I had a year of leave in 1997-1998, nostly squandered on projects that never came to much, unfortunately. Whereas a poem lasts forever! In early 1998 I finally got, or picked up, or deserved, a charge of inspiration, and wrote several things that I liked.
In March of 1998 I went to Russia with my whole family (then that was four of us, and I was the only one who spoke any Russian to speak of). I wrote a few things there that I liked too -- it was a very rich experience. While there, I agreed to become the book review editor of the Slavic and East European Journal for 3 years (1998-2001), a fact I mention only in order to mount the soapbox for a moment and declare that book review editing is only nourishing to a writer if she or he is handling reviews of poetry and fiction: it consumed a tremendous amount of time, so much that I could not even enjoy the various benefits that had blandished me into accepting the offer.
Living with a Reformed Cannibal
She got me to join the Co-op, he said,
since working two hours a week gets us
a big discount on our groceries:
she loves to bake with the organic flour,
she can make tofu as tasty as anything.
And how tenderly she tears the lettuce
for those little salads! And what delicious
fruit-smooth protein shakes!
I still have my steak once in a while,
lunching out with a friend.
When we got married, we vowed
not to bicker over differences
It once comes to mind sometimes,
when she takes me into her mouth,
you know, and says, "Mmmmm!"
But of course you wanted to be a tree:
it feels so good as a maiden, when all the branches
are straight and slender, all the leaves unwritten.
That elegant bark knitted over the smooth curve
of your legs, that uncompromising posture
through the varying seasons, as you begin to practice
your insistence on samensss.
At first you think: if I run away
Apollo is sure to come after me,
and if I change it will be my own wish,
not some prayer to father or mother.
It's only later, when the grain of the fine bark
thickens into deep fissures,
when the fingerjoints knot and stiffen,
when the sidewalk is paved all around you
and the city rain turns you black as asphalt:
then, my old dear, they come after you
with saws and crirtical anthologies
(to make a doorbeam out of you)
and you're fixed too fast to run.
The water heater has its caprices:
first lift this wrench, then turn the handle
just enough to light, strike the match,
catch the flame, turn the handle up.
Turn it all off in the opposite order,
not forgetting any step -- lest the gas
seep from the pipes, lest something
overheat and unsolder and spoil.
At night I lie (it's my turn on the couch)
and imagine I smell the thinnest stream
of gas, while the fridge rolls and rumbles
through its cycle of helicopter noises.
But there are compensations: matches
strike on the first stroke, however
hesitant or clumsy, as if made
for lighting cigarettes on a windy corner,
with no shelter but one cupped hand.
And that gesture once the stove lights,
as the wrist pulls back, to shake it once
and toss the flame back into non-being
like a Countess laying sovereigns on the cards.
Sun at last on the ice path:
light sharp as runes,
it all seems solid but the air
smokes and wavers.
We slip and squint
the winding path
past broken graves,
the only place to tread
against a cracked headstone.
The sun flings its frigid spears
at what it imagines
(sight blunted by all those eons
and months of uncustom)
as warriors of ice and stone.
Hard sharp beauty of the north --
your song today is ouch, ouch.
Or a warmer day: a stage of slush and mud.
Cold fog softly sifts from the frozen waves.
City, your stoves flame in each lovely house,
behind each flat-eyed window. Your streets
smell of burnt sugar, your balconies sag
under limp laundry, everything drinks
the color of the sky. Wet wool. The mountains
of striated ice like water and stale chocolate
melt into mud like th emud of any province. City,
your curbs are unfocused, your paths indistinct.
City, don't gloat to me with the lists of your villages:
my own great grandparents were peasants too
and they left the green oats and black-faced sheep
to pretend to great cities, they traded wool for coal,
and I say that they did well.
But as summer approaches, taking its precautions
and careful botanical specimens, a wonderful light
creeps in from every direction. Light blazes flat
into our eyes at four in the morning, over the roof
across the street, long before any warmth.
You have to go far away to see this, no matter
how ownderful your home, onjly strange latitudes
can strike your eyes' unguarded insides, you have
to stay up late. I'm waiting for my northern lights.
And then the ice was breaking, a protracted therapy:
one day it was dirty yellow by the shore but still
held up flung pebbles. Then it was in slabs
that softly grated, rotten, as the water below
flexed and chafed. Still showing the traces
of skis and ice-fisher's holes, old promises.
Two days further, it was all open water,
ice-cold breezes made the tiny waves flutter
as gaily as yacht pennants. Along th eembankment
we found th elast of that ice sliding into ruins:
in the sunlight the slabs and floes dissolved
into icicles, crystal knives suddenly transparent
that slid with ringing crashes into the water.
Then the wind took them and palmed them
along the shore, a sweeet high metallic jingle,
last of the winter bells leaving the land to turn
back into liquid universal. The children lay
on the big stones to reach for one and another
to scrabble their brief names, and a small round
woman in a winter coat and a knitted cap
stood beside the water, singing loudly
towards the opposite shore, hill and trees
now clearing as the smoke left the light.
Singing to the gulls, to the retreating shards
of the final ice. She turned without seeing
me or anyone and headed off uphill back
into the city. Someone told me afterwards
the water is now open for mourning, for a song
to summon a lost drowned body to the surface
now that the ice has given it up, released it.
They're blowsy, opened too far
by the rain and sun, their velvet red
battered to magenta, their satin
gone to dots and patches.
here and there is still delicious, it speaks
of a whole shelf of varieties of tea,
but the perfume too is paling.
They must be thirty-six.
There is no great tragedy
to late sumer, no surprise,
just a first loosening of the veins,
just a new blurring of the eyes.
I found you on the map, love,
like a bolt of plague
or a sunken treasure.
Oh my games under the sheet
are always the same,
you always guess my destination
and my strategy, but love,
how can I be sure you aren't changed?
ANd what juice fills
those fluted limbs, what straw
can I use to draw
the fluid into greedy lips
in such a bleak desert, my love?
Let me wrap you in blankets of wool,
let me smother you in blue and gold.
Let me hand you a smoking mystery,
som,ething round and hard to hold.
A fig black as bruises,
black as the circles under your eyes
after a night of milky bites and kisses,
you are so full of luscious seeds,
you are so decorated
with the marks of teeth.
Days of carrying this pearl in thought,
perfectly round, a sphere of possibility
that could move or grow in any direction.
Until today, when I sit to count through
the grains of sand, and pause
uncertain of which to choose as its seed.
And so we are all jewel-boxes,
we all walk secretly iridescent, tongues
of flame or cloud above our heads,
secretly blooming, and remind ourselves
not to forget the earth, the heavy, the name,
the thousand sorrows that hold us down
and veil the truth -- for otherwise
it would be so easy to dissolve, evanesce,
disincarnate, melt back into everything.
You sleep, and the light on your lovely skin
catches in the scar on your forehead, the mark
of a foolish experiment. I touch it softly
with a fingertip, but softness erases nothing:
the scar stands, uttering its small word of past
pain and imperfection.
Let me take you for repairs,
the surgeons stand waiting with their scalpels,
their blueprints of expertise, ready to excise
all the illness and blows, every unhappy love,
the story that ends in divorce, they'll leave
your skln as perfect as luxury leather,
your biography airbrushed. A wise virgin,
thirty and storyless, ready to begin
amassing happiness on a broad blank page.
That work I suppose would leave less of you,
and what loves me would shrink so small
that there would be nothing left to see.
Their language is full of dry branches,
their language is composed of mists,
and only a few old biddies from the islands
can still use it for kitchen talk --
the rest have learned it as adults
and hear it either as the rattle
of grammatical pattern, or else
as bones that speak deep secrets,
so grateful are they to pull a meaning
from the parched malevolent whisper.
Oh I did my best, I came clad
in many layers, with my story
of death by dancing and hearts pledged
at a later wartime ball. I sat
over the dusty textbook, twisting
the ends of my hair, from which
the depths of red have been bred out.
They could tell what I had come for,
they recognized the keys that chattered
behind my patience. So at last,
when the harvest was done I put on
a fire-bright slicker against the rain
and rode my borrowed bicycle
to the furthest cottage, he came out
and looked at me laughing under those
sheep-thick grey brows, and said,
"I suppose you'll have come
for the song," and sang it there
for me as I stood by the threshold
still breathing too hard, he didn't
ask me in.
So I received it at last,
in shades of grey and loveless,
its waves softly pitted
by the frozen rain.
I move through the people like a fish,
smoothly leaning this way and that,
avoiding contact with a hip, a shoulder,
deft as a taxicab. I am sleek and fast.
I keep th ewords inside. I never thrust
my song in the face of someone's silence,
though I feel the coat hardening,
that metal and its protection.
I have seen so much beauty
that it can no longer move me.
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