(Selected by Chana Bloch)
Editor’s Note: These poems appeared in Grace Notes (1989), Selected Poems(1993), Mother Love (1996), On the Bus With Rosa Parks (1999), American Smooth(2004) and Sonata Mulattica (2009). We thank Rita Dove for her graciousness in allowing them to be included here.
In math I was the whiz kid, keeper
of oranges and apples. What you don’t understand,
master, my father said; the faster
I answered, the faster they came.
I could see one bud on the teacher’s geranium,
one clear bee sputtering at the wet pane.
The tulip trees always dragged after heavy rain
so I tucked my head as my boots slapped home.
My father put up his feet after work
and relaxed with a highball and The Life of Lincoln.
After supper we drilled and I climbed the dark
before sleep, before a thin voice hissed
numbers as I spun on a wheel. I had to guess.
Ten, I kept saying, I’m only ten.
Your absence distributed itself
like an invitation.
Friends and relatives
kept coming, trying
to fill up the house.
But the rooms still gaped—
the green hanger swang empty, and
the head of the table
demanded a plate.
When I sat down in the armchair
your warm breath fell
over my shoulder.
When I climbed to bed I walked
through your blind departure.
The others stayed downstairs,
trying to cover
the silence with weeping.
When I lay down between the sheets
I lay down in the cool waters
of my own womb
and became the child
as a button, helplessly growing.
I slept because it was the only
thing I could do. I even dreamed.
I couldn’t stop myself.
Shape the lips to an o, say a.
One word of Swedish has changed the whole neighborhood.
When I look up, the yellow house on the corner
is a galleon stranded in flowers. Around it
the wind. Even the high roar of a leaf-mulcher
could be the horn-blast from a ship
as it skirts the misted shoals.
We don’t need much more to keep things going.
Families complete themselves
and refuse to budge from the present,
the present extends its glass forehead to sea
(backyard breezes, scattered cardinals)
and if, one evening, the house on the corner
took off over the marshland,
neither I nor my neighbor
would be amazed. Sometimes
a word is found so right it trembles
at the slightest explanation.
You start out with one thing, end
up with another, and nothing’s
like it used to be, not even the future.
After all, there’s no need
to say anything
at first. An orange, peeled
and quartered, flares
like a tulip on a wedgwood plate.
Anything can happen.
Outside the sun
has rolled up her rugs
and night strewn salt
across the sky. My heart
is humming a tune
I haven’t heard in years!
Quiet’s cool flesh—
let’s sniff and eat it.
There are ways
to make of the moment
so the pleasure’s in
She dreams the baby’s so small she keeps
misplacing it—it rolls from the hutch
and the mouse carries it home, it disappears
with his shirt in the wash.
Then she drops it and it explodes
like a watermelon, eyes spitting.
Finally they get to the countryside;
Thomas has it in a sling.
He’s strewing rice along the road
while the trees chitter with tiny birds.
In the meadow to their right three men
are playing rough with a white wolf. She calls
warning but the wolf breaks free
and she runs, the rattle
rolls into the gully, then she’s
there and tossing the baby behind her,
listening for its cry as she straddles
the wolf and circles its throat, counting
until her thumbs push through to the earth.
White fur seeps red. She is hardly breathing.
The small wild eyes
go opaque with confusion and shame, like a child’s.
Throw open the shutters
to your darkened residences:
can you hear the pipes playing,
their hunger shaking the olive branches?
To hear them sighing and not answer
is to deny this world, descend rung
by rung into no loss and no desire.
Listen: empty yet full, silken
air and brute tongue,
they are saying:
To refuse to be born is one thing—
but once you are here,
you’d do well to stop crying
and suck the good milk in.
Sonnet in Primary Colors
This is for the woman with one black wing
perched over her eyes: lovely Frida, erect
among parrots, in the stern petticoats of the peasant,
who painted herself a present—
wildflowers entwining the plaster corset
her spine resides in, that flaming pillar—
this priestess in the romance of mirrors.
Each night she lay down in pain and rose
to the celluloid butterflies of her Beloved Dead,
Lenin and Marx and Stalin arrayed at the footstead.
And rose to her easel, the hundred dogs panting
like children along the graveled walks of the garden, Diego’s
love a skull in the circular window
of the thumbprint searing her immutable brow.
My Mother Enters the Work Force
The path to ABC Business School
was paid for by a lucky sign:
Alterations, Qualified Seamstress
Tested on Sleeves, hers
never puckered—puffed or sleek,
Leg o’ or Raglan—they barely
needed the damp cloth
to steam them perfect.
Those were the afternoons.
Evenings she took in piecework,
the treadle machine with its
locomotive whir traveling the lit path
of the needle through quicksand
taffeta or velvet deep as a forest.
And now and now sang the treadle,
I know, I know…
And then it was day again,
all morning at the office machines,
their clack and chatter
that would go on forever
until she could break a hundred words
with no errors—ah, and then
No more postponed groceries,
and that blue pair of shoes!
“I’m just a girl who people were mean to on a bus… I could have been anybody.”
—Mary Ware, nee Smith
Can’t use no teenager, especially
no poor black trash,
no matter what her parents do
to keep up a living. Can’t use
anyone without sense enough
to bite their tongue.
It’s gotta be a woman,
someone of standing:
preferably shy, preferably married.
And she’s got to know
when the moment’s right.
Stay polite, though her shoulder’s
aching, bus driver
the same one threw her off
twelve years before.
Then all she’s got to do is
sit there, quiet, till
the next moment finds her—and only then
can she open her mouth to ask
Why do you push us around?
and his answer: I don’t know but
the law is the law and you
are under arrest.
She must sit there, and no smile
as they enter to carry her off;
she must know who to call
who will know whom else to call
to bail her out . . . and only then
can she stand up and exhale
can she walk out of the cell
and down the jail steps
into flashbulbs and
her employer’s white
arms—and go home,
and sit down in the seat
we have prepared for her.
Describe Yourself in Three Words or Less
I’m not the kind of person who praises
openly, or for profit; I’m not the kind
who will steal a scene unless
I’ve designed it. I’m not a kind at all,
in fact: I’m itchy and pug-willed,
gnarled and wrong-headed,
never amorous but possessing
a wild, thatched soul.
Each night I set my boats to sea
and leave them to their bawdy business.
Whether they drift off
or dock in the morning
scuffed and chastened—
is simply how it is, and I gather them in.
You are mine, I say to the twice-dunked cruller
before I eat it. Then I sing
to the bright-beaked bird outside,
then to the manicured spider
between window and screen;
then I will stop, and forget the singing.
(See? I have already forgotten you.)
Reverie in Open Air
I acknowledge my status as a stranger:
Inappropriate clothes, odd habits
Out of sync with wasp and wren.
I admit I don’t know how
To sit still or move without purpose.
I prefer books to moonlight, statuary to trees.
But this lawn has been leveled for looking,
So I kick off my sandals and walk its cool green.
Who claims we’re mere muscle and fluids?
My feet are the primitives here.
As for the rest—ah, the air now
Is a tonic of absence, bearing nothing
But news of a breeze.
Old World Lullaby
I had forgotten her pinks and creams,
the sprigged apron tied on like a heavenly shield,
the small smile transfigured by the task
set before her: Feed your sons.
I had forgotten her nasal contralto, its feathery edges,
and the smell of old honey and almonds
whenever she moved through the kitchen—
as she does now, suddenly, to hug
then hold me at arm’s length, like a wooden nutcracker,
her pale eyes searching mine, ardent for anything
I could spare, a little piece of me, a soul-scrap
tossed like bad meat to the yapping dogs in the street.