Catcalls, Severed Hands, Propane, & Starships

Strange FruitAlmost fifteen years ago, a friend with a propensity for specific literary delusions decided that I was the dead poet Hilda Doolittle. His logic was as sound as logic gets: I had brown hair, studied ancient Greek, and wrote poetry. I swiftly clarified the situation, saying, “No, I’m not H.D.; I’m Charlotte Perkins Gilman.”

And I meant it: I have seen the yellow wallpaper. Sometimes it’s mine; sometimes it belongs to the audience. Writers do not corner the market on imagination. The territory of “literature” explicitly includes readers and listeners, all the witnesses to our attempts at craft. For better or for worse, I consider us co-creators, sharing the responsibilities. Over the years, and for sanity’s sake, I’ve learned to give credit where credit is due.

And it is due.

In Cedar Crest, when the propane guy showed up to fill my tank, the first thing he said was, “I knew you’d be different.” He’d been hearing about “the poet” at the post office. Then, he added, “I just didn’t know if you’d use more propane or less.”

I was stunned. So I asked, “Which is it?”

He turned back to look at the gauge: “Less.”

I was impressed. Before he showed up, I never wondered: “Are poets likely to consume different levels of natural resources than non-writers in the same region?” Even though I had been living without electricity and cooking on the back porch for almost a year, I failed to anticipate his point of view. My own efforts at insight paled in comparison.

A few years later, after a poetry reading in northern New Mexico, I received my first death threat via email. It wasn’t even a complete sentence but due to one single historical allusion, I got the point immediately: severed hands.

Did I feel fear? My mouth swallowed my voice and my body froze at the desk. Each generation has their “shorthand” for tragedy: JFK, 9/11, Columbine, Elizabeth Smart, Michael Brown. Name—or news—dropping may be a lazy writer’s tool, but any reader of a threat will do what readers of literature always do: fill in the empty spaces.

Mor' Spider HoleSo I grieved for the woman who was referenced in my inbox. When Anna Mae Aquash was murdered, I was only five years old. I was 29 when I received the email. In college, I had studied her social justice activism; her still-open murder case; how after her body was found, the FBI cut off her hands and sent them to DC for fingerprinting. If the case was “history” to me, she was murdered so young—at thirty—that many of her peers were still living.

And I knew some of them.

I did what any self-respecting poet would do: I went straight to the person I thought the stalker belonged to, a person I might have been seen with, and I began asking questions, including the uncomfortable one: “Did you, my friend, murder her?” Given the controversy surrounding her death and two decades of public speculation, I had to ask.

Uncomfortable questions bare strange fruit: I got my ‘No’ topped with kind reminiscences, as well as enough detail on who to watch out for to keep safe.

The email didn’t stop me from going out. How could it? The same reading that sparked the threat also triggered my first book offer, a full-page thoughtful—and signed—letter, which I received by snail mail a week after the electronic encroachment. By the time the book came out, indictments were brewing. By the publication of my fifth book, four people had been implicated in the murder, none of whom I knew.

I suspect I was targeted simply because of my age and sex, because I let my hair down. I believe my hair cinched it, but you never know.

In Carnuel, it was my cat. She went into heat. And yowled. Despite a quick trip to the vet, my cat’s vocalizations were immediately and indelibly ascribed to the sexual proclivities of the only single woman in the quiet little clutch of houses along that stretch of Cripple Creek, the one who kept odd hours at her typewriter.

I‘ve come to expect all of this. And yet, because interpretation truly is an art—and sometimes an undeniably creative one—I can’t help but continue to be surprised when, for example, my stepfather calls to tell me he just received word over the telephone that my starship is operating at 70%.

While the starship was a head-scratcher to both of us, the 70% seemed logical to me: for large portions of last year I had no home phone or WiFi, was back in hermitage to heal, and rarely left the house. 70% seemed a fair assessment. Starship though? Finally, it snapped. Several years prior, the caller had towed my car from a snow bank near my house. To thank him, I offered a copy of my latest book, Dark Enough, from the trunk. It was a book of meditations on the night sky. The night sky has stars—thus, the starship! Another fine example of logic.

As for how he found my stepfather? When my stepfather asked him directly, the caller answered as openly: “You’re in the book!”

And my stepfather was in the book—both of them. He was in the white pages and he was in the book dedication for Dark Enough. I used his full name. I won’t make that mistake again.

No one can anticipate what will develop in the minds of readers and listeners. Right after the starship episode, the verbal assaults on my family and neighbors escalated dramatically. Despite watching my house and reporting on every vehicle that visited, the caller never contacted me directly. As he explained to other people, he knew I was “skitty.” (And that was “ok” with him.) Turns out, the woman he’d been obsessed with prior to me was also skitty—or pissed. She pressed charges. Just as I was beginning to document and record all the contacts, the line went dead: he was in jail.

The stories go on and on for two decades. Can you blame my “good looks?” Hardly. Upon learning of the harassment I was experiencing in the ‘90s, one woman who’d stopped watching TV in the ‘70s was so perplexed she blurted the truth, “But you’re no Farrah Fawcett…”

Mor' strawberryAnd I’m not. I’m simply a woman who sometimes finds the world crazy but maintains faith in the capacities of literature nonetheless.

Last week, my acupuncturist finally caught me red-handed: I was making progress. He heard—and I did say it—“A friend stocked my pantry.” He pointed out that after seven months of treatment, this was the first time I’d used the word “stocked” as opposed to “stalked.”

And there you have it. As humans, we’re hungry. Unfed and untrained, the themes trolling our brains can become simultaneously curtailed and unfettered. Rampant stories and threats of rape, death, and defilement kill time, but I have no doubt that artists and audience have more compelling material to offer each other. Imaginations should get turned on. That said, some verbs are definitely preferable to others.


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