.
My sister shared the fine antiques.
I kept his crystal paperweight
because his prints were on that glass.



Where Butterflies Sleep

I've been clicking swords with this demon
for so many years that I doubt a god
could count the days.
But drugs are just a pillow pressed
against my face, blocking crucial oxygen.
Pain still rages in my joints,
a fire without a garden hose.
After every surgery, I am the salmon
swimming upstream, its tail cut,
yet pushing on against the water's stronger force.

No one judges bottles of pills
on a stand of battered wood
poised beside my bed,
except for me who's craving grace,
complete control, some skater on Olympic ice.
People treat me tenderly —as edges of old photographs
that tear if you pull at the glue.
I wish I could do the same but I can't.

In the end, we all become
white dandruff falling from a scalp,
yet I am not at peace with flakes that aren't
as pretty as a winter snow.
The waiting room is packed again;
a dozen people offer me a padded chair.
Stand and pace is all I really understand—
fidget 'til your fingers freeze—
so I decline their kindnesses.
I'm grateful yet resistant
as a puppy learning a leash.

I long to go where butterflies sleep,
then flutter in clean morning air.



Hollow Hugs

"You will address her as Mother, obey her words."
I shifted a little in the nest, but happily grew
to follow her around the house, puppy style,
trying to help and make her smile.
Little did I know back then —
that curve was not part of her mouth.
I watched as Mommy's empty closet
filled with clothes and rows of shoes.
I had a mom, five brothers now, my sister,
my dad, the white picket fence with all the slats in place
like rows of perfect teeth.

When my real mother died,
Daddy married the redhead cliché,
but I was far too young
to fathom the color of hair,
follow the loss of story time,
bedtime kisses on the cheek.
I couldn't explain a hollow hug,
even though I fell in the hole.

"Because of your issues we've sacrificed
an autumn cruise, a trip to Europe, everything.
I needed a fourth mink coat.
It costs us money to fix your bones
and buy your legs; you are lazy and fat;
your hair is ugly and wild."
I stared into the bathroom mirror
at bright blonde curls and saw them all
as sagebrush on a desert floor.
I used your eyes in lieu of mine
for I was merely a child.
Loving you has always been
feeding chocolate to a dog.



Lessons from a Bird

Underneath the lilting fog
sits a sunrise quiet as a stillborn child.
Not a single leaf has stirred.
A Mourning Dove comes near my chair,
stares at me with raisin eyes.
She attempts to take a step,
two forks for feet, with missing prongs.
I wonder if she’s injured now—
or just prefers her wings in flight.
The rest of us deterred
by body weight at first,
then heavy burdens of this world.

My husband says, “Mourning Doves
are stupid birds; they do so many crazy things
like ramming their heads against a wall.”
I see it all so differently, drop a line into the air:
“Maybe they have cataracts, poor insurance, no M.D.”
He laughs like laughing ‘s some mistake,
shuts his mouth—a closing clam.
I always have to dig him up from
places I’m not fathoming.

Perhaps the birds just don’t approve
of all the forts and fortresses
we’ve fashioned to distill our hearts.
Maybe we’re two surly parrots in a cage,
complaining of the dirty straw.
I used to love the morning hours
where I would deadhead wilted flowers.
Petunias shed their sticky velvet on my hands,
I’d grab a wetted paper towel
to hurry through the ritual—
until it struck me hard and fast
that this was all a luxury.

I’m locked inside the house these days;
my legs can’t do the errands of my will alone.
Familiar scents are dirty ashtrays on the counter,
waiting for the soap and sponge.
I’ve never run a single mile,
but I have limped a thousand ones.
I watch this fragile Mourning Dove,
who gathers twigs to build a nest,
cradle eggs she wears inside her belly now.
My back snaps like a broken stick,
then screams at me.
Later on, I’ll use a pill to plug my ears,
but not right now. I’m listening.




What remains when we are gone
or getting there?
Two backs that creak like wooden floors
in a house still standing only by luck.
Suddenly the lights go out,
our clocks stop cold, then flash in red—
this is fine, no time will pass, I'll get some rest
from staying up all night to write,
the puppeteer of Custer's final stand and all.
Rims upon a daffodil now turn so fast,
they look like crusts of morning toast.

We're getting to the crazy point
of having two quarts of milk in the fridge.
One is labeled "his"; the other's labeled "hers."
Lips can take a wholesome gulp—
something smooth and comforting−
from cardboard cartons sitting on the bottom shelf.
We don't have to stretch an arm to reach a glass
in cupboards built to piss us off.
No matter what the doctor says,
I push a broom, then shoulders lock
like deadbolts on a swollen door.

Every doctor ever born insists I rate
my pressing pain on a scale from 0-10.
I reply, "This smacks of little consequence
since I flunked math in every grade."
With just one leg, a circus tent of surgeries,
I've never known a “0” or a single “1”;
the only “six” that strikes my mind—
half a dozen chicken eggs, simmering to make a salad.
My mojo lies in running fingers over edges
of a life that's winding down;
I do not know what shape I am,
except my breasts are losing air—
rubber lifeboats punctured with a pocket knife.


Janet Buck is a seven-time Pushcart Nominee. Her work has appeared in hundreds of journals worldwide. Janet's second print collection of poetry, Tickets to a Closing Play, was the winner of the 2002 Gival Press Poetry Award and her third collection, Beckoned By The Reckoning, was released by PoetWorks Press in the spring of 2004. Her most recent work has appeared in The Pedestal Magazine and Offcourse. In 2011, Buck was honored as a Featured Poet of the Editor's Circle in In the Spring of 2015 Janet was a featured Poet of the Week for  More of her work is scheduled for publication in various journals later this year.

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