Poems by Jessica Karbowiak

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by Jessica Karbowiak

From Canary Summer 2012

Jessica lives in the heart of the Southern Long Island watershed, just a few miles from the Fire Island National Seashore.

The year I turn twenty-four, I beat cancer, bear an intrusive chest surgery and finish college. I lift and push my body out of bed and tread flat-footed to the guest bedroom. I sit for many hours, bandaged and weary, in the darkness. I peer out window at the quiet Texas street, feel a tingling rise in my body and smother. I pull back the thick blue curtains and crawl outside. Iím not sure why I do this, why I donít use the front door.

       I walk barefoot down the block. I pause at the entryway to our neat suburban development, Katy Crossing, and wait. It is really no suburban den at all, merely a sliver of civilization affixed to an otherwise rural countryside. Yellowed grass and fencing go on for miles across the road, a farm rife with cows, pigs and horses. Iím a New York girl. These things are not the things I know. The smell of hay and pig shit envelops me, and I follow it, climb the dilapidated fence, walk just as calmly as you please into the grazing land.

       This is someone elseís property. Iíve seen the old man, hunched and over-wrinkled, working his plow through the fields. On the way to school once, I sat in my truck at the corner, watched his deliberate efforts to cut a calf out of the barbed wire ring lining his property. His steady demeanor was being clouded by the calfís bellow, chaotic and fearful, so I lit a cigarette with trembling hands as I turned left to drive to school.

       This night, I walk. It is late, maybe one in the morning, but there is movement in the far corner of the pasture. My feet hit bristle and coarse growth as I move toward the shadow of what looks to be a large animal. He pauses as I move close, head lifted to sound, and I continue on, slower than before. When I get near enough to realize it is only a donkey, I laugh to myself. I suppose in my poetic imagining, I expected a stallion, a mare with doe-brown eyes, but only he is here. All paling gray and white undercoat, a crooked left ear hanging over a grotesque and large head. His eyes crossed and his lips outlined in a darker, dreary gray.

       God, youíre ugly, I tell him though I am careful not to be over-loud.

       My right hand pushes out into warm Texas air, covering the distance between us. He back-steps briefly and then stills.

       Iím not going to hurt you, I say. If he is alarmed or irritated, he makes no sign. He just stands there, ever-still and waiting. What are you doing out here alone?

       My hand alights on the coarse fur of his bulbous head. I rough-whisper you ugly thing, as my fingers touch and rub, and he makes an almost-sigh, begins blinking his eyelids more until he is heavy-lidded. I touch the rough of him as he bends his shoulders and front legs toward me, curves his head into the shape of my hand. I blink tears, resist the urge to curl up beside him, press my weary and damaged self into his whole body to rest in the grass until morning.

       I lean down and kiss his ragged head, and I walk away. I donít look back at him to see if he awakens, and I donít visit him again. Sometimes I will see him as I drive past on my way into town, the doctorís office, and let my eyes linger. He is the first living thing that stirs something within me after trauma. Something found instead of lost this time, and that night, I walk across the grass, back up my silent street and go home to think, think back to my Doctor Doolittle childhood. Furred and warming animal bodies, the play and romp of them, a tender connection forgotten and later the saving thing, the thing I remember to know.


A few months later, a bird alights on the spare tire hanging on the back of my truck. I am on my way to class and late, idling at the corner and waiting for traffic to ebb. I catch sight of him in my rearview, the bigness of him, blue-black shimmer and loud call. For some reason, a grackleóthe nuisance bird of the southódecides to follow me to school.

       I exhale smoke out the driverís side window, turn my car onto Weir Road and make my way up to the light at the corner. Still, he perches, awkward-footed, small head and huge body.

       What the hell do you want? Iím hitting the highway soon, buddy, so you better beat it.

       I speak out the window-slit and he seems to hear me, head cocked crooked in my direction. The light turns green and I drive through the two small streets of town to the light before the I-35 entrance ramp. In spite of myself, I stay in the right lane and slow my pace. I peek in my mirror every few seconds to see if heís flown off.

       On 35, I do an even forty-five in the right lane with my hazards on. Iím irritated with myself for this; Iím definitely going to be late for class. Still, the grackle sits there on my spare tire at the rear of the car. I get as far as Pflugerville before I decide to take an exit ramp, school be damned.

       A jackass in a yellow car cuts me off on the exit ramp, and I have to hit my brakes not to hit him. I curse out loud and give him a dirty look, and check on my bird. Heís moving as I sit in off-ramp traffic, lifting blue-black wings in large breadth to flutter. Iím in tears somehow by this point; I feel responsible for this damn grackle, the one that hogs my back tire and stubborns to move.

       I open my window farther, call out, you must live near my house. Iíll take you home. This is too far.

       He flutters wings down and Iím almost sure he understands. Though I know this is dumb, heís just a damn bird, and my bird knowledge is limitedódo they even have real homes and families?óstill I donít want him to go.

       I take the u-turn and stay right-lane-friendly with hazards lit, get curious looks from the passersby in other lanes.

       Youíre ridiculous, I tell him out the window and into the wind. This would only happen to me, I call out and laugh, shake my head, but secretly I am grateful for the company, this boisterous and ballsy bird choosing my car for travel. When I get to the edge of Weir Road, he lifts wings and takes flight. I sit at the corner for a minute idling and watch him move, feel somehow more responsible than if I had made it to class and on time.


February brings a call from a friend. There is a neglected and beaten hound dog that needs a home. Iím not thrilled at the prospect. I already have a cat and dog, teaching and classes, grading and writing.

       Just come see him, maybe, and then decide, is the hook the friend uses.

        Iím not sure, I say. Really, itís not a good time.

        Just come see and maybe you can foster only, until we find him a good home.

        Let me think about it.

       Mid-February, I relent. I drive to meet my friend, see her standing outside the huge pet store in Round Rock, leashed to a small and lopsided-looking dog. I hug my friend as the barrel-chested dog noses me. Heís another hound dog, a basset, all ears and belly. Like a sucker, I take him from her, walk into the store and buy a few things I may need.

       By mid-March he owns the house. His guttural, deep-bellied howl coming from the yard makes me laugh. The way he bounds his body on the grass, ears flying outward, tongue flailing. I call my friend later that night to tell her he can stay.

       I told you youíd love him.

       Shut up. Heís ridiculous.

       He needs you.


       You may need him, too.

       Not bloody likely, I say.

       Itís been a month and still he concaves his belly at my approach, a sure-sign of abuse. He inches away as I approach, inches closer as I recede. He is weary of the human in me.

       Being sick is easy to fall back into, I tell him. If youíre not careful.

       He stares at me, open-eyed and leery.

       I want to tell him how I am crafted new and whole out of bones and memory, how that day does come, however slowly. I donít know how to say this and I weep, quietly so as not to wake the house while the lopsided dog stares without blinking.

       It is two weeks of inching closer, talking and weeping low-flung sounds in his direction before I courage and lift cautious hand up to his exposed left side. I nestle my head into belly-fur, whisper at him, itís okay, youíre safe here, Iím your saving thing, buddy, get used to it, and youíre mine, thatís all there is to it, all the while sobbing my own need at him, saying youíre crazy, over and over to myself, heís just a dog, not a person.


I learn the year Iím twenty-four to let the tender pulse through my veins, crack the torn-away things. I feel skin bristle; fill with fur which courses through this broken body to heal.

       I dump my boyfriend and finish school, come home that last day to lie on the couch and still my body. My cat and two dogs line their bodies against mine, a warming. I sob sadness out and pray:

       Make me bone and fur, heat and warming. Remove the human in me, the cold clot of memory. Let it sink down and out my shoes, fall to the floor. Replace it with a saving pelt in which I can carry myself. Let the small saving things enter, things I forgot, oh how did I forget, to carry them with me all this time?

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