Going Up? Going Down?: Getting Stuck Between Floors in Melissa Culbertson’s ‘Elevator Love Song’
By Jean Macpherson
I like a poem with bullshit. And flowers.
I purchased several journals at AWP Boston and, oddly enough, I submitted to most of them in the past as well as recently. Rejection, rejection, rejection! But never mind that, because this is not about me. Well, mostly not about … me. Rather, this is about a poem with bullshit (the poem itself, not actual bullshit, but you probably figured that out) and flowers. If there is any reason to read a literary publication it is to discover voices we may never have heard existed in the first place. Like this one.
“Elevator Love Song” by Melissa Culbertson appeared in Flyway volume 10, issue 2 in 2006. Out of the twenty or so journals and books I purchased at AWP, this is poem captivates me, and continues to drag my attention back to page sixty where it lives and breathes between the covers of a beautiful journal. Culbertson created something I wish was my own, and damn, I wanna be the girl in this movie:
I speak fluent Chinese fingertrap dirty talk,
and not just with the bottom-feeders, the trough-eaters.
A killer opening couplet that immediately suggests, The joke’s on you; fingers playfully squirming, one possibly desperate to get out to escape the intense sexual gestures meant not only for those mooching off the ocean floor, but those piggies hanging at the trough, taking without giving. This girl is street smart, sexy and bold. Who wouldn’t want to be her?
I am the jam to your jelly, loverboy,
and I write you bullshit love-letters on restaurant menus and
I am the fruit and you are the juice — two like-minded edibles similar, but different in consistency. She, in charge and dominant, writes everything he wants her to say; all the wonderful, loving terms of endearment with bedroom eyes about the size of his shoes and the overwhelming (likely fake) orgasm he gave her. Excrement! Isn’t that always the way? Someone professes a love or longing for you and once you give in to intimacy, it is over. I often look back on past relationships and reconsider the language and delivery only to understand it is a crumpled napkin beneath the table. Not even the busboy will look twice to pick it up. And as for written tokens of admiration, only strangers read bathroom stalls, and only couples that frequent an eatery will notice the bullshit between the lines because they’ve been together long enough to know it’s there. I like this girl, she keeps secrets, has a way of knowing things presented in life through intuition and experience. Culbertson has a wonderful, declarative style, a bit ‘in yr face.’ How liberating … at a cost:
I hear the change in your pants pocket, can nickel and dime
as skillfully as any back-alley Aphrodite– I’m your ‘x marks
the spot,’ baby.
Whether intended or not, a little Marxism goes a long way and Culbertson does it well. Coins jingling in the pocket, the left over change from paper bills returned after purchase, and she will take him for all remaining cents, leave him completely broke and broken, a class all his own. She is the new-found treasure, whether for exchange or discovery and after he digs deep and realizes she is gone, he will exert the greatest level of human force to find her again, but only come up with an empty bank account. Aphrodite was adored by many, but she herself, unhappy in marriage, left Hephaestus for other men. I can see the temptation. If I had a magic girdle I may be inspired to use it. But our girl isn’t just an Aphrodite. She is a portrait of many:
My brilliance as a schoolgirl rebel debutante
would stun you.
The emergence of ‘role’ is modulated yet multifaceted. In order to be a ‘schoolgirl rebel debutante’ you are youthful and innocent, that stereotypical ‘girl-next-door’ who also possesses the need to sneak out after bedtime, defy parental orders and still show up beautifully coiffed for society to behold. The ability to transform quickly from one female identity to another is desirable to me; I don’t like spending a lot of time picking out clothes, painting my face (which I don’t anyway), or styling my hair. I want the automatic appeal Culbertson is selling! I want to embrace the challenge of good girl vs. bad girl. But what happens when your lover stops looking your way?
I ride the motion of the ocean the way we ought to,
i.e. on my own. A menage a moi, really, but I don’t mind.
The undulating rhythm of masturbation coupled with internal rhyme humorously takes us straight to the shoreline where no one know’s a woman’s body better than the woman herself. At the same time there is turn in tone, a statement of near reluctance with “but I don’t mind.” To say “I don’t mind” is like saying, Sure, I’ll do it but I’d rather be doing something else. Is this boredom? Disappointment? Rejection? It is hard to believe that a girl like this could ever be bored, or experience a let down in her life. Girls like this have it all, don’t they?
I can’t complain:
I’ve been able to trace your hidden wallet, even when you
stash it in the damn freezer.
Hmmm. Maybe I am wrong. Her voice stumbles, slows down, turns passive: “I can’t complain:/I’ve been able to…” Her hot and heavy love life is slowly disintegrating. I imagine her sitting on a stoop, head in hands, looking at her feet with pure boredom and dissatisfaction. Maybe even concern that he is seeing someone new: “trace your hidden wallet” meaning all the expense receipts and time spent with someone else. Love is a labor theory, who knew? But with all the time spent seducing and sleeping with her lover, memory is a concrete structural value. Memory of what was once had in whatever type of relationship that existed between the girl and her lover are memories frozen and mixed with another saved in the “damn freezer” with no passion to dispel the cold, reinvent the heat that once existed between them.
It’s gratifying that I can always
wake up before you, slide out from your side of the bed, down
the fire escape.
I know where you are, how long you sleep — we’ve been together for so long now, that I can crawl over you with no disruption and leave without sneaking around. I have thought long and hard about this, but I cannot leave you completely. Sometimes we love more when we recognize something is gone in the age of our lost energies.
Soon, an early morning liquor binge, white sun breaks out,
I roll over on my ego. I am atomic, so radiant that I melt your
But it’s okay — I convince myself that I am still attractive, I still have what it takes to make you see me like a sexual being and I pursue you rampantly, without a precursor for denial.
I’m a siren humming filthy lullabies in your ear. An enigma
of my age —
but I don’t have to be.
Yes, I am still enchanting, and without warning I will guide you to the rocks, destroy you; there is no need to ignore me. I still “speak Chinese fingertrap dirty talk.” Who cares about my age? Why should that factor into a woman’s beauty and prowess to begin with? But there is always doubt, or the want for what we used to look like, and what our relationships used to be.
A few years ago
I saw you, leaning against my apartment building, swaying
like a broken ladder.
Love falls apart, break-ups happen, time moves forward. I run into you, see you broken, but within reach of my window. If I touch you know I too will clang against brick walls, dangle by a single bolt.
And the night before last you pinned me to the wall, plucked
orchids from under my skirt,
my thighs buzzing, neon lights; your calloused hands, rough as
the sidewalk we stood on.
Remember all those nights, exciting, breathtakingly new when we were still discovering each other’s bodies — we are orchids, love and beauty, bilateral symmetry. I miss you. We can’t let bullshit get in the way.
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