copyright © 2021 by Barbara DiMauro
The Swamp Queen
She sits in her usual place, on a shelf of elevated rocks
like a throne, from which she dangles her feet
in the coffee-colored water.
She holds loose a bouquet of cattails, brown and velvety,
whose fruity spikes she nibbles on, the taste of cucumber cooling her lips.
Her long blond hair is adorned with blades of red and gold switchgrass
and a single swamp lily that she has fashioned into a crown of sorts.
She pays no mind to the insects swarming around her
as she waits motionless for her subjects to appear –
the snapping turtles, hissing and grunting audibly
even though they have no vocal cords;
the mallards, always in pairs, married she is sure,
the male festooned in his own colors so he can hold the interest of his
wife with whom he mates for life;
the bullfrogs, announcing themselves with their baritone calls,
biting at the air as they gulp in their dinner;
and the great blue heron, who pays a brief solitary visit
before he tucks in his neck and is off again,
gangling legs trailing beneath him, his slow wingbeat hypnotizing.
Here, among these noble creatures,
the exotic flowers like floating hearts atop the brackish pools
and the tupelo trees jangling in the soggy breeze,
she is transported to a faraway land, an ethereal existence,
even though she is in her own backyard.
Here, she doesn’t worry about her father’s latest trip to the hospital
or her mother’s wrathful silences or what to do about her failing grades.
Here, she is brave and blameless and strong.
Here, she is the Swamp Queen.
after Mary Oliver
I held you for the longest time, a tiny creature
who would never feel the warmth of a human body
or the love that emanates from it.
I could not stop holding you close to my heart,
a stillborn kitten with one eye in the center of your head.
I wondered what color it would be if you could only open it,
if you could see me in a wash of tears.
I held you in mourning, for you would never cleave into
the diminutive bodies of your littermates
or taste that nectar of the gods, your mother’s milk.
I held you as I pondered what to do with you,
how to lay you to rest, you who would never know
the sweetness of sleep upon your human’s lap.
I pondered, and not a single thing occurred to me.
So I just kept holding you.
Ever present like the mole on a cheek
or the family portrait that hangs on a wall,
it resides in my unconscious,
granting me access whenever I choose
to imagine a tableaux of tragedy,
today, the funeral of a friend who is alive and well,
tomorrow, the deathbed scene of my soul mate,
next week, anyone at all who is in my orbit of love,
a deadly diagnosis, a shocking accident.
It envelops me like a river-fog,
stealing any joy I was feeling moments before
and thrusts upon me spasms of sorrow
the likes of which are beyond recounting.
But I can swiftly regain composure,
realizing that this time, like all the others,
it was merely a dress rehearsal,
a drill that prepares me
for grief’s palpable unveiling.
And I will be prepared.
I will. I will.
The Suicide Impulse
I hit the pavement running as fast as I can from you,
you who will claim my life, snuff it out, if I don’t fight.
I try to focus, exhausting though it is, on a new reality
in which images of blood and rope and car exhaust recede
and I don’t expend an ounce of energy arguing with you.
I’m running hard, with attention to my breathing,
silently reciting affirmations of hope.
When I hear the sound of your flirtatious summons,
I put on my earphones to drown you out.
I’m sprinting now, but you’re catching up,
with your ruthless resolve and ammunition.
I tell myself I can’t be caught unless I want to –
and therein lies my hourly dilemma.
I increase my speed as I head toward home,
planning an evening that will keep me busy:
take a bath, cook some dinner, call the hotline.
And when finally I enter my lonely flat,
breathless, spent, soaked in sweat,
there you are, greeting me with your seductive dance,
tempting, inviting, relentless.
“Picasso feet”, you said with glee,
pointing as you looked down
with admiration after we danced for hours
on the night that we met.
We were standing outside the night club,
I having taken off my strappy sandals,
you so close to me I could hear the beat of your heart.
I wished I could hide them from you,
my long, wide, heavy feet with crooked toes,
feet that I always thought looked somewhat deformed.
But there you were, delighting in them,
describing for me the Barefoot Girl painting,
and from that moment on
I thought of them as worthy of art.
Do you still love my Picasso feet?
Do you love them still, my Picasso feet?
The feet that walked toward you to recite our vows
as the clouds flashed their power with torrential rain?
The feet that have climbed mountains
and run thousands of miles, as I imagined, always,
running home to you?
The feet that paced the hospital halls,
back and forth, imagining the unthinkable,
as I awaited the outcome of your four-hour surgery?
Those same feet that now dance barefoot with you
in our living room whenever the mood arises?
Don’t Shoot Me
In the movies, most often,
all you have to do to keep your life
if you’re in danger of being shot is say
“Don’t shoot me” and raise your hands in the air.
This communicates, among other things,
that you are not carrying a gun
nor do you intend any violence toward the person
who aims to kill you.
I wish I lived in the movies.
Today, if you don’t live in the movies,
you could be a young girl picking out nail polish at CVS
or a mother in a grocery store, her two young children in tow,
or a gay man enjoying a night out
or a journalist hard at work on a revealing article
or an Asian American massage therapist
or a white or black or brown country music fan
or an elementary school child learning arithmetic,
and you won’t have time to raise your hands in the air
and say “Don’t shoot me”
because a rapid-fire barrage of bullets
is already showering around you.
You won’t have time to call your partner or daughter
or sister or the grandmother who raised you
or say a prayer or text a friend with an apology,
and your very last thought is
“But I have a job interview tomorrow” or
“Who will feed my dog his dinner?” or
“I am three months behind on my rent” or
“My children, my children!”
Who is brave?
Certainly not I,
despite what I’ve been told.
The truly brave have selfless hearts
and mine, at times, is closed to others.
They run toward peril, arms wide open,
while I approach with trepidation.
Unmoved by consequence,
they welcome uncertainty,
unlike me, who far too often
take the road more traveled.
Who is brave?
The women of the Syrian revolution who burned
the oppressive clothing they were forced to wear,
ever mindful of a fatal outcome.
And those who migrate to faraway lands
in unspeakable conditions, thousands of grueling miles,
so their children might have better lives.
And a friend of mine who jumped out of planes
over the jungles of Laos to rescue wounded soldiers
and transport them to military hospitals.
These, these are stories of the truly brave.
The quest to conquer fear by doing the things
that terrify you most is an immeasurably different story.
When asked today, decades later if I am brave,
I will say only that I have heroes.
And that is more than enough.
My internal clock was synchronized with yours
as I waited and listened for the sound,
or worse, the sight of your trouble,
which years later I learned was a dangerous disease.
In the darkness, sleep eluded me,
as I had tasked myself with preventing
the gash in your head, the broken bone,
In the light of day when buds and blossoms
were opening and closing to their own rhythm
and nocturnal animals were back in their shelters,
my own master clock failed miserably
to send signals of alertness.
But still I watched you as intently as possible,
as I did the clock over the kitchen sink
whose hands held your life in the balance –
or at least averted a trip to the hospital –
by reminding us it was time for your medicine,
which sometimes worked,
Day and night, I aligned my sleep-wake cycle
with yours, our hypothalami in sync,
though I didn’t know then that your
circadian rhythm was as damaged as you were
and that I was unintentionally choosing
a parallel fate.
How mighty the magical thinking of a child
that could deem you a savior keeping someone alive!
These are the thoughts that I have in the darkness
when I’m unable to sleep and thinking of you –
and all the years that were lost to us.
But when my hands move up to my face
to run my fingers across my lips, I remember
I got them from you: full, generous, slightly asymmetrical.
And I remember more, and keep on remembering, you, us,
before your illness when you were my hero
and I wasn’t afraid.
I was your daughter. I am your daughter.
I finally close my eyes.
Like a low-lying fog
that won’t resolve with morning light,
it arrives without ceremony or pretense,
changing the dazzling view from your window
into a death trap,
the sounds of lyrical birdsong
into shrieks of alarm,
and your considerate partner
into a man without compassion,
until, like a wild beast sated by its prey,
it at long last departs,
and then one day you hear
someone singing in the shower
and it’s you.
I watch the hourglass
drain, I watch as if
my life depends on it,
and I’m certain that it does,
this minute in time.
What do I do, what do I do,
if not languish in fear of
that last grain of sand
tumbling through so narrow a passage
and touching down in deadly silence?
I watch the hourglass
as if I’m waging war with
a lethal foe who was once my friend,
the steadfast ally of my fledgling years
when I thoroughly believed in the eternity of time.
What do I do, what do I do –
teeter on the brink of decline,
head in my hands, and
rage, rage against the dying of the light?
I think not.
I will leave the hourglass
to fulfill its mission, and I will mine,
because all is not lost to me,
my heart still beats for
the deep sweetness of the seasons
and all that’s divine right here on earth.
I will walk in the wilderness
and bow before the white pines
and black birches.
I will breathe in the
heady odors of the forest while I listen
for the song of a hermit thrush.
I will stop to examine
animal tracks on the trail
and wonder about the creatures who left them.
That’s what I will do, unmindful of the hour.
That’s what I will do.