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by Michael Waters

is that my name      mom asks      slug scrawl
vaseline cursive      across garden paths

is that my name      she questions      squinting into sky
vapor trails      scored by jets      unbraiding

is that my name      Arabic script      storefront window
no      mom      that’s not your name

taps my wrist      psss      someone’s looking for me
searching America      my name      everywhere

and you      poet      didn’t you ever learn      to read

“primer” is part of a sequence of twenty-five poems titled “mother of flames” in Caw (BOA Editions, 2020). The sequence concerns my mother, born in 1927, and her downward spiral into Alzheimer’s. It touches on aspects of race, religion, dementia, and caregiving. I’d written two poems on the subject, then found myself unable to write more until I was able to approach the line from a different perspective. I’ve always insisted that the line is the integral unit of the poem, but for this sequence the phrase became the integral unit of the line. By fragmenting the line, I was able to intimate not only the hesitation on my part of deepening into this topic and presuming familiarity with her condition, but also to suggest, through each line’s negative spaces, the gaps in my mother’s thought processes and speech. Still, the poems are written mostly in couplets toward cohesion and emotional restraint. “primer” reminds me that no matter how carefully I pay attention, there’s always a meaningful detail that I’m missing.

Michael Waters has published thirteen books of poetry, most recently Caw (BOA Editions, 2020), The Dean of Discipline, and Celestial Joyride. He has co-edited several anthologies, including Border Lines: Poems of Migration (Knopf, 2020), Reel Verse: Poems About the Movies, Contemporary American Poetry, and Perfect in Their Art: Poems on Boxing from Homer to Ali. His poems have appeared in POETRY, American Poetry Review, Paris Review, Yale Review, Kenyon Review, and Rolling Stone. Waters lives without a cell phone in Ocean, New Jersey.