In a basement room the music teacher’s hands
lift and fall, white birds on the keyboard.
Smelling of cinnamon, Danny Morgan leans toward me,
humming his two flat notes. Lorraine Rothman
opens her large pink mouth to sing like a bell,
her tongue a clapper refusing to rest. Every song
a river and we, the fifth graders, living stones
the music burbles over and past. I watch
the teacher’s hands turn into white canoes.
My brother with the patience of a rock
untangles my fishing line. We sway together
in the wooden boat as mist lifts slowly from the lake.
“Well sweet molasses, you are a peck of trouble
to take along,” he tells me, like a grandfather.
Because it was Papa who taught us how to fish.
My brother loosens another knot, hands me
the last piece of melon and a knife to cut it with.
New moon dipped into well-water, it tastes that cool,
that smooth. And so I fall into the green grass
of my brother’s kindness. November, though, is nothing
but a cage of dead leaves and drafty school rooms.
I take off my shoe and watch it sail toward the window.
Kiddo is sent home with a note for Mother to read.
For the rest of her life that girl hates saddle shoes
and basements. Lorraine draws boxes of words, steps neatly
across them into a judge’s robes, ticking all the while
like a clock. Danny Morgan disappears, so that every
year or two, in a crowd, I spy the back of his curly head.
Mother in the Month of May / II
Three years after my father’s death,
two years after my husband turned
ex, one month after my mother relented,
at last, so that delicate instruments
could skim across her clouded eyes,
remove the damage—
she and I go walking.
It’s the first week in May
and we carry nothing with us
as we enter long grass that’s not just green,
but sun-bright with dandelions and purple
with violets, heal-all, indigo brush.
Storms have left two trees
stretched out along the ground
and an old dogwood’s leaning,
its trunk divided, half jagged,
riddled with woodpecker holes.
The other half is stoutly branching,
thick with a chorus of leaves—
among them small white moons,
the glow of blossoms.
It’s the first week in May,
and my mother, grown smaller,
walks now without stumbling, without
holding on. “Look at all the colors;
I’ve never seen such colors.” She lifts
her chin and squints out through sunlight
at the unpeopled field, her eyes unveiled.
A Sea of Stingrays
I’m perfectly calm, I told him. Perfectly.
Calm. The steam you see
is this iron. Not
that you’d know an iron from a colander.
I’m ironing your fussy pin-striped shirts
and putting too much starch in them
because I am not angry. That scorch
mark’s on the tail, the part you need to tuck in
so don’t start carping at me.
It’ll never show. Like some people
never show although they’ve promised,
although it’s important.
I left then—a residue dry as paste
on my tongue. And now I’ve exiled myself
to this place where the ground
is hard and frozen, where ice begins
to creep over dark waters. The look on his face.
Clouds sliding across the pond
silvery still and flat. But here
is a clutch of yellow leaves, disrupting everything,
a castoff skin huddling on water’s shallow edge.
My eyes fall into them and they carry me
to where water once turned strangely
from blue to gold beneath our boat.
That startling gleam: a sea of golden rays
migrating, thousands of them. Seeing them, I lost track
of every thought that held me up. Named them
Gliding together, a wave without end.
Yet how singular each domed head. And the smooth
skin slightly different on each one: olive,
drab, umber, bronze or gold. One was coffee brown.
My god how like ghosts, almost entirely silent
and carrying their long stingers behind, spears
of poison for anyone who might blunder near them.
Trying to Teach Travis
On his arm he’s drawing two snakes;
his fingers are busy and green.
His beautiful eyes are great salt lakes
and his mind is a submarine.
His fingers are busy and green
and I ask for his homework in vain.
This boy’s mind is a submarine
and his book was left out in the rain.
I ask for his homework in vain.
His sister ran off last night
and his book was left out in the rain.
He says there was some kind of fight.
His sister ran off last night.
He’s pouring a puddle of glue.
He says there was some kind of fight
but the things that were shouted aren’t true.
He’s pouring a puddle of glue.
His beautiful eyes are great salt lakes
and the things that were shouted aren’t true.
On his arm he’s drawing two snakes.
Arm farts, balls thumping against a scuffed wall,
trample of big feet. Water dripping from the ceiling,
accelerating its riff as the shower above
thrums on, oblivious to high seas—
such is the masculine music
a mother of sons learns to live with.
The garden loses its roses; sweat socks
bloom on the banister.
In the sallow light
of the Frigidaire, a boy’s cheekbones glow,
surfaces of a waxing moon.
That noise? Heavy Metal—
my boys’ idea of what music should be.
A woman wants to walk beneath trees,
but her sons are sucked into screens
raucous with Pow! Kablam!
Such triumph in their laughter.
I tell my boys “Don’t
jump from airplanes.” They laugh.
They hurl themselves into the void.
The body still remembers: their rolls, their hiccups,
experimental jabs. I was heavy with them.
Soon it was black belts,
giant sandwiches, helicopters, war.
The things they must have.
I held my first son over the red, red blooms
of tulips and his hands flew toward them
like birds. “Dat! Dat!” he crowed
at each new thing he wanted. Clouds
passed over us, geese, the long tails of comets.
Lost father. Hole in the wall. A guitar
wailing through the night.
We peeled oranges, we bit down,
a fine spray of juice entering the air.
My youngest boy ran back and forth
in the mall, watching his sneakers light up.
Joy! His eyes flashed, joy!
Until his brothers made fun. “I’m not crying,”
he told me. “I never really feel any sadness.”
These late winter evenings the furnace
clicks on like a querulous voice.
In the closet’s last shadow, a ball deflates.
Back of the vegetable bin something soft
folds in upon itself. The cat curls into a small
spot of sun. No bicycles lean on the lawn,
no skateboards, no wrenches.
Clouds pass over me, geese,
the long tails of comets.
As We Were Leaving the National Zoo
my young son planted his feet
in front of the cage.
Hunched inside—a huge, hairy
football player, sidelined, morose.
No. A philosopher,
brow furrowed, small eyes dark.
Long, long thoughts. What we saw
was nothing natural.
I don’t know
what possessed my skinny son to scrunch
up his face and stick out his tongue that way.
Even the prisoner scratched his furry chin
exactly the same face back.
My kid jumped up
as if a small firecracker
had gone off inside his belly.
Sunburned knees and a short ha ha.
Then he stood still, concentrating,
and vibrated his thin lips.
A rude noise. Waggled his fingers.
Magic! The same thing back.
There was Mr. Inscrutable spitting out
and the dark palms opening, closing,
digits moving in sign language
or as if some little birds
had flown into the cage in error.
Dusk settled in. Our feet cried out to us
and the clouds looked tattered. It was time
to go. But no, no, no—
I don’t remember
my son’s exact questions,
just that he had so many of them.
Tug on the hand, another question.
Tug on the hand, the voice rising.
Tug, the high color in his cheeks,
his hair damp at the temples, around the ears
and his eyes feverish, shiny.
As we pulled him away, my child
kept twisting around, turning his head,
One dragonfly is diving into the other
with the tip of its turquoise body
and all the while they’re darting around
in the stippled light that bounces over water
as the sun pours down and sparks flash
from the dragonflies’ nearly invisible wings.
All across the lake this is happening
and now I understand how light
and delight are coupled too.
They don’t have much time, these insects
but they are so wildly alive
that as I watch them I feel dizzy
in love with the dragonflies, with the possibilities
that whiz around us on an ordinary day.
But a little sadness creeps in too,
a little sorrow that my own body
is so well-acquainted with gravity.
I’m wishing I could make love
while flying over the breeze-ruffled water
but this is not going to happen.
Well, joy and regret, they too
stick together, they too catch us up
like the flashing mirrors that are dragonflies
mating midair, over a shimmer of water.
We’re on the deck, easy with our drinks,
our faint sunburns, that summer feeling
we’ve escaped from ordinary time.
They’re out at the island, three teenagers
fooling around at the rope swing.
Against the sun we see their silhouettes
swinging back and forth, hear their laughter
and the loud punctuation of young bodies
hitting water. The trick is to swing straight out
and let go at the apex over deep water,
beyond the boulders that lurk
close to shore. One of the boys out at the rope
now swings back and forth, back—
reluctant to face that brief terror
of hanging onto nothing. A girl in the water
laughs at him, shouts, “Michael, come on!”
Wind pushes sheets of silver across the lake,
hiding whatever weeds or stones await
beneath the surface. The boy at last lets go—
there’s no way to refuse the future.
His splash joins the others and he surfaces
with a shout that sounds like a yodel.
Closer to us, a child’s inflatable ball
floats by, twirling and scudding
as the breeze puffs and pauses.
My thoughts take me to a different lake
and I’m a child again, in a boat
with my brother and Papa. When my grandpa
falls overboard, half the lake rises up,
the rowboat rocks hard and Papa’s hat
floats in the long suspense before
he reappears, spouting water like a whale.
He’s a beautiful man, huge in his kindness,
exuberant, clumsy. But somehow
childhood dissolves and now Papa
is an old felt hat floating in my memory.
Beside me my husband puts down his beer,
calls the dog to him and for a quick moment
hugs him tight. The dog’s white-tipped tail
beats like a metronome. Out at the island
the rope swings empty—the kids head for shore.
Rowdy insults carry over the water.
I turn toward my husband and do not say,
O, what will become of us? And I do not say,
I love sharing these moments with you.
(Oh why, why don’t I say it?)
Instead I show him the tomatoes,
firm and perfectly ripe. I give him
the fresh fish, ready for grilling.
I slap a mosquito that’s stealing
my blood. I chop the basil.
Great Blue Heron at Elizabeth Park
I stop when I see it standing there,
smoky blue in low waters, a bird
Modigliani might have invented.
Without thinking, I take on its stillness.
My breathing slows, focus sharpens.
Is it telepathy that shapes me,
for a moment, in its image?
And then it leaps into flight, its wings
too large to believe. Unnerving,
its sudden change from slender statue
to menacing motion, to a density
and darkness that makes the pale sky
seem a paltry thing. And though I am
earthbound, clumsy and plain,
something hushed and unsullied stirs.
I feel it, that we can rise above the weight
of our mistakes, that any of us can be,
if only briefly, large against the sky.
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