FOR THE POET WHO WRITES TO ME WHILE STANDING
IN LINE AT CVS, WAITING FOR HIS MOTHERíS PRESCRIPTION
for Russell Jackson
Itís nothing that you flat out say, Russell, but your email
reminds me that six months into pandemic, five months
into quarantine, CVS remains open 24 hours, its harsh
blue-white light steady, as nothing in nature is steady,
those long florescent bulbs still dive-bombing lumens
so that midnight is bright as 8 a.m., or 4 a.m., or 2 p.m.,
or 7:30 p.m. You can see that I struggle to carry
one thought to the next, these long days. I spend hours
on the Internet, becoming expert on the height of actors
from Hollywoodís Golden Age, on the 25 Cutest Photos
of four-year-old Princess Charlotte. I now know
that Elizabeth Bishop was a bit taller than I am,
a bit heavier. Her clothes would be too big for me,
as no doubt her shoes. Russell, what is it that supposedly
concentrates the mind wonderfully? Samuel Johnson said it,
in Boswellís biography, which I have never read and never
will. I know my limits. Lately, I think that I know little else
worth knowing. My only advice for your poems, Russell:
wash your hands for as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday.
Did you know thatís no longer copyrighted? Five years ago,
U. S. District Court Judge George H. King ruled
Happy Birthday is Public Domain, the 1935 patent applied
only to the melody and specific arrangements of the tune,
but not to the actual song itself. When Judge King writes
actual song, he means lyrics, but I hear him saying
song is something beyond the reach of law, beyond reach
of language. Song is like a kernel of light, inside of things,
steady. Russell, be like CVS. I donít know what this means,
be like CVS. Russell, dare to say what doesnít make sense,
then wait patiently to see the sense inside of it. Be like CVS.
Be like the bewildering variety of toothpastes, decongestants,
hair conditioners. Be like orange Velcro knee braces,
like spools of pastel ribbon that hums, pulled across a scissor.
Be like the aisle of bare shelves where the cleaning products stood,
where the white metal shelves now display only how each shelf,
with a simple ingenious hook, fits into the frame.
Iím telling you nothing that you donít already know, Russell.
Be like whatever accepts the horrid light, and shines in it.
Be like the 8-ounce can of lightly salted cashews, for which
you are newly willing to pay $12.99, as you stand in line
waiting for the blue-gloved hands to hold out to you
the small white bag, which is not for you,
except in that you are the one
who will carry it where it must go.
(from The Moth magazine and The Foward Book of Poetry: 2022 ©2021)
My angel is the crude angel at the door
of Our Lady of Perpetual Light,
the angel who waits outside the church,
at the top of three flights of black marble.
Its thick wings appear to sprout
from a granite tarp,
as if the sculptor abandoned
the angel's body, the bowed head
with featureless face,
so as to fathom the angel's hands:
folded in prayer, a prayer-fist
like a flame arisen from stone
as the Savior is said to have risen.
My angel's blocky wrists rest
upon a gown with folds so broad,
so flat, it is hard to tell if my angel
kneels or sits, or if, beneath the gown,
my angel stands,
its body broken in some way
that the faithful understand
themselves to be broken.
My angel drags itself to the door
of this church it will never enter.
Nor will my angel rise into the air,
my angel exhausted by the weight
of the stone of which it is made,
as we are exhausted by the stone
of which we are made,
we who love the angel's heavy,
useless wings, wings
that make us imagine
rising, on nothing
one can see with the eyes.
(from Crude Angel, November 2018)
ITALIAN MADE SIMPLE
tells the story of Mario and Marina,
and by the end of Chapter 1, I've got it:
the r is a d, and Mario and Marina
will fall in love, he an American
planning a business trip to Italy,
she an Italian teaching English
in a school in centro, downtown,
which I take to mean Wall Street,
maybe Tribecca or Nolita.
For the first lesson, they meet
in Marina's ufficio, where they repeat
the half-dozen Italian phrases for hello.
Both of them remain patient,
cheerful, even, in the face of their task.
They name every single blessed thing
on the desk. What good fortune it is
they cannot yet say, so many small things
here before them: the pen, the paper, and
the pencil, too, the newspaper, the lamp.
Marina pronounces each word slowly
while Mario watches her lips, repeats.
What is this? Marina asks in Italian.
What is this? and Mario, under a spell,
answers, although he cannot yet
be said to understand these words
that are little more to him than sounds,
air blown through the shapes
that Marina's lips make his lips make.
By Chapter 4, simple Italian leads Mario
and Marina to the window, to the words
for street, hospital, bicycle, child,
where simplicity threatens to abandon
these two people who are just trying
to live, an idiomatic expression
for to make money. No, says Marina.
That is not a child. That is not a girl.
a woman, a car, etcetera. Mario loves
the word eccetera, which he figures
will save him lots of time. When their time
is up, Mario and Marina walk to the door,
at exactly the same moment say la porta.
The next moment, they laugh. Eccetera,
eccetera. Because I cannot live
in the simple present, where Italian Made
Simple begins, I read ahead.
In Florence, on his business trip,
Mario buys for Marina a gold bracelet.
A gold bracelet Mario buys for Marina.
Mario for Marina buys a gold bracelet.
He does not yet understand that Marina
already knows that he loves her,
that she has loved him since Chapter 5,
Familia, wherein Mario showed quick
concern for her ill niece. Mario, alone
in Florence, on the far side of his voyage
through the definite pronouns, the prepositions,
the baffling procession of possessive forms,
Mario sits at a cafe, drinking
the beverage he ordered by mistake.
When the waitress sets it brightly before him,
Piacere, Mario says, ever gracious.
Mario, at the end of my textbook,
of your slow, sometimes laborious story,
how will I live without you?
You do not yet know that the final lesson
finds you and Marina deciding to marry,
to live in Rome, yet here, in Chapter 20,
Firenze, still you sip and savor.
You open your dictionary.
The small table at which you sit
is called tavolino, just as you had thought,
and you smile to yourself,
now that you are lonely, now that you know
you know by heart,
the meaning of every single blessed thing.
(from Beauty Mark, BkMk Press, © 2013)
How does, how does, how does it work
so, little valve stretching messily open, as wide as possible,
all directions at once, sucking air, sucking blood, sucking air-in-blood,
how? On the screen I see the part of me that always loves my life, never tires
of what it takes, this in-and-out, this open-and-shut in the dark chest of me,
tireless, without muscle or bone, all flex and flux and blind
will, little mouth widening, opening and opening and, then, snapping
shut, shuddering anemone entirely of darkness, sea creature
of the spangled and sparkling sea, down, down where light cannot reach.
When the technician stoops, flips a switch, the most unpopular kid in the class
stands off-stage with a metal sheet, shaking it while Lear raves.
So this is the house where love lives, a tin shed in a windstorm,
tin shed at the sea's edge, the land's edge,
waters wild and steady, wild and steady, wild.
(from Trick Pear, Carnegie Mellon University Press, © 2007)
Anyone born anywhere near
my home town says it this way,
with an s on the end:
"The lake is cold but I swim in it anyways,"
"Kielbasa gives me heartburn but I eat it anyways,"
"(She/he) treats me bad, but I love (her/him) anyways."
Even after we have left that place
and long settled elsewhere, this
is how we say it, plural.
I never once, not once, thought twice about it
until my husband, a man from far away,
leaned toward me, one day during our courtship,
his grey-green eyes, which always sparkle,
doubly sparkling over our candle-lit meal.
"Anyway," he said. And when he saw
that I didn't understand, he repeated the word:
"Anyway. Way, not ways."
Corner of napkin to corner of lip, he waited.
I kept him waiting. I knew he was right,
but I kept him waiting anyways,
in league, still, with me and mine:
Slovaks homesick for the Old Country their whole lives
who dug gardens anyways,
and deep, hard-water wells.
I looked into his eyes, their smoky constellations,
and then I told him. It is anyways, plural,
because the word must be large enough
to hold all of our reasons. Anyways is our way
of saying there is more than one reason,
and there is that which is beyond reason,
that which cannot be said.
A man dies and his widow keeps his shirts.
They are big but she wears them anyways.
The shoemaker loses his life savings in the Great Depression
but gets out of bed, every day, anyways.
We are shy, my people, not given to storytelling.
We end our stories too soon, trailing off "Anyways...."
The carpenter sighs, "I didn't need that finger anyways."
The beauty school student sighs, "It'll grow back anyways."
Our faith is weak, but we go to church anyways.
The priest at St. Cyril's says God loves us. We hear what isn't said.
This is what he must know about me, this man, my love.
My people live in the third rainiest city in the country,
but we pack our picnic baskets as the sky darkens.
We fall in love knowing it may not last, but we fall.
This is how we know home:
someone who will look into our eyes
and say what could ruin everything, but say it,
(from Trick Pear, Carnegie Mellon University Press, © 2007;
Southern Poetry Review, Spring/Summer, 2003)
For Jo Ann Clark
At first, it had seemed such a good idea,
to open your home to the creamy, the crumbly,
the stinky, the blue, to open your home to this new life,
the life where you open your mouth not to talk but to taste,
to find, the third Friday of every month, the box,
heavy yet compact, its corrugated wings opening
onto another box, shiny and white, taped to its top
a gold-edged card identifying the cheese by name and story,
to find at your door, dependably, a new reason
to live in your body, to love your body:
the Venetian Pecorino, coated with black pepper
providing a distinct bite with a little heat,
the Netherlands' Extra-Aged Farmer's Cheese, described as
the dairy world's equivalent of a Rembrandt or VanGogh,
the description, true, sometimes a tad overripe, still,
it seemed such a good idea to learn, to know, to savor
what at first you could barely discern, say,
the Belgian Goat Cheese, fruity, slightly herbed,
its texture chalky yet creamy.
What could this cheese not teach you
about contrast and balance, risk and poise?
But now, each time you open the door, there is another cheese.
Now, Month Six, you doubt you can keep pace with it.
It is likely to outrun you, even the cheese that is not runny,
even the aged cheese. You doubt your capacity for pleasure,
your appetite for knowledge, your appetite itself. You doubt yourself worthy
of the gentle Buffalo-milk cheese called Bishop's Blessing.
And how, by the way, does a month pass so quickly?
Do not ask for whom the cheese tolls. It tolls for thee,
in Pomfret, Vermont, where a raw-milk organic cheese ripens
in one of the few copper cheese vats in the United States,
a vat that, given the chance, would sing like a steel drum,
call everyone in Pomfret out into the street
to dance in a long, swaying line,
except that you doubt people dance in the street in Vermont,
where, it is said, there are two seasons: winter and roadwork.
Maybe you should live in Vermont, where nights are long and cold,
where the cheese is mostly local, and you doubt people say much about it.
You doubt anyone would approve
of the gold-edged card that boasts of the subtle nut flavor,
its complex finish redolent of a cove north of Pomfret.
Redolent, you turn the word over with your tongue, your mind.
Redolent of a cove is enough to make you sign on for another year,
for isn't this what you want, what you have always wanted,
to bite into life so deeply you can taste where it began?
Isn't that desire what brought you here, somewhere south of Pomfret?
(from Southern Poetry Review, Volume 46, Issue 1)
My husband and his first wife once sang Handel's Messiah
at Carnegie Hall, with 300 others who also had read
the ad for the sing-along, and this is why I know
the word glory is not sung by the chorus,
although that is what we hear.
In fact, the choir sings glaw-dee, glaw-dee
while it seems that glory unfurls there, like glory itself.
My husband sings for me. My husband tells me they practiced
for an hour, led by a short man with glasses,
a man who made them sing glory, twice, so they could hear it
fold back upon itself, swallow itself
in so many mouths, in the grand hall.
Then he taught them glaw-dee, a distortion that creates the right effect,
like Michelangelo distorting the arms of both God and Adam
so their fingertips can touch.
My husband and his first wife and 300 others performed
at 5 o'clock, the Saturday before Christmas,
for a small audience of their own heavy coats,
for a few ushers arrived early, leaning on lobby doors.
But mostly they sang for themselves,
for it is a joy to feel song made of the body's hollows.
I do not know if their marriage, this day, was still good
or whether it seemed again good
as they sang. I prefer to think of the choral conductor,
who sang with them. He sang all the parts, for love
not glory, or what seemed to be
glory to those who wandered in
and stood at the back of the hall, and listened.
(from Keeping Time, Carnegie Mellon University Press, © 2002)
ON HIS DEATHBED THE ACROBAT TELLS HIS DAUGHTER TO BUY LAND
I see now
it was never the sky
though for years I perfected
leaps and dives, arching, curling
tucking my chin hard into my chest
to spin free
far above my shadow.
Now I see
it was always the earth
its mysterious pull
I was celebrating.
It was always to return
to the earth's hard bargain, on two feet
my arms spread like wings.
There are enough birds, Edith.
The air is full of seeds
far better than we can ever be--
When I watched you pass the hat
I wanted to crawl into our wagon
and lie with my hands crossed over my chest.
I wanted to count the potatoes and flour
and find for once enough.
I wanted to melt my father's gold watch
and buy you a horse
and shoes of thin leather.
Remember I never asked you
to walk on your hands.
I respected your fear of heights,
of the fireworks we set off
at the end of the show.
The hard-packed earth at the center of town
where the people gathered,
their thin shoulders touching,
that was my passion.
Remember before each trick
it was the red earth
I rubbed into my palms.
(from Keeping Time, Carnegie Mellon University Press, © 2002;
Sotheby's International Poetry Competition, 1982, Third Prize)
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