Yes, this is long. But you won’t regret taking a minute to read it.
katherine with the lazy eye.
short. and not a good poet.
by Francine J. Harris
this morning, i heard you were found in your mcdonald’s uniform.
i heard it while i was visiting a lake town, where empty
woodsy highways turn into waterside drives.
i’d forgotten my toothbrush and was brushing with my finger.
a friend who didn’t know you said he heard it like this: you know katherine. short.
with a lazy eye. poet. not a very good one. yeah, well she died. the blue on that lake
isn’t so frank. it fogs off into the horizon like styrofoam. the
picnic tables full of white people. i ask them where the coffee is. they say at Meijer.
i wonder if you thought about getting out of detroit. when you read at the open mic
you’d point across the street at mcdonald’s and tell us to come see you.
katherine with the lazy eye. short and not a good poet, i guess i almost cried.
i don’t know why, because i didn’t like you. this is the first I remembered your name.
i didn’t like how you followed around a married man. that your poems sucked
and that i figured they were all about the married man.
that sometimes you reminded me of myself, boy crazy. that sometimes
i think people just don’t tell me that i’m kind of, well…slow.
katherine with the lazy eye, short. and not a good poet.
i didn’t like that your lazy eye was always
looking at me. that you called me by my name. i didn’t
like you, since the first time i saw you at mcdonald’s.
you had a mop. and you were letting some homeless dude
flirt with you. i wondered then, if you thought that was the best
you could do. i wondered then
if it was.
katherine with the lazy eye, short. and not a good poet.
you were too silly to wind up dead in an abandoned building.
i didn’t like you because, what was I supposed to tell you. what.
don’t let them look at you like that, katherine. don’t let them get you alone.
katherine with the lazy eye, short. and not a good poet. what
was I supposed to say to you, you don’t get to laugh like that,
like nothing’s gonna get you. not everyone
will forgive the slow girl. katherine with
the fucked up eye, short. poetry sucked, musta knew better. i avoided you
in the hallway. i avoided you in lunch line. i avoided you in the lake.
i avoided you. my lazy eye. katherine with one hideous eye, shit.
poetry for boys again, you should have been immune. you were supposed
to be a cartoon. your body was supposed to be as twisted as
it was gonna get. short. and not a good poet. katherine with
no eye no more. i avoided you. hated it when you said my name. i
really want to leave detroit. katherine the lazy short.
not a good poet. and shit. somewhere someone has already asked
what was she like, and a woman has brought out her wallet and said
this is her. this is my beautiful baby.
The last time I poem-elfed a poem this long I promised I wouldn’t do it again. Whenever I choose a poem to throw out to the non-poetry-reading general public, short and quickly consumable is what I’m looking for.
But I love this poem. “katherine with the lazy eye” fills me with the same evangelical zeal that roasted brussel sprouts and Cream-Nut peanut butter do; I want other people to love it too. The poem reads like a short story. It’s funny in parts and then all the sudden it breaks your heart. I’ve read it a dozen times and I still tear up when I get to the last lines. Needed a Kleenex once or twice. Okay, I was lazy. A shirt sleeve. But really, how often does a poem have that effect?
Like the other long poem I posted, “Blue Yodel” by Frank Stafford, “katherine” balances improvisation and structure. Under the poem’s loose conversational style is a hard-working girdle holding it all together.
The title of the poem becomes a refrain that devolves as the poet identifies with her subject more and more. It’s like the game of Telephone. The initial message, katherine. short. with a lazy eye. poet. not a very good one, gets passed from stanza to stanza till it comes out barely resembling the original. Towards the end of the poem the refrain becomes my lazy eye, that is, the poet’s habit of seeing Katherine as a set of labels, a cartoon. The final variation on the title is abridged: katherine the lazy short, a syntactically confused and near-meaningless phrase. Language has failed to capture the humanity of The Other. It’s love, when it enters at the end, which sees Katherine in the most humanizing way.
The poem begins at a distance, emotionally and geographically, from Katherine. On vacation, away from Detroit, perhaps up north as we say in Michigan, the poet hears of Katherine’s death third hand. Her thoughts turn to the past, to her repulsion for Katherine, to Detroit, to the McDonald’s where Katherine worked, to the grisly circumstances of her death, to Katherine’s lazy eye which focused on the poet like an accusation. The lazy eye seemed to say not just please like me but also you are like me.
As is often the case when we dislike someone intensely, Katherine reminds the poet of her own insecurities. Both women are poets. Yes, one is a bad poet, but even really good poets worry sometimes that they’re bad. The poet even wonders if other people think she’s as slow as Katherine is. She admits she’s boy crazy, like Katherine; and then, out of a distressed emotion—perhaps guilt, perhaps sadness, maybe even a panic—she invents a connection between the two. She projects onto Katherine the desire to leave Detroit which she has herself.
As her monologue continues, she grows closer to the one person she most wants to get away from. The poet addresses Katherine directly and defensively: what was I supposed to tell you. what. Her answer—you don’t get to laugh like that—wouldn’t have solved any of Katherine’s problems. Once again, words fail.
The end of the poem takes place in the present and in Detroit. Katherine’s mother shows off her murdered daughter’s picture. I woke up this morning with that image in my head and suddenly realized that I had been assuming the photograph was a baby picture. Like every baby, most lucky babies anyway, Katherine was beautiful to her mother. Not short, not slow, not a bad poet. Just a beauty. But the picture might also have been of Katherine as an adult, imperfect, the butt of other people’s jokes. All the more moving that her mother calls her beautiful. Those last lines are luminous, transcendent to me.
Why does the poem affect me like this? Perhaps because many times I’ve been wrong about someone I judged harshly. Maybe I’ll come to see a vulnerable side, or finally understand why someone acts like such an ass, or begin to enjoy what bugged me in the first place, or realize I judge too much. With that realization comes shame and a feeling of humility, but at the same time a lightness, a glow, a heart-opening. What separates person from person falls to nothing and what connects elevates. The poem arrives at a similar moment so quickly and effortlessly it reminds me of an Evelyn Waugh phrase from another context: the ending comes by a mere “twitch” of an “unseen hook and an invisible thread.”
I left the poem at the dermatologist office where I was waiting to get moles burned off my back with liquid nitrogen. I figured that the dermatologist office is a little like the picnic benches in the poem. More whites than people of color occupy the space, in part because lower levels of melanin mean higher rates of skin cancer.
Another reason I left the poem there: the magazine selection at this office never changes. It stinks. The poem is something new for regulars to read.
francine j. harris (not a typo—she spells her name in lower case—apologies to the poet for the mistake in the photo) was born in Detroit and lives in Ann Arbor as a Zell fellow at the University of Michigan. She’s also a Cave Canem and Callaloo fellow. In 2012 harris’ first collection of poetry, allegiance, from which this poem is taken, was published by Wayne State University Press in their Made In Michigan Writers Series. As I was working on this post, Metro Times published an interview with her. You can read that here.