My own animation of my poem “Delicate Cycles” was included in the MN Jewish Artists Lab’s 2020 virtual exhibition “Muddy Waters” at the MN JCC Virtual Galleries.
After a morning highway ride
to Savar, passing roadside piles
of white bags stuffed
with broadcloth pockets,
gingham shirt fronts,
of cotton remains
after riding past smokestacks
rising through dirt,
from buried kilns
baking handmade bricks,
after watching, in Savar,
Rana Plaza survivors
push pant legs through
loud as machine guns,
after reaching, by afternoon,
Dhaka’s public cemetery,
to see how microbes
Rana Plaza dead,
after sunset dims my view
of Dhaka’s women garment workers
to silhouettes climbing
on fire escapes, like worker ants,
from one factory floor
after sitting in starless night
on a mattress in a muddy yard
opposite Pamina, who says:
I have no way out
of the garment industry,
I am confined
with the betterment of my children,
I lie in my hotel bed,
awake to American techno-pop,
a nearby disco.
Red, white, blue, flash
into the night with every beat.
Soldiers at the hotel entrance
guard guests—potential targets
for handmade bombs.
After two weeks in Bangladesh,
I long for this country’s
five a.m. call to prayer,
my own country’s music
If You Wave a Chicken Over Your Head
is Alison’s collection of very short stories
published by Red Bird Chapbooks.
Each story of one thousand words or less in Alison Morse’s If You Wave a Chicken Over Your Head offers a tiny universe. Here, original voices bring their distinct circumstances and compelling troubles to life with honesty and humor. We embark on a wild and glorious ride, immersed in perfectly rendered specificity: food and drink; art supplies; ancient and contemporary history; multiple Jewish cultures; popular music; and climate change. Across time and geography, these characters each seem to wonder: how can one live out goodness in this eternally flawed world? Thankfully, Morse offers no easy morality or pat answers. Instead, her rich images and intimate details add up, and the work is elevated: each line a captivating poem, every story an illumination.
—Beth Mayer, Editor of If You Wave a Chicken Over Your Head
The night before my mother died, she opened her eyes, sat up, and vomited her hospice dinner. I wiped her chin with trembling hands.
She whispered: “Honey, you’re already forty one. I should have taught you how to kill a chicken. Maybe then you wouldn’t be so afraid.”
I tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t start an argument. She fell back asleep.
“I don’t want to lose you,” I said.
She did not wake up, and stopped breathing at five a.m. Three hours later the mortuary attendants zipped her body, emaciated from breast cancer, into a rubber bag. I forced myself to watch—determined to prove to her how courageous I could be.
For the funeral, my husband Josh made a poster out of my favorite photo of her, taken when she was thirteen on her parents’ farm in North Dakota. In it, she’s smiling, wearing jeans. A cowboy hat tilts over one eye. Hens peck the ground by her feet, oblivious to the Jewish farm girl who took pride in cutting their throats with one clean thwack.
The rabbi from the funeral home, who’d never met my mother, conducted the service. I had fed him her story: the promise of freedom that led my Polish Jewish grandparents—who had never tilled a field—to cheap land in North Dakota, my mother’s birth and farm girl childhood; her senior year of high school adjusting to Minneapolis after the farm inevitably failed; her first love, which led to me; my father’s early death; her nursing career. When the rabbi mentioned my mother’s prowess as a kosher chicken butcher (there were no official shohets near the farm), I looked at the poster of her.
“Wimp,” her smile said to me.
My face grew hot; tears welled. I turned away and locked my arm around Josh’s. We were both Minneapolis born and raised, web designers whose closest ties to farming were our trips to farmer’s markets.
When we got home, I burst out crying, told Josh about my mother’s last words, the feeling that I’d failed her.
“You can always learn to kill a chicken,” he said.
He googled “chicken kill Minneapolis” and found Fresh Feather Organic Poultry Farm. They offered a class called “Total Chicken Preparation.”
“We could go together and learn to slaughter, pluck and clean in one session.”
The idea was unfathomable. I could barely stand to touch raw supermarket poultry.
All the next week I had nightmares. In each one, my mother ordered me to kill a chicken. I always failed: the chicken ran away; the knife was too dull; the chicken pecked my hands. My mother would cluck her tongue and say, “such a disappointment,” her real-life reaction to many of my life choices: to do drugs and party; to not choose a career in a helping profession, like a good Jewish woman—even a secular one—should; to not have kids. By the week’s end, I was exhausted.
I returned to Fresh Feather Farm’s website. Under the class description was a quote from a New York Times food writer: “The best way to be completely responsible for what you put in your mouth is to process your own meat.” I, too, needed to take responsibility—for silencing my mother’s voice.
The next Saturday, Josh and I drove the half hour to Fresh Feather Farm, a compound of aluminum Quonset huts and cement block buildings. Plump brown hens wandered in the newly mown grass. Behind a wire fence, turkeys picked at raspberries.
Our teachers, Mark and Mary Fleischman, whose sun-puckered, pink faces looked nearly identical, stood in the driveway while we parked, then led us inside a windowless building.
We donned rubber boots, gloves and aprons and entered the “Preparation Area,” a room with a drain on the floor and a large, steel, wheel-like structure that held eight upside-down traffic cones. In one corner, in a crate, sat four fluffy hens that our teachers called “The Broilers.” Mark Fleischman took one of the broilers out of the crate, grabbed her by the feet and held her, head first, in a traffic cone. The bird squawked shrilly and beat the air in protest. Feathers flew. When Mary Fleischman handed a knife to her husband, my throat constricted. I stumbled to a wall and leaned against it, short of breath. Josh tried to hug me. His big body blocked the air. Gasping, I ran out of the building.
Outside, I breathed in pungent fowl odor, and remembered a story my mother told me. One Yom Kippur on the farm, her aunt asked her to participate in Kaparot, a ritual where you wave a chicken over your head and recite a prayer that transfers your sins to the chicken. Then you kill the bird and give it away. My mother, though still a child, refused to participate. She said: “Why shouldn’t I eat the chicken myself? I’m responsible for my own sins.”
After a half an hour, Josh walked out of the extermination building holding up a pink chicken body in a plastic bag as if it were a trophy. “I’ll grill this tonight.”
“How can you eat something you just killed?”
Josh’s face turned red. “I thought you wanted this.”
I hated him then.
When we got home, I asked Josh to put the chicken in the freezer. “How about another night?”
The next day, while Josh was out running errands, I opened the refrigerator, hid the frozen carcass under my shirt, walked twenty blocks to a trashcan, and slipped the bird in.
I told Josh I had donated the chicken to the Second Harvest food shelf.
“It’s for a good cause,” I said, and offered to make us lentils for dinner.
That night, while undressing for bed, I was horrified to see a red blob of frostbite on my stomach.
“What’s that?” asked Josh, already in bed. I wanted to blame him, my mother and the chicken for the swelling. I couldn’t.
a story in Alison’s chapbook If You Wave a Chicken Over Your Head
originally published in The Potomac
We found him first.
One Saturday evening, a few of us wandered into a neighborhood Starbucks and saw him facing a group of empty chairs. He bit his lip and twitched, first one eye, then the other. Then he thrust around the rest of his body, curled and unfurled his limbs, spoke as he wobbled. We agreed: he was very awkward.
We felt so sorry for him that we sat down and phoned more friends to come join us. His performances soon became our weekly ritual.
Often he would spill his coffee, blush and stumble, smoke too many cigarettes, spit as he spoke.
He spoke about the celebrities on the cover of People magazine, the beautiful ones who inhabited his dreams—particularly Winona Ryder. He loved her butterfly nervousness, her predilection for shoplifting, swore she was a kindred spirit.
He spoke about his overabundant chest hairs and farts; demons in the shapes of his boss, his wife and his mother that appeared when he drank too many Grain Belts; all the women he wanted to fuck. The women among us liked that part best. When he talked about how the soccer mom, whose quiet dissatisfaction with her life of laundry, hot pockets and TV football filled her jeans so entirely that he swooned with desire whenever he saw her, we women spilled pearl tears and applauded until our hands were numb.
But us guys applauded too. We saw ourselves in his greenish pallor, hunched up shoulders, thinning hair, in the paunch beginning to develop above his belt, the red-rimmed lids from too many wide-eyed nights spent worrying about his sub-prime mortgage, the cost of Ritalin prescriptions for his ADHD kids, the fantasy of robbing the nearest Super America to pay for his dream car: a Hummer.
We all wanted to hear him whine about how the war in Iraq was bad because Bush’s presidential speeches preempted episodes of American Idol. We wanted to see him shake his fist at a god who refused to make him anything but ordinary. And, most of all, we wanted to see him twitch. He twitched with a desire to leave his skin behind, to have us see how his insides worked: his heart’s contractions; his blood’s capillary action; the filling and emptying of lungs, stomach and intestines; the flapping of his glottal stop. Seeing him so uncomfortable helped relax us. After his performances, our smiles were a little broader, our spouses more attractive. Soon we became a penumbra of viewers crowded around him, clamoring to see him teeter.
He decided to charge admission. Of course we agreed to pay; we wanted to keep his twitchiness warm in our embrace. When he spoke of his desire to be seen by the wider world, our expanding club—which had reached three digits-—encouraged him to perform past the confines of the coffee shop. Why not? Even if he came to nothing-—and we knew he would come to nothing—why shouldn’t he be given a chance?
We helped him book an evening at a real theater and bought every ticket ourselves, except for the expensive front row seats. We sat together, one whispering, giggling, fidgeting mass, waiting for the performance to begin. But before the lights were lowered, a line of people entered the theater in single file and filled all the front row seats. No one looked familiar except for one girl, as graceful as a bamboo reed—the spitting image of Winona Ryder.
Who were these intruders into our universe, we grumbled to each other.
Then the lights dimmed and the curtain rose. There he was. A veil of sweat already covered his face. He stood behind the microphone and stared into the darkness. He scratched his head. He fumbled in his pockets. He walked to the edge of the stage and squinted as if he were searching the dark for our faces.
“Lights,” he shouted, his voice cracking. The houselights were raised. He took his hands out of his pockets and relaxed his facial features. We sighed with relief.
The performance began in earnest. He started with his familiar sequence: the twitch of an eye, a spastic flick of the neck, an arrhythmic jerking of arms and back and shoulders in sync with his litany of sins.
And then he stopped. He stood stock-still and stared straight into the front row of the audience (later we swore he had fixed his gaze on the Winona Ryder look-alike). His face trembled; tears streamed down his face. His whole body shivered in a fluid ripple that flowed through his arms and caused them to figure eight like eagle wings. He flapped and flapped until he had lifted himself off the ground and was spinning in the air.
It was a miracle; and frankly, we were upset because, with each spin, he became more and more transparent until we could clearly see the blue and green and gray of his organs, muscles, ligaments, and bones. All along we had been fooled: we thought we were doing him a great big favor—but we were simply a means to an end. He was circling toward a light beyond us. All we could do was sit in our seats and watch.
first published in Poetry City, U.S.A.
reprinted in The News, Mexico
Under the metal wing
of another plane leaving home
a field of clouds, moisture
no one can hold
under the clouds
a white page of snow
under the snow
roofs like book covers
under the roofs
our cranial bones
our songs remembering
life after leaving:
in the city
we walked in rags
wrapped around our feet
hunger held us;
we did well
if we had potatoes
new laws took
our fathers’ work
then took our fathers
they aimed at our elders’ hearts
with God’s enemies”
led us to clothed bones
in barrels; yes, we said
these are our sons, disappeared.
Certain of always losing
we stand on the Strong Cliff
ready to strike.
Our tongues tremble
with this exile.
Yet, under our songs of the separated
our roots sing through soil
to other root clusters
feeding trunks, branches
leaves of every shape and language
under the leaves, the word
under the word
published in Poetry City, U.S.A.
made into a song by composer Sarah Miller
On the scan of her after-stroke brain, we see her alien graymatterscape
darkened by pools of dead neurons we dub The Great Lakes of Dementia:
Lake Nonsense, Lake Lost Way, Lake Can’t Be Left Alone,
Lake Scrambled Space and Time, Lake Black Hole.
She greets the plumber, sock on one hand, pants at her ankles, oh, the turmoil
in Ukraine. From her chair into walls she can’t see, she bolts,
rebounds, shuffles over her big toes on the way to her piano.
The Chopin etude she first learned more than sixty years ago
clangs atonal until one arpeggio, two, three, harmonize past her plaques and tangles,
hammer a chain of heat through the piano’s lacquered burls, wires, ivory keys,
the yolk-yellow finches perched like grace notes on the feeder,
our helpless hands in our laps as we listen, submerged with her
in Lake Pleaseanneal, Lake Inexpress, Lake Sing Hilarity, Lake Nothing, Lake Boundless.
published in Water~Stone Review
part of The Price of Our Clothes
Red threads protrude
from the tips of my fingers,
weaving loom warp
attached to the clucking tongue
of my mother. She says,
why are you wearing that shmattah?
Her words steer my hands
to the nearest fashion outlet,
rifle through rack after rack
for the cheapest blouses, skirts
and trousers to make me
more slender, more
modern professional, more
American shikse, less
and under this warp,
threads of the years
my grandma and great aunts
made by hand
in garment factories,
work to trampoline
my mother and me
shoot through the skin
of my fingertips, fan out
like scarlet highways
past my American horizon,
touch down in Dhaka
as running stitches
so red, they vibrate
a green kameez,
its label, Made in Bangladesh,
We Care, promises
artisans paid enough.
To meet Khadija, twenty,
factory shirtmaker since fourteen,
I wear my green kameez
embroidered with threads
as red as gashes
marking the palms
of women and men
at Lifestyle, a factory
contracting knifers to cut
deep through the hands
of workers who, together,
marched Dhaka streets
roaring for human workday
goals and wages. Change.
Khadija tells the translator
to ask me: why are you here?
I say: I come from a family
of garment workers.
A century ago, the same
things happened in my country.
Kadija says: Bandhu, Friend.
Bangla and English
hum through the fabric
under my skin.