Copyright © 2016 by Susannah Lawrence
Family Photo, 1950
No one looks now anymore
the way she does in that photo,
postwar matron silk-buttoned
to the rise of her throat,
I’m on her knee in white.
My father is half-business,
suit and smile.
Around them six children
in a sunny harbor, but
my brother, his face half-
turned, the left eye
hidden, violent purple-black.
A recent fight, a punch landed.
The rest of us face forward,
toward the camera and our future
selves. But what has he fixed
his gaze on and whose idea, this pose?
Peter . . . how your name disturbs,
burdened with what it holds.
Years off still: that early-hour
road. That speed. That tree.
All, at 21, to be
over . . . . It seems a sign, your turn,
as though fate gave you that shiner,
but fate’s a word too straightforward.
More than four directions come
up for grabs, even late in a day.
We make stuff up about the dead,
and it’s like rubbing brasses
in an old and empty church,
the cold smell of the stone,
everything silent save the hssh hssh
of the chalk, wearing itself away.
The Flaw in the Plan
The Canadian scientist pretends
to be crossing a frozen lake
blind to danger. The falling in
looks true. Armored in Gore-Tex,
he bobs on screen, a yellow and black
straw stuck in a slushy,
chips his words out: the cold shock . . .
don’t panic — pilot-steady
in spite of his shudders.
That first day her scans showed
the wrong shadow it came clear
she’d only thought she thought
of her death as real. Another woman
in disguise would drop, not herself.
A minute or two and you adjust.
Here, she can feel cold
burn into her feet, hands.
Just this morning she’d heard
the lake ice crack,
groan and belch, trapped
in its own freezing.
Don’t try to pull yourself out,
he pants, slips back
in futility, make believe
and kicks his legs hard, spurts
up and out like a seal,
fire-rolls to safety,
plops in again. Crazy,
she thinks. If that fails,
stretch your arms as far
as they reach, he says and lays them down
as if abandoned until
the sleeves freeze, anchoring him
like faith. Widen the window for rescue,
you have more time than you think,
and she can foresee her arms, hands
flung toward safety, toward a fixed surface —
sleeves latching on as they should —
and everyone searching for her,
lugging rope, ladder, blanket,
in the wrong direction, to a different lake.
Careful What You Wish For
As if he had a child in mind,
the man on the dock
had set his telescope low.
So I didn’t get at first
what he wanted or why:
to look wisely into the sun,
his round face one I’d trust
on the darker side of a road,
gas station a mile off.
So when he crooked his finger,
I went close, bent under
the black cloth, fitted my eye
to the scope. The sun’s flaming stare
turned me dumb inside
the lake’s fuss of voices.
His filter narrowed to red
light’s full spectrum —
all that fusing hydrogen aimed
like something hunting for us.
Spurts and threads of flare
licked along its rim
as if it could hear me breathing,
its pulsing fire more like ruin.
No one waited up for us; far off lights
burned for nothing we wanted.
Darkness grew out of the ground
overcoming trees, fences, roads.
Outside them for a time,
we stood like sentries posted at a border,
an abandoned crossing under a sky
without birds, without clouds.
We unguarded ourselves.
Our words became
like breathing with a cracked rib.
Everything awake in us shuddered.
The stars fell back. Your hand’s
roughness cupped me. Under our weight
mint’s rinsed scent released.
In the after-quiet, just warm, we heard
some smaller mammal
passing by, the grass unsettled.
After Hours at the Eagle’s Nest
A drunk still hangs at the bar. Behind it, Will,
just old enough to be legal, wants him gone, clears
the glasses, parks his voice in neutral, says Closing time,
thinks Old fart. He should maybe call someone to pick him up.
It’s the worst of a good job — the wrecks who can’t hold
life together without enough liquor to trash them.
He remembers that girl, the one in his brother’s class,
her hair a black lake, a girl your eyes wanted to follow,
clipped from behind by someone too wasted to know
where the edge lay, too slow to swerve. All those lives burnt,
trees lightning-struck — the girl and her scorched parents,
the driver. He offers the guy a ride. Outside, the air feels
snow coming. Under a streetlight, the drunk turns to him.
Thanks, he says and Will knows him now, remembers him,
Mr. Clark, yelling to his kid at bat, Get a piece of it, Jimmy! —
remembers himself covering 1st and Will says No problem,
starts the car, lets it run a minute, the two of them
quiet in the cold, their breath clouding.
Elm is to Oriole as Oriole is . . .
Orioles along the road to Canaan,
working into the elms overhead,
into the thinner stories, horsehair, grass,
milkweed silk, twine and bast,
their wispy nest-marvels, sixty feet up: safe.
On the way to school, past Holsteins,
past fields plowed and warming — spring
new-mown and manured, a sweet stink —
past Maddow’s, the Friday night auction barn
where the cheap horses used to jig the ring
led by boys in white t-shirts, their hands
on the halter ropes close under each chin
to keep the ponies good-mannered and moving.
My mother bought a mare there once.
Sweet-mannered palomino with a foal inside her —
a runty chestnut always head-shy.
We rode them, bare legs to rough-coated bellies,
and fell off, laughing, into long grass.
I’m not sure what went first,
Maddow’s or the elms, blight wood
cut and burned with rotted planks from old coops,
fences, cold frames, sparks the fire-coal glow of orioles
spurting, fishtailing up to blackout.
And then this spring, on a river sweeping
between cottonwoods and bony sycamores,
steering through flow, I see them, orioles,
their weaving flight from tree to tree, hear
each fluted note sustained, as if holding out.
Nantucket: Sunday, August 25th, 1948
seven miles visibility
fog lifted from 10 a.m. steeples
brassy peels purl
tourists a couple stands
sings together in a sun-washed church
inside the stark white of vow
years old now
midday white sand burns
dried kelp litters the tide line
just the two of them
in the hammered ocean beyond
the breakers off Dionis beach
their white toes poke up
they float and bump smile
through them a rolling like waves
later the half-hour-before-dinner-light
the cherry wood bed just them
salty skinned, sunrough making
me he brushes with his foot
sand from her toes and ankle and arch
invisible beyond their window
yawp and wheel higher, higher