How to Get Under My Skin
by Mindy Nettifee
first off, you can stop looking for the zippers.
i hid those long ago, when my two sisters
and twelve-year-old boys everywhere
made rather athletic headway exploiting my soft spots,
disguising insults as compliments i wouldn’t discover
until later, in therapy,
like bummer cracker jack prizes.
start with how much you love orangesicles.
start with jokes about Egon Schiele and pedophilia.
start with lame stories from summer camp,
your first awkward salty kiss.
nostalgia is anesthesia.
i’m gripped by how soft you remember humiliation—
that summer you were grounded,
how you mapped the route out of that house, that town, that promise.
there’s small openings everywhere:
the last time you saw your mother,
how you picture her sleepless nights on your sleepless nights.
how you save your best punch lines.
bust one out for me.
i’ll weaken like a nurse in a massage chair.
i won’t notice i’m tearing up.
lean in and smell my shampoo.
let it get dark.
i go down when you figure out how close i came,
just by looking me in the eye.
when we compare childish suicide attempts with hot sauce and aspirin.
i go down when you cast shadows on my shadows,
when it doesn’t scare you that i don’t know how to flinch.
when you ask me for nothing.
Derrick Brown, editor of the 2008 illustrated poetry compilation The Last American Valentine, begins his collection by asking that the reader, “Come at this book quiet and ready. Come at this book with un-sarcastic amazement for that melancholy, drifting and striking feeling, whether you have it, want it, need it or wonder about it.” The “it” of which he speaks is poetry’s oldest and most fickle friend: love. The Last American Valentine is an attempt to gather together the work of an eclectic variety of American writers in order to provide a poetics of love for today’s cynical age, wherein it seems everyone either doesn’t believe love can last or believes that every love poem is a bomb of clichés waiting to explode with cheesiness across the page.
Mindy Nettifee’s poem “How to Get Under My Skin” stood out to me in Brown’s collection because of its frank but sweet simplicity. Nettifee doesn’t try to pile unrelenting metaphors atop the idea of love; instead, she forges an intimate connection between speaker and listener with details of both her life and that of her potential lover. It is the personal histories and idiosyncrasies of an individual that make it possible for us to love and be loved. That kind of feeling doesn’t begin with trite phrases or sexual advances, Nettifee seems to say, but rather with you telling me about one summer ten years ago or the things that keep you up at night. “There’s small openings everywhere,” she says—sweet and subtle ways for one human to access another.
The Last American Valentine is a mixed bag, ranging from the humorous to the sexual to the pared down and beautiful, with varying degrees of effectiveness. But whatever the results, Brown’s aim resonated deeply with me. I’ve had this secret fear since I was much younger that I would have to grow up in a world in which no one really believed in love anymore. Everything from rising divorce rates to the mocking tone that gives voice to phrases like “hopeless romantic” might lead me to think that that’s already the case, but it would be treason to my fourteen-year-old self if I gave up on that ideal now. I’m thrilled that contemporary poetry seeks to be so many things: an agent of social justice, a source of humor, a medium for the expression of joys and sorrows, a forum for quirkiness and linguistic prowess, a bridge from one desolate heart to another. But I hope I haven’t seen—and hope I never see—the day when poetry can no longer be taken seriously and sincerely as a medium for the heights of human passion. If all of the language we might use to talk about falling in love sounds clichéd, it’s probably because billions of us have shared that same beautifully sickening surge. But the task of the poet is to find new ways of speaking. And the task of the human is to find new ways of loving and relating to others. That way we never have to fear the loss of love or poetry, and we’ll always have a world in which two people can begin to ache for one another over simple talk of “orangesicles” and “lame stories from summer camp.”
- Nora Curry
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Poem Source: Nettifee, Mindy. “How to Get Under My Skin.” The Last American Valentine. Ed. Derrick C. Brown. Long Beach, CA: Write Bloody Publishing, 2008. 23. Print.