Five Poems

We say, we did what we could. / But the thick, hardbound / now, too heavy / for children to carry, / will outlive you and me / and spell our names correctly.

In the Beginning

(after Sandra Cisneros)

The world begins at a kitchen table.
—Joy Harjo, “Perhaps the World Ends Here"

Her kitchen table’s naked leaves
slope like the hills, want to fold like wings.
There’s no teacup, plate, napkin, or knife.
Bare, it waits, patient as prairie
or mesa with the endless parade
of weather through sky.
I rest my open palm against the grain
and listen for her voice in the overture
of silence. Her table serves no soup
or bread, instead, whispers
of a woman’s life. Of the generations
she bore, and from which she was born.
My other hand pressing
a sheet of paper against wood, I invoke
words with nothing but memory
of her invitation, her
provocation. Yes, this
is how the world is born.
Perhaps the world is saved here—
as it’s always been saved—
when a woman calls you to her table
and pulls out a chair for you.

Talking to God

Windows frame skeletal trees and the black river
just before its falls and bridge, the screen of its silver

surface flashing with each car passing and hawk’s dive.
Beyond the water, the old mill and little town

which worked it persist two centuries later—
the flood forgotten, factory closed and mansion

burned to the ground, workers and industrial royalty
sleep toward eternity in the same steep, terraced

hillside where teenagers gather at night to drink
cheap beer and curse through laughter

and we, two women holding hands, climb afternoons, chasing
the valley’s last light. At the top, from the shared grave

of Jozef and Octavia, we see our house—a yellow speck
just above the snaking thread of river

from which earth, root, and air drink—
just as we can make out the distant city of gravestones

from our windows. Come spring, infinite
shades of green will envelop us and we’ll only hear

the water as it crashes over the dam.
But for now, in this raw season of slowly growing

light, each time I glance out my window
the dark, shining river—that ancient vein,

its waters always new, once melting glaciers
carving a path through bedrock—

reminds me of all it outlives. Surely, each glance
is a kind of prayer.

Making History

Reading a new book—
a history of now—
we lower our faces,
smell the inside
of history’s spine.
The fresh ink of a young
millennium reminds
us of every book
that made us. But we
make this book.
Like no other, this history
holds all we did not do,
holds our silence,
all we let happen
while we lived
our difficult lives.
Yes, we yelled
until we lost
our voices, until
we could only whisper
our demands spelled in black
marker, our signs stiff flags
waging above our heads.
We say, we did what we could.
But the thick, hardbound
now, too heavy
for children to carry,
will outlive you and me
and spell our names correctly.

In the Small Hours

the dark, still waters
at river’s edge
throb with the bullfrogs’ song
like foghorns or an orchestra
of mournful tubas. Each
time their song stops,
silence swells.

Without a conductor,
the bullfrogs’ a cappella
song starts up again.
I try to make out the lyrics
in their foreign tongue,
something about chance
and the myth of fate, the history
of history, and the irony—
considering what’s at stake—
in saving their species
by singing a bluesy
love song in the vein
of, say, cows mooing.

I study their silences,
notice the present
tense of their lyrics.
Realize my translation
is all wrong. Like teenagers,
the survival of genes
is the last thing
on their minds.
They just want
what they want, now.

It is I, ironically,
who sings to save
something. As if
a song could. Genes—
the last thing on my mind.
Rather, soul, something
about the soul of a species
singing old love
songs to birth itself.

On Sweetheart Mountain

Raw garnet in the ancient rock beneath our feet,
we stand separate yet together—wordless,

witness to the vast valley, aching snow and silence.
Rare, stunning silence.

The kind that reminds us we’re bone
clothed in flesh, small creatures given breath

on top of a mountain, in a new century, balancing
on a ledge. A bird pierces silence.

We do not know what bird it is.
Then a Black-capped Chickadee stirs the air—

its small, plucking call leaves
an absence of sound

so penetrating
and complete

we can only whisper.

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