Elisabeth Blair is a feminist, poet, multidisciplinary artist, and podcaster. She has been an artist-in-residence at ACRE, Wildacres, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and the Atlantic Center for the Arts. She hosts a podcast about women who compose contemporary classical music, and strives to advocate for artists who do not benefit from the white cisgender patriarchy. www.elisabethblair.net
"My visual work is based primarily on improvisation - on following the pen rather than preconceiving - and on loose associations. My many mistakes are guideposts which determine where a drawing goes next. I create as a way to process darkness into something tangible, something able to be crumpled, something funny and/or laughable."
part i: making up
We carried our poverty on our rib cages,
nicotine stained fingertips,
and in our veins--
with the abandon of what was,
and the romantics that could be.
Our connections to each other
were ultimately built upon our
lack of connections
to the people
that culture told us would
care the most.
So we shoveled our histories
into compartmentalized valves;
t i m e and pressure
might condense them into
with our only tools,
to withstand the blows
of those who told us
we were not enough.
What we failed to realize
is that you cannot build a barricade
| To keep out
an enemy that is settled in your
part ii: making do
Sometimes I remember
he carried that ankle bracelet with more care
than his child,
wrapping it tenderly,
bathing it with a soft, wet, sponge.
And in the early morning,
on our family outing to the alley,
behind the grey building,
where he peed in a cup,
to prove his worth--
we would cross our fingers for him.
For his son.
And in the afternoon
we would park-hop with the baby,
playing P-I-G or H-O-R-S-E,
on creaky play-sets,
until the sun rested its brow
on the mountain’s ragged edge.
We would part
when the messy family car
pulled out of the parking lot,
leaving me behind to
prove my worth--
It still amazes me
different varieties of grease
can coat your soles
after a night of work.
How slick it makes each step
as you walk home along the highway.
Here, we laid to rest the bones
Of my grandmother’s house
In the country dirt
Velvety with worms.
As we light the wooden foundation,
In the blink of an adult eye,
A year disappears.
That’s why as children,
We can’t understand the value
Of staring contests.
Fighting the humidity
The fire climbs eagerly
Pulling itself along the peeling roof with blue-tipped fingers
Hungry for asbestos
Watching below, I remember:
Coffee, splashed with milk
Armed to the teeth with sugar
Marching across my mouth at the breakfast table
While she fanned a grease fire
Toward the open screen door.
Later, while searching for soda pop
In the back of the dusty pantry,
My cousins and I shrieked
Over the gams of a passing daddy long-leg.
Her nearby barn had a steeple
On top, a cloudy glass ball
She said it wards off lightning,
But I know the truth.
There is magic in this place.
As the flames engulf the porch,
I can hear screams inside
The living room several Christmases ago
Tearing of wrapping paper, siren-bright.
Flopped across pillows, swollen with ham and potatoes.
Now the house dissolves like a sandcastle,
On the beach of this bucolic landscape
As the moonless tide of prairie grasses
Sweeps it out to sea.
Here, we laid to rest the bones
Of my grandmother’s house
But in restless peace I find longing,
An ache for a home where magic from the sky
Finds new passage underground.
Hello, says the young woman with a taxi. She stares at the person standing at the sidewalk, the brown kid with a baggy pale blue t-shirt and a bright teal support cane and two duffel bags.
Hello, mixter, she says again, and Kas blinks and gets into the car.
At the station ey scans eir ticket from eir phone at the turnstile — a security guard squints at em but lets em pass — and takes a seat at Station No. 6, leaning eir cane against the bench. Ey rotates eir shoulder and winces; eir bags are too heavy and it feels funny. Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is very fun.
Next to em is some kid slumped over their backpack, asleep, earbuds in. Ey fingers the edge of eir wrist brace. Eir entire body is buzzing. Ey took eir meds before ey left but ey’s still anxious.
Kas waits for the ship.
When Jenna was fourteen and Kas was fifteen they were in that coffee shop in the middle of the desert, stirring her drink, a few months after the astronauts landed on Mars. “The scientists say they’re going to build an outpost.” She sighed. “Can you imagine? Not in our lifetime, I don’t think, but what I would give to go up there.”
Astronomy wasn’t something they could sustain themselves on. She moved to the Bay Area and got into computer software. Kas moved to Seattle and works part time as a barista in an indie café that pays decently well, and every time else as a freelance writer.
But it doesn’t keep them from dreaming of the stars.
Tech advanced faster than they thought it would. Now there are spaceships that take two hours to get to the Moon and soon, they’re going to start populating Mars, only a day trip away. All this time they’ve somehow managed to keep in touch.
Jenna’s moved to Luna with her girlfriend already, a few months after the one Habitat on its surface opened. She runs checks on the tech that keeps the city online.
Two weeks later, she texts.
She says things are stable. She’s got a week that she’s managed to clear out, wouldn’t ey like to come by for a few days?
Kas looks at eir life — thirty years old and ey’s accomplished approximately nothing except a farily impressive amount of slam poetry events and medical trauma.
Ey takes a few vacation days. It turns out indie cafés, the ones run by two trans women (who are married and adorable), are pretty good about that, even if they’re white. Ey packs a few changes of clothes in a duffel bag and fills the other with meds and braces and a spare cane. Jenna uses her engineer privilege and a few favors to get em a free round trip.
So here ey is.
The ship stops and the doors slide open with a hiss. Kas finds eir seat. Hefts a duffel bag on the overhead compartment. Pain shoots through eir wrists and back and shoulders but that’s how it is for most things. Connective tissue disorder means eir joints suck and about ten billion other symptoms besides.
Ey sticks the other one below the seat in front of em and sits down with a sigh. Window seat. Ey takes a breath. Can feel eir heart rate going up. Eir skin is hot and itchy and sweaty under the wrist braces so ey takes them off.
The engine hums to life.
Jenna smiles in this café like she did so many years ago, fifteen years older, dream come true. She stirs her coffee and talks about her job, the code she’s running, the stuff she’s seen up here.
They’ve both grown up, and changed, but some things stay the same.
Kas laughs with her. Tells her about eir writing, the customers ey has to deal with. Ey gets some weird looks — ey doesn’t look disabled, and ey and Jenna are brown, and there are only rich white folk living here right now — but ignores them.
This isn’t a long vacation. They might not see each other for a long time. She’s needed up here. And Kas isn’t rich enough to live here, and ey needs a place to pick up meds and a hospital nearby. It’s one thing to build a city and quite another to get people to stay.
But for now they’re together, and ey can forget the things ey has to do. And their faces glow with all the smugness of kids to whom grown-ups once said that’s impossible, and who proved them wrong.
They both got here in the end.
let me soak
in the uncertainty
of corrupted data
let me exist
within the gap between
reality and projection
i had so much to say but my lungs were empty
my lacrimal sac drained into the walls of my heart in a dream.
tears leaked and bloated the muscle to the point of near explosion.
the next morning I woke up with a faint sensation
of having survived drowning,
a twisted tongue,
and the trace of a sour half smile still warm on my face.
All the men I want are fallen
fruit, not so much forbidden,
as inadvisable to the salubrious
a tad fermented
a worm burrowing through
dark spots and dull skin
Not looking to play savior
I am so fabulously saved,
like red wine on a white shirt,
like seeds weeping into black dirt,
like a number in my phone
I never called
Do I want to be
beneath the tree
soft and tired
like holed-up holy fruit
I'm not addicted,
but it's my favorite kind
The stuff that's started to live
why does live mean leave
Why do I always compare
the hairs on your chest
to winter vines
Why do I crave to make kiddush
over your body
Sinking deeper into the earth
hope a distant, circling bird
my mouth comes upon you
hungry, tasteless animal
But in reality, I turn the pages
of the prayer book
and wonder if I'm rotten
june bugs cracking open. basil weep and wilt. late night illuminated by fake suns, sticky air, water hanging over us like thick film, glow & smoke. the sun set and set and set and never left.
under the moon, saw a fish drained. covered in butterflies. so sweet in death. so full of cold water. mouth leaking. finally after life the body tries to save itself.
three fireflies & soft flesh falling off the pit. all tender things i couldn’t catch. the air is supersaturated, threatening rain and birdsong. the wavelength of a cicadas scream is now palpable. see that redshift wail in between the trees?
over the phantom trees by the back wood,
girls find shelter in laps and butcher
hands, which slip like river water. i remember
that cold, that gray mistaken as exit wound,
that girl who told me to keep walking through
the billow, unsmoken bodied and hairstill.
we bury the shrapnel like pearls as the thaw
spits on the war exhibit with hail chips.
the scythe squeezes a blue syrup in the sky
and we assume this is the process of forgetting.
we learned what parts of ourselves
to kill and un-hue and how to nestle in other
people’s mouths -- to lose the mass of your own
ghost and the glints of family portraits
that ricochets like a white asterisk. our bellies
are filled with half-sharpened knives and apples
throat-rottened and beautiful.
memorial day weekend, 2012
We take your blue Cadillac,
paid for with a summer’s worth of minimum wage paychecks.
Sometimes, the driver’s side window falls off its track
and you lay on the hot blacktop with a screwdriver
trying to poke it back up from underneath the door.
I burn the backs of my thighs on the navy leather,
turn up the dial on your cassette player,
roll down the window and stick out my hand.
For the whole weekend, we dine on sliced oranges
and vodka for every meal.
When we hold hands, our fingers stick.
I walk around wearing almost nothing,
red toenails bright against bare feet,
and pay for my bravery with burnt skin.
On the Seaside Boardwalk, you buy me
an impossibly tiny cup of Dippin Dots,
freezer burnt and deliciously pink.
Astronaut ice cream, you call it,
and in the 3 pm sunshine, we snap our eyes shut
and imagine ourselves in the darkness of outer space, floating.
When I peek, your eyes are so crinkled
they have swallowed your long black eyelashes.
Every last one, whole.
On the amusement park swings, you are a blur of color:
hand-me-down green t-shirt, worn blue jeans,
white white teeth, red red popsicle lips.
You are not mine but yesterday,
my favorite song came on the radio, all sunshine twang,
and you knew all the words.
I turned around and in the backseat
I saw that you had packed two pillows.
You, brighter than white sunshine
bouncing off cold May waves.
on loving a boy
When you love a boy who did not always know that he was a boy,
loving him will be the most interesting thing about you.
You will have endless answers but their questions are always the same.
They want to know how long you knew,
how his body is changing,
how expensive it is,
if you’re, like, straight now,
and most of all, they want to know how you fuck.
Even the ones who don’t ask are asking how you fuck.
The sex does not really change but your hands do.
They learn where they are welcome
(the flat space in the middle of his chest, his ribcage,
shoulders) and recoil from the places they are not
(his breasts, the curve of his hips,
the slope of his thighs).
No one asks how you are but many people will call you brave.
This is confusing because you are not brave,
you are impatient.
When it all began, he shut down
so you gently corrected his mother when she talked about
the side effects of taking “steroids.”
You think maybe you never want to be a mother at all.
They rarely thank you for the information
and never ask what else you know.
(On average, there are 613 seeds in a pomegranate.
Virginia Woolf published Orlando in 1928.
Girls love boys all the time, and he still
takes his tea with three heaping spoonfuls of sugar.)
When we were 16 you let our friend Rodney tattoo you in his basement. He had rigged a makeshift tattoo gun from an electric toothbrush and guitar strings. The hum began and your gaze locked with mine. I wondered if you could see my heart in the glaze of my eyes.
More and more lately we had been hanging out alone. You’d gotten your driver’s permit and your parents didn’t give a shit about teaching you, so I would ride shotgun as we cruised around the neighborhood after school in an ancient Toyota Camry. I was younger by a few months so I didn’t know how to drive either. Nothing seemed as important as the rhythm between us when we exited the car, our heads bobbing up, the chorus of doors slamming, the beat of our Converse hitting the pavement as we walked in step to wherever we were headed. The last few months, you had become the world in which I existed. Sometimes you called me your moon.
Rodney tattooed the word “punk” on you while you were wearing a denim vest that you’d dedicated time to, sewing patches on all over. It smelled like booze and cigs and sweat and it made you a punk kid. You explained to me that girls have to try harder to be punks. You said we were always seen as weak, that we had to prove ourselves. Once, I saw you kiss another girl at one of Mack McKenna’s basement parties. It made me feel like seaweed, like the gravity had been pulled out of the room. I thought about you kissing other girls a lot, even though I liked boys. I was kind of seeing Mack’s friend, Dylan. I saw him on the days that you worked right after school, or if you had a family thing. You said you didn’t like him. He reminded you of Dr. Frankenstein’s sidekick, Igor and you hated how he shuffled when he walked. But Dylan was my denim vest, my signifier that I deserved to be a punk too.
I guess it struck me how ironic it was that you had to brand yourself with the word “punk” to make you feel punk. To be fair to you, Rodney wasn’t exactly a certified tattoo artist. He had been after us for the past few weeks, begging us to be his first victims. You weren’t afraid of being the first piece of human flesh he was injecting ink into but I had to come with you. His previous experiments with orange peels sat shriveling on the concrete floor. He pulled out a metal folding chair for me, and you sat on a couch, Rodney perched next to you. The basement was the kind of cold that made you quiet and sank into your joints even though it was the summer. You reached over and grabbed my fingers as Rodney prepped your skin with rubbing alcohol. You’d worn shorts for the event and your tooth white skin glared under the fluorescent lights. I gave your hand a squeeze. Rodney looked over, catching our secret message. He grunted, pulling your leg closer to him, so that his own knees pinned it into place. I smiled but it felt like I was baring my teeth. “Is this safe?” I asked Rodney and he looked up; grinning big and holding the buzzing rig close to your skin. “Of course, babe.” He called me babe a lot, like it was my name. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Once, I told you that I hated that he called me that and you said he didn’t mean anything by it. He called you babe too and yeah, you didn’t like it but that was just how it was. After all, he knew you were a girl who dated girls so he couldn’t mean anything by it, right? You told me punks aren’t so sensitive. Why didn’t I ever ask you who had given you these lessons? Why didn’t I think it through? Your words were tarnished silver to me and I held onto them tightly, hoping that with enough attention I would be able to uncover what was underneath.
You winced when he started. I imagined it felt like bee stings. Rodney’s legs clamped around your own and it looked like the two of you were overlapping. Rodney’s greasy hair strands kept slipping from behind his ear and nearly brushed your skin. You kept your eyes on me and kept your hand clasped firmly in mine. I thought about the time I found poetry in the margins of your math notebook. You told me they were songs. I asked if they were about me because when you are 16 everything is about you and you are about everything and you blushed and said no, that’s stupid. In the basement with fluorescent lights shining on your skin being carved up I summoned words you wrote and knew they were about me. A thrill of fear plummeted through me. If your poetry was about me, if you thought about me as much as I thought about you, maybe things would be different. Maybe love would look different than I thought it could. My eyes stayed on the makeshift rig, dipped into india ink every few seconds. The color beat it's way into your skin. I wondered how this change would feel tomorrow. If you would ever think about this night in Rodney’s basement and what you would remember. If it would just be about the letters sinking into your thigh, or if you would remember me holding your hand.
I wondered if you would grow up to become a lawyer, or some straight laced office chick and you would have to explain this when you wore short skirts or a bathing suit. My heart jumped again, this time so hard that I could feel it, electric between my teeth. I wanted to kiss you, but punks don’t kiss and punks don’t have hearts and punks get basement tattoos that are crooked right atop their knee caps. And I wonder if maybe I’m not a punk after all. Maybe the need to kiss you was something else because I’d never felt it like that before. The feeling radiating from my lips down to my kneecaps. I never felt it for Dylan, or the guy I kissed before him, or any boy I’d ever batted my eyelashes at. I almost jumped up. You smirked at me, all knowing, keeping me glued to the folding chair.
After Rodney wiped your new tattoo down, he took a picture “for the portfolio.” He gave us a shot of Jameson and we left. The liquor settled bitter and thick on the back of my tongue. We walked side by side. You in your denim vest and Op Ivy shirt, me in my cutoff Nirvana tank top and jeans.
“What do you want to do now?” You asked. It was almost midnight. When you are 16, summer is the thing of miracles. The world is warm enough to hold you and you have enough agency to weave situations, twirl circumstance and the need for excitement together and see what happens.
“We could go to yours and watch TV?” I offered. My body still felt warm and melted, strange and empty. Even with all of the possibility in front of us, sometimes it seems best to stay safe. Huddle inside and feed our impulses to quippy television shows that we can quote to one another in the months ahead.
“Do you think that people will like my tattoo?” You looked at me, eyes shining like a Christmas tree.
“Duh, none of us have tattoos yet, Rae. You’ll be the coolest of them all.”
“You’re next,” you laughed. “You are my moon, you always follow me.”
I wasn’t sure if I should be offended or not. Were my choices not valid? Did I only follow you and ask for your permission?
I asked you again about that poetry and I really don’t know why. I think it was the line “I just thought about how you sit on couches next to me,” that began the elegy that really caught me. You turned to me and there were street lamps lit all around you, that dead quiet near midnight where things start to feel wilty. You jammed your mouth against my own fast, like a lightning strike. I heard heavy guitar crashes and the air smelled like lilacs and you tasted like fresh cigarettes spiced with irish whiskey and my heart was there. I wondered if you could taste it as your tongue slid against my own. I wondered if you were thinking of the way I sit on couches next to you, facing you, back to the room, staring into your brimstone eyes as if that’s what keeps me upright. You broke away first and I was left kissing the summer air. You said, “I knew it,” as you looped your fingers in between my own and we started walking down the cul de sac to my house, hips bumping, hearts jangling, skin shaking with the aftermath.
You knew it. You said it and the words burrowed into my brow like shrapnel. You knew it, knew me better than I knew myself. I was jealous of the knowledge you had apparently known all along, and had never thought to make me privy to. Still, your lips brushing against my own at the end of the night were enough for now.
The next day you wore jeans with big holes in the knees so that everyone who saw you could see your new tattoo on display. You greased it up with aquaphor every few minutes and your car smelled like band-aids and cigarettes. It turned my stomach in the crushing heat.
There was a show in Mack McKenna’s basement that night. His parents had a two car garage but since his mom took off his dad had just let him have the run of the thing. You were excited. You said we didn’t have to tell anyone about us yet, if I wasn’t ready. You knew I had never been in a real relationship before and you understood if I was having trouble with the whole coming out thing. I smiled and it felt like concrete on my face. I wanted to tell you that I was having trouble with it. That it seemed like a spin on my life that I had lived so long without, and even though kissing you felt as natural as breathing I still hadn’t gotten used to the frame of what things looked like now.
“Was this easy for you?” I asked, my face turned to my legs. I could see the tributaries of shiny white stretch marks from where I grew my tree trunk thighs too fast. I picked at the frayed edges of my shorts, pulling strings free and dropping them onto the floor of the car.
You were driving, one arm hanging out of the window. You glanced over at me. Your eyes reminded me of dark beer bottles, gleaming and full. “It’s never like, easy. But I guess I just wasn’t patient and I knew what I wanted and I never really thought it was wrong or anything like that. You know my parents are hippies.” Read: your parents rarely showed up or gave a shit.
“Is it weird that I’m scared?” I was ashamed of how small and metallic my voice sounded. When I looked back to you… Well, it all happened so fast.
I screamed. They weren’t words, just some guttural noise that only made your warm, dark eyes widen with surprise.
When you woke up in the hospital I was sitting next to you. Your moon. The Explorer cracked into the side of your Camry, pinning your left arm between two behemoth metal monsters. I was safe, a little bruised and shaken but otherwise untouched. Your arm was broken in three places, your wrist fractured, each finger sporting it’s own silver splint. Your head was done up in a white bandage. It matched my own.
“What happened?” You asked into the crisp, medicinal air. Your voice was sandy with confusion and pain.
“I was just thinking of the way you look at me when you drive,” I said. My words were overpowered by the rush of your parents to your side. The coo and glow of their relief that you were awake, you were alive, you were battered but otherwise the same girl you’d always been. And after you took in their faces, felt their tears on your skin you looked to me over their shoulders and the look in your eyes told me you heard me. You were scared too but I was there and somewhere inside of you maybe you doubted that. Maybe you thought the fear would have kept me from you, hurled me back into my room for you to come and uncover later. And that was the day I learned that punks do have hearts and punks do kiss and sometimes punks get scared and hurt because at the end of the day we are all just people.