Poetry by Rich Ferguson
New Jersey Me
Most of my life has been spent in the dark:
drinking in bars, sitting in strip clubs,
sleeping, fucking, searching the black sky
for UFOs. You name it.
That’s Me. Lights Out Me.
Searching For Other Forms Of Life Me.
Some of my best dark moments
were in my mother’s womb.
It was a nine-month vacation like no other.
Beat the shit out of Atlantic City
or the Seaside Heights Boardwalk during the summer.
Inside Mom’s dark-belly Eden
I was naked and free to do as I pleased.
I slam-danced to the music of her heart.
Slow danced to her easy sleeping breath.
With fistfuls of blood and placenta
I scrawled graffiti all over the walls of her insides.
I couldn’t help myself. Was out of my mind with delight.
Made crazy by the bitter fruits of her vices.
Whatever she smoked I smoked.
Whatever she drank I drank.
Didn’t care for the Virginia Slims or Yuban coffee, though.
All that menthol and bitter grounds made
Fetus Me ball up even tighter.
Kick out of time with her heart.
But the occasional Bloody Mary and sedatives
were another story. In that amniotic ambrosia
I was a fixed constellation of hyper-illuminated joy.
Star Me. Super Nova Me.
All around me spun fiery planets,
Nothing could throw me out of orbit. Not even
those times Mom would crank the radio
blasting Top 100 crap like “Build Me Up Buttercup”
while cleaning the house; or those days I’d tremble
in time with the erratic changes of her pulse
as she’d sit alone in her bedroom, praying and crying
to St. Jude.
That’s how it was back then. That’s how I began
to sense the world outside me, all around me.
For days I’d sit with my newly formed ear pressed
against the inside of Mom’s belly, listening to
our small-town Jersey life.
There were the hacking coughs and slurred voices
from what I later saw were the crusty old men
spending their days, drinking and trading fishing tales
down at the marina; the bitching about high prices
and home life from the bent-back blue hairs
shuffling through the aisles of Shop-Rite supermarket;
the tired old gossip about friends, enemies,
and who’s doing who between lip smacks of gum
from the acne-splattered teenage girls
ditching school to hang out in front of the 7-11.
From where I sat, so many things about my future life
added up to nothing more than a Hit Parade of Boredom
bleeding into my dark Eden.
That boredom: it was everywhere.
I could hear it in the muffled voices
of medical center workers, cashiers, and
waitresses. Could feel it in the way
my parents spoke to each other, touched each other
before drifting off to sleep. The boredom crowded up
against Mom’s belly, worked its way inside.
I exchanged her oxygen for that dullness and distress.
Fed myself on it non-stop. Tried preparing myself
for life in Blackwater:
a little South Jersey coastal town
with no huge malls, libraries, or record stores.
Only hot rods, alcohol, and a strip club—
all the things to make you spin faster
or slower around the boredom.
An even greater threat than the boredom
was the Crab Creek Nuclear Power Plant.
Its invisible doses of radioactive waste
emitted into the air seeped through Mom’s skin.
Those tiny isotopes made me tingle,
gave me headaches.
The poison blended with my parents’ DNA—
twisted helixes of my old man’s rage,
Mother’s fear, married despair—
to form my tiny hands, feet, spine, and brown eyes.
And while each and every part of me was the correct size
and in the correct place, I still didn’t feel completely right:
Human Waste Dump Me.
Emotional Frankenstein Me.
I felt almost as toxic as the Jersey
I’d soon be dropped into.
As my senses continued developing
so did my understanding of my parents.
I tasted the bitterness of Mom’s mounting worries and fears.
Shivered to her coldness and distances.
With my old man,
my nose flared from the dank, sulfurous spark
of his anger
whenever he’d press close to Mom
going off about her absences, or how he’d been
busting his ass at work to care for her.
In response, I’d ball up tighter
as if to vanish.
I already knew that, once born,
no matter what I did—
try to get better grades in school, do my best
to clean the house, or be a more tough and loving son—
I’d never be able to make my parents any happier
or make them love each other—or me—any more.
Still, it wasn’t all skull and crossbones.
There were days when, over the gentle sounds of Mom’s gestation,
I heard a different small town:
the hum of crickets and bullfrogs tuning for evening;
the hard-rock acoustics of sudden thunderstorms
and the thunderous revving of
souped-up Camaros and Shelbys barreling down Route 9.
There was also Mom’s slow-honey voice—
filled with a music
that not even the grime and grit of Blackwater could quiet—
speaking to each of her Mary Kay Cosmetics customers:
“With only a few products you’re well on your way
to being the beautiful you that you are.”
Even better than those sounds
were the sounds of those girls: the sweet dark dwellers
over at Duffy’s Bar. Whenever Mom went
with my Chief of Police old man to watch him
down a beer or two, I’d hear those girls
woozily discuss their latest boyfriends
or the sleazy customers they’d encountered
while dancing at the Little Red Dollhouse.
Those girls and their gin and Marlboro ramblings
nearly killed me—
Love Crush Me. Spin the Stillborn Bottle Me.
Rib by rib, breath by breath, all those beautiful sounds
of Blackwater built me. Sang me into being.
With the erratic beatings of Mom’s heart
as a metronome, I kept time with the music
of my little town: the music that filled me with hope.
There were other hopes and graces along the way, too.
Like when I’d sense my grandmother nearby, her
warm and loving hand resting on Mom’s belly
as she’d say: “I can feel him, Sylvia. You’re going
to have a boy. A beautiful baby boy.”
There were also those cheerful near-summer days—
full of blueberry burst and salt-air breezes drifting
over from the Barnegat Bay—when I’d kick and punch,
sending Mom to her bedroom window
to rub her tummy and console herself. There, I’d once again
witness all that real-world light
filtering in through her belly.
That light, shining from
those distant beacons of possibility—Seaside Heights,
Asbury Park, even as far away as California—
surrounded me. Illuminated me.
I’d touch my face, feel myself smile.
With my newly developed voice, I’d quietly count off
the miles between those far away places and me.
Even then, I knew that those distant lands
would serve as future sanctuaries. Places that would feed me
what Blackwater nor Mom ever could: loud music,
endless possibility, and light.
Bright, bright light.
Once Mom’s water broke, and her blood rushed over me
it was time to see that light. As I rode
the violent waves of her moans and muscle contractions
toward that light, I thought I was ready.
Ready to be born into Blackwater.
Yet once the doctor lifted me high
into the blinding light, and I felt all the good and bad
of my dumpy little town become my second skin
I wasn’t so sure anymore. I kicked and screamed
as the doctor smacked the pain of breath into me.
After he cut the cord, he placed me into Mom’s arms.
Through her sobbing, she spoke my name for the first time.
Right then, Tiny Seed Me sensed doom. Being kicked out
of Mom’s dark-belly Eden, smacked on the ass, and
branded with a name was bad enough.
But being born into Blackwater
had sealed my fate in a far worse way. Before I could walk
I already knew I’d be running. Running both to my little town
and away from it. That was my life back then—
part boy, part lost, part dual-exhaust, high-performance dream machine.
That was me. All me.
Photography by Genevieve Gaignard