Eleven Poems


We thank Tess Gallagher and the publishers of Graywolf Press for their kindness in allowing us to include the following poems in the magazine: “Coming Home,” “Black Silk,” and “Each Bird Walking” come from Amplitude: New and Selected Poems(Graywolf Press, 1987). “Wake,” “Black Pudding,” “After the Chinese,” and “Deaf Poem” come from Moon Crossing Bridge (Graywolf Press, 1992). “Not a Sparrow,” “The Women of Auschwitz,” “Surgeon,” and “Choices” come from Dear Ghosts(Graywolf Press, 2006).

 

Coming Home
 
As usual, I was desperate.
I went through your house as if I owned it.
I said, “I need This, This and This.”
But contrary to all I know of you,
you did not answer, only looked after me.

I’ve never seen the house so empty, Mother.
Even the rugs felt it, how little
they covered. And what have you done
with the plants? How thankfully
we thought their green replaced us.

You were keeping something like a light.
I had seen it before, a place you’d never been
or never came back from. It was a special way
your eyes looked out over the water. Whitecaps
lifted the bay and you said, “He should be here
by now.”

How he always came back; the drinking,
the fishing into the night, all
the ruthless ships he unloaded.
That was the miracle of our lives. Even now
he won’t stay out of what I
have to say to you.

But they worry me, those boxes
of clothes I left in your basement. Sometimes
I think of home as a storehouse, the more
we leave behind, the less
you say. The last time
I couldn’t take anything.

So I’m always coming back like tonight,
in a temper, brushing the azaleas
on the doorstep. What did you mean
by it, this tenderness
that is a whip, a longing?

 

Black Silk
 
She was cleaning — there is always
that to do — when she found,
at the top of the closet, his old
silk vest. She called me
to look at it, unrolling it carefully
like something live
might fall out. Then we spread it
on the kitchen table and smoothed
the wrinkles down, making our hands
heavy until its shape against Formica
came back and the little tips
that would have pointed to his pockets
lay flat. The buttons were all there.
I held my arms out and she
looped the wide armholes over
them. “That’s one thing I never
wanted to be,” she said, “a man.”
I went into the bathroom to see
how I looked in the sheen and
sadness. Wind chimes
off-key in the alcove. Then her
crying so I stood back in the sink-light
where the porcelain had been staring. Time
to go to her, I thought, with that
other mind, and stood still.

 

Each Bird Walking
 
Not while, but long after he had told me,
I thought of him, washing his mother, his
bending over the bed and taking back
the covers. There was a basin of water
and he dipped a washrag in and
out of the basin, the rag
dripping a little onto the sheet as he
turned from the bedside to the nightstand
and back, there being no place

on her body he shouldn’t touch because
he had to and she helped him, moving
the little she could, lifting so he could
wipe under her arms, a dipping motion
in the hollow. Then working up from
the feet, around the ankles, over the
knees. And this last, opening
her thighs and running the rag firmly
and with the cleaning thought
up through her crotch, between the lips,
over the V of thin hairs —

as though he were a mother
who had the excuse of cleaning to touch
with love and indifference
the secret parts of her child, to graze
the sleepy sexlessness in its waiting
to find out what to do for the sake
of the body, for the sake of what only
the body can do for itself.

So his hand, softly at the place
of his birth-light. And she, eyes deepened
and closed in the dim room.
And because he told me her death as
important to his being with her,
I could love him another way. Not
of the body alone, or of its making,
but carried in the white spires of trembling
until what spirit, what breath we were
was shaken from us. Small then,
the word holy. 

He turned her on her stomach
and washed the blades of her shoulders, the
small of her back. “That’s good,” she said,
“that’s enough.”

On our lips that morning, the tart juice
of the mothers, so strong in remembrance, no
asking, no giving, and what you said, this
being the end of our loving, so as not to hurt
the closer one to you, made me look
to see what was left of us
with our sex taken away. “Tell me,” I said,
“something I can’t forget.” Then the story of
your mother; and when you finished
I said, “That’s good, that’s enough.”

 

Wake
 
Three nights you lay in our house.
Three nights in the chill of the body.
Did I want to prove how surely
I’d been left behind? In the room’s great dark
I climbed up beside you onto our high bed, bed
we’d loved in and slept in, married
and unmarried.

There was a halo of cold around you
as if the body’s messages carry farther
in death, my own warmth taking on the silver-white
of a voice sent unbroken across snow just to hear
itself in its clarity of calling. We were dead
a little while together then, serene
and afloat on the strange broad canopy
of the abandoned world.

 

Black Pudding
 
Even then I knew it was the old unanswerable form of beauty
as pain, like coming onto a pair of herons
near the river mouth at dawn. Beauty as when the body
is a dumb stick before the moment — yet goes on,
gazes until memory prepares a quick untidy room
with unpredictable visiting hours.
So I brought you there, you who didn’t belong, thinking to outsave
memory by tearing the sacred from

its alcove. I let you see us, arms helplessly tender,
holding each other all night on that awkward couch
because our life was ending. Again and again
retelling our love between gusts of weeping.
Did I let you overhear those gray-blue dyings?
Or as I think now, like a Mongol tribesman did I stop the horse
on its desert march, take the meal of blood

from its bowed neck to be heated. This then is my black pudding
only the stalwart know to eat. How I climbed
like a damp child waking from nightmare to find
the parents intimate and still awake.
And with natural animal gladness, rubbed my face
into the scald of their cheeks, tasting salt
of the unsayable — but, like a rescuer who comes too late, too
fervently marked with duty, was unable to fathom

what their danger and passage had been for. Except
as you know now, to glimpse is intrusion enough,
and when there is nothing else to sustain, blood will be thickened
with fire. Not a pretty dish.
But something taken from the good and cherished beast on loan to us,
muscled over in spirit and strong enough to carry us
as far as it can, there being advantage
to this meagerness, unsavoriness that rations itself
and reminds us to respect even its bitter portion.
Don’t ask me now why I’m walking my horse.

 

After the Chinese
 
By daybreak a north wind has shaken
the snow from the fir boughs. No disguise
lasts long. Did you think there were no winds
under the earth? My Tartar horse prefers
a north wind. Did you think
a little time and death would stop me?
Didn’t you choose me for the stubborn
set of my head, for green eyes that dared
the cheat and the haggler from our door?
I’ve worn a little path, an egg-shaped circle
around your grave keeping warm
while I talk to you. I’m the only one
in the graveyard. You chose well. No one
is as stubborn as me, and my Tartar horse
prefers a north wind.

 

Deaf Poem
 
Don’t read this one out loud. It isn’t
to be heard, not even in the sonic zones
of the mind should it trip the word “explosion”
and detonate in the silent room. My love
needs a few words that stay out of
the mouth and vocal cords. No vibrations, please.
He needs to put his soul’s freshly inhuman capacity
into scattering himself deeper into
the forest. It’s part of the plan that birds
will eat the markings. It’s okay. He’s not coming
that way again. He likes it where he is. Or if he
doesn’t, I can’t know anything about it. Let
the birds sing. He always liked to hear them
any time of day. But let this poem meet
its deafness. It pays attention another way, like he
doesn’t when I bow my head and press my forehead
in the swollen delusion of love’s power to
manifest across distance the gladness that joined us.

Wherever he is he still knows I have two feet
and one of them is broken from dancing.
He’d come to me if he could. It’s nice to be sure
of something when speaking of the dead. Sometimes
I forget what I’m doing and call out to him. It’s me! How
could you go off like that? Just as things were
getting good. I’m petulant, reminding him of his promise
to take me in a sleigh pulled by horses
with bells. He looks back in the dream — the way
a violin might glance across a room at its bow
about to be used for kindling. He doesn’t
try to stop anything. Not the dancing. Not the deafness
of my poems when they arrive like a sack of wet
stones. Yes, he can step back into life just long enough
for eternity to catch hold, until one of us
is able to watch and to write the deaf poem,
a poem missing even the language
it is unwritten in.

 

Not a Sparrow
 
Just when I think the Buddhists
are wrong and life is not mostly suffering,
I find a dead finch near the feeder.
How sullen, how free of regret, this death
that sinks worlds. I bury her near
the bicycle shed and return to care for
my aged mother, whose suffering
is such oxygen we do not consider it,
meaning life at any point exceeds
the price. A little more. A little more.

That same afternoon, having restored balance,
I discover a junco fallen on its back, beak
to air, rain pelting the prospect. Does
my feeder tempt flight through windows?
And, despite evidence, do some
accomplish it?

Digging a hole for the second bird, I find
the first gone. If I don’t think “raccoons”
or “dogs,” I can have a quiet, unwitnessed
miracle. Not a feather remains.
In goes the junco. I swipe earth over it,
set a pot on top. Time
to admit the limitations of death as
admonition.

Still, two dead birds in an afternoon
lets strange sky into the mind: birds flying
through windows, flying through
earth. Suffering must be like that too: equipped
with inexplicable escapes where the mind
watches the hand level dirt over the emptied grave
and, overpowered by the idea of wings,
keeps right on flying

 

The Women of Auschwitz
 
were not treated so well as I.
I am haunted by their shorn heads,
their bodies more naked for this
as they stumble against each other
in those last black-and-white
moments of live footage.

Before she cuts the braid
Teresa twines the red ribbon
bordered with gold into my hair.
The scissors stutter against the thick
black hank of it, though for its part,
the hair is mute.

When it was done
to them they stood next to each other.
Maybe they leaned
into each other’s necks afterwards. Or
simply gazed back with the incredulity
of their night-blooming souls.

Something silences us.
Even the scissors, yawing at
the anchor rope, can’t find their sound.
They slip against years as if they were bone.
I recall an arm-thick rope I saw in China
made entirely of women’s hair, used to anchor
a ship during some ancient war
when hemp was scarce.

At last the blades come together
like the beak of a metallic stork,
delivering me into my new form.
The braid-end fresh and bloodless.
Preempting the inevitable,
Teresa uses the clippers to buzz off
the rest. Breath by plover-breath,
hair falls to my shoulders, onto the floor, onto
my feet, left bare for this occasion.

As the skull comes forward,
as the ghost ship
of the cranium, floating
in its newborn ferocity, forces through,
we are in no doubt: the helm
of death and the helm of life
are the same, each craving light.

She sweeps the clippings onto the dust pan
and casts them from the deck
into the forest. Then, as if startled awake,
scrambles down the bank
to retrieve them, for something live
attaches to her sense of hair, after
a lifetime cutting it.

I am holding nothing back.
Besides hair, I will lose toenails, fingernails,
eyelashes and a breast to the ministrations
of medicine. First you must make
the form,
 Setouchi-san tells me, explaining
why the heads of Buddhist nuns are shaved.
The shape is choosing me, simplifying,
shaving me down to essentials,
and I go with it. Those women
of Auschwitz who couldn’t choose—
Meanwhile the war plays out
in desert cities, the news shorn of images
of death and dismemberment.

I make visible the bare altar
of the skull.
Time is deepened. Space
more intimate than
I guessed. I run my hand over
the birth-moment I attend sixty years
after. I didn’t know the women
would be so tender. Teresa takes my
photograph in Buddha Alcove, as if to prove
the passage has been safe. Holly, Jill, Dorothy,
Alice, Suzie, Chana, Debra, Molly and Hiromi offer flowers
and a hummingbird pendant, letting me know
they are with me. My sister
is there and Rijl.

I feel strangely gentled, glimpsing
myself in the mirror, the artifact
of a country’s lost humility.
My moon-smile, strange and far,
refuses to belong to the cruelties
of ongoing war. I am like a madwoman
who has been caught eating pearls—softly radiant,
about to illuminate a vast savanna, ready
to work a miracle with everything left to her.

 

Surgeon
 
He’s sketching the shape
of the incision across my left
breast. What about my heart? 
I can’t help asking.
Oh, don’t worry. We’ll leave
that. 
He smiles.
A bat wing he calls the design
he’ll use to lift the breast from
the chest wall. Thanks, doc,
for giving me half my boyhood
back, 
I tell him from the gurney,
thinking to relieve his scalpel
of hesitation. Then I’m under.

Afterwards, high on pain meds,
I talk on the phone
to loved ones in an exuberant
soaring and don’t recall a thing.
Strange to put my hand
there days later and find only
the pouting lip.

Suzie tending the wound
after my night’s respite
in hospital. She’s left her easel
to minister. Alfredo up and
down from the basement where
he’s been painting dream-jungles,
checking on me, asking sweetly
in his own healing mantra:
Tessita-how-you do-ing? 

My third operation in a year and
Suzie’s confident now, knows
how to manage this. Like a bewildered
child, I surrender to comfort
when she tucks me in at night.
Don’t talk to me of heaven.

for Susan Lytle and Alfredo Arreguln 

 

Choices
 
I go to the mountain side
of the house to cut saplings,
and clear a view to snow
on the mountain. But when I look up,
saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in
the uppermost branches.
I don’t cut that one.
I don’t cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,
an unseen nest
where a mountain
would be.

for Drago Stambuk

Tess Gallagher,
who lives in Port Angeles, Washington, is a poet, essayist, novelist, and playwright. Her work includes nine books of poetry and two novels, The Lover of Horses (1986) and At the Owl Woman Saloon (1996). She has received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship; two National Endowment for the Arts awards; the Maxine Cushing Gray Foundation award; and the Elliston award for the "best book of poetry published by a small press" (the collection Instructions to the Double). She has taught at numerous colleges, most recently at Bucknell University and Whitman College.

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