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.
Off duty after his morning hike around the lake,
my father’s binoculars nap inside a plush-lined case,
their brass rims lidded with plastic caps
like coins laid on the eyes of Roman dead.
Weighty they look, and valuable,
with the intelligent metallic squint of all his instruments:
his car keys, his watch, his mechanical pencils,
his eyeglasses glittering on the coffee table.
When I work the focusing dials, like a television’s,
to tune into what he’s seen,
he grumbles from his couch, Don’t touch,
as though the high pitch of my awe will crack a lens.
But if I fold my arms like wings against my sides,
my father may hold the binoculars to my eyes
the way he once raised a cup of juice to my lips.
When he shows me a flipping aspen leaf
or an oriole’s black beak split by song,
I think his vision and mine may meet
the way each scope’s separate view
resolves into one seamless stare.
The morning he taps my door, calls out
Want to come along?
and loops the binoculars’ strap across my head,
my neck bows to take their weight.
Now the canals shredded by lake winds
and the slow-flapping heron
can feel as close, as far away
as my lather standing beside me in the field.
Sheets are wet
in the basket, socks
a pair of sorry balls
dripping in self-pity,
underwear a limp limbo
of cotton blends
no longer soaking wet
and not yet dry
waiting to be hung by a woman
who scrubs away
on a rock
along the stream
with her hands
and the strength
Sheets are hung
on the line, socks
clipped at the heel,
of never taking shape
from human proportion,
a clothesline low in the middle
as if bowing its head, waiting
to be propped up by a woman
who raises this offering
that much closer
the air gathers
puffs of wind
with breath enough
for divine intention.
This is a place of recuperation, in the snows.
The luminous autumn sky giddies and rises.
Its knuckles of stone and blue are bruised in interknitting,
they secure the horizon to itself. Our flesh is gentle.
Afternoons a white stupor breathes from heaven.
There are blue nights when every heartbeat is a kiss
the breast shakes with. Everywhere the ice
mirrors your single face in sheets and flaws
and shows it cloven. The trailing sack of day
is stuffed then with resilient abstinence.
I can’t say how we came here. Half-numb, burning,
your face wears a pied mask of ice and fire.
The hearth in this high lodge flares. A gaunt window is open.
Our smiles blaze and freeze, cold air, cold flame.
Because I refuse to learn to say goodbye,
these words—but because they are not my skin,
and because my fingers are not syllables,
and because your voice on the phone is not
breath I can take into my mouth and taste,
and the phone when we speak is not your body
in my arms or your hand lifting my chin
so our eyes meet when you say I love you,
and because when I imagine your hand
lifting my chin, I want to live within
that moment with you the way language
lives within us, I am here, wrestling these lines
into form, and because the form is me
when you read it, I’ll be there, and we’ll touch.
My dog’s hips grind where no one can see.
She wants to keep up, but has to sit.
I take her home, pet her a while,
and go for groceries where
the old man packing bags
is staring off. I know by his heavy
silver eyes that he is a widower
and just as he life my no-fat cottage cheese
he sees her floating somewhere before him
and the soda and the swordfish and the English
muffins are piling up as the black belt keeps
moving, and I gently take the cottage cheese
from his hand, and he returns, looking at
me, a bit dizzy to still be here.
He sighs, rubs his eye, and asks, “Paper
or plastic?” I help him bag
what no one can bag.
After putting soda in the fridge
I eat out anyway, and next to me,
a small woman trying to be heard
while her large partner pretends nothing
is wrong. She knocks over the salt as he
butters his bread. He shakes his head
and wonders who she is.
Beyond them, in a booth by a window,
an elderly couple. It is clear they can’t speak.
They sign each other and their faces
are lively with yes and no and in between.
Suddenly over coffee, the man sees something
across the road. He’s full of joy, pointing
and smiling, wanting his wife to see.
It could be a hawk opening its wings
or a burst of light budding
a thin maple.
His wife never really sees
but he thinks she does
and he feels relieved.
I realize we are all this way.
Whether seeing dead faces at the register
or butterflies behind light poles, sometimes
the skin of mind is torn and we are not
separate beings. Once the talking is done,
we point and point at the proofs of love
for all we’re worth.
I feel more today
than one being should
and can’t tell
if I’m in trouble
or on holy ground.
Like shreds of fog. Or the kind of tea
a poet might sip on his grey weathered
deck, hinting at something irretrievable,
the wisdom of China, or Oban, for that
matter (shells, caves, distillery fumes),
it’s never about what can be held or seen
or even sniffed, but what flickers before
Unlikely ghost in the shape
of eight-year-old Quentin (Greek-god
to-be, with his aristocratic nose)
lurking behind Duncraggan’s sodden
rhododendrons for a glimpse of me;
or Willie’s nimble fingers (trained
by stamp collecting, as well as playing
the recorder) as he unfolds the note
on his desk, slid there during recess,
invitation to my party, in unexpected
iambic trimeter (it will be the first time
he wears long trousers).
And how many
scarves insist on fluttering their silken
bravado in the chancy reflection of who
we might have been, or who dreamed
us up (or who dreamed up whisky, fire
in the throat, peat and brine) and who
were we, and what might not be left?
And Gordon with his slicked hair,
flirting in the backseat with my sister,
and how jealous I was, knowing nothing
about flirting, and not likely soon to learn.
And Harris (tall, loyal, clumsy) wanted
to kiss me, but didn’t, and what his lips
might have felt like, brushing mine,
or crushing mine, there in the dark,
and how that energy stormed directly
at me, then dashed lightly away.
My hand, the shell of a ghost-crab,
cracked open when I slapped my father’s face.
I mistook my hand for a bird, a sandpiper.
That I struck my father is not as important
as it is for us to keep our eyes on our hands.
I glove mine in desire
to write, take pleasure, maim, or bestow.
In the language of desire, my own hand
can command the fingers of my left
to scurry into the sea while the remaining ones
fly up at sunset. This is not a fiction;
the bones of our hands remember
forbidden fruit and the discovery of fire.
In February on the beach of my virginity,
I warm my hands over burning driftwood.
My middle-aged self has been writing of our hands,
how her fingers moved, soft as feathers
over her lover’s skin. Our hands will be warm.
The weather is wild. The wind whips my hair.
Sparks rise in bursts toward heaven.
I am yesterday, perfectly longing for tomorrow.
Winter Clouds in Hoboken
are different than New York City clouds
occasionally cumulus, lately ominous,
biblical in fact. New Jersey is not a place but
a state of mind according to my Brooklyn students,
the last frontier between irrelevance and extinction.
Everything you think it is, and more.
New Jersey is whole lotta place(s). My place is Hoboken
where neighbors share home-brewed coffee
the morning after Sandy flooded basements
in apocalyptic power surge, then darkness.
Where brass bands carrying statues fire cannons
in honor of obscure Italian saints though the midday streets.
Graffitied walls proclaim PK Kid is alive, Viva!
Not art to be sold in galleries across the river.
Where an empty parking space is a conversation starter
and a drunk girl cries next to a smashed cell phone
on my stoop two weeks before Saint Patrick’s Day,
a pool of green puddled at her feet.
Where we pretend we invented baseball
where everyone’s grandma dated Sinatra.
Where the poets drink like poets
and are ignored like poets.
Where the ends justify the ends
and happy hours last all night.
Seagulls peck French fries
off a white Mercedes Benz
on Washington Street
The clouds are different here.
They just are.
There is one beauty
it knows. The rest is blindness,
earth closing around itself,
surrounded by hunger.
For a hundred days,
a thousand, it is the same
dark eye looking
inward. Thinking of light.
Remembering the pressure
of soil. The seam
of water finding its heart.
blossoms ringing through
In Japan long ago, when Koson
folded back the sleeves of his kimono,
picked up his pen and began drawing
the image that would later be carved
into cherrywood, then pressed
onto paper and colored in,
he had no idea that a century later
a man in rural New Hampshire
would unpin that print from his bedroom wall
where it had been hanging longer
than he could remember, roll and tie it
with curling red ribbon, then leave his home
in the dark, and drive past frozen fields and woods,
past farmhouses with wreath-covered doors
and candlelit windows, on and on,
to the roadside mailbox of a woman
he hadn’t seen in over a year.
He just knew that as he moved that pen,
line by line, feather by feather, beak by beak,
loneliness drew two wild geese flying
before a moon so large it nearly filled
Given these twenty-below-zero nights—
gale winds straight from the Siberian plains of hell,
and every tormented tree in the forest groaning its misery—
this mourning dove should be dead.
Yet here she crouches, hogging the feeder tray,
pebble-eyed and jaunty despite the ice cube
that, for two arctic days, has encased her pink left foot
like an elegant cement overshoe.
Persistent chickadees flutter and dip,
yearning to snatch a perch. The dove,
eight times their size and oblivious to complaint,
just keeps gobbling. In woodpecker fashion,
she’s clamped her broad tail over the tray edge
for balance, yet all the while her icebound foot,
a rosy block of sparkles, dangles in the knife-edge breeze.
Among these busy airborne birdlets,
her shackle swings like a locket packed with lead shot.
Even so, I’m tempted to circle
optimism on the metaphysical scorecard.
After all, the bird’s not dead, not even almost dead,
though no doubt her frostbitten foot
will rot and fall off, and she’ll be forced to endure
a blackened stump for the balance of her brief days—
that is, if a fox or my own cheerful dog doesn’t
hunt her down at twilight and break her neck.
Yesterday my son was clutching me in panic:
“What can we do? What can we do?”
But today he forgets to notice her.
The dove has become ordinary window dressing.
She gobbles seed; she snaps her beak at finches;
she flaps heavily into the snow-stiffened boughs.
Her feathers gleam and her beady eye glitters.
From where we stand—
here: in our kitchen, our own snug invention—
any happy can look like an ending.
You find blue sheets the color of sky with
the feel of summer, they smell like clothes
drying on the line when you were small.
They feel unusual on your skin; you and your
husband sleep on them.
You find thick white towels that absorb a lot
of water. When you come from the bath, you are
cold for a moment, you think of snow for a moment,
you wrap yourself in a towel, dry off the water.
Now, you unpack your silver, after years, polish it,
set it in red quilted drawers your mother
lined for you when you were young.
You and your husband are in bed. The windows are open.
There is a smell from the lawn. It’s dark and late. You
and your husband are in the sheets. He is like a horse.
You are like grass he is grazing, you are his field. Or
he’s a cow in a barn, licking his calf. It’s raining out.
He gets up, walks to the other room. You listen
for his step, his breath. It is late. For moments
before you sleep, you hear him singing.
He comes to bed. He touches your face. He touches
your chin and lips. Later, he tells you this. He puts
his head on your breast. You are dreaming of Rousseau
now, paintings of girls and deserts and lions.
Our daughter looks like me
people say, the architecture
of her eyebrows and pointed stare.
But in the photograph of you
at thirteen months: our baby’s
toothless grin after she’s grabbed
the cat by the tail. Every child
you said needs a mother who reads
and each night I let her suck
thick cardboard illustrations,
Big Red Barn and Goodnight Moon,
while I balance her on my lap.
If you lived with us, you
would know this. Perhaps
you would bring me a cup of tea
while I nurse her on the couch,
a book of poems open nearby.
Sometimes I wonder if you wonder
about us, when you’re at work
in the laboratory or when
you’re feeding your new son a bottle.
The stories of our children
are woven together. The tapestry
couldn’t be more beautiful, filled
with these widening holes.
Mummy’s king-sized bed is half vacant.
My brother gravitates to the master bedroom.
He always has, but there is about it something
conspicuous now, something pre-Newtonian—
more fundamental, more mysterious,
than mechanics, more rudimentary than
calculus—an undetectable magnet betraying its
inestimable ethereal force. Mummy weeps more
in the monsoons, staring into the rain and over-
cast sky through windows shut to keep them from
swinging uncontrollably in cyclonic
winds and slamming. Her tears are always
stifled, her lamentation is never clean, never
a burst like a torrent. Always gasps, always
bird-like fluttering. I want her to stop.
I plead her.
She doesn’t stop.
I scream at her.
She doesn’t stop. I slam doors, I curse
the weather. She doesn’t stop. I curse
god. She is inconsolable. She is
a girl. Her moist cheeks, shining, are soft. Angelic,
she is a seraphim gazing out as if that is where
her void is, as if that’s where it’s always been.
My brother stretches out where papa slept.
He extends his arm toward her
and grunts. There is no sense in anything.
I am beset by the brutality of nonsense.
My brother sits up and walks to the bathroom.
He brings out a towel. He stands beside her,
looming above her frame, pressing
towel to her face, dabbing her cheeks. I watch
void offset void
like negatives that must
negate each other into an elemental
emptiness so dark that from it can emerge
nothing but a sliver of light like hope.
Three years after the fight of the century, we gathered once more around our beloved tube radio, this time for “Rumble in the Jungle,” a fight for the World Heavyweight Championship between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, known to Mom as Jorge Foreman. Things had changed around our home. Father was gone; so was my brother. My three oldest sisters had dropped out of school and found jobs in Bogotá. For them, high school had to wait. The well-being of our family was in their hands.
“This is going to be good,” Mom said wrapping the rosary around her fingers. “Ali’d better get off the ropes this time. He’s what, thirty something? He can’t compete with this kid Jorge.”
Ali started the fight with a ferocious attack, and the audience went wild. We could hear the spectators in Zaire chant, “Ali boma ye! Ali boma ye!” an African mantra that put my two sisters, Mom, and me into a trance and seduced us with its foreign cadence. We didn’t know what it meant and didn’t care. We were high on Ali and chanted along with our invisible African friends: “Ali boma ye! Ali boma ye!”
Mom thumped the table with her palm. Grains of salt reverberated on the wood. She kept the pounding, on and on, until she fell into a steady five-beat rhythm; her pounding melted into the noises from Zaire, and soon my sisters and I started smacking our own palms against the table. “Ali boma ye! Ali boma ye!” and it felt like we were building something big, something important, a tribe of angry, thump-crazy, sweaty, women warriors.
All of a sudden, Ali went to the ropes and allowed Foreman to hit him. Mom cried, “No, no, Chucho, Chuchito, help him! God, get him off the ropes, please, Heavenly Father!”
But Ali had different plans. He spent round after round leaning on the ropes, staying loyal to his “rope-a-dope tactic,” absorbing Foreman’s punches, taunting him with “Is that all you got, George?” or “My grandma punches harder than you do,” which made Mom snort.
Toward the end of the fight, Ali sprang from the ropes and delivered a sequence of flawless blows that sent Foreman to the canvas. The fight was over in round 8; Ali had reclaimed the WBA/WBC heavyweight titles. We jumped up from the table and hugged each other as if Ali’s victory were our own.
When the fight was over, the commentator translated the spectators’ feverish chant: Ali boma ye! meant “Ali, kill him!” Mom, being a God-fearing woman, started counting beads. She faced the radio as if directing her repentance towards Zaire and whispered an apology to Jorge Foreman for wishing him dead. “We don’t speak African, Lord. Forgive my girls and this old sinner. We’ll never chant anything we don’t understand. And please, heal poor Jorge’s eyes; Ali really did a number on that guy. Amén.”
She switched the radio off and let her fingers linger over its burgundy surface as if saying good night. Then she moved it back against the wall and covered it with a white crocheted coaster.
In winter the sun is nearer the earth than ever,
But what does it matter, every crypto-,
Proto-lover hidden in holy snow,
Living only as after-images,
The vivid violet of pigeon feathers
Or cyclamen petals that blossomed
Under Persephone’s heels
As she fled. In February, the toy bear,
The groundhog who lunches on flowerbuds—
Last year the rascal beneath my garage
Ate the tops off all my lilies—comes out to see
How everything is doing. Everything,
It just so happens, is nothing
But the puzzle of his shadow.
He peers at this as if to decipher a cause:
“How can I know what it is that I know?“
Then he tries to get back to the solitude
Of his so-called slumber,
Dreams of brown-eyed woodchuck girls
And the message he decodes
From the silence at Persephone’s cave,
Which is, “Wait. Wait for spring
Or until it’s as warm out there
As it is in here.” Or just, “Wait. Wait.“
One day we were big
and our mother got a job
and she knitted herself two vests
to wear to work
a green one with a turtle on the pocket
a good one, she said, to wear
while filing cases
and one of a blue, diaphanous
sparkly fuzz that made her
look like kin to the water cooler.
She loved to work, loved the office
across from the courthouse
the pigeons and the poor
around Eva’s Kitchen
where occasionally the hungry
got surplus Popsicles
and pitched the sticks
in the bushes in front of
the courthouse, bones
of a food that couldn’t
nourish, that couldn’t
be saved or sold. Our mother
thought of our poorness
then, of when we were little
of letting us eat the rolls
from the go-go bar dumpster
the guava jelly and quail eggs
and cans of soup
that showed up on our steps
one Thanksgiving weekend
and gratitude came over her
like an ecstasy, gratitude
came off her like steam
for her gorgeous job
her restaurant lunches
thank you thank you thank you.
She all but curtsied when a pill cup
of macaroni appeared unbidden
next to her pastrami.
She brought home pastries
window-boxes like orchid corsages
clipped recipes, warmed up pot pies
bought cream, fruit, nuts
an electric knife
thank you thank you thank you.
At her metal desk in the corner
she filed her frauds
and on payday rushed to the bus
as we ran from our jobs
to meet in her yellow kitchen
to tip back our graying heads
to be healed with fatness.
After days of healing,
he would get away to fish.
Curator of fluff and feathers,
he tied his own flies,
designed his own waders
and up to the lake country
for trout and walleye.
I would ask him, what is it
out there on the water,
and he would say, all week
I swim lead for my school of patients,
take this, take that,
don’t eat this, don’t eat that,
I tell them swim away from the hook,
don’t take that bait, that bug there
has sharp metal innards,
that worm glints steel,
but we are such dumb fish,
such sorry things that we all get pulled
from our lives.
I choose to be the redresser of balances.
I know that he hid behind this facile
diagnosis because I went with him once
and as we stood thigh-deep
in the cold and clear lake,
he began his meticulous detailings,
the striations of the bottom rocks
and how each different sediment
reflects the light, the distribution
of firs along the shore,
the speckling of the speckled trout
and each thing, he said,
is a symptom and so a clue
into the fevered chemistry of beauty.
Dad used to say, most men are good-for-nothings, but don’t think about that. Think about the men who are good for something because you are where your thoughts are, and he was right. That’s why I’m with Elvis so many nights. I can’t help it. I’ve been with him so long, I feel him deep inside me like an ache or pang I can never get rid of.
I mean right now there’s Elvis playing on the radio. He’s singing gospel, and I’m remembering the first time I heard him sing. Dad played his album on the stereo. I was a girl, maybe five or six years old. Mom was out of town, so Dad fixed me a whiskey or two—sweet drinks, he called them—an inch of sugar with whiskey, water, and lemon on lop. He said it would give me a cultured taste for booze, something important to have for the future, and anyway, he didn’t like to drink alone, and I liked whiskey, as my dad said, just like an ant likes sugar. It was in my blood before I knew what it was, this feeling Dad called whiskey love, and I call Elvis, the two of us sipping cocktails together, loving it together, with him on the flowered couch, reading the paper, eating Triscuits, me cross-legged on the floor in front of the fan, letting the wind fool with my bangs, humming, and when my dad stopped reading, he announced This guy is great, and he sang along, Are you lonesome tonight?
And I was. Suddenly I was so lonesome, I was drunk with it, lonesome for Elvis singing, and my dad, lonesome for the fan blowing in my face and the cicadas outside, and the tree frogs, lonesome for that dusk that was all around me, the daylight fading so fast, I knew nothing ever lasts, not him, not Elvis. I was so lonesome, I was afraid I’d bust. That’s when I thought of Terrence. I had to do something, so I thought of Terrence Jones, this kid at school who gave me a black eye. And when I thought of him, Elvis went away, and so did my dad. And the urge to cry. It was nice. I knew everyone’s good for something. Even Terrence. Because I couldn’t be there with my mind in that place where lonesome stays. And Elvis sings long after he’s dead, and my dad too, now that he’s gone, he just croons, Does your memory stray to a bright summer day? And my heart fills with pain when he comes back again and again, oh yes it does, too, until I think of someone else, some guy who’s a real asshole, and I think, at least he’s good for something. Look on the bright side. They can’t all be Elvis. Except when I close my eyes.
As if cleaning could make things right
I take down the small glass bottles
blue, green, rain-water, one by one
from the window ledge
where chimney soot has settled
with the dust rising up from
the street here to the 20th floor
while steam and sun streak the sky
with color in this undulating afternoon.
My daughter’s leg will heal
we feel sure of it
even though she’s groggy with pain
and fitful right now.
As I rinse the sponge in the sink’s
soapy water, soot blackens the porcelain
reminding me how mangoes
planted next to coffee fields
take on a coffee flavor.
I wish I had mangoes to offer her today,
I think, as I watch the shining cars
stream down 2nd Avenue
their flow mesmerizes me in the moment,
this day captured like a photo on her wall,
this photographer daughter
and maybe when she wakes
I will ask please one day
when you feel better
take a picture of all this
the lights, the cars, the darkness,
somehow our life.
Before closing the curtains
I stand by the lamp,
momentarily framed, arms
raised to the invisible sky,
silhouetted in a window of light.
In the dream I was getting on the school bus
from the back of the bus for some reason, only this time
instead of jeers and everyone sliding over
to the aisle-side so I couldn’t sit down, someone said,
“There’s a seat up here, Chris.” It was
next to Mary Jo Stillwell, pretty as she was
in eighth grade, who had slid to the window
to let me sit, and when a kid put me in a headlock
I simply lifted him over my head and set him
in the seat in front of me, said, “Stay there,”
and a little boy had grabbed a little girl
by the hair, only this time I pulled him off
and sat him down, saying, “You don’t ever grab a girl,”
and sat her down, too, and asked her if she was all right.
No one jeered at this, or swore at me,
or threatened my life for disrupting the way things
were supposed to be on the school bus going to
Mountain View Middle School in Sullivan, Maine—
if that’s even where we were going—
and when I sat back in my seat, Mary Jo leaned forward
in a very serious manner, and I kissed her
as though it were the most natural thing to do
with Mary Jo—short, serious kisses—on that
school bus that was nothing like any school bus I had ever ridden,
that was exactly like every school bus I have ever ridden,
and when she started kissing my neck in a way that tickled,
I woke up exactly in my life.
We’re driving to town to buy groceries (brown rice,
Baking powder, raisins, safflower oil), flashlight
Batteries, sunflower seeds so the blue jays can continue
Lording it over the smaller birds that also want to eat,
And we start talking about how the U.S., which started
Out as the bravest promise the human spirit
Had made so far, the light of William Blake’s
And many another’s enraptured eye, became a homage
To vehicular motion: commoners having been freed
From the yokes that princes placed upon them
To transpire the vapors of octane desire.
“Invention overrules intention,” my wife mutters
While fiddling with the car radio.
I begin to sputter my own homily
When suddenly Buddy Holly starts singing,
His voice twenty-one years old and staying there
As long as machines can play recordings.
“Ooh, ooh, ooh, Peggy Sue,” he warbles
And so, simultaneously, do we, plus some finger popping
And rhythmic squirming within our seat-belted confinement.
He lights up another minute; then he’s spent.
We keep tingling—savoring the pure thrall
Of foreshortened American joy.
He’s the incalculable voice of poetry.
Our beautifully engineered beast rolls on.
In a city that was not my own I crossed
a bridge over the river and wandered a long while.
Later, I crossed another flowers had been
woven around. Something was going on today
in the city. It rained. Stopped raining. Rained again.
I found a gallery of lost women, their dresses shrunk
to doll-size, their non-names engraved on plaques.
Leaning over my coffee, I listened as story led to
story. I bought a movie ticket and waited in a red seat
for the feature presentation. In the film a woman
set herself afire. Two patrons walked out. After,
I browsed spices and baking supplies—enticing
but I didn’t bite. I crossed the river and searched
through moldering books in a back room. I viewed
an ancient scroll that stretched for yards, each episode
rolling to the next. I knew the city was a repository
I had only begun to tap. I knew the bridges sutured
the river, that I kept crossing between the dead and
the living. Much digging was underway. I recalled
the phrase from an old tale predicting the bright sun
will bring it to light. Walkers every day tamped down
with their feet what squirmed again to the surface
demanding to be recognized. One day of wandering
was coming to an end. It was the inescapable labor
of time—the city would unearth my secret name
and soon be summoning me back. When my cup
was served, a heart steamed toward me from the foam.
Good day to my favorite nieces.
All joy and luck to two wonderful young women.
This is a note from your uncle.
Your silly and foolish uncle.
You probably have never had anyone write you a poem.
May you have many more.
From young men who love you
and write passionately of your charms.
That will come.
But for now you’ll have to take this as your gift.
I want to tell you about where you came from,
where you are, and where you can go.
You’ve spent your young lives in South Jersey
like your parents, and their parents and like me for a while.
You’re two white girls in a world that is changing.
I’m an old man from a very different world.
When my father was young, he had negro maids
and cooks and a man brought milk each morning
in bright, glass containers.
Milk and cream and chocolate milk,
all fresh and pure and right from the farm.
He had a gardener come and trim the bushes.
He had a cook make everything they ate.
Roasts and turkeys and casseroles,
rich in cheese and meat and milk
When I was young, we ate Thanksgiving Dinner
in the kitchen with the colored folk.
When I grew up, colored people could only
be janitors or porters on the railroad.
Now no one rides a railroad except as a treat.
I remember when I was ten, seeing young negro men
dancing to wild music and wishing I could dance like that.
They were up on a stage, legs all pumping, arms strong and wild
and I wanted to jump up and join them.
But I didn’t
It was South Jersey and you didn’t do that in 1964.
The world spins, girls,
and changes all the time.
You have to be ready to spin and change with it.
You have to jump on the stage with the colored men
and dance with them.
You have to watch how the world spins and grab it
when you can.
It’s easy to do just what the world expects.
When I was young, the world expected
you to hate negroes.
The world expected a black woman would clean your house.
That she would do it for next to nothing.
The world expected that you would grow up and get married
and have a couple of kids and love your children
and you would never have to work.
The world never expected women to work
or negros to have real jobs
or white folks to dance to negro music.
But that music has always been America’s music
and it makes us dance.
The world is a wild dance
and you have to jump in.
The world isn’t South Jersey.
The world isn’t the USA.
The world is a wild mix
of horror and joy.
One day you’ll fall in love.
Your heart will be an untamed beast
and you should never,
tame that beast.
The beast made you.
The beast held you to its heart and said, I love you.
The beast mows your lawn
and cooks your dinner.
The beast watches you ride your bike and is terrified you’ll die.
The beast is your parents and the beast is you.
Don’t be scared.
Get up and dance.
Don’t be afraid of what your friends say.
Don’t worry about your grades.
Don’t be stupid and listen to the voice that says,
what will my friends say?
The moon rises up tonight, wild and huge and it’s asking you to dance.
Reach out and take its hand, my beautiful girls.
Dance across the lawn and feel your feet wet with dew.
And while you’re dancing, think about me,
asleep and dreaming of girls dancing in the dew.
Nobody in New York ever has light.
In every apartment I looked at,
I always asked, “Is there enough sun
to grow anything?” I chose our last place
in Brooklyn because of all the windows,
three in the living room alone,
but we were surrounded by buildings.
The plants I bought at the hardware store
did not all survive.
The first time we went to the hospital,
I bought a basket of African violets.
My mother had had one when I was born.
The last, I found a Swedish ivy plant.
We started your last three months in a room
full of light. As the doctors tried the final
experimental treatments, I put toys
away at night, tucking them on the shelf
in front of the windows just as, at home,
I picked up toys after you went to bed.
I watered the ivy from a paper cup
I brought with your dinner from the Chinese
restaurant down the street.
Our old doctor went to Boston
and the new doctor sent us home
too soon. When we came back the next day,
we had to take a different room
with fewer windows, and they were blocked
by buildings, so the room was dark.
I had left the plant at home, of course.
The doctors tried more treatments while I looked
for a brighter room, and your stepfather
put together a small wooden helicopter
with a solar panel.
By the time I found a sunnier room,
you no longer ate the meals I brought you.
We moved across the hall anyway,
and the blades on the helicopter
spun all day long as you sat in the big, blue chair
or lay in your bed, eyes closed, resting.
While you slept, I read a book about children
who have almost died and have seen the light.
They said it was beautiful, and they said
they did not want to come back.
After you died, I moved to New Jersey
to the house we had planned to live in together.
It had eight windows in the living room
and was so full of the November light!
I hung our plants or set them on the bookshelf.
I put our couch by the windows too,
so I could lie there under your comforter
with its soft cover of clouds and stars,
and watch the blades of the helicopter
spin day after day in the sun.
Mexico City Market
Something about the day of the night-before-leaving
teases the yellow smog into a dream light;
I walk in a gaslit dusk, breathless,
through the Zona Viva, to find a souvenir.
Now, almost disappeared beneath the shops
that sell their artifacts, sit soft mounds
of Indian women, working in their office
of children and rags. Whirling children,
tied by invisible strings, are learning
the subtracted gravity of the Zona Viva:
the strings cannot rappel them over the fell
of poverty’s edge. They are hostage tops,
caught in the hands of their holders, blurring
in an exudation of women and myrrh.
Within the flags of paper lace, cut-out fish,
birds and braided dolls, a woman weaves in a strand
from her own shawl, not distinguishing
person from place. Watching me,
she opens her flower hand stirring
the sleeping baby in her skirt: begging,
her dropped petal fingers curl toward me,
arrowhead eyes fly toward me as I reach down
with a coin for her hand. In the gaping yellow night,
I feel my own child’s hand pull me down.
“Am I going to die?” she asks, nearly grown,
I count to twenty.
Paris. An ovarian cyst after midnight
twists her to the floor; she is yours,
and mortal, avoid the hospital.
We lock in two curves, her back against my front,
between my knees, rocking, counting,
our breaths timed with her pain . . .
twenty seconds, and we rest in between . . .
helplessly, I am chanting, “in – be – tween,
. . . there is a small space between the pains
where we rest . . .” wet as seals, our
counting, the small space comes.
we rest in long breaths.
“Ma, am I going to die?“
“Not while we breathe, no one dies . . .
count, it is time to count!“
We count again twenty . . . and the hours slip,
even, now subsiding, you fall to my side.
I pull the sheet down to cover you,
my long lovely daughter, sleep in this bough
of arms and legs, while we wait
for some act of reinstatement,
until the fever breaks,
or the ancients return to the Zona Viva.
The Indian woman’s eyes never leave my face
as I kneel down to her baby.
I buy a painted tin votive,
thanking God for a miracle. Permissibly,
we gaze at each other’s hammock bodies,
listening to the script of origins,
seeing volcanoes overturn or spare the pyramids,
begin the tops or stop their orbital spin.
Inhale, suppose there is spirea in the air,
where the women sit, twilit, watching the day close,
a book held fast in the hand of a sleeper,
where it is written: in this place of accidents,
we are innocent. Inhale.
Walking home late after practice,
Scrub kicks the snow, imagines
each flake a phony word, a lie,
a promise he believed, floating
up off into the air, mixing
in the wind, melting. Scrub
keeps walking, passes
under the streetlight across
from his house, sees the light on
in the kitchen, pauses, looks
back, suddenly starts to dance,
dance under the long deflected pass
of the moon’s light. His feet
slide softly over the layers
of snow, piled and trampled hard
by schoolkids, teachers, people
heading to a friend’s house. Scrub,
the dancer, whirling himself
into the soft night, into the wild
applause of the falling snow.
Park roof level, race back to ER
where John’s hooked up to machines that track
the jagged-but-stable peaks of his heart.
His arm cuff auto-inflates;
red numbers flicker like crazy slots
until 70 & 120 win.
He, ever the scientist, explains:
systolic contracted, diastolic relaxed.
Sublingual vasodilator kicks in
EKG fine, pressure fine, take a deep breath for me . . .
Oncall GP shows chart to specialist:
more questions, more blood, more tests,
more blood, more results, more consultations.
John shows me how, with biofeedback,
his heart rate can be changed from scared to calm
Emerson’s Essays open on my lap
but my eyes glued to the screens. He shakes
his arm, the peaks go nuts. A nurse
appears in seconds, looks him in the eye,
straightens the sheet, and leaves without a word.
Subforms of creatine kinase found.
Orderlies wheel him to CCU.
Blood saken hourly through the night,
vitals monitored 24/7, surgeons—trailed by
their followers—sweep in and out of the ward.
No one knows exactly what’s wrong until dye reveals
a blocked anterior descending artery.
The interventional cardiologist shrugs:
The minute I saw John’s face I knew
something had happened to his heart.
John watches pictures of his black-and-white heart
as they snake a stent to the blockage site.
Later we laugh at heart attack jokes
while nurses lift the small sand-weighted bag
off his groin. Blood pressure numbers drop.
How do you feel? OK.
The numbers steadily drop. You still OK?
The numbers seem impossibly low.
One nurse, inches away from his face, keeps asking.
The other prepares an adrenaline shot. I leave.
By the time we’re handed YOUR FOLLOW-UP CARE
with its list of Call physician right now signs,
he wants to go home so badly but
a part of me wants him to stay
where nurses and machines can keep an eye on him,
where doctors can diagnose, order tests, do procedures STAT,
where blood and screens and charts and the clues
that those in the know can find in a face
prove better ways than any I possess of finding out
what’s really going on inside John’s heart.
Dear Mona Van Duyn (Mrs. Jarvis Thurston),
You probably don’t remember me, but I
have never forgotten the time you confessed
The pain subsides, but the want never goes away
entirely. We were sitting across from each other,
rocking on a white porch under tall sweet gums.
Back then, I had just begun, but you had lived
the whole arc: desire, disappointment, despair.
Your words saved me, I know now, helped me
through grief to the beginnings of acceptance,
humor, cheer. Seated in another garden years
later, for the first time I have the guts to read
those Valentines to the Wide World in which
you chronicle the loss that laid you low and how
writing brought you back. Surrounded by lilacs
almost too old to flower, a single bird circles.
I don’t need binoculars to see it is the rare cross
between Blue- and Golden-winged Warblers:
my first Brewster’s. I don’t know yet what life
will bring, but I believe, because you wrote it
so, our life will be full, if not with children, then
with other riches. For “Late Loving,” especially,
for “A Reading of Rex Stout,” and for “Goya’s
‘Two Old People Eating Soup’,” for “Letters
from a Father,” “The Block,” and for “Caring
for Surfaces,” I thank you from the very bottom
of my mending heart. Yours most sincerely,
Andrea Carter Brown (Mrs. Thomas Drescher)
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.