Over sixty, the decades shrink and the memory lengthens, stretching from earliest childhood to the oppressive familiarity of hospitals and graveyards. But over sixty the contours of feeling and relation also expand, and what may be covered travels widely. It was very much my pleasure to read for this West Coast poetry section of Persimmon Tree—reading the poems of women who were plus sixty as well as into their nineties, all living with intensity, and with power and resilience, noting the life in themselves and the people, objects, and places around them.
The pour here is various: many lights, tones, accents, and much complexity of finish. I particularly admired the formal inventiveness and elegance of Judith Montgomery, and thought her poems in their fusion of pain, terror, obscenity, and beauty very much deserved the prize at my disposal. Anne Barrows’ “At Island Lake” invents a language that preserves dark comedy while it also soars into more elegiac regions, while Marcia Falk’s “Sun-Drenched Barn” gives us a sophisticated meditation on the intersection of material and invented reality. Muriel Karr effectively explores a blunter, more vernacular range, and echoes a consistent preoccupation of many: the heavy weight that our parents lay across the shaping of our lives. There is a seductive playfulness in Ellen Bass’s “Ode to my Body on Leaving Sixty,” and in Dorothy Gilbert’s fruity “Riddle,” which appropriately concludes the selection of poetry for a journal named Persimmon Tree. The poems of Bass and Gilbert nicely counter-balance the onset of darker emotions saturating the two hospital poems by Gail Rudd Entrekin and Sally Allen McNall. Entrekin’s “Recovery Room“ does not allow its grim experience to occlude a radiant tenderness, while Sally Allen McNall confronts with wry courage the bitterness inherent in the fragility of our bodies and the often dismaying inadequacy of the places in which we put them for cure. Cooper Gallegos’ poem “Cornstalks and Crows” beautifully poses a startling, vividly fatal moment. I follow editorial custom by adding a poem of my own.
Regretfully, because I didn’t quite see the room to fit their poems into the emerging conversation of this issue, I put aside pieces by Ann Reh, with its redolent place and childhood memory, and was also caught and held by Carol Ellis’ “Fir,” a marvelous time-lapse photograph of northwest logging.
Finally, though I was very much pleased by the richness of sensibility displayed, it was gratifying to discover so much of “the fury and the mire of human veins” and to see that the touch was still so hot.
Ode to My Body on Leaving Sixty
Like animals who prowl backyards and alleys,
raccoons and possums with yellow incisors.
Even when I shine the torch in their eyes,
they hold their purchase on the splintered fence.
They feed on compost and tulip bulbs
and the blue bowl of stars
my neighbor leaves out for her cat.
Like you, my body, you scruffy hobo, trekker,
refugee crossing burnt fields, dropping possessions piece by piece,
silver candlesticks, suitcase of dreams, lacey certainties.
After all these years, still greedy, gulping the salt damp night
and soaking up the glamour of the old constellations.
You aren’t searching for the soul. Or an end to suffering
for sentient beings. You’re stoking the furnace,
throwing more coal on the fire. While I sleep
you bind my kneecap into the socket.
You stitch the torn fibers, direct the rivers of blood,
so that this morning, I’m walking again
and can almost make it down the stairs.
Gail Rudd Entrekin
A cheerful nurse has come for me
to say that you are waking
and she leads me through the swinging door
into a room with three cream-colored mummies
lined up on their cots, and the farthest one,
unquestionably, is you, my bony balding
silver-bearded angel, just returning
from your flight, your dream sleep
someplace where no tubes and wires
pin you to this world,
no machines swallow you up,
take pictures of your organs,
find out things about you
that you don’ know yourself,
no men cut and paste and fail
to tell you what they know,
and we, so desperately, need
The blue of your eyes
is the only color in the face of your absence,
and for a long time you drift in and out
so it’s hard to know when you are here.
But now you part your dry lips, search
for your voice, and ask again, What did he say?
I tell you again, unfazed by this repetition,
not so different from our daily forgettings,
or systems of gentle reminders, learning
to set aside our pride, our touchiness,
to laugh because sorrow is so wearing.
I take your long cold hand in my two
warm ones as I have taken you again
and again into my heat, and I tell you,
We don’t know.
We have to wait and see.
At Island Lake
feathering the oars—their flat sides up
water slipping back—into the water—
the rough cry of brass locks
set neat as earrings in the varnished wood—
a loon’s glass-cold half-human voice
back to it
those two alone in the cool wrap
of evening—this blue that she prefers—
feral, childish, near radiant, their voices
echoing under the newly risen moon
converging farther and farther from shore
the loon’s long
my mother caught between her nature
and her obligation—leans into the song
as if into the red and gold of temple bells—
as if she might not be required
to come back to us—who would have died
to know her
to be her
Snapshot of a Naked Child
in a garden. Or wilderness.
Her face hidden by her hair.
The rough grass under her.
She is nine. Or ten.
The dimensions of the photograph are one
and three fourths by two and three fourths.
So. Cut down from something larger.
To fit into a wallet.
The wallet of my former husband.
Which was stolen when he was in Florence with his new wife.
The money had been removed but not the photograph
when it was returned a year later.
Ten years before he died.
Then the picture, freed from its pocket, lay among others
spread on the dining room table.
Until I saw myself between the dark wood and the light.
Summer, 1945. The two bombs have already been dropped. Soon
everyone will see the picture of the child whose clothes have been burned
from her body. Naked and screaming, she runs towards the camera
My father has returned from the war, but can’t yet bring himself to look
at our faces—upward turned to his.
(Note: Judith Montgomery was selected by the guest editor to receive the monetary award for the Persimmon Tree West Coast Poets Contest.)
Her Silence Is
A thin robe, seamless tissue-
of-silver wrapped about her limbs.
Endless linen wound to cripple
her toes, binding ever closer
the voices of her feet. Her hair
bound in a snood of woven gold.
(Is consequence. Statement. Custom.)
Her hips’ swash constricted
by panniers’ brocade. Floating
rib removed, the more closely
to corset her waist. Breath.
(Handcuff. Straitjacket. Gag.)
Her stiletto heel. Hobble-skirt. Chador
muting verb and adverb of her stride.
Both bandage and wound. Glitter
and mesh that nets her tongue.
(Calling. Witness. Refusal.)
cancel the throat of her moan.
(Shame. Cinch. Crib.) Is
fear: of what she might say,
were she free to speak: breaking
forth from ankle, ear, hair, cheek,
rib hand hip lip lips–
from tongue tongue
her unbridled tongue.
When she is seized, her captors erase
the watch on her wrist to handless blur:
there is no tense to talk about this face.
Silenced. Bound. Tracks wiped of all trace.
Shut up in stone and gag, she’s twice immured,
seized out of time her captors erase.
Her family weeps at home, a flood-lit place,
and prays for are and will, but waits on were:
they have no tense to talk about her face.
Above the ticking town, mortars’ blaze
times this shortest night. The deadline stirs.
Seized by their cause, her captors erase
morning to etch mourning on that gaze
they’d cut off from a future they abjure.
I have no tense to talk about this face
that floats on midnight screens in bruise and haze.
Pray for raid or mercy to deter
fate. When she was seized, her captors erased
safe. Look—don’t look—too closely at this face.
Sally Allen McNall
Escape from the Hospital
You have to suppose it happens a lot:
the skinny girl with bald patches where
she pulls out one hair at a time slides out
the front door, the old man finds
his smeared eyeglasses and coat
and takes the elevator to the parking lot.
In movies, all the time, someone does it
to escape a killer, or establish his basic
bare-ass silliness. Yet in real life
it’s seldom more interesting
than someone saying Enough,
whether or not others are on board
with the decision. A mother picks up
her weeping boy, a man pulls the IV
from his wife’s blackened arm, alarms
go off, the doctor is paged, the man
goes on batting the nurses off and detaching
the monitors, they make it down
the gleaming hall and the stairs–another
alarm going off—out into the hot morning,
to the car. There are of course consequences.
The most ordinary is death, what my friend
spoke of this morning as “a good death,” maybe.
Lawyers may come into it. Especially in the case of
psychiatric diagnoses, pursuit and capture, i.e.,
the police get involved. But none of this is the point:
we can’t all be thinking How complicated, how impossible,
or we would all be lying flat somewhere enduring
the indignity and the fear that washes through us
during nights of rudely-broken sleep and the unrelenting
company of strangers, we would all be citizens of nothing
with no plans and nowhere to go.
If You Want to Smell Your Father
if you want to smell your father,
brush him with your newest eyelash;
if you want to drop your father
into the swerving breath of fire,
then you have to pull him on your back
to the edge
where the little scales
scrape at you
and if you want to cross over
then you have to be willing
to collide with a giant
who blows your heart out of you
and you have to pick it up blindly
on your knees
year after year
and you have to eat it
remembering his cigarbands on the porch
when he would turn to you
with his can of beer and say
here—take a sip of this
After a painting by Wolf Kahn
It could be anybody’s barn
but it’s not. It’s the barn she remembers
in her dreams of summer,
of leaping out of her body and diving
into sun-drenched hay
with all her young life in place,
herself unaware she is young,
because what in her life
could she compare it to—
this ease with which she moves through air,
her yellow hair flying through speckled light,
weightless and free as haydust?
It could be anyone’s youth, but it’s not,
it’s her own, though she cannot recall
what finally tore her away,
cannot—will not—bring to mind
the tired loves. . . The woman stops.
It is not hers, this life
she is recording— It could be
anyone’s memory, but it’s not
hers. She has stolen it because she wants
to walk into the painting, dissolve
into the inviolate surface
of a finished thing,
leaving behind the mess, the work
of making sense out of what is given
and what is swept away,
what is left and what is left behind,
what is hers to give
and what is not.
It could be anyone’s life
coming into view, being drawn,
and drawn away,
even as she begins to be one with it.
Cornstalks and Crows
Early in the morning in June
I walked out of our vacation adobe
Through a rabbit trail
Past the escusado
And stood with the toes of
My shoes just touching the
Edge of earth where it began
To crumble into the corn patch.
I began to blow into the plastic
Crow whistle I’d fished out of a
Kellogg’s Cornflake box.
I took a step back, blew air into the plastic whistle
My caws stretched over
the bent tassels and rustled
in the Green thicket until a crow, like magic,
Came from no where and landed
with a great black swoop just above my head
On the tallest corn plant.
And listened with glee as the crow answered back
and in one moment like a quickly descending storm
the air was black with the birds.
Blue wings glistening like a giant oil spill
That blotted out the rising sun
Until all I could see was black
And all I could hear was the riot
Of sound and the crushing of the entire field.
Farmers ran and swooped their flannel arms
but the crows had taken up residence as though they too
had sprouted from the earth.
I moved five steps back and watched as the entire
Crop was destroyed.
And sometimes even with the power of the heaviest regret
Things cannot be made right.
Sometimes the need to create and to destroy are as tightly
Bound as the weave of feather on wing.
The cloud of crow sometimes unbidden
But too often hailed by us
On the intake of breath
Sometimes we choose disaster.
Goodbye, dear friend, you would have
laughed at us—walking away
from your burial service, reflecting
on its unexpected orthodoxy.
Had you been able,
you would gladly have joined
our conversations about death,
cocking your handsome head quizzically,
pleased at how you made us
ponder burial versus cremation.
Carried all the way to Burlington,
you were washed
and clothed in the ritual way,
before they dropped you
into the bulky pine coffin,
the blue vinyl straps and steel rigging
suspending all, while the kaddish
wrapped you for the swift descent
into the concrete casing
at the feet of your weeping daughters.
And then the first shovelful, thwuck:
each subsequent thwuck,
as in the sweating heat
only the resolute
took up the yellow dirt
and let it tumble on the resonant lid
covering the drying, invisible you.
Our early summer flower, our
corpse-in-the-box. Lying there,
let us think, in what position?
An edible waiting to crumble
beneath a boil of insects, until
it is brought to the emptied bone—
Listen: under a blanket of ground,
I feel my body go tight, then loose,
in the slow mangle of decay. . .
and think I would rather burn:
handfuls of bone chip and ash dust
flung into the chosen pond,
water taking the lot,
a gone self in bits
glittering and sinking.
For a little while, the job
of memory given to others to hold.
I am breast-shaped, brilliant,
but in youth, bitter.
I ripen, though. More and more
translucent glows my flesh; my color deepens,
I’m a lantern. My breast milk
Maybe you’ve seen
my home when the deep orange leaves—my shape, my color,
me two-dimensional—camouflage me. Or later,
in a field, the black bare skeleton bearing
my little flames, ignited by the sun.
When I’m ready
there’s no bitterness, only richness
for your mouth. Pluck my strings, praise me,
(Answer: a persimmon.)