Emotionally complex, intellectually astute, and imagistically provocative, the twelve poems assembled here offer a rich array of voices plying the paradoxes of being human. The breadth of concerns in these poems is wide: there are meditations, laments, lyric complaints, love letters, and philosophical conundrums. Touching on such themes as loss, ageing, sorrow, the elusive self, and unexpected joy, these poems prove to be both thought-provoking and illuminating. I hope readers will savor them, as I have.
The Town That Never Was
Noted at Bradbury Science Museum
On forty square miles of the Pajarito plateau
a home address was a state secret. They called
Los Alamos The Hill; trafficked in code names:
Little Boy, Fat Man; went south to Trinity Site
to detonate the gadget—the weapon that they said
would render war no more. Supplied with state-crafted
phrases, docents tell us about the mission
of the safety-infracting, file-misplacing lab:
maintain America’s aging weapons without
nuclear testing; win the war against terror;
enhance defense and economic security; focus on
weapons of mass destruction. Like the lab, the museum
has sometimes closed: potential security leaks.
There’s no telling what words might have escaped
in the latest mushroom clouds that never really were.
The universe is lodging place
and instrument of the immortal soul…
– Vesalius to Charles V
Koi ripple the pond’s surface, then settle,
but each lily’s a compass gone crazy,
petals wild for every piece of sky.
Inside the archive, a bible’s bright orange,
gold on St. Jerome’s page
but the girl studies an engraving
of radius and ulna hinged like a warped door,
abyss of the mouth half-open
like hers. Since the accident,
she’s wanted answers and, now, these bones
which she thinks must be like her father’s
though this man is standing,
skull looking up in supplication
as if he’s not the Jesus with Saints
the girl’s aunt is saying he looks like,
but a man afraid to have found out
that the Heavens are made of Earthly matter,
his skull tilted upward, asking:
Where will we go now?
Anne Harding Woodworth
At the Retirement Village
Somewhat mysterious, the old women
go to the room full of guitars
where they melt the day away,
and they have nothing on. They decode
the language of their youth.
In that, they see the wonderful.
They share everything they do,
everything they have, even though it’s smudgy—
celery root, mushroom, turmeric,
which they say is distinguished
for taking them out of the moment
(Yes! they remember the efficacy of cannabis).
Nothing is brown anymore, nor merlot-hued,
and not all blues are created equal.
But light still bounces off their faces evenly.
Blurred may be their vision, double
may be their vision, but they straighten
to standing and lead with their heads,
though that makes their necks hurt.
They have silk ribbons for their necks.
In that room full of guitars they place
their right hands on their hips for balance.
Wobbling is a part of life.
Wearing almost nothing, they feel everything.
Husband, This Is What Happened After You Died
Your body in the Jacksonville morgue, my brother beside me, I picked out your casket.
In the old Fernandina mansion turned into a funeral home, I picked out your casket.
I left clothes there for you, your newest blue jeans and favorite green turtle neck.
I told the pleasant man you would not choose to wear a suit forever in your casket.
The pleasant man called that night, said you had arrived safely from Jacksonville.
Next morning I left you in the old mansion where you lay closed in your casket.
While my brother drove the dogs and me home to Atlanta, you took a trip home too,
home to Huntsville in a black hearse, your last trip home, unknowing in your casket.
Two days later I came to Alabama and sat at your mother’s kitchen table. The priest
talked with your mother, your sister and me, kindly said your soul was not in that casket.
We drove to the funeral home, your mother, your sister and I. Yet another pleasant man
led us to a parlor. In an alcove brightly lit, we saw you lying in the smooth pecan casket.
You were you and you were not you, waxy skin and your mustache trimmed perfectly
as you never managed in life. Each of us leaned in and kissed you, lying in your casket.
The next evening, at the old church where you once served as an altar boy, I waited
at the steep front steps as my brothers and nephews climbed them, carrying your casket.
Your mother and I stood in the church hall for hours. Family and friends took our hands,
spoke gentle words, then moved on to the altar. Some knelt to say prayers by your casket.
In the morning we met you at Maple Hill, where the priest spoke of life everlasting.
Then I, Kathryn, surrendered you to family ground, unforgivably dead in your casket.
Still Life in Smoke
creviced inside cracks,
embedded in threads,
affixed on dust motes,
fused to your fusty chair.
Ashes interred elsewhere,
but smoke stayed.
I breathe your nicotine scarred air.
On the window sill, burgundy shamrock
flower next to rose-red cyclamen, a spider
plant’s pale baby shoots, the oldest orchid’s
wrinkled leathery leaves, wiry new stem.
In the backyard shade bed, down-facing
hellebore hide dazzled eyes from fauna:
coral wooden flamingos, flaunting hard
bright feathers. Do the flamingos miss
the shallow waters of the shores they come
from? Do the hellebore resent this tropical
invasion of their bosky glen’s green April
hesitations? Walking around the block,
I miss the invisible cat, old orange tom
this winter seems to have done in. He
seemed immortal, enduring winters as
he did. I haven’t seen him in a month.
I am these entities I have invented by
seeing them: shamrock, cyclamen, spider
plant, orchid, hellebore, flamingos, that
invisible cat. I am my garden, rain soaked
and untended. I am my roses, pruned,
fed, expected to bloom. I am my body
which this morning mystifies me with a
random burst of pain, reluctance to rise.
I am the black garment hanging from
the bureau knob, the white one wrapping
my body, the paper flowers my grand-
daughter made, white vase they stand in.
I am none of this, I am nowhere here. I am
bone and tissue, hand and eye, tears and
breath, a gasp of pleasure, a wince of pain,
silence and speech which will not cease.
Dying Queen Anne’s Lace
The child in the old photo
is wearing crepe paper petals,
her bobbed hair crowned with leaves.
She’s holding some Queen Anne’s lace.
My mother once told me she liked to dip the stems in dye,
watch the flowers soak up pink or blue.
The flower grows wild, thrives on roadsides here,
the tiny red dot in its center barely visible,
a pin prick (it’s said) from a needle as Queen Anne tatted lace.
Maybe it was a school lesson on osmosis,
the soaking up and drinking in that intrigued her,
or maybe my mother felt overlooked,
like that tiny red dot no one takes the time to see.
I’ll never know what made her tick—
all she never thought to tell, all I never thought to ask.
I like the queen’s lace too, its fragile but enduring gift.
My mother was fragile as an iron rod
When diagnosed she remarked “there is no cure”
and never spoke of it again
I picked and dyed my first ones yesterday,
feeling the pleasure my mother must have felt,
way too late to let her know.
In memoriam, Rev. J. Robert Williams (July 21, 1955—Dec. 24, 1992)
When the first purple bruises appeared on his face
he knew he was going to die, but nothing short of death
could stop him from speaking truth.
One bishop washed his hands of him, the other
wouldn’t let him celebrate in church.
On the shortest day the disciples disappeared,
even Lazarus whom he loved, leaving work
to the women, as usual.
Robert had lost control of his body,
the apartment smelled like shit.
I climbed into bed with him and we argued all morning
over the characters in his novel,
you have to make those women come alive!
The visiting nurse brought us lunch on a tray.
he lost consciousness. His best friend
drove up from Provincetown with only the clothes she stood up in,
kept watch in his hospital room.
I called a few other people who knew the hymnal by heart
and once he’d been given last rites,
we sang him out.
Oh, his West Texas family paid for a proper funeral
but it was for us he gave his life,
so that we might have ours and have it
abundantly. Say what you like, Robert knew
what he was about. He left me
his two-volume OED with magnifying glass
and this baggy red sweater I’m wearing to conjure up his presence.
That bishop will be caught having an affair, he will kill himself next year,
but fear was not what drove our brother Robert or impelled him
to lay hands on us for healing.
Remember him with love.
Meditation on Wintering
Each winter morning
I search the snow blanket
for the tip of the
He is admirable
in the way he kept
his head above it all
for so long.
Blasts of raging wind and ice
buried him in drifts
even he could not endure
and thus, he disappeared.
I saw it coming
from my preferred view
to the back garden,
where he sat content.
Storm after storm,
snow cover for his hands
held in meditation mudra.
his face erased,
topknot last to go.
He would vanish
along with pea stone paths,
has lived in me as both a
terror and a longing,
an edge of awareness,
watching the self sit,
utter goneness hovering.
One last impulse – return.
Shake back from the edge
before you are clouds, wind.
Return to the garden,
bare maple awareness,
dog on the doormat,
the hand-woven life
of the unenlightened.
After Chana Bloch’s “The Joins”
You shouted names, banged
shut the door, disappeared
for months until I saw your
suitcase stand uncertain
in the hall. You say words
can mend what words have
broken. You say presence
fills the hole that absence
left. In China once I chanced
upon the perfect gift for you,
a harmony globe of jade, three
latticed hollow spheres each one
inside another. The store made
promises of gentle wrapping
to preserve the spheres intact.
But home, unbound, my gift
fell all in jagged shards. You said
it could be fixed, with patience
and transparent glue, innermost
to outermost, so no one would
remember where the joins were.
I pedal past the earth-red barn
past the garden of golden zinnias
teepees of green pole beans
pedal past the clothes line heavy
with indigo dresses, mustard shirts
past the fields of high dry corn stalks
farmer on his horse-drawn cart
black suspenders, long gray beard
harvesting crops row by row
I breathe air strong with manure
wave to the barefoot boy in the buggy
pulled by mules plodding steadily homeward
I pedal by in spandex shorts
plastic helmet, sleeveless jersey
on my Cannondale with the racing handlebars
speed down through this Amish farmland
dodging dung and singing Hallelujah.
Such a careful traveler.
You needed written directions
and a map for good measure before you went anywhere;
but you left for eternity without a qualm.
Maybe you did have a qualm.
Maybe you wanted to discuss things with me
the way we always did
and I’d catch a mistake before you set off.
If you were waiting for me to set off that discussion,
I couldn’t. I had drowned weeks ago in ill-founded optimism.
Busy ignoring the present, planning the future,
I had no truth to share with you.
The truth I did have
I slipped into my back pocket,
buried it in flower pots.
But I retrieved it afterwards.
Afterwards the only connection to you I could manage
were those lethal truths: test results, dire prognoses.
I read them like scripture
to prove there was nothing I could have done.
Other connections prove harder to manage;
moments when you are right here,
when I almost ask, “What part of the paper do you want?”
Then for months you’re as gone as if you’d never been.
Where do those months take you?
How can I find you?
I have a GPS now; you’d love it,
it can get me anywhere.
Prime it with your coordinates.
(Baja Mexico Sur)
Shattered gold leaf litters the horizon,
as sunlight slowly drizzles down
into the Pacific’s verdigris waters.
We watch the Tropic of Cancer’s heat
ignite a fuse that flings a broad, fiery net
across the world, casting live sparks
into the lush foliage: orioles orange as
molten nectar flit near a ruby hibiscus
to sing their sassy arias; screeching jays
ride clear zip lines beyond our balcony;
tanagers (mango hued) serenade us
from acacia branches. I want you here, too,
Mother, lover of all things wild, who’d relish
exuberant birdcalls and these tropical colors,
this tumultuous play of beauty and ardor.
If all the saints can gather here today
in sizzling heat, then somehow you must
also arrive, when beckoned by me
and these offshore breezes. Perhaps you’re
the cactus wren perched near a bougainvillea
who’s cheeping to chicks, or you’re the burro
hee-hawing in the distance. Can you hear
that filly in an arroyo whinnying for her dinner?
Can you feel my breath towing you to me?
My father’s frozen tendons in his hand harken
back a thousand years to a disease some Viking had,
and brooded over, when he couldn’t grasp his spear.
My mother’s forbears, Sephardic Jews from Spain
and Iran, sit grimly in their portrait, my grandfather
wearing a fez on head, his wife prim in a babushka.
An Englishman, my father’s father, Sam, sang
opera, while my father’s mother, Rose, played
her kids against each other: a war lasting forever.
A tyrant, my mother’s father, Izzie (neé Irwin),
but my mother’s mother, Mariam, was a saint
whose dainty feet swung in tempo under her piano.
I’ve married an Ashkenazy Jew, though he
eschews religion, and both our daughters believe
in nothing more than being kind to strangers.
They’ve inherited their parents’ sea green eyes,
are attracted to Latino men, and exhibit a way
of speaking in tongues, which no one recognizes.
A terrific selection of poetry that grows deeper with each reading. I particularly loved the poems of W. J. Herbert and Maurya Simon and the mothers in so many of the selected poems.
Thanks, Margo – for your neat summary and review — so much here that moved me. Poems are what we write to cope, when life–or death–become inexpressively challenging. Telling is the greatest comfort. Hearing is also a comfort. As is sharing. Thanks, poets, all!
A powerful selection of poems to meet this winter season of cultural birth, and yet so many deaths. Thank you Maurya Simon for the eyes and courage to choose. So many of these poems feel to have Dickinson hovering near, whispering her “Because I could not stop for death…” And yet, each one pulses with a different life, something to make a fellow poet read and reread. (Kathryn Kelly’s unusual ghazal, making me rethink the form and wish to try my own hand at one, yet again. Henrietta Dahlstrom’s final “halleluja, a kick and a breath of life amid the nearby mix of tender and ironic widows in other selections. Jacqueline Lapidus’ biting final and earned call to “Remember him with love.” Each poem, a slightly bitter winter fruit. Thank you, poets, for such sharp cuts and tastes.