Beginner Cartographer

“good morning”, “Beginner Cartography” and “Unwind”

In Poetry by James Wolf

good morning

When you wake up
in scattered pieces from the night before
(that’s the kind of disjointed, sun up-sun down
disaster you’ve become accustomed to)
you’ll find your elbow split by refraction
and the pillows growing thumbs.
Never sure how you got there, but never the same way.
That’s routine in itself, right?
The mirror peeks back at you
none of your features but all of your spunk
too pleased to find you there as always.
She could blend in with beams and
as much as you find yourself shouting
“WHERE?”
it’s likely she’s been practicing behind your back.
The fridge doesn’t open itself.

See, you disappear in the dark,
and though we both know it’s not in the realm of possibility
there’s a whole set of points on that line
(hollow to passive, perfect to fanged)
and a garbled tongue often understands worry more than we do.
Yet here you are, still visible, car in the driveway
neither razors nor malice in your mouth.
A heart like a seat belt
(worn on your sleeve)
and a dorky sense of humor,
which may not be how you got here, but trust me
it’s how you’ll get through it.

She rolls off, she whines, scrambling
to get back to sheets NASA insists read
“LOVE”
from the topographic aerials taken above.
That one public broadcasting channel
— the only one with cartoons —
is playing something local and in Spanish
cathode halo around a dirty blonde head.
He found Cheetos somewhere,
try not to question it.
Hers is a pain swallowing smile,
his a flurry of limbs,
both the kind of fledgling anatomy that makes ungraceful sucker punches tolerable.
Commit this moment to memory
before you roll over and swing a hand into a pile of orange,
crumbly preservative dust.

You have a lot of applesauce in your furniture.
You’re probably hungry more often than you need be.
That’s not a metaphor.
Eat something.
Try your best to keep things clean.

When a voice finds tread in the dark,
asks if everything’s all right.
I know you don’t get much sleep but
the bags get lighter.
You straighten your spine nightly
despite those who walk along it.
You are tears and hot breath,
broken in and fully forming through undertow
and startlingly bright bursts of morning,
a scar where they pulled out your courage and placed it in your arms
not once, but twice —
sometimes we need the extra reminder
that it’s a lot of really small steps before you realize
you’re walking.

You’ll be the last to see it
but then
you’ll also be the happiest.


Beginner Cartography

I have seen a lioness. All pride and burning, with fur that looks just as stunning whether groomed or matted. A tremendous beast, steeped head to tail in flame. This is the kind of four-legged fury that villages deify. You have never known such grace, the way she slides into position, her ability to remind you that heart of yours is held in place by mere strings. She is worshipped in night and stars, seeking power but radiating strength only she could know. She hasn’t shared it since the cosmic event that gave her life.

And what are you? Meager lion? Mighty cub? Maybe just something starving, stalking. She is fierce, you are accidental. You give your hair a few extra weeks before a cut, the beard maintenance lackluster on the best days, then fancy yourself a king: a roar like a snarling infant, a walk that only hopes to be a stride. Maybe your pride is misplaced. The zodiac does not stay complacent. The only jungle you prowl has windows, a plastic palm and the second attempt to keep a houseplant alive. Do this right. When did you lose sight of courage? You came leaping, you faced fear, chased it off.

Before being timid takes you down.
Before you dim her stars.

Gather your things:
map, compass
jars of lightning bugs,
so you can write to her at night.
“Look, your light is so far
but I find ways. I always do.
I’m clever, sometimes.
I can follow the trails of comets,
the mane adorned by Algieba’s shine,
(that sounds too close to ‘algebra;’
I’m sorry to bring math into this),
and the angled skyline
that holds the shore in place.

It may seem a multitude of distances
and a height herculean
but I already found the lioness
— plotted her brightest stars —
and once the map is made,
her grace permitting,
I will always find my way to her.”


Unwind

I will put everything in writing.
On paper. All of this.
The view from my window:
half an alley reluctantly met
by street and lamppost.
Tunnel vision billboard.
Eyes out
arms in.
Apartment, single bedroom,
brick walls stacked like
little sticks of dynamite
in a DIY combustion engine.
Breeze like backseat of a pickup
(dirty, loud,
full of radio and wind).

I taped a kite to the window ledge
so I could watch the wind spin its own compass,
figure out up from down
left from far left
right from almost
close from not quite.
It’s there most days.

There’s a black box in my stomach
full of headaches and small fights.
I swallowed it
(I had to)
whole,
— no teeth marks,
structure uncompromised –
before they steered me too far out
and knotted.

They bite, but don’t break skin.
I don’t, but could.
Throwing up
sucks
but when the breath ticks upward
I may just swallow that kite string
see what it dredges up.

About the Author

James Wolf

James Wolf is an aspiring teacher from Maryland’s eastern shore. He works as an assistant in a Pre-K classroom, using the quiet of naptime as an excuse to write things in the dark. His work has been featured in GFT Presents: One in Four, Sixfold, and Gyroscope Review, and is forthcoming in Vine Leaves Literary Journal.