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Reading “What a Waste” to College Boys

by Jill McDonough

I write a poem called “What a Waste” about Josey,
about how even though sometimes I want to devour
her whole, it’s up to her what happens to the only
body she has. I think this is a funny poem. I think
I’m making a joke about consent, desire, marriage.
Maybe lesbian bed death? Middle age? I don’t know.
This may be too meta, even for me. Anyway, I read it
to some students while I’m a visiting writer. Two white
boys raise their soft and earnest hands—so young!
—want to share with me and everyone else
in the room their wide-eyed stories, how sometimes girls
with beautiful bodies just don’t want to fuck them.
They both spoke with a kind of wonder, like I get it,
right? Like, how can that even be? And we shook
our heads at the sad injustice of it. Sometimes even I
can’t tell when I am kidding anymore. I said I know,
man. Other people’s bodies aren’t for us. It sucks, right?
And they nodded, taking that in, thinking it over, I guess
for the very first time. Poetry, getting so much nothing done.

I hate it when my students tell me “It really happened like that,” since who cares, but here we go. Just like I say in the poem, I was a visiting writer for a college writing class and one of the poems I read out loud was this

And the earnest, awed recognition in the boy students’ responses was funny and also horrifying. I am not sure it had ever occurred to them that other people’s bodies aren’t for them. They for sure had no problem talking about it out loud, “the sad injustice of it,” no embarrassment about admitting it, in the face of my apparent lack of embarrassment. So, great! English class got to be about desire and consent, for a minute. They had an epiphany and I got to be there for it. Poetry!

Jill McDonough is the author of Here All Night; Reaper; Where You Live; Oh, James!; and Habeas Corpus. The recipient of three Pushcart prizes and fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and Stanford’s Stegner program, she taught incarcerated college students through Boston University’s Prison Education Program for thirteen years. Her work has appeared in POETRY, Slate, The Nation, The Threepenny Review, and The Best American Poetry. McDonough teaches in the MFA program at UMass-Boston and started a program offering college reading and writing in two Boston jails.