July Poetry from David Van Etten

Updated: Jul 30, 2019

Flapper Press is honored to feature a handful of gorgeous new poems from David Van Etten.


Bonito Applebum


They used to call me Bubs, and they also

called me Noodles. Bubs was short for Bubble

Butt and was thinly-disguised praise, while

Noodles was a gently teasing, slippery fish.

When the doctor artfully butchered out

my colon and rectum, and I lost 70 pounds

to chemo, it mattered little what people called

me, so long as I existed in their waking thoughts.

I received a friend’s prayers with an ancient photo

showing off my plump little ass in the skinniest of

girl’s jeans, the Hudsons or Sevens I found on the

sales rack at Marshalls. It could be so much worse.

In 1915, the impressionist composer Claude

Debussy underwent one of the earliest ostomy

operations and concluded, “There are mornings

when the effort of dressing seems like one of

the twelve labors of Hercules.” Things got

better after they put me on depression pills.

Turns out the early 2000s era was one of the

rare moments in history when skinny jeans

were out of vogue in the market. In 1986,

my buddy’s mom tapered his grey Levi’s to

fit snugly in his high-top Reeboks and form

stick legs under his Union Bay pullover. Still

feels like the height of fashion in my youngish

heart. The tight breeches of the 1660s simply

flattered the legs under broad powdered wigs;

the tailored dandies of the early 1800s like

Beau Brummel conquered the Romantic soul,

until Beau exiled himself to France to evade

debtor’s prison; Elvis Presley’s pelvis twisted

and Audrey Hepburn’s drainpipe jeans were

alive, somehow both beyond gender and squarely

sexual. You can’t masturbate easily with an ostomy

bag staring up at you. My disappearing ass barely

holds up sweatpants. Hepburn fought bowel cancer

and lost valiantly. Vince Lombardi told Father Tim

he wasn’t afraid to die, but he regretted not

accomplishing more with his life. Bobby Moore

sang “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” at least

200 times before defending East London

from West Ham United’s foes. The man that Pele

called the fairest defender he ever played against

underwent emergency surgery for colon cancer

before death spread to his liver. The problem with

post-grunge jeans was the long, puffy crotch,

which suggested that boys needed acres of real

estate to house the old Hampton Wick and

Cobblers Awls. Whereas what boys wanted

was to live in your thoughts, same as anyone

who guzzles air in this confusing existence.


Immutable Kinship


Nuestro amado hijo: We finally bound

dear uncle to the chair, after he

discovered I had new Nikes.

He was still drinking; I was

eight years old. The gang didn’t

come for me until I was old enough

to kill effectively. Dear uncle was dead

by then, but still warm; as they say,

you’re either with us or against us.

Dad had fled the country and left

those he loved most, as his refusal to

pay the gang its rent on his taxi was,

umm, troublesome. The Black Shadow

killed my cousin and threatened me as

convincingly as the gang did, because

you’re either with us or we’ll kill you.

I got a chill reading Anna Burns’

Milkman, when the young girl is stalked

by the Catholic paramilitary chieftain,

and her expansive tribe assumes she’s

his doll. I read voraciously, and want to

be a lawyer, but maybe a better lawyer

than the one who carries my life

in the palm of God’s hand.

Nuestra amada hija: We finally found

a taxi willing to take me to Mexico.

I held a baby in my womb that

was fathered by the gang, and they

vowed me dead and the child theirs,

if they found me. She is with me

now in the north, and she is my love

and my life. I was just a breath

over eighteen when I arrived here,

and thus don’t qualify as

an “unaccompanied minor,” which

means my court case will be much

more—what did my lawyer say?—

“adversarial.” I trust him, even if he’s

not terribly good at being a lawyer.

He is responsible for telling

my story, and my future here

depends on his talent for taking

facts and making them truths.


Station Burger


A pickled jalapeno slice is like

a tasty/tacky snowflake. I was aloft

on a hillside, inside a queen-size bed at

the country club. I was only one adjacent

county from home. All you need

to prepare for the proper experience,

the very soul of the burger, is cancer

and chemo and an abject loss of appetite,

plus an anti-depression pill, simple.

And patience. The last time I tried to graze

on a fry, it smelled like ostomy bag.

A medium-sized chunk of my

life was lost mid-treatment.

I asked UPS why they blocked my

P.O. box. The court date was changed

to December, because I was blotto

during the April date. Make edit to

delete “because” in the prior sentence

and replace it with “and thank god

because.” I’m told I only ate yellow

curry from Door Dash through spring,

a third of a serving for each day’s meal,

until I stopped eating entirely.

The breakthrough was my dad’s

pancakes, bacon, and eggs, shortly

after my second ambulance ride. 125

pounds of spindly spider, formerly

195 pounds of marathon runner.

I left the hospital after five days with

sweet, sweet water coursing through

my body, and a bandage where they

poked a needle in my lung. I wasn’t

under for that one. The burger

was cooked medium but pink, and

seared but not charred. The secret was

the pickled jalapenos, which brought out

the technicolor Oz. The secret was vinegar

in the ketchup, and gruyere cheese,

and pretzel bun, and a mix of steak

sauce and BBQ, and the impatience that

follows the fifth repetition of order

details on the phone. Here we

were in the ritziest spot in Berkeley,

waiting for our oldest college

buddies, all the “Strapping Young Men,”

no longer so young or so strapping,

who didn’t want me

to be sick alone, or forever.

There’s a 53% chance that I won’t be.

The glass is far greater than half-full.



Wanderlust, Episode 5


This home is only empty enough for the

both of us. I tend to dine alone when you’re

surrounded by strangers. Bacon before

pancakes is a recipe for another pricey

pan-burning. I heard the ancient ghost

rattling around in that unexpected email.

I’d look into the future, but it’s simply

another version of the past, only with

marginally less time to repeat some of

the same mistakes. It was summer then;

it is summer no longer. I fell asleep on

the staircase—how’s that for a likely excuse?

It took me nearly ten years to earn a loved

one’s forgiveness—I’m so glad we all live

to remember our regrets. I was tempted to

weep through the whirling tempest, that

climactic show-stopper when Toni Collette’s

therapist says, “It’s all . . . too much.”

A fortnight on honeymoon goes so much

faster than fourteen nights spent alone in

a haunted hospital room. Love is one part

razzle-dazzle and three parts fastened to

the Ulyssean mast. The future might not be

another version of the past, because I can’t be

sure it even exists. You are told in plain terms

that a coin flip decides whether you return to

that room, and all you can do is guess who

flipped the coin already. I will contact my “step

nine” list to sort of check the box, but once

again I’ll include no one who truly merits an

apology. How can it end this way, I asked before

realizing that Episode 6 remained. I would need

to locate everyone who commingled souls

and/or spit, and confirm whether life gets

lonelier the longer you live alongside each

other. One part dazzle, ninety-nine parts mast.

The storm felled one of the plum trees, while

the giant eucalyptus danced like a dandelion.

I will impregnate a stranger I’ve known for

10 weeks, because she’s gorgeous and emotionally

unavailable. In the beginning, we may argue

about her parents, and mine, and parental styles

of discipline or lack thereof, and my boozing, about

which we will both agree. But then a few years pass,

and you notice she keeps changing the ostomy bag,

and you never go to bed angry without waking

the next morning afraid, her face emerging from

a separate room with that heavy look of shared

penitence, bound by the beauty of necessity.

You will weep listening to the second surgeon’s

second opinion, which you eagerly sought out

but never wanted to hear, and some strange

woman you love will hold your hand and softly

squeeze, joining you in that squalling chorus.

David Van Etten is a lawyer, teacher, uncle, theologian and poet. His newest collection of poetry. Twist the Blue Burlap Inside You, will soon be available for purchase on Flapper Press, and his regular poetry educational series—Dave's Poetry Workshop can be seen monthly, along with his ongoing series of posts about his journey through recovery from colorectal cancer. To find out more about David, read his interview with Elizabeth Gracen here.

0 views