Copyright © 2019 by Karen Torop
He pauses in his paddling.
I’m standing under the pines
near his doorway. We are looking
at each other.
O water rat, warm me
with your sleek fur slicked back!
Orioles have returned
and the shining swallows
The April day
whirls around us.
We are looking
at each other.
He swims again,
his tail a languid
rudder. In the calm
clutter of the pond
the slender golden
We are looking
at each other.
on his fur.
He carries a branch,
to his home,
He looks at me
with his radiant muskrat
eyes. I look
at him with my
Here there is
no grief, no loss,
just the decay
of leaves in the shallows,
and the muskrat and I
nuzzling each other,
NEW HAVEN TO GRAND CENTRAL
The train glides along its track
like a zipper opening a seam, revealing
the underside, the sweepings, the rubble,
what’s been scuttled: refuse contained
in affluent towns but here, leavings
and droppings, scraps and offal near the tracks
plastic, paper, tires, glass,
lawn chairs, refrigerators. Shells
of cars rust in litter-strewn yards,
forsythia blazes in neglected places,
daffodils among the weeds: it’s spring!
Exuberant, a man in overcoat and hat,
his earflaps down, stands in the aisle
as if newly planted, swaying,
smiling, waving a newspaper and singing
Joy to the World at the blanched faces
of children. Their parents are looking out
the windows at graveyards for things thrown
by unseen folk who pause on the rise
above the tracks, whirl, twirl
in a dance of hurling trash over
a barbed wire fence, tossing what they
no longer want, what doesn’t last.
The jubilant man slides open the door,
steps into a clattering void
so some of us can travel light.
between the cars. We look
out at what we have sloughed
That pasture maple, half-dead, with thick
bittersweet climbing its trunk,
do you see up high what looks like a face?
No one could stay in this house, the clock
tick-tocking each second, an ecstatic
wind rising. One could say
it’s a face, cavities drilled by a flicker
pair, nesting now – I look
for a flash, a patch of red each day
when I visit. Who could stay inside?
The wind spirals among the oaks,
may soon uproot the pines. Today
no flicker peers out incandescent.
Swirls of wind, and within a dark
cavity, the bulging coils of a snake
move in waves, ripple, thicken.
Tick-tocking, wind knocking,
snake emerging from the nesting place,
bird’s head hidden inside
the snake’s mouth. Wings flickering.
No one could stay.
* * *
Something’s moving up there: a flicker
of feathers, and sounds from the wakening
maple, a mewing like an animal astray.
Am I hearing a lost kitten?
I search in leaves, grasses, pick
apart hay heavy with rain.
But the cries are coming from a flicker
looking out, searching the pasture.
The daughter digs into a small pyramid of earth
next to the open grave and throws the first
shovelful in. The dirt lands with a thud
as if the plain coffin – its wood so fresh –
were empty, a cedar chest, unfinished,
or a toy box not yet painted.
Maybe there is not much inside,
the mother having died slowly, shrinking
over years of losing all movement,
everything but her mind and vision.
The son spreads earth evenly along
the coffin as if covering his mother with a comforter.
But this must be the hottest day of summer;
the sandaled mourners’ bodies seem to be
weeping with sweat here in Wildwood Cemetery,
tame like the rest of the green, gleaming
river valley, and the New England town
hot and still in nineteenth century serenity,
porches screened with sweet peas and morning
glories climbing on string, snapdragons
curbed by picket fences, patches of day
lilies like lit matches, the gold of black-
eyed Susans almost soothing in the heat.
The husband plays a tape of her reading,
before her voice faded, a portion of Song
of Myself, her placid voice savoring Whitman’s
celebration. A breeze moves in the backdrop of trees,
maples and pines roused and bowing. A dog
barks nearby, a cardinal whistles. I take
a fistful of earth, am not prepared for its warmth.
People embrace, linger in the shade, the grave
open in sunlight among tilting, lichened
tombstones for infants gone to the distant shore,
mothers parted from sorrowing husbands and children,
and older women who left sorrow behind,
death decorated with winged cherubs and vines
and curious flowers incised in now crumbling
markers set on this burning, ecstatic lap of grass.
MY MOTHER’S OPAL DROP
It’s horizontal now, attached to a fine
silver chain. Taking out the opal
each time I visit, she says it will be mine
one day “because you like opals.” I do
own opal earrings, a gift from my father,
still in their stiff paper box. Her
opal rests in her dresser, in one of the drawers
I used to straighten for Mother’s Day or her birthday,
breathing the fragrance of her sachets, pressing the fleshy
sprayers of her perfumes, ordering the disarray of handkerchiefs,
nightgowns, whole and half slips, lacy bed jackets
we’d bought her for the breakfasts in bed we proudly, anxiously
brought her. I folded feathery scarves, found
wrinkled photos of people I didn’t know,
and once a letter from my father saying he wanted
to have another child with her. I liked it vertical,
dangling from a string of pearls. I don’t ask when
he gave it to her or why, this mouth ringed with diamond
teeth, this single eye, this bit of sky.
One day it will be mine, this hard stone.
Folded in on yourself,
big, bony man,
what is left but
liquid food pumped
in, moving through
mute organs and conduits,
knobby hands now
stiff, curled into fists,
the candor of those hands,
those can-do hands –
once you reached for
my hand and squeezed,
tried to talk, your room-
mate’s TV blaring
and the raucous sounds of
a woman across the hall.
I am to be a “quiet
presence” but I talk
to you, you listen.
I imagine you
in life reined in,
holding back, large
and quiet: North Africa
in the war, tailor,
proud of your work, loving
color, texture, detail,
snappy dresser, a wife,
a daughter, brothers, sisters,
music, the church – coughing,
dementia, a life coming
down to this.
Circling around yourself,
the body on loan, fluid,
tissue, bone, the sudden
grimace, the twitching, this
waiting, this vigil,
spiraling, folding, this
beautiful lingering presence.
GRANDPARENTS WITH GRANDCHILD IN
DECEMBER DUSK, CROWN HEIGHTS
Here we are, walking back from the swings
and slides, the basketball court now empty
except for a small fellow making unlikely
baskets one after another and two
squirrels chasing up and down and around
an elm maybe young when this was Breukelen.
The child bounces in her red car-stroller,
leans over to watch the wheels turn
and turn. She looks at leaves left on the sidewalk.
She listens to our words, gathers them
the way she gathers pebbles, twigs, flowers,
places them in her pocket. Today: woman.
I hear her trying the sound and feel of it
in a wondering way. Something about this word.
I squeeze your hand. You smile when I say it’s almost
time to teach words like integrity, humanity.
And to tell her the saga of the long arc
of history bending like a rainbow toward justice.
We see flags in front of the museum. What are they?
What do they mean? We tap and rap on the pole.
How high in the sky they are, how they ripple in the wind.
She knows wind, feels it on her face.
Wind ruffles her toddler-soft hair,
the color of honey. Passersby smile at her delight.
A mild evening in December, waning light
on rows of vintage brownstone houses,
brown skin and white, and there could not be
a happier moment in my life, walking here
with this child and you, each of us alive
with the wonder and joy of discovery.
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