Editor’s Note: “Watching” is from The Secrets of the Tribe (Sheep Meadow Press, 1980); “Eating Babies” and “The Stutter” from The Past Keeps Changing (Sheep Meadow Press, 1992); “Twenty-Fourth Anniversary” and “Tired Sex” from Mrs. Dumpty (University of Wisconsin Press, 1998); “The Discipline of Marriage,” “Brothers,” “The Sixth Age,” “Sometimes I Want to Sink into Your Body,” “After Sex” and “The Sixth Trumpet” from Blood Honey (Autumn House Press, 2009). These poems are reprinted by permission of the poet.
THE DISCIPLINE OF MARRIAGE
My mother said what she thought.
If my father looked up from the paper
to inquire, sotto voce,
where the hell anyone would get such a dumb idea,
she’d reply, with a smile like a warning:
“That’s how I feel.”
Her feelings were larger than his,
full of grievance, of steaming griefs.
She hung up her keys at the door
and salted the daily stew.
All day my father depleted his poor stock of words.
Evenings he shrank and fell silent.
The discipline of marriage had taught him
every last thing he knew about silence
and its rewards. After supper, he’d shut his eyes,
set his feet on the hassock and kiss
the evening goodbye.
My mother applied glittery blue to her eyelids.
Crystal bottles commanded her dressing table
with their flags of milky glass;
the French perfumes glowed like topaz.
She had plenty to say. She wanted him
to listen, to say something back! Open
his eyes for once and see her!
Her beaded purse! Her alligator shoes!
for my father
You and I used to talk about
Lear and his girls
(I read it in school,
you saw it on the Yiddish stage
where the audience yelled:
Don’t believe them,
they’re rotten) —
that Jewish father and his
Now I’m here with the rest,
smelling the silences,
What will it look like?
Lost on the bed
without shoes, without lungs,
you won’t talk
except to the wall: I’m dying,
and to the nurse: Be
What does a daughter say
to the bones
that won’t answer —
Thank you to the nice man?
The last time
we went to the Bronx Zoo,
the elephants were smelly as ever,
all those warm Sundays,
the monkeys as lewd.
But they put the penguins
behind curved glass
with a radiant sky
painted on the far wall.
And all those birds
lined up with their backs to us
watching the wrong
There was a ghost at our wedding,
the caterer’s son,
who drowned that day.
Like every bride I was dressed
in hope so sharp
it tore open
my tight-sewn fear.
You kissed me under the wedding canopy,
a kiss that lasted a few beats longer
than the usual,
and we all laughed.
We were promising: the future
would be like the present,
even better, maybe.
Then your heel came down
on the glass.
We poured champagne
and opened the doors to the garden
a little drunk, all of us,
as the caterer made the first cut,
one firm stroke, then
dipped his knifeblade
in the water.
is the soul of this flesh.
Eat with your hands, slow, you will understand
breasts, why everyone
adores them — Rubens’ great custard nudes — why
we can’t help sleeping with
The old woman in the park pointed,
Is it yours?
Her gold eye-teeth gleamed.
I bend down, taste the fluted
nipples, the elbows, the pads
of the feet. Nibble earlobes, dip
my tongue in the salt fold
of shoulder and throat.
Even now he is changing,
as if I were
licking him thin.
He squeezes his eyes tight
and blink! he’s still here.
It’s always a surprise.
steal it in mouthfuls,
store it away
where you save
the face that you touched
for the last time
over and over,
your eyes closed
so it wouldn’t go away.
Watch him sleeping. Touch
the pulse where
the bones haven’t locked
in his damp hair:
the navel of dreams.
His eyes open for a moment, underwater.
His arms drift in the dark
as your breath
washes over him.
Bite one cheek. Again.
It’s your own
life you lean over, greedy,
going back for more.
We speak too fast.
The child sits at our table, waiting
his turn. The clock
points a sharp finger. The daily
too hot to eat. Between
words the child thrashes I-I-I —
takes a deep breath.
That high voice — all clumsy fingers —
the shoelace fast enough. The master of the house
is counting. The hurt
over and over, blunt needle picking at an old
Years ago in a high chair
he drummed wet fists, his face
a knot: Give me
words. The fury
beat in his throat. Mother and father, we put
words in his mouth, we
speak harder, faster, we give him
a life to chew on.
When I was the Baba Yaga of the house
on my terrible chicken legs,
the children sat close on the sofa as I read,
both of them together
determined to be scared.
Careful! I cackled, stalking them
among the pillows:
You bad Russian boy,
I eat you up!
They shivered and squirmed, my delicious sons,
waiting for a mighty arm
to seize them.
I chased them screeching down the hall,
I catch you, I eat you!
my witch-blade hungry for the spurt
of laughter —
What stopped me
even as I lifted my hand?
The stricken voice that cried: Eat him!
Eat my brother.
We’re trying to strike a match in a matchbook
that has lain all winter under the woodpile:
on sodden cardboard.
I catch myself yawning. Through the window
I watch that sparrow the cat
keeps batting around.
Like turning the pages of a book the teacher assigned —
You ought to read it, she said.
It’s great literature.
I hung my wedding dress
in the attic. I had a woolen
shoulder to lean against,
a wake-up kiss, plush words
I loved to stroke:
My husband. We.
You hung the portraits of your great-
grandparents from Stuttgart
over the sofa—boiled collar,
fashionable shawl. The yellow
shellac of marriage
coats our faces too.
We’re like the neoclassical facade
on a post office. Every small town
has such a building.
Pillars forget they used to be
tree trunks, their sap congealed
into staying put. I can feel it
happening in every cell—that gradual
cooling and drying.
There is that other law of nature
which lets the dead thing stand.
THE SIXTH AGE
Words slip from me lately
like cups and saucers
from soapy hands.
I grope for the names of things
that are governed, like me, by the laws
of slippage and breakage.
I am like a child
left behind by the fast-talking
grownups. A tourist
lost in the blind alleys
of a foreign language.
How will I see my way to anywhere
without my words?
I slam up and down the stairs of our house:
Where are my glasses hiding?
Rimless, invisible as oxygen.
I need glasses to find them.
There must be words left
to go on searching for the ones I’ve lost
the way the blind man I once loved
first with his fingertips,
then with his whole hand.
SOMETIMES I WANT TO SINK INTO YOUR BODY
Sometimes I want to sink into your body
with the fever that spikes inside me
to be a woman
who can open a man.
Why must I be only softness and haunches,
a satin cul-de-sac?
You ought to know what sharpens me
like a barbed arrow.
Do you think we’re so different?
How you tease me, twiddle me,
hustle me along,
just when I’d like to splay you
tooth and nail.
A man after sex
has that squishy thing in the nest of his lap.
A bashful appendage
like a Claes Oldenburg vinyl drainpipe,
a soft saxophone that won’t toot a note.
A man’s got to wear his susceptibility
out in plain sight.
No wonder he’s keeping his soul
A woman’s got that rock of a belly,
that baby cave,
breasts swaggering erect
when they swell with milk.
Oh she knows what it’s like to sing
the stand-up song of a man.
Now you and I soften in the wash,
the body-elastic goes slack.
We see ourselves in each other,
we grow alike.
We want to curl up in a sunny corner
and doze like the cat.
Come, flick a whisker,
make me remember.
THE SIXTH TRUMPET
after Anselm Kiefer
Lately we’ve begun to talk logistics,
to draw up contingency plans
for a war we’re preparing
to lose. We’re counting backwards
from D-day. If I die first, we tell each other.
Sometimes: If you die first. Declarations
flare in the street, the museum.
Our children can’t stand that kind of talk,
they announce in front of Kiefer’s painting.
They see an immense plowed field
under a day sky seeded with dark stars.
Sunflower seeds! they say. He used real seeds.
We see a bombardment of cinders
that fall through the air onto furrows
of emulsion, acrylic, shellac
to converge on a vanishing point.
No place to hide from the sky
— we’d better prepare a shelter
for them. We dole out small truths,
sufficient unto the day.
Sunflower seeds, we say.