This poem was written for Read Write Poem Prompt #102: Memory Recipes.

I am about mid-way through reading Fourteen: Growing Up Alone in a Crowd by Stephen Zanichkowksy. In this book, Zanichkowksy tells his childhood story — being the eighth child in a family of fourteen, born to a hot-tempered father and an overwhelmed mother who were both physically abusive to their children. In this dark and disturbing memoir, he tells how such an upbringing affected him, leaving him living inside his head, with difficulty connecting to other human beings and a longing for a sense of a separate self away from the crowd.

In one section, he talks about the mass-produced school lunches in his house:

“I remember days I went to school without my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, because the image of the mass production of those sandwiches hurt me…Perhaps the sameness of our sandwiches was a reminder that, to outsiders, we kids were all the same, interchangeable.”

The images of sandwiches haunted me and brought to the surface of an old childhood memory. So while this poem is very tenuously linked to the prompt, I’d like to share it anyway. It is lengthy, but worth the read. I hope you walk away from it with something.

I. Milwaukee, 1979

One night, when I was three, I had a dream. Dolls,
multiplied on a bus. Little goddesses, pink and fresh,
curled nylon hair tumbling down in clusters of
crazy gold waterfalls. All of them, copied from my own, until a
soulless crowd of perfect duplicates sat on the laps of
every girl under the age of five riding this cross town bus. Before this
disturbed act of multiplication, I had been sitting next to my mother,
cradled by a hard-shell bus seat – 1970 remanufactured into indigo plastic
and faded by travel, routine, and transition,
worn buttocks, worn back, worn souls. I had been holding
my doll, the only one of its kind, a smiling warm plastic girl with
blue eyes that blinked and
a red velvet dress trimmed with lace – snowflakes re-written
in soft white thread. The bus,
traveling from stop to stop:

a string of pearls,
of people,
of tired, sheltered people cold and shuddering from the rain,
from the Tuesday afternoon rain,
from the Milwaukee in mid-November rain
that rises up armies of tiny, round domes in your skin
when it icy legions land upon you. At each stop,
a girl would emerge into the cylinder on wheels,
under the metal canopy, mother in hand, with a copy of
my little sweetheart resting in the crook of their arm. I cried
on the bus, cried through the veil of consciousness, cried
down the watershed until I fell into the ocean of

II. New York, 1960

I see you,
nestled in the concrete shoulder of Queens:
dirt-dusted, dappled with circles of oil stain, warped and protean around
their edges. Those streets, straight and intersecting lines of gray and black
crammed with dotted lines of brown brick dentures,
each tooth a square brownstone hive teeming with
human drones in rainbow colors. Eight years old. Walking
to school, the rolled-up top of your crinkled brown lunch bag grasped tight
by a chilled alabaster hand. Inside, a
mass-produced peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

How you watched, every morning, the emergence and crank
of the family machine. Your two oldest sisters and older brother, slapping
sticky, beige peanut oceans and tsunamis of sweet grape goo
onto the backs of stiff white bread. Naming their creations
would have never cross their mind. This
was multiplication at its finest: you and they, part of the machine and
fed by the machine – arms and intent stripped of cell, breath, and spirit
by duty, by its reaction to the assault of the sheer, collective need
of fourteen little souls. Zanichkowksky, Incorporated. A massive hungry
mouth: don’t think, just feed it.

And you. How many times did you
toss those little products into trash cans, wishing for something
with your name on it? At least your hunger had a name. You
opened the door to it, welcomed it in, drank tea with it, tried
to make peace with it. Endured it, because it knew your name,
your body, knew that you were Stephen apart from

III. Intersection

There is no intersection of our lines except for
the pain. I grew up in a single small kingdom of just
Mom, Dad, and me. Until I was eleven, we ruled
joint, monarchs in tandem, a little world unto ourselves
filled with our own empty echoes. But you, you never had your expanses
all to yourself. Your consequences were laid long before
your entrance, this emergence into
a crowd of squashed together life: the young, the damaged, and the

But perhaps my dream was a warning, a lesson in foreshadow. We
broke apart and scattered into two larges chunks:
one with Mom and me,
and the other with Dad riding westward in his
crazy nightmare of horses, arrows, and Indians,
seeking himself in the depths of the desert – a black man
amongst the red. Meanwhile, I
would get lost in a crowd: a family of six,
its wishes stretched from sea to shining sea. I hid
in terror from an insane aunt – a martinet who
invaded the kingdoms that I kept erecting
to replace my old home with campaigns of destruction:

chalkboard-and-nail invectives,
scorched-earth diatribes sometimes delivered with a belt,
and relentless, shore-pounding surfs of her demand that I
align my mind and soul with hers. By the time I was eighteen, I was left
with nothing except a single house,
stamped in gray,
with legions of wood splinter bouquets blooming inside,
corners pulling themselves apart,
old floorboards singing songs of creak from their throats,
a sideways ladder of spears in worn dusky iron for a fence,
and stars peering through open invasions in my ceiling –
just like how they break apart the roof of your
Manhasset mansion and stare through in your most grotesque and
heart-bending dreams. My realm became
an eccentric, stygian mess of tangled and rotting shadows,
a phantasm that only Tim Burton could love. And I have been living in it
for fifteen years, trying to renovate it in my mad splendor with
whatever sparkle I can steal with
my black-beaked mind and ink feather heart. You can even hear me
scrape the wind into bloody, ragged sheets with my
cross-grain cawing while it do it. Yes, I am ugly, but I am

But I wonder what your kingdom looks like. I wonder
what you kept building, inches from the breath of siblings,
five to a room, the stink and the wet and the rot of
growing boy bodies within easy stench distance, your creations
only visible from the balcony behind your eyes. I wonder
if your palace is a tiny edifice, a one-room container,
never meant to hold anyone except you. And I wonder what runs in
your sewers. Is it all that mass-produced food,
void of love and born only of reptilian need,
destined for the black hole guts of children scrubbed gray and
decorated with pain, all that food
meant for Zanichkowky, party of sixteen:

those slippery hot dogs like plump, fresh dicks;
those round, dimpled schools of swimming chickpeas;
and those parades of eggs, coddled and scorched, clucked and shell-shattered,
floating past the stink of cream cheese islands? Truthfully,

I may never know what lies behind your gates
except the story that you tell in page and ink. But I can only suspect that
in your kingdom, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are
forever forbidden. They are
outlawed reminders –
just like that mob of multiplied dolls on my
dream-state cross town Milwaukee bus –
of how our forgotten, shattered-soul selves secretly ache to
step out of the shadow of crowd
and into the sunlight.

Written 11/23/09 and 11/24/09
© 2009 Nicole Nicholson. All Rights Reserved.

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Stumble It!


About ravenswingpoetry

I am a 38 year old writer from Columbus, OH and the creator of Raven's Wing Poetry. I am a poet, seeker, fellow traveler, and autistic.
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5 Responses to Intersection

  1. I never thought I would have something in common with Tim Burton, but I love this poem. Grateful to have taken the time to read it and grateful you posted it.

    Here are my favorite lines:

    sticky, beige peanut oceans and tsunamis of sweet grape goo
    onto the backs of stiff white bread.

    chalkboard-and-nail invectives,
    scorched-earth diatribes sometimes delivered with a belt,
    and relentless, shore-pounding surfs of her demand that I
    align my mind and soul with hers

    My realm became
    an eccentric, stygian mess of tangled and rotting shadows,
    a phantasm that only Tim Burton could love.

  2. davidmoolten says:

    I like the integration in this, of families, the narrator’s and Zanichkowksy’s, of alienating experience, and how the primal fear in a child of being interchangeable and thus unimportant, dispensable, is made tangible by the intimate things in her or his environment, ironically by things that are the most personal, a doll, the sandwich one eats, absorbs into one’s body. But also, you do a great job of weaving the culture at large into this web, the mass production culture of late 20th century America, with its soul-less wandering and “future shock” change, dispensable relationships and alienation on a mass scale. That you find connection with an utter stranger after everything that has passed, is a subtle but redemptive stroke, and one that adds much dimension to the poem.

  3. Deb says:

    “At least your hunger had a name.”

    Provoking images and stories, starting with that great artwork, and the quote from the book, then fleshed out and flayed. All at once.

  4. Thank you, Nicole… May I cluck you an egg sometime?

  5. Pingback: Big Tent/WWP Poem #42: The Way Back Home « Raven's Wing Poetry

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