I don’ know how to translate the anguish of stars.
One by one, dim lights extinguish and new
lights appear like little faux pearls
bought in plastic bags from the craft store.
I should be able to acquire
a better understanding of science
but process eludes me. Too often,
a sequence is involved. I fail to follow.
A little girl plays with paper dolls in the corner.
Already she frets over the brother she can’t wake.
She dresses him in the father’s suit
as if she’s resigned to bury him.
I place my hand on her shoulder
and try to think of something comforting to say.
Mostly, I say the wrong things, but my ineptitude
doesnâ€™t faze her. The girl
moves onto a set of tinker toys, erects
a ferris wheel on the kitchen floor.
Outside the small window above the sink,
new constellations form.
A Memory, 1971
There were stories about wolves at bedtime
and a moody giant chasing a small child
down the beanstalk
that frightened me more than sermons about hell
and an eternity separated from God.
I had some understanding of the devil,
which was how Aunt Lucille characterized her
womanizing husband, a man who smelled of cigarettes
and cologne, shared the same name as one
of the apostles, and wore his hair slicked back like Elvis.
Something in his laugh invited mischief,
and was, in its own peculiar way, as irresistible
as his ability to lift a girl high into the air,
twirling her so fast her skirt opened
like a parachute on the way down.
Summer House: The Ants
I wanted to see the house fall down, so I clapped three times.
The walls stood, but the ants crawled through the cracks,
filling the room with dark coffee grounds and specks
of Oreo cookies. I liked the ants because the ants liked me,
and for awhile, I was not lonely, and summer vacation
did not seem like punishment among two adults
who argued and read, but said little to me.
No one else cared for the ants. My mother
sucked up most of them in her vacuum cleaner. Later,
I carried the bag outside to dump behind the shed. I took a long time,
trying to clear away the dust and debris so the ants could breathe.
The ants found their way over the yellow dandelions,
back inside the summer house.
Some formed circles on the floor.
Others crawled in a single line along the crown molding.
My father drove to the hardware store and bought a can of Raid.
I sat in the backseat crying, twisting the paper receipt into a disc.
I placed it on my tongue like a communion wafer.
I held it there all the way home, and still I did not believe.
after Edgar Allan Poe
Beauty remembers the sea,
white foam and gull bellies, waves
shaped like mammoths and angels
and bodies tossed ashore at high tide.
What certainty exists in crevices
otherwise believed uninhabitable,
in the filmy covering of tentacles
expanding between rock and horizon lines,
in the fire charring black
the last house standing
and the woman whose skin
festers and bleeds.
I witness the beaded ant
crawling inside the shell of her ear,
and you, leaning close,
listening for the indomitable swell of the sea.
We made a meal of cold spaghetti and stale Oreo cookies.
In those days, new love was certain. Our pockets full
of milkweed and chance, we never thought we
were settling, couldn’t imagine wanting anything else.
Vision is subject to interpretation and colored by one’s
frame of mind. How else to explain
looking at stick figures and seeing a couple
well on their way to happily-ever-after, as if
there might be a place where
euphoria puts on a pair of blue jeans
and struts around barefoot, searching for
the last cigarette. We should have moved years ago,
some place warm, where alligators patrol murky water
and the possibility of amputation quells a loverâ€™s quarrel.
Consignment Shop Dresses
Morphine eases the transition, or so we hope.
I recall the doctor rattling off side effects,
how you would be constipated and develop dry skin.
His litany annoyed me, but your raised finger
hushed my sarcastic comeback.
You said it was a matter of obligation.
Peter rubs your feet with scented lotion
while I sort through dresses youâ€™ll never wear again.
We have already selected your burial outfit,
a champagne floral with short sleeves and round collar.
You wore it once, someone’s wedding.
The rest of the dresses will go to
the consignment shop on Grove.
Before I pack the garments into cardboard boxes,
I stand inside your closet and slip the orange sundress
over my head, down my torso and hips, the way I did
as a child, when your dresses had the power
to propel me forward in time. Now I want to go back.
It is simply this, you see, I cannot picture a stranger
wearing your dresses to the market or across town
to catch a show. I can’t imagine
meeting someone at the post office
inhabiting your blue tunic or gray shirtdress
and not feeling compelled to strip them
naked, taking back what was ours.
A View of Aging
Lost inside magnetic fields, I forget
how to break a fall, how to remain
standing. Did I die or is there
another explanation for these lilies, pale
thumbprints against my cheek?
I wouldn’t have selected this dress,
the leaf pattern makes me dizzy
and conjures up dreary smells. Compost
and mold. The outhouse where snakes
shed old skins.
The last thing I remember: a fever coming on
and water breaking the edges,
breaching the rough contours of distress.
I avoid winter’s bare trees
and the deceptively festive bowl
of oranges on a long, dark table.
I don’t want to count losses
while snow whitens the ground.
We were beginning to have thoughts of aging
and decided over egg drop soup and pork fried rice
that we would have nothing to do with it. We would instead
read books by Dr. Seuss and paint our toenails silver
like toy poodles that tiptoe across clean linoleum with the delicacy
of cats. Certainly there are alternatives to life as a relic.
We’ve survived droughts before by chewing the moist tips
of root vegetables. This time, let’s consider something more drastic.
Let’s find a gold snake asleep beside the cool river and wake her
by rubbing her smooth, glistening scales. When she stirs, we will
barter what little we know of God in exchange for another
incarnation, one that involves hours stretched out in the warm
scent of honeysuckle, our mornings lost
in the oblivion of blue dragonflies fretting still waters.
Pieces of Blue
Sometimes I dream of jigsaw puzzles where all the pieces
are the same. Tonight it is a blue square with a nipple
on one side and a matching indentation on the other.
At first I believe the pieces will be easy to fit together,
but without variation, there is no picture, only blue space like
a giant condom wrapper without logo or instruction.
The fans are broken and the rising heat agitates me.
I am sick of the puzzle. I find a hammer and slam it against
the table, breaking pieces, but I am not satisfied.
I let the rage take over, swing the hammer again,
hitting wood. The table collapses.
Pieces of blue collect in random patterns on the floor.
I can make out portions of the sky and sea, the dress from
Alice in Wonderland, a veil covering the Virgin Mary’s head.
Waking after fitful sleep, I don’t know what to make
of the sovereignty of fruit flies or the part of my genome
derived from the Neanderthals. I find flies
assembled in the sweaty crevice between my breasts.
I smack them with the back of my hand
and growl at my husband, who has slept through it all.
Not a Poem for Children
Discovery is a sideways exploration of oil glands
and other disabilities. I once loved Kermit the Frog,
but the novelty wore off
when he revealed his poor personal hygiene.
I gave him three chances to bathe and every night
found the bar of soap bone dry in the same location.
I knew to look for love elsewhere. Call it intuition.
The crossword puzzle turned out to be an obstinate companion.
I find riddles annoying and forget definitions,
even when the meaning is as obvious
as a naked breast. Consulting the dictionary is a form
of cheating only slightly less repugnant than adultery.
(Goddamn you, Jesse James, for letting
a good woman down.) Six down: a four letter word
for porn star is slut. (Slang allowed)
Lemon curd is my weakness. I like mine
served in a bowl with sugar and red
raspberries, best when bruised like the thumbs
of small children slammed in car doors.
Cornflakes and Margeurite Duras
On Saturday mornings someone always seems to need something.
As soon as I crack eggs, add salt and butter and begin to stir
over medium heat, there is a ringing telephone or knock at the door.
Sometimes the request is simple, to borrow a lemon or drop off three
boxes of Girl Scout cookies I promised to buy before I started a new diet.
Other times the appeal is more involved, a plea for my signature
on a petition for an issue I haven’t yet considered or the delivery
of a package I forgot ordering, but now that I have in my hands,
must open even as ignored eggs smoke and blacken
in the next room. By the time the scorched smell reaches my nostrils,
I know that I am in for a showdown at the kitchen sink,
a match between the skillet and Brillo pads, where the only thing
that matters is elbow grease, but first there is time
for a bowl of Cornflakes on the porch and a few pages
of Margeurite Duras, flown lovingly to me
all the way from a secondhand bookstore in Oregon.
We took the apples at our feet, and remembering Eden,
made applesauce, first burying the red peels, scented
with sex–which is the knowledge of the body–
to keep God from knowing we had tasted the fruit
and decided it was good, but maybe not as sweet
as we expected. A scoop of confectioner’s
sugar did the trick and before we knew it
we were baking apple tarts and pies and fritters
darkened with glaze, and God was stopping by
unannounced andâ€”might I addâ€”uninvited,
to eat our apple scones with coffee.
At first, we didn’t mind, exactlyâ€”we were
willing to make concessions. This was God
after all, not Bob Barker from The Price is Right.
Still, Starbuck’s French Roast isn’t cheap and God
was putting on weight, so I suggested
we scale back on the visits, but God showed up
the next day like clockwork. Adam painted a coffee can
for DONATIONS and placed it next to the sugar bowl,
but God kept coming up short, so I took matters
into my own hands. I went to the pet shop
and returned with a rosy boa named Eve.
God can’t stand the sight of her, coiled between warm scones.
Paper wad lodged at the back of her throat.
No words written there. Just some scribble.
Illegible. Doctor’s orders.
No more Adderall today. The pickpocket sabotaged
the infirmary. Fish eggs in the dispenser.
Toe jelly. Salmon roe.
She refuses to use longhand.
And the next day an outing. Sorry, no new
shoes, Dorothy. Maybe on Tuesday
when the choir rehearses Ava Maria.
Pull your loafers from the dustbin.
Something borrowed might be something blue.
An overlapping. No refunds, no exchanges.
She thought maybe blue stockings would make a difference,
but nobody noticed.
When the scavenger hunt ended, only the rabbits
got what they wanted. And still we let them go.
News of women hanging laundry on the line
rouses Albert from his front porch rocker where
he was about to set up the board for checkers
and instead shuffles down stone steps
on slippered feet that resemble loaves of bread
or boats from another era. The muscles
around his eyes twitch when the sun
hits his milky cataracts, but he knows
his way down the block, past the house
where the black and tan hound lunges
from a chain, beyond the yard where
motorcycles grind and roar,
twenty paces across the street
to the small blue house on the corner
where lilacs perfume the air
and two widowed sisters
hoist white petticoats into blue sky.
I want to know what happened
before you backed over the spruce tree
and the car’s interior filled with nettles.
You must have had something on your mind
besides the instant coffee, still warm inside
the insulated belly of your travel mug.
Maybe you quarreled with your husband
over who would pick up the children from the babysitter,
or maybe the children were at odds over whose turn to clear
the table or feed the dog, an argument ignored by your
husband, still annoyed about the babysitter,
among other things, including the telephone bill
and the way you persist in putting
slices of tomato beside his scrambled
eggs, ignoring the fact that he never eats them.
Or perhaps you were merely distracted by
the thin, high clouds shapeshifting overhead,
each one offering a new vision for your life.
A trickle of saliva on your chin means
the sleep was good, more so if the string
is dry, forming a crust around the edges
the way sugar sometimes
adheres to the spoon, which can indicate
nightmares, even if you donâ€™t remember them.
There is nothing uglier
than desperation among the unjust
unless it is violence acted upon
an animal or small child. How do
these ogres button up their coats
and enter the parade, never once
considering the ramifications?
I have these thoughts even
before my spouse progs my back,
before I relinquish the covers
and hoist my legs over the edge of the bed,
before the Mr. Coffee powers up
and the vagrant cat worms her way
beneath the yellow duvet I use
while reading Dostoyevsky.
I wake, wanting to set things
right in the world, but first
this trek to the sink
to wash the saliva from my face.
And So It Is
Harm knows nothing of moderation.
It’s an all or nothing proposition.
How did we manage without opposable thumbs
and microwavable popcorn?
Obscenities, like pigeons, take to the air,
but are unremarkable. I glance up at the sky,
unsure of my expectations or yours.
The lilies are too pale. Too much
whiteness brings on vertigo
and the sense that we are clean and new.
We are neither. Neither are we willing to confess.
The truth is distant and cold. There was always
something pulling us, but it had nothing to do with gravity
or goodness. I know that now.
I miss objects I never owned because
I wanted them.
This is not Eden
The street cracks down the middle after the quake. Red ants
climb out like a flame of bad luck. I burn my fingers.
A dog comes and sleeps at my feet. I am not deserving
of his loyalty and yet I take it.
I peel an apple and cut out the bad spots. Eat what remains.
The dog scavenges dumpsters for bones. Burger King, KFC.
On the next street a paramedic hands out bandages. Rationed.
This is not Eden, but it is what we have.
In other times, we might have smelled like soap and worked
the crossword on Sunday. Ankles crossed. A background
of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World
and a gentle carnival of pink rain.
There are two movie tickets at the bottom of my purse,
but the theatre on Harrison Street was demolished.
Maybe we could settle on reruns of Oprah, somewhere
on a clean sofa, an Almond Joy in hand.
At night I wind my hair on pink curlers. Some of my
hair falls out. Chemo.
The dog licks the place where my breast belonged.
Tell Dr. Freud that this is not bestiality. It is love.
Aubade: Summer on the Gulf Coast
Your body elongated inside tangled sheets,
a maze of dreams between your oily temples.
Between us there are broken
wishbones and omissions, a skewed
understanding of the truth.
Maybe one version is as good as another.
What if the stars gave way to gravity?
Would the heavens fall like confetti?
All night I dream of roads leading away
from this house, the receding landscapes
following the hurricanes, the oil spills.
I wake, put on a summer dress, hurry
to the grove to collect oranges. Already
the fruit flies are humming
and I promised to wake you
before the morning train departs.
I Dream of Horses
I dream of horses running up hills and the uncertainty of momentum.
Rising from bed is an exertion rewarded only by black
coffee and the promise of a cigarette on the front porch. My slow
demise won’t stop the robin or spare the worm.
Things are always vanishing. I can’t find my keys or my car
in the parking lot. Overdue library books accumulate
fines and scowls from the pinched nose librarian. Her attitude
is intolerable. She isnâ€™t fit to tend books; she ought to herd sheep.
Thinking about instability makes my joints weak when I move across uneven floorboards. One day those termites, jelly-filled and cum-colored,
are going to gnaw through my walls and collectively shove my body
from the bed, over the edge, the moment my heart stops.
Jayne PupekÂ March 8, 1962 â€“ August 30, 2010