Ten Poems


(Selected by Chana Bloch)

The editors wish to thank Sandra M. Gilbert for her kind permission to include the following poems in Persimmon Tree. They are selected from her books—Kissing the Bread: New and Selected Poems, 1969-1999 (W.W. Norton, 2000); Belongings(W.W. Norton 2005); and Aftermath (W.W. Norton, forthcoming 2011).

The Grandmother Dream

My Sicilian grandmother, whom I’ve never met,
my Sicilian grandmother, the midwife, who died
forty years ago, appears in my bedroom.
She’s sitting on the edge of my bed,
at her feet a shabby black bag,
and she speaks a tangled river of Italian:
her Sicilian words flow out like dark fish, slippery and cold,
her words stare at me with blank eyes.

I see that she’s young, younger than I am.
I see her black hair gleam like tar as
she draws from her small black midwife’s bag
her midwife tools: heavy silver instruments
polished like doorknobs, polished—misshapen, peculiar—
like the knobs of an invisible door.

Getting Fired, or “Not Being Retained”

A letter came in the mail from the Vice President of Crucial
Events.

Though I tried not to open it, it got out of its envelope
like a secret agent who slips through a door when no one is
looking.

The letter regarded me gravely and took stock of me as if it
were
an uncle who had not seen me for twenty years.

Then it said: “Due to circumstances”—and something else I
didn’t hear—
“decisions have been made” it said “requiring that
and so in accordance with all established procedures you
are not being retained in your present position—that is—”
the letter took a quick puff of a cigarette
and grinned (an engaging grin, like the grin of a movie actor
who makes his fortune from his teeth and hair and lovable
shoulders)—
“That is—” said the letter—”You’re fired!”

“Awfully sorry to have to transmit this bad news”
the letter added, seeing my dismay,
“but that’s how things are, you know.”

I wasn’t bothered. At least, I didn’t think I was.
I went into the garden and sat down among
my old friends the rhododendrons and drank some coffee.
The rhododendrons held out five-fingered clusters like
new green stanzas they were writing—”What
do you think of this?”—and
I thought well of them and I was calm.

But in the meantime, while I wasn’t looking, the letter
took possession of the house. The letter
stretched out on the living room sofa and asked for a newspaper,
which it scrutinized with eyes of steel.
“What’s all this shit?” asked the letter sternly
when my children left their sweaters on the kitchen floor
or my husband played the phonograph too loud.

The letter unpacked its suitcases and hung up
an astonishing number of fancy jackets
(all dark tweeds, most
from Brooks Brothers and J. Press)
in my bedroom closet. The letter
sent people on errands and ordered special
delicacies from the supermarket—for its diet was
unusual: it liked the wings of new-hatched chickens,
the legs of live crabs, oysters white as
eyes, and carrots whose scream (when they
were ripped from the ground)
was recorded and verified by experts.

The letter took over my study and replaced all the books
with volumes from its own collection, all
black paperbacks, all untitled.

At last I couldn’t stand
to be in the same house with the letter,
watching it raid the refrigerator,
seeing it read its black books,
and now I spend most of my time beneath the rhododendrons,
thinking careful thoughts—
“If first I—
then perhaps I—
after which, of course,
and so forth—”
while the letter scrapes carrots in the kitchen
for my children.

But the children,
bless them, have got used to the letter,
as though it really were a bad-tempered old uncle
with whom they have lived all their lives.

On the Third Hand

On the one hand
I am afraid. I wear a school ring.
I prick my tender fingers, remember typewriters,
carry hammers.

On the other hand
I believe there’s nothing to fear.
I wear a wedding ring. I have pink fingernails.
My skin is soft as vanilla cream.

On the third hand
I wear the rings of crystal and pollen
and the rings the Etruscans fashioned
from feathers, auguries, seeds, and
salts of strange origin:

these rings murmur in the dark,
murmur and click in foreign tongues,
keeping my cold third hand awake,
promising pleasures unique as fingerprints,
pains closer to bone than skin.

The fingers of my third hand are green,
they are yellow and green.
Someone gave them to me in a dream
when I was twenty-nine.

With the third hand
I write letters to the world of glass,
letters instantly read and memorized
By missionaries of the light, letters swallowed
By emptiness, letters conveyed by silent messengers
to polar silences. (Somewhere
in other words, they are well known.)

On the third hand
I play the piano of grass, and looped around cold fingers
I carry the green keys that unlock the door in the oak
behind which my great aunts live smiling
in a parlor lined with glittering samovars:

With the third hand
I turn all the handles, and once again
the ancient tea steams out like rain.

Anniversary Waltz

—for E.

Talking to you is as embarrassing as talking
to myself: I think everyone will stare, they’ll say
Look at that crazy lady, muttering
Love, Love, like a lunatic!

We stoop together in the garden,
stuck in gummy cabbage patches,
nagging, laughing, cursing. When you look up,
I admire your eyebrows, as always.

Satanic, magisterial, Jewish!
I used to dream myself to sleep picturing your eyebrows
raised in my direction!
Yet soon enough we moved into a German ballroom

with bamboo partitions.
You wrote your famous letter to the I.G.
Senators wrote to us.
Our firstborn baby died.

Twenty-one years went by.
More children, more kitchens, better partitions.
Typewriters, studies, weeping in the pantry.
Making love like adolescents on the sly.

Your beard begins to get gray,
but not your eyebrows.
We’re stuck in the thick of it, we smile wryly,
we fatten, we grow dumb.

Once in a while
I have to hang on to your hand.
I cannot imagine who else
we might have become.

February 11, 1994: Berkeley,
Anniversary Waltz Again

The year revolves toward pink and red,
toward the tiny Valentine
hearts of the plums,

each blossom a pink frill
and a core of blood, a frill
and its bloody core. .. .

Three times the nurses wheeled you into the icy room,
three-quarters of your life just barely over.
Three years since you set out for nowhere,

three years I’ve studied these blossoms alone,
the indifferent flush, the roseate
aplomb they set against bare blue.

To have gone on becoming without you!
Three nights now since we met in sleep,
and I told you sorrowfully

that you were dead—
three nights since you wept in rage,
lifted your handsome shadowy head and howled.

But how your face has changed!
You’re beardless and pale,
a different man, a spirit man,

as if when we were spun away from each other,
as if when I took my first three giant steps
into another somewhere,

you too could never be the same,
you too had to go on becoming
and becoming other,

becoming alone….
As if the only February thing
that’s sure to be the same

is still the plum tree’s
blind pink three-week waltz
with air and light and darkness.

Gold Tooth

Mouth agape, you twist in
the hands of the dentist.
Outside, what the poet called “midwinter spring”
trails its eagerness across the trees,

plum blossoms foaming up in a hurry,
camellias bursting open as if to whisper
Quick! Quick!
while the dentist pokes, scrapes, polishes.

He’s making you a gold tooth,
“mouth jewelry,” he jokes;
he’s making you a tooth
that will glow like no other;

month by month he’s replacing your frailty
with precious metals.
You think you love your softness, your
pink, your lips that smile, purse, murmur,

you think you love
your tongue, that sweet camellia petal,
but the dentist has made a plaster
model of your bite:

pale artifact, it sits on his counter,
tough as a Neolithic axe, your fat
gold tooth wedged into one tight crevice.
The dentist knows this bite is what counts,

this bite, and this immortal tooth.
His back to the blossoming window,
he sends a rush of cold along your gums,
then taps your new treasure

into your new wound
with a tiny mallet that tells you
only what is hard enough to endure
will endure.

About the Beginning

The nastiness of origins!
when she put on that pink shantung,

she wasn’t thinking of you;
straightening his tie, he was equally

indifferent. Their blind date
with your destiny was just another

dumb night out. At the restaurant
his best friend joked that the wine

was “unpretentious” while hers
kept visiting the ladies room

to change her Kotex. The Italian waiter
scowled and limped but didn’t

belong to the Mafia. Nobody
drank too much, nobody

told any interesting stories. He
thought maybe he’d see her once or twice again.

She thought he was too skinny, she was
really stuck on a flashy

lawyer in Brooklyn and this shy
guy just had a dull job with the city.

As for you, you didn’t know the difference
between yourself and any other egg.

No, you were only half a cell, stranded among
slick membrances, and when

they had married and copulated and you’d swelled
alarmingly into a body

with fingerprints intact
and you were inching out of her body

in short sharp jerks,
she was only thinking about the awful

pain this whole business was causing her
because she still didn’t know who you were—

you with your booties and your allergies,
your sonnets and your discoveries:

you were still lighter in her thought
than the silk flower on the straw hat

she’d planned to wear on that fatal date
and then forgotten about.

He Discusses Gravity

The attraction of one body to another—
as, the apple to the Earth, the feather
to the rock, the leaning tower
to its shadow traced on Pisan stone:

he explains this undercover
in the simmering darkness where their bodies
reach and touch, gravely
attracted. It’s the mass

that does it, heart of the matter, mass
plus nearness. The closer the body
of the other, the more the body
of the one craves touch.

As now,
she knows she’s falling
rapidly toward him
like that apocryphal apple

plummeting toward the grass at Newton’s feet,
or like the rock that Galileo dropped
one curious day in Pisa, or even—
especially—like the feather

that the wise man said would fall
(all else being equal)
as fast and fierce as rock
toward the desirous body of the ground.

Afternoon Walk: The Sea Ranch

Late light, uneven mole-gnawed meadow,
gullies, freshets, falls, whose start and speckle
Hopkins would have loved—and you—you too,
who loved the sheen and shade, the forest dapple
where grass meets cypress just beyond the house—
you’d praise the mushroom-sprout, the chilly glisten
as the hedgerow folds into the solstice
and suddenly the last crisp leaves unfasten.

This time of year, this place, light dims at the pace
of a long late afternoon walk, light seems to slow
and sorrow as the meadow turns its face
into your unlived season, the winter hollow
where only a steep sky, in quarter inches,
adjusts descending sun, ascending branches.

—in memory of E.L.G.

For Ruth Stone on Her Ninetieth Birthday

Walter left but he didn’t leave you alone.
Always there at the ragged edge of sight,
he left you a gift as tough and cold as stone.

You were young, you were wild, you beat at the sky and its rain,
you tore at the noose of bone, the stubborn weight.
Walter left but he wouldn’t leave you alone.

You “waded grief—whole pools,” like Dickinson,
you shrieked with laughter at the plots of fate.
In your battered jacket you traveled across the stone,

chopped ice from the brook, hung swirling words from your line,
simmered a broth for your girls in the flare of light;
Walter left but he didn’t leave them alone.

And the words grew wilder and wiser and looped and shone
as you rose on “desperate buses” from state to state,
away from the past that dragged behind like a stone

until you reached a fierce house of your own
where you dwell in the light your sentences create.
Walter left but he couldn’t leave you alone;
your gift of tongues made flesh and blood of stone.

 

Sandra M. Gilbert, Distinguished Professor of of English Emerita at the University of California, Davis, is the author of seven collections of poetry and a prose work, Death’s Door: Modern Dying and The Ways We Grieve. She has also published a memoir, Wrongful Death and an anthology of elegies, Inventions of Farewell, along with a number of critical works, including Acts of Attention The Poems of D. H. Lawrence and many essays in journals, anthologies, and periodicals. She has been a recipient of Guggenheim, Rockefeller, NEH, and Soros Foundation fellowships.

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