The theme of the poems submitted for our 2012 Central States contest was Memory and Remembrance. We thank our guest judge, Beverley Bie Brahic, for all her work in selecting such a wondrous collection for this issue. We also thank those many excellent poets who sent us entries that we were not able to include here.
Beverley Bie Brahic
On the Road to the Mont Ventoux
By evening we reached the foot of the Mont Ventoux
Pure chance. Say
some fruit left on a cherry tree
along the road
to the trailhead
where you shrugged your pack
off into scruff,
and looked back
toward the village—church
skewed toward a graveyard
calm as a kitchen garden—
folded leeks, a dozen
staked tomato vines.
Say a stranger on the platform
of a station—Avignon, was it?—
with whom you trade
badinage. Nameless small birds
decamp, take their quarrels
up the road—truffle oaks. Cherries,
tiny, wild: pebbles
of memory, like ones
we leave on graves
to remember us by. Not much
flesh on the stones.
hereabouts they pick
them, if they pick them,
a kind of eau de vie—
we’ll take a capful
for the trail, this old sheep track
to a summit Petrarch,
with his pockets full
of Augustine’s Confessions,
also set off one day to climb.
M.J. Werthman White
Time, your first grade teacher,
the one with red hair that like her small charges resisted
every attempt at imposed order, corkscrewing
out of its ineffectual bun
to surround her head by day’s end in a fiery nimbus,
is attempting to teach subtraction
while you sulk, there in the last row,
no more receptive today than in 1949,
enamored, as you still are,
of addition’s pile-ups, its satisfying process of accrual,
the lovely more and more and more-ness of it.
It is, she points out, past time
to accept that henceforth
you will find yourself coming up short,
to see what’s been taken away not as
the avalanche of loss it seems
but a natural progression in which you,
the minuend, the part to be diminished,
are made smaller and smaller by the subtrahend,
or part to be subtracted: let us say it is
your health, wealth, your husband, wife, child, dog,
perhaps your mind—
in this equation mercy does not factor.
Grace, however, even here prevails: the lightness you experience
as you gaze upon your rapidly diminishing remainders
may yet turn out to be recompense enough,
and that, the red-haired one says
rapping your recalcitrant knuckles,
that, of course, was the lesson all along,
although you, now
standing in the far corner, nose touching the wall,
remain, still, unconvinced.
Patti Capel Swartz
The Teaberry Bowl
It was not pottery—green and blue glaze, grey clay showing in the break—
it was glass. Mother’s mother’s lidded pedestal bowl, both the lid and the body of the
with a circle of teaberries, fruits and leaves, the bowl itself filled with moss and
green leaves, red berries that kept perfectly all winter long.
I will never remember what caused my anger. I do remember the tension in the muscles
of my arm
as I flung my red purse. I was so proud of that purse, the shiny-smooth patent sides
I stroked with my hand, the satisfying click when the gold clasp closed,
the thin strap sewn on the back with coarse thread.
The minute the purse soared into the air I was sorry.
Even before what happened. Even before it landed,
taking a half moon from the domed lid, a perfect semi-circle.
Mother stopped in her tracks, looked at the ruined bowl.
Give me your purse, she said. I stretched across the table to reach the purse,
prone now, not in flight, simply lying on the table, the chunk of glass beside it.
Mother threw it in the trash.
She tried glue, but the slippery glass wouldn’t stay.
Glass was not like china, porous, so that not even evaporated milk
would mend it. Finally she took cellophane tape from the sideboard drawer,
taped around the circle, the tape overlapping, then, carefully,
set the lid back onto the bowl. And so it sat, the tape yellowing
as long as I lived at home. And every time I looked at that bowl,
Every time I saw the tape, browner than the time before, I remembered.
I remembered not the red purse which I never saw again.
Not even broken glass lying on the table.
I remembered mother’s eyes, the hazel made dark with pain.
Not able to throw it out, she put it the bowl in the dark,
on a shelf in the pantry where it could not be seen
without opening the cupboard door. After mother died,
father carried the family treasures from the old house they had shared
to his new home, snug, one floor. Again, the bowl was put away.
When father died and all the china and glass was put out
for each to choose in turn, I chose the teaberry bowl.
I kept it in my cupboard, carried it with me until one day
I thought it was enough.
The bowl was still beautiful without the lid.
I gave it to my niece.
I told her the story.
Between the Pullman Cars
I remember the bitter taste, the immediate knowing
that I had done something forbidden. I remember
her tightly braided hair, coiled like a bird’s nest,
atop her head and how she bent down close and dangled
an enticing rope of red licorice twisted like her hair and how
I, enchanted, took it and tore off a piece with my teeth
and chewed. I remember the harsh slide and grind of the metal
floor plates opening and shutting like hungry scissors
beneath my black patent leather Mary Janes and her odd
brown laced-up shoes and pale overlapping ankles.
I remember spitting the red wad into my hand and rolling
it between my palms into a sticky ball and throwing the ball
down between the moving floor plates toward the gravel
blur below. I remember how hard, with slimy stained hands,
I had to push against the pressurized door to get away.
Jane Harrington Bach
Selves in Palimpsest
Inside her is the slim girl in a sailor dress,
also the bride in an organdy sheath that flared at the knee,
also the mother smiling down at the child clutching her skirt
beside the husky man they both loved.
Inside her is the middle-aged woman who phoned her mother daily,
visited weekly, gave devotion beyond duty or custom.
Inside her is the grandmother in lively talk with a four-year-old
pushing a doll-buggy, whirling a jump-rope.
She has lived them all, but remembers none.
She knows only this moment of sunlight, soft
music, and little stories from someone else’s day—
an account that won’t balance, new paint for the porch.
These melt together into now, and pass by.
She rests in the unattached. Out of its
quiet, she reaches up to take this stranger,
who says “mother,” into her wasted arms.
I Ponder the Assignment I Give My Students
Think of the language of your
your grandmother’s kitchen:
Who talked? What
words were used and who
ever silent? The kitchen,
peopled, ever silent?)
Growing up in your mother’s
kitchen, your grandmother’s
small sunny yard, did you know
there were other homes in which
round and warm silence was rising
not as storm cloud but as
cinnamon yeast, sweet dough
expanding, become loaves, rolls
served on clear plates, beside strong coffee,
a splash of cream? Beyond those tables,
birds hovered at feeders by windows,
their chirps all that punctuated silence
and the cup in use, when it was
placed on the saucer was placed gently
so as not to shatter stillness, yes, and this
rang the barest chime,
music of glass
The Poet Goes Fishin’ with the Ghost of Her Long-Gone Father
I went fishin’ with my Dad the other day.
I was jus’ sittin’ on the bank watchin’
the sparkle of sun on the water
when Dad came along.
Whatcha doin?, he said
Fishin’, said I
But ya got no pole
Don’t need one
Whatcha think ya’ll catch?
whatever comes floatin’
down the river and jumps
on this here piece of paper.
Waal, that’s silly,
whoever taught you to fish like that?
You did, I said.
You taught me the art
of sittin’ on a grassy bank
and lettin’ the thoughts
come up like weeds
reachin’ for the sky
or fish jumpin’ in my basket
and me takin’ whatever
the good Lord gave me.
I’ve never heard you cry, but once
I saw your tears in the soft darkness
of a summer night after we had gathered,
three generations of us, for supper
on the screened porch, and only you, father,
and your brother, and I stayed on
talking over empty plates while the sun
turned your white heads golden
and then left, and crickets voiced in mass
behind us. Your brother was saying,
“From Farragut Street you could hear
the metal rattle of the trolley tracks
every half hour. Mother planted snap dragons
down one side of the front walk. And on
Saturday nights we each took turns
in the wash tub out in the kitchen
until the clear water turned grey with scum.”
That was when I saw your tears,
in the light from the kitchen window.
And you replied, “You always did remember
with your senses.” Your brother
had been about to tell more—
about the polishing of the shoes—
but you went on, “I abstract things,
and then they are gone. And if
I write them down, they become words
and not the memory that was there before.
I have total blocks in my memory.
I remember some things I wish I didn’t.
And then there are whole periods
that I can’t remember a thing.”
And by then the tears had vanished,
like fireflies just beyond the screen.
And we sat in the dry darkness,
you, the English professor, and your brother,
the engineer, and myself, the poet, in whose baby
ears you had first breathed Wordsworth.
At eight, I was a late baby
that Father Time and my mother soon wearied of,
but already my Daddy’s girl.
Just the two of us would head out for Friday night hockey games,
the brittle January snow hitting sideways against the car’s windshield
snapping its fingers, ping ping.
We screamed for our Grand Rapids Rockets as they blasted
straight through the rafters
of the bulky old warehouse turned arena.
And we would forget my mother’s voice, its shrill whistle
calling family face-offs every five seconds, but never time-outs.
We would not remember her sweaty,
standing over her cast iron skillet blowing away a stray lock of hair
while she wiped her hands on her early wrinkles
and her stained apron, lips pressed so tight
the fried potatoes curled away as grease spattered the wall shiny.
Hockey. We went there for hockey, with our tickets
free from Meijer if you’d bought enough
of their groceries by Thursday at 3pm.
There, Daddy and I always jammed in tight
at the end of the rink (sitting up in the bleachers was for sissies).
I squeezed into a standing place straight behind the goalie,
between the men with smelly breath and their bottles of Bud.
The whole long three periods I stretched high on my tiptoes.
I could barely reach to press my face
into the chicken-wire netting just above the backboards.
I didn’t even care that I ended up with purple wishbone marks
on each side of my nose. And there in the blades scraping
and the bodies thudding I gazed straight at Moose Lallo,
with a big “C” for captain on his flame jersey.
For just an instant I looked into his smashed-in face
and knew for sure I would marry him some day.
But all I could hear was the swirling noise
of the slap, the zing of that speeding puck. As the scoreboard
flashed — far away from my no-safety zone at home —
and the buzzer blatted, we’d all stamp the floor,
hollering, “Kill ‘em, Moose! Kill ‘em!”
Hanging Grandma’s Picture
Your formal studio portrait is already a lie
in rented kimono and flowery parasol,
stiff before a painted garden screen.
Though your face could not manage a coquettish smile,
you were already living the masquerade.
Pretend you’re a lady, not a cleaner of railroad cars.
Set your table with fine china bought on lay-away.
Settle for silver-plate and Edward,
whose family once had money.
Let him learn you’ve run out your credit
when collectors knock on the door.
Move when you can’t pay the rent.
Pledge your children to bury Edward’s suicide.
Lock the cellar where you strained to lift him
from the noose. Flee to a mansion where,
encircled by pretension, you can sometimes
make believe you aren’t the cook.
Let me frame you as you framed yourself:
cropping the stubbed corners and stains,
displaying instead your youthful fiction
in a gilded scaffold of hope unspent.
Let me forget the iron-faced domestic with tight
little smile and hair dyed brown at seventy
needing to look young enough to work.
Memory: Elk Mountain
If it is not real, it is close enough:
the day I waited at the kitchen table,
ready for flight—
suitcase, snow boots,
goodbye letter propped against the salt.
It was almost dark at two,
darker at three.
Snow came down,
hard angry feathers
arrowing across Elk Mountain Road
as you drove it that last time,
crashed through metal,
flew off into the night.
If it is not real, it is close enough.
My Father Who Art in Hell
It’s not a bad thing, actually
or a judgment exactly.
It’s just the choice
I’m pretty sure he would have made.
It’s not that he was evil
but that he was the opposite
of pious. He would have wanted
a bigger party than heaven would throw him.
He’d want a place where a guy could drive fast
with the top down, whistling.
A place with lots of beer
and unfiltered Viceroys
A place where he could find
a card game, pals, a rare steak.
Where he could proclaim
when someone trumped his ace.
He’d need money too, lots of it.
He always liked to work.
He’d want a job and some committees
to be on. He’d organize the folks,
be President of whatever group he formed.
He’d entertain them all
with his quick wit and winks.
I’m confident he would charm
the Devil — have him playing
penny-a-point gin rummy…
the licking flames
adding intensity to it all.