Jen Gates’ first collection of poems, Crazy Girl with Lighter, is a searingly honest depiction of its author’s descent into an underworld of drugs and strip joints, followed by a long, courageous return to the world of hope, joy and “at-onement” with the people dearest to her.  This is the story of one remarkably resilient young woman, but it is also a legendary tale of innocence lost and rediscovered. Of the book, Steve Straight has said, Crazy Girl with Lighter has the feel of a memoir, but the language catches you with the surprises of good poetry.  From a life, as the poet says, ‘some of it spent in hell,’ she has decided to stand naked in front of the truth, and what emerges are gritty, hard-won epiphanies.  This book is the opposite of a suicide note: it is the kind of note you leave to announce why you have decided to live.” 

Jen Gates has been a writer and artist all her life, but she began to concentrate on poetry only after dropping out of Smith College and into the depths of addiction and drug-related behavior. After many arrests and hospital stays, she is now in recovery from addiction, thanks to family, friends, AA, and poetry. Manchester Community College and Professor Steve Straight have been enormously important allies in her struggle.

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ISBN: 978-0-9798451-0-9
68 pages, 6" x 9" perfect bound




What I will never forget about those days
is working the microwave at five every morning
heating up someone else’s urine I paid twenty dollars for.
Driving to the clinic, standing in line with it between my legs
like a nine months baby stuck on its way out. Sitting on
the toilet, my hand hidden only by my ass and a counselor
staring me down. Looking her in the eye and speaking
optimistically about the weather. I locked
the hard truth up deep inside, and let go
a pristine, clean and sober lie.


I mentioned during my intake that I was an artist
so they gave me the honor of painting a
fifteen-foot-long mural on the rehab wall.
I moved from left to right and after a couple weeks it
materialized. A gigantic sun about ten times
the size of a human head rose at the far left. Illuminating
a path of palm trees and colorful birds that pointed a
direct route to the beach. That’s where all the people were and
I made them in the image of my fellow patients. I made them
swim, talk, smile, laugh. The climate was tropical enough that
no one would need a vacation from this life. But I got lost
on the beach, wanting to be lost painting it forever. Fifteen feet
was not enough. When my brush hit the hard metallic frame,
it hit reality. Where the walls were cold, clinical and white.
The smiles were fake, the laughter was hurtful. The talk was shit.
The sun in this light was a crummy circle of yellow paint. So
with my last shred of effort I made a little black door no bigger
than my hand, with the words printed in white – A NEW LIFE.
The door led to a dark tunnel of grey and black bricks snaking
into the real wall behind it. It didn’t look promising, but
very early next morning when third shift was about to keel over
I pushed on this door and disappeared.
It threw off the motif of the entire piece. It interrupted the
continuity of the landscape. It would have to be painted over.
It was quite a departure.


I am a tinman at 28. No heart and it hurts a lot
to stand up. My only hope is some starry-eyed
girl in Kansas who doesn’t know I exist.
I don’t recall my nightly dreams, but they ricochet
all day inside me. The gorillas that fly around this place
are nothing compared to the monkeys that kill time
in my brain. I ignore the flowers that grow along this path
and urge me to stop and smell, lie down and
sleep forever. I keep to myself – this town is packed with
strange characters. They pass me on the road where I walk like
a cripple with no crutch. They throw pennies at the shell of me.
I hear them yet I feel nothing. As soon as I could crawl,
I went clanking away from that scrap heap of metal,
until I could no longer hear my broken mother’s
hollow call. I’ve been searching for something
all my life. Something real as flesh and blood,
something outside of myself. It will take a tornado,
the weight of a whole house dropping, the sound of
a witch’s body sizzling, a young girl ripped from
her family and set down safely a world away,
for me to know that I already have everything I need.


Something happens when you are just two weeks clean
and sober. When all trace of that dirty drug is certainly
gone from your urine and even your blood is clean. It remains
in your hair but your hair is dead. You wake up in the morning
without what you did last night or last week hanging its hangover
over your head. You open your door and walk out into
the sun which you didn’t know existed so near your house.


Out of the clear blue sky I hear my mom calling me.
Like she used to.
Sometimes I think she’s calling me from upstairs.
Or is it from down
in the basement? Or maybe she’s calling from
the front steps.
But we haven’t lived in that neighborhood for years now.
Some other family
occupies that house. Besides I am not a child.
I am almost thirty.
I am an entirely different person – in fact I’ve been
through hell. I’ve gone
so far beyond her call. Still I hear her. That urgent calling
of my name.
Somewhere in my mother’s heart she’s calling me and I
don’t know how to get there.

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