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Poetry Feature: “Patrón” by Oliver Bendorf



Patrón skips
to teach his mother
how to dance.

They tumble
along balance bars
while her pearled
dreams drip
to the floor.

They dance
in a room
of salty tears.

All the better
to dip you with
he says.

she says
how you give.

Some floors
are better made
for grief.


Mother he says
I’d prefer
to grow up

She sets a bowl
of tomato soup
in front of him
while he
polishes his shoes.


I am waiting
Patrón informed
a snowdrift.

and he’s learned
to dip cookies
one by one
in a cauldron
of chocolate.

Between his
fingers he lets
sprinkles fall
in the shape
of how his
voice used to
sound when
he laughed.


Patrón’s mother
wished she could
be proud,
bring his cookies
to her church
friends. Brag a little.

Patricia, she said.

It’s Patrón, he said.

Right Patrón
you know
your aunt’s been
asking about you
what am I supposed
to tell her?

Tell her
how I am now
says Patrón.

Dishes breaking
on the end of the line.



Patrón’s been having
film dreams
wants to be
the one
doing all the looking.
He looks
down Eighth
for the 92.

The sidewalk bends
toward darkness
like the shoulder
of a man.
Remember this exactly
he squints
like a shoulder

On the subject of
complex characters
his professor had
asked for examples.

The dark, he’d offered.

He’s told
that if something
finds the head
it is because it has
begun in another
part of the body.

He practices saying
here is what I do know.

I know I am Patrón
he informs the bus stop.

So when I say
call me Patrón,
who do I imagine
to be on the receiving end
of such a request
he asks the bench.

His humidifier
in the shape of a penguin.

His penguin.


Fish learn
from the water
to be fish
and it’s wind that teaches birds
to be themselves.

For Patrón that leaves
fire or maybe earth
hasn’t decided yet.

Once again
his old ideas ice cubes
on the tongue
of a Miami brisket.


Some days he wakes
up old as squash.
His boyfriend
says baby stop being
so pretty, says I’ve
made it how
you like it,
says darling let’s
catch a matinee.

Patrón doesn’t
too busy spelling
out words.



His boyfriend
felt the fever
first then headache
then one day
he couldn’t
swallow down
a cough
during those
he loved so much,
always liked
beginnings best
makes sense
when you
think about it.

Patrón he said
Keep me warm
in the night
Keep me cold
Asked things
of him
he could not do.

But who else
would have read
him the Book
of the Dead
between naps
such a sucker
for ritual
right up to the end.


Patrón sews
a neon hem onto his lab coat
and takes
to the sea again
this time with an 8 millimeter
video camera
and an eyepatch
and only the memory
of being five
in front of the fireplace
his cheeks
like apples hot.

There was
a time before
he was afraid.


On an island
Patrón meets a girl
who moves
in none of the normal ways.

The island
you must understand
was beautiful.
The shape
of the extra-large sky.
The way the buildings
stood in pastels
and the water
was a kind of green.

I am Patrón says he.
Hello Patrón says she.

Throaty growl,
smell of rye,
her jaws carved
from a switchblade.

They sip gin and tonics
at the bar
then slip out
and dance in the dark
along the lagoon
which is by now
a late August milk bowl
of slime and want.

They swim
like fish toward
a hand holding
they can’t quite
make out.

Patrón shouts

Well there’s more
to him than that,
I’m getting there.

She takes him
home to sleep
on her trapeze,

pillow made of
old clown wigs.


Patrón folds balloons
into shapes of bodies
he’s been with
who were, as we
say it, on the outs
of things.

These balloons
made the bodies
look good
that’s how good
they were.
They made the bodies
seem like gods
at the beginning
of their best day.

The balloons made
the bodies look like


Patrón would tell you
if he could
about his life
in the circus
where late nights
he would sell
and contort.
He would tell you
about the choices
a young sailor makes.


Someone says
Patrón I know my body
is not lost on you but—


These days
Patrón’s chest is held
in place by two scars
shaped like
rafts rollicking
on a wild
sea. Every day
he applies aloe
with one finger
before he
checks the wind
and raises
the mast.

Yes and after
the buzz
of late-night TV
crackles out,
he gives himself
a hand.


Patrón returned
in a sorrowed way.

His old ideas
melted like tiny
ice cubes.

There was
a sea at his feet
and then
another sea
he mistook
for an arena.

The longer
he was gone,
the more
salty waves
like cheering

Patrón returned
to a yellow

He returned
to a new
way to taste.

Where have
you been?
everyone asked,
but already
his words
had slipped
from reach
so he just
and took
their casseroles
into the sea.


Hannah Thompson (Poetry Editor): In “Patrón,” Oliver Bendorf wrestles with identity, grief, narrative, and relationships with startling grace. I could spend hours reading this poem for Bendorf’s perspective on each of these subjects, but I’m most interested in his conception of identity. Identity is a familiar theme in poetry–every poet has their own take on the lyric “I,” the death of the writer, and the divide between the confessional poet and their speakers. However, identity takes on new meaning when the poet, speaker, or lyric subject is transgender or non-binary. In “Patrón,” Bendorf explores questions of identity-formation that many cisgender people never consider or even encounter: what does it mean to rename yourself? How does gender define you? What aspects of your gender are learned, and, conversely, what aspects are inherent? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we learn, or who is there to teach us to become ourselves? Halfway through the poem, Bendorf articulates this question beautifully when he writes, “Fish learn / from the water / to be fish / and it’s wind that teaches birds / to be themselves. // For Patrón that leaves / fire or maybe earth / hasn’t decided yet.” (110-117).


This poem appeared in Indiana Review 35.1 in Summer of 2012. 

Oliver Baez Bendorf is the author of Advantages of Being Evergreen (forthcoming 2019), winner of CSU Poetry Center’s 2018 Open Book Poetry Competition, and The Spectral Wilderness (Kent State U., 2015), selected by Mark Doty for the Stan & Tom Wick Poetry Prize. His poems can be found in recent and forthcoming issues of American Poetry Review, BOMB, and Poetry. A CantoMundo fellow and the 2017-2018 Halls Emerging Artist Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, he currently lives in Michigan where he is an assistant professor of creative writing at Kalamazoo College.