Two poems by Karin Schalm

Karin Schalm

The Generalist

What do I know about chai?
Other than it’s hot, it’s brown.
Some type of sweet and some type of spice.
If there was a tournament
for chai, I could not be the judge.
I would have to be a spectator because,
as I said, I know very little about chai.

The Apprentice to Last Century Calls me on the Phone

At first it’s madam this and madam that,
as if I’d won a sliding miter saw,
something mechanical but mysterious,
and he’s stuck explaining to me
(the lady of the house) how it all works.

The apprentice says he’ll start
on January 1, 1900 and describe in detail
(he assures me in real time it will only take moments)
all the sins of the twentieth century.

I’m not up for this and say as much.
How’s the weather? he interrupts.
I talk about the snow, how it softens during the day,
hardens at night. Slippery ruts cut through
the humps of ice in the alley, twin canyons sculpted by tires.
My car no longer turns in or out of the driveway.
I ask about the weather where he’s from.
The apprentice describes the humidity,
the excessive heat of the history penitentiary,
the exercise yard where no one walks,
the fruit rotting from the walls.

I say I’ll do it, and voila, I hear
a decade of sins before I can dig the dirt out
from beneath my nails. Between 1900 and 1903,
on average, every week, two Negroes were lynched
—hanged, burned, mutilated. A volunteer
from the war in the Philippines wrote home
comparing the shooting of humans to rabbit hunting.
Caloocan: all 17,000 dead. Slaughterhouses.
United Fruit in Cuba. The Platt Amendment.
Interchangeability of workers.
Hardly any light in the factories, just the gas jets
burning by day and by night. The filthy,
malodorous lavatory in the dark hall.
146 Triangle shirtwaist employees, mostly women,
locked in, their hair on fire as they leapt
from the windows, a pile of bodies
collecting on the pavement.

This isn’t a great way to pass the time.
I’ve got to go and say as much.
The apprentice starts talking more intimately.
The time-thingy slows way down
as he refers affectionately to my great, great Aunt Rose,
the one whose glassware I’ve stuck high in a cupboard,
the one whose husband was gone, fighting in the Great War.
He tells how she became pregnant,
then threw herself in the canal with an anchor
wrapped tightly around her.

I hang up before he gets to me,
most of my life spent in the last century,
the one where we were all in training.

Karin Schalm has published work in Camas, CutBank, The Sun and other journals. She earned an M.F.A. in Poetry, an M.A. in Literature, and an M.S. in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana where she currently serves as the Creative Writing Program Coordinator.

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