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C.N.P Poetry 

  • Writer's pictureCathexis Northwest Press

Contract; Fatherless; Proxies

By: Lyall Harris


nice to meet you too

you swooningly handsome smart creative

Italian whose parents are dear and adore me

your spotlight uniqueness rebounding

off every shiny surface in the theatre

(your mother gives a standing ovation)

I’ll take care of you

I’ll work around your quirks

accept your flair

I’ll smooth over any pitchy parts

while I perfect your language

and you’ll make love look like I don’t need

to heal myself first

you’ll make it look as possible as a beach umbrella

I’ll open any day to shade you

(and would you like sugar in your iced tea?)

you’ll make it look like something I can get behind

like Sophia Loren’s sunglasses

a house on the Mediterranean squinting in one lens

an apartment in Florence in the other

you’ll be Vittorio Gassman

and tell me you like a woman with a little tummy

(a panzettina he said) and I’ll be relieved

even though when you make love I still hide

the desperate shame of that dimpled softness

we’ll make love look like fate

as we settle in the city by the Bay

in a Painted Lady I’ll make shiny new

because our love looks

like a renovated house with a second staircase

slender and practical (another way out)

a clever spiral (our time capsule

nestled behind that Fibonacci wall:

lock of blond hair

chunk of Dolomite from the paternal line

neon lichen unchanged and unchanging

as long as San Andreas will allow

toddlers’ wide-penned drawings

cramped on post-it-sized papers

rolled like cigarettes on a rooftop in Seville

and smoked by a stranger with your name

and a photo of you with the girls

as convincing as Narcissus’ image

in the twisted cylinder)

we’ll make love

look like anticipation even as I am overcome

with thirty-eight weeks of vomit

and only want an inconvenient tomato

a sip of limonata which interrupts your flow

you’ll make it look as safe as bath time and bedtime

as seamless as a father’s kiss and touch

we’ll make love

infrequent but intense and I’ll buy it

even as I wait for Gassman’s other shoe to drop

even as I would have sworn

over your father’s bible this love’s real

we’ll make it look like a cosmopolitan family

with a doting father and summers in Italy

we’ll even live there for a few years

when you’ll make it look like you’ve had quite the life

in America (newly minted blue booklet

among your dual effects)

with time to observe squirrels in the yard

and the roaming flock of wild green parrots

immigrants to Twain’s fog

that feasts on a neighbor’s berries

you’ll be (free) riding that canoe you found

on the river of my undeserving

as my unearned money forks up and over

as it affords me the conductor’s baton

in the pit

of what we’ve staged

as we shake over your house husbandry

and dress it up for the world

and we’ll make love look like I’ve adapted

to your sense of order

as our daughters grow

breasts and wings

you’ll make love look like love reframed

and you’ll punch through the rooms

calling it strangling names

and when I shield them you’ll make love look

like a bull that’s only being a bull and I’m the red cape

and by then you’ll be an expert at making love

look like we agreed

I’m responsible for your wrath

and even then and for a long while yet

we’ll manage to make it

look like a front porch swing

on summer evenings in the Lost Cause South

until those resourceful fireflies start

illuminating their own path

through the humid darkness


you still believe your beguiling words

can do their magic

like my father’s coin trick

quarters toppling out my princess ear

his pocket capable of change

you carry on in ALL CAPS

about the good of the children

about your “win-win” ideas

and invoke your own departed dad

as if you could interpret his message for me

as if the grit of him could reconstitute

billow out of that cold San Miniato urn

like a genie as if

because you’d rubbed the lamp

he would deny me and his grandchildren

as if he would ever have done that

as if your name-calling

would have been anything else to his ear

abracadabra those curses

are transformed into endearments

in your shared tongue as if

as if I’d mistranslated your best efforts

(now it’s convenient to deny

how well I knew your tenses)

to rack our children with shame

kneading it in both hemispheres

and the crevices of their rising sex

as if women aren’t already apologetic

(mound of hair, tender folds

attitude of breast) as if we don’t already yield

enough as you pretend to know what’s best

they’ll be fatherless goes your incantation

and what a terrific loss for them

and something about how you’d never

dishonor me were the roles reversed

(that phrase has a name: Rosalba

and a baby that also ends

in a vowel) win-win window into the father

who writes of his six-year-old’s

“winking come-on”

“Bite my bottom Papà!”

and how he welcomes the occasion to unveil

the word malizia

and attributes this “budding wickedness”

to her (“precocious”) knowing

how he “loves to play

with her intimate parts”


how would the genie of your father

translate that?

because all I hear from his castle of ashes

is that leaving you fatherless

helped break the enchantment

and set us free free FREE


for Ilaria, Silvia, Luca, Marco, Evelina, Demetrio, and Angela

The most likable person you know just might be a sociopath.

—Sarah Manguso


they love you

the version of you

that seems to celebrate them

the version that makes them

feel special because your specialness rubs off

the version that allows them

to doubt themselves a little less

that gives them a sense of purpose

that feeds their need

to be helpful

that believes the image

without further question

the reasonable version of you

that appears to bow down in humility

they can’t smell the false

modesty how it stinks up our kitchen

every time you leave

your smiling lips on the curb

gleaming teeth chewing the dazzled eye

of your bewitched interlocutor

how your proxies feel

their righteousness

even indignation at the injustice I wield

powerful-oh-so-powerful me piloting

armies in your absence

and isn’t it curious

how so many believe my distortions

how my insanity is upheld

by the law

but you are as clever as a fox

you old devil you

stroking your proxies

with that feathery russet tail

(Jemima Puddle-Duck

runs home to get herbs

for the omelet)

dear proxies where were you

when he threw our first born

across the room and stormed

into her ears and lost his voice over it

and later raged at how she pushed him

at three years-old to do it

where were you when he loved

our second daughter so much

he could defend his erections

after their games of tag

and insisted on washing her prepubescence

until it was as sweet as a cherry

where were you when she grew

to disappoint him

when he unwound toilet paper

seized from her bathroom trash

and taped it to the stove vent

to shame her for her waste and womanhood

I don’t remember you there

when he hung a bird by its delicate neck

and added a touch of voodoo

(talon of a second bird knotted

into the fastening anchor at the gable

outside her seventeen-year-old window

such attention to detail

he always claimed to be a miniaturist)

isn’t it a wonder

how the authorities characterize such behavior

on this side of the Atlantic

dear altruistic acquaintances

where were you when he took and took

and took my money all those months ago too

and fled and then demanded more

when he wiled away his time writing manifestos

(those cunning Jews

look what Orwell’s Thought Police are up to)

from his mother’s desk

kind spokespeople please explain

who cared for his precious children then

those children whose father you’ve resurfaced

to defend (how atrocious to keep him from them

these young women who have minds

and memories of their own

these beautiful daughters who now tread

on grown feet through our house without fear)

dear flying monkeys who claim it’s impossible

abuse can be so hidden

impossible it could be as covert

as your own unspoken secrets

as tricky and trickster as the reasons you buttress

a documented abuser

as slippery as what motivates you

to write to me (how dare you)

but I will not scream into your vulnerable ears

I will simply stand at the threshold of truth

and know


Writer-visual artist Lyall Harris’ poetry and prose have appeared in The Minnesota Review, The New Guard, The Raw Art Review, The Dewdrop, High Shelf Press and elsewhere, and her creative nonfiction has been featured in The Montréal Review. Her first book Barrier Island is forthcoming from The Black Spring Press Group. Harris’ poetry has been a finalist in numerous contests and was shortlisted for the 2020 Anne Sexton Poetry Prize and received First Runner-up for the 2020 Doug Draime Prize for Poetry. Harris’ paintings have been widely exhibited and recognized with awards, including The George Hitchcock Prize from the National Academy Museum (NYC), and her book art is held in over fifty Special Collection libraries, such as those at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Yale and Stanford. She holds an MFA in Book Art and Creative Writing from Mills College.

“Contract” is from a current manuscript titled Enough about hidden abuse and what it takes to break free. This poem was born out of my need to understand my role, what I “signed up for,” in the marriage and what I was willing to overlook and accept for so long. It also points to the confusion and denial at the root of my enabling behaviors and to the psychological and financial abuse I tolerated in the relationship.

The relationship “success” an abuser (externally) enjoys hinges on his partner and family keeping the abuse hidden from extended family and friends (abusers often drive wedges over time, bad-talk extended family, etc.), his partner and children, although they may walk on eggshells around him, may be so conditioned that they do not even understand his behavior is abusive. Drawn down the rabbit hole of his pathological thinking and, also, wishing (needing) to please or appease him, they are often made to feel at fault for his behavior and actions. (While I am talking about a heterosexual relationship, these dynamics are not gender-specific.)

His partner (and his children, especially if they are young) has a critical role in his life as a normalizer of him and his behavior: they “dress it up for the world.” Why would any partner do this? Because she (often a caretaker) is in a sort of “shared fantasy” with him, a fantasy based on her own dream for her life as well as an image of her partner she believed to be real. There’s an inevitability to this kind of coupling as the two seem to fit together “perfectly,” a joining otherwise known as “trauma bonding.”

“Fatherless” is from a current manuscript titled Enough about hidden abuse and what it takes to break free, in this case, it (also) took the death of my father-in-law, one of the (unidentified) pillars holding my marriage together.

This poem explores how actions and events in the abuser/narcissist’s life twist and contort in a kind of hall of mirrors so that everything can conform to the abuser’s point of view and thus be convincingly justified (by him). This is a form of manipulation, but because it comes naturally to the abuser and because he has no ability to take in any perspective other than his own, he fully believes the skewed reality he creates and relentlessly promotes. The abuser’s ability to impose these distortions on his family can be masterful, especially if he is charismatic, creative, and intelligent, and this process can happen slowly, over many years. In this way, abuse, especially psychological abuse, can be insidious, slippery, and confusing. To add to the confusion, this kind of abuser intermittently also appears very “loving” (known as “love bombing”). Often there are other forms of abuse and/or deception that he actively hides (but, naturally, also justifies).

It is possible to finally wake up from the trance and understand (learn) that what he’s been calling by a hundred other names—“respect,” “rules,” “morality,” “duty,” “education,” “love,” “innocent play”—is abuse. Then, you can stop enabling his psychosis. And everything will change—who you thought you were, who you thought he was, what you thought you were protecting (keeping the family together); your identity will undergo a death, but it is possible to find yourself—the whole of you—on the other side of it and you can build an integrated life, a life in which your children are also set free.

Psychologist Sam Vaknin coined the term “flying monkeys” (borrowed from The Wizard of Oz) in the context of narcissistic abuse to refer to the narcissist’s “friends” who do his bidding (rumor-spreading, shaming and blaming, etc.), particularly after a break-up. There’s a term for it because the abuser’s successful recruitment of “flying monkeys” is so predictable, it’s part of the pattern of this pathology. The abuser’s victimhood can be extremely convincing (his life literally depends on it: without his false reality, he would be faced with who he really is). Many “flying monkeys” are unknowing do-gooders, especially vulnerable to this kind of manipulation (and this category of “flying monkeys,” although infuriating, can thus be forgiven for their shortsightedness); some, on the other hand, are also themselves abusers.

There’s no point in responding to the “flying monkeys” or trying to educate them; many are often the most dedicated (and gullible) devotees of the abuser. In addition to being a convincing victim, the narcissist is an expert at selectively making others feel good, his beam of light can be powerful indeed. (It should be noted that extricating oneself from a relationship with “Cluster B” personality disordered people shares many steps with cult deprogramming.) Fortunately, many people have healthy boundaries and would never engage in this kind of inappropriate “flying monkey” behavior; this poem is dedicated to those who don’t have such boundaries, to the authors of the many “flying monkey” letters I received.

“Proxies” is from a current manuscript titled Enough about hidden abuse and what it takes to break free.

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