passerby poems by emily axelrod

picture of emily axelrod

Photograph by Clay Oliver


In Passerby, her first book of poems, Emily H. Axelrod sees clearly the grime, the grief and danger of the world around her, but her vision is essentially a redemptive, celebratory one. Her poems are informed by moments of reunion and by memories of childhood: her cheek against a horse’s warm neck; racing to a waterfall, her body “young and lithe / as flexible as the silver birches…” We are offered a series of lovely moments including epiphanies from the poet’s later years and from her travels, creating poems that find beauty in the midst of turmoil. One is uplifted by these poems, transported as the poet herself is transported by a rocking rowboat that becomes for the moment “a seagoing cradle.” And such language! As Ashley Bryan has noted, “Reading Emily Axelrod’s poems, one is surprised by a language that surrounds the normal, the usual with the glow of a poetic light.”
  passerby by emily axelrod cover image
  Cover photograph by the author.

The author says this about her life: “I grew up in San Francisco, and although I haven’t lived there for many years, Northern California will always be in my heart. The culmination of my California years was being part of the pioneer class at the University of California, Santa Cruz, which was then a maverick start-up campus in the redwoods near Monterey Bay. It was a magical time. After attending the Harvard Graduate School of Design, my professional life has been in the world of architecture and urban planning, and I have worked in both public agencies and private firms in San Francisco and Cambridge, Massachusetts, most recently overseeing the Rudy Bruner Award. A career in the design profession informs my poetry in many ways, particularly in its strong visual orientation. Although I have always loved the written word, I came to poetry relatively recently. My poems are concerned with the richness of daily life, and with the joys and struggles of being alive in this world, at this moment. The poems draw upon my childhood, travel to faraway places, life in Cambridge, and summers on a small island in Maine. My husband Ron and our two adult children, David and Melissa, also appear throughout the book; they are the sun and moon and stars of my universe.”

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ISBN 978-1-936482-92-4

Copyright © 2015 by Emily H. Axelrod

6" x 9" paperback, 64 pages



Copyright ©2015 by Emily H. Axelrod

Clear Lake

for Susie

He swam like a dream,
carrying us, two pale limpets
on his back across the pond.
We were never afraid
in that mountain lake –
he was our bulwark
against the deep.
Marshmallows over a fire
late into the evening,
two little girls,
endless summer.
At night the bottles came out,
placed on the counter
with the clatter of ice.
We knew we would lose him
to melancholy, but we had each other,
whispering late into the night
in our bunks in the cabin by the lake.


for Nancy

Again we return
to this monastery
of stone and dusty paths,
to the filtered light of the sacred hall
where worn black cushions
are arranged in orderly rows,
and monks sit in meditation,
tracing the stillness
that lies within.

In the evening we walk the worn pathways
to the mineral springs
where heat erupts from the ground
into pools that soothe our tired bones.
In this warmth
our nakedness dissolves old differences,
and we find new connection
immersed in sulfur waters
with only stars
piercing the night sky.


for Marilyn

On the path to the studio
tarweed sticks to my shoes
and in the warmth of late afternoon
releases its musky scent.
It is the smell of dry brown hills,
of horses sweet with sweat,
of dried manure and valley oak,
the bouquet of my childhood.

By the creek, nearly dry
from summer’s drought,
the blue heron searches
for a small fish
in the trickle that remains.
Hawks circle above,
wings carving the dry hot sky,
and a garden snake basks languorously
against the stonewall.

Once I was 12, then 20, now 60
and still the parched land binds me
to a distant history
of grasses blowing brown
in hot summer wind,
of cracked earth and lizards’ skin,
and the memory of my cheek
against the horse’s warm neck
as I inhale her damp perfume.


You traveled to a country far away,
where you heard the sound of the gamelan
and watched shadow puppets enact ancient tales
through the sultry Indonesian night.
Riding a bicycle along the watery edges
of rice fields, you visited temples,
wore linen sarongs, and bowed to exotic gods.
A group of school children,
dark blue uniforms neatly pressed, giggled
as you stood beside them,
awkward in your height and pale complexion.

In the frantic airport scramble
I received your warm embrace
and tasted your eagerness.
The silken scarves you brought
were sweet with the scent of nutmeg.
I inhaled their exotic perfume
knowing I had grown accustomed
to new and solitary rhythms,
wondering how we would find our way
to each other again.



I walked by a garden long neglected,
with bent brown grass, fallen leaves,
and dry chrysanthemums,
their paper blossoms nodding into the wind.
On a lopsided chaise, an old woman slept,
wrapped in wool coats,
warming herself in the late autumn sun.
Her wrinkled skin was luminous
against the fading light
as she lay in her tangled garden,
mindless of the fall wind
and onset of winter’s dark afternoons.
I pulled my coat tighter against a rush of envy.
How deeply she had let go.


At Humayun’s Tomb

At Humayun’s Tomb serpentine eagles
carve the stifling air with dark wings
silhouetted against the afternoon sky.
They circle the spire atop the dome,
keepers of the ancient crypt,
their movements describing its arches and curves
like winged sculptors.

The guide knows the eagles’ purpose
is more mundane: famished pilgrims
dipping toward the stalls beyond,
where butchers discard scraps of bloodied meat,
the ravenous birds fetch the raw offering
with curved beaks, preferring the butchers’ refuse
to an uncertain hunt
in the gutters of Delhi’s ageless streets.




Arena Chapel, Padua

Near the altar five angels
crowned in hammered gold
thin as a butterfly’s wing
hover over the manger.
Lapis lazuli ground to dust
colors the Virgin’s gown
as she cradles the child of God,
and the ram with curly horns stands near.
Steps away, in perfect symmetry,
angels weep over the dying Christ
as his apostles mourn.
The vaulted ceiling
azure as the ocean,
gathers the frescoes together
under an evening sky
sprinkled with stars of gold.


Row Boat

Patched wooden oars
pull through water
glittering with sunlight
as I row across the harbor.

Bits of kelp float to the surface,
latched to the rocks below;
bulbous ochre blooms rise
with each flowing tide.

Through water thick with salt
the sea floor is a mosaic,
purple bits of mussel shell,
beige sand ground and softened
by breaking waves.

We’ve had our differences
this old boat and I,
its chipped hull rocking dangerously
when I reach for a dropped oar,
once pitching me into frigid water.

But today it rocks me
like a seagoing cradle,
lulling me into contentment
as I row through glassy water,
skimming the evening tide.


She places her cane haltingly
to secure each precarious step
down the ramp, pitched steep
at low tide.

On the float the fisherman waits in his boat,
ready to take her across the water
where she will make the long trip
back to New York.

The choppy waves toss the boat
against the dock, then pull it away,
straining the thick rope lines.
She pauses as the boat pitches and rolls,
taunting her with its movement.

He loads her bags easily,
aware of her hesitation.
Before she can protest
he leans in and lifts her effortlessly.
Instinctively, her arms encircle his neck,
and freed for an instant
from her stiffening body,
she surrenders,
weightless in his sure embrace.