Copyright © 2013 by Phyllis
Wrestling with Angels
They come at night, my angels,
wings beating, drumming me hollow,
summoning me to war. Their wings
rack me, open me to who I am, who I am not.
No blessings come with them like Jacob’s,
no promises of glory for me or my kin.
At dawn I wake, sheets wrinkled, drenched,
mind bruised, bloodied, angel gone. To ignore
the echo of my angel’s beating drum, I rise
and go outside to tend my garden, turn
those seeds of torment hard under the earth.
Way of the River
When there are no dreams,
sleep is dark as the river
that flows beyond my house, mind
and body yielding to its steady glide
as if I were floating from the source to the mouth
and would go on to cross wide seas that never
reach land, a passage with no coming back, a sleep
I cannot summon or refuse, a sleep
where desire does not dwell, where pain is gone.
When dreams come, my mind pretends to sleep,
and my body opens to strange places
where seeds I thought I’d sowed with care
sprout odd and unfamiliar plants: sorghum
and sassafras for snowdrops, or poison oak
where peonies should have grown, a baby goat
in the nursery crib, a flight to Barcelona
landing on Saturn, an avalanche of snow
on a mountain in Oodanatta, a heat-wave
at Vostok Station. When these dreams come
and I awake, I don my waders, take my buckets,
and go to the river. I wash my dreams away.
Each molded by life’s varied clays –
a sibling lost, a child, our parents gone,
our times together shrinking as we’d aged,
I had not thought a visit with my brother
would bring our childhood closeness back,
for lately we seldom chose to speak about the past –
our own worlds full of present joys and sorrows,
both of us agreeing there was nothing left to say,
and we could not talk of politics or God,
but when he asked if I recalled the songs
our father sang to us, when after dinner
we washed up together, I could sing them all
with him, those songs of war and loss,
of fear and love, belief and doubt:
Pack up Your Troubles in your Old Kit Bag,
Just Say Goodbye to Mother,
There’s Potatoes in the Oven,
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,
and the poor maid Belle,
who lit the stove with dynamite,
but must be up in heaven –
she was too green to burn.
Our songs united us that rainy day
as once they had before, our harmony
evoking those harsh wars within our house
that song erased, reminding us how leaving home
had brought us pleasure more than pain,
but also bringing back the smells
of dinner, the laughter in the kitchen
when our father left his cares behind –
and then, our singing over,
the moment came unspun.
Suggestions for a Long Marriage
Let’s break through the block that separates
us, closed space where we can’t breathe,
place where knots on knots tie us apart –
square, hitch, bow, splice. Let’s refresh
the stagnant air, allow a breeze
to sing its songs, defeat that loss of hearing
choking us with words we cannot swallow.
Let’s overthrow custom, habit, old ways
of what, dare I say it, feels too long a marriage,
where it’s too easy to ricochet sideways
downhill into irritations, refutations.
As our years accumulate, our time
to share them growing shorter, threatening
to disappear for good, let’s find again
the voices we once knew, still present
but so difficult to hear, let’s let them roar,
drown out the silence that deafens us,
shout out in words and music only we can hear.
Between flashes of lighting
shaking our roof, claps of forked bolts
rattling windows or shutters,
thunder booming out of great mountains
of black-building clouds, between raging winds
that plough the air, breaking tree
limbs and trunks, felling the old,
bending the weak, between whirlwinds
of leaves dropping onto mud-puddled earth
wild streams ripping away bridges,
houses, trees, stones, roads as they go –
between all devastating gales
outside that come as they will,
and the storm in our house
brewing in your cells where cancer
has struck you again
there is no difference.
Rehearsal of Bach’s Cantata 119
That day when the conductor abruptly put down her baton,
the music stopped in the middle of a bass aria,
gray-haired musicians frozen, still as statues,
bows raised, lips close to mouth-pieces, fingers poised
above piano keys, singers’ scores open and held high.
We watched as the conductor approached the tenor
slumped in his chair, and gently touched his hand,
saw him lift his head trying to smile through lips bleached
white as the aureole of hair that crowned his head,
heard someone whisper Call 911, while another quickly rose to phone.
In silence, the players sat as the tenor’s wife, so skilled
at coaxing arpeggios and trills from English horn and oboe,
spoke softly to her husband and packed her instruments,
her reeds and music and waited for the ambulance to arrive.
I could taste the fear in the room. Then, someone said
Let’s play, and the conductor picked up her baton, the musicians
opened their music, and Bach’s aria rose and fell in intricate
counterpoint – Jerusalem and its promise claimed us once again.
Letter to Myself
Forget your fear your memory
is going, thought as crooked
as your arthritic fingers, difficult
to flex at will, aging molecules
in a brain unable to recall parts of your past.
Forget that this morning you could not
summon Eggs Benedict at breakfast
however much you tried.
Find comfort in involuntary triggers –
those luscious Proustian madeleines,
uninvited guests arriving in the empty
chambers of your mind: pungent smell
of horse sweat, softness of a baby’s head,
taps at sunset, taste of mountain blueberries,
flute song of the Hermit Thrush, sudden
wind puffs ruffling a sleeping lake.
I Will Cultivate My Garden
I will let go that cold in my bones,
rib-cracking, suffocating vise around
my chest, twisting tendrils of the old vines
that wrap my body tight. I will untie
the corset laces holding me in.
I will open to the dawns I have left,
the cool morning air, the phoebe’s distant call,
robin’s chirrup, chirrup in the elm,
house wren’s rising falling trill, will rejoice
in my garden’s rebirth, breathing in
the scent of hyacinths, daffodils, tulips,
rising rampant, new with bloom.
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