1. Betty’s Grandmother’s Hats // 2. For a Lost Watch // 3. Calling Mary Megan // 4. The Old Sopranos Reminisce // 5. The Wig Shop // 6. The Death of a Friend // 7. Mattie at the Opera // 8. Mattie Translates the Seside Flowers of Chile // 9. Crystals // 10. For Midge, Who Misses Weather // 11. The Land of Green Ginger Street // 12. Lebanon // 13. The Potter // 14. The Fortune Teller at the Bat Mitzvah // 15. The Migrant // 16. Embroidering Wings // 17. The Transit of Venus
Betty’s Grandmother’s Hats
Nested in the fat, round
proprietary boxes of lost shops,
a lifetime of hats curl back to front.
Betty opens them to us,
and a chorus of velvet and feathers,
brim up, brim down,
the severe, the opulent,
the black and the floral,
are borne, blinking, into daylight
on the hands of Betty’s friends:
the fashionable and the oblivious,
seventeen people having tea with Betty,
and all around the table
finding something that fits.
“Why did your grandmother have
so many hats?” we want to know.
“These,” Betty says,
“are only some of them.”
published in Chrysalis
For a Lost Watch
She meant to take the broken watch
to the jeweller. Wrapped in a Kleenex
to ward off the scrape of nail files,
car keys, coins in her purse, it escaped,
like a figure in Greek tragedy,
working always toward some unknown purpose.
One day, not recognizing it,
she threw it out.
Now a large blue garbage truck
pulls into the dump, deposits a layer
of eggshells, tea leaves, tin cans,
and the Bulova her mother gave her,
still in its flowered, crumpled tissue.
Cans rust, the kitchen refuse turns to earth,
all things seek elemental simplicity.
Alone in the field, her watch maintains
its golden case, its jewelled movement,
and all we know about time.
published in American Scholar
Calling Mary Megan
Oh, they are sorry when they find
no one here by that name.
What number did they want?
Mine is the same:
unhelpful to know;
connection made to break,
whether by ploy
or by some honest mistake,
she has led them here,
and escaped them before,
truant, ghost, parochial kilt
vanishing through a door
indeed where no one’s been.
I tell them so,
but still the calls come in.
published in The Literary Review
The Old Sopranos Reminisce
Voices age as differently
as the hands, the hair,
the skin around the eyes.
Used to singing the same parts
in other company,
the sopranos gathered
at the studio table
make an edgy ensemble.
They burst in on each other:
the Czech who says
her letters were stolen,
the one who says
she was only mediocre,
the other who says
she was a very great star.
Undirectable, they suddenly
begin to sing, “Amami, Alfredo,”
all at once, in different keys.
The moderator founders,
a guardian whose charges
have eloped: “Amami,”
they sing, “Love me as I love you!”
The studio reverberates
with their request.
published in Kansas Quarterly
The Wig Shop
— for Denise
We stroll among the severed heads
with their burden of ringlet and braid,
asking if the blonde ones have more fun.
Your brunette days are scheduled
to slough off, the doctor says,
a sacrifice to the god of health,
in hopes that he will root out
any cells of evil the surgeon left behind.
We joke about people we know,
in each other’s hair.
Along one wall, the disembodied bangs
hang like the torn locks of abused dolls.
The wig will fit better, the shopgirl says,
when you don’t have hair underneath it.
For a moment your eyes say,
“haven’t I given enough?”
Recovering, you take the wig
and its plastic wigstand, an unfinished face,
and smile as we bundle them
out to the car.
Don’t lose your head, we laugh.
Whatever you do, don’t lose your head.
published in Moving Out
The Death of a Friend
— for Mary
It is mostly her face,
a moon-wide face, that I think of,
telling the funny stories, keeping straight.
She taught children to speak
the language of their neighbors.
She prayed for her Guatemalan housemaid.
She traveled to Greece, to Spain,
and in the ruins and castles
kept the same unsentimental face,
seeing things straight
for all their crooked stories.
She told me the tale of Pasiphae
with great delight,
a parable of passion and science.
We were standing in the labyrinth.
She knew the way out.
published in The Kenyon Review
Mattie at the Opera
Luciano comes out onto the stage
and Mattie rises in her seat;
she sighs, she sweats,
che gelida manina,
sings along beneath the hand
clapped over her own mouth
to keep her soul inside.
His voice invades.
Throw everything into the fire,
Luciano, here on the balcony
Mattie holds a candle for you to blow out,
her key is in your hand,
it is in your throat,
how to open the Bohemian heart
of Mattie, no longer a girl,
death stands behind her in the frozen room,
Luciano, pretend not to notice,
sing to her as she was,
every girl you ever loved
was Mattie behind her hand,
beating the small cold embers
of the winter stars
into a bonfire of applause.
published in Beloit Poetry Journal
Mattie Translates the Seaside Flowers of Chile
She looks out for them as we pass,
who might not notice
as we climb above the selvedge of land
where the rocks grow,
and between the rocks, the flowers.
When she finds the fly-trap vine,
dark trumpets, spiky mouths,
bulging bases, Mattie leans in low:
“feed me, feed me,”
she tells us, ominous,
and stops to watch a large striped beetle
which that way comes.
At a stand of lirios del campo,
delicate in the wind,
Mattie sings from the Marriage of Figaro.
A length of common malvilla,
blowsy lavender: Mattie says
“look what I picked for you, Mommy,”
and laughs, “like dandelions.”
Mattie is hoping for mineros
and when their many-petalled
full white skirts show up,
the call is clear:
“Pick me! Pick me!”
Turning, she apologizes
for their insistence,
“I may have to dig up the whole clump,”
published in Beloit Poetry Journal
I’m walking with Kate, to show her the road
and to learn about rocks.
They’re young, Kate and the rocks,
not very weathered.
She shows me the crystals
in three different stones,
one fine-grained, one rice-grained,
one studded with tiny planets.
They’re all the same stuff,
she tells me, or they were,
molten and formless.
Then they rose in the world,
and time happened differently
to each of them.
A fault stands tilting before us,
a pair of textbook faces
and a chalky line between,
history pulling in two directions.
published in Sycamore
For Midge, Who Misses Weather
In Texas and Michigan,
the air is wild with argument,
spins like coyote’s howl,
dust and chickens caught in the vortex.
Deities summoned to the village
to protect, or to punish,
turn the trees to brass,
the ponds to granite,
the fields to marble;
the rain answers to prayers and dances,
and the lightning draws itself
across the bowl of thundering sky
like the work of a demon potter.
But here where the continent
nuzzles the Pacific Ocean,
the morning fog, polite,
takes turns with the afternoon sunshine,
the rain comes only in season,
steady and grey.
The gods of this place
have all gone underground.
you can feel them in your bones.
published in Folio
The Land of Green Ginger Street
— for Romy
When you walked down this English street,
a small blond child, you could see
visions, stacks of white sail
looming up from a harbor
stuffed with mysteries
to be traded for ordinary things.
Plain shillings turned into wild spices,
fine leaves and berries that burn the tongue,
silk cool on the skin,
by means of a long and patient passage.
You are grown, and your children are grown,
and you live very far from
The Land of Green Ginger Street,
but still in a mutable world,
where possibility comes
from the second natures of things.
— for Andree
Tough roots hold together
the ineradicable fragrance
of those famous trees,
scent of the bride’s garment,
the bridegroom’s countenance,
the merchants of Tyre
who furnished Solomon
with temple, chariot, and song,
for twenty thousand measures of wheat,
the fistfuls of prophets
with luxury to condemn,
tongue after tongue licking flames,
a few Phoenician loan-words
studded like stars
in the flowing Arabic night,
and over strange seas of refuge,
that ancient alphabet,
and a dozen towns named
for the cedars,
in the damp American midwest,
north of Goshen,
south of Damascus,
standing up out of the wilderness
like pillars of smoke.
— for Isabel
Original wheel spins under hands
unafraid of mud and work,
leaning hard into the possibility
of balance and control,
painting flowers on the plates,
ocean waves on the cups;
any beast may drink from a stream,
but we stand alone with our dishes,
artificial gourd, artificial leaf,
acts of will that came through the fire,
specializing in the unrequired,
paint a blue line around
the edge of the controllable world,
everything inside its radius
in perfect order,
everything else waiting its turn.
The Fortune Teller at the Bat Mitzvah
There’s glitter in her make-up, her elder eyes,
hands with more rings than fingers, she writes down
names and birthdays of the girls and women
who line up, knowing we don’t get to plan our futures.
She turns those ciphers into other ciphers: Kabbalah,
another ancient system that failed to save the Jews.
She tells me to stop putting something off,
I don’t tell her what. She tells the little girls
to be true to themselves, they’re strong, they can be
anything they want. I think of my grandmother,
sent alone from Europe to marry a cousin
she ditched as soon as the boat docked,
and set out to be true, strong, and whatever she wanted,
without a gypsy or even a bat mitzvah, unthought-of
by her Old World family bound by fear of change
to their dirt-floored village, until a tide of demons
carried them and all their plans away,
left a row of ciphers in a photograph, dark eyes
dotting pale faces under black hats and kerchiefs.
Only my grandmother knew their names
and no one wrote them down. Their futures were lost;
my grandmother’s gone now, too.
I’ve kept the fortune-teller overtime. She says it’s okay,
as though she knew it would happen. Clairvoyance,
experience, maybe they’re the same.
She folds up the starry cloth from her table,
and carries it with her, out into the night.
published in Jewish Women’s Literary Annual
“It’s for our Desert Tortoise.
He loves dandelion greens.”
Keeper of unlikely game,
my neighbor wanders with a plastic bag,
collecting the arrowy leaves.
She covers, in half an hour,
a turtle day’s worth,
and is a goddess of turtles,
returning, ambrosia laden,
to his dry abode.
Under his desert-colored shell
the tortoise dreams
of green, damp places
He has seen the yellow flowers.
He has seen the blowing seed.
He has tasted the sharp gift
as it came from her hand.
He is lost to the desert.
published in Jeopardy
— for Terrie
Needles flying over
shirts and pillows,
we feather the cloth:
you do angels,
checkered with hopes;
I do butterflies and condors,
life and death.
We are thinking of,
we are talking of,
no longer children,
and the bridges and fault lines
among us. Sometimes
the only way is not
around or through, but over.
We spend another afternoon
published in Advocate
The Transit of Venus
Every day your mother sleeps a little longer,
life thinning in her veins, the hands
that supported your childhood
unable to hold up pages
heavy with news, your father
sits beside her and reads her
into the distance, into a day
predicted and prepared for,
which turns out to be this one,
when Venus crosses the disk of the sun
and schoolchildren in dark glasses
under nearly-summer skies
stare at the small dark moving spot
and learn: this is how we measure
how far we are from the light
at the center of our hearts.
Tomorrow’s papers, which she will not see,
will show these images, the large sun,
the speck of the traveller.
She was a whole world to you once.
Now, like a turning planet,
she slides away.
published in North American Review