This Fierce Elation
—after the photo “Autumn Abundance” by Yvette Melzer
Look into this window with me:
all these tomatoes ripening
on the sill, their fleshy heft caressed
by light—these Romas in a bowl
are fire-engine red and then a chime
of tangerine, then Brandywine,
then one creamy white that rests
upon the shoulders
of a large-lobed Heirloom,
a peek of tiger—as if their flesh
will never be blemished or blighted,
always this empire of ruby,
amber, sandstone, the promise
of salt on the counter, the knife’s
slice, and seduced as I am
by such fierce elation, I haven’t
noticed until now there’s a woman
behind them, camouflaged
against the sepia background
(her kitchen?), thin-strapped chemise,
bare shoulders, a mug of coffee
in her hand, and now I look harder,
the woman’s fingers are clenching
the handle of the mug, her grip insisting
I see the work of holding on—
planting the seeds in soil, watering,
weeding so the seeds would cling
to earth, staking the sprouting tendrils,
holding each ripe tomato in her
cupped palm, confirming wholeness,
before she picked them one by one,
placed them gently in her basket
and carried them into her kitchen,
setting them down on that sill—
I see you, vigorous parade
of tomatoes, woman with your still-
warm cup of coffee in your hand.
All the Hours the Night Has Left
What I’ll never have is close to, or nearly equals,
what I’ve had. I find myself at equilibrium,
which may last only a day—the mayfly’s
brief happiness—no way of knowing
Burial of a Woman With the Blackened Shells of 86 Tortoises
—Southern Levant, 10,000 BCE
What if 40 shells had been placed in her grave,
one for each of her years? I hope they held
a shelf for sorrow, eased her husband’s grief
for her hair, her sighs, her voice. A ritual spell,
the leg of a boar on her shoulder to widen the way.
Could those pelts have kept her from the cold,
the two stone martens they spread across her body,
and liquefaction of her soul, that stole
that warmed her breasts? I hope she loved, and hard,
that the aurochs’ tail steadied her spine.
and the eagle’s wing was transport, carried her
past the uphill grass to outlast time.
Sprinkled like holy water, those tortoise shells,
with or without the need for heaven, for hell.
With or without the need for heaven, for hell,
I clutched my bony rabbit’s foot for luck—
the rabbit dead, the foot chopped off. Cruel,
that crisp, gold-capped clasp. No blood. No muck.
At night in bed I stroked the silky fur,
brown and white, slept with the chain so tight
around my finger it left a faithful ring.
The lore: kill the rabbit in the night,
a graveyard moon, the rabbit set down, crying
like a natural child. And I’m stuck
on why they placed a hacked-off human foot
inside the woman’s grave—was that for luck?
Must we kill, need we sever,
to turn ourselves golden and forever?
To turn ourselves golden and forever,
that’s what we want, but I don’t really know
what my mother wore for her burial,
her lavender Ultrasuede or did someone sew
a shroud? Was she sleeked in the full-length mink
my stepfather gave her? Did she crave a slub
of silk from her father’s vest? Maybe she wanted
her easel, back brace, blue rubber brush to scrub
each apple with soap. Where were the lace-up Oxfords
she needed (her ankles, weak), where was our family
dog, or his leg bone, at least? And what did she say,
last visit in Maine, as she was vanishing
at 56? After brief remission.
I forget what she said (forgive me), I didn’t listen.
I forget what you said (forgive me), I didn’t listen
until now, your voice in your letters, fifty years ago,
it’s clear that something sharp had come between us—
barbs, worry, wishes and warnings and scolds.
Closing my eyes, I smell your geraniums, the ones
with leaves like tongues, their ruddy scent. Your knack
for tackling dandelions. You loved your hands
in dirt. To nurture growth meant pinching back
the blooms. All those years you circled my pool—
stay out of the deep end, stay out of the sun.
Too many be-sure-to’s and shouldn’ts. The stains I’d left
on the counter. Unsure of myself and whatever I’d done.
How hard you were trying to love your daughter.
What trouble we had, what turbulent water.
What trouble we had, what turbulence,
you’d speak to me in code, in nuts and bolts—
how long to cook a roast, best to soak
an egg pan in cold water, don’t burn the toast—
when what I needed was metaphor, to link the distant,
a bridge over churning water to carry me past
your house to Saturdays with my weekend father:
the drive-ins and car rides with him rushed by too fast.
Mother, remember we watched the “Sound of Music,”
the motherless children, their bright-eyed, breezy new start.
The fairytale-gloss: they never did cross
the Alps. The truth’s like water, can’t tease it apart.
It was myself I hadn’t found.
A girl can easily run aground.
A grasshopper phobia ran you aground
each time you saw one. Once in the car, you swerved
to the curb, undone. Had a schoolboy stuffed one
down your blouse when you were young, unnerved you?
I could have taught you to love them, to see their claws
as supple strength. Your shield, that thistle-green thorax.
Their mandibles as sturdy as your will
to live. Their antennae as your last chance.
The music of hearing them rub the pegs on their legs.
I was your bell, you rang me faint and feeble.
You were my church, you preached and preached and preached.
And you were the steeple. I tried to cling to the people
you thought I needed to know. When I lean down
I hear your silence working its way through the ground.
I hear your silence working its way through the ground
when I remember how I wanted to hurt you—
I’m never going to have children—so sure of myself,
my urge to dismantle my need for you, to refuse
what I knew you wanted. If I stitched you a quilt—
one patch for shame, one for sorrow, one
for when I wasn’t there when you were dying.
One for my denying. I was undone.
I know you loved me hard. The way a mouse
licks and licks her babies, you licked me late
and long. I nearly drowned inside your spell.
Those licks. To keep me at bay or from harm’s way?
I’ve only these 98 lines to soften, to save.
What if I’d placed 56 shells in your grave?
What’s to Be Is Already Written
—My prize-winning ekphrastic poem, “What’s to Be Is Already Written,” inspired by the photo “Fading Memories” by Suzette Dushi, as part of the Griffin Museum of Photography’s exhibit entitled “Once Upon a Time: Photographs that Inspire Tall Tales”
in the sinews, in tibia and fibula, in the small
bracelet of wrist: this boy in a bathing suit
perched on a rock at shoreline. Trace the dark mane
of hair that crests over his studious eyes, trace
the hairless chest down his jaunty hands
resting lightly on his hips, as if he could hold
the whole ocean inside the crooks of his arms.
Turn, turn, and here beside him is the man
he will become, shirtless, seated, facing away
from the camera, his spine raised like a mountain ridge
above two valleys. Each vertebrae has been a long march.
I shall not want.
Slack skin eddies under his armpit.
In his narrow room: bedside table lamp,
bed with rumpled pillow,
Nursing home? Or spare bedroom like the one
my grandfather lived in for years, behind the kitchen
at my aunt’s house, shuffling in slippers and robe
heating up leftovers in a Pyrex dish, humming
tunelessly to himself. In the photo, this man
has lowered his nearly bald head (side of his face
in shadow), dreaming the boy on the rock, who
has been waiting for him all these years.
—after Jillian Weise
Q: How old was I anyway when you had me smashed to pieces—my cilia, my septum, my nares, my vestibules, my bridge?
A: Just 16.
Q: I filtered the air for you, I smelled cheese pizza and Hershey’s kisses for you, I moistened, I air-conditioned, I cleaned out foreign debris. Why did you hate me?
A: I was young. It was the thing to do. That little bump on top bothered me. Assimilation was tacitly understood. In my defense, do you remember Bobbi Glick, Marcy Leiser, Jodi Weisberg, or my cousin Marian? The popular girls all did it.
Q. But your boyfriend Ron liked me and tried to talk you out of it. I made you look distinctive, he said, not like everyone else.
A: I thought he’d like me even more. I thought everyone would like me more. I thought I’d like myself more.
Q: Why did you skip out of town for this?
A: My mother booked the best doctor in Beverly Hills. Known for his pure profiles, no artificially stretched skin. Nothing pug like a Pekinese, the way some girls turned out.
Q: The last thing I remember was inhaling that sickly-sweet smell. After that I was toast. I heard you were black and blue and bloodshot for days after in that hotel room.
A: Yes, all true. My mother applied cold compress after cold compress. My eyes were Zombies.
Q: Can you say plastic surgery got you what you wanted?
A: In college I could pass. The WASP sororities all wanted me. But then Theta found out I was Jewish and wouldn’t take me. I never knew how they knew. But Kappa Kappa Gamma chose me! Kappa was la plus ultra! All Mainline. Private schools. Gold circle pins. Pappagallos. Eye candy. Can you understand? Candice Bergen was my sorority sister! And the boys . . . everyone in SAE wanted to date me!
Q: Am I supposed to feel happy for you?
A: I dropped out of Kappa after two years. I wasn’t like them after all.
Q: Don’t you feel like you’ve abandoned your tribe? Who you are?
A: My family wanted to be only a little Jewish. So it wouldn’t show. So we wouldn’t stick out.
A: My mother was blond and had a cute little button nose.
Q: Have you forgiven yourself?
A: I want the rabbit to live, but the hunger of the hawk is always turning inside me.
And I Say Yes to the Way the Grass
needs the soil and the soil needs the grass,
the way the candle needs the wick
and the wick needs the candle. Yes
to the way the lion and the buck need
one another, and the bluebird the caterpillar.
To the ocean that needs a shore for its waves.
Yes to the cymbals for needing the violins
and violins for needing the winds,
to the four winds and the sixteen
quarter winds and the thirty-two winds
it takes to make a compass rose.
Yes to each rose petal that needs the other
forty petals to be a rose, and to the rose
for enfolding all the petals before
letting them die for the new bud.
And I say yes to the stars closing their eyes
at the same time to share the darkness,
yes to the viaduct of rain in the valley
of thirst, yes to the time we live with
because we’ve got to live with it,
yes to loving better, to coming in
Walking the Woods with You on the Day of Atonement
The rain has swelled the scent of sod’s decay.
You squat to a toad, squashed except its head,
Homo Sapiens Dead at 300,100
Homo sapiens – died after a long and
debilitating illness on August 13, 2121. An
autopsy attributed the cause of death to
On Long Pond
Morning fog a blur of firs light-green on the far shore
I look up a flock of swallows unfurls
Thinking About the Octopus
—after the film The Octopus Teacher
I’m thinking about how she opens every one of her three hearts,
and all the brain cells in her eight arms,