TWO MONKEYS, A RAVEN, AND A LIZARD KING, Nicole Nicholson

Two Monkeys, a Raven, and a Lizard King
by Nicole Nicholson

Dear Jim: you kept
talking about lizards,
but I think you had
a monkey crouched
behind your eyes.

I’m just as guilty,
wringing ravens out of
a writing desk while
my violet-eyed,
rainbow-skinned capuchin
shovels moon dust
into his mouth and
screeches as he hops
between neuron branches.

I can’t tie him down.
I tried to kill him, but
was left with a smoking match
and charred skin like
the cracked charcoal
I once swallowed as
glittery black cocktails
in cheap plastic cups.

And I see yours,
floating downstream
in a stinking amber flood.
You drowned in that river
long before the Paris bathtub.
You killed the monkey
and you killed the man, too.

I know now that wires
poke out through my skin
and stand at attention.
I hang letters and signs
from their silver, pin-prick
heads: autism, ADHD.
And my monkey still lives.
Ask your monkey sometime
for his name, and see
what he tells you.

Why don’t we trade
scar stories like stickers?
Tell me how you
rebuilt your wings out of
powder, pills, books, and
liquid heaven because
your original ones were
pulled away from your body
when you were five.
In return, I’ll tell you how
I almost skinned and gutted out
the red drum inside my chest.

Meanwhile, our monkeys
can get gone on cheap stardust
and toast to two things:
one, the fabulous ends
of our ignorance,
and two, that they’ll
never receive eviction notices
from our frontal lobes.

Nicole’s process notes:
I wrote this over a two-day period. It began as kind of a snarky, messy thing but I spun part of it off into this poem while the other portion will become another poem, eventually. It’s an epistle to Jim Morrison, who I suspect was also neurodivergent–specifically, I think he either was bipolar, or the more likely scenario, had ADHD.

In private conversations with others, I’ve compared my battle with impulse control to trying to restrain a wild monkey. I’ve also woken up in the middle of the night with a mind that will NOT quiet–I nickname this tendency “monkey mind”.

Morrison was an intensively creative mind, impulsive, and a risk-taker–but he paid a heavy price. I know some folks will call me out for trying to diagnose a dead man, but I consider this poem an act of echolocation and reflection. So, I invite the reader to read, and consider.

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SUNDAY, DECEMBER 18, 1994, Nicole Nicholson

Sunday, December 18, 1994
by Nicole Nicholson

Sunday, December 18, 1994.
A gray woolen sky unfolds herself
over our heads, bleeding in all directions.
I am eighteen years old, have never
been behind the wheel of a car. The
white Mustang, only five years old,
rumbles and snorts underneath my seat,
its rippled mechanical muscle churning
just below the surface of white paint
trying its best to glisten in cloudlight.

I pull my leaden, brand new brake foot
away and rest it on the gas pedal: that
horse gallops, veering right. There are no
rubber treaded hooves rolling cleanly
over double-yellow striped asphalt. They
stomp and thunder, embossing new tracks
into the green grass softly lining the road’s
shoulder.

My memories of what happens next:
a series of flashcards, in sight and sound.
BRAKE! BRAKE!
I hear my stepbrother shouting, but
his mean steed is charging ahead through
other people’s front lawns: I hear him only
through a tunnel. I cannot move my body.
I cannot feel my fingers. I cannot see anything
except scenery rushing towards me.
Someone’s mailbox – a little metal head
stuck on a long wooden neck – falls underneath
the horse’s hooves and dies. We keep
rolling forward until the horse slams itself –
headfirst – into a long brown giant with wires
strung around the ears.

The horse dies, of a broken skull.
We are soon taken away in the bellies
of screaming red metal creatures.
The paramedics wrap our necks
in plastic and foam, fearful that they
are even just a little bit looser from
our spines. We are just a little bit looser,
too, from our tiny wrinkled hovels in space-time:
but neither of us acknowledge this. The sirens
announce our exit as we leave
a broken metal carcass behind.

Nicole’s process notes:
When I was home from college over Christmas Break in 1994, my stepbrother insisted on taking me out on the local roads to teach me how to drive. I had never been behind the wheel of a vehicle, and I didn’t even have a learner’s permit. But excited at the prospect of actually driving a car, I decided to go.

Out of this whole experience, I ended up with a citation for driving without a license and a hospital bill that haunted me in the form of bill collection calls until it was finally paid by my stepbrother’s insurance company — not to mention, a tendency of driving a little too close to the left side of my lane even to this day (the car veered off the right side of the road, so I’m still a little nervous about driving too far right).

I had talked a little about this experience before, but I had never written about it. When I wrote this poem, I had to remember this experience — without over-analysis or careful thought — and just let the memory carry me, trying to notice the details as I went along.

SPEAKING IN TONGUES (THIS IS AUTISM), Nicole Nicholson

Speaking in Tongues (This is Autism)
by Nicole Nicholson

I speak in tongues: I burn,
scorching my voice with the rising dawn,
igniting words and air
until my throat-flame has gone –

and I leave a phalanx of fire made
from bundled armies of fulgent spears.
Trees bend low to the river
to soothe their scorched ears.

My bones are gravid with words,
my brain swollen with pictures:
my attic cries for release from
words drenched with tinctures –

bleeding film, turgid and dripping,
slithers underneath my skin
to exit through my fingertips. Read
the blood to know where I’ve been.

Tear the stars from my belly if you must:
but know that my feathers are ink and sky.
Pull down Heaven upon my head –
maybe you will see me cry,

but maybe you will see me dance
my stripped wire patterns into the earth,
a waggle dance woven into my soul,
double-helixes programmed before birth

from which both my gifts and pain come.
I will not erase these from my soul.
They are the reason I speak in tongues,
extracting ribbons of cellophane gold

from the cathedral of strings, alive
and forever oscillating in my heart.
I would not be this colored soul:
a tuning fork, pitched by this art

of words. This is my autism: it blossoms,
lotus-curved, white floating blooms
open to the sky to drink in the rain
while the ignorant build rows of tombs

and declare us dead. Pity is a grave, unfit
for the living. I don’t regret the wings
that God gave me. I will speak in tongues,
I will fly, and I will forever sing.

Nicole’s process notes:
I wrote this poem almost four years ago, when I was a self-diagnosed Aspie (the term “Aspie” is a colloquialism for someone who has Asperger Syndome, one of the manifestations of autism).

The first version of this poem came out of me in a much different form than you see here. It was a word train of anger and frustration at not only my difficulties with communication and being misunderstood but also the misconceptions about autism I had encountered up to that point. The latter I had seen to some degree because of Autism Speaks’ pity-based fundraising and negative messages which painted autistic people as hopeless, helpless, tragic people in desperate need of a cure. I subscribe to the idea of neurodiversity, which is the belief that autism and other neurological conditions are not only neurologically valid ways of being but are normal variations in the human genome, and of course, I was upset at the idea that I needed to be either “cured” for simply being myself or that people like me should be genetically wiped out of existence.

Fast forward to late 2013. I heard about the “This Is Autism” flashblog event in which autistics and their allies were encouraged to write about what autism means to them. This was an action of positivity to combat yet another round of negative messages from Autism Speaks that implied that we and our families suffered because of autism, or that we were helpless burdens on our families. I suddenly got inspiration to rewrite the original poem, as I always felt that it needed…something else. So I rewrote it to reflect a more focused and positive statement of what autism meant to me. I normally don’t write rhyming poetry, but when the first stanza rhymed itself, I just kept going. Every word is the truth – my truth.

Nicole Nicholson is the editor of a new online literary journal, Barking Sycamores, which focuses on poetry and writing on the autism spectrum.