The following poems are taken from my first book of poems, WE MAD CLIMB SHAKY LADDERS (CavanKerry Press, 2009) which is available on order from University Press of New England (UPNE.com) Amazon.com, or any bookstore. Some of them also come from my next book, LEARNING TO SEE IN THREE DIMENSIONS, which is currently seeking a publisher.
EATING THE EARTH
After Tyrone, the little boy next door,
makes her eat a handful of dirt
for telling lies
about where babies come from
her father says it will do her no harm.
You have to eat a peck of dirt
before you die, her father says.
He also says she hadn’t lied:
babies do come that way
She cries after her father
leaves the room and she sleeps
all night with the lights on.
Her father tells her other things,
that earthworms eat their own weight in dirt
every day and that their do-do
(he says “excrement”)
fertilizes our food.
She makes a face over that
and doesn’t believe him.
Besides, she says, we’re people
And we’re so great, huh? he says.
Well, I’d rather be a girl than a worm.
He says nothing.
He is grown up and a doctor,
he doesn’t have to worry about
being a worm.
But she does.
That night she dreams that Tyrone
dumps a jar of worms down her shirt
and that their dreadful undulations
become hers and she begins
and liking it,
the cool coarse grains of sand,
the spicy chips of mica,
the sweet-sour loam become her body
as she lives and breathes,
eating the darkness.
Touch me. No, no, do not touch.
I mean: be careful —
if I break into a hundred pieces
like a Ming vase falling from the mantle
it will be your fault.
Cool as Christmas
plump as a wish
and simonpure as cotton
You stroll the avenue
mean in your jeans
and the boys applaud.
You toss off a shrug
like a compliment
with a flicker of disdain
Catching the whistle
in mid-air and
pitching it back again.
MY MOTHER WAS MEDEA
An absurd delusion, perhaps, but
I maintain she always loved me
even as her dagger pierced my chest
and I felt my breath go black and tight.
There was much aggravation beforehand
and I had never been the easiest child.
Plus, you should understand
her own childhood had left scars.
Certainly, my father was always difficult
and stirred up trouble whenever he was around.
I knew how things had to turn out
I was young, yes, but I knew:
early on I had presentiments of my end
and I felt pangs for my poor mother
when I realized she would be its instrument.
I do not forgive her. Don’t get me wrong:
there is nothing to forgive. Love
may mean murder more often than we know
and as soon as I understood this I lost all fear.
Even so, I admit I was not wholly brave:
I flinched when she approached,
her eyes full of such terrible love.
But I was not altogether an innocent victim —
I knew my death was necessary
to punish my father, and when the moment
arrived I stood forth and waited.
When the blade struck bone
my hand guided her hand.
OUR MOTHER’S DAUGHTERS
I dreamed my mother cut off
my baby toes, the suturing so perfect
she left no gangrene, no scars, just a fine line
of invisible thread and four toes on each foot
instead of five. The job done, she left me
at the “crutches store” on Whitney Avenue
where I could find no crutches to fit
and so hobbled back toward home
alone and lopsided.
This is true, and she was a good mother
most of the time, which meant
that I never lacked for anything
she could buy, yet still I grew up lame,
disfigured (though not in any
noticeable way) and always with the sense
I had been abandoned before my time.
This has all been said before: our mothers
leave us, then or now, later or sooner,
and we hobble like cripples
toward the women in our lives
who can save us. Or else we limp homeward
knowing we will never make it back
before we wake up. And when we do wake up
we find we, too, are mothers, trying desperately
to save our daughters’ legs
by amputating their smallest least necessary
toes, taking the toes to save the feet
to save the legs they stand on
in a world where we ourselves
are not yet grounded.
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 aperson stiff.
You know you shouldn’t,
and that it is impossible to change
yet when the sirens scream
and fire-trucks go racing in the direction
of your home, you do pray–
and who doesn’t?–
that if it isn’t your house
it has to be someone’s
but better his than yours, though for a moment
you regret the malice in your prayer
and amend it to a false alarm.
Common sense tells you
not to hope too much–
the fire is already where it is. No prayer
will change that, though you know
you should have checked the oven before
you left, doused the ashtrays with water…
No use now in praying–
Is your insurance paid up?
Is everyone out of the house?
You can’t pray for any of these either.
The rabbis say: Do not pray
that facts are not facts.
Here there is only the fact
of your gutted house, everything you owned
incinerated. You own nothing now
only cinders, your shoes, the clothing
you wear. Now you can pray,
that much is permitted. Pray you can rebuild
from your embers.
“Word salad,” a term used for the completely disjointed, incomprehensible language sometimes seen in schizophrenia
Unpinned, words scatter, moths in the night. The sense of things loses hold, demurs. Everything means. Numbers soldier with colors and directions, four by four in a pinwheel: this is the secret wisdom. I inscribe it on sacred sheets of paper. The Oxford Dictionary holds not a candle. The self reduced to a cipher, a scribble, the Eye is all, with a Freemason’s lash, and 26 runic hieroglyphs to share how a stitch in time saved the cat and if a messy rock gathers no stones, clams must surely be lifted higher by the same rising boats. Why, why not throw glass tomes at grass huts? It is a question of propriety: grass is too dignified to lie down before gloss. Whirligig! How to pull the center back into the world? It would take all the OED to recapture the moths, all Harcourt’s English Grammar to pin them again. GRANDIOSE He says: I was always more important than you though with your cutting me down to size quarrel about just who I thought I was. I thought I was with my long dark hair and beard and rough working clothes John the Baptist, prophet of God wild man of the wilderness and would have to preach the word of a savior I didn’t quite believe in. I mentioned my conviction to a friend who told me to make friends with a mirror, discover which John I really re-incarnated. Lo, I looked and saw the more famous than Jesus John staring with his small important eyes behind his too small eye-glasses at me staring into the mirror at myself, yes, I wrote the songs you grew up on: Yesterday, Give Peace A Chance, Eleanor Rigby— yes, I was the one you swooned over and screamed for, yet now you only shriek at me, taking me down from a peg on the wall. Why do you yell, Get lost, baby? Imagine all the people who would rejoice to see me live once more.
THis next poem, which won’t paste as single spaced though it is, comes from my next book, LEARNING TO SEE IN THREE DIMENSIONS, which is seeking a publisher now.
Tyrant, they called you, emperor, bully,
the first time I was in the psychiatric wing.
You finger-painted, yes, getting down on your knees
to smear pigment with stiff abandon
but afterward, in the hall, when I froze, contorting,
you let the whole world of the ward know
your scorn, imitating me, calling me “crazy.”
I seemed finally better. I came home.
But when I failed you, leaving med school,
an embarrassment and a humiliation
who couldn’t even keep work as a clerk or waitress,
you claimed suddenly “three children” not four.
Between us interposed silence for thirty years
as I learned to live on $3 a day, to write my life
into poems when I had words to share.
Years passed in “the bin” and out “on the farm,”
as I called the hospital and those programs by day
that structured my life. But hospitals shape-shift
after a dozen or more and there are decades
of my life that are lost even to memory,
each melding into another like shadows
on night-lit walls in carbon paper alleys.
One keyhole through which I see the past:
Shock treatment with its drowning anesthetic drops
and stunned awakenings. Then there you are,
standing in the seclusion room door
resuming conversation as if begun just yesterday
not thirty years before, no older, or at least
no grayer than “Daddy” again, shorter, yes,
but kinder. What could I do but respond?
I never dreamed that at eighty-three
you’d lose your fire, habanero, old Nero,
or that I, Rome, would ever stop burning.
CONSIDER THE BULLFROG
night and day
to a teetotaling
bog; whose noisy
lieder of drink
and bawds last all
of water striders
dimpling the surface
of the black pond
with the quick ribbon
of his tongue;
who after all
is not a Prince
in disguise; who
suffers himself to be
pithed for science;
mud in la nostalgie
de la boue; who
is Frog among frogs;
who needs no god;
who does not know
he will die.
The next poem is new, but I do not believe I will publish it before I publish the book, is this one, a “nature poem” of a sort. It was written for my writing group “prompt” on the word “song or singing” as I recall…
“For the listener, who listens in the snow...Wallace Stevens
In those days I was always cold
as I had been a long time, mindful of winter
even at the solstice of my high summer days
always, always the crumb and crust of loss
and near-loss of everything held dear
before the saison d’enfers and the ice to come
There was always the wind
There was the wind making music,
and I, at one with the quirky stir of air
bowing the suppliant trees
bowing the branches of those trees for the sound
of songs long held in their wood
Change change us: rings of birth, death, another season
and we hold on for nothing and no reason
but to sing.
POEM IN WHICH I SPEAK FRANKLY, FORGIVE ME
GOMER: ER-speak for a troublesome, unwanted person in the emergency department, acronym for Get Out of My Emergency Room
So many times gurneyed in by ambulance and police escort
“dangerous to self or others,” and too psychotic
to cooperate or scribble consent, you suspect by now
you are just a GOMER to the snickering scrubs in the ER
who whisk you in back with the other disruptives
lying in bed, waiting for “beds.”
One time you dip paranoid into the inkwell of your purse
extracting a paring knife more amulet than effective protection,
they strip-search you, then, unblinking, eyeball you all night
through a bulletproof plexiglass window.
In the morning, 15-day-papered so you can’t leave,
they send you ominously upstairs.
Later, at home, the voices decree your left leg
should go up in flames to atone for the evil within,
and you listen, and you do it, you do it:
the searing flare of cobalt actually crackles.
This time you tell no one, the char too deep for pain,
until fear of worse trumps your fear of being taken away.
This is not the story of your life.
It’s not the story of your life–
but every time a hulking goon squad clamps restraints
around your flailing wrists and ankles, threatening
to prosecute you for biting those hands that shackle you,
you wonder if there will be any other