She tries to nurse but I have
nothing in my breast for her.
The nurses say I drain myself
in tears. The grief I censor
as my effort for the war
is loosed by pain of childbirth
and its loneliness. I’m lonely
in a ward so full we line the halls,
haphazard mounds of army wife,
refuse blown here by the violence
that wails from radios in every room.
I am its prisoner, listening helpless
for the number dead
and searching for a soldier
in an infant’s face.
The man I read in letters home
is tangled in the slow machinery,
the strange ballet of men at war,
bound to the boys in his command
by something deep as love.
I fight the feeling
I have been betrayed. I
am alone. My soldier
and my child inhabit places
I can’t understand. Like him,
she’s tied to me by need
I can’t fulfill. My body grudges her
and when she suckles
nothing comes. She knots,
a fist I hold against myself,
remembering that both of them
have traveled me
and left me here without.
Letter from Italy, 1945
Tonight beneath the slide
of moonlight on the mountain’s
eastern flank, the snow
is veined with trails of those
I’ve pulled to camp. The cold
is fastened around my thighs,
the whole of winter’s weight
suspended from it as I try
to get the last one home.
He took a round below the ribs,
a belly wound I cannot staunch.
Slowly he leaves his life behind us
beading in the frozen air,
a story tailing off, the storyteller
gone to sleep.
Last week we passed Cecina,
ruined in the war. From back
behind a house returned to earth
and stone, a sudden cheerful dog
We broke to encircle him,
at the side of the road,
hunkering, our faces buried
in his grimy scruff,
of letters home, wanting
to weep at the warmth.
My Lieutenant, Bill, said:
“Most of us hate the snow
and all of us hate the sound
of shells, the godawful softness
of flesh, the things we’ve forgotten
about ourselves, the enemy.
Look at us, John, sucking
at hatred for strength
and dying for something to love.”
He smiled at me,
the gift he always gave.
When I lean over my soldier
to dress his wound,
he is aware of everything,
the pump and heat of his blood,
the length of himself on the snow,
how small I am between him
and the brilliant Alpine sky.
I would like to ride the fall
of light into rooms
in the village below,
to sleep as the villagers sleep,
glossy with moonlight, not sick
with the feel of its thin
indifference in me.
For music, he would take us
to a room too good for daily use,
perch us on the petit-pointed
footstools facing him, pater
in his wingback chair.
Sometimes the instruments
were ours, three small
voices piping descants
only we could reach
for songfests with the relatives
who joined to celebrate
the least excuse
for food and drink.
Other times he drew the instruments
from underneath his chair,
the first time ukuleles
all around. He taught us
three good chords that rendered
every song we knew,
and let us work
“You Are My Sunshine”
till we had it true.
Another year, he gave us boxes
closed so tight they gasped
when we opened them.
From puckered nests
of sateen cloth we culled
thick cylinders of wood,
polished to the feel of water
on our fingertips.
We fitted them together
till the holes aligned.
He said “Don’t blow, just breathe.”
We blew until the dogs
vibrated at the door,
eyes imploring, ears laid flat.
He let them out and then
himself, left us there to thrust
the long blue brushes
down our pipes to scour
the spittle out.
Gathered so with him, we were
the family he’d foreseen,
the children at their father’s feet
in antique etchings
on the hallway wall.
But when he sent us up to bed
he stayed downstairs,
to rough a little riverboat tune
from the uke he dwarfed
with his restless hands,
nobody’s father, nobody’s
doctor, jazzman alone
After he died, before he joined
some heavenly combo
riffing wry arpeggios
in the pink half-light
of a smoky angel dive,
he seated us at his feet again
in the room with lamps
that smelled like burning dust.
He asked us one more time
to harmonize, to listen
to each other’s parts
from far inside our own.
In the easing heat of a late-summer night
I dream at the brink of the porch.
In the lighted kitchen behind
there are peaceful sounds
of my children washing up,
muted clatter of cup and dish.
But I am separate from the house
in dark that laps at my back and legs.
Beyond there’s quickening:
breath of green things
stirring in the furtive wind,
miasma of the summer creek,
wash of mothwings, whisper
of mosquito flight,
madhouse pulse of katydids and crickets
deepening as the night intensifies,
flicker in the western sky
of something coming on,
ungovernable and brief.
A current of air from the woods’ cold heart
puts fingers on my nape.
Awareness swells to fill me up.
The danger is that I’ll expand
beyond myself, become the softness
and the strangeness of the night.
Like other things that intimate release,
these summer evenings
light a trembling deep inside the hips.
Dream in the Middle Third of Night
I have seen you rise from dream,
I have heard your voice in the night,
I have held you when it seemed
you were calling for something of light.
You were blind inside my arms
and you called to a man out of sight,
someone leaning toward you smiling in the darkness.
You saw Billy with your eyes full of sleeping.
I could see what you loved
and I held you
though your heart was a war’s length away.
I hold you hard in your waking,
gentle your move into day.
I find you in the gentle of morning,
hold to you hard in your waking,
hold Billy in you.
In our two there is breathing for three.
We’ve emptied out the songbird seed,
hung racks of suet for the jays
and flickers who will risk the scouring
of our hilltop wind, the sting of snow
blown hard before it falls.
The sheep are in and snowdrift fences
back the draggling vegetables
my garden bore too late.
The bin below the fireplace
is tight with lengths of maple
and oak. Fresh-split,
they fill the room with redolence
of winter brought indoors.
The children trail into the lighted den
to say goodnight, bathed early
after Sunday’s lesser meal.
I fill myself with this, the depth
of home, its harmony of time,
comfort I have made against
the cold that’s coming on—
all I dared not conjure
in the alpine winter war.
I might have cried.
We couldn’t cry. We cursed.
We turned the Germans
into uniforms and helmets,
made them devil’s work.
We turned our longing
into dirty jokes. We laughed.
But Billy, when you died
the week before the enemy
laid down its arms in Italy,
I sent you off with love
I’ll never have again to give.
In that hollowing I shelter you,
contained beneath a burgeoning
of happiness I cannot let you test:
pleasure in the duties
of an ordinary day, safety
of the soft old hills
that cup my farm, reunion
with a family I saw at first
as velvety and strange.
But nights like this one,
three drinks on, the place
where I enclose you fails.
Image swells from fissures
I don’t want to heal, memory
of soldier love that steadied
hour by hour, ridge by ridge
and luck by luck—
love we knew
might any moment
alchemize to grief.
I loved you as no wife
you widowed could have.
I love you in a way that
somehow widows mine.
A man is wracked with weeping somewhere near,
keening from behind a closet door,
and John’s the only man who’s living here.
He fights the clutch of memory and fear,
my husband, wins his own twice-daily war.
But now I find him weeping somewhere near
though he has never cried where I could hear.
He’s holding boots I haven’t seen before
on him, the only man who’s living here.
He tells the story, strangled by thick tears:
he bushwhacks hard along the island shore
to sweep for men in wreckage somewhere near.
In brush beside the shingle, boots appear,
inside them someone’s ankles, nothing more.
My John’s the only man who’s living here.
He finds the severed body, lifts it clear
of wet black tangle on the ocean floor.
A man is wracked with weeping somewhere near
and he’s the only man who’s living, here.
A Solitude of Three
Daddy leaves early on Saturdays,
comes back by four
with nothing much to say.
By two, we’ve joined to wait for him
inside the barn’s black mouth,
our refuge from the heat.
The grass is burned so dry
it pricks us where we walk,
and sun is a pitiless song on the roof.
We sit with cool at our backs
and fetor of field mice
strong in the empty stalls.
Cats slide out between us,
pick their way with startled feet
across the tarry baking drive.
We cradle marbles hand to hand,
whistle through our thumbs,
and finger clods of dirt to dust.
One day he leaves for months.
That afternoon, we watch for his car
till warmth has thinned beneath our feet
and shadows lurking in the eaves
come out to join a thickened light.
One by one we slip indoors
to sit with Mother by the lamp,
to play a long piano tune, or bury the day
in all there is of sleep.
Imagining the Route
Spring had just begun to soft-foot
in the field, rising out of bitter soil
in morning fog that softened everything.
True, the warmth at noon was edged
with something thinner, sharp and cool.
But pale gold meadow grass stood higher
every day, the sky lifted and blued
and tanagers were just about to flash against
the line of hills that take the sun at night.
My father felt the surge of sunshine
coming on, the loosening of things,
the brimming of the earth as terrible.
He packed his bag and went into the cold
Mother turned her face away.
One sister slipped upstairs to sit
inside the dark. The other followed him outside,
her childhood closed within the circle
of her eyes. I wasn’t there
but I’m the one who knows
he had to go along the river road
to where it met the turn to town,
following his shortcut toward
the quiet of the office and the medicines,
the cleanness and the separation of himself
from us. I think he must have loved
the drowsiness, the languor winding out
inside his arms and legs.
When sleep approached
from every corner of the room
he let it come till time became
the column where he lay.
Inside its tightening shaft
he saw the phone go into dream.
A little cold, he went to sleep,
just hours short of when the thaw began.
Dream in the Last Third of Night
His back to me, a soldier’s at the door.
Come see, he says, how dear the world. He’s sure
I’ll understand there’s more to us than grief.
I move toward his belief.
He looks toward the guardian hardwood trees,
silhouettes in slanted sun, the leaves
still dark with what their fingers hold of night.
He, too, is shade in light.
The soldier turns. My father faces me.
He offers balm of song and memory.
The more I fill with what flows out of him
the more his figure dims
until there’s only clarity, and I can see
his gifts to us through his translucency:
the glen he cleared to make a skating pond,
the biking path, the tin house just beyond,
the afternoons with song and stories read aloud,
the flair for joy we’d need to clear his debt of cloud.
To clear his debt of cloud, I sing,
his voice within my voice.
I see, his vision part of mine,
the once and always choice
to lose or keep his legacy
and keeping it to find
I’ll always have the leaf and bird,
the woods, the music, and the word,
the best a wounded man who loved
could leave for those behind.
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