“Layaway” by Sophia Anfinn Tonnessen is the 2nd place winner for the 2021 Sappho Prize, selected by guest judge Maggie Smith.
“This poem looks a little wild, a little unwieldy, unspooling down the pages—and this feels just right to me formally because what it’s sharing with us resists containment and tidiness. In this sense, the poem is embodying, enacting—with humor and vulnerability and pain, which coexist together here. I loved the ending and yet was sorry to see the poem end.” —Maggie Smith
after Galina Rymbu
Lie down on the floor of your bathroom,
if you can. Remember the last time you were too sick
to go to school – I’ll be remembering the same thing
at the same time, half-jokingly eulogizing myself
when I only had the flu. How alien the tiles were against your face.
Remember the uncomfortable cold and smooth hard surface–
like the war stories of our grandfathers, lacking names,
details, context – polished stones – or better yet,
like beachglass shorn enough of edges for taking home
and putting in a jar – what was normally soft and friendly
when sick seems unbearable, your blankets,
the bed itself, heat, your body’s own softnesses a sickening pillow.
“Now that we’re in this alien place,
I’m ready to tell you: I’m going to do it.
But you don’t deserve this poem yet.
I’ll ask how much it’ll cost, whether insurance covers it,
if I need to put my new pussy on layaway.
What if I can only afford the econi–pussy,
no cupholders, leather interior, or rims – think I’ll be happy then?
The Spirit airlines of pussies, the Kmart pussy, a lemon,
secondhand, even, if that’s an option, Zipper, Velcro.
This is why we’re on the floor of the bathroom:
I get dizzy thinking about surgery.
Consults, forms, cleanses, recoveries; bloody, boring, long and dull –
in case I forget how to piss, or never learn again,
or if I bleed all over after the surgery,
if I get soaked from the ludicrous joy of impossibility made real.
It’s funny how your brain keeps things from you.
Like how much I hated my body as a teenager,
I kept that feeling in a pit in the middle of a snowy plain.
Fear that no one who knew would touch me –
that one I spirited away on a warm wind over New York in August,
thick with the odors of trash, human sweat, and exhaust to hide under.
Little knowledge that this is, I’ve kept here on the bathroom floor,
ignoring it as best I could.
This is where I lay when I realized that this was not the only world,
and that someone moved on the other side, and where I knew
that my will could shape my breasts, that in me lay
which has as many arms
and lives in as deep a darkness as the giant squid,
blind and milky, alongside my eely fears and reptilian anxieties.
They’re laying with us on the bathroom floor.
I suppose it could be the floor of the operating theater.
Maybe it’s already happened – after all, this poem will exist before and after,
long after the fears have stopped their desperate
breathy flopping on the cold tile
and after the anxieties have skittered away through crevices
to their own little world of plumbing and mayflies.
In a few decades of our little rest,
pussy now intact, recovered, and fully integrated into human society,
the floor of the bathroom
will sprout. Ivy first and creepers, thin weeds between
the floor’s grout, and out of me, too, will come
Kazakh tulips, calla lily and violets –
out of the brutal words and the holes they tore in me
vaginoplasty clitoroplasty labiaplasty
like bulldozers TNT scalpels
________________________________who could recover?
It doesn’t matter either way if I can piss
but whether I can explain it to the curious,
the passersby who come intrigued to the floor of the bathroom
and ask if I am a boy or a girl
if I am here to intrude on women’s spaces
and undo the hard work of feminists
if I am here to win at sports
I won’t speak. My throat rough with ferns and spores.
The gaps in my memory and constant revisions,
the clear evidence of blows should be enough
for them to gather conclusions among the wild onions.
So come ask me your questions:
I admit I didn’t bring you here to watch me decay into vegetation
or listen to my bad jokes
(though I do love a captive audience) – it is lonely here
in the way I imagine places without life at all are lonely –
the surface of Mars.
the Moon’s ridges. I’ve only come here myself
so recently. I still have all the lousy tourist brochures
advertising Being Myself At Last! clinging to them
like I’d ever buy into them, head to the tourist attractions
of cheap feminism and corporate pride.
If I can’t afford it,
I’ll put it on layaway, get an accountant just so I can say
these are my monthly pussy payments
ask regularly if my pussy will get repossessed.
Did I have the audacity to think a quarter century of profound confusion
would buy me some relief? What the hospital needs is cold hard cash,
iron and diamonds dug from mountains, paid in clotted blood
and blackened lung – the doctors need me to represent the community,
to write a dozen letters in confirmation
I am devout in my delusions (I am zealous
and filled with doubt);
the insurance company will take Mexican pesos and gold.
Perhaps I can store some inside me for later use:
I am unsure of how these “pussy” things work.
Is it an instrument on which
one does not play music of any kind
(how indecorous to suggest!)
or a storage container for one’s resentment
or a compartment for vital documents –
bank records, birth certificates and the like?
Mine can be more abstract –
Avoid the gates entirely and find
a surgeon outside the mainstream, on the cheap,
to make a Monet pussy which only looks good from the middle distance
or a Dali pussy (microwaved too long).
See, the floor of the bathroom is a great place for thinking.
I’m definitely not down here because I don’t have the energy to get up,
or because I’m ashamed of how much I want it.
My pussy will be covered by insurance
because, fun fact, it is a medical necessity
so maybe it is for the taking of medicine
or a basic function, like breathing,
but how could I be so shallow,
I am an aesthetic, mastered those base and fallow
desires, left them salted in their fields,
blocked them on social media,
all signs of this fever which follows me
like a cloud of bees I cannot get rid of: I am also the bees.
The willow, too, especially her weeping.
I have been searching for the right discomfort for so long
to turn myself around and force me to lie still –
a little peace buried now so deeply under moss
lichens the rush of clear water –
coming, I think, from me? –
that you can’t see me there at all,
nor I, any longer, see you.