A Mathematician’s Sonnet

So algebra is not aligned to taste:
A bunch of letters dancing without need.
You find the dancers nothing but a waste?
My friend, some words on this you ought to heed:

We start with adding, just as shepherds did
To count their flocks when sent to fields by day.
Subtraction’s just some adding being hid
At dusk, when sheep are sent the other way.

The builders found a need to multiply
When roofs that needed thatch and floors were laid.
Then came the lengths, with measurements to try
The patience of the architect’s tirade.

And so, foundation set, we built a realm
With algebra to set upon the helm.

— ptkh 06.12.18

villanelles

A student spoke of writing a sonnet, and I mentioned that I’d written some once, once upon a time. She sounded like she didn’t believe me, like this wasn’t something that she’d expect a math teacher to do. I said I’d written some villanelles, once, too. But I couldn’t tell her if I still had them, because as much of a packrat as I am, I’m a disorganized packrat.

In a closet in the house of my mother-in-law, now deceased, I found two cases that I used to use, as a small child, as a child the age my son is now, to keep all my homework papers. I thought I’d thrown them out years ago, and yet, here they are. I haven’t looked in them because it feels like it’s something I can put off for another few weeks. And I’m not sure I want to see. They’re Al Capone vault, and I know they will be far more boring than I remember.

Somewhere, I have a book I wrote when I was in first or second grade, about a dog that’s caught in a snowstorm, being hunted. Somewhere, I have a book I wrote when I was in middle school. In the back is a Polaroid of me in a turtleneck and a pretentious cap, with a pipe in my mouth. The pipe I’d borrowed from Stephan Vernier’s father.

Years ago, I found Stephan on the internet. He was living in the Netherlands. He didn’t seem to want to remember me. We had been best friends in middle school, but even though we hung out in high school, he pushed me away.

Yesterday, I found the villanelles. They’re twenty years old. I suppose I wrote them when I was on Grex, when the internet was still dial-up and text-based and innocent and weird, around the time that I was a selfish person who was so very content in his spiritual grime. And the people who only knew the outer layer thought I was a jester.

I think that’s how all jesters are.

I think I need to write another villanelle.

White Dusk

fate’s fickle finger
is cold gray steel
filled with hot white pus

angry and impotent:
it is its impotence that
makes it angry
makes it flash across the sky
makes it rain down blood
like hot lava
in the fading day

this is the sunset

tonight, the white man in the moon
will gaze down sideways
at what he’s wrought

tomorrow will be a new day
filled with color and brightness
as wisping white clouds
throw diminishing shade
on the world below

but here, at dusk
fate’s fickle finger
is cold gray steel

Meandering

Mindful of the road, I
Make my way forward, still
Melancholy, still quiet…
Muddied in still waters,
Muddled with clarity.
Might another false step
Matter? I cannot say.

— ptkh 06.03.18

i want to write my flesh

i want to write my flesh
and stretch the words
slowly out along the curls
of vapor escaping my lungs

i want to write my flesh
and let it seize upon my sinews
until they snap and scream
and leave my muscles sore

i want to write my flesh
on leaves of slate and crystal
with chalk of bone
ground from the beast i was

i want to write my flesh
and read yours instead

ptkh 02.09.18

This Voice

This voice says: Shut up.

This voice says that nobody wants to hear from another broken white man.

This voice says that there are people who suffer more than you, people who face obstacles so large that you can’t even imagine it.

This voice says there have been enough white men talking.

It’s time to stop.

It’s time to curl up and wait for the wind to blow your dust into oblivion.

But.

This voice is the voice of another white man. And the white man is the devil.

This voice doesn’t care about the suffering of others.

This voice doesn’t want to make room for them.

It only wants to stop a betrayer from talking.

It is used to the echoes of its baritone against the walls of its toxic male echo chamber.

It tries to convince me that it is the voice of enlightenment, but it is not.

This voice is the patriarchy, hissing at a man who never quite fit in.

This voice does not want its secrets revealed.

This voice contorts and slithers and hides its form beneath a sheen of logic and sincerity.

This voice screams: Shut up.

And I bow my head and let it silence me.

Until I don’t.

Fragment of a dream

I woke, but the dream retained its tendrils in my heart. I had dreamed of a white house with no windows; I was standing outside of it, looking for the door. The sidewalk was cracked, and had heaved from the pressures of the frost and the roots of the tree that stood over my head.

There were fence posts surrounding the property, but no fence: It had been torn away years ago, leaving just the pales as beacons of the long-lost barricade. And the grass, once green, was brown and dried from the ongoing drought.

In the distance, the morning sky burned in purple and crimson as angels wept blood for another lost soul.

sometimes words

sometimes words do not have the expanse
to fit the truth they’re trying to hold

i am an apostate
i am not the first

the streetlights that dimly guide my way
are lit by the souls of those who went before
the furtive glow and the long shadows
belie the keening inside their bulbs

behind me: the church from which i’ve been cast
exiled
although my membership had always been conditional

before me: the labyrinthine forest
begging
to be set aflame, burning in concert with my fervor

beside me: the flickering of gaslit bulbs
hissing
hissing
hissing

straining to entice me
to action

and then the words run out of space
and explode into silence

— ptkh 102217

the first time

the first time i saw a naked female breast
i was ten years old
or so

i had thrown a dictionary at a girl’s head in third grade
although i don’t remember that
(a piece of paper i found years later said it
so it must be true)

i was labeled ‘emotionally impaired’
which nobody knew what to do with
in my small town school

i got to go to the resource room
twice a week or whenever i felt ‘overwhelmed’
to spend time with kids i had already learned to call
by a word i’ve since committed not to use

i made a frog out of liquid latex
and a trilobyte with a plaster mold
and i tried to listen to moby dick on a cassette
but the teacher couldn’t match the book with the tape

once a month i would get on the bus with those kids
and go to a special high school
for kids who were more ‘impaired’ than we were

and we’d build stuff and play duck-duck-goose and
pretend
that the kids at our home school weren’t calling us
by a word i’ve since committed not to use

one summer the father who didn’t know how to deal
with my storm clouds
decided
to send me to a camp for children with problems

we played on the trampoline and hung out and did camp stuff
just like the church summer camps i’d been to before
and just like the church summer camps i’d been to before
most of the children weren’t like me

i was an outcast among outcasts
i was a gifted child who threw things
when eddie vedder told me years later about jeremy
he was singing about me

during the weekend between sessions
most of the children went home
the ones who didn’t were moved into two cabins

but

there was one too many boys for the boys’ cabin
so they put me in the girls’ cabin
because i was the most okay
because i was mature for my age
because i wasn’t like most of the children there

we were changing for a swim
the girls told me to put my face in the pillow
until they told me to look

the first time i slipped
i saw a girl’s socked foot
and she squealed in shame
and told me to put my face in the pillow
until they told me to look

then they ignored me and talked
like the middle schoolers they were
like the middle schooler i wasn’t

then the one whose socked foot i’d seen
said something to me
it had been so long i figured it was okay
so i lifted my head to speak

and there they were
her naked breasts
curved teardrops
hanging free as she bent over
a few feet away from me

and she smiled at me and said something else
and i buried my face in the pillow
and waited for them to tell me to look

she laughed
and the other girls laughed
as my cheeks burned and i pushed my face into the pillow

i wondered why it was terrible if i saw her shoeless sock
but funny if i saw her breasts
and decided it was because she was called
by a word i’ve since committed not to use

now i know that she was just a normal middle school girl
trying to figure things out
and i was a boy with dark stormclouds
who threw dictionaries at little girls’ heads

trying to figure things out

— ptkh 102117

Songs of the Wolf #1

On my car stereo this morning was Rob Jungklas’s “John Doe“, one of the best songs you’ve never heard of. And I have the thought that there’s a small cadre of people that listen to Jungklas and are impressed with him, and they’re his audience.

This evening, I’m thinking about how frustrating it is that I keep waiting for an essay of mine to break through, to hit that perfect beat, and it occurs to me that maybe it won’t happen, but maybe I have a small mostly invisible cadre of people that read my essays and are impressed with them, and you’re impressed with me.

Then I think about my father’s words that I was too good to be a writer to ever be famous, which was his fatherly way at the time to protect me from the harsh reality that I wasn’t a very good writer.

But there was a kernel of truth: “Goodness” isn’t a reliable predictor of how famous a writer will be. “You’ll never be famous” is one message that the big bad wolf keeps telling me to keep me from writing.