Nicola Cayless.
Looking for light in words.

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Molecular Bibliology

You tell me that sometimes
your fingernails look like butchers’ knives, and your thighs, slabs of meat.
It makes me so sad that this girl sitting next to me
sees herself as nothing more than an animal carved to pieces
for greedy young men to eat.

Since when have women gone from living without a care,
never focusing on being fat or being thin,
to seeing ugliness lurk beneath their skin:
monsters that have claimed their lungs as their lair.

Demons like these have stained smiles since Moses
wrenched the seas apart, and locusts crawled through buildings
as easily as lust through men’s hearts.
And even when Jesus expelled spirits and raised the dead,
pretty young girls like Mary and Martha had poisonous thoughts
echoing through their pretty young heads.

But in this post-Biblical, post-postmodern age,
when everyone is into self-obsession and pointless outrage,
and we killed God with a little thing called apathy,
it’s hard to realise that wishing your skin would vaporise
is simply not okay.

Pretty girls with blue eyes & blonde hair
have always wished their body mass was insubstantial as air.
Biology classes told them they’re seventy eight percent water.
Maybe if they lie there and concentrate,
seventy eight percent of them will evaporate.

But if I had a daughter, I’d tell her that water moves
like starlight and illuminates the moonlight nestled deep inside of her.
I’d let her know that water wears away at mountains
and flows from fountains and that permanence is beautiful.

I’d tell her that we’re made of water and air, of creativity and hope,
and it’s the seemingly insurmountable thoughts
like self-loathing and depression that the water inside of us
will wear down like rubble.

But I have never given birth, and I look at you when you tell me
that nothing is as tempting as drowning yourself in the deep, blue sea.
You might think your skin is nothing but meat for the slaughter,
but I tell you now, like I’ll tell my daughter,
you’re so much more than just seventy eight percent water.

She said, I am sick.

— She said,
    I am sick.

— He said,
    With what?

— She said,
    I cannot breathe in the night.
    My lungs are filled with the ashes of memories,
    our first tentative touches illuminated by candlelight,
    the scent of lavender hanging as heavily in the air
    as smoke from a forest fire. I have never been
    a smoker, but somehow I have inhaled
    the cremated remains of ‘us’.

— She said,
    I cannot walk down the streets of my town
    without stumbling. In-between bones, wedged
    in the empty cavities: something rattles. Every step
    grates my body to rough and raw shreds. I cannot move
    for fear of tearing myself into long, broken strips.

— She said,
    I cannot sleep. My eyes refuse to close. At night,
    my mind wanders down twisting, turning paths. I move
    through dark spaces without thought.
    I have never been plagued by nightmares,
    never been plagued by staccato technicolour images
    of times when I would fall to pieces at a stranger’s glance.
    I only sleep in monochrome.
    Without light, I am blanketed
    in blackness.

— She said,
    I cannot smile at the sight of my lover
    in the gentle dawn light, caressing his skin
    with butterfly sunbeam kisses. A stroke can affect
    anyone, anywhere, anytime: I have simply forgotten
    how to curve my lips like hairpins,
    how to feel touched by something beautiful,
    how to feel blessed by your loving fingertips,
    how to feel moved by the wind and the sun and the stars,
    how to feel alive,
    how to feel,
    how to feel,
    how to feel,
    how to — —

— She said,
    I am sick.

— She said.

smoking hay / dying

The clouds, tonight, are tinged red:
embers of the night’s ashtray.

Two girls kiss outside a bar.
A man inside plays the cello
soulfully. No one listens.

Women disappear into the sky.
Men weep, count days carefully.

Someone quietly cuts their thigh
in two, sets the muscle alight

We are burning like the night.

We are a smoker’s cough
in God’s throat.

We are quiet and quiet and quiet.

I am like Springtime with you.

When you smile at me with those sand-crinkled lips,
Spring blooms inside my chest. In biology, they taught us
that the bronchiole were the roots of flowers plunging down
from the buds of our lips, deep deep within the soil of my lungs.
Kissing you is like the dawn of day, and the petals in my heart
open, open wide to caress the sunlight

Those kisses bloom into the fiery heat of summer,
and my skin is set aflame.
I am a canvas and you are the painter. Your fingers
brush the burning red of romance onto my pale skin,
and I become the artwork of sensuality, for all to see.
My flushed cheeks, you say, are worthy of being seen
in the Louvre. That only makes me burn the more,
and I melt away.

It’s in the moments between light that your caresses
turn chilly, your hands crackling like fallen leaves underfoot.
You glow so beautifully in the sunset, but when I hold you close,
you chill me to the bone. It is so silent in the fall.
How can I not dwell so deeply
on the coming frost?

And then, the sea in your eyes
rages, waves crashing down onto the shore of my skin.
A winter storm, you see. I cling to the rickety wooden boat
you threw me in, and hope. The cold can be so paralysing
but the sun is on her way. 

I only have to wait for you
to think of me as light

24/7 Love

Nick and I eloped in New York,
and the city restlessly slept, and the stars watched
quietly. We were not drunk. We were not high.
Our steps were quiet and measured, and death
seemed so very far away as we wandered through
the fluorescent wonderland of Manhattan. Nick and I
eloped in New York quite sober, quite content,

I stood before the mahogany desk
at two in the morning, in blue jeans
and ankle-high boots. This church was born
in a fast-food age, an era of immediacy.
Open twenty four hours, for God
never sleeps, just like the city.
My coffee-stained t-shirt, my dress,
and the rosy red of my cheeks
was the only bouquet I needed.

We married in simple, legal language,
confirming a simple, legal love. The dead poets
and the dead stars were disappointed in us.
I’ve never needed romance, I’ve never needed
moonlight. I am pale and freckled, with the blue eyes
of Alice’s dress, but I am not a storybook girl.

Nick and I eloped in New York:
without a ring, without flowers,
but with a swirled signature on a dotted line,
and with smiles in the heart
of our hearts.

you love the trigger more than you ever loved me

Once, I wrote of canyoning,
and you shivered in the wind, watching
the stars set over the reef. Colours swirled
and burst before your eyes, fish darted
like children, and still, you only wanted

I gave you parts of my flesh
like a mother gives her daughter bread.
I gave you words I never understood,
sediment drifting through my veins.
They blinded you to the world.
That was all you wanted, really,
to stop seeing the beauty before you.

You touched my smile, and
sterilised your tongue, scraping away
taste with a scalpel. You may be bleeding
but flesh still remembers. Poetry falls into you
like rocks into a canyon, and I told you before
that I would abseil down into your depths.
You, terrified, fled into the mountains,
past simple villagers you thought
would never understand.
Fool. They were more wise
than you.

Now, the desert is so dry
and you have touched unfeeling woman
with more than just your smile. That’s okay.
You’re being sent to the slaughter, soon, and
I do not begrudge you a last meal.

But give me back my words freely.
They are a part of me I need,
and I do not have the energy
to fall through you, the dark canyon,
to find them.

on bitter bitter patience

It has been so many years
since your chest has felt like anything other
than a cage for muted birds. You hold your bones
together with cellotape and staples, with the glue
of fumbled touches in the darkened bedroom
of a stranger’s house. The calloused hands
upon your cheeks feel so wrong and so right,
and all the while, God fills you with delight.

At home, you practice diamond gleaming smiles
in a cracked mirror. You are doomed to seven years
bad luck. Your stretched lips sting
and seem to flutter like a hologram,
but the world will see what it wants.
You flash your shining teeth to your parents,
all the while knowing that you are made
of coal. 

And inside, birdsong thrums through
your blood, reverberating through
the hollow spaces inside you.
Nothing seems to fill you
but sin, and it is joyful.

Just wait, you whisper
to the birds inside your lungs.
It’s this pressure inside my volcanic body
that will transform us into something

leaving you / empty spaces

Your kisses began
so gentle, like birdsong filling my chest.
I would caress your mouth with mine
and know that being full of you
was the very worst thing
for my heart.

There were days,
at the start, when to lay in the backyard
and stare at the clouds would calm me.
But only if you were cradled beside me.
I held you just barely, two fingers
glistening against yours,
two stars winking at one another
across the emptiness of the sky.

Just the feel of you within my grasp
was enough to still my racing, desperate pulse.

Even then I knew how dangerous you were.
A quiet kiss, a cinematic moment,
sent my throat into spasms.
I could never - would never -
with you.

I still crave your essence filling me
more than I need water, more than I need
sunlight. But you’ve moved on to other loves,
seducing other women’s lips. I gasp at night for you.
But matter over mind, my love:

my body rejoices at the empty space
beside me.

A letter to a once-girl I loved.

I laid my head in your lap
and thought I may call this love.
I could hear your blood
rushing through your limbs.
It was beautiful. 

Your heart was trapped beneath breasts
in those days, your curves a muscle memory you despised.
I could sketch out your hips on a page in seconds,
but you had spent your life wishing
for hard lines without ever knowing it.

Two weeks ago you changed your name.
I am training my tongue in this new language,
of pronouns I have never loved, but it stumbles.
The flutter of pain in your eyes reminds me 
of the butterflies I keep locked in my stomach.
I have not needed them since you.

You tell me your mother will not call you
the name you’ve had etched into your bones
since the day you were born, without ever knowing.
Names, she says, are immutable. 

“A rose by any other name
would smell as sweet.
My daughter, by any other sex,
would be my daughter.”

I look so closely at your bound ribs,
at the rosy pink cheeks you tried to carve into like apples. 
I have kissed your feminine lips, and loved you.

But now
with your plateau chest and your close cropped hair,
you are more beautiful
and more you
than ever.