Inventory at the All-night Drugstore by Erika Meitner


Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry (2002)

Erika Meitner's is a vertiginous art — full of flash and dazzle, fire and speed, the offbeat and the upbeat, the buoyant bob and weave. She's a poet of perpetual motion, cataloguing pockets of turbulence, gospels of lust, the hours before happy — and after. Erotic, comic, quirky with wordplay and double entendre, her poems embrace the everyday, teasing the miraculous from the mundane. By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Meitner casts a wry, empathic eye on the sanctities and subterfuges that keep us human. She is a true original, her affectionate attention resonating in poems that "make the world sing on cue." -- Ronald Wallace

In Erika Meitner's Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore, we enter worlds marvelously realized, our intrepid narrator an unerring guide. Whether we navigate the initiatory mysteries and indignities of adolescent urgencies, the perils and pleasures of the adult sexual quest, or the vital chaos of teaching in a Brooklyn public school, we are in the care of a poet who cares: feisty, funny, and ever alert to the telling details of a life lived in the rush and anguish of the post-modern world. These are poems like the tattoos she hymns and ponders ("Etched meat, I keep thinking/ while Tom works this buzzing needle/ around my leg.") -- they mark our very being with their delicate, indelible patterns, their swoops and utterances and wild surmises. -- Gregory Orr

The reader takes an unpredictable, exhilarating trip with the subject matter of Erika Meitner's poems -- from memories of a hormone-charged adolescence in the big city, to adult affairs of love and lust and loss; from learning to teach in a classroom filled with pubescent fireplug mirrors of oneself, to confronting one's Jewish history at the hands of an equally fiery grandmother. But riding herd on all this range is Meitner's distinctively snappy voice, a blend of assertiveness and vulnerability which at one moment can insist, "Feed me / a sly salacious salad," then at the next can fear "that the female body // must be marked / before it can serve // as a vehicle / for the spirit." When she watches a blind man brashly driving a bumper car at a county fair, her poetry's raison d'etre comes at least momentarily clear:
     I wished I could be that fearless—to be plunged
     into darkness, strapped in and moving forward,
     not knowing what might come barreling
     from any direction to clock me into oblivion. -- Contest judge Stephen Corey


Cover art: "Rivetgirl" by Chris Schiavo

Labor Day

The way we sleep to-
gether is locational,
seasonal -- the way

you can buy useful things off
the roadside here in
summer passing through: peaches,

heirloom tomatoes,
squash, sweet corn, bait, antiques, rugs,
tie-dye, fireworks, guns --

your hand around the back of
my neck in the dark
above the covers the way

you'd hold a beer can,
near empty, out on the porch
before tossing it.


(for M.)
You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you. — Leviticus 19:28

When you left
          I stopped everything, or was it

that everything stopped? The mail
          piled up unopened. I knew blind

what the envelopes held
          under their dumb flaps: birthday

cards with wishes, bills
          with owed amounts; no grief

manual. I sat on a cardboard box, tore
          my clothes, covered the mirrors with sheets,

even read the bible, got nearly all
          the way through Leviticus -- sin and sacrifice,

offerings and making yourself holy, until I couldn't stand
          the unmitigated commands -- You shall

and I am the Lord your God. Remember us at eighteen
          driving barefoot to Weir's Beach for tattoos

singing, Freedom's just another word
          for nothing left to lose? I picked

the exact spot on your back for Tom
          to stencil some goddess sign you'd found

in a book and flinched watching him work his black-ink needle
          into your flawless skin the same way I would

years later when I caught sight of the sunflower-sized bruise
          on the top of your thigh. Drunk and fell down

the stairs you said, waving me away. You stayed
          for a week and went back to him. I didn't have the courage

to command: You will stay. You will
          leave him. And every night you're with me now,

running from his apartment, robe streaming behind you
          in darkness, him following, him beating

your head against that glass
          phone booth, the neighbor's car.

After sitting low
          for seven days, you whispered, Let me

go. I took a walk

around the block, let you pass
          through the front door with me, kept

walking to the local tattoo parlor, had your name
          dragged across my chest so I could

let go, the way we scrawl down lists so we're free
          to forget exactly what it is we want

to remember. I was at the Museum
          of Natural History today --

dinosaur bones set carefully, dioramas
          of Neanderthals in cases reenacting hunts, and an exhibit

on body art entitled "Marks
          of Identity." This is what I learned:

that in the afterlife, where all things are reversed,
          dark tattoos shine brightly

to illuminate a path
          for the dead. I learned

that women shamans
          painted their bodies

with vicious snakes and jaguars
          to protect them in journeys

to the spirit world. I learned
          that the female body

must be marked
          before it can serve

as a vehicle
          for the spirit.

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