Poetry by Lauren Schmidt: “The Waiting Room of Past Lives”

In Lauren Schmidt’s earthy, revelatory poetry collection Two Black Eyes and a Patch of Hair Missing (Main Street Rag, 2013), bodies eat, sweat, climax, and die. Some of them are stuffed. All are handled with reverence. Comical or embarrassing moments open up suddenly into a vision of fellowship that levels social distinctions.

Schmidt shows why humor, humility, and humane have a common root. Many of her poem titles sound like premises for a stand-up comedy sketch: “Why I Am Not a Taxidermist“; “My Grandfather’s Balls”; “Portrait of My Parents Making Love as a Stomach Virus“. Each time, however, the poem takes a surprising turn, reversing the typical use of disgust to create distance and superiority, and instead breaking down the pretensions that alienate us.

Lauren and Main Street Rag have kindly permitted me to reprint the poem below, which first appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review. For more about her work, enjoy this interview on the Splinter Generation blog.

The Waiting Room of Past Lives

No one likes it here. You can tell
by our bodies: this one chews
his cuticles; that one pretends
to read. A woman fingers the drag
in her stockings. A man watches
from across the room, blowing steam
from his third cup of sludge.
He’s used up all the stirrers.
The girl behind the blurred glass
snaps her gum, watches the clock
for five. On the wall, CNN

bleats something about this
or that. The war here or there.
There seems to be only one channel,
but nobody bothers to check. We wait
in the glow of the red numbers. Now
Serving, the sign says. We pinch our slips
as if waiting for lunchmeat.

It gets harder and harder to do this.
They put a note in my file. It explains
the crutches, the bandage on my brow.
I was eighty then, collapsed in the hedges
racking my brain for the line that came
before the dish ran away with the spoon.
When you’re eighty you don’t always
remember. The last time I was eighty,
I left notes on my front door
should a visitor happen by: Be right back,
in the bathroom,
scrawled by my shaky hand,

letters like the eyelashes I pulled out
with my fingers and arranged
in my notebook during Physics
in the life before that. I loved
to watch them scatter in one full
breath, didn’t care much that girls
stared at my nest of hair or laughed
at my penchant for saying silly things.
I chose my words carefully,
spelled them with my lashes.

By senior year, I had no brows
left either: two bleached seams
arched above my eyes, an eternity
of expressing horrified surprise.
My mother made them draw brows
so I wouldn’t look strange
in the casket. The irony, too much
for the man I shared it with here,
in the waiting room, a man
whose laughter made his jaw click,
like the snap of my infant neck
in the life I had that didn’t last very long.
My memory went only as far
as the garden of my mother’s
hair when she hovered above my crib

to kiss me. In the life where I learned
what it meant to be a father,
I put my nose to the rose of my son’s
lips, waited for breath, contented
just to watch his infant chest rise
and fall. I recall the feel of my own

stuttered breast as I lay in my mess
of wings in the middle of the street.
After the windshield, I remembered
the boy, the rock, the way he lifted
it above his head. Its shadow trembled
above me, dilating as it broke over me
like a dark corsage before the lights
went out and I was back in line again.
The rock was something like mercy,
but do we really have the words
for the magician’s hat of how

our lives are made and taken? We’re rabbits
blinking in stiff confusion, some big hand
fisted around the ears, feet, kicking, pendulous,
and marking time. Sometimes we’re a flurry
of doves in a round of applause. I have been
the rabbit, would be the rabbit again
because there simply is no lover
more eager to be in the world.
I have been the boy with his pellet gun, too,
a piece of wheat in my teeth and nothing to do
but wonder what a tuft of hair looks like
when it erupts with blood, wonder the sound
flesh makes when it’s pulled from fur
which isn’t anything like the sound
of denim ripping as you might think.

On CNN there is a man on his knees.
Dirty shirt, holes in his jeans.
Another man grips his hair, dark tufts
sprout between his fingers. In the other fist,
the flash of a murky blade. The man’s eyes
are lurched wide from his pulled hairline.
The shadow of the blade breaks over

a shaking face. This one stops chewing
his cuticles. That one stops pretending
to read. The woman leaves her stockings
alone and the man stops watching her.
All eyes gaze at the TV screen. We don’t see
the rest, but everybody knows what happens
next. With any luck, the man on his knees
will wake up praying near a bed
in a room he somehow knows is his.

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