At my birthday dinner:
I chose the woodstove salmon,
my ex-lover dictating
from a parasitic medical book,
in his blood-stained scrubs,
the ways uncooked salt fish
could infest the stomach lining
with tapeworm.
Even when I silenced myself,
blinking wildly away
our intestinal tubing,
his Russian voice
continued whispering bright
light through the back door
of my black hair as he tried
to set off alarms.

This took me from the present,
and I wanted to be present.

I wanted to eat the woodstove salmon.

I did not want to pretend
this was not war or murder
kicking through walls
of generations of people
heaped around a table
either as descriptors or dissenters,
unexpectedly falling silent;
as I looked down again
at my very own plate of
my girl grilled in her pink guts,
splayed open, as if to say:
It’s Game Over, hominid.
Even when I could edit
the scaling words to say:
It’s gamelan, honey,
like twenty years ago
as an undergraduate,
as a young musician,
you learnt about gongs going
off throughout the world.
You knew you should have gone
to the library’s card catalog
and taken out a book
about gamelan, but instead
you turned away
from the card catalogs,
no longer very present,
and you wanted to be present.

So when the waiter asks:
Ma’am, is everything okay?
How’s the salmon?
I would keep thinking
how the burning smoke
of knowing better
has me in a choke hold,
as if burying bones
with my birthright.

Instead when the waiter asked:
Ma’am, is everything okay?
How’s the salmon?
I stuck a fork in it,
and showed my teeth
as nature has taught me how,
when gazing into any existing species’s
face, to hold a blade to its neck
while saying: It’s fine — It’s all fine.

Michelle Whittaker is the author of Surge (great weather for MEDIA) and was awarded the 2018 Next Generation Indie Book Award Finalist Medal and 2017 NYFA Artist Fellowship in Poetry. Recent poems appear in the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, the Southampton Review, Fjord Review, and other publications. She is an assistant professor in the Program of Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University.