A CLOSER LOOK: Barbara Crooker



[The stones] remember glaciers, and they praise the sun.

If you lie on the ground in the moonlight,

they will whisper what you need to save your life.


Barbara Crooker is a poet of courage on the fields of love and struggle, gain and loss. While loss hits again and againa mother, a child, a husbandher 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 Crookers 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:


To say it flat out: From her hiding place in Fogelsville, Pennsylvania, Barbara Crooker has been writing—one by one—some of the finest poems in America.  More contains many of these poems. It is a book of longing and praise (“Anchor me to this world, God of spindrift, / God of spume and salt spray, God of sand”), of whimsy and humor (“What you want comes in five flavors, / and all of them are chocolate: / milk, mocha, alpine white, semi-, bittersweet”), of happiness (“Every dog within fifty miles is off-leash, running for the sheer dopey joy of it”). Above all, these are poems of response, as in Crooker’s lovely responses to paintings by such as Monet and Hopper and, in the surpassing “The Mother Suite,” her terribly moving responses to a mother’s decline. With neither sentiment nor nostalgia—those two killers of celebratory poems—Barbara Crooker’s works are a true guide to what Zen masters call “mindfulness.” These auditory and visual craftworks should salt and pepper and grace our anthologies for centuries to come.

—Dick Allen, author of Present Vanishing and Ode to the Cold War:  Poems New and Selected

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:


http://writingwithoutpaper.blogspot.com/2015/04/monday-muse-on-early-poems-of-barbara.html

http://authormark.com/artman2/publish/Innisfree21CLAIRE_KEYES2.shtml

http://delphiquarterly.com/recent-issues/current-issue-7/interview-with-barbara-crooker/

http://erb.kingdomnow.org/barbara-crooker-gold-poems-feature-review/

http://www.ruminatemagazine.com/2014/04/review-of-gold-by-barbara-crooker/

www.barbaracrooker.com



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:

 

Why Write?

 

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.

first published in VolNo


Selections from the books of Barbara Crooker:


from Radiance (Word Press, 2005):

All that is Glorious around Us

(title of an exhibit on The Hudson River School)

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.

 

In Paris

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 Song

 

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):

 

Line Dance

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.


 

Listen,

 

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.

 

Surface

“If you want to know all about Andy Warhol,

just look at my films and paintings and me.

There’s nothing behind it. That’s all there is.”

—Andy Warhol

 

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.

 

Gravy

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):

Narrative 

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.

 

Demeter

It 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.

 

Surfer Girl 

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

~Henri Matisse

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.

 

Strewn

It’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, race-walking along

     the strand.

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

     hardpack.

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):

Peeps

 

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.


 

Sparklers

 

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.

 

Salt

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 tipped

some salt on a black skillet, and decided to call that spillage “stars.”


Aubade


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):

 

Dianthus

 

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.


 

Passerines

 

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.


 

Sustenance

 

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):

 

Ordinary Life

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,

order themselves

into the winter night.


 

Twenty-Fifth Reunion

 

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.


 

Equinox

 

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.

 

 

 











                                    

 

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