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.
I have come back
to the mountains above Grenoble
where once I jogged along muddy trails,
Jean-Paul’s finger at my back,
prodding me. Where once I walked
from house to house, tasting
Madame Bernard’s vin de noix, Maria’s clafouti.
I have come back
to study yoga with Françoise
and transform my body into light.
To sit in a circle of neighbors, as the sun
sinks into the crevice between two peaks.
To let them carry me
in my chair wherever
stairs block my wheels. Not to walk,
but like Lazarus to rise.
I have come back
to explore Le chemin de guérison intérieure
at l’Arche, in the Abbé de St. Antoine.
To hear Jeannette ask God to heal me
in a chapel sunlight through stained glass, stone
by stone released from five hundred
years of earth. Five times each day, the medieval
clang reminds me to stop
and listen to magpies outshout
one another, to the donkey alone
in tall grass braying.
At first it seemed a good idea not to
move a muscle, to resist without
resistance. I stood still and stiller. Soon
I was the stillest object in that room.
I neither moved nor ate nor spoke.
But I was in there all the time,
I heard every word said,
saw what was done and not done.
Indifferent to making the first move,
I let them arrange my limbs, infuse
IVs, even toilet me like a doll.
Oh, their concern was so touching!
And so unnecessary. As if I needed anything
but the viscosity of air that held me up.
I was sorry when they cured
me, when I had to depart that warm box,
the thick closed-in place of not-caring,
and return to the world. I would
never go back, not now. But
the Butterfly Effect says sometimes
the smallest step leads nowhere,
sometimes to global disaster. I tell you
it is enough to scare a person stiff.
I am a fool wrapped in a blue blanket looking for something to say.
Shadows and their awful doubts whisper at the window. My feet—cold. My head—filled with cotton. Alan plays scales on the piano; David plucks Bach; the cat dozes on the couch.
I’m more of an invalid than a wife or mother.
It’s time to return to work, the doctor says. No, Doctor. I know this house: its turns
and conveniences, its willingness to wait. I am safe within its walls, joints and bones.
It offers itself undaunted, as safe map and glove. Like a flexible cast or loving par-
ent, it assumes all care: keeps danger out, asks little of the back, no steps to climb,
no unexpected turns, no cars or brutal collisions, no hideous laughter or pity. Ex-
tending its arms, it invites me to even give up my crutches and walk the hall from
my room to the kitchen or my son’s room alone. Alan brings a chair to the stove
and together we fix meat sauce for supper. Nothing can happen to me here. No,
Doctor. I won’t go outside again until this back can carry me: bearing her share of
my ordinary life: driving David to music or baseball or myself to the office or shop-
ping for groceries or Christmas. But you need not be concerned; I’m not closed in
here. I have windows: eight foot floor to ceiling windows invite other lives. News-
papers and TV tell me all I need to know.
Cast and all, we dance our kitchen floor
though my broken wing holds us apart—
like some olden-time bundling board—
folded, as it is, over my heart.
This spring our woods turn young as we turn old,
though new birdsong still catches us off guard
as much as when feet lose their earthly hold.
Still, who’d believe I’d take a fall so hard?
But, love, let’s be voracious as the creatures
after dozing away winter in their lairs
who guzzle all the good from our birdfeeders—
those pesky chipmunks, squirrels and black bears.
Let’s dance with every hungry foe age sends us
until one finally dips us, drops us, ends us.
Last night I uncovered poems
hid so well it took me fifteen years to find them,
a ribbon tied around a packet of blue linen
as if whoever bound those sonnets
wanted whoever unwrapped them
to appreciate that some words ought to deserve more
than ordinary paper. It’s my father’s handwriting. His
rhymes grasp each other so earnestly
it’s hard for me to keep reading.
I long . . . I yearn . . . I crave . . . I burn . . .
You sizzle . . . you spark.
Everything you touch turns bright.
Every day I am away from you is night.
You are my only light. My only dark.
Every noun is a tear, every verb a goodbye,
With each adjective I am preparing to die.
At first I can’t tell if these are suicide notes
or love poems. To whom is my father speaking?
My mother? A mistress?
Someone so beautiful even the adverbs had to be beautiful
too, adjectives chosen
so every letter glides into the next,
every vowel nestles in a consonant’s arms.
Why can’t those we love be only
what we want them to be and perhaps only
what they wished to be?
There are secrets you whisper to your son
when you are dying, but there are other secrets
you wrap in dark purple ribbon
and hide—words too revealing to be published,
too important to throw away,
the kinds of poems old men write.
They know no one’s going to read them
while they are alive
but they write them anyway. And save them.
See, I am writing one now.
So many people have moved in.
I don’t know them anymore.
I don’t know their names.
Not even my dreams make sense.
The birds have flown up from the privet.
They don’t know that the door
jams aren’t square, that something
is very wrong in this house.
All my friends have left for the country,
and I alone stand on the sidewalk,
staring into closed suburban windows,
fixating on muffled arguments.
Even my own dog won’t stay. The invisible
fence advisers leave cryptic messages
on my answering machine about restraining him.
They are baffled by his
arrogance, his willingness
to approach the electric wire,
as if nothing at all could shock him.
Someone I have never met
climbs secretly up a ladder
onto the porch of our new addition.
He is purple, a statue
in the most conceptual museum.
Cold water drips from the sink.
Drip rhythm: Two drips.
Two drips. Two drips.
Only the cold water drips.
Voices bubble up in the neighborhood,
human sounds mixed with the bark of dogs,
gas flames of cookouts.
Sometimes I think about nothing
except a few birds and the rain—how they
continue to sing even when it’s raining,
even when the cold raining rain
refuses to stop.
This is a love poem about empty places.
About blank walls.
About light in the night and noises on the street.
This is a love poem where no one is there.
This is a love poem for you.
This is your house.
This is the light you make.
The soft light of a summer night.
The noises from the bar down the block.
The girls screaming at their lovers.
Your clothes spread across the bed.
You spread across the bed.
The sun in the afternoon.
Too hot sometimes to bear.
The smell of your skin.
You mixed carrots and soda for tanning cream.
That taste is this poem.
This is a poem without you in it.
Like every love poem should be.
A poem with an empty heart.
A poem with a smell you can’t quite name.
I say you smell almost like cotton candy.
You show me your perfume and it’s cotton candy.
I say you smell like my life.
You show me getting up and going to work and coming home tired.
I say I love you and you say I love you
and we could say that over and over and over.
But all I know is the spray of tanning oil on the deck.
The spilled Corona.
The taste of your breath, thick with beer and tobacco.
This is a poem with no one in the house but me and two dogs.
This is a poem with the deep sighs of my dogs.
The breeze from a summer night.
The wail of a siren.
The music from my neighbor’s radio.
Soft mountain music.
Music about places and islands I’ve never seen.
Your hair is scattered on the sink.
Clothes are tossed on the bed.
The dogs are snoring.
The girls and boys from the bar are yelling.
It’s a loud poem. It’s a poem that won’t let me forget.
So I wander out and look at the pale Hudson County sky.
I can’t see a single star.
The moon is hazy with neglect.
The dryer is turning and turning.
The dogs are tossing.
Everything in the world is asking about you.
The year Neil Armstrong landed on the moon,
Tía Velia, our mariner, sent us a picture
of nine-year-old Norma.
Hair pulled back, “Apollo 11” inscribed
on the white of her shirt,
she stood against a peach-colored house,
the green thickness of American grass, and a turquoise sky
and smiled from the shade
of a Florida palm tree.
No longer was America just data:
airmail envelopes, shopping carts,
stories about Tio Luis, who Mother said
had cut the surface of Lake Okeechobee
with his body, with his gravel truck,
or Primo Luisito, who was in jail
for the third, maybe the fourth time;
she was cousin Norma;
she was men on the moon.
And I held onto that picture,
as real as a recurring dream,
and imagined myself flying,
scuffing the surface of Tía Velia’s color photograph,
and, like Armstrong’s Eagle, landing
in a sea of tranquility.
Later that year,
Fina, our seamstress,
made each one of us two dresses,
and Mother helped us give away
our clothes, our toys,
and kept us from talking about Norma
and all those who had left before us.
Watch my grandmother
fight the sun
with her rag hat
and loose white clothes
with the summer wind.
plant the seeds,
strawberry hard seeds,
in her left hand—
Watch her hoe the ground
with the right hand,
left arm hanging like
a hose, paralyzed
from a stroke
twenty years ago.
Watch my mother’s right hand
unrind the beah, the pear
down to a carcass,
the white freckled skin.
She learned this
from her mother.
I have watched her
do this every dinner
since I was a boy:
lips pressed, eyes narrowed
down to the knife
on skin, she smiles
and leaves a trail,
one curled snake of white flesh.
My mother learned through
hushed supper stories
of her brother fleeing
for the arms of some girl
from the states,
arranged not by custom,
not from Seoul.
Watching her mother cry
until breathless, grandmother
unwrapping the pear whole.
Watch her son
chew the beah, listen
to hushed dinner stories retold.
sound like laughter
twenty years from the cry
I look over at Mama’s photo on my night table, the same picture she kept on top of her piano. I always found it hard to believe that she had ever looked like that—vibrant, eager, happy. In the picture, her smiling lips and cheeks have a rosy glow, and her eyes are dreamy and contented, a look I never saw in them. What I always saw was resignation and regret. In my opinion, she had much to regret. I plan to do whatever I want and never regret anything.
Several times during the next few days, I catch Aunt Susie staring at me, her eyes glassy with unshed tears. I always look away and try to think of something other than Mama. Often I take out the brochure that Mrs. Lee left for me. The camp’s name is Beenadeewin, and according to the brochure, it’s near the New Hampshire border. I wonder whether colored people live in Vermont and New Hampshire.
Beenadeewin is very expensive, but the brochure makes it seem like a magical place where parents gladly pay 600 dollars for their daughters to commune with nature for four weeks. There’s horseback riding, archery, shuffleboard, and arts and crafts. Best of all, there’s supervised swimming in the camp’s very own lake. Colored people aren’t allowed in Sumter’s public pool, and I was terrified of the snakes that lived in the water holes near Green Swamp Road so I never learned to swim. I’ve always wanted to, though, and I’m sure I’ll have spare time to learn.
These daydreams ease my fears about going to Vermont, but a voice in the back of my mind keeps asking whether the white people in Vermont will be as cruel as the white people in South Carolina are. Nobody is that cruel, I tell myself. Northerners were opposed to slavery.
One day Aunt Susie calls me into the living room and pats a spot near her on the sofa. “Sit down. There’s something I want to tell you. Mr. and Mrs. Lee haven’t been getting along lately. Mr. Lee won’t be going to camp this year. He—” She pauses and clears her throat.
“Does that mean I won’t have to go either?” I ask.
“That’s all the more reason you have to go,” Aunt Susie says. “Mr. Lee’s run off and left Mrs. Lee to work the camp kitchen alone.”
I wonder whether Mr. Lee left his wife for the same reason Daddy left Mama.
Aunt Susie continues. “Mrs. Lee’s hired a young boy to do the heavy work in the kitchen, but she’s counting on you to help her with the cooking.”
“Why is she counting on me? I don’t even know how to cook.” What I don’t say is that I’m tired of people depending on me.
Aunt Susie puts her arm around my shoulder. “I told her how much help you were to your mama. She’s my friend, Sarah, and she needs you. I’m counting on you. Please don’t let me down. Okay?”
I nod. What else can I do?
The smell of bacon awakens me. I climb from bed and see two suitcases near the door. Then I remember. Today is the day I meet Mrs. Lee and leave for camp. I stretch my arms high, yawn, and whisper, “Ready or not, Vermont, here I come!”
“About time you got up, sleepyhead,” Aunt Susie says affectionately as I slide into my usual place at the breakfast table.
“Did you get all your stuff together? Mrs. Lee wants everybody at the station before ten o’clock.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I answer.
“Don’t look so sad,” Aunt Susie says. “You’ll have a good time. And you’ll eat some real good food. Mrs. Lee’s a great cook.” She pauses. “Wish I coulda been in your shoes when I was your age. I always had to pick cotton or clean white folks’ houses. Things are different now. This is a real opportunity.”
I love Aunt Susie, but she doesn’t understand. Cooking in white folks’ kitchens isn’t an opportunity. Opportunity is participating in the lunch counter sit-ins at the five and dime or doing voter registration with SNCC. I make myself smile as I put eggs, bacon, and toast on my plate.
This morning I watched my daughter
unpack her new cello out of its black
vinyl bag, cherry wood, lacquered
a rough sheen gleaming
from its wide bout.
I have seen this face before—stern,
determined—all business as she wraps
her small fingers around its neck,
the scroll resting on her shoulder
the outline of a body on a body,
from the navel to where
the bridge begins, its ribs
sloped against her ribs,
the middle curve a snug fit
between her knees
while she draws back the horsehair bow
pulling the strings into a sound
deep as a groan, almost voice,
fingers moving without
form or technique,
the truth of her body leaning into the music.
Already she knows how to shape
a sort of song, which comes
as easy to her
Maybe, since you’re something like me,
you, too, would’ve nearly driven into oncoming traffic
for gawking at the clutch between the two men
on Broad Street, in front of the hospital,
which would not stop, each man’s face
so deeply buried in the other’s neck—these men
not, my guess, to be fucked with—squeezing through
that first, porous layer of the body into the heat beneath;
maybe you, loo, would’ve nearly driven over three pedestrians as your head
swiveled to lock on their lock,
their burly fingers squeezing the air from the angels
on the backs of their denim jackets
which reminds you of the million and one secrets exchanged
in nearly the last clasp between your father
and his brother, during which the hospital’s chatter and rattle
somehow fell silent in deference to the untranslatable
song between them, and just as that clasp endured through
what felt like the gradual lengthening of shadows and the emergence
of once cocooned things, and continues to this day, so, too,
did I float unaware of the 3000 lb machine
in my hands drifting through a stop light while | gawked
at their ceaseless cleave going deeper,
and deeper still, so that Broad Street from Fairmount
to the Parkway reeked of the honey-scented wind
pushed from the hummingbirds now hovering above these two men,
sweetening, somehow, the air until nectar,
yes, nectar gathered at the corners of my mouth like sur-colored spittle,
the steel vehicle now a lost memory
as I joined the fire-breasted birds in listening
to air exchanged between these two men, who are, themselves,
listening, forever, to the muscled contours of the other’s neck, all of us
still, and listening, as if we had nothing
to blow up, as if we had nothing to kill.
In the South
Where I was born color
Bars and Jim Crow cars
Fine brown skin girls
Sang and black men danced
In their dark faces
The merry and dangerous
Whites of their eyes
I was young and made
My music beating
On hat boxes
My music was color blind
I traveled with my gin
A quart of whiskey a day
Across a country black
And white played on the streets
Where policemen walked in groups
And Fats Waller sat
At the piano
His fingers seemed to sing
And so did Negro America
Through rural towns with moonshine
And poor whites
riots and thoughts of war
The music was swing
And radio was the voice
That brought us together
My music was color blind
For fine young men in zoot suits
And brown skinned girls
Saving money the summer
before moving to New York,
I painted houses during days,
nights in a restaurant kitchen
hosing dishes, loading them
into a steel washer that gusted
steam until two a.m.
Once, when I came home,
my back and neck bidding for bed,
asleep on the couch laid dad.
Flicker from muted TV
was the room’s lone light,
but I could see his face fine,
broad nose, thick cheeks
holding glow as he breathed.
In five hours I would wake,
ride in the crew truck
to the assigned site,
gallon buckets and stepladders
chattering over road bumps,
like prongs of a struck fork.
Still, I stood and stared
at dad, a man
who poured four years
into the Navy during war,
who worked worse
jobs for shorter pay than me,
whose hands have blackened
fixing cars that quit
no matter how many replaced parts.
Above our house, clouds
polished moon as they passed.
body pain or threatening dreams.
What else could I do
but bend down slow
and touch once
my lips to his brown brow?
What was unforeseen is now a bird orbiting this field.
What wasn’t a possibility is present in our arms.
It shall be and it begins with you.
Our often-misunderstood kind of love deems dangerous.
How it frightens and confounds and enrages.
How strange, unfamiliar.
Our love carries all those and the contrary.
It is most incandescent.
So, I vow to be brave.
Clear a path through jungles of shame and doubt and fear.
I’m done with silence. I proclaim.
It shall be and it sings from within.
Truly we are enraptured
With Whitmanesque urge and urgency.
I vow to love in all seasons.
When you’re summer, I’m watermelon balled up in a sky-blue bowl.
When I’m autumn, you’re foliage ablaze in New England.
When in winter, I am the tender scarf of warm mercies.
When in spring, you are the bourgeoning buds.
I vow to love you in all places.
High plains, prairies, hills and lowlands.
In our dream-laden bed,
Cradled in the nest
Of your neck.
Deep in the plum.
It shall be and it flows with you.
We’ll leap over the waters and barbaric rooftops.
You embrace my resilient metropolis.
I adore your nourishing wilderness.
I vow to love you in primal ways.
I vow to love you in infinite forms.
In our separateness and composites.
To dust and stars and the ever after.
Intrepid travelers, lovers, and family
We have arrived.
Look. The bird has come home to roost.
Summer, the dominion
of crickets, music that can never be seen,
never be reached. Inside the workshop,
I’m running the miter saw,
cutting 1x2s to make frames,
the blade whirring steadily.
The jagged music of the blade
up on its knees, spinning all the way around
and back again,
like water carrying its depth.
Shoeless and shirtless, sunlight beats down,
making me squint, groggily.
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.