(selected by Wendy Barker and Chana Bloch)
SWIMMING IN THE RAIN
Swaddled and sleeved in water,
I dive to the rocky bottom and rise
as the first drops of sky
find the ocean. The waters above
meet the waters below,
the sweet and the salt,
and I’m swimming back to the beginning.
The forecasts were wrong.
Half the sky is dark
but it keeps changing. Half the stories
I used to believe are false. Thank God
I’ve got the good sense at last
not to come in out of the rain.
The waves open
to take in the rain, and sunlight
falls from the clouds
onto the face of the deep as it did
on the first day
before the dividing began.
Before the light was divided from darkness,
what was it like, that chaos?
A brilliant shadow? An absence
lit from within?
This is not a question. I’m tired of living
in the land of answers.
At school I’d wave my flag of five fingers,
pleased to produce
just what the teacher ordered.
I needed to get it right.
I knew a man whose first love
was numbers, how sane they are.
Feelings! he blurted, startling himself and me.
Sometimes I wish I didn’t have them.
My feelings know more than I do,
and what do they know?
He left me laughing and crying at the same time.
And what did he know without his feelings?
Four currencies, three fine wines,
two fountain pens, one blue, one black,
the capital of every poor country in the world.
It is either serious or it isn’t.
The indeterminate mass, 14.8 cm long,
is either a cyst or a tumor.
If a tumor, either benign or malignant.
If malignant, either slow-growing
or aggressive, in which case
they may contain it. If not,
no one else will recall
this unseasonable day of waiting
exactly as you felt it, from the inside out
–the way the heat of your mind
dropped a few degrees
and grew very quiet. The sediment
settled. You managed to divert
yourself with words. Then
you consulted the uncommon
clarity of the sky. A mild
translucent blue: a sign,
perhaps. The leaves held still
in the almost imperceptible breeze,
though at the tips of the branches
the first buds of spring
were so closefisted
you couldn’t be sure
whether you saw them, or not.
RISING TO MEET IT
Pain is the salty element.
All that night I lay
tethered to my breathing. To the pain,
the fixed clock-stare of the walls,
combing my tangled hair.
“Ride out the waves,” the doctor said.
The first time I touched a man,
what startled me more than the pleasure
was knowing what to do.
I turned to him with
a motion so firm it must have been
forming inside me
before I was born.
I was swimming upstream, the body
solid, bucking for breath, slippery,
wet. An ocean
rolled off my shoulders.
Tonight, strapped to the long night, I miss
pain of childbirth—
No, not the pain
but that rising to meet it like a body
reaching out in desire, buoyant, athletic,
sure of its power.
AT THE OPEN GRAVE
The pickaxe hurts. Caked
hard-packed. The pick
goes after rock bottom.
And the gravedigger in his muddy
rubber-soled shoes. Dirt clings
to the rusted metal, clumps of it,
damp from the last rain.
He flicks it off easily.
Your leftover words, I want
to say them; let them be
said. Let the tree fall in that
forest of yours. One of us
will hear it. Well, then. Let it be
You were telling me something.
In this life we bury the dead
alive. What an austere
to turn and walk away.
ALONE ON THE MOUNTAIN
I climb up here only
to feel small again. Blue liquor
of distances: one sip and l start to lose
size, anger, the sticky burrs
of wanting. If only, what if—let the wind
carry it away.
Wave after wave of shadow comes over
the mountain, like some great
migration. Up here
everything’s painted the four
bare colors: sky, cloud, rock, shadow.
To be the object of so much weather!
I’m the only one left at the end
of the last act. Everyone has died,
or gone off to be married.
Look how that tree
catches the wind, strains like a kite against
its patch of sky. That’s
what I come for.
An important cloud
is making its way to some other mountain, to the sea,
scattering finches like poppy seeds.
Hedda Gabler is lighting the lamps in a fury.
From the front row center
we see the makeup streaking her neck
little tassels of sweat
that stain her bodice. She says yes to Tesman
and it’s like spitting.
We are just married,
feeling lucky. Between the acts
we stop to admire ourselves in the lobby mirror.
But Hedda—how misery
curdles her face!
She opens the letters with a knife
and her husband stands there
shuffling, the obliging child
waiting to be loved.
Yes, she says, fluffing the pillows
on the sofa, yes dear, stoking
the fire. And Tesman smiles. A shudder
jolts through her body to
lodge in mine, and
oh yes, I can feel that
blurt of knowledge
no bride should know.
We call glass crazed when it shatters like that.
The windshield of the car:
safety glass sculpted
by metal by fire by chance at eighty miles an hour
into swags of glittery spiderweb.
This time it was you, my love, my impossible,
who walked away from death.
Where are you headed so fast,
Shards of glass on the dented hood, in the powdery
dust of the junkyard.
A burst of crystals on the totaled front seat.
Light spikes from the sharpest edge
and sharpens it.
I take a handful home in my pocket for luck.
In my desk drawer they turn into teeth
cusped and hungry,
the hard inside of a mouth.
FOOLING THE ENEMY
His mouth twitches as he bends
to sign himself in.
“I’m getting better,” he says.
“Do they know how sick I am?”
Every morning he’d slap on a frantic cheer
like an old woman
with gummy rouge on her cheeks
to fool the enemy.
Now his camouflage has been stripped away.
He holds a hand to his face
to cover his nakedness.
I don’t know that gray-haired child.
Don’t know that woman either, that wife
who sits dumbly beside him, under
her dropcloth of calm.
She’s the one in disguise now,
a lizard that stiffens and pretends
to be tree bark. She won’t move
even if you touch her
panic goes on pulsing her throat.
“Why can’t they just get along?” he protests
when he hears the numbers on the morning news.
Then he’s got the answer:
“They’re people, that’s why.”
Thus saith my neighbor
who lets his Doberman out to bark at midnight
and grumbles, “Yeah, yeah”
when I call to complain.
Meanwhile, in the precincts of power,
the new Chief of Staff
who learned his trade as a fighter pilot
is fending off questions from his swivel chair.
“And what did you feel,” the reporters ask,
“when you dropped a bomb from an F-16?”
I felt a slight lift of the wing, he says.
After a second it passed.
The body in the bedroom mirror
is my mother’s,
the one I found so hopeless
when I was fifteen.
She was undressing; I was trying on
her satin, chiffon, gold lamé
America. One size too small.
A bookish girl from Russia she called me
when I swore off lipstick.
Books don’t know everything.
Stand up straight. Tie your hair back.
Don’t give me that look.
On my dresser, a photo of her at seventy,
tilting her head, leaning out of the frame
–the better to see my life?
Her assessor’s eye is shrewd but genial.
Things are easier between us lately.
One would almost think death
has mellowed her—
Or has it?
She has something to tell me
but she’s taking
her own sweet time.
THE DISCIPLNE OF MARRIAGE
My mother said what she thought.
If my father looked up from the paper to inquire
where the hell anyone would get such a dumb idea,
she’d reply, with a smile like a warning:
“That’s how I feel.”
Her feelings were larger than his,
full of grievance, of steaming griefs.
She hung up her keys at the door
and salted the daily stew.
All day my father depleted his poor stock of words.
Evenings he shrank and fell silent.
The discipline of marriage had taught him
every last thing he knew about silence
and its rewards. After supper, he’d shut his eyes,
park his feet on the hassock and kiss
the evening goodbye.
My mother applied glittery blue to her eyelids.
Crystal bottles commanded her dressing table
with their flags of milky glass;
the French perfumes glowed like topaz.
She had plenty to say. She wanted him
to listen, to say something back! Open
his eyes for once and see her!
Her beaded purse! Her alligator shoes!
THE SIXTH AGE
Words slip from me lately
like cups and saucers
from soapy hands.
I grope for the names of things
that are governed, like me, by the laws
of slippage and breakage.
I am like a child
left behind by the fast-talking
grownups. A tourist
lost in the blind alleys
of a foreign language.
How will I see my way to anywhere
without my words?
I slam up and down the stairs of our house:
Where are my glasses hiding?
Rimless, invisible as oxygen.
I need glasses to find them.
There must be words left
to go on searching for the ones I’ve lost
the way the blind man I once loved
first with his fingertips,
then with his whole hand.
A man after sex
has that squishy thing in the nest of his lap.
A bashful appendage
like a Claes Oldenburg vinyl drainpipe,
a soft saxophone that won’t toot a note.
A man’s got to wear his susceptibility
out in plain sight.
No wonder he’s keeping his soul
A woman’s got that rock of a belly,
that baby cave,
breasts swaggering erect
when they swell with milk.
Oh she knows what it’s like to sing
the stand-up song of a man.
Now you and I soften in the wash,
the body elastic goes slack.
We see ourselves in each other,
we grow alike.
We want to curl up in a sunny corner
and doze like the cat.
Come, flick a whisker,
make me remember.
THE SIXTH TRUMPET
after Anselm Kiefer
Lately we’ve begun to talk logistics,
to draw up contingency plans
for a war we’re preparing
to lose. We’re counting backwards
from D-day. If I die first, we tell each other.
Sometimes: If you die first. Declarations
flare in the street, the museum.
Our children can’t stand that kind of talk,
they announce in front of Kiefer’s painting.
They see an immense plowed field
under a day sky seeded with dark stars.
Sunflower seeds! they say. He used real seeds.
We see a bombardment of cinders
that fall through the air onto furrows
of emulsion, acrylic, shellac
to converge on a vanishing point.
No place to hide from the sky
–we’d better prepare a shelter
for them. We dole out small truths,
sufficient unto the day.
Sunflower seeds, we say.
Wendy Barker has published five collections of poetry and three chapbooks, most recently, Nothing Between Us, a novel in prose poems (Del Sol Press, 2009) and Things of the Weather (Pudding House, 2009). Other books include a selection of poems with accompanying essays, Poems’ Progress (Absey & Co., 2002) and a collection translated in collaboration with Saranindranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore: Final Poems (Braziller, 2001). She has also published a scholarly study, Lunacy of Light: Emily Dickinson and the Experience of Metaphor (Southern Illinois University Press, 1987) and co-edited (with Sandra M. Gilbert) The House is Made of Poetry: The Art of Ruth Stone (Southern Illinois University Press, 1996). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Georgia Review, Southern Review and Gettysburg Review. Recipient of NEA and Rockefeller fellowships, she is Poet-in-Residence and the Pearl LeWinn Endowed Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio.