Rumpus Original Poetry: Three Poems by Shira Erlichman





Alice in a White Towel at the Top of the Banister, Dripping

Or Alice standing in her bedroom the color of clots,
turning to me in the doorway, mouth pretzeled
in disgust. Or Alice screaming at her father in Russian, disappearing
into a sudden truck. A pack of cigarettes in the pocket
of a periwinkle coat. Alice the babysitter, sixteen, doing algebra
on my bedroom floor. My little brother scribbles off the page
onto the wood. She doesn’t even look up, leaves the room
to make a call and soon the house fills with boys.
We watch them through our parents’ bedroom door,
sitting on the edge of the mammoth bed, kicking our feet.
Long-legged boys with tilted hats and laughter like an engine
starting. Then, the key in the lock. Alice held tight
by my mother’s voice, “I won’t tell your mother.”
Alice ignoring me again, yellow “Alice in Chains”
poster on her wall, boombox so loud it crackles.
Alice in a white towel, black heavy hair plastered
to her shoulders, saying “Oh…hi,”
while I sit at the bottom of the steps, waiting
for her little sister. How without thinking, quicker
than a snake darting out its pink tongue, she peels the towel open
to fold it tighter, and in that one hundredth of a second: her
skin, dark tangles, hanging breasts, alert iris of nipple.
Endless, suspended, that hundredth, where my body tenses
as if she can see it on me — the rose blooming
on fast-forward, starting in my chest and vining out
my eyes, nostrils, mouth. I don’t say a word.
I know something new that I have always known.
I balance in this gravity-less plot of earth.
Then find her little sister. We talk for hours
about Anthony, David, Clayton. Alice, thick cream
sweater gnarled with smoke, purple nails
flicking the remote as I whisper out of our room
into the kitchen to pour myself a glass of orange soda
nearly full to the brim. My excuse to have to walk by.
Slow. Lest I overflow, and spill.


How to Become a Forest Fire

I’ve been taking a class at the local community college.
There’s eight of us, including the teacher. We meet
in one of the big lecture halls meant for 400 people.
The teacher has never studied the topic. “I’ve been
many things, but a forest fire, not yet.” The first day
was spent reviewing the many things he’s been.
He’s been a seal. He lost his whole family in an accident.
He searched for them, “eternally” until he became a stone.
“My whole world was shut inside me. There was no
door. No way in, and definitely no way out.”
He’d also become a sheep, a bottle, sea glass, and
a cement mixer. The second class wasn’t really a class.
He didn’t show. The seven of us waited in silence
for a half an hour, then someone broke open a bottle
of something potent and we got high, and then we split,
each going our separate ways, except for Gina and Tim,
a couple who wanted to go at this whole transformation
thing together. Our teacher thought that was sweet,
but misguided. “Once we’re flames, you won’t be able
to tell one of us from the other.” You would expect
at least a couple skeptics, but there wasn’t even one.
“Look,” our teacher said, “these are the skeptics,”
pointing to the 393 empty chairs. I felt a sudden burst
of pride. Against all odds, we’d found each other.
There had only been one poster, hand-written, no number,
no email, just “How to Become a Forest Fire” at the top.
Recognizing our impoverished condition, we had all known
where to go. The 393 were not yet aware. It’s so easy,
after all: to set alarms, and wake up to them, and get in
your vehicle, and step on the gas, and fill out the appropriate
forms, and lock the bathroom stall, and drop a scarf,
and be as you are and think you will always be.
Tomorrow is our final exam. No pens, no paper, no gasoline.
I approached him after class, after everyone else had left.
I felt quite nervous about the exam. “I have no idea who
I am,” I told him. “Good,” he said, and I began to see.
Like death, they rose. So deep green they were holy, almost
ridiculous in their beauty. His lips first, flickering yellow.
Then mine. His palms. The forest grew around me. Trees
on streets, walking or waiting. Trees on the bus taking up
seats. I joined them by the overhead rails, swaying a little
with each jolt. Where were we heading? Home, I thought.
I was swaying and I wasn’t sure if I was swaying
like a person or a tree. Everything burned, as promised.
Woman, I thought, panicking. No, stone. No, home. No,


The Deer

A parked white van. A man opens the side door and begins
carrying out skinned deer bodies. Meanwhile humans
keep walking where ever it is they’re going. I hate when people say
“That’s so Brooklyn” but it is. Halal traffic and a fat grey sun.
Standing on Flatbush, I hold two pink plastic bags stuffed with thrift.
Captivated, I instantaneously become a forest: stillness comprised
of a million quicknesses. Who were you? I lean in to ask
the skinned red-white of them. But the question that comes out is:
Who was I? I’m remembering wandering my college’s apple orchard
mad, red-white naked, and no human stopped. The ordinariness
of going insane is what kills me, how many sipped their coffees,
twirled a strand of hair while I jabbered on about my prophesies.
These deer have no eyes, the men handle them without gloves,
the restaurant door is propped open, so steam escapes.
Nobody notices me, noticing. The bodies are raw,
stripped. I was naked so many times, I wandered a dozen
orchards, if an orchard can be a kitchen or a library or a bed,
which it can. None of the rooms belonged to me. It was as if
hands passed me along. My ex believed every word I said,
my mind gasolined while I ate her in the orchard.
Bodies float on a river of hands. Person after person passes
the van without so much as a glance. My animals,
my me, thighs so pale they’re see-through, throats
I could kiss. And these men, carrying them
quickly and with such serious faces, as if
they are transporting children, or clouds.

Shira Erlichman is a poet, musician and visual artist. A three time Pushcart Prize nominee, her work can be found in The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed Reader, and PBS NewsHour’s Poetry Series, among others. Her debut poetry collection Odes to Lithium is forthcoming from Alice James Books in September 2019, as well as her children's book Be/Hold (Penny Candy Books, Spring 2019). She was awarded a residency by the Millay Colony, the James Merrill Fellowship by the Vermont Studio Center, and the Visions of Wellbeing Focus Fellowship at AIR Serenbe. Born in Israel, raised in Massachusetts, she now lives in Brooklyn. Learn more at More from this author →