to my sister
We all fall down
She’s begun to give her things away.
Scarves. What’s left of the Limoges.
The 1927 stemware you and I hauled down
once a year to wash, dry, put away.
How silly, we thought, this treasuring
the never used. Such brilliance in braids.
Remember the giddy slippage?
The goblet a year shattered in the sink?
What wouldn’t I give to have them back,
last seen forty years ago carried out in garbage.
Tulips cracked from stems, champagne, liqueur.
I think of them, waiting years
in a dark cupboard, upturned mouths
yearning to be touched and sing, etched vines
reaching to catch themselves, ring around
a rosy, pocket full of posies and
hold on around the rim.
Today she insists I clean out cabinets,
wash, dry, box up. Ashes. Ashes.
I tell you, Judy, despite everything,
I’d take Wadsworth Avenue again—toothpick,
spread newspaper, glue—if only to prolong
this moment—she directing in slippers, and I
taking down the gleaming pieces of what’s left.
Does that sound too pretty?
All right then, plain as bottle glass
scratched with a nail: I want one more year
before the sink empties, before the suds shatter
skidding toward the hole.
Let us speak of love and weather
Let us put your mother and mine
away for a while. Your dying father,
my dead one.
Let us watch
from our bedroom window how a slow
falling snow crowns all nakedness in ermine.
Do not look at me yet. Your face is flushed,
your eyes too love-soaked, too blue.
Outside is white on black
and still. The sky, deaf with stillness.
Don’t let it frighten you.
Hush. There’s time enough for that.
Be content for now to watch the maples
fill with snow, how they spread themselves,
each naked limb making itself accessible.
From the Daughter Journals
As whales plow through krill,
swifts stream out of their chimney
gleaning a bug breakfast from the air.
An old cardinal knocks a young one
off his wire. A gang of crows swoops in
looking for a morning argument. I sit
by the lake, watching how trees lean
diagonal, tending to their reflections,
wondering if they too are joined—stuck
root to root—as if those look-alikes
towering in their fretful water,
those dead ringers, were their mothers.
By December each leaf loss will be
set down in the surface records
revealing the skeletons of an ancient
tug of war: the arcing up / the lodestone
down. The stretch of bare-boned cracking,
the drag of deaf and trembling water.
What’s this of whales and krill?
Here is my center post. Here
where the toad freezes and stares,
and the old oak hangs on to her leaves
all winter, running a nursing home for
her children death-rattling in her arms.
Oh Mother, forgive me.
I have bad dreams. Everything
seems to know my name, writes me
into its daily movie. I can’t seem
to go more gently into your good night.
I’m afraid you are taking me with you.
Life isn’t long enough
to learn the patience necessary.
Pitted against desire, what’s so hot about
counting to ten? Think salmon—the fight,
the desperate fling
against the bear’s
swipe and the knock-you-back water.
In the face of need, let’s face it,
patience is luxury. Even Beauty,
sensible, yes, but come first thaw
she too is cruising for the hook.
No lure, no worm, no hand-tied fly
but whooped up already, ready to thrash
gasping in the bilge of any boat.
one polished line, one invitation into
the tangoed dark, and there it is—the red
slam-dunk of the heart, that timpani
in the chest counting out
the clarinet’s twiddle and each thin
thought of the violin, wanting only
the great drama it was tightened up for.
The big BIM BAM.
Listen, the heart
wants what it wants. There’s no telling
it different. Look out the window.
The curtain rises, and stage left—see?
Spring enters singing forsythia, that aria
of yellow, that operatic bush.
Mono-buttocked in a girdle,
& brassiered into cones—their satin
sister act pointy under wraps—we were
more than Euclidian globes & conicals
or the buzzy triangle we struggled
not to think about. If we were
two-faced & all angles toward
matrimony as we were accused,
let me assure you, we were obtuse.
To us, men were problems to be
solved & corrected, not the answers
at the back of the book.
And how we
loved our books, clutched them
to our cardigans: Keats, Tolstoy,
Thomas Wolfe, Dostoevsky, anyone
with compass or T-square enough
to take the full measure of what
we were: Faust, not Gretchen. Socrates
defining wisdom in the marketplace
not Xanthippe at home pounding out
the phyllo for the baklava. We were told
The Trojan Women was man, his suffering,
and we swallowed it, for didn’t we too
switch genders for sense & sanity,
laying claim to Ahab’s search for truth
in a book of seas, or the phantom itself
hurtling beyond definition?
who held up the mirror showing us
a jumble of geometry, laying us out
in garish polygons & tortured trapezoids—
we argued the merits of modern art,
turned away and paid the price.
our hair-shirts starched & suffered
our virtue gladly. In short, we were afraid.
In love with love, we strained
at the forbidden line. If coerced,
cajoled, or back-seat outmaneuvered,
the next day brought roses, brought Sorry,
it won’t happen again.
Was it to our credit,
agreeing to believe the unbelievable?
Were we right to take the high road,
to play the game we couldn’t win?
The satin was cut & measured before
we filled our cups, & the only formula
to solve for was the axiom behind the veil:
complement, make the incongruous,
congruous. The threatening acute, right.
Today I started looking for my soul.
Yesterday it was my keys. Last week,
my brain which I couldn’t find, it being out
looking for me, now that I’m getting so old.
First I thought my soul would have gone
back to Greece where she grew so tall and straight,
she thought she was a column. Or back to camp,
being forever twelve and underdeveloped.
Perhaps, being careless, I left her during the 70s
in bed with God knows whom. Or could be
I buried her with my mother—my head not being right—
but that was my heart.
So I went to where I know
I saw her last. Radio City Music Hall.
I’m six, my feet barely brushing the floor,
and the Rockettes start shuffling out, long-
legged and perfect as paper dolls kicking up
down in a wave. One body with seventy-two knees
chugging like pistons going back in a forever mirror,
same as in Coney Island’s Fun House or Mama’s can
of Dutch Cleanser. And my heart flexed in me, a sail,
and I swear I saw it flying out of my chest
spiriting away my giddy soul, ears plugged and tied
to the mast: I can’t hear you I can’t hear you.
How It Is
and the pitiless drift
begins in earnest. And all
that whispered in the pockets
of summer’s green uniform
is shaken out and dumped.
My mimosa knew, for wasn’t
that death fingering the leaves
all summer? Yet the tree
plumped its pods, spending
all July squeezing them out,
going about its business, as did
the slash pine and loblolly,
windows, cars, filling every
idle slit with sperm.
What does life mean
but itself? Ask the sea.
You’ll get a wet slap back-
handed across your mouth.
Ask the tiger. I dare you.
And your life, with its
tedium of suffering, what
does it mean but what it is?
checkbooks and whomping up
a mess of vittles as my son
used to say. My son, the funny one,
Who am I to write the user’s manual
for a life, except to say,
Look at trees, dug in and defiant.
Be like the river. Stick out your tongue.
Why not? What’s to lose
when what’s to lose is everything?
Aunt Nellie’s Walk
An oscillating fan. That’s
how my Nellie walked.
A metronome on tiny feet—
hips sashaying side to side,
swinging in importance.
Now she sleeps in a chair,
unable to recall how she once
marched behind the fire truck
in the parade and danced
the two-step with flowers
in her hair. Her mind, a blowout
in a bowl. But given a nurse
with biceps and a bully streak
to hoist her up, glue her
to a walker, and command, Walk—
you’d see it. Even if her feet
couldn’t move and she were reduced
to reflex under the cotton gown
tied in back, there—beneath the flesh
trembling to be off the bone at last—
that built-in hint of impudent wag.
Oh Lord, give us back this day
a little butter for our bread.
What shame to have such flaunt
gone from this world. The tap
tap of summer sandals,
the swinging counterpoint
of her arms, the lilting seesaw
of her hips. I swear, that woman’s
to-and-fro could hypnotize a watch.
My Aunt Nellie, soul of propriety,
queen of good causes, trailing
in her wake such endearing treason.
Falling In Line
Barely perceptible, but see—
threading the roses, the line
where they were joined
to make a garden.
We live in a world
of lines—by-lines, lifelines,
Dotted lines, deadlines,
your lying line of love.
Klee said, A drawing
is simply a line going for a walk.
So is a poem. Ditto
a life. Danger happens
when you find yourself
not out of
line, or in
line, or even
behind lines, but
so close you can’t get out.
The lines under your feet,
there, where planks
tongue and groove,
gathers to itself,
beyond reach of vacuum
or broom, pulling you in
until you too
are too safe and gradually
colorless. So deep
even the light licking the floor
can’t find you.
Undressed, her body
wanted dancing. Behind drapes,
draped only in air without belt or bind,
her grace—the sweep of a bird—
outbloomed even the garden
she outlasted. Undressed,
she joined the assemblage
for like the night
she had thrown everything off
to burn on the axis
of her own turning. She danced
and without shame, for she was old
and the tune in her head
Ironing the Brain
Sometimes I’m tempted
to set my brain on the board,
trembling like a Jell-O
slipped from its mold, plug in
my old GE and flatten her good.
One thump and a glide. Never mind
the sizzle. Scientists say, smooth
all fissures and bumps and you
are looking at sixteen square feet.
Enough to carpet a telephone booth.
Imagine, sixteen square feet of
brain underfoot to tap and shuffle on
while waiting for that “Hold on,
I’ll call you right back” call
that never comes. And you know
at that moment—a sudden
jab in your arch, your brain trying
to tell you something—you’re going
to live the rest of your life like that.
Suspended, waiting. And for what?
Now that I’m getting on, I propose
a better use for that postage stamp
of a rug: a Martha Stewart bath mat
in pewter or pearl: a confection
of synapses and tufts, dendrites
and meningeal branches woven
into a fluff. The concentrated
power of the human frontal cortex
flat on its back in fringed surrender.
What a blessing. Perfect syntax
and the luxury of the right word right
there all the time. And me, standing on it,
dripping, the poem rising like a watered ivy,
pure and unbidden between my toes.
“Crystal” is from Zoo: Poems, The University of Arkansas Press, 1999. “Snow” and “From the Daughter Journals” are from The Book of the Rotten Daughter, BkMk Press, 2006. “Waiting,” “Geometry,” and “Getting Serious” are from Vinculum, Louisiana State University Press, 2011. “How It Is,” “Aunt Nellie’s Walk,” “Falling in Line,” “Silhouette,” and “Ironing the Brain” are from The View from Saturn, Louisiana State University Press, 2014.