Here’s a farewell to glued-on seashells
and glitter-frosted plastic leaves
and all the instructions on “making things your own” —
We. Own. Nothing. Not even when we pay for them
or when we pet or polish or pray
our longings into titles and possessions,
much less when we press our names or initials
into their layers with ink or fire —
this world is not our home,
our images like water, even as
they freeze for long minutes on our screens.
Here’s to the clutter of bins and warehouses
and here’s to the wind that sweetens the sky
even as it stings our cheeks
on its way to whipping more things away.
I was given a pumpkin last month just before Halloween, and lacked time for taking a proper stab at it, so I grabbed some markers and scrawled Anne Sexton’s “Her Kind” across it (and sketched a semblance of Anne’s face on one side).
A few days later, said pumpkin started leaking while in my kitchen, so we hurried it outside. A day or two later, I spotted squirrels doing their thing…
What I find far, far more obscene than local rodents romping with Miss Sexton O’Lantern is the behavior of various so-called public servants. Which is what led to this coming out of yesterday’s exercising:
(after Anne Sexton)
I have gone out, whom they call bitch,
haunted by headlines, braver when I write
than when I dream, where with the hitch
that plagues my breath when awake I bite
down fire-curled curses, tame my mind
and modulate my voice to just above quiet.
I have been that kind.
I have found within old pockets of mourning
mustards hard as mortar, mayo soft as silk
and masking like poisons—like how milk
need not stink nor supply some other warning
before it brings a houseful to their knees.
I have buried shame amid indifferent trees.
I have been that kind.
I have been Cassandra, my screeching
marking not one slat of prideful walls
that keep no danger out. No beseeching
of gods will save us from the squalls
that care not who’s been good or who meant well:
the storms will scour us all from here to hell.
I have been that kind.
In dreams and footnotes,
the ancestors’ ghosts —
mine, yours, theirs —
prod me with splinters
of broomsticks and music stands:
It was not easier, cleaner, sweeter
once upon a time. No no no.
Can’t sing if you’re dead, baby girl: look sharp,
speak low but speak up, and praise the moss on the trees.
My neighbor Ben’s been dead since spring,
his memory gone for longer, yet
his driver’s license sits in my car —
stuck, I think, to the base of my backpack
when I set it down on a postal counter
where someone — widow or executor — must’ve
left it behind, their own mind rocked
by too much grief-smog smothering the have-tos.
Once I thought I heard my mother calling
clear across a KMart, even though
I knew I’d left her dozing or dazed
on a couch at home — some semblance of resting
while I dealt with errands that could not wait
— and, truth be told, also some chores
that let me stay away from the house
a little while longer, to breathe off-script
away from the memories — never to line up,
hers against mine — of what should have been.
Or, let’s be precise, of what we wanted to insist
the memories should have been. I hear Ben sang
a lot of hymns in his time. My fault,
among my many others, not making time to hear
the singing, though I feel not guilt,
just sadness. Clutching and squeezing a watch
won’t make its face roll out any flatter
or wider. Time is not a piecrust one
can stretch or lattice into enoughness,
no matter how many badges one collects
for working instead of sleeping, for other
bargains with devils and demons. I shall
make time, this next new year,
to hold what sweetness it can, but also
let it crumble and flake, as it must,
like pastry and soil and other layers
from which good thoughts may somehow emerge.
I wear the sun on my arm to say
Nothing can be true or total all the time:
Ink blurs and bleeds, features fade,
and I have been called a thousand names
that weren’t my own, sometimes with malice
and often within a miasmatic memory’s
failure to ever-fix my mark among its grooves.
I shall not be greedy. Two hundred years hence
we all shall be writ in water and fire —
dead light lacing the streaks of diamonds
plummeting into planets no plutocrats can plunder.
What is a treasure no tyrant can touch
or tax — what shall we call currency
that cannot be spent or shared? Under my pillow,
I press my palm to a coin from Taiwan,
tracing not the actual engravings —
a dictator’s face, a palace-museum
I played within but have no precious
recollections to cherish, precise
or otherwise — I finger the metal,
trying to melt into sleep, the better
to stay alive and sane, the better
to be not constant nor correct for all time
but often enough — just often enough,
just enough, often just, often adjusting —
you see how it is? Let me not
to the marriage of minds
deny the truth of impediments:
I am no compass, but I am the moss
that glows jewel-green on even mundane days
and coats the trees on trails,
a mute map through midnights.
Dawn McDuffie is a wonderful woman whom I’ve had the good fortune to know since the mid-1990s; we met at a YMCA Writer’s Voice workshop in Detroit. For the past twenty years (!) or so, we’ve corresponded about applications, books, church life, dolls, eats, and a good many things beyond. This is her first post for Vary the Line; please check back each month for more insights from Dawn (and the rest of us).
Where do you find these ideas?
I spent an hour or so this afternoon watching a pair of monarch butterflies flit from yard to yard. The four households own tiny city lots, but the homeowners have stuffed them with flowers and tasty milkweed. It seems unfair that the grace of butterflies, the changing of colors as one perennial blooms and another dies back — that all these riches didn’t inspire a new poem, although I did write a haibun last year during a terrible drought. In the same way, the current political state has sparked a sense of dread, but has not given me any poems. I’m grateful that somewhere between pure beauty and total distress I find possibilities lining up, waiting to be written. Here’s the haibun from last summer’s heat wave:
Detroit, summer 2016
7:00 A.M. and it’s 80° in our back yard, a small space surrounded by a high fence, and most years, the green of shade and sun, regular rain. Tangerine day lilies, pink lilies, coral bells with their sparkle wands tolerate the dry part of summer, but none of our plants can stay healthy with no rain at all. Summer thunder storms have passed us by. I go to bed with a glass of water on the night stand, just in case I’m too thirsty to sleep. In the morning I pour what I didn’t finish into a black plastic watering can. Seedlings, I’m sharing my drink with you.
I have watered the bee balm,
cool gifts quickly gone.
The leaves my sister
told me to throw out
reminded me of books
I hadn’t read in years
but then I saw
that only the veins
matched the antique pages.
So much for spinning
some spiel about stories,
spices and sauces —
how almost everything fades,
dries out, flickers
into dirt and dustbins. Yet
to greet this morning
with such abundance —
how immense, how marvelous
to sit for a while
with obsolete leaves
and then to cast them
upon last year’s wreaths
amid the scraps
of ordinary meals. What
a luxury, this space
to not need what’s at hand
and time to study it anyway —
a few final minutes
of not yet moving on.
It’s not every morning that my tennis Twitter timeline greets me with multiple tweeps urging the world to listen to Serena Williams narrate a BBC montage with Angelou’s “Still I Rise” (a poem I posted about here back in December, that time because Twitter had let me know about Williams reciting it on receiving an award).
The BBC has been roundly criticized for its feeble and at times astounding gormless coverage of women’s tennis this past fortnight (h/t @MBDigital001). Here’s hoping that it does better going forward. While this clip neither mitigates nor addresses the deep-seated attitudes and assumptions undergirding the coverage issues, it was nonetheless lovely to glimpse hundreds of people thrilled and moved by this new rendition of an almost-forty-year-old poem — one barely older than the woman who today tied Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Slam singles titles, and then won doubles with her sister, both of them significantly older than the majority of other elite WTA players.
Crowd craning to see Serena Williams in Cincinnati, 2014
is a twenty-dollar bill
the bra without
a secret compartment
a mattress in Prague
next to a crumpled napkin
on top of a tray,
a swan set next
to the butter that hasn’t
melted under my tongue
I serenely slice
half-truths to be served
with dinner’s red-eye gravy.