Etiquette of Submission

by Jessica Murray



How many darkened pools did we just emerge glistening out of?
How many nights did we drive home with the stars, the clouds, the sky closing in
            on us, just as wasted?
Weren’t we just doing it all night, and waking to do it again, sleeping with each other
and each other’s boyfriends?
Weren’t we on the cusp of some Precambrian molar, about to close our mouths
            around forever?
Didn’t the light from the fire illuminate us, a text in miniature, so deceptively
            delicate and foreign to ourselves?



To be a student is not to have
to hide your desire.
And who wants, anyway,
to be the teacher,
to look up only to see yourself a mirror,
a foil for their desires,
as though you had none of your own,
as though your desire
were merely to facilitate theirs—
when, in fact, it’s not to be alone
in a certain kind of desire:
tactile yet immaterial,
and without personal gain.

How often have I stood
in front of the class and pressed on
about prison experiments,
the willingness to inflict pain—
to map the interstices
of obedience, power, and authority—
to give assignments about
fostering sustainable development,
to plead the case

of artists engaged in society-making:
“to tell a truth,
no matter how small,
is always justified,”

—with one eye alight
on the tip of the tree
out the window,
only to look back . . .



Impossible to mitigate cruelty with cruelty,
the way hogs are often stunned
before being disemboweled alive.

But, look: aren’t these the dazed nights of our early middle age?
Sex used to be the thing that protected us
from the city, which makes us
feel poor, silly, soft and old.

If only we could return
to Florida as though we had never left,
landscape of restless orifice—
mouth-making, map-making—
even the shadows tossing up light.

This morning, I returned
our library books unread,
as though to pass them piled on the floor and shelves
we gained through osmosis
the longed-for illumination of our selves.



For the six days that my in-laws arrived
from the Midwest, the weather pouted, like me.
We thought we’d be safe, tucked
in the city at the tail end of May,
but instead the temperature refused
to crest the low fifties, and south of us,
the Mississippi was threatening to flood.

We were on our second round of houseguests,
near fifteen days straight with a small break
in between: plumbing, of all sorts, was at its limits.
At the museum, the acned guard told a girl
not to touch the exhibit, adding not quite sotto voce
to the other guard, “She can touch me instead.”



How much more grateful I am
to begin the day with sex than to end it,
like something crossed off
a list at long last.

Are the limits of our language
limned by our desires,
our desires our response
to various forms?

            What do you want? Like that?

Like this: when it comes
to the body, let all questions
be rhetorical, insincere.



The nurse is examining the flush
on my neck, my chest. My throat feels tight.
She says it’s natural
when we feel embarrassed,
but I’m not embarrassed:
it’s just my body resisting.

Getting dressed, I think of those women
who have an orgasm in a warm pool of water
as their babies enter the world,
how I had entered my thirties before I’d heard
such a thing—
yes, pain and punishment so much more
comfortable than ecstasy,
but could there be a more subversive,
more revisionist pleasure?



Our bodies: able but unwilling.
And why does a child feel like such a strange
return on our desire?

I have always loved my body, it’s done
whatever I’ve asked.

People tell me it’s the body and not the mind
that gets pregnant,
                        but look at us:
two stalled children with our desire
to be the other’s desired,
to be touched and loved and comforted,
content with our games and childish language,
our pleasure at playing alone
on the edge of a woods—can I blame my body for not wanting
to be altered, to wish itself
a permanent state,
not to grow up?



Once I saw a reporter begin to cry
as he held his mic close to his mouth
and the cameraman panned the devastation around him.
(One high note: a dog being pulled from the rubble by a man in pajamas.)

Does to bear witness
to bearing witness hopelessly muddle the task?
Is what is meant to be galvanizing
finally permissive,

as though we could put down the mic and the camera,
climb through our TVs
and tidy up
like mothers during an after-school snack?

If only we had a little more time,
a little more money; if only we could be sure
about just what has happened,
just what, exactly, is going on.

Do you remember the photograph of the child and vulture?
There was much too much there
for us to see.

The photographer didn’t blow his brains out,
just melted them in his truck
at a spring by the brambles, the fountain
where he’d played as a child—
a terrible lustration.

This reporter, bless him, won’t blow his brains out.


IX        Hal

 I wanted to know, so I asked,
“Is Paul Newman’s character in Cool Hand Luke a hero?”

秦昊 said:

Actually, we are these prisoners, and Luke is the restless desire of freedom in our mind. The jail is the representation of the national machine which could trample on our right, freedom, and even life without restraint . . . Deeply, drunkenness is just the escaping of the social reality, but when he wakes up in the jail, he will find there is no difference between outside and inside . . . The tiny prisoners, the wild flatland and the endless road, there is such a strong contrast between confined people and open space.



Who is the teacher teaching, if not herself? Who is so vigilant to keep the outside
            from seeping in,
where the open space is?
Not out of boredom, frustration, or malice, but disbelief, most of my students
            cannot help
but suffer or dismiss me. What is the point of these insinuations about power,
            obedience, and authority
when they are so full of the bright hard goodness of their principles, of the world?
How many nights had they dreamed their arrival in a new land where they were
            both the same yet blissfully changeable,
as though they had stepped off the plane and found the ecstasies of Whitman
from more than a century ago,
with hopeful green stuff woven, and a deathless attachment to freedom?
Haven’t their views been confirmed? Haven’t they learned exactly what they
            expected to learn?
Don’t they have God as their bedfellow?
Haven’t they looked from the blackboard to the tip of the world outside the window
            and said, “You can touch me instead”?

Jessica Murray is a poet, teacher, and grant writer living in Austin, Texas with her husband, toddler, and two dogs. Recent poems of hers can be found in Aperçus, Birmingham Poetry Review, Cherry Tree, Construction, The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Memorious, and Painted Bride Quarterly. She also runs a series of linked interview with contemporary women poets: