The Innisfree Poetry Journal
by A CLOSER LOOK: Barbara Crooker
Barbara Crooker is a poet of courage on the fields of love and
struggle, gain and loss. While loss hits again and again—a mother, a child, a
husband—her poems offer, insist even, over and over, on praise for what we do have and can
have, for what there is to see and what more to see, close and at distance, for the work there is for us to be. As she closes one poem in More, “Always, there is more.” Her poems
burst with the colors and sounds, the relationships and feelings of life while
we have it. The strength of this work heartens. More and more poets and readers have noticed. See Claire Keyes’ piece on Crooker’s recently published Selected Poems in Innisfree 21.
Crooker is the author of six books of poems: Radiance,
which won the 2005 Word Press First Book competition and was a finalist for the
2006 Paterson Poetry Prize; Line Dance
(Word Press 2008), which won the 2009 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence; More (C&R Press 2010); Gold (Cascade Books, 2013); Small Rain (Purple Flag, 2014); and Selected Poems (FutureCycle Press, 2015). Her poems have appeared in The Green Mountains Review, Poet Lore, Potomac Review, The Hollins
Critic, The Christian Science Monitor,
Smartish Pace, Beloit Poetry Journal, Nimrod, Denver Quarterly, Tampa Review, Poetry International,
Christian Century, America, and The Bedford Introduction to Literature, Good Poems for Hard Times (Garrison
Keillor, editor), and Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania.
Crooker received the 2007 Pen and Brush Poetry Prize, the 2006 Ekphrastic Poetry Award from Rosebud, the 2004 W.B. Yeats Society of New York Award, the 2004 Pennsylvania Center for the Book Poetry in Public Places Poster Competition, the 2003 Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Award, the 2003 “April Is the Cruelest Month” Award from Poets & Writers, the 2000 New Millennium Writing’s Y2K competition, the 1997 Karamu Poetry Award, and others, including three Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships, sixteen residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts; a residency at the Moulin à Nef, Auvillar, France; and a residency at The Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig, Ireland. A thirty-six time nominee for the Pushcart Prize and five time nominee for Best of the Net, she was nominated for the 1997 Grammy Awards for her part in the audio version of the popular anthology, Grow Old Along With Me—The Best is Yet to Be (Papier Mache Press). Her poetry has been read on the BBC, the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Company), and by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac, and in Ted Kooser’s column, American Life in Poetry. She has read her poems in the Poetry at Noon series at the Library of Congress, in Auvillar, France, at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, and in many other venues.
Praise for the work of Barbara Crooker:
Rarely has a book of poems been as aptly titled as Barbara Crooker’s More. Propelled by her hunger for beauty and language, she flies in low over human experience, noticing every gesture, every flavor, every nuance of color and light. Whether she is pondering a spill of salt or stepping into a painting by Hopper, Crooker never for one second lets us forget what it is to be alive and how many ways we have been given to express our gratitude for this simple fact. “How did all this loveliness/ spring from the dark?” she asks in one poem. I don’t know the answer, but by the time I finished reading this book, I could only agree with its final sentence: “I want all this to last.”
—Sue Ellen Thompson, author of The Golden Hour and editor of The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry
Read more about Barbara Crooker:
A prefatory note from Barbara Crooker:
The poet Christopher Buckley has a prose poem in which the ghost of Charles Bukowski comes back and speaks to him: “Jesus, just remember who you are, those holes in your sneakers in grammar school, and write something someone will want to read before they die.” That says it all for me, for what I’m trying to do, which is to write something that will touch someone else deeply, to write something true. And that the reader will consider that everything I’ve written exists in the light of a difficult biography: my first daughter died shortly before birth, my first marriage ended as a result, my second daughter had a traumatic brain injury and was in a coma for nine days when she was eighteen, and my son, who I’m still taking care of (he’s in his thirties), has autism. Still, I take as my motto Wendell Berry’s words, “Be joyful even though you have considered all the facts.” Here’s a little ars poetica:
Because I’m here, this late in the century,
looking at the ink-filled sky,
seeing the April comet, a luminous exclamation,
not believing, with the alternatives
of nuclear char or unchecked epidemic,
that anything from our time will last.
But still, I was here, on this rock,
this shaley hillside, violets blooming
in the grass, for a short time. I suffered,
I lived, I loved in the face of everything,
and I have to write it down.
Selections from the books of Barbara Crooker:
from Radiance (Word Press, 2005):
All that is Glorious around Us
is not, for me, these grand vistas, sublime peaks, mist-filled
overlooks, towering clouds, but doing errands on a day
of driving rain, staying dry inside the silver skin of the car,
160,000 miles, still running just fine. Or later,
sitting in a café warmed by the steam
from white chicken chili, two cups of dark coffee,
watching the red and gold leaves race down the street,
confetti from autumn’s bright parade. And I think
of how my mother struggles to breathe, how few good days
she has now, how we never think about the glories
of breath, oxygen cascading down our throats to the lungs,
simple as the journey of water over rock. It is the nature
of stone / to be satisfied / writes Mary Oliver, It is the nature
of water / to want to be somewhere else, rushing down
a rocky tor or high escarpment, the panoramic landscape
boundless behind it. But everything glorious is around
us already: black and blue graffiti shining in the rain’s
bright glaze, the small rainbows of oil on the pavement,
where the last car to park has left its mark on the glistening
street, this radiant world.
Autism Poem: The Grid
A black and yellow spider hangs motionless in its web,
and my son, who is eleven and doesn’t talk, sits
on a patch of grass by the perennial border, watching.
What does he see in his world, where geometry
is more beautiful than a human face?
Given chalk, he draws shapes on the driveway:
pentagons, hexagons, rectangles, squares.
The spider’s web is a grid,
transecting the garden in equal parts.
Sometimes he stares through the mesh on a screen.
He loves things that are perforated:
toilet paper, graham crackers, coupons
in magazines, loves the order of tiny holes,
the way boundaries are defined. And real life
is messy and vague. He shrinks back to a stare,
switches off his hearing. And my heart,
not cleanly cut like a valentine, but irregular
and many-chambered, expands and contracts,
contracts and expands.
A rectangle of light spills in the high window
over the porcelain tub in our small hôtel,
and a blackbird, a merle, is singing his strange chanson,
r’s swallowed in the back of his throat, those palate-
ringing u’s: dur, truffes, du fluide, tu penses.
At the rue de Varenne, Rodin’s Thinker is still stuck
in the rose garden, his bronze thoughts lost
in translation. Across the lawn, in a smaller version,
he broods above les Portes d’Enfer:
Abandon hope, all ye who enter.
Underneath, eternity’s lovers twine
about each other, the embrace of the damned,
yearn and long but never touch, all that unattainable
flesh. The twisting lovers try to hold on even
as they are torn away or melt backwards
into the liquid bronze night, condemned to writhe
in tortured high relief. But we are here, in our
middle-aged imperfect bodies, walking hand in hand
under an allée of plane trees in the dazzled light,
and my desire for you, even after all these years,
is a marc, an eau-de-vie, hot and heady
in the blood. High above us, chimney swifts,
les martinets, take up their nightly chorus, shrieking
as they swoop and dive for insects in the long dusk.
Praise the small cage of the elevator
that carries us to our chambre. Praise my four-
chambered heart, still beating; praise your gall
bladder, unremoved. O Paris, city of café noir
and vin rouge, where even the subway signs
are works of art, city of rapturous light,
ghosts of Hemingway and Stein at the Closerie,
Simone and Jean-Paul at the Café de Flor,
you and I, our little story nearly over,
singing loudly as we can, in our tone deaf voices,
against the coming rain and the following dark.
Praise the light of late November,
the thin sunlight that goes deep in the bones.
Praise the crows chattering in the oak trees;
though they are clothed in night, they do not
despair. Praise what little there’s left:
the small boats of milkweed pods, husks, hulls,
shells, the architecture of trees. Praise the meadow
of dried weeds: yarrow, goldenrod, chicory,
the remains of summer. Praise the blue sky
that hasn’t cracked yet. Praise the sun slipping down
behind the beechnuts, praise the quilt of leaves
that covers the grass: Scarlet Oak, Sweet Gum,
Sugar Maple. Though darkness gathers, praise our crazy
fallen world; it’s all we have, and it’s never enough.
Nearing Menopause, I Run into Elvis at ShopRite,
near the peanut butter. He calls me ma’am, like the sweet
southern mother’s boy he was. This is the young Elvis,
slim-hipped, dressed in leather, black hair swirled
like a duck’s backside. I’m in the middle of my life,
the start of the body’s cruel betrayals, the skin beginning
to break in lines and creases, the thickening midline.
I feel my temperature rising, as a hot flash washes over,
the thermostat broken down. The first time I heard Elvis
on the radio, I was poised between girlhood and what comes next.
My parents were appalled, in the Eisenhower fifties, by rock
and roll and all it stood for, let me only buy one record,
“Love Me Tender,” and I did.
I have on a tight Orlon sweater, circle skirt,
eight layers of rolled-up net petticoats, all bound
together by a woven straw cinch belt. Now I’ve come
full circle, hate the music my daughter loves, Nine
Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Crash Test Dummies.
Elvis looks embarrassed for me. His soft full lips
are like moon pies, his eyelids half-mast, pulled
down bedroom shades. He mumbles, “Treat me nice.”
Now, poised between menopause and what comes next, the last
dance, I find myself in tears by the toilet paper rolls,
hearing “Unchained Melody” on the sound system. “That’s all
right now, Mama,” Elvis says, “Anyway you do is fine.” The bass
line thumps and grinds, the honky tonk piano moves
like an ivory river, full of swampy delta blues. And Elvis’s voice
wails above it all, the purr and growl, the snarl and twang,
above the chains of flesh and time.
from Line Dance (Word Press, 2008):
At my daughter’s wedding, we formed a chain to New York, New York,
her friends from college arm in arm with my ex-
mother-in-law who’s whooping it up—
she loves Frank Sinatra—and she’s holding hands
with the bride, whose elbow hooks
into a bridesmaid’s—all four of them, in navy shantung,
have their arms around each other’s waists, a chorus
kick line, the groom’s sister also holding a bottle of beer;
my youngest daughter at the end, hair, a glory of red ringlets,
her arm’s around the bride’s half-sister, who’s giggling
in embarrassment, and she’s connected to my childhood friend
in a black sheath, who holds onto the khaki sports coat
of my writing friend’s husband, the dentist, while
his wife, in lilac, wraps her arm around one of my neighbors,
who’s linked to a friend from college in slinky silk slacks,
and there, at the end, is my ex-husband, the one who didn’t want
to be married any more, holding his soon-to-be-estranged second
wife, the one he left us for, at arm’s length. Start spreading the news:
everyone I’ve ever loved is here today, even the dead, raising a glass
and dancing, circling around the bride in her frothy gown, bubbles
rising in a fluted glass, spilling out, running over.
I want to tell you something. This morning
is bright after all the steady rain, and every iris,
peony, rose, opens its mouth, rejoicing. I want to say,
wake up, open your eyes, there’s a snow-covered road
ahead, a field of blankness, a sheet of paper, an empty screen.
Even the smallest insects are singing, vibrating their entire bodies,
tiny violins of longing and desire. We were made for song.
I can’t tell you what prayer is, but I can take the breath
of the meadow into my mouth, and I can release it for the leaves’
green need. I want to tell you your life is a blue coal, a slice
of orange in the mouth, cut hay in the nostrils. The cardinals’
red song dances in your blood. Look, every month the moon
blossoms into a peony, then shrinks to a sliver of garlic.
And then it blooms again.
It is all surface, isn’t it, the thin blue silk of the sky, an oak leaf’s chlorophyll
production line, the unblinking eye of the pond? When I was as shallow
as an undergraduate could possibly be, I peeled off from a field trip
to Soho galleries to visit The Factory; my friend and I
nearly identical in our veneers: ironed hair, wheat jeans, black
sleeveless shells, our unwavering scorn of the outside world . . . .
It was dazzling, every surface painted silver: the walls, ceilings,
tables, chairs, bathroom fixtures, like walking into a roll
of aluminum foil. And Andy—thin, spectral, white blond hair,
black sunglasses, nearly wordless. Mostly, he just was, the zen
of non-being, the art of perfect detachment. And we were mute,
too, inarticulate in our youth. We knew what it was we didn’t
want, but not what we did.
Now, all these years and lives later, the twistings and turnings
of many roads— some macadam, some asphalt, some stone—
I can’t remember her name, just how straight her hair was,
how it hung down her back like a bolt of cloth.
In the untidy closet of my heart, I think about what we put on,
fashion, facade, how many layers we need between our skin
and the rest of the world.
To make good gravy, you must be patient,
let the juice settle to the bottom, let the fat
float to the top in all its golden light. Skim
it with a thin spoon, take its measure. Equal
it with flour, sprinkle with salt, speckle
with pepper. Stir constantly in the roasting pan,
making figure eights with a wooden spoon.
Scrape off strips of skin, bits of meat; incorporate
them in the mixture, like a difficult uncle
or the lonely neighbor invited out of duty.
Keep stirring. Hand the wooden baton
to one of your daughters; it’s time for her
to start learning this music, the bubble and
seethe as it plays the score. One minute
at the boil, then almost like magic, it’s gravy,
a rich velvet brown. Thin it with broth,
stir in chopped giblets, then pour into
its little boat, waiting with mouth open.
Take up your forks, slide potatoes, stuffing,
gravy, into your mouth, hum under your breath.
Oh, the holy family of gravy, all those
little odd bits and pieces, the parts that could
be discarded, but aren’t; instead, transformed
into a warm brown blanket that makes
delicious everything it covers.
from More (C&R Press, 2010):
This morning’s miracle: dawn turned up its dimmer,
set the net of frost on the lawn to shining. The sky,
lightly iced with clouds, stretched from horizon
to horizon, not an inch to spare, and later, the sun
splashed its bucket of light on the ground. But it’s
never enough. The hungry heart wants more: another
ten years with the man you love, even though you’ve had
thirty; one more night rinsed in moonlight, bodies twisted
in sheets, one more afternoon under the plane trees
by the fountain, with a jug of red wine and bits of bread
scattered around. More, even though the dried grasses
are glowing in the dying light, and the hills are turning
all the syllables of lavender, as evening draws the curtains,
turns on the lamps. One more book, one more story,
as if all the words weren’t already written, as if all the plots
haven’t been used, as if we didn’t know the ending already,
as if this time, we thought it could turn out differently.
DemeterIt was November, when my middle daughter
descended to the underworld. She fell
off her horse straight into Coma’s arms.
He dragged her down, wrapped her in a sleep
so deep I thought I would never see her again.
Each day, the light grew dimmer, as Earth
moved away from sun. I was not writing this story;
no one knew the ending, not even the neurosurgeons,
with their fancy machines. Every twenty-four
hours she slipped further away. I called
and called her name, offered to trade places,
ate six pomegranate seeds, their bleeding garnets
tart on the tongue. Her classmates took
their SATs, wrote their entrance essays. She
slipped down into the darkness, another level
deeper. I was ready to deliver her to college,
watch her disappear into a red brick dorm, green
trees waving their arms in welcome. Not this,
season without ending, where switches changed
the darkness to light, and breath was forced
through tubes and machines, their steady hum
the only music of the dim room. The shadows
under her eyes turned blue-violet, and pneumonia
filled her lungs.
And then, one morning, slight as the shift
from winter to spring, her eyelids fluttered,
and up she swam, a slippery rebirth,
and the light that came into the room
was from a different world.
I’m walking on the beach this brisk November morning,
the bleached sea grass bending in the wind, when there,
up ahead, in the pewter waves, I see a surfer in his wet suit,
sleek as a seal, cutting in and out of the curl, shining in the light.
I’m on the far side of sixty, athletic as a sofa, but this is where
the longing starts, the yearning for another life, the one
where I’m lithe and long-limbed, tanned California gold,
short tousled hair full of sunshine. The life where I shoulder my board,
stride into the waves, dive under the breakers, and rise; my head shaking
off water like a golden retriever. I am waiting for that perfect wave to come,
so I can crouch up and catch it, my arms out like wings, slicing back
and forth in the froth, wind at my back, sea’s slick metal polished
before me. Nothing more important now than this balance between
water and air, the rhythm of in and out, staying ahead of the break,
choosing my line like I choose these words, writing my name
on water, writing my name on air.
The Open Window
I walk into this room like it’s an open air market:
shutters, slabs of salmon baking on their terra cotta
bricks; window panes, peach and melon; trellis,
slashes of mustard and olive. Out of the frame,
boats sway on a candy sea, the marshmallow
sky sticky behind it, the horizon stained
with juice. In the pots in the foreground,
peppers sizzle and burn. Step back into the room,
love, and close the shutters; the walls are really
cool and white. Come out of the heat of the day,
the dazzling sun. There are just the two of us here,
no telephones, watches, deadlines, and we can make
the afternoon stretch behind the closed slats, on the smooth
ironed sheets. The outside world clatters away, traffic
and klaxons, the blaring of horns. The sun seethes
behind the shutters, edible, volatile.
StrewnIt’d been a long winter, rags of snow hanging on; then, at the end
of April, an icy nor’easter, powerful as a hurricane. But now I’ve landed
on the coast of Maine, visiting a friend who lives two blocks from the ocean,
and I can’t believe my luck, out this mild morning,
Every dog within fifty miles is off-leash, running for the sheer dopey joy of it.
No one’s in the water, but walkers and shellers leave their tracks on the
The flat sand shines as if varnished in a painting. Underfoot, strewn, are broken
bits and pieces, deep indigo mussels, whorls of whelk, chips of purple
and white wampum, hinges of quahog, fragments of flat grey sand dollars.
Nothing whole, everything broken, washed up here, stranded.
Light pours down, a rinse of lemon on a cold plate
of oysters. All of us, broken, some way or other. All of us
dazzling in the brilliant slanting light.
from Gold (Cascade Books, 2013):
In those last few months my mother didn’t want to eat, this woman
who made everything from scratch, and who said of her appetite,
I eat like a bricklayer. Now she listlessly stirred the food
around her plate, sometimes picking up a piece of chicken,
then looking at it as if to say, What is this? Wouldn’t put
it in her mouth. But Peeps! Marshmallow Peeps! Spun sugar
and air, molded in clever forms: a row of ghosts, a line
of pumpkins, a bevy of bunnies, a flock of tiny chicks,
sometimes in improbable colors like purple and blue . . . .
One day, she turned over her tray, closed her mouth, looked up
at me like a defiant child, and said, I’m not eating this stuff.
Where’s my Peeps?
When it was over, the hospice chaplain said some words
in my back yard, under the wisteria arch. The air was full
of twinkling white butterflies, in love with the wild oregano.
Blue-green fronds of Russian sage waved in front of the Star
Gazer lilies, and a single finch lit on a pink coneflower, and stayed.
When there were no more words or tears, I ripped open
the last packet of Peeps, tore their little marshmallow bodies,
their sugary blood on my hands, and gave a piece to each
of us. It melted, grainy fluff on our tongues, and it was good.
We’re writing our names with sizzles of light
to celebrate the fourth. I use the loops of cursive,
make a big B like the sloping hills on the west side
of the lake. The rest, little a, r, one small b,
spit and fizz as they scratch the night. On the side
of the shack where we bought them, a handmade sign:
Trailer Full of Sparkles Ahead, and I imagine crazy
chrysanthemums, wheels of fire, glitter bouncing
off metal walls. Here, we keep tracing in tiny pyrotechnics
the letters we were given at birth, branding them on the air.
And though my mother’s name has been erased now,
I write her name, too: a big swooping I, a little hissing s,
an a that sighs like her last breath, and then I ring
belle, belle, belle in the sulphuric smoky dark.
On the boulevard, the Bradford pears
release their petals; they spill like salt
on the ground. My grandmother would
have pinched up the granules, thrown them over
her shoulder to fool the evil eye. My mother
would have said Don’t cry over what’s spilled.
When we were in Brittany, we saw les artisan
paludiers harvest it by hand, marketed as fleur de sel,
the flower of salt. When we poured my mother’s ashes
in the ocean, they ran through my hands like grains
from a silver spout. On the blue canister in my kitchen,
there’s a little girl standing in the rain in a yellow dress,
the same can of salt under her arm, open, running out,
like those Dutch interiors repeating themselves in convex
mirrors. Repeating like the bits of DNA in molecules
that become the coins in our ovaries’ purse, doled out month
by month, drawn by the moon. Long ago, someone tippedsome salt on a black skillet, and decided to call that spillage “stars.”
O, this morning, not a cloud in the sky, and coffee, black,
the way I like it. I have been watching a phoebe, dark hood
and wagtail bobbing, as he flits back and forth from the beauty
bush to the eave of the shed, just yards from this red Adirondack
chair where I’m sitting, breathing the day through my skin.
It rained last night, and the chair’s damp slats are cool
on my back; there’s a scree of frogs in the swamp, a creek
of sound in the background, a river of desire: Here I am. Find me.
Felicitous. That’s the only word to describe this. The sun pours
warm honey from its great glass jar, no matter how little we deserve it.
Some of us drag a heavy load through the day, a sack of should of’s,
or push a bushel of sorrow up a hill. But there’s the phoebe coming
back with his bit of straw or broken twig. He has a job to do,
and he sticks with it. And then he opens his beak and sings.
from Small Rain (Purple Flag Press, 2014):
My mother comes back as a dianthus,
only this time, she’s happy, smelling like cloves,
fringed and candy-striped with a ring of deep rose
that bleeds into the outer petals. She dances
in the wind without her walker, nods pinkly
to the bluebells. She breathes easily, untethered
to oxygen’s snaking vines. Lacking bones,
there’s nothing left to crumble; she’s supple,
stem and leaf. No meals to plan, shop for, prepare;
everything she needs is at her feet, more rich and moist
than a chocolate cake. How much simpler
it would have been to be a flower in the first place,
with nothing to do but sit in the sun and shine.
This had been a difficult week, us at cross purposes,
spring lagging behind, dragging its feet, and days
on end of steady rain. The calendar said t-shirts,
flip flops, sandals, but we were hunched in sweaters,
stoking the fire. And then, and I know it was not
a miracle, the rain lifted, and the grass was a jolt
of electric green. The quarrel we were nursing
evaporated like morning mist, and there,
at the feeder, after years of trying—making
nectar, slicing oranges—was a pair of orioles, startling
as if the sun decided to fly down from the sky,
a flashy splash of citrus soda in my ordinary backyard.
Come all you who are thirsty, come to the waters.
You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.
It’s Monday Morning,
mid-November, the world turned golden,
preserved in amber. I should be doing more
to save the planet—plant a tree, raise
a turbine, put solar panels on the roof
to grab the sun and bring it inside. Instead,
I’m sitting here scribbling, sitting on a wrought
iron chair, the air cold from last night’s frost,
the thin sunlight sinking into the ruined
Appalachians of my spine. I know it’s all
about to fall apart; the signs are everywhere.
But on this blue morning, the air bristling
with crickets and birdsong, I do the only thing
I can: put one word in front of the other,
and see what happens when they rub up against
each other. It might become something
that will burst into flame.
The sky hangs up its starry pictures: a swan,
a crab, a horse. And even though you’re
three hundred miles away, I know you see
them, too. Right now, my side
of the bed is empty, a clear blue lake
of flannel. The distance yawns and stretches.
It’s hard to remember we swim in an ocean
of great love, so easy to fall into bickering
like little birds at the feeder fighting over proso
and millet, unaware of how large the bag of grain is,
a river of golden seeds, that the harvest was plentiful,
the corn is in the barn, and whenever we’re hungry,
a dipperful of just what we need will be spilled . . . .
from Selected Poems (FutureCycle Press, 2015):
This was a day when nothing happened,
the children went off to school
remembering their books, lunches, gloves.
All morning, the baby and I built block stacks
in the squares of light on the floor.
And lunch blended into naptime,
I cleaned out kitchen cupboards,
one of those jobs that never gets done,
then sat in a circle of sunlight
and drank ginger tea,
watched the birds at the feeder
jostle over lunch’s little scraps.
A pheasant strutted from the hedgerow,
preened and flashed his jeweled head.
Now a chicken roasts in the pan,
and the children return,
the murmur of their stories dappling the air.
I peel carrots and potatoes without paring my thumb.
We listen together for your wheels on the drive.
Grace before bread.
And at the table, actual conversation,
no bickering or pokes.
And then, the drift into homework.
The baby goes to his cars, drives them
along the sofa’s ridges and hills.
Leaning by the counter, we steal a long slow kiss,
tasting of coffee and cream.
The chicken’s diminished to skin & skeleton,
the moon to a comma, a sliver of white,
but this has been a day of grace
in the dead of winter,
the hard cold knuckle of the year,
a day that unwrapped itself
like an unexpected gift,
and the stars turn on,
into the winter night.
A quarter of a century
since we left high school,
and we’ve gathered at a posh restaurant.
A little heavier, a little greyer,
we look for the yearbook pictures
caught inside these bodies of strangers.
Some of our faces are etched with lines,
the faint tracing of a lover’s touch,
and some of our hair is silver-white,
a breath of frost. And some of us are gone.
But he’s here, the dark angel,
everyone’s last lover, up at the microphone
singing “Save the last dance for me”;
he’s singing a cappella, the notes rising
sweetly, yearningly toward the ceiling,
which is now festooned with tissue flowers,
paper streamers, balloons.
And we’re all eighteen again,
lines and wrinkles erased, grey hairs gone,
our slim bodies back, the perfect editing.
A saxophone keens its reedy insistence;
scents of gardenias & tea roses float in the air
from our wrist corsages and boutonnieres.
No children or lovers have broken our hearts,
it’s just all of us, together,
in our fresh young skin,
ready to do it all over again.
Patty’s Charcoal Drive-In
First job. In tight black shorts
and a white bowling shirt, red lipstick
and bouncing ponytail, I present
each overflowing tray as if it were a banquet.
I’m sixteen and college-bound;
this job’s temporary as the summer sun,
but right now, it’s the boundaries of my life.
After the first few nights of mixed orders
and missing cars, the work goes easily.
I take out the silver trays and hook them to the windows,
inhale the mingled smells of seared meat patties,
salty ketchup, rich sweet malteds.
The lure of grease drifts through the thick night air.
And it’s always summer at Patty’s Charcoal Drive-In —
carloads of blonde-and-tan girls
pull up next to red convertibles,
boys in black tee shirts and slick hair.
Everyone knows what they want.
And I wait on them, hoping for tips,
loose pieces of silver
flung carelessly as the stars.
Doo-wop music streams from the jukebox,
and each night repeats itself,
faithful as a steady date.
Towards 10 p.m., traffic dwindles.
We police the lot, pick up wrappers.
The dark pours down, sticky as Coke,
but the light from the kitchen
gleams like a beacon.
A breeze comes up, chasing papers
in the far corners of the darkened lot,
as if suddenly a cold wind had started to blow
straight at me from the future —
I read that in a Doris Lessing book —
but right now, purse fat with tips,
the moon sitting like a cheeseburger on a flat black grill,
this is enough.
Your order please.
Another October. The maples have done their slick trick
of turning yellow almost overnight; summer’s hazy skies
are cobalt blue. My friend has come in from the West,
where it’s been a year of no mercy: chemotherapy, bone
marrow transplant, more chemotherapy, and her hair
came out in fistfuls, twice. Bald as a pumpkin.
And then, the surgeon’s knife.
But she’s come through it all, annealed by fire,
calm settled in her bones like the morning mist in valleys
and low places, and her hair’s returned, glossy
as a horse chestnut kept in a shirt pocket.
Today a red fox ran down through the corn stubble;
he vanished like smoke. I want to praise things
that cannot last. The scarlet and orange leaves
are already gone, blown down by a cold rain,
crushed and trampled. They rise again in leaf meal
and wood smoke. The great blue heron’s returned to the pond,
settles in the reeds like a steady flame.
Geese cut a wedge out of the sky, drag the grey days
behind them like a skein of old wool.
I want to praise everything brief and finite.
Overhead, the Pleiades fall into place; Orion rises.
Great horned owls muffle the night with their calls;
night falls swiftly, tucking us in her black velvet robe,
the stitches showing through, all those little lights,
our little lives, rising and falling.
Copyright 2006-2012 by Cook Communication