Dark Under Kiganda Stars at Ausable Press Poems at:


Identity Theory



Featured poet on Leonard Schwartz's radio show, Cross-Cultural Poetics

Poetry in the 2008 Anthology of Younger Poets

Poetry editor of Meridian




Lilah Hegnauer

When I Was a Boy

What a body then, ready for breaking.
What a teeming city what a flounder
what a shore of airy driftwood what an
undercurrent what a cleats-and-shin guards
guy I was. What a look into fraternity I took
and did not return. What an encyclopedia
I made of myself what a foolproof meditation
dark little duckling, solid ice to water.
What a boy, talon-grasping love and ripping
it until I could see what a silica nerve twitching
into tiny capillaries into blunt-fronted chalk
board disks through which the line of my
graphite could seem normal. What a shock
of solitude what a sink of salt what a fine
fine eagerness to fall. What a mass of legs then,
ready for the other, what a guy I was.

Five in the Evening

To loosen the wide and easy hour,
and lift its limbs, drape them across my
lap and rock it, stroke its hair back
from its sweaty forehead and hope,
maybe, this is enough living for today,
and to write it down. The neighborhoods
I walked were full of flags, family—
friendly, highest number of lesbians
per square mile, supposedly,
though I was quite lonely in Clintonville.
What happens when there are only
enough branches in the buckeye
for myself and the evening?
Four sparrows and me and the limbs
of the hour, and not much writing that year.

Self-Portrait in Puyallup

          The stars have opened their bottomless throats
                                           —Charles Wright

So be it: her body falters. The phone dies, the potatoes rot.
A hermit's gate is made of stones small enough to step over,
and there are no hermits in Puyallup. So goes the name of the
internment camp at the fairgrounds during World War II:
Camp Harmony. And so it is we have a hundred words
for rain: mizzle and drizzle; sprinkle, pour, fall. The choke on
my old Volvo is nearing its end, but I'll drive back to Eugene
anyway. Two am and getting sleepy so I detour to Lincoln City
and camp up the logging road. Where is the milky way
tonight, its flock of solar systems, its trillion stars. If Dar still
lived in Lincoln City, she'd tell me about my foggy notion
of azimuth and why north is never really north. As it is, the
farther I get from Puyallup, the closer I am to its glacier,
its cleaver, its reservation, where north is up, the body is south,
and further south still on her southern valley a tumor grows.

Ghazal: Lesbian

Last time I met her for coffee I finally asked her: are you a lesbian?
No, she said, but I'm queer. I'm disappointed she doesn't use lesbian.

When Adrienne Rich gave a reading, the cross section was this:
academic, political, philosophical, and closeted, who heard tell of a lesbian.

When I was in Uganda, Gerald told me
homosexuality is un-African (I never told him who I was).

Walk the produce aisles of Whole Foods, shop for balsamic —
this was the advice a friend gave me on how to meet lesbians.

How much energy is lost — energy to create, to love,
to converse — in our attempts to live as closeted lesbians.

Sexual orientation isn't in my employer's non-discrimination
policy, though marital status is. Is it safe for me to say lesbian?

For my sister, no one expected otherwise. She slept with her
baseball mitt, climbed trees. I was the unexpected, disappointing lesbian.

Let's get one thing clear: I was never straight, I was only passing.
Listen: there is so much at stake, and not only for lesbians.

A cat sitter in town is known for giving a 'family discount.'
Even to each other, we have strange ways of saying lesbian.

I too, Elizabeth, have a hard time being read.
And everyone seems to say only in pairs: lesbian.

This is what I find when explaining my marriage to
my Sri Lankan friend: there is no fear like the fear of the word lesbian.

Lucystoners don't need boners — or so my friend Amy
sings — and I chant and sing along with the crowd of lesbians.

S thinks there's a poise about our Sri Lankan friends — I say
it's the empowered minority in a group; if I wasn't the only lesbian. . .

This I maintain: growing up gay, your powers of observation
and assimilation must be tremendous: you are a lesbian.

It is only the adult who can unlearn this.
No gay messiah will free the lesbians.

Talk Before Bed

after a day apart, voices low and tired,
faces close, but not kissing — saying

what are your plans for tomorrow,
did you pack the last apple in your

lunch, or can I have it.
talk: moments before routine —

whatever it is — eight minutes of sex,
two on her, seven or more or more or more

on me (forgive me). The moment here,
discussing lunch and the cat, laundry and

should we buy the piano, would our
neighbors hate us, can we afford it

(and can we afford your last eye surgery,
and yes, I will love you when you are blind,

and please know you are in these filled
to bursting lungs of mine). Half finished

sentences beginning in reality: (chaos of reality):
don't forget to mail the rent is due

through the hole in the ground, in the ground
there is a family, making sauce, you must get

sauce from the family because they are
expecting you. My dear, the sauce. . .

Two Years Later

My students knew all the slang for death.
She kicked the bucket, he's pushing up daisies,
they're six feet under, meeting their maker,
she breathed her last, he gave up the ghost,
she popped off, snuffed it, passed away,
expired, bit the dust, is no more, no longer with us.

She's history, long gone, but we made games for ourselves
with new words: apple, boat, cabinet, dead,
their word for d, they already knew it, and not way
back in their minds. I don't think daisies
exist in Uganda. How's that for a metaphorical ghost
in a classroom where students always make

AIDS into a word, not an acronym. I made
Biira stay after class (no homework). We
don't have paper
, she told me, eyes down, a ghost
of a whisper between us. The sun was deadly
that afternoon, three days since rain. Daisy, daisy
give me your answer do
, I sang in the staff room hallway.

Ssembwayo always asked for songs in English, always
spicing his class with my childhood tunes, made
hideous in relation to poverty. I'm half crazy. Daisies
and bicycles and love — have no place here. Our
classes felt obstinately long, three hours with death
uttered around me in their faces. I teach with ghosts,

although I'm at the chalkboard alone. Ghosts
of parents, ghost of a sister. Names have a way
of creeping back, two years later. John writes deaths:
in his letters, gives a little list of students, and makes
me sigh heavy, futile sighs. If anyone heard, I'd blush for us,
the sighs inappropriate, self-conscious. Why daisies?

All for the love of you. Guilt goes nowhere. No disease
in my garden. No garden at all. Their name-ghosts
follow me through town, watch me order espresso. We
walk hand in hand, my partner and I. This is the way
we'd have walked in Uganda: two women making
intimate-talk; they'd guess we were lamenting our dead.

In the end, a song for the dead; a story about us
in the end. No ghosts of my own, no way
to make theirs live again, just the damn daisies.

You've Got to Hide Your Love Away

It's a gas station/car wash,
so I wouldn't call her a diesel
dyke. Not that I'd use that
term. But she has a nostalgia
about her. Thin, white collared
shirt. Blonde, greasy hair.
Androgynous cut. Smile out
of nowhere, gone in a flash.
Shared with me only — that's
how she makes us all feel.
And her apologetic eyes
look up, your card has been
and my embarrassed
searching for another, and
the beer-bellied man behind me,
breathing hard as he clutches
his wallet. And our hands
on the card, the receipt,
the key-pad card-sliding
machine. Our hands on the
counter, fingers to tuck
her hair behind her ear,
to bite a nail, to gesture,
I'm sorry. And the man
behind us, clearing his
throat again and again.

Good Wine Needs No Bush

We were alone in the locker room.
I came in sweaty, red shoulders,

damn chafing bra, fell to a bench,
unlaced my shoes. She was naked

and too close. Close to hipbones
pointing through skin as she

leaned back, towel drying.
Close to two small moles

below that hip bone. Close to that
place halfway between knee and hip

she stopped shaving, hairs prickled
around her thigh, around to — no,

she didn't shave there at all. Yes,
she was still dripping from the shower.

Yes, she bent forward and I sat
stock still behind her. She squeezed

lotion onto her palms, grabbed her thighs,
and rubbed with two hands. Bent forward

belly sucked in to bend further. Yes,
she pulled her inner thighs apart.

I'm sorry. You would have watched her, too.
Can you picture the action? It's not

common, but try. Bent over, arms
around to reach between her thighs,

pulled and rubbed, like that. The lips
of time, thank you, and all I felt

was guilt for using this locker room,
but I'm sorry, I can't use the other.

And maybe she didn't care, and certainly
the guilt is small. So small, lithe, aware,

choreographing her nude show, slow.
Good bush needs no wine. A tile floor

the color of tea, a bench slick with varnish,
and solemnity in every inch of grout, the germ.


A thread through the center of each bone fans at the knobby joints,
connecting each to each. My body hums from the arches of my feet,

out my mouth, and back in through my ears. I try to stop
writing love poems. Write bees, perfect six-sided honeycomb

cells. Write the glint, silver on pearl, the clasp on her neck.
Write the suck and shudder of touched anemone. Stop.

I close a poem without her: hair slanting, pants sliding
up her thighs and over her rump as she sulks to the kitchen.

Or wrenching her hand from mine (she remembers it more gently)
on the sidewalk in the small town with corn ten for a dollar and

storefronts wide open and bullet holes in the stop signs.
I used to eat almonds. Slivered, whole, dipped in chocolate.

I used to knit ugly mittens with ribbed wrists, hear the click-click
and tighten my gauge. When she arrived at my door with shirttails

untucked, she did not see me finger threads inside my pockets,
knees lock and unlock, arches of my feet lift and fall,

fallow acres seed themselves and grow a single strand.
All she had to do was come close and pull.

With My Hands

I loved her with my hands, all four fingers,
and sometimes a thumb, when all I desired
was sleep, when I could not help but linger

on her hips (be more exact) with my palms, bring
her close. So unlettered, I took to bushfire
love with my hands and fingered

each tendril of muscle flickering
beneath the skin, laid to rest; admired
my work. I could not help but linger.

She took strings and wood, took folksingers
and pitched her octaves high like sweetbrier
into her hands, and palms, and fingers.

We were young. Sentimental. Ate ladyfingers
at Nana's and never told the truth. Choirs
watched over our sleep and couldn't help but linger

on our quilts. These thoughts would cling
only a few months, and even then they were tired.
But I loved her with my hands, with all my fingers.
Even as I slept, I could not help but linger.

Anytime of Year, Peregrine Penthouse

Sky so heavy I told my friend in Arizona it's pouring, but it hasn't.
Seven minutes to boil water in the kettle and eight minutes to steep
tea in an afternoon bottomless and milky. The river is dammed:
salmon stuck without a ladder. She says a cyclone is only a cyclone,
no one's will. Tornado, hurricane, she doesn't know the difference.
I believe in voices caught in the rain leaning on one side of the dark, un-
charting the symbols: point of her ribs where they meet and arc
like the top of a pear. I stirred at the site and two fingers traced
the diverging ribs. I devoted myself to her blundering words —
yours, mine, they did not stop me from fleeing this brief peace.
On the 44th floor, the clouds are below me, still heavy, maybe dropping
rain. Some splendor — to be snug in the rain that falls or doesn't.

Experience Is the Mother of Wisdom, Experience Is the Teacher of Fools

We spent the morning in bed, blinds open and cat between us.
Made black tea and fucked and the answering machine caught

my mother, her boss, our mechanic saying the car's another week.
Walked to the post office, almost too late, mailed her father's

birthday present. Stopped for bread and pesto. Chatted with
the neighbor's son who lit up a cigarette and shared it with me. Three

boys on skateboards slowed to shout fucking lezzies better run. We
didn't. They didn't stop. They yelled burn in hell, bull dagger and I

(shit, why?) snickered to myself. Which of us is the bull? I never
miss the stares. I suspect the maintenance man, grocery checkout girl,

sushi chef and ask did you vote me out of your world? We cooked the pasta;
let the blinds down early. I drank another glass of wine. She watched

bad TV. In the morning, I stuck my flannel to the length of her body.
We opened the blinds, stoked our scrawny love. There's a bull in my

bed and I stroke her brawny shoulders until she snorts and rubs her
head across my chest. She'll stay with the cat, between our pillows.

She's not edging her way out anytime soon, but there are edges.
We bring them with us. Wise fools, we bring them everywhere.

Cutting Down Nana's Maple

Rosa aimed and snipped all morning. Placed the saw, a half-chink to set, then heaved
her chest against the handle. As she's always saying: breasts get in the way. But cotton

so thin, thank God, and sweat so dark: From my eyes to her body in peace through
a window while she works. I walk through the slow town of her body at dusk

to watch her eating and washing up. This is desire for the ungovernable — misplaced,
unguided, and, so it is, ephemeral. Only three branches and the trunk were left

by evening. Let me say sweat runs to her navel and pools there; let me say it runs down her
back and darkens the waistband of her cutoffs. Let the reader ask why she's not using

a chainsaw. I don't know. There are no fruitless trees, so this is only a ruse.
Ask what shape her mouth takes. How round the space between minds. Half-chinked,

setting the couplets up for failure; telling Nana she's my roommate after all these years.
There was a tree, a maple, rotting where the water pooled last Autumn.

Out farther, an icy brook where we stood naked, watching the maple
droop, lending us its weight, though it was too weak to haul away our sorrows.

Waiting to Happen

     “Cows look calm, but really they are gay nymphomaniacs.”
                —John Webster, professor of animal husbandry, University of Bristol

I guess we're all just gay nymphomaniacs
waiting to happen.
Especially when the weather heats up and
I can't cross a street
without seeing a jogger, cheeks gone slack
and hair pulled tight,
weaving in and out of the foot traffic like
a slalom skier on
flat ground. She pulled on her old running
tights this morning,
set her ipod to 'workout mix' and ground
her toes into those
running shoes she broke in two summers ago.
Two summers
ago I was still a gay nymphomaniac waiting
to happen. Like a
cow, seeming calm, I remembered at least 50 faces,
even in profile,
of girls I loved from grade school until the
breaking point.
Vanessa, Heidi, Alaina, Opal. Heather, Melissa,
we could have
a big gay nymphomaniac reunion, pull each other out
of the 50 faces
we each hold dear and soon there'd be an international
convention in
Provincetown each summer. We'd eat sno-cones
and meet
our past lovers' ex-girlfriends' new partners
and their babies
in snugglies. We'd ooh and ahh together. Face it,
you'd be there.
Somewhere down the line, some girl in pigtails thought
you were better
than boys. Or, as the ex who brought me out explained,
thought you were
too cool to be straight. Which isn't to discriminate
if you still are.
You'd be at the convention anyway. We'd all just hope
maybe you were
a gay nymphomaniac waiting to happen.

* * *

Lilah Hegnauer's first book of poetry, Dark Under Kiganda Stars, a collection based on her experiences living and teaching in Uganda, was published by Ausable Press in March 2005 and was an honorable mention for this year's Library of Virginia Literary Award. Her poems have been published in Kenyon Review, Harrington Lesbian Literary Quarterly, St. Ann's Review, Orion, Marginalia , Identity Theory , versedaily.org , and Guernica . She was a featured poet on Leonard Schwartz's radio show, Cross-Cultural Poetics , and her poetry will be in the 2008 Anthology of Younger Poets . She was runner up for the 2007 Astraea Lesbian Writers Award and lives in Charlottesville, Virginia where she is the poetry editor of Meridian .