FROM THE BOOK
Copyright © 2017 by Rennie McQuilkin
Lying alone in the straight and narrow bed
of old age, I work my way down the crooked hall
of memory – to where it was I went those early mornings,
trailing behind me the tattered cloudbank of my blanket
to the room Father had not yet expelled me from,
the room with the queen-size bed and rose-red comforter
I slid under, as close to Mother as possible, molding myself
to the seed-curl of her back and shoulder, the sweet tang
of her, slowing my breathing to match her own
with long, delicious inspirations
until first light lit the cream of her neck and cheek
and day broke in
with the rustle of pheasants in the pine,
fee-bee-ing of chickadees, phew-phew-phewing of cardinals,
swish of washing and brushing from
the street-cleaning truck
and finally the bellsound of bottles
set in their metal basket by the Nakoma Dairy man.
And Father would groan and Mother would turn to hold
me against the soft of her,
and beyond the veil of her hair the light would grow and
she would take me by the hand along the dark crooked hall
to the back stairs, down to the brightening kitchen,
and let me bring in the milk.
I’d uncrinkle the stiff paper cap of a narrow-necked bottle,
lift the tongue on the tab beneath, pull it
from the mouth, love the liquid labor
and pop of its release,
and lick the cream from its underside,
the thick sweet cream,
a memory I knew – but not of what.
It’s only glass
I’ve broken. Mother goes on
licking a thread, pushing it at the eye,
face bunching like a club,
then heaves out of her chair and begins
to hit me
with a magazine, and when that shreds,
with her fists.
I can’t forgive my father
behind the paper, a big man twice
her size. As usual, he lets her happen,
doesn’t say a thing.
She does the talking in that house.
My father is her cross, she says.
I can’t forgive him
for not knowing better
and hide in the shed among the tools.
Today, he comes for me, has nothing
to say, just shows me
to the car. We reach the river,
and in the trunk beside his rod
I find a brand new Heddon Tru-flex
with a Shakespeare reel. From his tackle
he selects a Green Ghost and
How delicately, with a huge hand
battered and missing a finger, he threads
the silk through the shining eyes.
All afternoon we work the trout.
The only sounds
are those that slowly grow used to us
and the high song, long whisper
First his, then mine, then sometimes
together, the lines arch out and settle
exactly where we want them.
Reflecting the moonshine glittering
from a brewing bogful of peepers penny-whistling
and the fen toad’s woo-ah woo-ah all night,
these two slip into sleep and out of themselves,
on tour, appearing in the dreams of one another.
When the nightly show is closed
by morning’s pewter, blue, and lavender dove-song,
he feels the press of her finger on his lips
forbidding a word
in this new world only half removed from the other,
here on this cumulus of sheet and pillow
from which he looks up – into the coming
of her eyes. About her disarray of hair, first light.
AN OLD MAN’S SENSE
of time is shot. Now he is five in Indian headdress
facing off with the boy across the street
and now he is being born. The frames
blur by – his small head crowning, coming to light
is an old man’s, white on hospital
white. Now the film so quickly reeling and unreeling
jams. It fixes on a single frame.
Before a brilliant circle burns out from its center,
a sleeping compartment
elegant in the velvet and brass-fitted style
of the overnight express from Algeciras to Madrid.
He is raising a tasseled, dark green window shade
on the full Spanish moon. The white of it spills
across the cream and umber landscape of his bride.
It’s that time of year,
the hedgerows hung with bittersweet.
How early the freeze, I’d say
if we were speaking. We’re not.
We turn our spading forks against
the earth. It’s stiff,
the Reds and Idahos hard as stone,
a total loss.
Once it was us against the beetles,
blight, whatever was not potato.
How they flowered, rows and rows
in white. Now look.
We give it one last try, and there
far down in softer soil,
a seam of them, still perfect.
One after another
we hold them up to the dying day,
kneel down to sift for more.
In the dark of earth, I come upon
your hand, you mine.
WE ALL FALL DOWN
for Kelly, my student
Her turn had come. She knew
by heart almost
the lines she was to speak
but gave us, God help her,
beyond the lines,
beyond the book she dropped,
its pages thrashing to the floor
like broken wings –
she beat her head upon,
bit into so hard
I could not pry her jaws,
teeth grinding –
the truth beyond us
she saw as ever,
her risen eyes gone white
I did what I could,
I held her and held her, seized
with sudden love and knowing
we all fall down.
In the end
I carried her curled in my arms
across one threshold
SISTER MARIE ANGELICA
with Sister Marie Modeste most afternoons.
Today, because of lengthy vespers, they are late.
A pale moon has already risen and early bats
are darting like black shuttlecocks.
Except for the whisper of wings
and the Sisters’ hushed encouragement,
the only sounds are the plinking of rackets
and a monotone of mourning doves.
On all sides of the court
the sculpted yew in cubes and columns
might pass for black so deeply green it grows.
And now it moves closer,
Marie Angelica would say,
who has been known to have visions.
Though she moves as aptly as the bats,
doesn’t miss a shot,
when she fades for a long one
from Marie Modeste, sways on her toes, arches
her back, raises one arm
and the other to keep her difficult balance,
she is lost, a long-legged girl again
in mare’s tail, mullein, milkweed,
leaning on the sudden sky as if it can sustain her
like a hand in the small of her back. It does.
Her nerve ends quick as a shiver of poplar,
arms like branches in a wind,
she feels a cry begin
to rise, to force the self before it
and burst, all colors one. That white.
It vaults straight up, a feathered cry
that hovers in the heart of heaven, hovers,
and plummets to the gut
of the racket she sights it in,
the perfect bird, the shuttlecock
Marie Angelica keeps in play, will not let fall
despite the darkness gathering.
after “The Hunters in the Snow,”
Pieter Bruegel the Elder
How bleak these three who trudge into town
with just one fox to show for the hunt,
their lean dogs slouching behind, heads down,
man and beast dark against the sepia snow.
Above, a murder of crows waits patiently.
Only one of the houses sends up any smoke:
the people’s firewood has been commandeered
for the Spanish garrison, there,
against those ice-blue cliffs. But look, oh see,
says Bruegel, the bliss
of a magpie sheering the verdigris
sky, and far below on the sky-green ice, children
skating – such tiny black ciphers enjoying,
a touch of carmine for scarf, dot of pink for face.
Three of them chase a fourth; a small boy,
bent-kneed, makes a V
of his blades; another hunches down, spins a top.
To one side, hands muffed, a young woman,
thin from starvation, stops
to watch. She commits the scene to memory.
ROMANCE OF THE ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK
If you think love’s not blind
just listen to him singing his elaborate love song
as she takes her pleasure at the feeder she’s emptying,
selecting only the choicest sunflower seed.
Dandy in a black and white zoot suit the morning after,
he wears his bleeding heart on his chest
(see how the point of it drips). And the object of all his
is this scrawny, big-beaked, dun-colored little dinosaur
tossing seed over her shoulder. Her only bright spot
is a pair of white stripes swept back from her beady eyes
like the sidebars of the godawful spectacles
on some mousy secretary.
Still, the way her handsome boyfriend is ogling her
gives me pause. Who’s blind here? God knows,
when she takes off those glasses, lets down her hair...
Painstakingly, I’m doctoring a family
photo in which my thin daughter is
hugging a plastic child-size skeleton
the day before the Saints march in.
It’s not easy, such winnowing –
so much of her is hidden
by the complicated grid of Death,
and she too bright and new a thing
for such a jumper.
I work to unveil the original pattern
and flush of her, erase a layer
of bones and the shadows they cast.
Intricately, like a surgeon removing
the tentacles of a tumor,
I delete each trace of rib and femur,
each shade, fill it all in with pinafore
and sun-warm skin. I magnify
a daughter, work slowly, pixel by pixel,
until in the end what I see – if
not what I get – is a necessary fiction.