I was such a small girl
barely able to see over the table top
in that jostling place
where a man took their hands,
first my mother’s, then my father’s,
pressed each finger to the inkpad
then onto a paper form.
Fingerprints were required for citizenship,
promises to foreswear all that had been home,
oaths of allegiance to the new country.
“Why did you come all the way to America, Daddy?”
“Because this is a better place.”
Everyone we knew then came from somewhere else.
The Irish girls mostly hired on as domestics
and were lumped together as The Bridgets.
Others—and each one was an Other—were
Wops, Polacks, Frogs, Kikes, Micks.
Handsome, intelligent, stern: that was my Daddy.
No one dared insult him,
and my Mother—
five feet tall, not to be trifled with,
attitude burnished early on by
membership in the Cumann na mBan—
Mother was never a Mick.
But just to be sure, she ironed flat her brogue and
armed with barely creased papers
went to court and changed her name to Patricia.
“Mommy, why does Uncle Owen call you Bridie?”
“Oh, that’s just a little-girl name. My name is Patricia.”
With a smoothed brogue, a changed name,
the lucky could get their baggage unpacked sooner.
I think it’s done differently now.
My daughter—an Other—slaps the label on herself.
“I’m here. I’m queer.”
“Mom, if I take their weapon and make it mine
they can’t use it against me.”
If only The Bridgets could have dared that.
If only my mother hadn’t to trade her lovely name
for downpayment on a Better Place.
after Milton Avery’s “Child’s Supper,” oil on canvas, 1945
Papa and Mama love me.
They say I am their golden child.
At table Mama’s voice kneels to grace
Papa and Me and the food.
I chew on my roast beef.
Supper takes so long.
Papa says I must eat every crumb because
he works hard for our daily bread.
Papa and Mama spoon up their chocolate pudding.
I love chocolate pudding.
“No dessert until you clean your plate,” says Papa.
“Down the hatch, lovey,” says Mama.
They rise and I am left with the empty chairs for company.
The mashed potatoes are cold now, stiff,
just right for building into a little house.
The yucky peas are perfect for grass,
the roast beef makes a path to the door.
Slowly, slowly I eat my little house,
the lawn, the path.
I think about when I will be grown-up and
have my very own house.
In my house Papa and Mama will be small and
I will be big.
I will call them golden
and we will eat our chocolate pudding first.
peak all spiked up,
leans just for seconds into the feeder,
springs away before anyone spies him—
he’s off to hang with the ground feeders,
robins, jays, grackles
(well, maybe not the grackles yet)
spurning the chickadees, the nuthatches,
He’s one tough titmouse
foraging for worms,
hiding behind the holly bush
to practice cawing.
Later on he’ll flit further into the woods
to try out his screech.
Well, maybe not too far into the woods.
I’M AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF
She makes it sound too easy
too gentle, comforting,
the flair of symbolism too romantic for truth,
but delivering chill and clumsiness,
slime grasses to slash at ankles.
She beckons from the shimmer, whispers
through the soft slap of water against the pilings
her deep throated invitation to
choose stones, heavy,
but not too,
smooth enough to not tear the pockets.
It will be cold, I shout,
the sweater will cling limp
like a drab’s matted hair.
The story has been burnished,
all stumbling and choking polished out,
leaving just a shining place to crave.
She makes it sound too easy.
AFTER THE DIAGNOSIS
You must learn to plant purple verbena,
bright, sweet, filling up the spaces,
spreading its purple blue
long past the season
and then, when the rest have shrunken back,
foliage green, blooms but barely faded,
withstanding the early brush of frost.
It is, as they say, a plant
that dies well.
AT A CONCERT BY THE UNDERSCORE
ORKESTRA I DISCOVER WHAT I WISH
FOR MY SISTER
The violin unleashed
bends deep to the
keeper of a voice so true
as to wrap us all in silk and bangles
and the trumpet man’s magic
draws us up as if on God’s inhalation.
In this klezmeric moment I lift
my sister from the narrow bed
in that dun place of her existence,
escape past the hollow mouths,
the drooped necks, hidden eyes,
race to the music.
He of wondrous chops raises the trumpet,
drinks from some past life
to shape a sound that spirals
to a gossamer furl
and gathers her into the emerging ribbon
where she turns on its breath.
The concert ends,
players bow to the praise,
the final note lingers
just beyond the senses.
Sister, when your song is done
may you be one with the music
and on its echo
KEEPING THE FAITH
When I was a kid
the train’s call sent me
shoeless and grinning,
racing to beat that locomotive
to the intersection of track and road.
I’d bask in the eucharistic fumes
as the freight chugged by,
wave to the engineer in a self-imposed rite.
He always waved back.
I still move as close as I can to a track
when the train thunders through.
I wave to the engineer,
feel the frisson of blessing
when he returns the salute,
certain there must be a good reason
when he does not.
I’LL MEET YOU THERE
With a low bow to Rumi
I will join you at sundown,
hear refashioned tales of your life
as the patriarch’s favorite
in an elegant once upon a time.
wither as new growth springs from
and phantom pain is dismissed as vestigial.
Your story evolves, shape-shifts,
turns to myth, then to a place of dignity—
a country the others will not visit
(they cannot fathom its language).
I will gladly meet you there,
let you be the guide,
raise a glass.
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