Jennifer Houle’s “The Pain of Others” & Tim Mayo’s “The Ladder”

The Pain of Others
Jennifer Houle

Hell is just another curse. It is shallow 
as a puddle. Old as the cosmos. 
Muttered and gone. Customary.
Hellhole, hellbent, hellenic, to hell 
with the slog into Hades after a box 
of beauty. Gawd, Venus. Some petty.
We’re above ground here. Lakes of fire 
consume the living. All that sulfur: 
they breathe it in, purchase filters
for their homes, if they have homes,
if they can buy things. I still can,
time being. A careful consumer,
I ravage no less. Don’t call it hell. 
Don’t say nightmare. Heat like this: 
nobody sleeps well. Morning comes, 
and some are gone. I’ve never managed
searing adversity. Warm and fed, I watch 
it all go down. I am not crazy to worry.

* Poet’s Writing Prompt: Reconsider and revise yourself: take a piece of poetry you’ve been working on, and revise it drastically, just to see what might emerge. Approach it from another angle. Ask yourself what is absent from the poem, and write to that absence. Try reversing it—start from the end and work back to the beginning. Pick out a word that seems central, and riff on it, or see what happens if you remove that center.

The Ladder
Tim Mayo 
                        Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself
                                                            Matthew 22: 37-40

And you see yourself struggling up this ladder
toward some intangible paradigm of self-love,
painfully stepping up from each lower rung
of self-loathing to the next one of lesser loathing,
where you hope to glimpse a kinder, gentler self,
save your soles this soreness of effort,
finally see the beauty in your angular,
asymmetrical face, your awkward gait,
and your slow ability to forgive yourself,
but the balls of your bare feet have become
bruised by each rung’s unforgiving resistance
to the weight of your body and purpose,
so you can hardly step up anymore,
when the revelation comes to you
in that sudden balancing act atop the ladder,
now splayed, A-like, to each side of you,
where all the limits of the room: walls, ceiling,
floor, remain out of reach, but nonetheless,
the infinity of love now seems within reach
in that yonder of an ideal world,
as there, in the wobbly stillness, you realize
how walking on air could be the ultimate state,
where the pain of each step would no longer exist,
and the air would embrace you, every part of you,
right down to your black and blue sole, and the air
would embrace everyone—except your neighbor,
the one we haven’t yet addressed in this poem,
who stands, grounded, holding your ladder,
tensing every muscle to jump and catch you.

First published in Crosswinds Poetry Journal (Volume IV, 2019)and Notes to the Mental Hospital Timekeeper (Kelsay Books, 2019)

* Mass Poetry Writing Prompt: Take a well-known phrase, idiom, expression, aphorism, commandment, or principle, and write a poem that investigates, circles, subverts, explodes, dissects, or avoids it.

Jennifer Houle is the author of two award-winning poetry collections: The Back Channels (2016) and Virga (2019), both published by Signature Editions. The Back Channels was awarded the J.M. Abraham Award East Coast Literary Award for best collection of poetry, and Virga won the Fiddlehead Prize for best poetry collection from the New Brunswick Book Awards. Her work has been appearing in literary magazines for over 15 years, consistently grappling with meaning-making and identity in a rapidly-changing, economically unstable, and frequently prescriptive culture. Born just “North of Boston,” she now lives in Hanwell, New Brunswick, with her family.

Tim Mayo holds an ALB, cum laude, from Harvard University and an MFA from The Bennington Writing Seminars. His first full-length collection, The Kingdom of Possibilities, was published by Mayapple Press in 2009. His second collection Thesaurus of Separation (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2016) hasgarnered both a Finalist for the 2017 Montaigne Medal and a Finalist for the 2017 Eric Hoffer Book Award as well as many other honors, and his chapbook Notes to the Mental Hospital Timekeeper (Kelsay Books, 2019)won an Honorable Mention in the chapbook category of the 2020 Eric Hoffer Book Awards. A former Cambridge, Massachusetts resident, he currently lives in southern Vermont, where he was a founding member of the Brattleboro Literary Festival.  His poetry and reviews have appeared in such places as The American Journal of Poetry, Avatar Review, Barrow Street, Narrative Magazine, ONE, Poetry International, Poet Lore, River Styx, Salamander, Web Del Sol Review of Books, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac. His poems have been nominated for numerous Pushcart Prizes.