Poem of the Week | October 14, 2019
Julie Marie Wade “Fortieth Birthday Poem”
This week’s Poem of the Week is “Fortieth Birthday Poem” by Julie Marie Wade!
Julie Marie Wade teaches poetry, creative nonfiction, and hybrid forms in the creative writing program at Florida International University. She is the author of ten collections of poetry and prose– most recently Same-Sexy Marriage: A Novella in Poems and The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose, co-authored with Denise Duhamel. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Wade makes her home on Hollywood Beach with Angie Griffin and their two cats.
Fortieth Birthday Poem
September 5, 1979
The secret is—there is no secret.
Sometimes a croissant is just a croissant.
The manicure is no cure—
The pedicure is no cure—
But a flashlight in your glovebox might come in handy.
Likewise, a Pop-tart. Likewise, a tooth-pick.
And be sure to keep a panoply of napkins in there:
assorted sizes & textures, logos to remind you of everywhere you’ve been
& how soft your face is, still, to the touch. Jewel was sensitive
in the 90s, remember? It’s the new millennium, & you are too.
I turned thirty standing in line to buy cigarettes.
I don’t smoke, except the times I do.
As I swiped my card, the little clock on the checkout box
switched to midnight, & poof!—just like that—my twenties were gone.
I glanced around, waiting for someone to notice. They didn’t.
Bye, Twenties. I promised I’d write you, & I did.
I used to say, I’m spiritual, not religious.
Now I say, I’m a secular humanist.
I used to say, I bet I’ll have more answers
after graduate school. Well, guess what?
It’s after graduate school, & every day
I’m still glitter-bombed with questions.
(Rilke, am I doing this right? Am I learning to love
the questions themselves—in all their splendid, stupid,
miserable, magical, insipid, relentless, piñata-splitting
glory? Am I learning to love them now?)
See something, say something—that’s the moral of every
folktale & PSA. It’s also the credo of every poem.
I turned twenty knowing I was gay but pretending
not to know. Or, perhaps: pretending I was straight because
I understood the costumes better. (Barbie for girls, He-Man
for boys…) Those first two decades, I never loved anyone
who wasn’t wired the heterosexual way, & you know
what they say about imitation & flattery. I figured,
How would they know I loved them otherwise?
So I followed along that unswerving road like an acolyte,
my red & white robes dust-kissed & ragged, my tiny wick
trembling with imposter fire, & my snuffer—had it always
been so?—a good deal larger than the wisp of a candle it carried?
I was once an actual acolyte. Now I wonder about the metaphor,
which is really a simile, & which, for reasons both literal & metaphorical,
often makes me smile. (The words look so alike they could be sisters!)
I don’t believe in bucket lists per se, though I do believe in buckets.
You’re going to need one, whoever you are, & not just to catch the tears.
Being human, well, it’s a moist vocation,
what with all the sneezing, & sobbing, the salivating too.
But you also need a bucket for practical things, like mopping the floors
before company comes & dousing the houseplants with sweet, simulacrum rain.
You lost your watering can—bucket. You lost your plastic jack-o-lantern
for trick-or-treating with your nieces—bucket.
Also, inevitably: your truth becomes someone else’s metaphor, &
everything, as it turns out, is always already (thank you, Foucault) ibid.
I don’t have a bucket list, though I used to have a bucket of coffee
from Hamilton Beach, years before I lived at the beach.
Actual beach is better, of course, & makes me think of Bishop
who wrote during her own Florida days,
at breakfast time I sit on my balcony
with my feet up, & drink gallons of coffee.
Bet she had a bucket to hold it all.
Bet she even ground her own beans.
It’s shocking really: now people come to me seeking advice.
Me—though it’s plain to see I’m more gumball than fortune cookie
any day, more Riding Hood gone wandering in the woods than
wise old crone. You’re a professor, says my brother-out-law.
Profess something! He’s half-teasing, of course, but he’s also half-Montaigne
come back as airplane pilot, sky-writing here before my eyes
the same question I have always seen in the clouds:
What do I know?
I turned ten at the Silver Coin Arcade in the South Center Mall.
My father handed me an envelope containing ten dollars
transformed into quarters, told me to work the math.
That’s easy, I said. Forty. Forty quarters. Wow, that’s a lot of coins!
Think of all the games I can play with such a big bunch of money!
My father was pleased. He ruffled my hair. He was forty-seven then,
& must have thought, at least in passing, about the way the quarters might represent (a few years shy) his years already spent, how the dollars represented mine.
When I was seven, I saw the German chocolate cake with two candles on it—
matching number fours—already lit for him & flickering on the stove.
I carried that cake into the dining room unbidden, adoring daughter & acolyte
I was. Questions still remain: Did my mother scold me? Had we even started singing?
What was I doing in the kitchen all alone? (Even then, I dragged my fingers
through the icing. Even then, he had the lushest, silver hair.)
These days I am wearing my father’s hair, ribbons at my temples & underneath my part.
I pull it back to behold the thick curtain of white, a snowbank glistening with ice.
Advice? Well, if pressed, I’d say avoid clothing that you ever have to iron.
In a pinch, Downey makes a wrinkle releaser you can spray.
When using always, add approximately. With never, apply a liberal dose of give or take. Even if past’s (mostly) prologue, why not leave some room
for Surprise me! & Prove me wrong? I’ve learned it’s useful to keep
an emergency shirt in your car. This can be just as important
as the jumper cables, the spare tire, & the flares. (Don’t forget
those napkins or that flashlight in the glovebox either.)
When you shower, you have a higher-than-likely chance of
getting a good idea, so keep a notepad handy. (Ditto when
you walk or drive.) And if there’s a shower door instead of a plastic drape,
I recommend drawing a heart or a star in the condensation as you open it,
which is a little thing I’ve always done that brings me reliable joy.
Likewise, if you happen to find a patch of clover, double-check for quadrants,
but never doubt a shamrock, its simple grace so comforting,
the metaphor a less-than-flashy something sometimes makes.
I was born forty years ago when Carter, our kindest President,
occupied the Oval Office. He’s still alive as I write this now—
steady breath & hearts we share in common. Camille Rankine
wrote, I grow older if I’m lucky, & I’m lucky. (Word.) A nurse named Anna said,
There are some things worse things than death, & I figure she would know,
working harried nights in the Jackson pediatric ER. Turning forty isn’t
one of them, but I guess I thought I’d feel smarter than I do.
Then, I wonder if knowledge, like privilege, is designed to
disguise itself. Nietzsche once described oblivion as
the concierge of the mind, a strong image which has always
stayed with me—but also a scary thought. I fear Oblivion offering
to carry my bags, to pull the heavy draperies closed for me, to pour
a nice cup of coffee from the pot in the three-&-a-half-star room—
the kind my partner, wise as she is, would never drink from because
she’s suspicious of all the bacteria we can’t see growing, of pink mold
on bathroom tiles & blue mold in Greek yogurt past its prime
& all the other molds that must be lurking, even when they’re invisible
to the naked eye. The truth is, I only worry about mold as metaphor,
mold of the ways I’ve failed people by looking the other way,
by hunkering down in the easy darkness, the doorknob framed Do not disturb.
I was born at 7:24 on a Wednesday night in September.My mother spent two days
in labor with me, then reported later that bringing me into the world
was nothing compared to everything that followed. Always with the questions,
never with the make-up, & then this gay thing—good God! I’m a little sad &
a little proud of all the ways I’ve let her down. Is there somewhere a space
between sadness & pride— a tire swing? a caesura soft as a pillow?
Sometimes when I’m standing in my own kitchen now, stirring something
on my own stove, I watch the digital clock switch to 7:24, thinking first
Six minutes till Jeopardy! then I’ve just completed another day on this planet!
then, turning the burner down to simmer, What have I truly learned?
In 1993, for the TV Guide cover, my hero Mary Tyler Moore wore
a jaunty cap that wasn’t a tam & told her reader-viewers everywhere,
Nobody gets out of this life without tremendous pain. I bought the issue.
I wrote her wisdom down. Maybe it was obvious, but I think we all
need reminding that our pain is neither insubstantial nor superlative—
that our pain might in fact unite us with the rest of humankind.
Autocorrect wants to change unite to untie every time I type it,
& this seems significant too—reminding me how hard it is
to stay tethered to things: the balloon, so secure at the wrist,
yet still somehow it loosens, slackens; somehow it floats away.
I believe in recycling & take great care rinsing things in the sink,
making sure the bottles & glasses are spotless before I drop them
into the bin. And since that’s true, perhaps I shouldn’t mind that all
my knowledge seems to be recycled, too. Peggy McIntosh taught me
that privilege is an invisible knapsack I carry all the time. Audre Lorde
revealed that my silence would not protect me. Khalil Gibran convinced
me that the more sorrow has carved out your heart, the more joy you can contain. Is there any wisdom in joy, I wonder? Years ago, I was valedictorian of my high
school class. I had never felt so dim or hollow inside. Well, you can’t medal
in happiness, a classmate said. I wrote it down. Happiness is its own prize.
Here come the students, asking for advice again, so I try it. I say,
Lean in when you’re listening so people will know you are, & don’t just pretend
to be listening either. That’s worse than not listening at all. I say,
Nice is different than kind, so when someone tells you how nice you are,
don’t always assume it’s a compliment. Inspect the niceness closely.
Is it really apathy, dismissiveness, not caring enough in disguise?
Remember when I mentioned Jewel early on? She comes
back to me daily now. (I could lie to you about this, but I won’t.)
For all the reading I’ve done, all the writing I’ve done,
all the classes I’ve taken & taught, what I hear in my head
most often—above the rattle & din, the scratched CDs & the local stations—
is Jewel’s voice, sweet, a little unsteady, sincere: In the end, she says, only kindness matters.
Andrew Carnegie’s sloshing around in there, too,
murmuring My heart is in the work. I love the sentiment,
though I’m nervous to quote him now, given his
unabashed commitments to capitalism.
I hear Jorie Graham murmuring: The longing is to be pure,
what you get is to be changed, & earlier still, The way things work is
eventually something catches. She’s wise, of course, but not especially
kind, or maybe just not as palpably nice as other poets I’ve met
or known. It’s a trap, right, especially if you’re a woman?
Where’s the still point in the turning world between generous
& sucker, between self-serving witch & nice pushover-lady?
What can I say? Choose your traps wisely.
If you’re a poet—but even if you’re not—paradoxes
are your boxes, & you’ll never completely think your way
outside them. Perhaps if you did, you’d only wish
to be let back in.
Early riser, late bloomer, living together, living alone—kids or no kids,
tying the knot, tying one on, midday power-nap, one-night stand or
monogamous love rituals, TV in the bedroom, no sleeping over,
limited screen time, binge-watching on weekends, super greens in
reusable Tupperware, super-sized fries at the late-night drive-thru,
single, married, separated, divorced, widowed, it’s complicated,
not even going there—except we’re all going somewhere, & in some sense,
we’re always already (thank you, Foucault) there. I’ll say it again:
Choose your traps wisely. No caffeine. A little caffeine. A bucket of coffee
every night before bed. It’s a folly to think we can ever escape them all.
Just yesterday I saw a baby on the boardwalk. She looked a lot like me
in pictures I’ve seen: dimples in her hands and feet, one deep one lodged
in her cheek, & a little sprout of hair atop her head, cinched with a
clip predictably pastel pink. Her mother was walking briskly,
attention parsed between the ocean & her phone. The baby looked
right at me, alert but not especially curious, which is how I imagine
I must have looked at her. We acknowledged each other. I didn’t want
to parent her, & I didn’t want to trade places with her. In fact,
for perhaps the first time, I didn’t think of the infant sister I once
had wished & pined & pleaded for. I didn’t believe at last that
anything was missing. This baby had Cheerios on her plastic tray,
which she seemed to enjoy pushing around like a puerile version
of curling. I felt then that rare & false security that my hands were
actually free, which of course they aren’t and couldn’t be—whose are?
Listen: I married the woman I love. My lap is no stranger to cats.
I teach for a living & write for a livelihood.
Much is wrong with the world that I have not made better,
or can’t, or both. The first poem I wrote in graduate school
began: To be human is to know you could have done more—
that you didn’t, for whatever reason. Not a great line, but
perhaps a true line, & certainly a through-line of my life.
I am still trying, though. I am still failing. I am still driving
past the church called Our Lady of the Smile & misreading
Our Lady of the Simile, which makes me smile. My heart
is still dangling from my sleeve, but at least I invested in
an overcoat. Of course then I moved to Florida, so
that gesture is mostly moot. My heart is perennially tanned
or burned, ablaze or smoldering. There is not enough shade,
& there is too much shade—literally & metaphorically.
Mostly, when I see something, I say something, but
I’m not sure if it’s kind, not sure if it matters. Though I try. I essay.
And sometimes at breakfast time I sit on my balcony
with my feet up, & drink gallons of coffee. I notice how I’m
reveling. I fret that I’m not helping anyone.
Self-serving joy? Made-from-sorrow joy? Even, perhaps,
wisdom-bearing joy? I don’t know. I still have questions—a bucketful.
Bye, Thirties. I promise I’ll write you, & I will.
For my fortieth birthday, I thought I would write myself a poem. I am already in the habit each year of writing a meditation in prose, but forty felt like a poem year, a long poem in unrhymed couplets, in fact. As I wrote, I discovered I wasn’t actually writing for myself (though I was) but with an awareness of my students, the questions they have asked me over the years about writing and teaching and living, too, how these practices are inevitably intertwined. In September 2019, when I turned forty, I realized I was also beginning my eighteenth year of teaching. I started teaching young. I had just graduated from college myself. I was just on the verge of coming out. My life was in flux. I was falling in love with another young graduate student instructor. Now here I am, still teaching, still writing, still in love with that same woman, who became a librarian and married me when the laws changed. What have I learned? What do I know? As a woman without children by choice, I still have a yearning to pass something on to the next generation of writers and students and teachers. What is it? What can I say that might be of value to you?
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