The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®

 

Dorothy Barresi

Skin

 

1.

To our universal belonging, barrier,
barrier
to our pouring out.

                                    *

Late to work, always late, I take the route that passing brings me
to the corner of Canoga & Saticoy

where three hard-bitten blondes
on a billboard above the corrugated fire doors
of Club XXX-Posed

bite their lips, and now, add to this premise
the unseen, enterprising youths who climbed midnight
to blacken blue eyes
with context

fuck fuck fuck

in fringed and curlicue gang monikers, making the strippers appear
frantically awake. Or, at the very least,

incapable of rest
should they require it.

And always at any hour, four or five jacked, malignant-looking pickup trucks insinuating

themselves
into the dust parking lot

where I have never seen a living soul come or go,

though I make my judgments, don’t I. My tribal dismissals,
aspersions,
my casting-out.


2.

I have problem skin, we say.
Beauty non-compliance.
Truculence.
No surface conformity, no virtuosity of smooth planes
uniformly pleasing to the light.

No single answer. No two shadows
rowing in the same direction at once.

                                    My father drew
our family crest this way:

two tubes of ointment
crossed
against a rampant red field.

Or we say it this way, with an air of ownership, I have a skin condition.

Papules, pustules, nodules, warts, cankers, cancers, welts,
scales that flake, the provenance
of Dark Age-related words then Renaissance—
roseola and rosacea
(Subtype One: flushing, redness;
Subtype Three: bumpy, thick skin on nose, see J. P. Morgan,
Old Strawberry Nose, who liked to say
“I owe the public nothing!”).
Affected areas
may be red, itchy, dry, greasy or oily.
There may be a loss of pigment. In these cases, what the skin lacks exhibits itself in positive
focal patterns which sometimes look
leopard-like.
Lipid failure. Seborrhoeic fatigue. Rash as carrier of red voices. Self-dividing
(thus multiplying) squamous cells. Shingles,
dish-shaped. Sunburn across nose and both cheeks.
The insincere double kiss
of plaque psoriasis crusting elbows and knees.
Blisters, diaper rash, erysipelas, bedsores, cutis laxa, impetigo.
Teenage skin a squall of jinxes,
Middle-aged skin a squall of hoaxes.
Lupus, hives, herpes, sebaceous bumps, keratosis:
mysterious of cure, flagrant in presentation.

I was so embarrassed
I always looked down as a kid, covered my chin with my hand to ape
a reflective nature when really I was just covering
my acne and even now
I cannot look (grow up! my mother said)

at my whole face in the mirror but quadrants when something or another flares
in isolation, my nose, my mouth.

My first dermatologist, a handsome Italian gentleman, used to tell my brother and me
filthy jokes
as he burned us to heal us.
Skin being common. Quite common, it seems.

Or individually held in common.
Condition in extremis.

                        *

Body camera says, Sit the fuck down. Put that cigarette out.


3.

Skinned, taken to the cleaners.
Skin milk, a Hollywood complexion, #OscarsSoWhite
Skinheads, a close shave with ignorance,
second cousin to the ingrown hair and
the zealot’s hair shirt.
Skin and bones, barely sticking life out.
Skin the cat, equal parts doom and resourcefulness;
there is more than one way
to be dead wrong, i.e.,
the most thin-skinned conservative is not transparent, will take liberties
when moral resources are
stretched thin.
I owe the public nothing!
Skinny, thinner, thinner.
Skin deep, the box disappointment comes in.
Skin deep, vanity defense; a deficiency of irony in the diet.
Skin deeper, a lie I tell myself.
Showing skin, a 24/7 Fuck-you Affidavit. At St. Sebastian’s, we rolled our plaid uniform
skirts up high enough to make Monsignor mad.
The skinny, the straight dope.
ex: By using the quaint word “strippers” in line 17 of this poem, I reveal how little acquainted
I am with the actual inner lives of others.
Thick-skinned, taking it (see poached elephants).
Skinflint, J.P. Morgan,
I owe the public nothing.


4.

Sometimes, when I lift up the smallest possible corner of my conscience

(a cold, dense, flesh-colored flap
more lung tissue than scented drawer liner)

to see what squirms
in the soil
underneath

so that I might ascertain my goodness
a condition I’ve long believed
genetic, like being a Democrat—

it is as though I am looking into the humming shaftway of a great propeller
trying to fix

one blurred-into-sliding moment’s distinction

between a knife blade
and an opening
into the air of the earth, a vanishing halt,
my stay. If only

the turning force didn’t draw
everything down with it—my hair, my fingers—
toward that unlit wound,

that municipal
sinkhole releasing its first whiff of rotten eggs and human waste.
Soon it is everything I can do
to drag a manhole cover over the opening,

not titanium but clanging American iron
in the shape of a woman
5’4”, 125 pounds,

because it has to be
airtight in there again,

dead as the Sea of Tranquility,

but arterial worms need clamping, there are echoes
to drown like kittens,
my hands as slippery with blood as the day I was pulled out of my mother’s
body and hoisted upside down
crying,
not yet slapped,

though the place where I passed

is torn
requiring stitches to close
Mother up again

and how in the world, after all these years,
can I do that?


5.

Under color of authority, someone yells,

“Goddamn it, don’t you dare
look at me like that.”

To which we respond, incredulous,
“Like what?”

 

 

 

DOROTHY BARRESI is the author of four books of poetry: American Fanatics; Rouge Pulp; The Post-Rapture Diner—winner of an American Book Award—and All of the Above. She is the recipient of Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals including Volt, Pool, NOR, Poetry, Kenyon Review, and Gettysburg Review. She is a Professor of English at California State Univ., Northridge.

 

 

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