ONE HUNDRED SYLLABLES

Why these million names?
Who can know them all?
Why language?  Why call
each passing fancy
by some random name?

Adam, commanded
by God began to
name the animals,
but what did he know?
Tiger, dingo, whale,

praying mantis, cat,
fox, octopus, gull,
robin, wolf, porpoise–
what was the purpose
of God, Linnaeus

naming and naming
and keeping their lists?
What does “child” tell you?
“Mountain,” “meat,” or “war”?
What is naming for?

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HER HISTORY: MOTHER

 

 

Here is a poem about a strange character who appears in my imagination now and again.  

 

 

I was conceived at the crossing
where three ways meet.
My father was a shadow
cast by the moon.

The midwife who tended my mother
gave her an iron key to keep,
and I keep it still.  My mother
was small and often afraid.

She baked bread and pies
in the king’s kitchen;
we slept by the fire,
curled on the hearth.

My mother’s hair was dirty
and long, her eyes the color of cinders.
Her skin was white
and streaked with ash, her hands

were red and hard.
She taught me nothing
but weariness and pain.
I never loved her;  I never

blamed her.  When she died
they buried her deep in the wood
and covered her grave with stones.
Not even a sparrow sang a psalm.

KEEPING HOUSE

 

Among the grave-goods of Anglo-Saxon women 
were keyshaped objects, 
presumably symbols of domestic authority.

Our men donned   leather leggings,
strapped the runetraced   swords to their thighs.
They sailed away    in war-bright ships
to deep-treed lands  behind the sun.
We waved and wept them out of sight,
jangling our rings   of iron keys.
We turned from the shore   to women’s work.
We loosened the loam   and scattered the seed,
cabbage, onions,   beetroot and leeks.
Sweet-breathed goats   grazed in the grass,
white ewes bawled   to their awkward lambs.
We slaughtered and salted,   churned the thick cream.
We sang at our spinning,  sang at our baking,
weaving shrouds of linen   and cloaks of wool.
We buried dead babies,   we buried our mothers.
We watched our daughters   dance in the moonlight.
Tangled with children   and dogs we slept
beneath white stars  in the earth-dark sky.
When we were dead   they buried us all
with spindle whorls,  with rings of keys.
No manly minstrel   sang our songs
and no one remembers our names.

OLD SAYINGS

Does your mother haunt you?
 My mother has always haunted me.

 Grandma did the morning work: scrubbed the stairs, made the beds, dusted chairs, washed dishes, polished windows, hung the laundry and brought it in. She made over dresses for my mother, turned the collars of Grandpa’s shirts.  She repaid her passage, put flowered china on layaway and paid a little every week from her work constructing corsets and pressing sheets.   It took another year to earn enough for Bobby,  the bisque baby doll she bought since she never had a boy.   

If it’s clean, mended and paid for you don’t have to be ashamed.

She married a man from home whose German his family name meant “Grief.”  I have a photo of him, with other men, hard and earnest in their aprons and caps, standing on the steps of the Cleveland steel works.   He got slivers of metal in his hands; every night my mother picked them out.  He could fight in German, Polish, Russian, but English always slipped away.

You must walk to show the world you’re glad to be alive.

Grandma bought live geese and ducks at the market and carried them home in a basket. Mother remembered those streetcar rides, the frantic squawks,  how the other passengers smiled.

Grandma made duck’s blood soup, Blutwurst, Kugel with cinnamon and egg.   Strudel, Apfelkuchen, StollenHassenpfeffer from Mother’s pet rabbit. Christmas, there were thick slabs of Lebkuchen with tissue paper pictures pasted on.

A thin cook should be buried under the back steps so everyone can walk on her.

Grandma taught Sunday School for forty years.  I have her bibles, hymnals and Luther’s Catechism, her German glass picture with the Lord’s Prayer, a primrose, butterflies, a bird.

You must never swing your legs in church.  That’s giving the devil a ride.

Grandma had roses, lilies, calamus growing dense in front of the storied house.  I helped her step on ants my one trip to Cleveland, the summer I was four.  She took me to visit all her friends and made me play “Volga Boatman” on their upright pianos.  She gave me a pink seashell and a tiny doll in a handmade red silk dress.  She gave me a record she made for me about her father and the fourteen pears.

Don’t praise the children.  You’ll put on the evil eye

I have a photo of Grandma picking lilacs.  “That’s what she’s doing in Heaven,” Mother said.  I have a photo of Grandma standing on her grave.  She’s wearing a black dress and heavy shoes,her hair in a braid around her head.  She’s smirking at the camera.  Mother took the photo because Grandma wanted it.

  You must never walk backwards in front of your parents.  You’re leading them to the tomb.

Grandma sent to Poland  for Grandpa’s favorite brother, Emil, who died of typhoid three months after he arrived.   Grandpa never forgave her.  Three months Grandpa was in the hospital, depressed, while Grandma ironed and sewed and shoveled horse manure from the streets to spread on her flowers.

Old woman had no troubles so she bought herself a pig.

When Mother was old,  she told about the screaming, the aborted son and the blue days Grandma spent wrapped in her red shawl, weeping in her rocker by the stove.

Some days I can’t get out of my own way.


EMILY’S SECRET

Nowhere in the official volumes is it written
that Emily Dickinson’s best friend
was a gypsy woman.
Her name was Emerald.
Her cottage was in the forest
beyond the common of the town.

She had a small garden where she grew
raspberry, mint and balm for the teas
that she peddled door to door.
Beneath her windows bloomed
roses, lilies and lavender;
on warm summer nights
when she could not sleep
she followed their fragrances
through the heavy air.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 In the woods and meadows
she tended medicines–
no one could accuse her.

It was a spring midnight
when Emerald saw Emily’s face
instead of her own
reflected in a vernal pool.
She made a packet
of althea and euphrasy,
tied it with a red thread,
and set out for Emily’s house.
She knew the room
by the lighted lamp,
and tossed a pebble.
Emily was not surprised.
She came down into the garden,
wrapped in a thin blue shawl.

They sat among white lilacs then
and told their lives.
Emerald had the seeing
and Emily the words.
Together they moved the moon
across the Amherst sky.

They seldom met in winter,
but always on St. Stephen’s Night,
even if it were bitter cold.
Together they’d shelter from the wind
under a heavy blanket Emerald wove
from the wool of her old gray goat.
Always Emily gave gingerbread cut in stars,
and Emerald a muslin bag
of bearberry, cornsilk and nettle.

Emerald heard the poems
she could not read.
Emily heard the visions
that she could never see.
Each one knew the world,
the way it turned,
the space it occupied.

It was years before
the time was right–
and when it was–
Emily asked and Emerald told–

the future–deep and narrow–
clarity and sorrow–
so much to be gained
through loss.

 

 

Published in Old Hotel

MOTHERLESS CHILD

It was one of those parties
in that library with archaic shelves
ascending to the trees.
Bertrand Russell came late,

carrying a baby
who spoke like William Blake:
There is a marriage of Heaven and Hell, 
another way to see.

Scholars whispered of the child’s maternity.
Bertie found me where I stood.
This baby needs a mother;  
you, I hope, will be.

I respectfully refused,
but introduced him to
Tante Wanda,
who died at ninety-three

singing “How Great Thou Art.”
She sat him in a kitchen chair
and fed him plum kuchen and coffee,
showed him blue ribbons

from the Arkansas fair,
the dolls she crocheted
to cover toilet paper rolls,
the JESUS signs she made,

a recipe for perfection salad.
Russell kissed her hand.
She took the baby right away–
it spoke again:  O, what a pleasant land. 

PYTHIA

I left the offering prescribed:
a bone china tea cup,
my mother’s wedding ring.
The Oracle examined the cup,
turned it over to check the porcelain mark,
slipped the ring over a bony knuckle.

Now, she said,  
your question.

How, I asked,
shall I live?

Another one, she said, under her breath,
and sat heavily on the battered chair.
Long she stared into the smoke
while time passed overhead like clouds.

You, she said at last,
her voice low and raw,
transform.  
Gather up the dead.
Dinners, daffodils, the cats,
bags of mulch and barrows of stone:
all you need is there.
Cut your nails and comb your hair.
Hang your washing in the rain.
The only prayer is
the one you don’t understand.
Now go, she said.  And live.
Thanks for the stuff.

I wandered down from the mountain
with my hands in my pockets,
humming a tune from Iolanthe.
When I turned to wave,
she was gone, but her shadow remained,
blue against the rock.