23 May 2016

Home to Roost by Kay Ryan, 1945

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the 
day. The sun is 
bright, but the 
chickens are in 
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens, 
dense with them.
They turn and 
then they turn 
again. These 
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small—
various breeds.
Now they have 
come home
to roost—all
the same kind
at the same speed.

16 May 2016

Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons BY DIANE WAKOSKI


The relief of putting your fingers on the keyboard, 
as if you were walking on the beach 
and found a diamond 
as big as a shoe; 

as if 
you had just built a wooden table 
and the smell of sawdust was in the air, 
your hands dry and woody; 

as if 
you had eluded 
the man in the dark hat who had been following you 
all week; 

the relief 
of putting your fingers on the keyboard, 
playing the chords of 
Beethoven, 
Bach, 
Chopin 
         in an afternoon when I had no one to talk to, 
         when the magazine advertisement forms of soft sweaters 
         and clean shining Republican middle-class hair 
         walked into carpeted houses 
         and left me alone 
         with bare floors and a few books 

I want to thank my mother 
for working every day 
in a drab office 
in garages and water companies 
cutting the cream out of her coffee at 40 
to lose weight, her heavy body 
writing its delicate bookkeeper’s ledgers 
alone, with no man to look at her face, 
her body, her prematurely white hair 
in love 
         I want to thank 
my mother for working and always paying for 
my piano lessons 
before she paid the Bank of America loan 
or bought the groceries 
or had our old rattling Ford repaired. 

I was a quiet child, 
afraid of walking into a store alone, 
afraid of the water, 
the sun, 
the dirty weeds in back yards, 
afraid of my mother’s bad breath, 
and afraid of my father’s occasional visits home, 
knowing he would leave again; 
afraid of not having any money, 
afraid of my clumsy body, 
that I knew 
         no one would ever love 

But I played my way 
on the old upright piano 
obtained for $10, 
played my way through fear, 
through ugliness, 
through growing up in a world of dime-store purchases, 
and a desire to love 
a loveless world. 

I played my way through an ugly face 
and lonely afternoons, days, evenings, nights, 
mornings even, empty 
as a rusty coffee can, 
played my way through the rustles of spring 
and wanted everything around me to shimmer like the narrow tide 
on a flat beach at sunset in Southern California, 
I played my way through 
an empty father’s hat in my mother’s closet 
and a bed she slept on only one side of, 
never wrinkling an inch of 
the other side, 
waiting, 
waiting, 

I played my way through honors in school, 
the only place I could 
talk 
       the classroom, 
       or at my piano lessons, Mrs. Hillhouse’s canary always 
       singing the most for my talents, 
       as if I had thrown some part of my body away upon entering 
       her house 
       and was now searching every ivory case 
       of the keyboard, slipping my fingers over black 
       ridges and around smooth rocks, 
       wondering where I had lost my bloody organs, 
       or my mouth which sometimes opened 
       like a California poppy, 
       wide and with contrasts 
       beautiful in sweeping fields, 
       entirely closed morning and night, 

I played my way from age to age, 
but they all seemed ageless 
or perhaps always 
old and lonely, 
wanting only one thing, surrounded by the dusty bitter-smelling 
leaves of orange trees, 
wanting only to be touched by a man who loved me, 
who would be there every night 
to put his large strong hand over my shoulder, 
whose hips I would wake up against in the morning, 
whose mustaches might brush a face asleep, 
dreaming of pianos that made the sound of Mozart 
and Schubert without demanding 
that life suck everything 
out of you each day, 
without demanding the emptiness 
of a timid little life. 

I want to thank my mother 
for letting me wake her up sometimes at 6 in the morning 
when I practiced my lessons 
and for making sure I had a piano 
to lay my school books down on, every afternoon. 
I haven’t touched the piano in 10 years, 
perhaps in fear that what little love I’ve been able to 
pick, like lint, out of the corners of pockets, 
will get lost, 
slide away, 
into the terribly empty cavern of me 
if I ever open it all the way up again. 
Love is a man 
with a mustache 
gently holding me every night, 
always being there when I need to touch him; 
he could not know the painfully loud 
music from the past that 
his loving stops from pounding, banging, 
battering through my brain, 
which does its best to destroy the precarious gray matter when I 
am alone; 
he does not hear Mrs. Hillhouse’s canary singing for me, 
liking the sound of my lesson this week, 
telling me, 
confirming what my teacher says, 
that I have a gift for the piano 
few of her other pupils had. 
When I touch the man 
I love, 
I want to thank my mother for giving me 
piano lessons 
all those years, 
keeping the memory of Beethoven, 
a deaf tortured man, 
in mind; 
            of the beauty that can come 
from even an ugly 
past.

02 May 2016

Marge's Shoes BY SYLVIA ROSS


The first few years she wore them
I didn't even notice the leather's soft tan,
and the buckskin laces roughly looped.
By the time I paid attention, her feet
had already curved the shoes inward,
weather had toughened the soft leather,
and one lace had broken short.
Then I asked where she got those shoes
and she said from the Indian store
down in Mountain View.
 
Some other time, another year, I asked
the name of the Indian store
that sold handmade shoes like hers,
but she said it went out of business
and no store sold mocs with vodka
splatters and Yosemite dirt ground in
with a little tamale pie, so I couldn't
buy shoes like hers anyway.
 
Last summer, laughing and crying
together, in the campground
at Lake Mendocino, on the night
before her youngest son's wedding
while the men drank beer and talked
of politics and sports,
I told her how much I really, really liked
those old shoes of hers. So
she took them off and gave them to me.
 
Those beat-up, raggedy Kaibab moccasins
I wear are stained and worn rough
by hard years in my friend's life.
I wear them when I need her courage.

01 May 2016

Little Lion Face by May Swenson, 1913 - 1989

Little lion face
I stopped to pick
among the mass of thick
succulent blooms, the twice

streaked flanges of your silk
sunwheel relaxed in wide
dilation, I brought inside,
placed in a vase.  Milk

of your shaggy stem
sticky on my fingers, and
your barbs hooked to my hand,
sudden stings from them 

were sweet.  Now I’m bold
to touch your swollen neck,
put careful lips to slick
petals, snuff up gold

pollen in your navel cup.
Still fresh before night
I leave you, dawn’s appetite
to renew our glide and suck.

An hour ahead of sun
I come to find you.  You’re
twisted shut as a burr,
neck drooped unconscious,

an inert, limp bundle,
a furled cocoon, your
sun-streaked aureole
eclipsed and dun.

Strange feral flower asleep
with flame-ruff wilted,
all magic halted,
a drink I pour, steep

in the glass for your
undulant stem to suck.
Oh, lift your young neck,
open and expand to your

lover, hot light.
Gold corona, widen to sky.
I hold you lion in my eye
sunup until night.

30 April 2016

Thing by Rae Armantrout, 1947

We love our cat
for her self
regard is assiduous
and bland,

for she sits in the small
patch of sun on our rug
and licks her claws
from all angles

and it is far
superior
to “balanced reporting”

though, of course,
it is also
the very same thing.

29 April 2016

Song of the Shirt by Thomas Hood

With fingers weary and worn,
   With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
   Plying her needle and thread—
      Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
   And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the “Song of the Shirt.”

   “Work! work! work!
While the cock is crowing aloof!            
   And work—work—work,
Till the stars shine through the roof!
It’s O! to be a slave
   Along with the barbarous Turk,
Where woman has never a soul to save,
   If this is Christian work!

   “Work—work—work,
Till the brain begins to swim;
   Work—work—work,
Till the eyes are heavy and dim!
Seam, and gusset, and band,                   
   Band, and gusset, and seam,
Till over the buttons I fall asleep,
   And sew them on in a dream!

   “O, men, with sisters dear!
   O, men, with mothers and wives!
It is not linen you’re wearing out,
   But human creatures’ lives!
      Stitch—stitch—stitch,
   In poverty, hunger and dirt,     
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
   A Shroud as well as a Shirt.

   “But why do I talk of death?
   That phantom of grisly bone,
I hardly fear his terrible shape,
   It seems so like my own—
It seems so like my own,
   Because of the fasts I keep;
Oh, God! that bread should be so dear.
   And flesh and blood so cheap!
             
   “Work—work—work!
   My labour never flags;
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
   A crust of bread—and rags.
That shattered roof—this naked floor—
   A table—a broken chair—
And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
   For sometimes falling there!

   “Work—work—work!
   From weary chime to chime,  
Work—work—work,
   As prisoners work for crime!
Band, and gusset, and seam,
   Seam, and gusset, and band,
Till the heart is sick, and the brain benumbed,
   As well as the weary hand.

   “Work—work—work,
In the dull December light,
   And work—work—work,
When the weather is warm and bright—        
While underneath the eaves
   The brooding swallows cling
As if to show me their sunny backs
   And twit me with the spring.

   “O! but to breathe the breath
Of the cowslip and primrose sweet—
   With the sky above my head,
And the grass beneath my feet;
For only one short hour
   To feel as I used to feel,           
Before I knew the woes of want
   And the walk that costs a meal!

   “O! but for one short hour!
   A respite however brief!
No blessed leisure for Love or hope,
   But only time for grief!
A little weeping would ease my heart,
   But in their briny bed
My tears must stop, for every drop
   Hinders needle and thread!”

With fingers weary and worn,
   With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
   Plying her needle and thread—
      Stitch! stitch! stitch!
   In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch,—
Would that its tone could reach the Rich!—

   She sang this “Song of the Shirt!”