Anita Olivia Koester

koester

Anita Olivia Koester is a Chicago poet and author of the chapbooks Marco Polo (Hermeneutic Chaos Press), Apples or Pomegranates forthcoming with Porkbelly Press, and Arrow Songs which won Paper Nautilus' Vella Chapbook Contest. Her poems have been nominated for Best New Poets and Pushcart Prizes, and won Midwestern Gothic's 2016 Lake Prize in Poetry, So to Speak's Annual Poetry Contest, and the Jo-Anne Hirshfield Memorial Poetry Award. She is currently the poetry editor for Duende. Her poetry is published or forthcoming in Vinyl, CALYX Journal, Tahoma Literary Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Her work as been supported by the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Vermont Studio Center, and SAFTA. Visit her online at- www.anitaoliviakoester.com.

Ashes, God, and Hour Glasses

The hour glasses were filled, or so I thought
at age five, on beaches in heaven. Filled by women

wrapped in togas, women without moles, birthmarks,
or any distinguishing features, but women nevertheless.

Mom, sis, and I walk the beach with our moles,
our wrinkles, our birthmarks, our feet worm into the sand,

our calves lizard with goosebumps as we enter the lake
where before I was born you honeymooned with mom,

who holds what is left of you now.

It's like a tumor being operated on, when she cuts open the box,
the heavy plastic, pain adulterated with relief, memories

exposed as masses, never benign. Like an hourglass
constructed out of one material in two states of being,

one burnt, one unaltered, you were both– man and monster.

But I stopped believing in heaven long ago,
stopped believing that a single man could build anything

a woman could call heaven. I was only three weeks old
when the door caved in and the ants assigned to cleaning

out the ant colony invaded the house in quick dark lines,
kidnapped you my whole childhood long, besides,

what is this word: God. Once it meant- 'to invoke'
or 'to pour'- and today this is what the three of us do–

we invoke you, we pour you, we drown you–
we're like the witches of Macbeth but in truth

we loved you, even though you looked more like a photograph
than any man I remembered attempting to call father.

*first appearance in Hermeneutic Chaos Journal

Nipples, Ribs, and Helixes

The point at which incarceration becomes inhuman
begins at the body. First boundary we come up against:
mouth, breast, ripe nipple. A shark tooth betwixt
her clavicles, her hair helixing down, my plum mouth
puckered for suckling. Hospital lights like search lights,
he presses my mother's hand, gunshot residue rubs off,
or so, I imagine.
Let's catalogue all I have left:
a picture of him holding her pregnant belly, a ring,
a few notebooks, two bronze shoes, one book on gems,
one on disguises, one wallet stuffed with counterfeit twenties,
and a hand gun.
For three weeks, I knew the particular click
of gears inside his chest. For twelve years, I practiced forgetting.
All I remember about the single prison visit was how like a pair
of singer's lips my dress was red, and the men tried to teach
me to play chess, to move those little pawns forward like
seconds.
Till finally, in my grandmother's garden we calculate
the circumference of our arms, my head not far from his,
his ribs, a series of handles and inside–
stolen pocket watches.

*first appearance in Vinyl

Partial List of Things that Came Between Us

The red stain on the headboard, her bushel
of cherries, black mold in the basement,
an attic of dead canaries. My understanding
of the word, "whore." The Valentine's Day
of wet wicks, the night I slept on the closet floor.
Your eyes ridged as icepicks, something dead
in the extra freezer. The day the doe wandered
into the tennis court, day the dog harshly teased her
while her flank, her flank, her flank opened
against the fence. Your hands. Evidence.

My hands sleuthing through your pockets
my nose ostriched in your suitcase, the words
I hate my life the words better off dead, the missing
condoms. Iraq. Our honeymoon. The fallacies
of John Locke, the missing key to my womb.
Your silo silence, your silver star, the way your kids
called you tyrant, day of endless rain and red car,
day a local man drowned while I played La Valse
de Monstres
. The lack of a heartbeat on an ultrasound.

*Winner of the First Night Evanston Poetry Contest

Peering inside the Mouth of the Chicago River

Chicago, my love, my sinew, my muscle and cartilage,
dusted over in January, in wedding white, or arsenic,
my dear, my darling, my gate of clouds,
forgive me, but I saw that dollar bill tucked
between your breasts, that fist heavy against your thigh,
I saw that aluminum graveyard you tried to hide,
I saw Hell burn along the river by the Armitage bridge
the whole night over, smelled your sewer nitrous,
your cancer gas, saw the shadowy mass on your x-ray.

They say buried beneath your park's tree trunks
are the bones of a hundred thousand skunks,
and this is why you're called Chicago, but honey,
let's dig a little deeper with our spades, our pick-axes, our shovels,
hear the song of the Ojibwa and Odawa, the Potawatomie,
they say the first man who settled here was Haitian,
that he made love to his Indian wife at the mouth of the river
and a boy was born in the onion grass, and his name was Chicago.

O, son, I saw your teachers marching, your schools boarded up,
I made constellations out of the bullet holes on your porch steps,
I read your father's children's future in them,
I checked your watermark, confirmed your mansions in Lincoln Park
with rows and rows of windows facing Lake Michigan
like a parish facing a depiction of the crucifixion,
as if the glacier would melt, fresh water overflow
into your streets, clearing out the cholesterol clogging your arteries.

Funny, I don't know a single person with a lake-view window,
they never seem to come west, where the hyenas jump through hoops,
and the elephants balance on three-legged stools, the clowns too,
and the bears are dressed up in suits, and the artists jump
into tiny pools,
and the squirrels and the rats get by and get by, as if getby
was just a snailing courtship with that one bride
you can always count on to be faithful, death.

O, but aren't you something, all strung up in late-day light,
in that rusty sunset copper off the Ohio feeder ramp at dusk,
your whole ample body in reflection, not just the neon,
but the sun's yawn off the windows, the rose horizon,
I could weep, and weep, we're twisted up so tight together
I could never be anything but you, your daughter, your ghost
train track walking at night when I was thirteen,
testing my strength against whatever man you might throw at me
with coyote howls and pitbull breath.
O great Midwestern plain oasis,
give me your glacier eyes, your steely hands, your hammer,
your screw driver, your nails, we're welded together, you and I,
inside of me is a city so bright, so expansive, so expensive,
populated by the lame, the maimed, the drugged, the homeless,
heaped beneath our tracks, running lines with God,
to die, to sleep, no more, and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache
and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to… to die, to sleep,

no more intoxicated by the rumble of the train, the chorus of the cars,
the stampede of the shoes, to sleep like one dead inside of the womb.

Darling, we've been married so long you never penetrate me anymore,
but you're there, injected into the very marrow of my bones,
I could never rid myself of you, no matter how many times
you fuck those other women, you know the ones I mean,
those 16,000 tricked, drugged, desperate, trafficked, ticketed
angels born without wings, or was it 20,000, 25,000,
my madman, my ballerina, whether in Paris, Florence, or merely Nebraska,
you've grown like bacteria inside of my gut, and darling, with or without love,
I need you.

*Winner of the Jo-Anne Hirshfield Memorial Poetry Award

Not Prayer

Wormwood, bitter tongue
in my mouth, not prayer, not absolution,
not poem, but sickness, a pathology
of the gut. Trickster heaven, elusive
and unobtainable, you cast your pilgrim
light over our clasped hands
coupled us. Seven years, until you un—
coupled us. This was supposed to be
a prayer to the unforgivable, but
in this fallacious fog the two
aging hands have become strangers.
Neither can claim the same body.
Bitter is too easy a word
for this fistful of thistle buds
and dandelion roots crammed
in my mouth's cavity. All I can do
is hum. Hell, this ignorant hand held
his, he who never lacked testicles,
the other points, wrist flicking:
tsk, tsk, tsk, you should have known
about the worms in the wood.

Song with a Spear in its Heart

It grows heavy as a sack of stones in my hands.
It digs into my skin, bleeding my hands.

And where is the sparrow that left my mouth
perhaps its fist-body is waterlogged in the mire,

I felt its feet scratching all day at my teeth—
say something, say something

but there are some words that will
make a corpse of you, guilt speeds

the growth of nerves, that wrap like vines
through muscles, that tighten and tighten

until your arm numbs and your left clutching
your chest. I dug these holes,

pulled the feathers off of birds to weave them
into a crown, cooing and growling his name,

and he skinned a stag, or was it himself,
laid it down at her feet, tied my wrists to her neck.

Meditations at the Rijksmuseum

I've split the pomegranate,
felt the six seeds like calcium deposits

between my legs, saw Eve from the front,
Persephone from the back, and who mistranslated

my concept of love anyway.

In Armenia, the bride grabs a pomegranate
and launches it against the wall,

motherhood bound in the symbolism of a fruit,
and if it doesn't break, will it alter the way

Adam touches her, or Dante with his tongue.

The Dutch have a way of painting fruit
alongside skulls and the fretting of insects,

they call them Vanitas, which translates to– emptiness,
which must have something to do with vanity,

and the lies we were told about our body,
and how without pomegranate seeds we were merely

a nest of rotten apples.

*First appearance in Coup D'Etat

Fugue with French Horn

What if in words one is more
wholly oneself.

Polynesian masks, figures
in shadow, Wayang.

F on a French horn held
over Lafayette Cemetery.

Stave off time- the scoundrel,
the strumpet, the puppet master.

Reserve the sentiment. Preserve
the previous bodies. Mummify

the tongues. Deify the tongues.
Stack the odds. Tuck Polaroids

of us into your mouth. The film
no longer manufactured. You don't

say. You don't say. The words
themselves, now, older-

pile of last year's newspapers.
A pair of glasses to study us,

tell us we were vivid once,
tell us we were brutal once,

tell us we were lovers once.

*First appearance in Belleville Park Pages under the title "Fugue"

Folded in Prayer

Home, the kitschy sign in a ramshackle
window states, is heaven. In Mark Twain's heaven,
the dead tire of their wings, within days.

White wings pile up in ditches, the way
bottles do in Middlebury. Face it, the heart
strings are unstrung, unwound from the harp
they reverberate. The house's vertebrae

lopsided, like it put one knee down
and the other, the other, considers buckling.
The spindle antennae reaches eastward,
opens its arms for the tremors a worm might crawl
in the claw of a sparrow. Miracle,

the way a hand can needle lace, and web
our light into a hundred cat's cradles.
Hands, I know, are never really silent,
unless folded over a chest, like yesterday,
the young woman's mother's fingernails
coated the color of a cat's tongue.

The casket down-feather lined, I wonder
if in heaven all the de-feathered birds chirp,
or if heaven is silent, since words are sin,
at least a man once told me, I forget who,
my fingers laced, engrossed in their folding.

*first appearance in The Belleville Park Pages

Horizon with Origami Swans

A wild-haired girl, the classics ripped to shreds, a stretch
of beach riddled with nautilus shells, ancient promises,
a thankless horizon swallows up all the rotting ships
painted with masculine names, goodbye Odysseus, goodbye.
She folded up the centuries inside those origami swans
which were thirsty as afterschool children drawing
sidewalk rainbows out in the sun, while their mothers
touched what was still personal between their legs,
periodically they glanced out the window for danger,
thirsty with concentration, her swans ignorant
of what they were made of, still puffed up like sails
with that rumor that my rainbow will be so long
and glorious that at the end of it a little man
will have a pot of gold, forget that he's miserly,
that he enslaved us and raped us,
shot our heads full of holes.

*First appearance in Shot Glass Journal

Marco Polo

I drowned in a circle of blue in the July yellow curry stew
surrounded by burnt tiki torches and plastic pink flamingoes

better suited to a Floridian lawn.

MARCO

I drowned in the labyrinth of a uterus' angry sea,
I sought love in a somersault, disaster

beneath the blown-up belly of a killer whale.

MARCO

I drowned in a prison bathroom witnessing my father
smash in the lower-jaw bone of a saw-dusted convict,

I drowned in open sunlight.

MARCO

I drowned playing a child's game, I drowned
as a child with a clump of doll's hair in my mouth,

and steel jacks fisted in my hands.

MARCO

I drowned with one-eyed pirates sieging my tongue,
with accusations or was that a black ribbon round my neck

and my sister at my side.

MARCO

I drowned in search of wolves and grandmothers alike,
I drowned with European fairytales in my lungs

and Cinderella's crown noosing my pupils.

MARCO

I drowned with a bee stinger in my ass
and buds barely beneath my nipples, I drowned

with blood-stained lips and strawberry seeds in my teeth.

MARCO

I drowned in Midwestern surrender and misfortune,
in pop music and laugh tracks, I drowned to the sounds

of Boyz II Men, I drowned in afterbirth.

MARCO

I drowned with my father trapped in my mouth,
my mother lashed to my hands, I drowned without halo

and wing, without expectation of anything.

MARCO

I drowned in mid-search, my eyes stitched shut,
voice screaming out, I drowned right in my own backyard

giving birth to a vulture in my throat.

MARCO

I came to stunned and mute, couldn't even speak until now.

*First appearance in the Marco Polo, a chapbook published by Hermeneutic Chaos Press.

Chamber Music with Red Curtain

How easy it is raise the red curtain,
at first, faces lit expectant.

Act one. Scene- A figment tree
overhead, laughter overheard.

Nostalgia so required it becomes
nausea. Act two. A late May lawn

moonlit, a patch of grass
as if the earth needed mending.

His body a needle, and mine,
an unbreakable thread.

The curtain stays where it is,
obstinate, the color of a woman's

love. The cadence of a typewriter
closes the scene. Act three.

Chamber music of an airplane
or was that silence, padded walls,

a locked door with a peak-a-boo
window, the press of lips

like fingerprints, they say,
black ice doesn't catch the moonlight.

Did you know, raison d'etre
also translate into- essential motif.

Red curtain, red curtain only one
thing's for certain
- love

is an act of will, and once
the will is gone, it's just an act.

Sonatas, Ovaries, and Cysts

Once, you drove through the Indonesian jungle,
calmed by a Mexican pianist painting stars,

an album I gave to you, you, who would save the white tiger
and abandon this heroine to her attempts to revive

the lifeless nights, the days that died quickly as moths,
and the months that gestated

and gestated, giving birth to little more
than a sack of fluid, two ounces of blood.

I've begun constructing that cabin we once spoke of
out of brown paper, and the trees out of green,

I hadn't known fires could merely start by opening the lid
of the piano, teasing a few bars,

that the slow undressing of Beethoven's Sonata,
could become a hatred for the moon,

one, forever dwarfed and doubled by Murakami,
prayed to from the top of a playground,

because love begins when we are children, but tonight
the moon is listless as a cyst in the ovaries

of Selene, round as the little pill I take daily
in order to deny my biology.

In the beginning there was a patio to lay,
and you a student with your shovel, your sweat,

and me barely a woman, cheeks pink as labia,
we worked side by side,

my body a little hum nervous to rupture into curves
and harbor light, a little blink

travelling the fallopian tubes of the Milky Way,
and now, what's left—

a girl turning away in photographs,
a girl stuffed into a few pink envelopes.

The music is balanced by repetitions, kept alive
by slight variations, like nights passing alone,

but that wasn't all life was ever going to be,
once these sheets were only half-written.

Damn, that moon is clever, is a thief without any light source
of its own, for you see now, I'm marred/damned/mired

and you're married, scratched off the list
of potential donors,

and inside, there are only craters upon craters,
no new moons gestating into nightlights,

lullabies, and music notes.

*First Appearance in Stirring: A Literary Collection

No Silence


There is no silence once the bells have rung,
no silence in my silence.

Who will explain bell jars to little girls,
explain what it means to be on display,

to put a girl under glass to gleam
like porcelain, only her lungs need oxygen,

only no ever hears her.
He says I'm even prettier when I cry,

like dew on a primrose
he says

his heart is made of dark matter
that the whole universe is made of dark matter

asks me if I put on weight
says I need to be smaller than him,

says twinkle, twinkle, says little,
says, I don't matter,

says says says says

Heartworms and Handguns


What should one place on a mantle— ancient
legless horses, oversized pawns, cloying snapshots

that look faked— as the flames lick slowly upwards,
my palms, a changeless map worth burning.

When we saw this house/mansion/monstrosity
I said— if we can't be happy here, we'll never be happy.

Yet here— I feel stuffed as a prized parakeet,
my body behind so many panes of glass.

In the background on the T.V— Grey's Anatomy,
self-medication they call entertainment. I watch

the dewy-skinned doctors and their how could you
eyebrows, and that not again knotted in their lips,

though all day in the ER, bodies stumble in,
all those organs crawling with heartworms,

distemper, mouths drooling with rabies,
so many hearts burst open today, so many

attempts to sew her legs back on to her body.

These are the years my body fills with sand,
my hair thins, nerves twitch, ears ring,

it's almost comforting when the spiders come,
massive, long-legged Louise-Bourgeois style

laying their eggs in my uterus, my aortas,
any place swept clean of love.

Without love, marriage is like a disease,
it eats away at your sanity till you're standing

stark naked in the closet tasting his handgun
wondering if it's loaded, if the safety is on,

if this is what it is like to sleep in a war zone,
grow so comfortable with the sound of gunfire

that your ashamed at how much you crave it,
how much easier it would be if the gas leaked

and the house caught on fire, collapsed dramatically
like in a soap opera, and when you woke up

all you could hear was your heart beating.

*First appearance in the Marco Polo, a chapbook published by Hermeneutic Chaos Press.
First online appearance in Amaryllis.

Tapestry with Preserved Embryos

Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago.

The case where poppies grew out of the woman's
mouth, throat crammed with dirt. The doctors
took pictures before they operated. Documentation
of rare deformities, natural curiosities,
is illuminating to some, humiliating to others.
In another case a hundred mollusks
were found clustered inside an inverted
uterus. Latin transforms everyday objects
like light. Light, like Latin, is useful,
light penetrates the uterus, cells respond
to light like thousands of pupils in prayer.
Even with prayer, some children are born
without skulls, brains afloat like jellyfish.
In the first stages of fertilization,
the egg looks like a golden nugget,
no, like a meteoroid entering the atmosphere,
it is that unreal, that common, must be
documented. This embryo never swelled
enough to be called a fetus, or offspring,
details unclear, case unstated, perhaps
the mother herself died, this is natural.
The living children infiltrate the museum,
leaving behind skin flakes, hair follicles,
nose content, saliva, and coiled fingerprints.
But in this room, they roam slowly as if
moving back in time through that dark fluid
as if they could still hear the warbled voice
of their mother making them promises
as a God made only of light speaks from
every direction, in a thousand tongues,
or rather one tongue that states: live, live, live.

*Winner of Midwestern Gothic's 2016 Lake Prize

Constellation of a Childless Woman

aberration. a knowndistortion. a lapse.
Perhaps somethingbeautiful.
In Astronomy, an apparentdisplacement
of a heavenly body,due to the earth's rotation.

Cut into the ribcage of mydarling mannequin— a fault line,
as if somethingmaddeningly proud had pushed
out from withinand broken her.
Plastic,her body,
thick, durable, sixtiesplastic, flaking
in places like burnt skin.I begged to slide my hand
into the crevasses that inchedover the side of her breast,
the breast Sexton called:the key to everything.
I cradled my own breasts,not shaped like keys,
but golden, achingfrom moon's waning.
A minor temporary lapsefrom a sound mental state.
Lapse comes at the endof the word collapse,
indicates perhaps the gapbetween the state of uprightness
and the fallen, like thatcrack in her biodome.
In Optics, the aberrationis a disturbance of light
that causes an image tobecome unfocused, like organs
lived in, liver jaundiced,uterus slack, spleen gone rotten.
I photograph her,title the series Self-Portraits,
they remain unpurchased.They hang
in a library oppositethe dictionaries that state:
in Photography, it is a flawin the design, or material,
or construction
that distorts the woman.
Sometimes she splits in two,appears like a ghost
of herself. The versionof herself that did everything
differently: had them;never had them; wanted them;
didn't want them; waitedtoo long; started too soon;
had them and they died; was forced;was raped;
had to abort; loved the unlived;the body didn't...
Every woman has thisline of scrimmage
where a struggle befell,a scar she must protect
against daylight,a whip in her hand.
Like a whipthat unmendable crack slid
down her body,dividing one woman from another,
but bleeding them all.

*first appearance in Tupelo Quarterly

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