Nothing Adds Up in American Math

"Dividing Line" and "Skin-deep," two poems by Jackson Musker

Nothing Adds Up in American Math

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Dividing Line

If every crosswalk is an equals sign, 
then every block’s an equation 
that needs balancing. On Kansas City’s 
State Line Road, the median 
divides one whole state from another: 
this side’s Missouri and that one’s Kansas. 
Want proof? You’ll find two Starbucks 
kitty-corner, each with different taxes. 
K & M have variable trash theories, too: 
apparently Kansas takes anything 
so Missourians pile up their wagons and head west 
with mildewy fridges and gullied mattresses 
to dump. It’s All-American math, writ large: 
we add and subtract, we go forth and multiply, 
we divide and conquer, we raise and raze 
and remodel. The signs are everywhere 
on a street that zips up miles and miles 
of mom and pop shops, that connects country 
clubs and cattle country. We show our work 
so proudly. But what about the woman 
in rags stumbling along the median? 
Can you tell me what state she’s in? 
How will we divine the answer?


I spied the snake in the middle of shedding: 
its former jacket half-attached, 
baking and blanching like a corn husk 
in August, almost to bone-white. 

I got to wondering what it had touched, 
this older skin: the underbrush it split, the loose soil 
it furrowed, the scalding stones it coiled around 
and cooled, soaking in heat from every side...

I've heard it's a painless process, this days-long 
unzipping. It's just a surface, they say: the body feels 
nothing as it pulls away. Soon the snake will glisten again—
slick and unencumbered; re-striped; ready to race.

I don't know if a goodbye is better fast or slow:
a violent rip, or a subtle sloughing off. 
If it's healthier to see the skin go— 
a scroll of our lives unfurling, with legible scars— 

or to lose pieces of ourselves without knowing:
rushing down the drain with the soap flakes, 
gathering as dust on an uncracked book,
swirling in the air when the light is right...

Five million transformations every minute. 
First and last impressions raining 
all around us. Drier than dry. Weightless 
and impossible to carry. Here and gone.


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