The woman stares at the wooden dolls
knowing how they nest largest to small,
all her past selves in one old body.
Her earliest recreation is space—
between the fingers of her mother’s hands,
between dust motes, pine cones, piano keys,
odors of magnolia and chickens, stitches,
scrapes, candles on cake. Radio comes only
at dusk—The Shadow Knows—and TV still
gestates in the womb of electronic invention.
Space lies between lines, pages, pauses
of family tale-bearers, bones of story.
I do not take the word bones lightly
says her teacher, who has received notice
that her seventeen-year-old soldier
husband’s Jewish bones
have been found 24 years later
pickled in a jar and labeled
with his dog tag. For the space
of a lifetime the girl remembers that story
and another, the tale of a dancing skeleton,
the way death can take away your breath
one minute and leave you laughing the next
when its own bones shake.
She spaces her babies for the love of each,
nursing them all. NASA has nothing to do
with her, with generation, with generations.
The moon means light and rest between days.
Visitors stay in their pickup trucks for the space
it takes to herald their arrival, for the time it
takes her to tidy up the sofa, start the coffee.
She remembers space as a lost period of grace.
In the deceptive space of old age she watches
a little girl fence-perched by a roadside ditch
watching horses and how the wind blows.
She waves and the girl waves back, both
waiting to see what will happen next.
For my father
Pa and I paid calls.
He cured sick men
and I kept company.
We sang and played,
talked snooty what
we’d do with money.
He aged less than I.
We watched car-lights
gobble up black dragon macadam,
watched the southern sun
drink the road grasses’ water
till they curled and crackled,
heard silence suck up afternoons
while worried family friends
swatted flies and children,
and he fixed bones and wounds.
Long later I found hearts he lanced,
and learned the crack in the man,
and knew my mother’s pain,
waiting at home.
For my mother
Creek water wavers over her womb
swollen nine months in the southern sun,
aching, aching, water snakes circling.
Sunk in mud for relief from high noon’s
heat, she goes into labor, struggles
to the car, into the clinic, too fast to
anesthetize, too fast to sterilize, but
gives to the burning world a girl child.
Ripped to her rectum, she lies panting,
blood steamed and sweat congealed
under the ceiling fan, its blades
churning a revolution of birth.
Sad-eyed Jesus-faced fans wave
to beats of the preacher’s promises
of hell, as sizzling Sundays smother
her. In a hot-flash flight to the attic
she stumbles over toys abandoned
by children grown and gone, sees
peacock feathers from tails unfolded
in times past, holds a Chinese ivory
fan so old its linen links break upon
opening, and finds a photo of her own
mother smiling at her from behind it.
Recalling how window fans once pulled
in nighttime sounds of cicadas, how desk
fans twirled the air inches from her face,
she wheels from her odious air-conditioned
cubicle to the nursing home courtyard, baking
beneath a wide-brimmed hat and praying for fans
to ease her last shimmering suspension of breath.
In the closet
are six rich coats
my mother bought
to guard me
In the bank
are numbered checks
my father signed,
saying please endorse
I have within me
my father, my mother,
but cannot divorce myself.
giving things away,
old things—garnet and gold
rings that fall off my fingers
and roll across the floor,
photos of serious faces
with stories untold, slow
things that her father carved
from wood and bone, lonely
fans, linens folded in fours
and crocheted at the corners
by long-ago friends, tin
boxes locked with tiny keys,
clocks, books, baby cups with silver
dents from children's banging for years.
Her children are quieter now,
tucked into their own houses.
These things of hers are silent.
They fit nowhere in my room.
What shall I do, store them
and close the closet door? They
make the new things look too neat.
Old things are for holding, worn
and torn and mended once more,
softened and smoothed again
in my grandmother's hands.
Now no one has time to hold them.
You've fought or befriended
just about everybody, but
you're still warm and wanting more.
Irish in the eyes, New York
in the nerve, tongue on the move,
you jump stairs two at a time—
trouble doesn't come in ones.
If you knew all that's on my mind
you'd load the ark for a long ride,
with marines from your proving ground
lining the rails, room to stow
your Olympian relatives, bunks for
personnae picked up on the way,
and a secret garden central in the ship
to meet and love them each.
Whatever mountain you land on
seems yours by laying claim.
You keep it while you live it
and lose it moving on, busy but
for occasions of the heart, of
opening bottles of beer
and shaping hero sagas
from the air.
Sometimes love rhymes.
The lines in your face and hands
rhyme with mine, the lines
of our bodies easily entwine,
the lines of our minds fine-tuned
to similar rhythms.
you have lined the space of my living
like string sculpture infinitely extended,
a design that defines our space with
gracious whorls and swirls and spheres of
shining strands soft-spun, silken lariats
that sail across skies, catch clouds on the fly,
a magical rope that unbinds and sets free,
yet doubles as a life line on the sea.
Our feats are not lettered in epics—
love is not metered in regular beats,
but when it’s refined,
sometimes love rhymes.
Sometime before the parish records burned,
the heirs of nothing left County Offaly, its
rocky soil sown with rotten hopes, and shipped
their restless genes into the ever receding west.
We found the graveyards left behind,
so many names the same, Irish prey
of English translation, saintly tradition.
Your clan stared back from the stones.
And from the landlocked center of Illinois
the new crops call, spring to fall—bluebells,
bleeding heart, columbine, poppies, phlox,
verbena, viola, primrose, trillium, lilies,
sunflowers, bee balm, cone flowers, asters,
all menaced by weeds, beetles, blight, drought—
and still you till, luring frail leaves through
layers of husbandry. Dig, my darling, dig.
Blue cellophane hoods the spotlight over
a homemade stage, moths float through open
doors, the Irish pub’s a stone’s throw from
ocean waves, where ghosts of salmon follow
Inside a kitchen far
across the sea three decades past, washing
dinner dishes for the hostess, we first
kissed, though you were host—
now seated here
beside me, our hands wound in Celtic knots
of memory and song as guitar strings
sound midnight and the crowd calls,
For Vicki—American Airlines #191, O’Hare Airport, May 25, 1979
Silk-shirted woman with Chinese skin
you have passed into oblivion, torn in
a terrible tenuous flight unlike the glides
you made down Michigan Avenue, eye-
fully, eloquently, exquisitely patterning
your people and places in unique blend.
There has been, since then, no one designed
Quickly you went, but backward,
cloth to moth, one second dressing for the plane,
the next, naked on fire. We are left with fabric
I will never feel silk without you
slipping through the fingers of my mind. Silk
is suddenly the quality of come and gone.
Infant cells struggle to survive, catching at each
other below the surface. Slowly they grow,
safely concealed, reaching, searching for space,
hungry. They nibble her inner ear, eat pieces of jaw,
devour half her brain till the slender face falls
to one side, bloated and floating over thin limbs
like a bulbous moon over drought struck fields.
The pain is unspeakable. There are deaths and
there are deaths. Where is the logic of health,
the Darwinian scheme in a cancer that kills itself
as well as her? Or did it skip across the room on
her last breath to be born again in some remote
crevice of flesh as infant cells?
We mourn her in a rebuilt barn used for such
occasions as weddings and funerals. It is lined
with her homemade quilts. She is, after all, a farm
girl, wholesome again as earth and ashes. We each
take a swatch from her patchwork bag, safety-pin it
to our clothes, and watch photos recycle her life
on a screen filled with aging stages of face and body,
over and over on automatic, childhood to hospice, rites
meant to heal us as she could not heal. For every
person crying in the hall, this death revives them all.
It is the three daughters who resurrect her then, born
of her cells, infant cells grown, searching for words
from the breath that has left us one life shorter, three
lives longer, wanting more.
The days after death has pressed me and moved on
lie buried deep in a body slit and sewn. Incisions
ache with abandoned plans, memories of undimmed
energy. Nurses bring mercy with sharp needles.
Words no sooner read or spoken roll out of reach.
How will I find them, how will I walk the halls,
tied with tubes and draped with bags of liquid
dripping through my veins? The pain eclipses
time but cells still multiply, malignant or benign,
as pulsing minutes open, close, open, close, open,
She had practiced death, it was going pretty well,
limbs and will loosening, lungs and veins stilled.
Not so bad, she thought, I can do this—relieved
at her capability. In the cluttered hospital night
a rare quiet grew. Here it comes, she thought.
Among beeping machines leaped points of light,
faces glowing over them, angels oddly familiar.
So it’s true about the light, she thought, but music—
she didn’t know about the music, didn’t know
that angels sang Happy Birthday when you died.
Overhead florescence switched on, nurses bore
toward her a chocolate cake celebrating her 66th.
Blow them out, they said, blow them out and make a wish.
When the day shift came on, they brought another cake
yellow with pink icing. Hey, we forgot the candles,
said the young one. Are you kidding, said the old one,
with that oxygen, we’d blow the place to kingdom come.
She smiled and the rest of her life, never breathed
a word about the night shift’s secret.
When your oncologist says that death
is a mystery, minutes begin to sing.
Whoever is in charge of such things,
thanks for giving me a day. The wind
blew from the south
and I had a good lunch.
Either would have been enough.
The headlines catch her eye but the stories hardly hold her
any more. It has all happened so many times before.
She has happened so many times before.
She has transformed the noun remission
into a verb and re-missioned herself.
It is turtle work, halting and shelled by uncertainty.
But without a turtle’s weight, she buzzes like flies.
Fly, the noun, degrades. Fly, the verb, uplifts.
What is the life of the remissioned?
And what incarnation awaits the humble fly?
A spider dances its art of air and thread.
Aren’t spiders also caught within their webs?
The news does not answer
old questions, so she folds it
neatly for recycling.
She opens the door to a closet crammed with clothes
(it’s hard to discard occasions though they’re old),
considers that she’s no lily, but toils and spins
(aware of closing petals and season’s end),
and tries to grow past fear of losing breath,
and hopes for fields of grace to nourish death,
for more than rain to quench her earthy thirst.
She’ll turn away and take a book down first
(the words that Jesus said arrayed in red)
and leave her life on hangers, and go to bed.
Where are your spirits
my mother, my father?
Are you separated as far
from each other by place
and disease as when you died?
I am searching for something.
Do you know what it is?
If I tried to pray, would you
assume the faces of God,
the first faces I ever found?
If I made a door would you
come through it?
I am nearing something.
Do you know what it is?
Here is a window of smoke.
I am begging you, see me.
the twilight tiger
waits beside a well-worn trail
he’s hungry tonight
These are the things that haunt her: Jack and Virginia,
two china dolls, their strung bodies lying in a darkened childhood;
the way she lies in a shuttered room for hours without sleeping,
unstrung by what she has not done and does not do;
how the past stares at her with glass eyes even as she cannot bear
to look at the color slides her father took with his black-box camera,
photos her mother arranged neatly, year by year, so that someday
someone would see them;
how she cannot let go what was hers, a pliable body
and words published, remaindered, newly unwritten
in the mind’s darkening room.
In the bedroom hang two photos, 1931, 1942—his
and her baby pictures, the first tinted, the second sepia—
want or war roaring around their families and the camera.
Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.
Each face is hopeful and open, unaware of the dust
they will share someday on the same wall watching
themselves change clothes, change their minds, turn
over in bed, turn white-haired.
Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.
Unbaffled by tears of illness, breathings of relief, they
stare evenly at their namesakes who, coming and going,
will remove them when the faces once open have closed.
Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.
We have forgiven
but dying may
How long does it take
for the doctor to tell me
if you’ll live or die?
We linger over crab heaped on brown bread,
a glass of Pinot Grigio, a cup of cappuccino.
At pier’s end, the Atlantic is choppy.
She speaks of her husband
a fisherman who filleted our favorite
black sole in their now-closed restaurant.
23 years, 3 children—not an island
of bliss but a deep harbor. Disease
submerged one body part at a time,
beginning with his amputated leg.
She has enrolled in ballroom dancing.
She wears flamingo pink.
Her voice bubbles.
She is breathless
but will not
no, will not
He could ride a horse and tame a hawk
and hold a snake. He could squirt milk
from a cow's teat straight into the cat's mouth
though maybe the cat missed. He could make
us laugh when our parents broke. He drove
the jeep across the back fields till our tailbones
rattled. He was a forester, a storyteller,
a father, a friend to everyone he met,
even the oddballs, even his sister.
He asks his grandson’s name.
He wakes his wife at night worried
about getting the work done tomorrow
though he's forgotten what it is he can't
remember, that thing he has to do.
He sits in the tractor and wonders
how to turn it on.
coming going what
is the name of the mind cloud
she has forgotten
Slight white flowers of the night sky
blink against galactic winds,
expending their scent beyond our ken.
We point to their petals past the rim
of vision, extending wishes to them
like cosmic rain reversed to nourish
godly garden beds. The stars
are still our covenant with spring.