While I love reading through stacks of poems, the submissions for the Persimmon Tree competition were of such high quality that selecting just a few poems for inclusion in the winter issue was very challenging. I was disturbed to have to pass over some very fine work; in the end, however, I chose eleven poems that I thought worked well together. In reading the poems, I was looking for work that moved me to either laughter or tears, or that sent a shiver down my spine. The poems I selected are marked by specificity and honesty. They are not forgettable poems nor are they exercises in the manipulation of language. They open a door into the lives of the poets. We feel welcomed and know that they are sharing with us what it means to be human, in textured and layered poems. I share these poems with you, grateful to have discovered them and so many other poetic voices.
The House on Dover Street
I quoted poetry to Aunt Kay while she fried the Friday
night fish. Aunt Hazel went to Mass every morning.
She never said the words “unwed” or “sin.”
Eight months pregnant, I slept on their fold-out
couch. Aunt Kay sat in her “Holey chair.”
Hazel perched on the rocker.
They whispered over me when they thought
I was asleep. “She’s not eating enough.
She needs another blanket.”
My aunts stayed up late with Johnny Carson,
up early with their Postum. Kay, a school janitor.
Hazel, a bookkeeper for Sherick’s grocery.
I hung my summer sweater in the dark hallway.
The Northwest smell of old wood warmed by a radiator
in winter, never drying out in fleeting summer sun.
Bursting out of my plaid maternity dress,
making plans for my child, I walked along
the Longview slough, came back to Dover Street.
I was the daughter of their junkman brother,
the first to leave Dover Street. Red-headed,
left-handed, he was the one they loved the most.
Donna L. Emerson
Edna’s Baked Goods
I answered Edna’s Penny Saver ad
for baked goods. Over in Wheeler,
her hand-painted sign out front.
She lives alone on Bull Hill after
her mother died of cancer two
years ago. Father in ’98.
Edna’s face is round.
She wears her dark blue dress
fastened with safety pins. Lets
her bonnet strings dangle.
Since her dress covers her feet
and her face is without wrinkles
she could be eighteen or thirty.
It’s O.K. for me to sell.
I told my Amish this is my
only source of income – I won’t
take the welfare.
She smiles, dimpling: My uncle
made the stove. Nailed to the wall, a large
breadbox with two kerosene lanterns
underneath, flames shooting five inches
toward its bottom. The counter below
covered with tin foil. I step back.
Her cats jump over my feet, over the breads
and cookies. Don’t call the county on me,
her round brown eyes look up.
I look down the single-wide, its shag rug,
see only tables filled with cookies, pies,
yeast and quickbreads. No other furniture.
No curtains. Brown cardboard over the cracked
kitchen window. Her only source of light.
Not quite. Her lanterns, shooting those
flames. And the light in her eyes and cheeks
when she says butter, not lard.
The Two-Week Vacation
The father, broad chested with muscled arms
sweats through his sleeveless undershirt,
curses in German under his breath
cramming suitcases into the old Plymouth,
for their two week family vacation.
The mother, a pony-tailed beauty, thinks she looks fat in her
new blue-checked pedal pushers and white blouse tied
under her full breasts – in the latest style.
The kids stay clear when she’s in her “mood,”
slamming cupboards, doing last minute stuff.
Never ready, when the father wants to hit the road,
they’re not speaking, when he pulls out
into San Francisco fog, thick as a blanket.
At the toll booth, the kids skirmish
over who gets to hand the man the quarter.
The girl, twelve, frizzy haired, gangly and awkward
is yet to ripen and hates everything about herself.
The boy, sitting shotgun, ten, short and freckled –
whispers he hates his sister’s guts.
She hisses he’s stupid
and kicks his seat with her Keds.
The mother grimaces; her headache is starting up.
The boy fiddles with the radio;
the father yells, turn it down for crying out loud.
Johnny Mathis comes on, the father sings
to Chances Are, catches his wife’s eye
through the rear view mirror and winks.
She ignores him.
The kids make loud farting noises.
When they reach Sonoma,
blessed sun breaks through the fog shroud.
The mother smiles.
The father exhales.
Aurora M. Lewis
Summer ’68 cut off my hair,
Wore it in an Afro, short and curly,
Signifying I had the power
To proclaim my roots,
Sprung from a continent
I knew absolutely nothing about.
Africa is a big place.
Going back was never in my plan,
Though I had the need to identify
With that land dark as me.
Then, there was Billy,
Surfer dude with streaked
Blond hair, known to ditch school
When the waves were right.
We had been cool since the 6th grade
When Robert told me go back to Africa.
Billy shoved him said to leave me alone.
He crossed the street to walk
With me to the corner,
Looking dangerously handsome
For a boy of 12.
That made us friends
All the way through high school.
Ran into him at the street races that summer,
Behind the May Co. on Crenshaw.
Hundreds of kids of all complexions,
There to look at metal flecked cars
Perform hydraulic maneuvers.
Then caravan to watch illegal races
On some deserted street
In the industrial section of Carson.
Without speaking Billy’s fingers
Lightly touched my hand,
He looked back once,
Tossing his hair out of his face
Smiling, causing me to smile too.
I could still feel the brush
Of his fingers warm against my hand,
As I watched him and the other surfers
Make their way to end of the street
We lived in fog
only blocks from Ocean Beach.
At night I listened to the foghorn
on the buoy, snug next to you.
I walked my baby down Fulton
to the beach bundled up in coat and hat,
even in summer.
I never imagined another life,
content in the row house,
Sam and Alice Chung next door,
my friend Carla a block away.
A second baby and you said
we’d move across the Bay.
I knew then the cozy house,
the gentle fog, my life
would never be as before.
Little did I know that I, too,
would never be that young woman again
who walked the beach, babes in tow,
hopeful, happy, untested.
Where Is The Girl
A dove-grey Ford coupe, late-thirties model,
rotates on a plush carpet pedestal
in the Smithsonian’s Roosevelt exhibit.
Pristine impostor, no road dust on it,
no marbled knob on its steering wheel—
colors of tigers melted to butter—
the knob the father twirled with two fingers
as he leaned his head out the pocked window,
backed into the drive, home from the grain store.
And there is no one on the running board:
no sultry grownup cousins in halters
and tight shorts, barely hanging on, tilting
their heads like Bacall to make their hair float
straight out. No boys with grimy bare bellies
riding shotgun, stuffed in the rumble seat
on backyard cruises, scaring the chickens.
And gone, the girl who hid in the shadows
away from the Ford, refusing to board,
then rode away on a silver tricycle,
clanging its bell and trying to muffle
a family’s cries for their President, dead.
Slice of Life
I would like to churn butter
feel the rhythm of the plunger
dream while cream thickens to a yellow lump
wrap it in wet sacking
and store it in the root cellar.
I would like to scrub blue work shirts
against a galvanized metal washboard
hang them with wooden pegs
on a line stretched between two hazelnut trees.
I would inhale borax and fresh air as I pressed them
with a flat iron heated on a wood burning stove.
I would like to feed the chickens.
I’m nostalgic for my grandmother’s life.
raise ten children on a tenant farm?
Bear the loss of one who drowned in the Kentucky River?
Love a husband who kept a bottle in the tobacco barn?
Haul water from the well?
Tear pages out of the Sears catalogue in the outhouse?
But a creek flowed over the road
she crossed in a horse-drawn buggy
and mint was crushed beneath the wheels.
The scent lingered in the warm summer air.
She fed a handful of oats to the horse.
She kneaded bread and watched it rise in a blue ceramic bowl.
She ate the first slice.
Judith Kelly Quaempts
Once They Were Gods
The old men of this town rise as one
They gather at a café for coffee
– not lattes or espressos –
but good strong coffee made from a can.
Wearing wranglers, bib overalls,
John Deere ball caps, straw Stetsons,
they clasp thick white mugs in callused hands
and remember the years they worked the land.
They tell of fingers lost while baling,
of friends who died beneath tractors,
of southern boys – crazy kids but damn polite –
who drove all the way from Georgia
to work a western harvest.
They’ll recall august heat,
late summer storms that threatened the wheat
but never admit how much they miss
those mornings before dawn, the quiet then,
or how rolling fields of ripened grain
spoke to them of foreign seas
made gold by a golden sun.
Instead they’ll bellyache about poor pay,
the endless dust they had to breathe,
their aching backs and ruined knees.
‘Don’t miss them days at all,’ one says.
Heads nod. Gazes drop to coffee cups.
The same lie, repeated every morning.
When she argues in absolutes,
there’s no defense.
You never… I always …
(she declaims in perfect pitch)
… vacuum rugs upstairs.
… lock the sliding door.
… sing a song on key.
I confess I’m tonally inept
and prone to chronic laziness.
I’d rather watch the sun unfurl
behind our evergreens
than lug the Kirby up the stairs,
unwind its twisted chord, and miss
the smatterings of crumbs and lint
she always finds.
As for the sliding door,
chalk it up to trust in Providence
and patio debris I’ve scattered
as a trap. Any thief who’d plow
through rakes, hoes and piles
of leaves deserves a chance.
Since there’s no gain in wasting breath
nor expiration date on being wrong,
I’ve mastered shutting up and dreaming
of the rainy night she cannot find her
keys and kettle-drums each bolted door,
while high above the vacuum’s hum,
I’m belting out her favorite songs
from the second floor.
For My Father
I just wanted to sit with you,
hold your hand for all the hands
I didn’t hold when it was wanted.
I just wanted to listen with you
to music of that stringed instrument
which sings of home in our shared biology,
hear again that my heart came from yours.
I sent you the songs.
Did you listen? Did you hear?
The tremolo is still on the strings.
The hummingbird’s wing flutters
in the desperate necessity of sculling
for survival, not yet quiet, not yet quite
to the moment of collapse. At your bedside
I just wanted to hold your hand, hear
the music of your breathing between us,
however briefly. We made promises
once you and I, under a plaster saint
who held out a protective hand
thick with bird dung. Believing
all was right, we toasted “a la familia!”
never knowing how the pocket
prayer books, the naming customs
the medals blessed and sent
to sons at war would be lost
and new songs written. Why
must we know these things too late,
or at all?
How The Palmer Method Led To Anarchy
Did I stick out the tip of my tongue, earnest first-grader shaping
a’s, b’s, those final t’s I still use, swirling loops and bows
meant to loosen the wrist without straying outside the lines?
Too young to be called vain, my handwriting grew distinctive
and pretty with daily practice. How this passion propelled me
toward sudden eruptions, figments scribbled down by hand,
quick and cursive, on scraps of unlined paper, on the backs
of envelopes, wayward, spellbound, reckless, not the
disciplined way I bite my tongue, sign my Social Security checks.
Maria Mazziotti Gillan
Published in What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980-2009
At my bridal shower, someone gave me
a pink see-through nightgown and pink satin
slippers with slender heels and feathers.
The gown had feathers on it, too.
I‘ve always hated my legs and even then
when I was still thin and in good shape,
I didn’t want to wear that nightgown
or those slippers, didn’t want to parade
in front of you like some pin-up.
But I wore them all anyway, all those negligées
I got as shower presents, sleazy nylon
I didn’t know were tacky. When I wore
shorty nightgowns, I’d leap into bed
not wanting you to notice how
the nightgown revealed what I thought
my biggest flaw. In all the young years
of our marriage, I wore a different nightgown
every night, not that it ever stayed on for long,
and afterwards I’d pull it back on, afraid
our children would find me naked in our bed.
I felt so sophisticated in those nightgowns,
like the ones that Doris Day wore in movies.
Only years later, when my daughter buys me
a nightgown made of soft and smooth blue silk,
do I realize that the first ones I owned
were cheap imitations of this, the one
I hold now to my cheek, grateful
to have been once what I was.
How lucky I am to have loved you
in nylon, silk my own incredible skin.