It has been a privilege to read the many poems I’ve received for Persimmon Tree’s Eastern Seaboard issue. Almost without exception, each of these poems has moved, amused, or educated me; sometimes all at once. There were a few surprises: it would not necessarily have been obvious that all of these poems are by “older women.” Their universality should, I think, appeal to any reader.
My criterion in assembling the winners was excellence. I also looked for variety of voice, style, subject matter. A special challenge for the writers was the proviso that each poem include an Elizabeth Bishop line chosen from a suggested list. The poets applied their choices in varying ways: sometimes Bishop’s phrase would flow as a literal and natural part of the line; in other poems it would almost startle a reader by its figurative or symbolic use. It’s a toss-up whether the phrases inhibited or freed the poetry; in some of the poems Elizabeth Bishop seemed to jump out and ask “What am I doing here?” while in others she fit so quietly into the language that a reader would hardly notice her presence. In the most successful of the poems, a Bishop line would make a subtle shift of emphasis, a turning point.
The hard part of editing is making choices. In the process of reading and enjoying the work, one often senses a link with someone one does not know—her insights and imagery, language and rhythms touching one’s experience. At the same time judgment may stand apart and mutter yes, but… It comes to a quirky sort of decision-making. At the end of the day, I have the pleasant feeling that here are numbers of women I would love to know, and have, in one sense, met.
The Light Over Death Valley
It comes to me that the light is
It is here. It slides away.
And every day returning.
I face east, so that the going-down
sun shines low
cool in its bright
The mountains behind me are already
In another half-hour they’ll be
while before and all around me
a bowl of light
pure enough to drink
The golden rounds of low bushes
do not seem to be stirring but
I feel cool air move over my
and I wonder if I know how to see. It is so big –
the light molting over its glazed land
the land rolling over its own folds.
The light and the land purple-down and,
in minutes, will dim
and will be there again in the morning.
I eye all the many streaking
miles of earth-enfolding
until words float off,
unsayable as stars.
“Raised by Wolves”
after Jim Goldberg’s installation
at the San Francisco MOMA
Loaded tables like a yard sale. Step closer. A tangle
of Nikes and gloves without
fingers – no lefts or rights – ripped knapsacks, belts
with silver buckles unbuckled, knives,
mascara tubes, needles, sling pumps,
guns, sunglasses, empty
plastic bags, metal pieces glinting
under the skylight.
Walk along white
walls crowded with girls and boys in black
and white photos, smiling
up at you from mattresses. Piercings, tattoos
and bruises – all that vulgar beauty —
decorate punctured arms laced around
each other. The writing
under the pictures is cursive — squat,
round vowels, consonants
slanted — children scribbling on walls. What
is not written. How many
are out there? How hard
is it to go home after the street? What flickers
in the corner? A runaway’s home video loop. Sit, watch pink
cheeked dolls, a red tricycle, balloons, a cake with three
trick candles — lighting, re-lighting, rosy
mouth barely over the tabletop, blows and blows.
March. The fields speckled with fine ice crystals,
the streets wet. It’s just on the edge of freezing.
As predicted: a wintry mix. An ugly day. If
I were down along the river, would the runner
who always says it say “another beautiful day”?
If I were down along the river, it might be one.
That poet on her deathbed, looking out a window
at a meager diet of horizon – New England February
– it’s so beautiful, she says. For the partner at her
side, the view’s a future season: gray morning not
shelter but pall, image of the space we leave dying.
The hour comes when all one wants is to be
warm, to be silent, to be wrapped in oneself like
a quilt: refuge from the terror of loneliness.
In the ignored sky outside the self, the face
of loss surfaces: grief rising like thunderheads.
Tolstoi and Sonya
At Yasnaya Polyana
an estate big as Moscow,
Tolstoi, now old,
strides across fields
in his peasant clothes,
beard flying, red sash tied
like the White Guard officer
he once was.
His serfs bow to him,
their wives holding children
who are his.
For Sonya Andreevna,
the copyist for his books,
his business manager,
dreams were the worst,
reliving her thirteen pregnancies.
In her diaries she recorded,
his infidelity, indifference, tyranny.
From their bedrooms,
they write notes
to each other, delivered
by servants. The only way
he lies dying in the Ostopova
station master’s house.
Sonya peers in the window
after receiving Leo’s message,
I will not see you
and withholds her blessing.
All that vulgar beauty
In righteous colors of red
And orange and yellow, all
Puffed up like bushes
When they are only flowers,
And so hard to transplant,
Those forced blooms
Never to come up again
As perennials. Oh, you
Slutty annuals, oh, you
Shapeshifters, oh, my
Clouds cover the entire sky protecting it from exposure
on these few, cool summer days scrolling by one after another
as I recall crossing bridges—
the Charles in Prague shrouded in fog,
blackened statues of saints raising their arms, and angels
their wings as if in approval of my presence;
the bridge in the Boston Public Gardens, globed lights overlooking
the pond as the concert floats on a lantern-lit barge,
Handel’s Water Music expanding the night air
so it becomes pure enough to drink in slow, meditative swallows
to last when crossing other bridges, inner or outer,
jacket buttoned, collar upturned, insulated moments
at one yet apart from others passing by.
Dale M. Tushman
I Stayed Out Late On a School Night
Tonight I cheated on the obligatories
and went to the beach to watch the sun head for China.
Don’t know what came over over-regulated me,
but on nothing but imported water
pure enough to drink,
I swear I heard the word,
so doing my best demi-Clark Kent,
I ditched my big-girl clothes,
donned some hippie emblematic I keep stashed for emergencies
and twirled out the door
as if I’d finally won the lottery
and didn’t have to pick no mo’ cotton
no time soon.
To commemorate liberation
and despite all warnings,
I ate a McDonald’s extra value meal
so the whole-foods politzi couldn’t
track me down on my mission
to regain cotton candy freedom.
Ada Jill Schneider
Flight After Flight
So he sat on the sofa, staring.
Muttering. I sat with him.
Pills, pills, and more pills.
I brought him tea. I talked him up.
Nobody could help him.
They didn’t help him.
Dreams were the worst.
Every damned night
he jumped out of that burning plane.
His chute never opened.
Every night he free-fell,
the flesh dripping off his ribs,
melting down his khakis,
his spit-shined boots,
like a wax candle
caught in the firing line of a fan.
Terror seared on his face,
night after night.
I clutched him so tight,
my fingernails made moons on his back.
We were soaked with sweat.
I talked him awake, flight after flight.
I lived through it.
I’m here, right?
Dorothy Schiff Shannon
Her mind spills all thoughts beyond the moment,
as her daughter shows her photos,
tries to recall times a quick age or so away.
She glances at the pictures now and then,
her focus on the orchids we brought.
She traces their complex parts with hands
that once crafted the chairs on which we sit.
Out of a forlorn and discarded set
she made furnishings fit for a Florentine palace.
The old wood grain gleams, sets off seats
embroidered in bargello flames,
needlepoint known to last for generations.
Shades of blue and rust, elaborate geometrics
recall the mind she had.
As If For the Last Time
I spoon up time and let its droplets fall
like the test for jelly: minutes
shaken from my life, or
wrenched away: adventures
in the sea, my body the surfboard—will I
be here again? And this:
my friend’s blithe smile,
her refusal to worry. Then
the transatlantic phone call: of
her pulse that surged through
a fragile membrane, betrayed
all those cheerful goodbyes:
a hug, take care, see you—
If only each moment
could gather to itself its own essential parts,
if they were not always
about to fall away, but could fuse into
drops that cling to the flesh—
the Japan Current’s exhilarating swells
warmed by nothing but my body heat,
goodbye after goodbye: each gasp of oxygen
like inhaling dry ice until the last curling breaker
rolls me back into shallow grit.
I tell myself I might never return,
so as not to spend my life trying
to drag back the unthinking instant
before I let the instant go.
Meditation on the Past
Reedy bones vibrate faded melodies,
my body no longer spreads its wings.
In my youth, it throbbed with a sensuous beat,
rode horizons red wire
leaped into hotbeds of passion
spoke love in ancient tongues.
On silverless nights dampened by a moon
too cold to love,
I mourn the passing of all that vulgar beauty
yearn for the unbreakable light of the brazen years
when I was young enough
to grab the universe.
Light shifts now, I invent powerful stories,
Winter falls from my lips, on my tongue,
broken promises taste of forgiveness.
I beat my wings against the glass sky.
My voice some wild bird,
ain’t I a somebody?