Chaos and Compassion, a Collection | The New Engagement

Chaos and Compassion, a Collection

By Jennifer Thompson

American Terrier

“American terrier” is a way to say “pit bull”
without startling bourgeoisie people.
Neither captures Julia’s deep sweetness.
She is two years old, compact, muscled
with a sleek silver coat and amber eyes
that track you anxiously.
Walking Julia is like trailing a handful of balloons.
Waitresses bring her special dishes
bartenders snap her picture as she sits neatly
on a barstool between you and me.


Months ago, the first time
the three of us went out for dinner
you let me hold her while you went to the men’s room.
She waited anxiously for your return
vibrating and whining, shifting to catch a glimpse of you.
A flock of cooing lesbians gathered, eager to pet her.
She licked them with a distant cordiality
but your absence restrained her.


She decided I was one of her people before you did
and now she bounces with glee 50 yards out
then hurls herself against my shins
in an ecstasy of welcome.
I am cool, inexpressive, prone to see
only threats and opportunities
but Julia shames me into humanity.


I pet her idly
press my face against her sleek ribs.
“Pit bulls are so sweet!
How could anyone get them to fight?”
You smile at my mistake.
“They will fight viciously and to the death
because they are eager to please.
Pit bulls will do anything for their people.
That’s how assholes train them.”
You cut yourself off there
stroke her sweet face
tilted towards you
looking for cues and approval.


I cannot help but think
of the picture you sent me of yourself
in your Air Force uniform
highly decorated, painfully young
ready to plunge into any pit
and fight viciously
for your people.

—Jennifer Thompson

Safe Separation

One night long ago I woke knowing
that a man had stepped into my bedroom.
I could not see him when I flicked the lamp on
but he wore a gray overcoat
and his face was carefully blank.
After that I could not sleep
because each time I closed my eyes
he stepped forward
and his shadow fell across my face.


The man in my dream does not look
like anyone who hurt me.


The first time we had dinner, you insisted
on driving me two blocks to my car.
You cleared the passenger side
by tossing your gray overcoat into the back seat.
Soon after, when we were alone
you fumbled at your belt in haste
your shoulders blotted out the light
and you lost yourself within me.


When you lay your hands heavy on me
I open in your shadow.


On another occasion
before dropping me off in a predawn parking lot
you swung your Hummer around
playing the headlights over each bush and shadow.
You waited until my car started
then followed me out.
As I paused to make my turn
I saw in my rear view mirror that you had pulled over
to question a man wearing a gray overcoat.
The tinted windshield blurred your features.
The brim of his hat shaded his face.
A gap appeared in traffic.  I pulled away.  


I am not afraid of beasts
concealed in a dark landscape.  


Imagine an F/A-18, a poorly tamed canister
for blending fuel, oxidizer and flame
armed with an AIM-9X Sidewinder.
The missile’s smooth skin
is packed with lethal treats:
booster, igniter, propellant;
fuze, safe-and-arm, warhead.
When the mated raptors separate
and the little bird shrieks to life
surges ahead, peels off at a fantastic angle
its first duty is to leave its jet and pilot cleanly.
This is called safe separation.


The man in my dream does not look
like anyone who hurt me.


When you lay your hands heavy on me
I open in your shadow.


I am not afraid of beasts
concealed in a dark landscape.  


More than anything I have needed
men to leave peacefully, refraining
from ripping me apart upon detonation.
More than anything, I have sought
safe separation.

Jennifer Thompson

War Stories: Afghanistan

He is trying to tell a story,
in this case, out loud, to me
while sitting at the bar
in the lobby of Hotel Congress.
The law caught up with Dillinger here.
Wyatt Earp gunned someone down
across the street, but that’s true
of most Arizona train stations.
The cool scent of adobe soothes us.
The bartender withdraws.


He says:
“A friend of mine got in trouble about Guantanamo —
how prisoners were being treated there.”


I know not to ask the identity of the friend
and in any case, I can guess.
I’ve read the subcommittee reports
and I know that treatment and its trouble
as well as anyone can
who hasn’t poured water
into the hollow pool made by a rag
stretched over a prisoner’s mouth
as well as anyone can
who has not been trained to ration breath
accept what little is given —
to resist scores of known techniques
to break the mind
through the body’s needs.


He starts again:
“A psychiatrist came in and ran tests on everyone.
He told me,
You are all balanced between good and evil.
You could go either way.
Anything could push you


In the moment it seems that this is worse
than anything that could follow:
the words good and evil in the mouth of a doctor
who forges soldiers, sailors and airmen
into human racks and screws.  


He says:
“Some people are just good.
They go to work every day
pay their taxes
go home at night.”


I go to work every day
try to be kind
pay my taxes
go home at night.
He slaughters the innocent and washes his hands
hangs himself after earning his silver.
Come to think of it, so do I.
This is why forgiveness and redemption exist
and why war never ends.


He tries one last time:
“They shot at us, so we shot back.
I knew we were the white knights coming in
bringing people home.”


It’s a simple mental switch
to turn a dirty war into the Apocalypse
easiest for those of us
who go to work every day
pay our taxes
go home at night.
Harder for those trained
to break the the body of an enemy
or accept a breaking in turn.
I find no fault with this just man.
I wish this cup would pass.
I don’t know whose will
is being done here
but it is not his or mine.


He sits with his back to the wall
scans everyone who passes the picture window.
Gray hair cut short
nondescript clothing.
He is deeply tired
and has settled at this level of habitual
tolerable anguish.
Behold the man!


Now I will stop and ask:
Is this what you wanted?
Is this what you came to see?


I tell him:
“They choose you because you can do it.
You are a person who likes that pivot
who needs that feeling of tipping.
It’s not weakness or disease
just a set of qualities they needed.
They looked until they found you.”
I swallow the dregs of wine warm in my glass.
We both have flights to catch
and customers to satisfy.


He says:
“The whole Middle East is fucked
and now they’re sending people into Yemen
new parts of Africa.
How does it end?
What do you do?”


These are rhetorical questions
and I am not a war goddess or priest
but since I’m here, I answer:
“In yoga, when war breaks out
we do 108 sun salutations at dawn.
You go to an open place, face east.
The number is supposed to be significant.”


“Why do you do that?”


“I don’t know.  It’s just what you do.
I like to do the things that people have always done.
It takes about 45 minutes
and I figure, that’s 45 minutes
when I’m not doing anything stupid.”


His hand drifts to my thigh.
Soon we will find comfort doing
what people have always done:
holding on to a long, sweet moment
refraining from active harm.

—Jennifer Thompson

After Junger:
What Kills Me
Makes Me Incredibly Strong

Me, bitching about someone at work:
“I go to yoga so that I don’t kill people like that
and end up in the Big House.”
You, mild, curious:
“Why are you always talking about killing people?”
Me, with a crack of rude laughter:
“This from the guy who kept threatening
to pull out his Glock at dinner and open fire
because the live music sucked.  
You said it three times.”
You: “True.  But I don’t kill people
because they piss me off.
Killing and emotion are two separate things.
It’s business.”  Then, refining your point
but also escalating a joke:
“I’ll kill you because my breakfast is getting cold
and I don’t have time to fuck around.”
Me, laughing hard: “That’s a hell of a lot scarier.”
You, without pride or shame, just ruefully:
“Oh, yeah, it is.”  


That night you shouted in your sleep
and sprung from bed
naked and battle-ready
drenched in adrenaline.
You woke when your feet hit the floor
excused yourself abruptly, not ashamed
but needing privacy.
When you came back,
still a bit lost in the vulnerability of sleep
you said, “Wow.  Sorry about that.
I dreamt we were being attacked.”
“No worries.  It happens.”
You lay down.  I kissed your neck
ran my palm down your back
still damp and a bit tense.
After a time, we slept again.  


That’s what I meant when I said
I wanted to get to know you better.
Not some Prince Charming cobbled up
and held together briefly, with effort
but the guy who remarked offhandedly
“You know, we have a pit bull and a gun
I think we can skip locking the gate”
the guy who trades dirty priest jokes with me
but also has a patron saint.


Most of all, you didn’t make a solemn face
when I said that I was raped:
“Oh, I’m so sorry you had to go through that”
and then treat me like a poor wounded thing.
You know better than to think
that shit weakened me.
Scar tissue is tougher
and I’m strongest
where I broke
and was forced to mend.

—Jennifer Thompson



Jennifer Thompson received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Irvine.  She dutifully published parts of her dissertation and a fair amount of poetry.  As a result, a collection called Naming God is still available from BlazeVox Press, while a limited edition artist's book, The World of Stone, wound up in various collections, including that of the University of Sterling, Scotland.  She completed two post docs, then left a tenure-track position as Assistant Professor of Humanities at Embry-Riddle University, thereby freeing herself to find true job satisfaction as a test engineer.  Evenings and weekends she collects art and poses for artists, raises chickens, harvests water, teaches Vinyasa yoga, and schemes to get additional tattoos.

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