Mudlark Poster No. 145 (2017)

Mistaken for Strangers
Poems by Michael Milburn

Updike | Mistaken for Strangers | In the Subway
Night In | Parent Profile | Outside In | Top of the Class
Nickname | Junior Colleague | Regret-Free Abortion

Updike

His son was in my college class
so he agreed to speak
at our senior banquet,
tablecloths and ties 
in a high-ceilinged dining hall, 

and during dessert
a slide show of our baby pictures,
after which he stood at a podium
and mused about what it must be like for us
to see ourselves as toddlers.

Hearing him imagine reality
from our perspective 
of watching remembered reality
made me think that this was 
what made a person a writer

and vice versa, 
because it was him up there too,
snapping away with an Instamatic.
What he said 
could have been said 

by any of our fathers—
teachers, postmen, lawyers—
but the banquet committee 
knew who we wanted to hear
and I knew what I wanted to be.

Mistaken for Strangers

She’s nothing like
her older sister, May—
no waving her hand, 
blurting answers, 
borrowing my books, 
lending me hers.

The younger sister, 
you could say, 
suffers by comparison—
quiet, slow to smile,
hard to read.
When class ends 
she gathers her things 
and leaves,
none of May’s 
leisurely post-class 
“Isn’t there someplace you’re supposed to be, May?” 
chats.

Here’s the thing about personality—
it’s like a great fancy coat handed out, 
neither asked for nor earned. 
That’s the part of May I miss, 
that makes me feel petulantly 
un-responded to and un-entertained 
by her sister,
but what’s underneath the coat
is personality too, not its lack,
no matter how we act.

In the Subway

She moves muttering 
along the car, and it’s 
unclear if she’s selling

or telling or channeling
or answering voices or 
who knows? a prophet,

as it’s always on even
this unbeliever’s mind
to note whom he turns

his back on, and fails 
to hear, heed, help, or
humble himself before.

Night In

He’d visit me on
weekends and vacations,
the usual custody deal,
staying up later 
as he got older,
watching reruns 
of Seinfeld or Raymond,

and long after I turned out my light 
I’d hear him guffawing,
a sound I still summon 
when stress or sadness 
reminds me to dwell 
on something good. 

All he needed
was a sofa, TV,
refrigerator access,
the impunity 
to let his stinky socks lie 
where he’d toed 
them off his feet, 
and, I like to think, 
present if not visible, 
me.

Parent Profile

He called me polite, 
as if this set me apart 
from the other fathers,
none of them so polite 
that their sons would think to say so
in an English assignment.

They’re civil in their greetings, 
but I’m exceedingly cordial,
an almost aggressive pleaser, 
or non-displeaser,
who thinks of gruff types 
as more capable of intimacy
because politeness makes for 
a kind of veneer between people, 
a ritual of consecutive oaths like formal bows 
that brings them no closer to one another 
than if they sent ambassadors 
to negotiate on their behalf, 
whereas the guy who barges, blurts, and leaves
leads with his personality as it were,
diplomacy be damned.

I can’t say how my son 
would feel about having 
a barger/blurter for a dad; 
he’d probably just call me 
tough, tall, or a good driver,
leaving manners out of it.
He doesn’t know how 
growing up with alcoholism 
leaves one loath to rile or oppose, 
which makes politeness
a quality that I have 
more than one that I want,
but still one I want for him, 
even intimacy be damned.

Outside In

1.

Dillinger’s toe tag humanizes him	
the photographer must have thought,
admitted into the morgue
with his flashbulbs,
a gangster’s mythic toughness 
reduced to corns and shiny skin.

2.

Waiting for the train,
I stand next to a guy 
who seems average everything,
height, dress, looks,
and wonder whether 
at times of great anxiousness
I exude blandness, 
no inner turmoil showing through 
like hot spots in a thermal image.

If only appearance ran 
deep enough to inhabit. 

3.

JFK once said about
grave decisions he had to make—
“These things have always been done by men, 
and they can be done now”—
a frail man 
in a regal room
following his mortal judgment.

Top of the Class

She’s so 
blandly curious, 
blandly creative, 
blandly articulate,
blandly a good writer,
I crave a new category 
grounded in originality 
to grade her down on.

A’s on essays, 100’s on quizzes—
how to address her deficiency,
the need to be less competent at this
and more inspired at that, 
like the boy whose answers
with half the minimum required words 
show twice the maximum 
expected imagination.

Knowing her,
she’ll press for specificity
on what she can remedy,
when all that she needs
is to be a little bit worse.

Nickname

Let’s just say I was 
hardly light of tread
and if it hadn’t been apt,
perfect in one boy’s whispered approval,
and I hadn’t immediately, stupidly
let on my dismay,
it wouldn’t have stuck.

As for the kid a grade ahead 
who liked me 
but thought it funny
when I clomped down the hall 
in a crowd at his heels 
after a teacher caught a whiff of cigarette smoke 
and neared, knocking on dormitory doors,

how could he fail to foresee 
what I knew instantly,
the swarming content
of what he said—
a label I hated
based on a physique I regretted
in a school where I was unhappy

and hungered
for both the affection contained in his 
and the familiarity coloring the others’ 
naming,
just enough to make me think 
that by virtue of being branded
I belonged.

Junior Colleague

I used to counsel her
like a grizzled sage,
reminding her more than once
that I was twice her age.

She wanted everything
the way youth does,
as if exuberance 
created opportunity and time,
as if one could go out 
and stay home,
partake and decline.

Then she moved away 
and had a child
and now she’s back,
no longer half my age,
and with maturity, I assume,
however one acquires that—
through time or trial, 
or having to protect a life 
more knuckleheaded and fragile 
than one’s knuckleheaded, fragile own.

I look forward to seeing her, 
full of the gravitas she lacked,
though it would be welcome
if she’s not,
if what I took for youth
was character—hers—
and she could teach me this time, 
minus the patronizing words.

Regret-Free Abortion

I know my place 
as a man 
who never has had
and never will have 
this experience,

meaning shutting up
is advisable 
and I would, 
not wanting to field 
any arguments

of the what could 
you know about it 
kind,
or let down
the liberal side,

except insofar
as I might ever feel
or have felt the pain,
more grief than guilt,
borne, not banished,

by which one knows 
there was something 
and then there wasn’t 
and it was something 
one would have loved.

Michael Milburn teaches English in New Haven, CT. His poems have appeared as a Mudlark Poster in 2014 and a Mudlark Flash in 2015. He has essays published or forthcoming in Kestrel, Eclectica, and Antigonish Review.

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