SUMMER, MAYBE SPRING.
How can I tell you this? It is summer. She is six.
Or is it raining, spring, seven or eight? Midday,
anyway. There is a back street, an alley, cutting
between row house yards and the tenement block.
It is white, working poor, sidewalks silent
like somewhere else not here,
everything inside too early.
Picture this. There's a bar at the corner sizzling
Fridays with fish on rainbows of Fiesta Ware
across checkered oil cloth. A girl begs on tiptoes
at the take-out a free one foamy lipped
in a tin cup in a cold sweat.
It must be summer, six.
A pulley jerks a basket up past the steamy
window glass, Iron City glinting off the sun
for her father's out-of-work, nothing-better-to-do
thorazine cocktail lunch, big belly bloating
like a heart attack
about to happen.
Watch her fly three flights up on all fours, her
one-piece zip-up pantaloons ballooning,
pee-the-beds and loco weed stuffing the pockets.
Can you imagine, can you get this guy in #2
giving up a wolf whistle as she sails by,
even at seven or eight?
This isn't sexy.
Her mother is sleeping toward the swing shift
to enamel pots on the line, cheesy sandwiches
neatly pleated inside waxed paper on the formica,
Campbell's Chicken Noodle cooling at the stove.
You get this scene. It's the 50's, in the summer
or spring, in America where no one is watching
snow on the black and white Sylvania.
There is nothing dirty here.
A shiny dime store panther potted with plastic
no name flowers guards bargain basement boxes
all tied up with birthdays and Christmases collecting
behind closed doors, skeleton key safe.
She can pick the lock.
Look at the little baby napping in the back.
The shades are drawn, early light blocked out
at three, or four or five. Towheaded and all curls,
he is blue-eyed and freckle-faced like an angel
on catechism packets but too thin, too small
for a boy of even three.
This is where she plays the game of hide-no-seek,
too big for a girl of six. Maybe seven or eight.
She learns to squeeze inside the cove between
drawer stacks of the hand-me-down vanity,
studies the slats of the old bureau back, tests
the space behind the second-hand store door,
high gloss, squeaky clean, dust free,
everything outside as it should be
as the baby sleeps, vein stitched back under
a greased knob rising on his head, bared
legs striped by the belt swipe, back blued
in a slam off the wall. Can you hear that?
There are squeals outside--
alley kids arguing about dandelions, whether
if you sleep with them they make you pee the bed;
and loco weed, how a chew stampedes pink
elephants in storm clouds. Is it spring? Was there
a cloudburst? Summer?
Three, four, five? Six, seven, eight?
Kids shoot marbles out back across the alley slab
against the sagging box shack. They get lost
in the flash of a cat¹s eye, light bright. And you
can see it. There is something dirty here
on the mud of the shoes where she walks,
in the light or absence of it, in the summer
or the spring, where she invents herself
somewhere else not here,
and light years away.
First appeared in Paterson Literary Review, Allen Ginsberg Award
(Horse & Cart Cafe, Charleston SC)
You have walked all day the length of streets,
cataloged anything of importance that has been here
before. Tide at the seawall, the cadence of wind,
poems moving in. The church bells chime.
A car starts. Some stranger remarks the brilliance
of sun. Palmettos bow to the weight of air.
You walk until your legs say sit down. Enter
a cafe. The day blows in on door hinge reeds.
You eye the sky so bold a blue, a breathy blinding blue,
you think someone will steal off with it, frame it
in the coarse of sailcloth for a windowless wall.
The register chings. A phone rings. Metal scoops ice.
The room lights up. You read over someone¹s
shoulder a late edition. Same sex couples marry
in San Francisco. A female astronaut on Mir.
Hyakutake in view, stars spill from the gourd
of dream, do what they please. Poets sort sheaves,
track second thought verse in fine point notes.
A man joins you at your table. You have met
this man before in Pittsburgh, Paris, Charleston.
He buys you coffee, wine, brown sugar pie
in exchange for conversation about his stock
acquisitions, the travels seaside, paintings of sky.
The room¹s dizzy spirit dances with nerve.
Poets on cue cross the stage. A quivering heart
turns over words, delicate as new shoots on spring
bulbs. A waitress at the cash box sorts checks,
counts the stiffs, searches pockets hoping
she can make it up. Breath beads the window
in a blur. Humming birds circle feed.
Sweat glistens the brow. Hand a tremble,
an old man's voice cracks like a schoolboy¹s.
A girl in red, tattooed and pierced, reads fire
between her legs, a passion for learning
as if it¹s by heart. A man whispers white trash,
then relieves himself in a dozen public couplets.
Cadets chuckle the backdrop. You wait for a clearing
in the sound. You think you could inhabit all these
voices all at once, move inside them like babies
about to be born. You are up to read.
The eye quivers, breath starts. The room takes on
a new night chill. The register rings, door swings.
You see the girl has gone, only her scarlet petallike
stain left signing the lip of her cup. A sky, dark,
moans at the glass.
First appeared in Quarterly West
SACRILEGE OF DREAM
In this poem my dreams stir
in another's bed, that I can sleep
straight through the night.
It is she who watches the bright
blast furnace works blaze and fade
to wavering food bank lines.
She is the one who stockpiles
canisters and bags of food enough
to survive some other holocaust.
The ants invade her cupboard store
in a cover of thick and black movement.
She hides from wind along
the path behind her father's
She paces hospital corridors,
his head wired for electro shock.
She worries about madness
slicing the air in currents
on hebephrenic tongues.
In her bed she coughs up
her grandfather's slow death
emphysema. Her chest tightens
at both sides of a family's failed
hearts. It is she that breaks
the promise to quit
smoking after 30 years.
In her bed, it is she who fears
her own hand at her breast
passed on in maternal order,
sleepwalks radiation, wraps
thinning chemo hair, pulls
uselessly at wisps of bangs
to hide the creases in her brow.
She dreams her son skidding
the highway sideways,
tractor trailer broadsided crossing
the lane in the first rain
after long drought. She races to him,
shortcuts bad neighborhoods,
gets lost flying down deadend hills
with brakes and an empty gas tank.
She shuffles night alone,
not remembering where she was
headed with a dog tracking her heels,
bred not to loosen at the bite.
She endures the restlessness,
calls up and itemizes all the things
undone, done badly, afraid to do.
She stares wildly into night,
jolted awake by her own scream.
She trembles and weeps.
In her bed she rocks herself back
to sleep, then rides a veering trolley
screeching to a halt before the river edge.
She fears the sudden death, drowning
in another attempt to learn to swim
and float, swim and float.
In that other bed, she is the one who
wakes midnight hungover, knocks over
the loose loft rail and falls on the way
to a Valium. She lands to ply airflight
insurance machines with counterfeit
bills, missing the connection from there
to anywhere, there to anywhere.
She stares at the puffy bag of skin
swelling on her cheek, performs
penknife surgery in a public restroom,
is left with one butchered bulbous eye.
It is her teeth that loosen
and are spit out like so many spent
dried shells of chewed seeds.
It is in her bed that she cradles
a heating pad to her belly
between hipbones carved
from diet pills and skipping meals.
Her bed goes up in flames
as she dares sleep
straight through night
In this dream, it is I who lives on
past the night she dies. In this poem,
I rise to write her epitaph.
First Appeared in Painted Bride
WE REMEMBER SKINNING CHICKEN
We are skinning chicken in my mother's kitchen,
sticky wet in July. We'll make soup from this,
she says, wishing for rain. The blade flashes
along the pale slick of breast, rends
the first fat in a stream of blood down my arm.
That will be a scar, she says, like mine, the one
I got from the kerosene lantern on the mining hat,
reading when candles were dear & electric was out.
Skin slips through my fingers. I tell her
I remember things: a feather ticked bed, her warmth
around me in winter under the tar paper roof
in the shingled shack. She says she can't remember
but then she remembers her father, packing
his lunch bucket,water bottle on the bottom, fresh
slaughtered smoked sausage sandwiched
in warm baked bread at the top. She remembers
primping for a Jennerstown boy, rubbing
the smell of smoke & onion away with salt
when there wasn't enough milk for the babies. She says
Papa rode the buggy on the rail down to the hole. He bit
the life out of land in Windber's #40, fed pig gristle
to rats who ran warnings when oxygen thinned
before sirens called a cave-in.
Skinny sinews slide through baubles of grease. I cut
my slippery hand again, ask her about the lantern light,
but she tells me about candles, taller than she was
at twelve, circling her young mother's coffin
and the Christmas tree planted in sawdust.
Rubbing her scar, there was almost a fire, she says,
when mama's first lover staggered in wailing.
Wincing back tears, she scoops the last glob
into a baggie. When it cools off, she says,
during a nice rain, like my mother & I did,
we'll make soup from all this fat.
Publication Credit: Waiting for You to Speak anthology, Ontario, Canada
THE ANNIVERSARY OF MY MOTHER'S DEATH NEARS AND ANOTHER WAR
HAS COME AND GONE
"Nothing has changed
Except for the courses of rivers,
the contours of forests, seashores, deserts and icebergs."
--from Torture by Wislawa Szymborska
It's the same
Another body is going into the ground today.
It is somebody's mother. A daughter
weeps for the wrap of the arms that once
stilled her trembling body in their firm
hold on her. It's the same old story. Another
war is going on again, this one twenty-five years
past the fall of Saigon, missiles behind, explosions
inside. Men suit up like boys again
in flak jackets for the media blitz,
and there are wars
going on all over.
We light candles, the kind that burn
seven days. We don¹t question these acts.
We get on our knees like martyrs, like beggars,
heads bent like priests, say prayers, go
to the wall with our pain, wrestling
our need to be here. We bury our faces
in our hands, lament cross deeds, swallow sobs.
We move on, negotiating mine fields everywhere
where the story takes
the same twist.
extends a hand to you, says
I'm sorry for your long suffering
in the relentless face of death, so you
lift yourself from your knees, look off
beyond the grave toward the river the future
courses through, reshaping contours
of the world, and for a moment it seems
to slow, grow glassy, come in closer to you,
your eyes a blur and trying to follow where
it might lead, when the gravedigger's shovel
hits the ground in a thud, and you become still,
watch him rub the small of his back.
First appeared in the debut issue of The Adirondack Review
IMPRESSIONS EN PLEIN AIR
(From Flight 2199, Regarding Monet)
Far above the dog shit and graffiti of Paris,
I think of you, Monet, from the air up here
flying this sea foam sky, a shelf of waves
at a floor of mist breaking open in patches
of blue and white.
And I, like some devotee of impending collisions
in texture and transparency, dapple words
as Giverny expatriates might have once on palettes
a harvest of light, cultivating a poetry of space
en plein air.
I have looked, Monet, into the mirror into which
you must have many times glanced or long gazed,
your Orient prints awash in blue flirting the glass
with the constant movement of the sea in which
little else has changed.
You grew big bellied with age, Monet, tousle of hair
thick with gray, sight on the wane and canvases growing,
you padding between the long yawn of rooms painted
blue as lichen, yellow as sunflowers, reflecting lilies
afloat between the sky and the water.
But in your garden, beyond the rose blanketed fence,
those flowers brown now in a wilted July. I have looked,
Monet, into the mirror into which you must have
glanced or long gazed recollecting those lilies for me,
yet another tourist here.
They tell me that the best part of your life, Monet,
was inhabiting these gardens. And as the light fades,
I cannot help but wonder where next it is that I will go,
and of my words, what will they become stretching there
en plein air.
First appeared in the debut issue of The Adirondack Review