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Best of Irish Poetry 2009
Best of Irish Poetry 2010

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KELLY SULLIVAN

 

 

 

 

Kelly Sullivan photo

 

Kelly Sullivan published a novel, Winter Bayou, with the Lilliput Press, Dublin, in 2005 and her poems have appeared in Poetry Ireland Review. She is currently a PhD candidate in literature at Boston College, in Massachusetts. She has worked as a veterinary technician, a bike courier in Dublin, a horse trainer, a news reporter, and currently serve as editorial assistant to Éire-Ireland, an interdisciplinary arts, literature, and history journal published in the United States.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alpha Canis Majoris

  

 

            She clung to him as they raced through the dark woods, the motor a constant whine in her ears and the headlight cutting a path that occasionally glimpsed the amber eyes of wild animals. The snowmobile clutched and kicked at the heavy snow, lumbering up the inclines and shimmying down hills. These moments she squeezed more tightly and suppressed a small scream in her throat. He used his legs to bank off the narrow passes when the machine wanted to ride high on ledge and flip, and when he did, she could feel the muscle in his thigh tighten against the seat and against her thigh. It was delicious.

            Every five minutes or so he would stop, turn off the engine, and they would sit like that until the night ticked back to silence and stillness. Then they would call the dog.

            Heidi!

            It was exciting, a search through the bitter night for a dog gone missing. The dog was his father’s, a big lab cross who wandered but always returned for the evening meal. She’d been missing for six hours, and the thermometer kept dropping. It would hit -30F the weather report said. The dog wouldn’t make it.

            Heidi!

            His voice traveled farther than hers, but she knew that if they happened upon the old dog, injured in some ancient coyote trap or full of porcupine quills or just plain exhausted, it was she who would be called upon to nurse the animal. She was the one with the common sense and animal know-how to take care of any brute thing. Just a few months before, when the weather was shockingly different than tonight and the earth seemed so fecund it would burst with its sex it was she who had stumbled upon the newborn calf, out of season, the exact color of the boggy land into which it had wandered.

            “You cold?” he asks her. His voice is more visible than audible. It is a puff of smoke in the air. “This is the kind of cold you can feel yourself dying.”

            She laughs. He leans forward over the handlebars and turns over the engine again and she wraps her arms around him once more and they scoot off into the darkness, cutting curves and lances with the machine’s cyclopean headlight. She’d almost stepped on the calf, had had to catch her foot just before she set it onto its hunkered-down head, had side-stepped and swore softly, crooning after. She could just barely get her arms around it, gathering it chest to rump so its legs swung loose underneath. There wasn’t much struggle.

            They stop again, this time at the top of Palatine Hill, just behind the farm. But honest, she doesn’t know where they are from the edge of the lake or the cedar flats by Glenner’s farm east. This is his territory, his homestead. She’s only been here for five months, though in those months she’s felt herself become embedded like a botfly, nestling in, cuddling up to this man who straddles the snowmobile, hanging on to him as he rides wildly. The first month she’d found the calf. It seemed, then, a sign. She’d cradled it and stumbled and swore up the brambled slope to the wide expanse of field where he was parting the grass with a stick, looking. He took it from her and slung it over his shoulders where it kept its head up for a minute, bobbing level as he walked. Before they had reached the dirt road back to the farm, the calf slacked its head against the man’s neck, curling it in front of him like a grasp.

            She’d gone riding with him in the pickup, dirt roads in the dark with the windows down and the stereo up and he’d turned the headlights off and they’d opened cans of beer and whooped and laughed up the old logging trails. But tonight the wild race has a mission. The dog hasn’t been found, though they’ve gone down every trail he knows within four miles of the farm. Now, on Palatine Hill, he pulls a bottle of beer from his coat pocket and pries off the cap with a long drywall screw. It foams and spills onto the snow, and she leans back onto her gloved hands and looks up at the sky.

            Heidi! He calls again before he takes a swig from the bottle and then passes it back to her. She drinks too, though she can feel it run cold down her throat on this cold night.

            “We’re not gonna find that stupid dog,” he announces.

            “We will.” She yells the dog’s name once more, and then they sit there, silent. She feels the bulk of him through his heavy jacket and ski pants. He’s muscular and lean with a body like a scythe. And she is young and beautiful. Just twenty-one, she knows this is her heaven and she’s already arrived and buried in, deep. She leans back again and looks up at the sky, bright with a million stars.

            “What’s that one?” she says, pointing to the northwestern quadrant.

            “What one?”

            “That one, the one that’s kinda green,” she says, and gestures again.

            He’s quiet for a minute, looking up. Then he takes a drink from the bottle.

            “It’s the Dogstar.”

            “No it’s not. You’re just saying that,” she laughs. Then she presses her head against his back and puts her arms around him and she can feel him laugh through the jacket, though he doesn’t make a sound. After a minute he offers her another drink, then, when she declines, he tips the bottle up into his mouth and chucks it far off the trail. It falls silently into the snow.

 

**

            No one finds the dog, not until the following spring when she is a matt of grey-brown fur sucked tight against a pile of bones in the clearing weather. She’d walked upon this one, too, though by late April with the roads deep in mud and the woods full of standing pools of snow melt, it is too late for heroics. The mercy is that the dog’s body remains at all, and can be buried.

            It is this, or something like it, that comes to mind when he pushes her against the wall and tells her, I need to fuck you. It is warm in the house; almost summer again with light dappling the floorboards. She is tossed about like an empty sweatshirt and the drift of it, the way she moves without willing movement, thrills her. She is aware of a film of sweat across her back. He sounds, something low and feral, like a growl, and that’s when the dog comes back to her. Or the calf. She isn’t sure. Just a flash of the chestnut brown fur curled about in the damp and low to the ground with the trees either pressing forward or receding. One’s the same as the other for that moment, she thinks, in that moment.

            He is all love after, petting her and kissing her bruised hipbones and kissing across her tight stomach. They lie across the bed now with the summer heat pressing into them; he still wears his t-shirt and his cock is a curling little thing like a hand in sleep. She believes in signs. But before today she’d never thought of them as contingent in their meaning. A thing meant a thing: a dead body ordained dark and a live animal saved was a portent of good. Here was a sign changed by another. She washes herself long in the shower, and she sleeps uneasily.

 

**

            In the summer hay fields her balance is all off. She stumbles, rights herself, swearing at granite ledge half-hidden under a thin cover of dirt and weedy fescue. This is what puts her off; she concentrates on bringing her center of gravity back over her feet. Everything is here within her: polestar, navigational grid, soft grip of her hands over his belly in the night. She is off-balance, trolling for the way. It is not like anyone says, and yet she knows. During the day, at her job tending dogs in the kennels, she touches things to align herself. All off kilter, she feels neither sickness nor desires for odd foods. She is sated, and she is disgusted with herself. Her body lithe, almost invisible, a whip, a birch branch stripped has betrayed her, gone to its own havoc.

            When it is confirmed, she wants nothing more than it gone. She has never been wronged by physical circumstance like this.

            After, she works. The kennels are a long cement row divided by chain-link fence each with a door to another chain-link run outside. She hoses them down the empty five and listens to the dogs yap and yowl beyond that bay. The soap is the same as that in car washes, and she scrubs with a brush that could attach to a car-wash hose. It foams up in a fierce-some rush. An Irish setter starts up a yowl in bay six, and she dips into her earphones, listening to Monk and Cecil Taylor, lost in cacophony.

 

**

            They find three dogs, a male and two females, at the back lot of a concert venue in the city. The dogs sniff around their pickup and won’t scare. He tosses a can at the one with the black muzzle. It jumps and slinks away, but loops back to sniff at him again. They move like skunks in the night. None of them have collars and the male half an ear missing from a dogfight has a rack of ribs worse than her own. She feels kinship with him, poor thing. He rides with his half-glistening jowls on her thin thigh all the way home. He never lets her out of his sight after that evening.

            They give them away, the smallest female to his father. She’s pale grey all over with a whippet thin abdomen and a face like a greyhound. The “found” ad in the newspaper’s worded just so: no one will claim them without showing they know the state they were in, the hunger, the minced teeth, pocked from grating at fencing. The two they keep longest don’t know from chaos: they climb onto table-tops and chew the knobs off the washing machine. They sleep on the bed and saw holes in the couch cushions where they bury bones full of marrow.

            When these two go, it is nearly autumn again. The trees are an ominous yellow at the edges, whole hillsides familiar one day and then gone different. She greets the man who appears at their house with his minivan and his two young children. He’d seen her small index-card posted at the kennel: two lab-shepherd crosses to a good home. Energetic, young, love everyone. Free to good home only! She’d written at the bottom to see the kennel-keeper herself and this man, a bank manager at the state capital nearby, told her he was worried the family’s old terrier would pass away and his kids, eight and eleven, would be broke-up over it.

            “They’re so attached. Animals mean something at that age.”

            “At any age,” the girl replies. She leans against push-broom and she’s aware that her little hips jut out of her little boy’s t-shirt, a thrift-store find advertising a wolf sanctuary to the north of them. The man nods, and they make arrangements. He’s dressed in a beige suit. The dress pants end just shy of his leather shoes. They’re scuffed, but new. She pushes the broom again, and puts in her headphones.

            At the house, he wears a pair of jeans, and his kids tumble out of the van and fall in love with the dogs. They’re healthier now, vetted out and fattened. They have glossy coats and let her clip their nails every week. When she calls them they bound over, jumping and wiggling and frantic with joy. She orders them to sit, and they do, but inch forward, nothing of them still.

            “So you live in the city?” she asks.

            “We live on Sheep Meadow Hill, by the rec fields and MacAlester Park.” He twigs. “Loads of space for dogs to run. They’ll be loved.” The kids are on the ground with the dogs, who lope and yap and circle back to lick.

            “It’s a nice little city,” she says, to pass time.

             They watch the kids play with the dogs. She’s alone tonight. The house behind her begins to glow out its soft interior light onto the daylilies and goutweed and the dusk.

            ‘Where do you come from?” he says.

            “Minnesota.”

            “That’s a long way.”

            “I wanted to see the mountains.”

            When the man leaves, he takes the dog leashes, the two metal food dishes she’d scrubbed clean before he arrived, the half-finished bag of chicken-and-rice flavored kibble. He backs out the drive and, in the far distance, the minivan’s taillights look like the eyes of an animal glanced in the bulb of a torch.

            The house is silent. She turns on the radio. She pours a glass of wine, and dials a number in Minnesota. It rings and rings, but no one answers and the voicemail doesn’t pick up. She turns on the radio and listens to jazz for an hour, sipping her wine. When she stands to try the phone again, the room jigs left, then right. She clarifies. Back in the room, a voice on the radio drones on about the night sky. It outlines the dates for comets, the coming eclipse. She pours another drink. and traveling down from the Canis Minor we reach Orion, the hunter, with his gleaming belt. Keep looking at the sky and you’ll see one star that outshines them all: this is Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Glance at the heavens in winter and chances are the star that catches your eye is the Dogstar.

            When she steps outside to look at the night sky, the world is loud. Frogs take up a chorus on the lake, and by the village she hears the thin tinkle of a piano through opened windows. There is no moon, but when she looks up, the stars are too numerous and dance together in an ugly blur. She cannot abide coincidence so she looks instead to the far distance, but can see nothing. Then she hears the motor of the truck, a mile off, maybe more. Here the dogs would signal his approach, barking and leaping at the windows. But the world lies still. She waits, and the engine climbs and then the headlights come into view, painting the world within their span vivid, and pushing everything beyond back into deeper pitch.

 

      

©2011 Kelly Sullivan

 

 

 

 

Author Links

 

Kelly Sullivan at Lilliput Press

Poetry Ireland Review

Éire-Ireland Journal

 

 

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