That a skin-and-bones boy climbed down from
the rafters after the Cossacks spit, kicked,
and left little of the shack, the shtetland a terrified mother, and stumbled, hatless
and mapless, leading a fragment of family out
into bitter nights and a fetid ship to Texas.
That a young woman sweated days in a laundry
in the Bronx, labored year after year in night
school for the diploma she tied to a stack of love
letters and dreamed her way five days on the Texas
Southern Pacific to a depot in the desert, that her
dimples appealed to his skinny honesty, that his
gravel-kicked boots and roustabout hands skidded
into her romance-starved heart, that the two found
a circuit rabbi to marry them, a drilling camp
willing to take them, that there among a thousand
oil boom tents, one night in the bosses’ ten-by-ten
bedroom, when the blow-your-brains-out gusts of west
Texas dust hid the stars and left them nothing else
to do, that in a moment of tender whispers, they
huddled, caressed, and careened towards me like
tumbleweed, that together we were buffeted down
rougher-than-a-cob rutted roads, shaken and popped
like grains from arroyo-ridden land until their
trail left only half-buried tracks to a camp
on the desert of memory where I stand. Sand still
blows wild as mesquite, shadows prickle like cactus,
and eyes still tear from the sun, but courage
rooted deep here, gushed high and fierce here,
and generosity sprouted sudden as an occasional elm.
A Prayer the Body Makes
In fetal position, our knees drawn up,
arms parallel in supplication, and eyes
rolled back into the skull of sleep,
that dark absence that swallows us,
wrapping us in ivy, evergreen from
birth to death. A prayer the body makes
beyond words, beyond the unheard
frequencies of cells broadcasting into
the abyss, beyond the arc of another
body curling warm against our own,
belly rising, falling. Translate, the mind
demands. Translate this prayer that we
may all practice it together. Translate the
body’s pores breathing in, breathing out,
breathing in, breathing out—asleep or
awake—in the wordless center holding all.
At the National Gallery
some seen, some imagined
out of nothing
a poem follows me
catches me by the hair
raises it off my neck
my brain spurling
waiting for the crest
to fall into foam
to take form
all those ideas on the wall
foam into words
what we’ve tried to form
out of molecules
calling into being
in the museum where
such moments are hung
We have come to Speyer,
Franz, Doris and I,
on our first sunny day,
pilgrims to an ancient
place of pilgrimage
its thousand year old
cathedral rising from the earth
a spare and cold song.
Franz has played his violin there
its voice skimming bird-like in
the vaulted arches of rose and
white stone. Kings and kaisers
lie in crypts through
centuries of sound.
We stand in the Christmas market
place, my now slow cousin, his quick wife
and I. (How many characters have played
this scene in this two thousand year old town?)
A waltz comes through the loud speakers
and Franz begins to slowly bob.
Tanzen, bitte? he says to me.
I take his arms and we waltz.
Wir tanzen im Speyer, I say.
We are oldest of friends.
I am not sure he knows my name.
Later, Doris takes our picture.
We stand before that heaving breath
of stone, all silent,
the children we are.
Old Wine or Misfortune
November smudged underfoot, but all those stars:
everything else impossible or gone—I think of
the way we passed through each other, like light
through water. You would call it old wine or
misfortune. It was all so long ago, I can’t
remember what the promise looked like—as if
it never happened. And there’s nothing left but
that last moment of memory (a star committed
to its own vanishing, already burned out, as if
I imagined it). One of us looked up, one of us
looked away. I remember how sunset flared
behind you, your silhouette framed by that light—
and you, already less than real, already far away.
A Perfect Spider
A small plane thrums overhead, its sound melding into the rumble of a truck
at the intersection a block away, then the acceleration, the whoosh
spinning off down the main street to the call of a crow from the canopy of trees.
Underneath it all, the constant hum of insect life: the chirrup of cicadas,
a carpet of sound pervading my yard, their hubbub carrying on beneath the flurry
of our more important life: the spider clinging to the blue hydrangea
I cut for my bouquet, carrying it indoors, a passenger on the flower, to flush it
down the sink under the cold water tap
though it scurried with all its drive to stay alive, a perfect spider
minding its own business, having no foul intentions, doomed to a sloshy end.
The other night on TV, I learned about the breakdown of the Herschel telescope,
its existence dedicated to discovering potential planet earths
rotating around a sun, at a distance roughly equal to ours, cryptic places
where civilizations might have arisen or still be in the making.
The answer, only in possibilities, is thousands with water enough, the proper
atmosphere, the basics for generating life.
What if a life more highly developed than ours? Do we become like the spider
happily exploring the world of the hydrangea, that beautiful blue globe?
The insects, so intent on their own travail, mate, reproduce, pay no heed
to the woman on the porch, the small plane traveling overhead
or the larger plane with its deeper rumble making its turn over town,
heading south now, the landing field expectant.
How odd to be called pensioner
instead of retiree, though I am happy
to be admitted for a few pounds less.
I should ignore the exchange rate
and just spend, I tell myself.
Two times I’ve fallen,
once at Heathrow, running for the airport bus
and in Chiswick on a cracked sidewalk.
The trick is to land
so you don’t break bones.
Otherwise, life’s been favorable in London.
July days are long,
nights brief like the tea leaves
at the bottom of my china mug.
Years I have left.
Why torture myself
with what’s to come?
I will practice being balanced.
I write this at the library,
books my refuge and hope.
On the bulletin board:
This site helps you
to prepare for the Life
In Great Britain Test
required for settlement.
First Mass, Holy Angels Church
This child, unschooled in sin and hell, watches.
The Stations of the Cross show her the half-naked man,
stumbling beneath whips and thick boards. Under the organ’s
pulse and whine, she hums wild rage and tears, quick punishment.
Knows her father rules their house. But who rules god’s house,
these benches, statues, aisles? Not her head-bent father, mumbling
in his hands. Bright tiles sing: Not that carved eyeless lady,
not that man feathered all with arrows. Sweet, peppery smoke
flies past the cool stone railings, past the dove with clever eyes
and the old white-beard man, his hand reaching to her from
the round ceiling. There, swirls of winged girls dance, a whole band
of them pluck silver strings, while music braids their wild gold locks.
She reaches up, in thrall to wings that rule the shimmering air.
Halogen lights, caged in the vault above,
buzz, moan. I am backstroking—
alone, but for someone in the far lane
towing a blue Styrofoam noodle.She won’t hear me. She has no face.
I mark my bearings
by girders that rib the ceiling;
feel, behind me, for cement edges.
What else can I do, Anna—
you, far oceans away,
labor induced to deliver
a stillborn girl?
Your neighbors tell you
little Grace is with Jesus,
that He has called her to Him,
that she is an angel.
All I can do is stroke backward,
as if I could reverse time,
come to you, for her—
make the water end.
Lila’s Rocking Chair
“You need a pretty chair to rock your baby in,”
the old man said to Belle. She’d never seen him
on Stratton Street, but he told her he carved
things. From her porch she gazed at his motley coat,
his hands like gnarled roots. Clutched in her arms,
the newborn cried as her sisters twirled till they
fell down the way Belle’s days kept falling down
with four small girls and a fifth just born.
The old man carved a rocking chair of oak,
with a cascade of leaves, rounded like a crown
for the baby’s head, etched on a slatted back,
supported by six circular spindles.
The polished knobs, finials, and curved runners
shone in early sunlight and the oak grain
formed golden stripes like rissoles in the sand.
The rocking soothed them. The baby cooed
and slept. Belle listened to the ticking of two clocks
while she waited for her husband to come home.
Too big to rock his daughter in her chair,
Jim played tunes on his harmonica
then lifted Lila laughing in the air,
and the chair creaked out its secret tune
Begin where the dust blows by—our dirt drive.
Draw it grit brown, down past the clothesline
—a swaying sheet, some red for your old teenage two-piece—
(one hand-me-down I could never brave).
Now run it by the house, brown too, for bumpy
stucco, then out to the hot emery flat
of our dirt road. Curve it to edge past
the keep out chickenwire of Rock Crusher Pit:
draw rattlesnakes and skunks, scorpions
like the one that stings you to delirium
so in our sleep you whisper Bite! Bite!
but after, still walk where you want. You know
that pit is off limits—mark it with a skull-and-crossbones!
Now curve the crusty street past gray boulder houses
made from pit boulders long ago like the Flintstones—
cool inside, we imagine, when the sun is like God’s
spotlight—and there, the chapel, its window
shot through with a sifted-flour ray—
and now, across the road: Stonehurst Park.
Yes, that’s where you have heat stroke—show you
on your back in spiky grass, bare red feet
in the sandbox, burning knees splayed, me
scrambling home for Mama (aren’t I always
the scared one? But you have all the scrapes, all
the way to your last, the cancer)—and yes, Lord,
the Stonehurst Park trees—how will we
fit them on our map, that dry eucalyptus secret
rustle-whisper, impossible height pointing
into a shimmer? Your ashes beneath them,
the trillion brittle splinters of night above us?
Susan Deer Cloud
Before Language, Reutigen, Switzerland (for Beat Stähli)
Before language, it must have been like Reutigen
where my man and I once babysat a Shanghai cat
whose orange feline meows singed the air
like extravagant voices in Chinese opera…
where we couldn’t understand the villagers’
Swiss German, Alpine dialect drifting into
my ears softly as the dialect where I come from
in New York Catskills, the snow music of it.
Before language, it must have been like this,
no names for countries, mountains, plants and beasts …
long time ago when ancestors and ancestresses
spoke in the Ur language of smiles, lights in eyes,
body dances and hands flying birdlike through air.
Back then we must have petted each other
like sleek cats… when we hadn’t forgotten
to bow to the mystery of one another.
Before language, it is said that men and women
walked equal as they did in Orkney Island’s
Skara Brae, Neolithic village near sea whose tide
washed Selkies onto shore. Before words, seals
shed their skins, made love with humans,
created descendants like me with webbed toes.
Magical, free, no one doubted we could shape-shift
and communicate with hearts of beauty.
Before language, no one argued about religion
or believed anyone was better than anybody else.
Ask Beat Stähli, woodcarver relative who dwells
in my Swiss great grandmother’s Heimat of Brienz.
O my brother, my cousin, my friend, still I see you
dreaming through atelier window across ancient lake …
still there be knowing ones not separate
from water spirits and the holy trees.
Crossing the Calendar Bridge
The first New Year’s Eve without your turning
in grateful wonder: “Lucky us, we’ve earned
another year.” The mirror on the wall
granted pardon: throughout life’s judgment-hall,
one question persisted: “Why am I here?”
Name: doctor, mentor, science pioneer,
father—and sorcerer who alchemized
state-of-loneliness into you-and-I.
We laughed at a third in bed—our snug down
quilt—perinyeh—in childhood mother-tongue.
Light as a ghost but warm, the featherbed
rises and falls with my uncertain breaths.
If I could say “he’s in a better place”
might I foretell his welcoming embrace?
I did not always welcome his embrace.
Corralled in a split-level—breathing space
defined by husband/children schedules,
reassured by unwritten “good-girl” rules.
No studio—my clattery machine labored
under window with view of the neighbor’s
house wall. Marriage, like a boat poised at anchor
unswayed by flickering ripples of rancor,
kept us safe. Yet rhythm known in my bones
formed instrument, mute raised, like saxophone
riffs that tumbled into words. And we sang
off-key, happy, lyrics in differing language.
Our rhymes were true or near or simply free.
Five stages of grief compose an elegy.
Five stages of grief line up for elegy:
deny rant reproach barter and agree
to let you go, to cease reenacting
hot/cold days/nights of vigil. To distract
mind from memory’s sweated matted strings,
loosen knots, twirl his-and-her wedding rings
doubled on one finger, kiss them for luck,
and recognize the shape of me, unbroken.
Not to muse “if only you were here”
as the glittering ball slides down Times Square.
Get past the calendar, switch off the screen
stop conjugating “is” as “might have been.”
Yet how to tell the poem “don’t reminisce”
all moments lived are sparks to genesis.
Is, Was, To Be
Wood grays with age.
The weather-splintered rowboat,
beached on moss-covered rock,
returns to a place of beginnings.
Sun and water stir
reflections of bordering trees.
Leaves floating on slow current
nestle below the keel.
Seasons employ light’s probe
into substances—bark and foliage
dissolve into shifting colorations
Tree crowns act to shatter sun rays
reaching towards surfaces
in a constant flicker of exchange
proof that stillness
abides with motion.