Taking care of one’s health is important to us. We understand that poetry is one of the many art forms that can love, heal, and make one feel less alone.
In the spirit of our Waiting Room Reader series, we would like to offer poems and excerpts from our latest books on a regular basis throughout the coronavirus outbreak. It is our hope that these selections will offer comfort and companionship through this season of isolation and quarantine.
From the press and our authors to you: here are some words to keep you company.
Some nights I dream of gasoline, of flames, of
Running barefoot through sprinklers in the dark in my
Night dress, late as always, slipping stupidly
On the damp lawn, sprawled cold beneath
The street lamps yellow flare
Others, I dream of a towering city, skyscrapers
The car whooshes between and over, skimming
The rooftops as blue lava erupts, as buildings collapse
Into ruin as the driver and I dodge the flow, dart
Between blue hot fountains, shelter
In a dim apartment as we wait for the fall
Other nights, I dream of faceless women
With my name, of a gaping house, a shifting
Feast laid out on tables amid a skittering crowd.
We move between rooms, feigning estrangement.
These dreams pile up, indecipherable,
Notes taken in a handwriting that I recognize
As my own, but cannot comprehend
Outside my window, four palm trees
shake their mop-tops in the windy cold
like they’re the Beatles, and it’s 1964 . . .
and I’m fifteen, stretched out before the altar
of a console TV, the wooden doors opened
because it’s Sunday, and television is allowed,
recompense for early morning attendance
at church. My father reads the paper,
something, no doubt, about JFK’s assassination,
and perhaps the rumors of the war to come
in southeast Asia. My mother sews.
And just when I think Sullivan cannot speak
any more slowly, he lets out the magic words
“youngsters from Liverpool,” and the audience explodes
and the night accelerates and the Beatles’
“All My Loving” fills our living room,
and I’m looking at Paul looking at John,
and even they can’t believe what is happening.
What is happening?—I’ve forgotten tomorrow
is Monday, forgotten the north Jersey sky
outside our door, and how, starless
and alien, it’s always tinged with green
from a neighbouring electric plant;
I’ve forgotten the tedious blocks
of 50 x 100 lots, and the ranch houses
with four basic floor plans we all live in.
The Beatles are in our living room,
and whatever is happening includes me
when Paul smiles his isn’t-this-cool,
isn’t-this-nuts smile. I’m shaking
my head, trying to make my too short hair
spill around my face, and I’m beginning
to think the world I know isn’t the only one.
And when the Beatles go right into
“She Loves You,” I’m all Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,
so far outside my usual self
I let my father’s complaints about the lyrics
slip by uncommented on. And even now,
forty years later, I can see their smiling faces.
We’re all there in the living room,
my mother humming along, my father
lost behind the Sunday papers, and me,
unimaginably free, shaking myself alive,
summoned into a future knowing so little
and wanting so much, armed with
nothing more than joy and wonder.
As my girls get older, I am learning that if you are a person who has made your children your life, it is hard not to lean on them when you need support. Also, if you are lucky enough to have mature, emotionally stable kids, when the rug gets pulled out from underneath you, it is powerfully tempting to ask them for help and support. And if both of those things are true—that your children are your life and they are mature and caring—it takes a great deal of courage and conviction to not divulge every little detail of your fear and despair, anger and disappointment and overwhelming sadness to them in the hopes that they will prop you up when you fall and remind you that they are on your side.
The closest buoy is the one we most often want to reach for, but if that buoy turns out to be my children, I know I have to keep on swimming. They need me to be a mother. It is not their job to be mine. Finding a balance between letting them see my pain and fear as a human being and letting them know that it isn’t their responsibility to fix it for me gets more challenging the older they get and the closer I get to losing Mom. But I am determined to let them be children, to spend a few more years ensconced in the protective knowledge that they will be cared for, nurtured, and loved as they explore and become who they are. Maybe one day when they are adults and they have built their own solid foundations, if I need their help, they can come to my aid, but until then, I can’t steal their adolescence by asking them to solve adult problems for which they aren’t equipped.
For Phil Levine
In the East Village
the city wakes
garbage trucks grinding
bikers on a green asphalt path
walkers left and right
dissolving into each other
the sun hits the former tenement
buildings, makes shadows off the fire escapes
big Zs up and down
each brick and stuccoed canvas
every once and a while
it gets quiet
like everyone has been stopped
at a gate I can’t see
a mass of people, cars and trucks
and bikes all idling behind a stop sign
waiting for permission
to return to the commute,
and here they come:
zoom, swish, grind
here they come
and never stop.
Later in the Egg Shop
on Kenmare and Elizabeth
I listen to a Marshall Tucker song
on the speakers around me
waiting for my maple sausage
it’s 80 degrees, the doors open
construction workers on the sidewalk out front
the city in full swing now and I think
about my life writing, teaching
coming here to see a film my son edited
and it brings me back
to another time when I wanted
and I know how easy that is
just to float over the table
step through the Sheetrock dust
on the sidewalk
sneak along the boulevard
with a suitcase
hop a train and vanish into a city
like another customer
another construction worker
another tattooed wait server
another cab driver
another homeless man
another mixed-up kid with a two-wheeler
lugging cases of soda
down into dark sidewalk cellars
and Toy Caldwell lays into a lyric like I’d seen
on an episode of Nashville Now
and it carries over the late morning sun
like an anthem to this city
and there I am not turning back
riding a southbound . . . till the train it run out of track.
When I was really little I thought the other side of the water like where City Island is was The Other Side that Mom and Dad talk about. I’m really proud of them, they left home and their Moms and Dads and brothers and sisters and came to a new country where they knew no one except maybe for Mom’s cousin in Rochester who had a Rooming House where too bad for her Mom worked as a maid. But Mom didn’t mind being a maid, she was so deliriously happy that she could live someplace and with someone even her cousin. Of course I think it’s exciting that Mom and Dad crossed the ocean to a new country but it’s mostly Scary, I don’t think I’d ever be able to do that. But I hope I can, I want to travel to far off places on planes and boats and see what life’s like across the Ocean.
And even though I’m still not completely crazy about Ireland which mustn’t be exciting at all, I mean why else would Mom and Dad and the other Greenhorns leave there, I still want to go and meet my Grandma and Grandpa before they all of a sudden die. Then off I’d go to London that has about a million buildings and Big Ben and the guys who make the laws who all wear wigs! that’re kind of long and have really tight tight curls that look like rows of ropes across the back of their heads. And there’s the huge Palace with the Queen and if you wait outside you can maybe see her. And I’ll go to Paris too where all the love stories happen and walk around and maybe I’ll meet a Prince and see the Eiffel Tower that looks like a Huge Erector Set and I’ll go for boat rides on the river. And I think I’ll go to Spain where they have the Bullfights which’re really sad for the bulls so maybe I won’t go and Italy too where they have great spaghetti and pizza and the Leaning Tower and of course the Vatican where Pope Pius lives and I’ll maybe someday even see Him. And I want my own car as soon as I can get it, which won’t be til after college and teaching for a while and saving up all my money so I can buy maybe a White Cadillac Convertible or a Thunderbird. But for sure I want a convertible, my hair flying and dancing all around in the wind, I love the Wind.
An hour before sunset and that golden light
stretching the days of mid-June illuminates
our bedroom in the light of religious paintings
when something is revealed. I’m lying on our bed,
reading a poet I like who keeps jabbing
at people’s sentimental “love
for everyday things”—roadside flowers, sparrows,
a sugar bowl and spoon—that cannot save us
from the “void ahead.” I laugh,
but then start thinking how, only a few minutes
ago, I looked up and saw you disappearing
around the edge of the shower curtain.
So, I’m revealing the source of my happiness—
your nearly sixty-year-old still lovely ass.
I might have shouted out a Hallelujah,
unbidden praise, except I was afraid
you’d startle and slip. But there it was,
mooning me as Yahweh mooned Moses,
showing him the hind parts, that fraction
of the whole, before vanishing again into mystery,
or, just then, a cleft in the rocks. You will resist
the analogy, no doubt, yet what I know
of Yahweh is just as blank and, truly, as loved;
I learned in Sunday school to love
what we never see by loving what we do—
this plum-colored mug, say, underglazed
in deep blue we brought back from Cornwall.
Bedside, it’s giving off steaming auras of tea
and waiting for you to step from behind the curtain
as this golden light yields to the loosening dark
and, ultimately, to that emptiness
we can never see into that waits beyond
the little, loved kingdom of our everyday things.
I was alone on my thirty-fifth birthday,
if any woman with five children is ever alone.
A topaz dawn dissolved to a scintillant
blue sky, a clear October day.
The two youngest were in the nursery
with Blanche. The door to the summer kitchen
slammed, then slammed again.
Servants about their business.
Otis was cranking the car.
It sputtered and backfired three times.
I was a familiar drudge, plodding through duties,
bound by purposes defined by others.
I looked up from my writing desk
to the walled back courtyards of R Street,
and thought of Saint-Gaudens’ statue, Grief,
as she sits in Rock Creek Cemetery,
hidden in a grove of holly and laurel,
the dark green leaves leathery and tatty.
Franklin was off to hunt in New Brunswick,
the Campo house opened to accommodate
him and six companions. I imagined the men
sitting before the fieldstone chimney after dinner,
enveloped in cigar smoke, amber whiskey
glinting in firelight, Franklin’s voice loudest
among a raucous trumping of speculations
and gossip, the certain recounting of the week’s
proud kills—moose, elk, deer, fox, quail.
Then I heard myself sighing, heard sorrow
and a long and tiresome loneliness rise up
from my diaphragm and release through
my mouth. This is what I do. I sigh.
Buck up, I heard Uncle Teddy intone brusquely.
Buck up, you silly goose.
O yes, I thought, I am a goose of a woman—
my long neck, my steep-sloping shoulders,
six feet of lofty, homely awkwardness.
I have been a shy goose among more practical fowl.
But I began that instant—although every moment
of my upbringing was against it—to care less
for the success of my husband’s projects,
and more for the success of my own.
Once, when we were new, a plate of seafood
crashed to the kitchen tiles and became the first scallops
some of us had ever tried, scraping away
the broken to save the unscathed,
we chewed briny mouthfuls
of gritty sweet meat swimming
in a sniff of garlic and white wine, thinking
nothing ever tasted so good,
as that moment passed into sounds of clinking silverware
and carrying-on, while Perry Como sang overhead,
imploring us to learn the mambo’s to and fro,
a lesson we’ll soon take to humming
in a heaping world that needs us to believe
we can be oceans, pushing waves
toward a shoreline we can’t see,
the worn down, far-off places of ourselves.
Read this love letter to life. Its pages turn in the ice-fling
off of the fast car’s roof. Follow the traveling carillon,
the communism of the gospels, the ice rink’s joyful
four-fold spotlight, how it shines the hair and adds grace.
Eyes and words swerve into focus, nouns marry in metaphor,
lines enter a stranger’s memory and stay for seven years,
Smell the multiflora roses, honeysuckle, burning leaves.
Feel the inside of the body, the smooth core, watch the wren
pull the dead fledgling from the hole feather by dusty feather.
Guess the stories: tailless squirrel on the woodpile, condom
under the old folks home sofa, the lady’s internal monologue
as she guards the Lamborghini at the auto show, red guts spilt
like berries from rabbit mouth. I’d write even if each page’s
only destination were the stove, for winter heat. Again and again.
The warm shadows are back along the streets,
and the world loves us again, so lovely,
like the small octopus in a tank,
an exhibit for children. See it there,
its tentacles like gauze stretching
along the sides of the tank. If I tap,
one tentacle or another reaches upward
toward my finger, a ghostlike and translucent
blue-grey. How impossibly delicate
it seems, each sucker independently
holding or releasing, the limb
like the large fire engines in Boston
with the second man driving the back wheels
around the curved city streets, and the other,
so that each tentacle seems under
its own control, slowly waving along the tank
toward my fingers on the glass.
There is a sign off to one side,
informing us that the octopus ‘sees’
by feeling pressure waves, which, I imagine
is what my tapping brings up,
though my fanciful wife suggests
that the tentacles long for some connection
with me. Touching, one might say.
Tasting is more likely the case.
The water, too, seems as warm and forgiving
as the air in the small exhibit room
where children come to learn about touch,
about the gauzy longing like hunger in them.
It is spring, and in us, too.
Beyond lithe triceps, bulging biceps,
above taut calves and washboard abs,
unsurpassed by lats and hams
is our mother muscle hustling
blood through her brood of tubes,
muscle by which all other muscles flex.
wafts through the Doppler mic
held against the slight, gelled
swell of your mother’s uterus.
Your body’s first voice
utters a stutter
I have no answer for.
Praise the four-chambered
orchestra playing staccato
sonate da camera in your chest,
percussive as the timpani,
or more so: allegro, vivace, presto—
how would Mozart mark
one hundred sixty sixteenth notes
per sixty seconds? Prestissimo.
We’ll take you home to four small rooms,
one just for you: your name brilliant
in bubbled letters, glass balloons
like buoys in the corner. Your mother
pressing you to her breast, we’ll step
into our asthmatic old apartment,
an April wind rushing in behind,
fresh oxygen borne in our blood.
When they were little I read
to them at night until my tongue
got tired. They would poke me
when I started to nod off after twenty
pages of Harry Potter or one of
the Lemony Snickett novels. I read to
them to get them to love reading
but a parent is never sure if the
stories are having an impact or if it
just looks like the right thing to do.
But one day, my daughter (fifteen then)
was finishing Of Mice and Men in the car
on our way somewhere. She was at
the end of it when I heard her say,
No, in that frightened voice and I
knew right away where she was,
“Let’s do it now,” Lennie begged,
“Let’s get that place now.”
“Sure, right now. I gotta. We gotta.”
And she stared crying, then I started
crying, and it was as if Steinbeck
was sitting in the backseat telling
nodding his head and it felt right,
like I’d done something right,
and I wanted to tell her to keep going,
read it to me, please, please, I can take it.
Wonder what I’d be today if I was still married to my Wall Street
husband besides married to a Wall Street husband and puking gin
in a silk sheath outside Delmonico’s. I might be a size 4. I might
be a secret Democrat or a weekend lesbian. This morning five planes
flew over the yard in a V as I was about to dig into a pile of lavender
pancakes al fresco. The V flew low and slow. It flew loud and ominous.
It alarmed me, sounding a lot like the war movies of my fifties’ childhood.
My cranky Chihuahua was proverbially biting at flies and I was sitting there
not thinking about hate. Recently, I experienced life with cancer. An
intoxicating time, richly infused with the liquor of death, but good too
because no one expected much of me and I was left to my own mind,
which is what I’m missing most these days. Unless that’s it over there,
screeching on two wheels around the racetrack. Today I typed gnos
instead of song and I wondered if it was some new app designed
to mess with me. I’ve never thought to call the world sweet before.
Surviving something can do that, make things taste different.
Suddenly you’re a hero/ine. All this devastation—
and you’re still standing in the middle of it.
to understand them better.
Know how this muscle pumps,
contracts to its function.
In his palm the rabbit’s heart
still flutters, as he injects
the enzymes, breaks it down.
Brought to its single self
under the microscope, each cell
reveals to him its nature,
gives measured answers.
Chromatographic shades of meaning
extracted, written down, definitive.
At night, he lays his head
on the soft billow of her breast:
hears the measuring of time, and all
heart’s anarchies beat in his ear.