PLAIN POEMS: MAY 10, 2001
We had rain yesterday, late.
Now there's a blue haziness
of sky, a blazing greenness
of spring, fierce as a river
flooding. You have to wonder
what it means to be alive,
how we come to this motion
when rocks and ocean, soil and
stream - the basic stuff of us -
none of them live as we do.
Or none of them appear to.
For all I know as certain
the world could be the dream of
some gigantic bear napping
after its feast of berries.
We'd be the great bear's dreaming.
Originally published in Wisconsin Poets Calendar
Poem to Forget
Let’s forget everything the two of us
Let’s unknow everything we think we know
Unlove everything we think we love the two of us
Yes because this world is the two of us dancing
to a tune played by our school orchestra
remember how that sounded? What a joke!
Now forget that cacophony too
What has passed between us is beyond memory
memory as useless as lost luggage
waiting to be claimed at the Hauptbanhoff
back in the days before terrorists and bombs
before all the trash cans disappeared
But that’s not a concern any longer for us
since we are forgetting our history
For what is history but war war war
But we can still have the last laugh the two of us
if we forget the names of the kings and the presidents
Forget too the names of the rivers and mountain ranges
all of which existed before names
pinned them like dead insects to beautiful maps
They will still stand tall or run fast after the two of us
no longer know what to call them
call one that thing which is moving
call the other that which does not
What difference would it make?
Let’s forget too the names of the little cars and the big trucks
and of a certain fancy German automobile
you once owned in a life before you became a poet
ie a woman famished for words
Now become an amnesiac with me friend
a woman emptied of all the easy ways of knowing
Listen to the wind wailing through what we used to call mountains
Listen to the rocks grinding in that water we used to call river
So like the cries of those we once loved
Forget! Forget! Give up their names
as we gave up their bodies
give up this pain
for which there was never a good name anyhow
Grief too damn short like a sneeze
and no gesundheit to cure it
Yes let’s forget and keep on forgetting
Forget all we owned the two of us
Forget our unmade beds our silence the stars
Let’s forget the sun
which has done us in the end so little service
Forget our teeth! Forget eternity!
Forget how we loved each other the two of us
I’ll forget your mouth
if you’ll forget mine
Originally appeared in Chelsea, 77 (2005)
The Smoky Mountains
Dear Ones– I think we are like
the trees–bare, broken-branched,
trunks green with lichen, holding
the rain before we let it drop;
in this month, shyly unfolding
a few buds, clusters of tiny lime
blossoms in the brown woods. That
we have only to step out of the Park
Vista Hotel atop the mountain, cross
the asphalt parking lot, weave
through the vans and semitrailers
past the swimming pool's Caribbean
blue to the garden, across the small
bridge arched like Monet's, into
the woods, our own wilderness, hollow
and ridge, putting on our first blossoms,
our tentative fists of bud and leaf,
to stand shining in the rain among
our neighbors, some of them always green.
Originally appeared in
The Christian Science Monitor
How to Stay Alive
Trash your cigarettes. Shun restaurants and bars
that traffic in second-hand smoke. Eat organic
and low on the food chain. Steam vegetables;
don't grill meat. Just say "no" to marijuana, Jack
Daniels, and cocaine. Stay home: do not rent cars
at Miami's airport, or ride the New York subways,
or dig potshards in the Negev after massacres
in Hebron. Don't drive vans older than you are
to places you've never been. Always buckle your
seat belt. Have someone else strip the asbestos
from your furnace and heating pipes. Test for radon
in the basement, lead in the drinking water, cracks
in the microwave shield. Avoid electric blankets.
Use condoms, or don't have sex. Walk to work.
Remember your sunblock. Don't go jogging after dark.
Keep off the neighbors' grass after they've sprayed
the yard. Wear a helmet when you bike. Take
a buddy to the lake. Don't lie about your weight
to the man who adjusts your skis. Lower stress
with yoga; divorce your husband if you must. Cross
your fingers, say "Star Bright" to Venus, avoid
black cats, spit three times over your shoulder
on your thirteenth annual visit to the oncologist.
Originally published in Prairie Schooner, Winter 1995
DEAR REVEREND CLARE
You ask if hope gets me up in the morning.
I say yes,
Not in your house where
But in mine
Where all things are lost.
The top latch takes the weight of the door,
And so it is true, as I teach
Liza and Everina all that you teach me.
You say my child's sense of wonder is coupled with
A grown person's knowing grief,
And why shouldn't it be?
You are talking to a girl with a pencil hidden
In a broken cup
On top the highest shelf
Stained by curdled cream
Behind a ceramic pitcher
Where it cannot be thrown away.
from WHAT I WOULD DO FOR LOVE:
Poems in the Voice
of Mary Wollstonecraft
(1759-1797) Jacaranda Press (2004)
A piano player dingled “Music of the Night”
in a Baltimore hotel lounge
where my cousin rained on me chilling stories
of a father numbed by drink,
backhanding a hard life he never dreamed.
The harbor, cold slop,
and its ships, gouache of snow, so much snow
it could have been Wisconsin
where one night our family secrets stepped,
wary and sloe-eyed,
into the white arc of our headlights.
Later at the conference I had come for
I listened to a panelist
describe the pre-word limbic brain—
fight or flight in the amygdala
and in the seahorse-shaped hippocampus,
memory—trauma often leaving us
electric but dumbfounded.
I never knew about the pip of fear in her,
the flinch and brawl
within walls she called home.
I never made it to Beyond Imagination
to see seahorses and seadragons,
only each night watched
the sizzle of blue neon waves
on Baltimore Aquarium's drear wall.
The secret she kept years,
an intricate and eerie Tiger Tail,
suspended in her mind’s aquatic dark.
First appeared in Smartish Pace
WALKING THROUGH A WALL
Unlike flying or astral projection, walking through walls is a totally earth-related craft, but a lot more interesting than pot making or driftwood lamps. I got started at a picnic up in Bowstring in the northern part of the state. A fellow walked through a brick wall right there in the park. I said, "Say, I want to try that." Stone walls are best, then brick and wood. Wooden walls with fiberglass insulation and steel doors aren't so good. They won't hurt you. If your wall walking is done properly, both you and the wall are left intact. It is just that they aren't pleasant somehow. The worst things are wire fences, maybe it's the molecular structure of the alloy or just the amount of give in a fence, I don't know, but I've torn my jacket and lost my hat in a lot of fences. The best approach to a wall is, first, two hands placed flat against the surface; it's a matter of concentration and just the right pressure. You will feel the dry, cool inner wall with your fingers, then there is a moment of total darkness before you step through on the other side.
POSTCARD FROM THE ARCTIC
For Roy Tester
Put out for adoption at birth, now
you send me a trio of polar bears:
the mother, dark muzzled, leads
two cubs over the floes. Her feet
stand square on one raft of ice.
The camera caught the first cub
in his mother's wake, front paws
on her float, his black nose
close behind her white tail,
like Babar's procession of elephants.
His back feet stretch from the floe
slipping away behind and he is about
to belly flop into the drink --
His twin stares toward the lens as if,
when he's grown, he would eat it.
Floes shift like lily pads in a summer pond.
Drifting islets of ice extend
toward polar infinity, will freeze
into solid crust when the Wise Crone
snatches away the sun in a cat's-cradle.
Ignorant of your parents,
no offspring of your own
(one learns to be careful),
did you choose this card
half-aware of an inner longing?
Or did you sense that like Mother Bear,
I still try to guide my progeny
through dangerous passages --
even in our more temperate zone,
the world can be slippery. Cold.
I picture you trudging across urban snow
into a brick municipal hall. You seek
a sign: ORIGINS INFORMATION CENTRE.
Day after day, you wait in line,
snowy boots puddle into dark seas,
questions leave more question marks.
Like navigating through Arctic straits:
icebergs surround you, blizzards engulf
your charts scratched on ice, what you
hoped was safe harbor is icebound.
Children irked with imperfect parents
imagine: I was adopted, my real dad
is the Storm King, my mother -- the Snow Queen.
Yet we are all scions of princes
raised by the shepherd's wife.
Locked in the vault, our crowns await us.
Minions will rush with welcoming roses.
Our kingdoms stretch rich and green.
Meanwhile, we tend royal sheep
whiter, more woolly, than polar bears.
Originally appeared in Amelia, (winner 1993 Amelia Prize);
Reprinted in Kairos, 1993; The Arc of the Storm (Signal Books, 1998)
“Getting the curse”
your mother said
around the time she bought the panty-girdle
that would squash your stomach flat
and iron curlers
that would make your straight hair bend
picture-frame your face.
a strange new way to sleep
propped awkwardly upon your side
pins pulling at your hair
rollers digging in your scalp
vicious and unbending
as the elbows of self-righteousness.
But later you found out
the curse is when it doesn’t come.
Who’d have thought you’d want
that blood like grace?
Pray for signs of seepage
oozing down the walls
to say your thaw has started
and your field has not been sown.
And when you’re grown
and gone, remember the trip when
fractured from your love in time and space
you waited anxiously for him to call.
And when he did, the way
your blood let down
when you heard his voice.
Published in the chapbook anthology
A Voice of One’s Own: Twenty-Five Years
of Readings at A Room Of One’s Own
Feminist Bookstore (Madison, 2000).
CHICAGO, BE GONE!
Chicago, you sow!
You grunt-nosed, dirt-rooting, broad-shouldered sow
Eating its young,
I cast you out.
You stinking, mud-covered, curl-lipped sow of a city
Eating its young,
I cast you out.
Chicago, I cast out your clotted skyway and tollways and freeways,
I cast out your El
And M and N, O, P.
I cast out your main streets and side streets, your side-shows, your freaks,
Your parking lots, puking places, the punk of every rotten softness.
I cast out your skyscrapers and mudscrapers and underlayment,
Your shopping malls, your great big stores, your middle-sized stores,
I cast out even the mom & pop operations in your ethnic neighborhoods.
I cast out your undertakers.
Chicago, I cast out your great universities and the mediocre ones,
Your hospitals, your nursing homes that smell like
Somebody has pee'd in every corner,
Your rooming houses and rescue missions and even the cardboard boxes.
I cast out the House of Blues and the jazz clubs, the juke joints
And beer joints and clip joints,
The strip clubs and the clubs where the whores keep their clothes on.
I cast out your restaurants, all of them, I'm sorry I have to do that,
You know I love your food. I cast them out.
I cast out your museums, I'm sorry I have to do that, too.
I cast out your crowded skies, your O'Hares and Midways
And even little Meigs Field,
I cast out everyone who flies in and out of them.
I cast out your conventions and street corner conversations,
Your hotels and your motels,
Your B&Bs, your beds in every establishment.
I cast out Oprah.
I cast out your Cubs and White Sox,
Your Bears and Bulls. Who cares any more?
I cast out your factories, the air that makes me choke,
The stink of everything about you.
I cast out your crooked politics and the dirty politicians,
Your reformers and do-gooders, too,
And your civic-minded soccer moms.
I cast out your newspapers and your mayors,
The dailies and the Daleys,
The bearers of bad news, the bad news itself.
I cast out the pressure you put on your citizens and on your visitors,
The pressure you put on all the surrounding countryside -
All those cornfields, gone! Where have they gone to?
Chicago, I cast out the green and blue and brown of you,
The black and white and orange,
Rose, fushia, and auburn, every color in everything of you.
Be gone, Chicago, be gone!
Take your black mark off the green land.
Take your stink and shove and shinola,
I cast you out, Chicago,
Out from the middle west,
Out from whatever greenness and goodness we have left.
I cast you off our streets, out of our towns, from our farms.
I cast you out of our dreams,
Out of our lives.
Be gone, you dirty broad-shouldered sow eating its young,
Go to slaughter, be gone!
See who weeps for you.
Chicago, be gone. I cast you out.
Originally published at the
Vagabond home page
Another Thing I Ought to Be Doing
Many women fail to check their own breasts
for suspicious lumps on a regular monthly basis.
—The American Cancer Society
So now I should be taking special care
of them, is that it? Every month go pat
pat pat—when what they’ve done for me is flat
out bloody nothing? Case in point: where
were they when I was fourteen, fifteen,
and topographically a putting green?
Not to mention nights when I disgraced
my gender, stuffing tissue paper down
my polo shirt or confirmation gown—
my philosophy on staying chaste
having less to do with things profound
than fear of giving off a crunchy sound.
And now you’re saying, Minister to them!
these very breasts that caused me great gymnasiums
of misery and high humiliation—
Institute a monthly regimen!
Meaning I’m to walk my fingers gingerly
around these two molehills in front of me.
Sorry, but my hands have dropped straight down
like baby birds. They will not rise
to the occasion, won’t get organized,
refuse to land on enemy terrain.
They simply twitch and fidget in my lap
as if they sense a booby trap—
As if they hear the moron in my head
insisting that I’ll never be caught dead.
Originally appeared in Journal of the American
Medical Association and Subject to Change
AM I AFRAID TO BE A WOMAN OF SIGNIFICANCE ?The fear of blindness is worse
Than the fact.
Rousseau ridicules us,
“Educate women and the more they
Resemble our sex, the less power will
They have over us.”
That is not what I seek, but power over ourselves!
We are like little cucumbers
Row upon row, gleaming,
Ready to be cut, sugared, or baked.
The moral life is to see
The harvest! The peeling,
Be the knife! The self as source.
In a flat with old walls,
I get up earlier than most men.
I write. All day I write for other people.
I go to bed later than most men.
Do our dreams affect our days, or
Do our days affect our dreams…
I would like someone waiting for me.
I long for a cup of tea.
The light is on the wall.
It falls on my plain wooden bed,
The gray curtain.
Teach yourself how to think, Mary!
For no one else will do it for you.
Be the knife.
-from WHAT I WOULD DO FOR LOVE:
Poems in the Voice of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) Jacaranda Press(2004)
by Susan Elbe
Every angel is terrifying…
--Rainer Maria Rilke
In the summer dark behind my eyes,
he's always there, waiting for me
dressed in tight black chinos
with a pack of Luckys
rolled into his T-shirt sleeve.
On his arm, my name's tattooed
in blue like hopscotch grids
we chalked as children on the sidewalk.
With him, I’m always fifteen,
slim-hipped and Candy Pink lipped.
I’m always moony and unsure.
I wanted one straight-backed, articulate,
with wings white as the sails
of Monday wash snapping on clotheslines,
halo dazzling as a dime
dropped down a steam vent grating.
But this one--dark, rough
as a dockhand--waits for me,
slouching on the stoop steps
with others of his kind. They mouth
gritty southside lingo, lag
pennies, and play mumblety peg.
He courts me with the juicy gold of oranges
from the old Greek’s fruit stand,
and the sweaty-feet stink of the stockyards.
He woos me with the way-too-hot-
to-sleep scrape of folding chairs on porches
and the complicated gossip
of women and lilacs bending over fences.
He's always there in me like all-night traffic.
Turning slowly in my head,
he strikes a match in the blush-stained
circle of a street lamp.
He's the one who walks me home
when the moon is high and blinds us
like a one-headlight, cherry Chevy.
He whispers in the hallway on the stairs,
his lips, moth wings against my ear.
He wants me to go all the way.
First appeared in CALYX, A Journal of Art and Literature by Women
I think of folding you
into my life.
Our king-sized sheets
like table cloths
for the banquets of giants,
pillow cases, despite so many
washings seams still
holding our dreams.
Towels patterned orange and green,
flowered pink and lavender,
gaudy, bought on sale,
reserved, we said, for the beach,
refusing, even after years,
to bleach into respectability.
So many shirts and skirts and pants
recycling week after week, head over heels
All those wrinkles
to be smoothed, or else
ignored, they're in style.
Myriad uncoupled socks
which went paired into the foam
like those creatures in the ark.
And what's shrunk
is tough to discard
even for Goodwill.
In pockets, surprises:
lost screws clinking on enamel;
paper clips, whatever they held
between shiny jaws, now
dissolved or clogging the drain;
well-washed dollars, legal tender
for all debts public and private,
intact despite agitation;
and, gleaming in the maelstrom,
one bright dime,
broken necklace of good gold
you brought from Kuwait,
the strangely tailored shirt
left by a former lover...
If you were to leave me,
if I were to fold
only my own clothes,
the convexes and concaves
of my blouses, panties, stockings, bras
turned upon themselves,
a mountain of unsorted wash
could not fill
the empty side of the bed.
Originally appeared in Poetry
The Blue Water Buffalo
One in 250 Cambodians, or 40,000 people,
have lost a limb to a landmine.
—Newsfront, U.N. Development Programme
On both sides of the screaming highway, the world
is made of emerald silk—sumptuous bolts of it,
stitched by threads of water into cushions
that shimmer and float on the Mekong's munificent glut.
In between them plods the ancient buffalo—dark blue
in the steamy distance, and legless
where the surface of the ditch dissects
the body from its waterlogged supports below
or it might be a woman, up to her thighs
in the lukewarm ooze, bending at the waist
with the plain grace of habit, delving for weeds
in water that receives her wrist and forearm
as she feels for the alien stalk, the foreign blade
beneath that greenest of green coverlets
where brittle pods in their corroding skins
now shift, waiting to salt the fields with horror.
Originally appeared in EMILY DICKINSON AWARDS ANTHOLOGY, 2004
(Universities West Press)
thoughts of stones. What do they dream
of as afternoon heats them?
Do they dream of arms and legs
or wings? Do they dream of love?
Do they remember glaciers -
the weight, the shove? Sitting with
stones, oh, lost among stones, aren't
you surprised at what you learn?
- Tom Montag
Previously published in Vagabond In the Middle newsletter and the anthology America Zen: A Gathering of Poets