Hear Adam Vines read his poem “Toilet Flowers” from 32 Poems 8.2 in the One Pause audio archives.
Egyptian women tied papyrus ebers
into Isis knots, damming the moon blood,
the open wound from Toth, and farther east,
girls watched their mothers wrapping theirs
out of the same thin paper from which they folded swans,
and later, a man designed the “catamenial [monthly] device,”
and a man called it tampion—a plug for a cannon,
keeping out dust and moisture.
My high school girlfriend called it George;
she’d say, “George is in town this week”
when I walked my fingers up her thigh.
But at ten, I knew none of this.
They sat in an open box next to the toilet
I shared with my three brothers, father,
and mother. They didn’t come with Mother’s warnings
or reprimands like “don’t swordfight with the plunger;
_____ will kill you; _____ will make you go blind.”
I knew they were for her; all else was a mystery.
So one early Sunday morning while my family
still slept, I latched the bathroom door,
peeled back the wrapped as if it were a popsicle,
and held the plunger: a cannon, a gun barrel.
I pulled on the string, holding the pledget like a mouse
by its tail. I smelled it, pressed my thumbnail
into its soft density, placed it on the sconce like a candle.
Pretending to light it, I threw it into the tub
like an M80, imagined Gabriel
or Michael scintillating the fuse
with the embered punk of their pupils
then tossing the pure-white scourge at Satan.
I opened another, then three, four,
more and more, holding them in the corner
of my mouth while squinting one eye
like my father chewing his cigar,
tucking them like grenades
into the waistband of my skivvies.
One fell into the toilet and slowly opened
like a moonflower, burgeoning
to life like I imagined the sea monkeys in ads
on the back cover of my comics would.
I dropped all of them in, one by one,
watching as they bloomed in the bowl.
My mother’s footsteps, her voice
behind the door—and I flushed them.
The water rose, spilling over the porcelain lip.
And when I faced my mother—the bathroom
now flooded—I felt shame
for her secret I thought I now knew,
for the beauty I had created
and the sin of creating it.
Adam Vines is an assistant professor of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Tampa Review, The Literary Review, Redivider, Poet Lore, and Hunger Mountain, among others.