Born and raised outside Detroit, Caitlin Cowan earned a PhD in English from
the University of North Texas and an MFA in Creative Writing from the New
School in New York City before returning to the Midwest. Her poetry, fiction,
and nonfiction have appeared in Best New Poets (2021), The Rumpus, New
Ohio Review
, Missouri Review, Denver Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review,
SmokeLong Quarterly, Rappahannock Review, and in other journals and
anthologies, including Erase the Patriarchy (University of Hell Press). Her
work has received support from the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts, the
Sewanee Writers' Conference, Vermont Studio Center, and elsewhere. She is a
Poetry Editor for Pleiades and serves as the Chair of Creative Writing at Blue
Lake Fine Arts Camp. Caitlin writes regularly about the intersection of poetry
and popular culture at PopPoetry.

Staff Meeting After I Learn the Meaning of the Word Anatta

The matter-of-factness of the woodpecker's black
and white skull—blade glinting like lake sun
through blinkers. The sharp flashes kill the drone
of our weekly review. Frequently asked
question: What is a bird but a reminder
that we are all machines? I have heard
thoughts and impressions are not the self,
but I too can hear someone chirping,
If I've seen it already, I won't have
a different thought about it next time.
Frequently asked question: what is the self?
We are bored and sure of some forthcoming
answer, squirrels glutted on seed. Status reports
paper our only salvation: the large window
peering out onto the not-mind of winter.
If eternity is real, then each moment
is eternal, even this one. We are deathless
because we can be replaced. Not perfectly,
but close enough. Frequently asked question:
can you tell one snowflake from the next?

Self-Portrait with Overdraft Fee

Sometimes I just stare at the numbers,
watch them, look for a green shoot in the garden.
Can't eat 'em though. Makes me feel sick—
there's a bad man out there who tells folks we split
because I didn't understand the numbers.
He tended their inky garden alone, jealous farmer
who wouldn't get down on his knees to weed.
The longer I stare at the numbers the less I see, the more
I need. Numbers like hat racks, scaffolding, River Rouge
reeds. Sometimes you just start going and here they come,
stepping stones. Other times you drown. The numbers
don't make great life preservers, prefer to ferry expensive
hors-d'oeuvres on their sharp little corners. Numbers, see,
don't have hands. Just mouths, and they're hungry.
See those white teeth? Dentist says he'll whiten mine
but tells me how to do it at home on the cheap.
I want all the sharp canines the numbers can buy,
want to be like them, see: lupine and mean. The dentist
looks at the planting rows of my teeth, knows how much
a mouth costs. Sees numbers inside of me.
He made the same sounds my grandfather does
when he's on the bandsaw, cutting into all that dead meat.
No numbers in the woodshop—about the purest
place you could ever be. The numbers don't plague him
much: he gives the best gifts and retired at 53. Yesterday
I looked at those black numbers until they made me
heave. Some say it's the screens that sicken, but
numbers stoke the fever in me. It's just a game,
isn't it? Like the oaknuts we used to hoard up
our shirtsleeves: how many can you carry? How many
will you give up just to whip them back at me?


My heart feels big in me, tonight—
maybe because there are two, one mine
and one I've built from love. But the new one
wouldn't add much weight. I just stopped
to look up the size of a hummingbird heart,
because that's what feels right. I don't care
if it is, because it is. There might be a ruby
throat in here, too. I feel full of jewels. While
she died, I read my grandmother a poem
about them, hummingbirds, and today I wear
her opal ring. Not her good one, my mother
reminds me. No one knows where it went.
I think someday we'll find it and we'll cry,
because that's what we're supposed to do.
My aunt told me to rub it on my nose. The opal.
They get dry. They have needs. Suddenly
needs are my daily halo. When a cartoon
cat gets clobbered, we laugh at the spangled
birds that dance around his concussed
little head. It's like that, this grief, this twoness—
it clobbers me. How I could hold her
paper-crane hand, then turn to my needlework,
count stitches for a baby blanket, say only,
I lost count. Remind me: Where was I again?

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