by Chelsea Dingman
Some find it in shit. Some in dirt. Some in tears. Three tortoises in sun. Butterflies surrounding them. Drinking their tears in a Peruvian jungle. Elsewhere, four of us. 1985. There were never five. The Columbia valley. The turtle we got after our dog was mauled while we were sleeping. How I walked home each day wanting to feel alive. Which is different from not wanting to die alongside my father & my dog & my mother who had cancer she kept hidden with her cheque book & the decades of men who storied our lives as though any man would do. As though fathers didn’t keep turning up dead, like all the good gods before them. And there was nothing I could do. Nowhere to surrender salt water to the world & ask to be surrounded instead. Just quiet. The river passing slowly beneath bridges. Rain falling. Commensalism: the estrangement of selves into tenses: before & after the shadow of a girl had fled & I was left. Lonely. My mother waking to the dog torn apart in the garage. Her tears, as she held the collar in her hands that morning. As I peered in a casket, black stitches peering back. I refused to cry. If only I would’ve known how to be surrounded. How to offer something of myself to keep something else alive. It is always morning in this story. Or mid-afternoon. Or night. It is always 1985. December. Or it is 2007 when I have my first miscarriage in Florida & the light is thin as December in my heart & I am tired of pretending miscarriage isn’t a form of self-harm. Or it is 2020 & I find myself with a new child, but I can’t stop crying because I fear I might die, soon or too young, dehydrated by her hot mouth. The lives turned to salt in my hands as my brother goes to rehab after almost dying & my mother is in hiding again. What would any good god do? Or what god would do any good? I don’t know what it means to be loved. A woman I work with loses her life as I research & write. Still, her daughters wake up alone. What is there to do but cry? In Florida, I become dehydrated just by being outside. There is no shortage of people crying. Nor guns firing across golf courses & campuses. I am never more afraid than when I am alive. I vow to leave. My children clasped in my hands. But each country I touch makes me cry. Each time I am turned to salt again, called orphan, or woman, or service animal. And my first country, my mother: not dying. Not mine. Which is to say: there was a gun in my father’s hand one night. 1976. As he drank & she cried. As I struggled to stay alive inside her. But that is their story, not mine. I leave Florida to walk my children past my childhood river. A pipeline cuts through houses where I walked away in the dim winter light. I find myself standing by the river, looking for a place. Nowhere that isn’t dear around us. Where I am alive in the cries of my children, raucous or raw, & everything that is our lives. ____
Chelsea Dingman’s first book, Thaw, was chosen by Allison Joseph to win the National Poetry Series (University of Georgia Press, 2017). Her second poetry collection, Through a Small Ghost, won The Georgia Poetry Prize (University of Georgia Press, 2020). Her third collection, I, Divided, is forthcoming from Louisiana University Press in 2023. She is also the author of the chapbook, What Bodies Have I Moved (Madhouse Press, 2018). Visit her website: chelseadingman.com.