Baltimore-based poet Elizabeth Hazen knows what burns you up inside.
The way, in movies, people move through ghosts,
you power straight through me, Underwear Girl,
trailing mascara in cartoon swirls,
your cotton panties pink as bubblegum.
A boy in a muscle shirt chases you. Come back!
He is young, embarrassed, maybe in love with you,
maybe just in love with the way your body
moves – all passion and mystery and control.
Behind him, a woman waves a pair of pants,
crying, Wait! Don’t go! How they all want you,
Underwear Girl! I know your fury feels
too big for clothes. No pair of designer jeans
could ever contain your rage; you think if you keep
running, it means you will arrive somewhere.
I want you to be right, but I know what burns
you up inside, and that fire can’t keep you warm.
It is November. Your feet are turning blue.
Underwear Girl, you can’t stop time or cellulite
or regret, can’t deny entropy, elastic
waistbands, tedium. Those who play chase now
will fall back, give up, pursue other ambitions
on other streets, and what will you do with your rage then,
Underwear Girl? Will you squeeze it into control-
top pantyhose, swallow it like benzos,
take it out on a husband who never saw it coming?
Underwear Girl, my thighs once looked like that,
toned and tensed to fight the forces of evil.
We all rage against something, feel pressed for time
and money, exit strategies. No one
can run forever. Underwear Girl, there are things
you may not understand yet. If you would just
see me, I could tell you so many things.
Boys start fires all the time— it’s a rite
of passage— so when your father gives you the task
of setting fire to the family’s trash,
you don’t mind, and when the flames ignite
inside the old dishwasher he heaved
into the woods behind the house, you smoke
a cigarette, glancing up the path, and stoke
the flames with a stick. Above you sneaky leaves
let through a glimpse of tomorrow, but today
is still consumed with the past: yesterday’s news,
junk mail, cardboard boxes, empty bottles. The fumes
of crackling plastic make you sick, but you stay
until the week reduces itself to ash.
You’re a little let down that the fire doesn’t last,
doesn’t leap from the dishwasher, spreading past
the forest’s edge, that all that burns is trash.
My love, be patient – you who are so taken
by the promise of destruction, so watchful
for what lies beyond your father’s woods: the pull
of the future like a girl waiting, naked
and certain. It is time for you to learn:
not all fires can be contained, not all traces
of the things we throw away can be erased
with a single match, and even as you yearn
for new fire to burn a path away from here,
the old flames smolder, and the steely walls
buckle, and from the distance your father calls.
His voice grows louder with each passing year.
For those who cannot camouflage themselves,
the alternative to fight or flight is tonic
immobility. The victim’s one trick:
to keel over. The cooling skin expels
foul smells, teeth clench, eyes glaze, the heart sustains
a sluggish thump. What’s outside can’t revive
the creature; it feels nothing, though alive,
paralyzed while the predator remains.
Waiting in the closet behind my mother’s
dresses, scent of hyacinth, I transmute—
mouth pressed in the wool of her one good suit—
into a speechless, frozen thing. The others
call me from far away, but I am fixed
right here. As if these shadows have cast doubt
across my way of seeing, I don’t want out,
and like the prey who plays at rigor mortis,
biding her time when the enemy is near,
while I’m inside this darkness I can’t see
the difference between death and immobility,
between what it is to hide and to disappear.
Elizabeth Hazen’s poems have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Salamander, Bellevue Literary Review, and other journals. “Underwear Girl” was originally published in Fourteen Hills, “Burning Trash” in Crab Orchard Review, and “Thanatosis” in Southwest Review. Hazen teaches English at Maryvale Preparatory School.