There is a me under this me who wishes to do lovely in this magnificent

by Katie Berta

I am a truth but also I am a truth beneath an I, like a skin under a skin or layers and layers of clothes, which means I don’t have to listen when someone tells me the truth of my truth on the surface, the skin-truth that doesn’t at all account for the truth that is invisible and living as a skin underneath. Or so I am told. I was told by my therapist that I get to decide what the truth underneath the I is, and for a while she tried to determine who this was by asking what my favorite foods are and what kind of television I like to watch and then summarizing the kind of person that might mean I am when I answered, but honestly I hadn’t thought about what kind of food was my favorite in maybe one thousand years and so I just said the food that was my favorite when I was five, spaghetti, and said I liked Game of Thrones (before these last few seasons, RIP), but honestly the only things I give a fuck about are poetry and Kent and our dog. These, says my therapist, do not constitute a personality, but I don’t know if she’s ever been an artist, in which case she might equate poetry with a job like the kind you leave at the office with your outside-skin-I and a cardigan because the air conditioning makes it really pretty chilly on some days. Listen, normally it would be my impulse to apologize for calling myself an artist and acting like this is some rarified thing that mere therapists can’t understand, but my therapist has tried to get me to quit with all the apologizing and explaining, which is part and parcel of the belief that there really is an I underneath this I that is the truth-I that no one can see or touch. My friend Brad tells me who we are as humans is not determined by whether people are offended by us or not. Listen, someone will be—I know that I’m sloppy—but I’m trying to make a choice not to aestheticize all this underneath-skin-I, all this—oh god if any—that has a chance of authentic engagement with anything at all, the sky, the trees, my dog, oh humans. Oh humans, just let me be. Here I am, I love you, just let me

This poem’s title is taken from George Saunders’ short story, “Elliott Spencer,” published in The New Yorker in August 2019.

I DO STILL LIKE A MICROWAVE DINNER,

as many of them as I’ve eaten, to the chagrin of my husband,
who eats every meal: meat and carrots meat and carrots meat and carrots.
Now I buy the fancier ones, not the Hot Pockets of my childhood but vegetarian korma
and vegan lasagna and Thai coconut soup heated with a plate over its bowl
to prevent spitting. So easy. Expensive at five dollars, but this still marks me. I was
the kind of child who came home to a dark house, put a piece of American cheese
on top of a soft pretzel and watched both of them relax
inside the microwave. I was the kind of child who ate a little ramekin
of corn straight out of the freezer, unheated, squeezed each kernel
between my teeth to feel this other texture, to pop it out of its casing
(this is still good, and when Kent and I were only dating, I made him
try it, but to him it wasn’t revelatory like I hoped.
It seems there will only ever be one other person who understands the pleasure/
necessity of frozen corn: my sister, estranged as she is by everything
she thinks she’s suffered/has suffered. We suffered together, and in suffering,
made all others strange to us). Fun to squeeze each kernel out of its casing,
smash the sweet, softening pulp of it onto your tongue, feel the strange coldness
of the corn dissolve in your mouth. It makes you think
there’s always something to eat in the house, to eat frozen corn.
Not that I went hungry, like some children really do—when I think of them,
it’s with this same feeling though, the feeling of the corn, and loneliness, the feeling
I had when I lay on the ground with our dog, put my head on her stomach
and embedded her short white hairs into the plaid of my uniform skirt,
it’s with this feeling that I think of children, now, the ones who can’t understand
why their dad’s angry, why they spend their lives mostly alone.
I didn’t go hungry, though—I ate frozen pretzels, and frozen corn,
and that particular approximation of chicken alfredo (is it Lean Cuisine?)
that is akin to the pasta you want but will never be that pasta.
How funny to be a child and to survive it, and to live with everything
you made then, everything you made yourself want.
Here I am, still wanting what I wanted, unable to escape
my child-desires, unable to unmake myself as a lonely person,
to fashion a safe, whole thing out of what remains of me. I don’t know,
maybe it’s okay to carry the things I loved back then with me,
to carry their legacy with me as a set of desires I still don’t understand. It’s okay, but sad.
Like, as sad as the sad vegetarian korma you eat right out of its little plastic tray
thinking “Thanks, Trader Joe’s!” with your lonely irony. Sad as the sad
look of it, the galling picture they put on the box, the way none of this
lives up to that which you were promised.

Katie Berta lives in Phoenix, Arizona where she works as the Supervising Editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, The Kenyon Review Online, Blackbird, Sixth Finch, The Offing, Indiana Review, Salt Hill, The Journal, and Washington Square Review, among other magazines. You can find her book reviews on the Ploughshares blog, in West Branch, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. She has her PhD in poetry from Ohio University and her MFA from Arizona State.