Enough of pretty lost things.
Truth is no beauty, no mirror, no
Common as pigeons
No reservations for our dinner
We keep an eye out
Greedy picklocks for dropped sweets
Tough old birds
Barnacles beneath a liner
We will get where we are going
While the Fiddle Burns
The thundercloud plum we planted is now in bloom.
Four-year-old daughter June
Crosses to the blossoms, saying, “I want
To take a closer look.” Reaching them,
“Can I touch one?”
My grandmother will be 97 on Tuesday. My father,
The firstborn: “Her life
Is an ever steeper climb going darker and more alone.”
Her body has quit flowering.
The canopy of life no longer covers her head.
This is not a lyric poem of loss.
It is another poem about life at the center,
At the perimeter,
And across the world from the blast.
It fails, of course, because it is warm
With my love of the world
And so my warm poem
Catches fire and goes up
It happens again
Out of the Cookbooks and Diaries of Nineteenth Century Millgirls
Gone cold and reckless to the bone
By weavers’ weary work,
One of them, not special, looked up and saw
The whole: a paper edge, curling into smoke.
Such a sight her frame withstood, no saint
To pine, for her no breath
At night, save what she might reserve
For sewing or from death.
You ask about our little Muse?
Then know: I did not find her
In the sky, but in the ground,
Who died, no word to wind her.
Back in the Nest
Mother is at the table in our vermiform
Behind her, the backdoor opens
to blue iris, chaste
against the wrought iron fence.
Quiet now; there:
Five immense insects are
surrounding her. Their faces are
and their legs long and skinny, like no one
in our family has.
The legs arch over mother,
silent, one by one,
vaulting her ceiling leg by leg:
the threat and serenity of power.
This evening, Karen and I will heat red
jello over the blue flame. Singing, we will serve it
to mother, hot.
You Are Here
Don’t worry too much about Paradise. For sky,
use the blue in the king’s jacket
and the black of the clubs take
for piano keys. Red abounds so
no problem there.
One: a wooden figurine from China
carried over on a ship;
two: a blue ceramic bowl, and three:
a cannister of tea, gold and green, bearing
the image of a Chinese ship
sailing over the sea,
over the blue sea.
Tell me, how does one give way to the next:
horse’s hide to whip? How does grace convert to
debt? What instant burns
in gold and green?
O Ink-eyed child lost to sleep, it is not
just the wind. Your mother loves you, but the daily news
is bad. It wastes her strength
and distances —
from carver’s hand, to bowl, to sea, to child —
are large, and unreconciled.
Sunset from the Train
Never mind the hour and never mind
you just sat for the gone daylight, as for
a portrait. Never mind you tossed
your kiss down that swirly drain again,
not into a wishing well or fountain
where someone might actually see it.
If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you: money
is no object, no more an object than the gap
in a neighbor’s uncrowded mouth; and art
is no object, no more than the gone reflection
of your mouth, open, and the world rushing in,
The Marriage Plot
Middle C was my first husband.
I stayed with him until I married tea sandwiches
at Wanamaker’s. It started
with Saturdays, once I could get there alone.
Then I married Sherlock Holmes, for his eyes.
He was my beloved metronome.
My fourth husband
was friction, as far as I ever got
Lately, I have had an offer from talk radio
but I am keeping time with Merlin,
at home going back.
As my mother used to say, why keep running
after you’ve caught the bus?
November 3, 2002
Today is my mother-in-law’s yahrzeit, though her ashes await scattering even now.
Beginning on this poem, I am already not sure what to gloss for you,
And this uncertainty, I will argue, is part of the history of my words.
The waiting ashes? That’s another story. (Leave it at this:
Since her death, her survivors have come apart.)
Yahrzeit itself? Since you might not know, I’ll tell you
(Though my service as Jewish informant
Comes to me as a surprise – another story).
It means “a year’s time” in Yiddish,
Old family language of Eastern European Jews.
At sunset, before the first anniversary of a death,
We light a yahrzeit candle. It burns for 24 hours.
Some of us leave the candle in the kitchen sink
For fire safety.
Cremation? Did you know that observant Jews do not practice it?
Then again it depends on what one has been observing.
But look, my time here is limited:
While our little daughter sleeps upstairs,
I want to tell you (who may not know us) about my family, my generation,
And what they have qualified me to observe.
Alchemists are tireless fighters of course.
Inside her kitchen, Harriet could change onions, hairpins,
And even her own children into armor.
And she would cook that cancer down like mushrooms;
Stare it down like John Wayne. A woman warrior all right (but
No feminist) my mother-in-law
Was an exemplar of her faithful American generation:
Married at 19 in a butter-yellow suit and drunk with her soldier right along,
Beaten, too, with the kids, inside a house lined with books and water damage;
Enrobed and joyfully disembodied by a doctorate at 45,
Having written her thesis well within earshot of my husband,
the baby, while he cavorted in the backyard pool.
Remember the Sears Catalogue? You could order a whole house.
Who needed religion?
For my generation, things have been different.
Our innocence was never so pretty.
We have always known that the mothers and fathers
Sometimes break their children’s hearts forever:
Some of the best minds of our generation died that way.
We have never trusted any one creed to end torture.
And yet have we given thanks, truly,
To the faint god for what we get
And this condition
Has sobered us right up.
We could have told our parents something.
We could have told them the difference
Between gold – their innocence –
And dross – their innocence.
And now they begin to be survived by us — by us!
Despite her epic anti-Semitism, after she got sick
My mother-in-law informed my husband that
One day he would light a yahrzeit candle for her.
This telling was her way of asking –
Can you understand that?
Our hands were open for it.