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Lee Ann Roripaugh


As a child, I thought the word disaster was pronounced Dee Aster, like the name of a specific aster, or mum. Maybe a particularly dangerous (Toxic? Virulent?) strain of the aster family - an autumnal, chrysanthemum-esque catastrophe.

In my mind, Dee Asters sounded like they were related to the Cotoneaster - pronounced kuh-tone-ee-aster - which I spelled in my head as Katoni Aster, and which I assumed was a Japanese name.

(Although not, in fact, Japanese, Cotoneasters are a flowering shrub related to the rose family originating in Northern China and Mongolia (explaining its ability to flourish in Wyoming) with bright pink fruit that looks like tiny, berry-sized apples. The Katoni Aster attracts shy, plain moths like the Grey Dagger, Mottled Umber, Short-Cloaked Moth, and the Winter Moth.)

That Dee Aster simultaneously signified both as a chrysanthemum-like flower and a pome-bearing shrub was not as confusing as it should have been. Ours was a house of slippery signifiers and incongruities: Where bathroom was restroom in public and benjo in private. Where mom and dad were ma’am and sir. Where pickles were also zuke and could just as easily mean the red, velvety plum pickles I loved so much juxtaposed in the condiment shelf in the Frigidaire next to the Vlasic dills. Where I quickly learned to say belly button at school, instead of o-heso.

(Oddly, for a long time, I conflated o-heso with Phisohex—inextricably convinced that Phisohex, with its pale green bottle and black lettering, was a soap whose primary purpose was to wash out navel lint in the event it became riddled with bacteria. Furthermore, I was forced to anxiously wonder, if my classmates had belly buttons or navels, whereas I had an o-heso, did it mean I might have different names for all my other, less obvious parts? Did it mean my other parts might not even be the same?)

Because Dee Asters reminded me of chrysanthemums (only smaller and more buttony; wilder, and with fewer petals), and because Dee Asters were related in my mind to Katoni Asters, which were also Japanese, I always imbued Dee Asters with a Mishima-esque obsessive hyperbole, my mother’s voice keening half in anger/half in grief, the ritualized drama of seppuku, and the bitter-chrysanthemum smell of shame.

Species of Dee Asters:

When the bento box lunches were left behind at a motel in Yellowstone Park.

The time the marigold-colored Fiestaware platter (which came from my American grandparents, and which I used to think was made from a piece of the moon) was broken during Thanksgiving.

When the Olivetti manual typewriter my father and I sometimes liked to use on the dining room table left marks on mahogany underneath the tablecloth.

The time I flunked out of Minnows Red Cross swimming class.

Memory slips during piano competitions.

The B+ in my high school Geometry class.

My father’s fall down a flight of stairs and through a plate glass window downtown when I was nine years old. (Although I didn’t know this at the time, my mother wasn’t a U.S. citizen.) The night my father spent in Intensive Care, my mother said she didn’t know what would happen to us if my father didn’t survive. She said we couldn’t go back to Japan, particularly since I didn’t even speak Japanese. I would, she told me, be completely handicap. She said I must never become like her - a woman helplessly reliant upon her husband. You the only one can count on self, became her mantra. No one else going to take care of you. Even now, whenever she hears sirens in town, my mother immediately calls my father on the phone to make sure he’s safe. I hate that sound! she says each time, as if the sirens are a calculatedly personal affront. Makes me feel sick to stomach.

Last year, my parents inform me of their Death Pact. Here’s the drill: My father has promised not to die before my mother. My mother gets to die first. Then, my mother says, it will be my job to take care of my father until he dies. She makes me promise her I will do it. I have to swear an oath. Then, because I’m the only one can count on self, I will be left without any family.

Dee Aster is always imminent: The phone that rings in the middle of the night. Sirens lacing the wind. Sometimes it has different names, like bright, late-blooming flowers branding hot colors into crisp autumn air: catastrophe, debacle, calamity, and fiasco, but even (or perhaps especially) in disguise, it is still Dee Aster waiting to happen.

    The seeds are tiny and are spread to the winds before the snow flies. If the seed comes to rest in     favourable conditions it will germinate in the following spring. Most asters are good colonizers
    and will establish quickly in disturbed sites. Beware of establishing some types of asters in a
    garden setting. Species such as Smooth Aster (Aster laevis) and Many-Flowered Aster
    (Aster ericoides) are very aggressive and can take over large sections of your garden.
    - (from Asters, by Doug Collicutt)

I don’t care for Dee Asters, but I like asters, and I like that the word aster comes from star. Because the obsolete meaning of “disaster” is “an evil influence of a star or planet.” Perhaps there is a dark star, called Dee? Perhaps it is a dark star that causes tidal waves, earthquakes, tornadoes, and the melting of polar ice caps? Perhaps it’s just like me to protect myself from disaster by attempting to (re)-write it(!) as a flower, or wish it into some kind of mythical dark star?

Or maybe it’s just that I’m a bit of a Dee Aster. I bloom in the fall. My seeds are tiny and are spread to the winds before the snow flies. During my birth, my mother almost died in labor because the hospital ran out of her type of rare blood. There was an October blizzard. The highway was closed. A highway patrolman, a former student of my father’s, recognized the name on the dispatch, and volunteered to drive to Cheyenne to bring back the blood.

Or perhaps it’s just that I’ve learned to balance on the precipice of averted Dee Aster. Maybe I’m a Dee Aster waiting to happen. If I come to rest in favorable conditions, will I germinate in the following spring? I have had to adapt, to become a good colonizer, to establish myself in disturbed sites.

Resistance is futile.

I’m a Lee Aster.

If you’re not careful, I’ll take over your garden.



Like this: Tumultuous summer mating, sizzle of sex-intoxicated wasps drizzling down night sky’s smooth ceramic. They burrow and sift, parse cool soil through the languid grammar of earthworms coiling and uncoiling, then—with the sinister parasitism of sci-fi aliens—inject the oak trees’ roots with their eggs.

Hatched females resurrect the spring, disinterred from dirt. Wingless, they painstakingly climb back up into the canopy, stake out a leaf, pierce its central vein with a single egg. Larvae swell the pregnant leaf into a spongy green gall before power-tooling an escape hole full circle into summer to mate again.

What I mean to say: This delicate phlebotomy. This intricate stitchery needleworking tree to ground to sky. Again and again, like sewing on a button.

And this papery-shelled gall mutating the leaf? Something beautiful? Or a cancer?

And what sort of creature later calls the hollowed-out space of this mutated emptiness home? A residency in ephemera. A residency in delusion. Something possums and raccoons break open in search of tender centers.

(Because sometimes? Melancholia scoops me out with the brisk, silver efficiency of a melon-baller, until I’m nothing more than thin, flimsy rind.)

   Katydids’ jingling
   tambourines gone. Wait for rain,
   hands nakedly cupped.

Resourcefulness or desperation?: Cuckoos and crabs and bees! The greedy ant who drowns in the sticky albumen of the broken robin’s egg? The myrmecophiliac who drowns simply to be close to the ant?

How tempting to curl oneself up into a fetal whorl in the empty cellophane of a cicada shell and sleep and sleep and sleep . . . like a bird who doesn’t wake even while the Madagascan moth slides a plundering, coat-hanger tongue under the bird’s eyelids and drinks away all its tears.

   O, my thief-parched and
   phlebotomized heart? Come here,
   then, you inquiline!



Young swallow stuck deep in the craw of your stair landing’s untidy diaphragm.

All day, cats shoving throaty vowels through the back door’s scrim.

At first, a mysterious disconsolate rustling among plastic sacks. Glimpse of sideways eye. Pull back a box to release a twittery ricochet around the bare light bulb before a tired black fan tacks itself to the wall.

(Something bat-like about this flat cling to vertical, photographer’s cape of dark wing.)

You open the mouth of door on the landing below, hoping fresh air will guide the swallow out through the narrow stairwell’s slender neck.

More awful swoop and bash when you try to shoo it down the stairs.

So you scoop it up in a checkered dishcloth. Scared to hold too tight. Or not too tight enough. Small blunt head’s panicked swivel between your thumbs.

Confusion on the damp lawn, then a crooked launch to rainy trees.

(An opera singer whose voice was permanently wrecked in a car crash keeps a medical model of the human head on the piano. Dizzying flower on her silk turban leaning in toward the bright whorls of muscle, ribboned brain, and basted vein. Her fingers smoothly unpack the throat for her students—unpuzzling muscles, larynx, palate, epiglottis.)

Swallow: How strange to hold something not meant to be held.

Exhale: Breathing out the bruised bird. Was it a song? Or was it a choking?

Glottal Stop: Too-long held breath. The letting go, the unraveled kite-string unsorrowing.