Copyright © 2018 by Norah Pollard
Full Fathom Five
Some nights, in the semi-darkness of the kitchen,
my father would sit with a friend or two drinking,
laughing, telling stories. They’d get rowdy as boys.
Then my mother, eyes dark, mouth set, would have me
walk through the kitchen to give my father a hard look.
Even at seven years old, I knew she meant me
to make him feel ashamed.
So maybe he’d stop.
She’d give me a little push and I would walk
into that happy, roisterous kitchen.
But I would never give the look.
I’d pretend I came for a glass of water.
Some nights my father would drink his whiskey by himself.
Alone at the table he’d sing, “There was an old farmer
he had an old sow,” making all the snorting, whistling
and raspberry sounds in the old song, laughing to himself.
Other nights he’d recite poems—“I could not love thee,
Dear, so much, loved I not Honor more,” and
“Drink to me only with thine eyes,” and
“Full fathom five thy father lies . . . .”
In secret, I’d lean against the other side of the door frame
and listen to his sorrowful, gravelly voice.
He’d weep sometimes.
Poems can do that.
When our neighbor, Mrs. Beardsworth, went
’round the bend and started hanging sheets
covered in red poster paint like blood
from her front windows,
my mother would murmur,
“I can’t fathom it.”
And when she’d tell my aunt about my father
and his whiskey ways, she’d whisper,
“I can’t fathom it.”
But I fathomed my father.
For when my father would tell aloud,
“Full fathom five thy father lies,”
I thought I knew he fathomed fully,
by age of five,
that his own father told lies.
And so he wept.
And in those days when I was seven,
I fathomed also that I’d rather have a father
who drank, laughed, sang and cried,
than one who lied.
My grandchild Sophie is five.
She goes to Sunday school.
This Easter day, the egg hunt over,
the great ham about to be served,
she takes me aside and, all wide-eyed,
tells me how Jesus was tortured,
the thorns, the spear, etc., then murdered
on a cross while his mother watched.
I am appalled. How can you do this
to a child?
Cultures are so strange. Our fairy tales
of evil queens, Bluebeards, abandoning
parents, nasty stepsisters, frightful giants
and bloodthirsty wolves—aren’t these
stories enough to prepare them for this life
without such horror as the nails,
His bloody death?
I can see she wants to tell me more.
“And then what happened?” I ask.
She’s loud with indignation,
one hand on her hip.
“They put him under a rock!”
I see the glee in her eyes. This
is better than the Brothers Grimm,
“And then what happened?” I ask,
not knowing what else to say.
“And . . . and . . .” she stammers,
barely containing her excitement,
“they went there to get him out
and he was gone!”
“Gone?” I say.
Sophie spreads her arms wide.
“He was gone!” Her excitement
makes her tremble, turns her pink.
“What happened?” again.
She thinks. But the end of the story has escaped her.
Her fingers fidget, her eyes turn to the ceiling.
She winces with distress. But then,
from all the world’s tales—fairy, folk, and fable—
the obvious ending comes to her.
“He tricked them!” she shouts with joy.
And all is magic, all is strange,
all is mystery, and all ends happily.
For now . . . that she is five.
On a Country Road Self-Knowledge Comes
Cows don’t like to run.
They like to mosey.
But a young brown and white cow
is running loose through the grasses
beside this country road.
The folks hereabouts know
these one-lane windy roads
and they speed.
The cow is about to be hit.
I see the cow is haltered with
some kind of apparatus, green,
which goes over her head and
around her nose and mouth.
I think about this halter and how,
if she’s not hit and makes it to the woods,
the halter will catch up on a branch
or a fence, or her own rear hoof. She’ll die
staring at the lush grass and green ponds.
Her tongue will swell out of her mouth,
her belly will bloat.
The flies will blanket her.
Bad ends come to so many—
persons, cultures, stars, nations, cows—
it seems that to be hopeful is to live in illusion.
So I am always one to believe the worst.
And yet today on this leaf-tented country road,
I find myself turning toward some state of hope
for that soft-eyed, innocent mooer and maker of milk.
Oh, someone must save her, will save her!
Oh, someone will lead her to her sweet-grassed,
It seems there are two kinds of human.
It seems that I am both.
Seeing His Way
A homeless man is living under the stairs
of the defunct Stratford Festival Theater.
He’s built a little fort under there with
salvaged trash bags and pieces of wood.
You’d never know he’s there.
But he’ll come out from time to time
to brave the cold and talk to the people who
walk their jacketed dogs through the woods.
He’s friendly enough.
Won’t ask for money,
but he’ll take the sandwiches and apples I bring.
Not a drinker, but walks to the town AA meetings
for warmth, free coffee and donuts,
and to be with others who know what bottom is.
Ice hems the river’s shore.
Sixty-three days today he’s known this cold.
The shelters are all filled—he’s on a list. In fact,
he’s on thirty-one lists, from Greenwich to Hartford,
but no residents have left for ritzier digs
He tells his story to anyone who asks,
as if, by the telling, he’ll come to understand
the unbelievable. It’s become a kind of chant for him:
job lost, house lost, the truck, the wife—
then he’ll laugh a little. It’s hard to hear.
Perhaps he’s laughing at the ordinariness
of his tragedy, the banality of his tale.
Perhaps he’s laughing that the joke is on him.
Perhaps he’s laughing because there is no joke.
And then he’ll point to the blue-black river and say,
“But look at my view!”
And mean it.
After this long in the cold, with
the sharp winds blowing in from the river
and the snow that comes in the night and
bricks him in his cave, he tells me today
he’s beginning to not know who he is
or what he’s for.
He says it’s not a bad feeling.
He says he’s been talking with the trees,
that the night owl hoo-hoo’s him,
the raccoons and possums are his mates.
He stands for long times in the snow
watching the birds,
watching the river.
He’s beginning to notice everything.
No Worm, No Poem, No Loss
There’s a worm on the driveway.
It’s rained for three days,
but the sun is trying to come out
and the worm is trying to get home.
He humps up a bit, then stretches forward—
tiny sewing machine stitching the outskirts of asphalt.
The driveway—long, black and hard—
has innumerable rough lumpy patches
and small pools of water which
the worm—short, pink and soft—
must drag itself over and through.
Worms repel me.
Suffering repels me more.
I go out in the damp with the torn corner
of a page I’ve begun writing a poem on.
I maneuver the worm so he crawls on the paper
and I carry him, wriggling and crying,
to the tulip bed. He worms fast
towards the leafstalks.
I come back in to finish my poem.
But the poem is not half as interesting as the worm.
The poem has abandoned me.
I go back out to see where the worm has got to.
The worm has abandoned me.
No worm, no poem.
Still, I have the happy feeling
I have accomplished something.
The Doctor’s Malady
My brother’s cancer doctor at the V.A.
was the coldest woman I have ever met.
She had a body made of tendon,
knucklebone and gristle.
She had a hacksaw face.
Not a bit of soft flesh to her anywhere.
Never once did she smile, never a word of
encouragement or kindness. She seemed to hold
my truck-driving brother in contempt.
The first time we met, I held out my hand to her.
She gazed at it disconcertedly, as if it were
a cowpie. She did not take it.
But my brother never complained of her in any way.
He’d only tell me what his blood tests said.
One time I asked my brother,
“But why is Herr Doktor so cold?”
So he explained, not in any way crude or as a joke,
but simply telling, as a trucker would, what is fact.
“She has no tits.”
Biology is destiny, some say.
I imagined all the things she’d lost out on
in her life—no proms, no Valentines,
no man to make her beautiful with breasts.
And then the loneliness,
the kind that cures into bitterness.
And though it was my brother who was dying,
I imagine she had cause to think he had it good.
Self Portrait, Revised
I never thought of us as poor.
A child accepts conditions it was born in.
But I was ever drawn to beauty,
and when old enough to make some
babysitting money, I’d hightail it—
like a gambler addicted to the game—
to the corner five-and-dime to spend it.
I’d bring home brass bracelets with glass stones,
a dancing ballerina figurine, a little clock
that sang bird songs on the hour.
My mother, struggling to feed us, would snap,
“Who do you think you are?” and slam the pots and pans.
Once I bought a bracelet from my high school friend.
From its links dangled a charm, a real Morgan silver dollar.
Since I’d only paid a dollar for this silver-dollared bracelet,
you could think of it as free. But my mother, uncharmed
and peeved, fumed and flung her accusation,
“Pretty good to yourself!”
The world offers its treasures to me and I buy them.
But a thing is never so lovely as just before I buy it for myself.
Guilt comes with every pretty package, along with
“Who do you think you are?”
Today at the consignment store I bought a Japanese
silk caftan, the deepest blue, its sleeves and hem shot
with tinsel gold. I brought it home.
With it trailed the old darkness.
But something happened tonight when I held
that silk close to my body.
Maybe it was the moonlight pawing under the drapes.
Maybe it was that glass of cabernet. Maybe it was
the scent of perfume still lingering on the silk.
But when I slipped the caftan on and heard the usual
“Who do you think you are?” I stood in all that
blue and sang, if a little tipsy, loud and strong:
I think I am the Maharani of Killarney.
I think I am the Queen of Jellybeans.
I think I am the teacher’s pet, head honcho,
top brass, superstar, the mikado.
I think I am the very real McCoy.
I think maybe . . . perhaps . . . it’s possible . . .
I might have been my mother’s pride and joy.
Rollin’ in My Sweet Woodlands’ Arms
A poetic person asked me the other day
if I loved trees.
I’m suspicious of people who would ask
a question like this,
but I said yes.
Yes, I do love trees.
And then she asked,
“And do you touch them?”
The question startled me, and
before I could edit my mouth, I said,
“Yes, right, I touch them.”
She beamed and hugged me,
thinking she was hugging a kindred spirit.
But I felt ashamed and angry, as if
I had allowed her to take a piece of
classified information from me.
Because, when you have a secret little sacrament,
like touching the old trees on your way to the river,
you don’t cheapen it by telling it aloud.
That’s like reporting what you do
in the bedroom.
And if you talk about the trees
to someone who talks about trees,
it’s like saying, “I am in your special club.
You and I, we are especially sensitive people.”
So if someone says to me, “I love trees and I touch them,”
I am not going to like that person.
I would know that person was one of those oh-so-green,
vociferous vegans you want to stay away from
because they are so good it gives you the creeps.
They are of the class of benevolent bores
who constantly preach Love is the answer and
We are all connected and We are all the same at heart.
And that simply is not true.
So anyway, yeah. Sure. O.K. I do touch trees.
But I make sure we are alone.
Old Folks Under the Moon
for Beverly and John Corvino
Tonight we walk the beach, my two old friends and I.
At the high tide mark, thousands and thousands
of shells have shored up to form four-foot mounds.
Each retreating wave drags over the hillocks’ hem
rattling shells like a rain stick.
Jingles, slipper shells and conchs crunch under our feet.
“Think,” says John, “each was once a living thing!”
So we do think—on death, and on our own fragile shell
We shamble along the tide line until we can see
the lights of Bridgeport. When we turn back
we shout as one, for bulging up from the marsh
is a most colossal carnelian moon.
Ovoid and liquidy, it pulses around the edges,
gravid and set to breach.
We watch and wait as the moon cuts loose from earth,
rises languorously, morphs from orange, to pink,
to yellow. Then we plod on, our eyes full of moon,
At the old waterfront diner, we warm ourselves with
coffee and quiet talk. A lovely evening. Except that,
just as we’re leaving, John stumbles on the last stair.
“Bloody hell,” John swears, “I’m getting old!”
Next, I fart. “Excuse me!” I say, mortified, “That was
an experience I didn’t think I needed to have!”
“Say nothing,” says Beverly, “it’s age.” And she and I
hold John by the elbows to steady him.
The young, over-earnest manager who’s been spinning
around the diner all night, dashes to the door after us.
“Thank you, folks!” he shouts into the dark.
“Have an amazing night!”
“Amazing,” John grouses. “Not just good, not just great,
but amazing! What does he imagine we three old bats
are going to do tonight?”
We set to imagining.
The moon, now severely silver, hangs in the sky
like a steel pot.
At home, I climb into bed.
The moon climbs into heaven.
Magnificently full, the moon is pouring
bucketsful of phosphor through the window
onto the old oak floor.
Its light lies in pools like irradiated milk.
It is amazing.
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