I was honored to be asked to judge Persimmon Tree’s Northeastern States Poetry Contest; it was a pleasure to read so many fine poems. It’s comforting to know that even in this time of bombardment from all sides by the plethora of electronic toys and diversions in this “brave new world,” poetry—the real thing— still lives on so vibrantly: not only the urge for it and the need for it, but the burning desire to write the stuff. I received over two hundred and twenty-five poems from more than seventy-five women. To narrow that down at first seemed impossible. How does one pick through and select diamonds from diamonds? Still, here are ten poems that just wouldn’t go away. No matter how many times I shuffled through the stacks (and there were stacks), there they were again, insisting on themselves, demanding to be read once more and once more: poems that by language, thought, or emotional punch proclaimed their worth. Funny, isn’t it, how language in lines, boiled down to its essential nub, is enough to knock one’s socks off.
Missing the Boat
If the phone call with news of the car crash
comes at the same time as e-mail
from your long-lost brother’s second wife
who’s passing through,
even with your hand on the doorknob,
you’ll turn back to do what must be done.
You will leave late, arrive at the pier, maybe in time
to watch the ferry pull away without you.
But the truth is, late is late. No matter how good
the reason, whatever the excuse, the cruise has filled.
That boat has sailed without you.
Now if you improvise, let’s say,
catch the next ice floe heading south and you stand
in the safe middle, you may not notice
a shrinking circumference, edges melting
minute by minute.
Time passes with a sense of something missing,
and you won’t think twice when a galley heaves in
to pick you up. Glad to be in the same boat,
all together on the same bench,
we lean on the oars. Windward.
Jean-Marie J. Crocker
Upon Hearing of Another Divorce
Once again the wince of disappointment,
the startle at news that friends
no longer can withstand
the constrictions of commitment.
We do not ask whose fault;
his tendency to rage or her
predilection for self-pity.
Perhaps it is a subtler flaw,
daily comfort dwindled to routine;
or else, for one of them
the unsought flare of sexual allure.
It is not for us to judge,
we who daily walk
the precipitous edge of betrayal.
One afternoon in May
when the sun shone purely through the chapel window
we witnessed their hope.
Gaze matched to gaze, they inscribed their vows
across the hush of gathered guests.
Later on the fresh green lawn
they received the embraces that encouraged
their sure intent.
Now, remembering the perfume of white lilacs
in the bouquet she held,
we suffer an implosion of joy.
To Warren’s Mother
I am sorry to tell you that Warren
was not welcome at the pharmacy,
that the salesgirl in cosmetics
shuddered to see his black Army beret
float over the shelf of Jean Nate.
It was simply a matter of his muttering,
his smirking at the Buff Puffs, at the oatmeal soap,
till the manager appeared
in a flurry of importance.
Your son was a minefield, this man
all feet. So Warren merely
raised the can for the March of Dimes
and shook it till our ears
banged like pipes. Such a noise
so few coins can make.
The Muzak sounded sheepish
when he stopped.
What was it like to greet
the green plane that took this version
of Warren home to you?
You’d guided his growing
like a clipped hedge. He was never meant
for jungle leaves riddled with holes—
almost like your pachysandra looked
that spring the cicadas came.
After and Because
After my mother died from the accident
when my father drove into the back
of a stopped eighteen-wheeler while
yelling at her on a Texas access road;
after the contents of his Alzheimer’s-addled
brain had him blaming us for her death,
hiding knives around the house to defend
himself because we were clearly stealing
from him those things he valued most:
car keys, loose coins, the wallet we found
in a coffee can, and the deed to the house,
buried in the basket of unwashed laundry
he’d dumped into the storage room;
after dementia had robbed him of the
raging contents of his mind, torqued him
into fetal position on his twin bed,
and extinguished his swallow reflex
so he aspirated food, got pneumonia,
was taken to the hospital, gasping
Who’s going to pay for this? and died,
my sister and I had to clean out
the double-wide they’d called home,
uncover the detritus of their years:
bent playing cards scattered across
the green-topped, peeling card table;
stained blouses in my mother’s closet
hanging like a row of empty lives;
so we hired a dumpster, chanting
When in doubt throw it out, as we
winnowed the piles, remembering
how Mother tried, again and again
to make some sense of it all,
and how he always yelled at her,
went outside to rip open those black
plastic bags, and haul it all back in.
First, the treadmill: an hour’s brisk
walk to nowhere, increasingly uphill
and no more stressful than five flights no
elevator Then, the angiogram:
a tiny eye threaded through from groin
to heart, throwing on the screen
a living map of blockage too far gone
for a benign balloon
In the operating room
they pulled an artery from your arm
like a small boy’s legendary tapeworm,
butterflied the chest like a breast of veal
and cracked your sternum open. Four bullet holes
for the instruments and you were fitted with new
pipes, oh, it was a class act! Now
the grafts are supposed to do the work, but who
can feed blood to a stone?
Christina Woś Donnelly
a response to Jane Hirshfield’s “The Poet,” with respect
The Poet Thanks the Master but Has Small Need of Chairs
Or paper, or silence. For herself,
she can perch anywhere.
The kitchen stool is often handy.
More likely she will be in motion:
walking or bathing, or riding to market.
One hand in dishwater, she dandles
a heavy child on her hip. Her table
is covered with quinces and pears.
She writes best on whatever is closest.
A grocery sack, a scrap of cloth suffice.
The corner of an old envelope is still useful,
even a napkin lightly soiled. She jots, really.
When the time comes, there may be something
humming, something bright, electric, but
a piece of chalk, a twig in mud, the handle of
a spoon will serve. If pressed, memory triumphs.
Her truest words come always, like the love
of one’s life, when she is busy, happy,
otherwise occupied. Sitting would be inadvisable.
The poet accepts with gratitude the Master’s benediction
but has small need of chairs, or paper and silence.
She has written large her mistakes on empty walls.
She has ample room to go on.
Kathleen M. Kelley
after Sylvia Plath
We dug in the calloused heels of our feet,
eased ourselves up from our knees,
unfolded our shoulders and shook them.
We lifted the towers of our necks,
straightened our pleated collars,
came out from the shadows,
and raised our cephalic heads.
We saw what the world had become.
We saw who we were—
chanterelles, entalomas, shiitakes,
all specked and studded,
sleek, split, complicated,
light fleshed and dark—
the riotous spectrum of color—
carmine, puce, brass, bronze, brick.
We saw the way everything changes—
no beginning, no end.
We opened the tired earth
like a book, lifted pine needles,
raised up leaf rot and mulch.
We sprouted from stumps,
scaled trees, toppled stone,
upended systems, centuries,
every single stronghold,
and yes, we were disorderly.
There was nothing we did not touch,
and everything we touched, we changed.
Gloss on Giotto’s Last Supper
What does this moment mean, burned
As it is in my memory of Giotto’s vision,
This central fragment of the Last Supper,
Jesus and Judas looking deeply
Into one another’s eyes like lovers
About to kiss?
Jesus, the more beautiful of the two,
Is already deified with a halo.
Yet face to face it’s still man to man here.
A dark line defining Judas’s brow
Brings him forward into Jesus’s plane,
Separates him from the soldiers he has brought.
In this remarkable moment of history or of myth
A god is being born, and the messenger of the arrival
Will perform his appointed task.
He will get his place in history, this Judas,
A short man with the brow and build of a peasant,
Eyes blazing for that kiss.
Of Two Minds
I wish I could love like a saint.
Before they got saintly.
St. Callixtus: Embezzler & Brawler
St. Olga: Arsonist & Murderer
St. Camillus: Mercenary & Card Shark
I want to be one of those salty,
fishy, down in the dirt types
doing everything—everything, everyone
to the limit, going to the center of the earth
to the stars, to hell in a hand-basket
to the end of the line and then, only then
get struck with a sense of error.
After I’d taken every risk
tasted every possible lover
loved every possible taste
said every possible truth…and untruth
made every gorgeous-dire-worldly mistake I could
or could not, manage—the bloat
of iniquity would be achieved
and only virtue would remain.
Imagine such near-angelic fullness.
You would certainly be present.
I would have dragged you along
all sorts of base, unforgivable, unforgettable
streets. We would be reprehensible.
But instead, my tepid integrity
trudges the paved path with not one
sordid intention. Not one.
The Big Question
How will you be, my friend,
When the last bell tolls?
As though some hellish hound
Were snapping at your heels.
We have no road map
For navigating the dense black hole
That waits to claim us.
We are skeptical of
Promising happier times.
The departing soul
Leaves no visible footprints.
It vanishes like morning dew
In the first warmth of the day.
We know only when it is gone,
Maybe the answer is to be found
In our new religion:
“Light is both wave and particle.”
In this life we are particle.
When we cross the mysterious divide,
We become wave.
How It Is
Published in The Georgia Review
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?