The woman is a barnacle, word scraper,
parasite, stealing a phrase from here,
a name from somewhere else.
She begs spiders spin thin narratives
to tie to the bedposts, ready for a good whipping
before love-making, tender as a murmur, an exhale
from lanky men who write fiction solid as pines
holding words like cigarettes, long-necked bottle men,
who usually conquer pretty women, pulling truth
from back pockets, pleated pants, high cheekbones.
She stares into darkened rooms, picks at skin tags,
sneering angry at whatever God grants her words
for play. Short, everything about her falls short.
In fugues she spins dust balls she finds under tables,
on bed pillows, bringing poems to fallow places.
He sings stories, so she takes his voice and runs,
coming to understand he is formulaic, packaged,
while she is sand and debris caught up in a dust devil.
Death in the Family
This is the first time back home
since she left them there, since
she ran off into a different life,
her name spoken in passing
and like a spilled tin of buttons
incidents roll in every direction:
how she caused her father’s death,
broke her mother’s spirit, forgot
where she came from, denied
complicity, the smallest mote
to bear affinity for what was taken,
for what she chose to leave behind.
Buttons under the dresser, the rug,
swept up by strangers, connections
unmade, garments rent and revealing.
Mamma played trumpet, Mamaw sewed
costumes for the Houston opera, Margaret
was a secretary at Esso, Wynter Grace wrapped
packages at Neiman-Marcus every Christmas
and Genelle was the favorite until she moved
all the way to the arctic circle to save heathens.
Uncle Howard was wealthy, had an ex-wife, a son
dead from polio, saved even though he was a Jew
and divorced but we didn’t talk about that, not ever.
It was enough he loved Wynter, called her be’be’.
Sent her carnations big as pie plates every birthday,
took care of all of us, had a drawer full of surprises:
chattering teeth, a Ginny doll. He’d cuddle me up
at the lake house early mornings, loved me best
over all the other nieces and nephews, I was good,
knew how to be quiet and learn, try new things.
He hated my daddy, bought all my school clothes
kept everybody straight, smoked Cuban cigars.
Uncle Lew pinched my legs, said I was ‘spoilt’
looked me in the eye and saw the devil, twice,
saw the devil, twice, died on Christmas Eve
a few years ago, now Aunt Genelle goes to Branson
for the nativity play with stars as old as she is,
doesn’t so much as send a card or phone anybody.
Even after twenty-five years gone I talk to Mamma,
every day, she finally killed herself with cancer,
sat up straight in a chair her last day, they told me
she did, bargaining. I believe it because I would too,
looking out the window, waiting for Prince Charming
or Jesus to actually show up as the sun set.
Then there was Nanny (Ila Faye) with Ruby, Falvey,
Virgil and a lot of others in nameless pictures.
The night she died I stood out on the landing
at the Barn Dinner Theater and saw a shooting star.
I played Lady Brockhurst for three long months
only to find fifteen dollars a show wasn’t enough.
When I left Texas, left everything I ever knew
in the front hall laying on the faux-marble floor,
moved to Arizona to change the world, change.
It’s too hard to rout out what might have been
under different circumstances, before it all went bad,
pieces ease together as if the edges were worn
smooth like Aunt Ola’s butter churned to gold,
making mad money to put by for a hat, or red shoes.
Dancing with Danny Kaye
Swept up by the red-headed stranger
she laughed belly-deep, loving this man-
this big-nosed Russian bear of a man.
At eleven, she had no idea who he was,
but understood arms strong enough
“Ya-kosh try-ee-ya sva-ba-dos” he sang
something like that, she sings it again
turning out of ridiculous choices,
ugly scenes, bruises slow to disappear.
Dictionaries are built from hopeful words
no one says to her in any language
what he said, no one could even guess.
Reflections from the Looking Glass
I don’t know where
my mother lived before she died
with her blue willow lamp,
the what-not shelf,
a cartwheel of snapshots
out of sequence filled
with strangers, daddy,
who packed a rabbit’s foot
in my lunch box each morning
with unsweetened tea in a thermos.
A chair forgets the shape of its owner,
in time a hand print fades, painted
over in Williamsburg Blue, eggshell.
There is a color no one remembers
it’s sibilant chant, names rustling
through willows. In this foreign land,
I have forgotten my song.
Annabel Lee of Dumbarton
Mornings, weekdays, she makes the trek
from Azalea Avenue to Hermitage Road
with a blue visor and cane. We note time
from her locus on the curve. Too far down
and we’re late again, mid-way, we’re okay,
no specious excuses to be made at school.
Imagine she sells tricks at Divine Magic
in the strip mall at the bottom of the hill,
or shoots pool at the Luxor Salon next door.
More likely she’s out for her daily exercise,
a suggestion from her young gerontologist
at Westminster-Canterbury, senior home.
We depend on her to be our railroad whistle,
rooster, church bell that marks our passing.
In rain we are a boxy white Volvo slipping
through layers of time between concrete
and sodden clouds, no wizened beldame
to prophesy, recall jonquils, quote Poe.
If Annabel is not her name, it should be,
or Alice, who leaves us to wonder, does she
speak to ghosts at Upham Brook, soldiers,
the woman swept from her car by Gaston?
Anywhere you go around here, the past
intrudes, watches from the kudzu shadow.
The Ball Blue Book of Home Preserving
It was her other bible, dog-earred and falling apart,
tucked in the back cupboard all winter, eager
for first fruits, beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers-
things that had to be put by in a jar.
The ritual was precise, timing life or death, hunger or plenty,
a false step meant a wasted day. The book stayed open
on the sideboard as a quick reference, close to the wall clock.
Every flat space covered with produce, water boiling on the stove,
Mamaw would roll her stockings down and can
into the cool night, TV on for “Gunsmoke” or “The Hit Parade.”
My job was to stand on a stool and wash jars and lids,
inspecting each rim carefully for chips and spots, sweat
dripping into my eyes, I could have a cold bottled coke
as long I kept working, paid close attention.
She’d tell stories about how she met Papaw
(at a camp meeting in Tyler, Texas) when she wore
a crisp white shirt (high-necked and starched to high heaven)
and a long blue and white striped heavy skirt she’d made.
He transported her with his melancholy Irish tenor,
and if her friend Ima Clem hadn’t near fainted
from the heat and been taken to a nearby house,
she might’ve never met him and I wouldn’t be here at all.
She used to say things like that-
how my very existence depended on a sequence of events
that seemed magical, almost random: a butterfly in Elkhardt
flying left instead of right, an open window where a panther
climbed in one night when my Momma was a tiny baby,
and Papaw was off working in Houston, how she stood
over the crib and locked eyes with the big cat for an eternity,
then collapsed to the floor and wept when it finally left.
That beast would’ve taken Joyce if I hadn’t been
right with Godand we wouldn’t have you then, would we?
But where would I be? Would I be at all?
I wondered, fearful of God’s serendipity.
Sure she wouldn’t answer, I pondered
these questions in my heart, like Mary.
As I grew older, I’d help less often, besides,
she’d started freezing more by then in plastic bags
standing up in wax-coated boxes with no personality.
Even over the boiling water blanch we didn’t talk as much,
I must’ve been a mystery to her, awkward and moody.
I have a Ball Blue Book, ordered fresh off the internet,
but I’ve never used it, why bother? It’s hard to can alone,
my daughter would roll her eyes, microwave a Lean Cuisine,
never caring where my mother met my dad (in an elevator)
when she winked at the guy behind him (who didn’t notice)
and my dad followed her to her office and asked her out
charming her with his thick auburn hair, his jokes.
They fell in love so fast their world changed in a blink,
assuring my existence, and consequently, my daughter’s,
though that story will never be preserved in a summer kitchen
to be taken from the pantry and shared.
Ruby Redd in Alice, Texas
Ruby’s trailer was not the finest in the park,
not a double wide or fancy deluxe model
that resembled a house or cottage,
but she was proud of what she had.
Red awnings graced the sun-side windows,
matching flower boxes and lawn chairs
gave an ambiance of neatness and quiet living
that belied the simple squalor behind
the K-mart special screen door, purchased
at forty percent off with the last check she got
from the just closed Curl Up and Dye Salon
where she’d washed hair and swept up since
the day Frank, her common-law husband went out
for cigarettes and apparently was abducted by aliens.
He was coming back, she said, keeping a six-pack
of Lone Star cold in the icebox beside her Gloria Jean
Italian (she called it EYE-talian) gourmet cappuccino blend
he’d bought her at the mall the day before, as if
these tokens might be a beacon for him to home in on
when they dropped him off. Stacks of tabloid papers
covered every surface, red magic marker circles around
each story she thought might be pertinent to his case,
typewriter always ready for the next letter in her head:
to the FBI, her congressman, Billy Graham and even
that nice Fox Mulder on the TV show that investigated
such things. She’d quit church when Brother Bob said,
in a blatant sermon that everybody knew was directed
right to her there in the choir, that people who lived waiting
for something to happen should get on with their lives
and quit wasting God’s time with foolishness.
She pondered that over and over, stabbing
her Salem menthol out so hard she eventually broke
the red ashtray her little boy made in school
before he was lost in that war, twenty-three
days before Nixon would’ve called him home anyway.
It just seemed like everybody left her there to wait.
She went to bed, lighting the last red strawberry
scented candle in the box, like she did every night,
but this time she woke to find the couch on fire,
what with the newspapers and all. She shrugged,
resigned to fate’s callousness, grabbed the beer, the coffee,
and her son’s bronzed baby shoes and walked off.
The trailer burned to the ground and at the memorial
service everybody cried real tears when Brother Bob said:
“At last, at last, she is reunited with her boy.”
Jewel and Ila Faye were the best
looking women in the whole of
Corpus Christi, that’s what some
people said but some people
don’t get around much tending
to stick with the places they know.
One place they knew the girls would be
after work was down at Gilley’s Drive-Up
just off the South Houston freeway exit ramp,
big old dry oil rig in the parking lot, corrugated tin
bar, pool table, and a few shabby booths
bought when the Howard Johnson closed.
A new man might talk up to Jewel
until one of the regulars would take
it upon himself to play the angry beau-
sometimes getting more than he bargained for:
a black-eye sucker punch, a bottle smash,
then a bouncer would make ’em shake hands
or take it the hell out into the parking lot.
The women were sisters, but took a great
deal of care to keep that fact secret from
just about everybody. Jewel wore a blonde wig
like Barbara Mandrell and Faye was a little slip
of a woman. Any old cowboy could lift her up
on the side of the pool table for a quick kiss,
rough hands almost touching round her waist.
The best time they had was when Jean Ellen
(Roy’s wife) rolled in the door with an old pistol
claiming that one or the other had slept with Roy
and she was gonna kill somebody tonight.
The two wanton women slipped out the bathroom
window and ran laughing across the road
where they threw themselves down in the ditch while
Jean fired over their heads. Roy was a-crying
that he’d never slept with anybody but her in years
til pride got the best of Faye and she stood up
and yelled, “Yeah, I did it, but he ain’t no account.
We did it during a commercial on “As the World Turns.”
Roy nearly died right then cause it was true.
That just about caused a real tragedy when
Jean Ellen, who had drunk more than a few long neck
Schlitz by then, took off running and was nearly hit by
a Shell Oil tanker truck pulling into the right-hand lane.
They used to tell that story over and over adding
and subtracting pertinent details depending on
who-all was listening. When Jean Ellen died
a few years later of blood disease, the sisters
sat right up front with Roy and the kids.
Faye wailed like she’d lost all hope and Jewel
took altar call, rededicating herself to Jesus
like she did every Sunday, but it was a nice gesture.
The woman who holds on to things
Her house is as cluttered as her mind is sharp,
which may not be much of a compliment.
She says she knows where everything is
yet buys still another box of sixty watt bulbs,
bills that aren’t paid late are rare, her checks bounce
while deposits burrow beneath some recent project:
a cross-stitch Hebrew house blessing left undone
for want of one skein of cornflower blue DMC126
which she won’t purchase since she’s pretty sure
there’s an extra one in the big box in the closet,
the box full enough to keep her stitching forever,
far past her capacity to see such small work.
She hoards supplies, certain authors’ books,
tin boxes, votive candles, and exotic teas;
calls it collecting, these objects to be cherished,
a kind of love always around, though misplaced.
Doing what she always does, mumbling,
she is a gnome in the alcove, head down,
hid in shadows. In a bygone century,
she might have been cobbling shoes
or pilfering scraps, but here she is
setting out ginger snaps and finger food,
arranging soft drinks, finding extra napkins.
He’s a wizard but for the lack of hat,
smooth-skinned head to toe, stretched
snug but not alarming. A sleeve eased
into a seam, he curves into crowds
like syrup on pancakes, delighting bankers
and children with sporty anecdotes
and stagy gestures, fixing what needs it.
They slip into unseen gaps,
negotiate what no one else can-
where the ladle got to, the cake knife,
extension cord for the podium microphone
so the power mongrels can get and give
back-pats and golden-carrot incentives,
big trucks that stop short in intersections.
Watching from her crevice, she coos and claps
in genuine delight at someone else’s gain.
He, too, is pleased for others, glory not his goal.
They glance at each other though nothing passes.
She looks another way, he sighs, and wonders
why she strives so hard unrecognized. Turning,
he removes his party face, takes the long way home.
Easter of her fifth year she found out she was different
after the tent-meeting evangelist failed to cast out her demons,
rubbing on mud made of Texas red clay and Jordan River water
Uncle Howard paid for the operation to sever the muscle
that made the baby eye roll up in her head, ever since
she perpetually looks like she’s winking, particularly in photos.
At six, she saw her first indoor movie: the Houston premiere
of The Ten Commandments. Aunt Wynter wore a fox wrap
with beady black eyes and teeth, she, new patent leather shoes,
a lacy pink dress, and a tight new Toni permanent wave.
When the Pharaoh’s son died, she wept for want of lamb’s blood
at her door, fearful from that day forward when fog rolled in
off the Gulf of Mexico, rising up from creeks and sloughs.
First grade beckoned at seven, Uncle Howard presented her
an incantation: “Adonai, Eloheinu, Adonai” to say as she walks
through the hallways of the shadow of death unafraid, to whistle
when she faces enemies, so they will not know her concern.
Children believe in magic, she does, even though it’s too late
to go back and tell herself at four You are special, at five Believe,
and at six, The angel of death takes only the male first born,
and at seven, A wink is as good as a smile and you are beautiful.
He sings “Lucy in the Sky”
and “Maggie May”
to make her laugh,
pokes her dimples,
kisses her nose.
his momma said,
life’s full of complications,
God is a lawyer
you can’t afford.
Head full of television
trivia watching thirty seconds
over Tokyo, nobody remembers
what it means anymore.
He skip-traces angels
in the bathroom mirror,
steam on cold glass,
her reflection looks fine
looking back from the bed.
She hides doughnuts in the oven,
crackers in the bedroom bottom drawer,
onion dip and chips consumed at once,
empty containers buried in the kitchen trash
with coffee grounds, peels, and clotted grease.
Absorbed by routine, painfully aware
it isn’t sustenance she craves, but order,
the imposition of a secret priesthood,
a divinity no one else would suspect,
a peculiar sacrament observed in solitude.
Obligated to canonical hours, she keeps
all things holy: collects cookbooks, tins,
serving pieces, commandeers specific vessels:
the cast-iron pan for steak, the wok for fish,
a chipped brown Hull bowl for mashed potatoes.
Some dishes are resplendent in the light,
salad, pasta fagiolo, scrambled eggs and cheese.
Other fare rests heavy as her unsaid confession;
leftover meatloaf, cassoulet, moussaka- meals
that hold her close in the substantial night.
Left alone, these ceremonies serve her well
as she builds the wall she wears, friends
accommodate her picayune ways, concerned
for her, afraid to ask. In mixed company
she holds herself apart, picking at her food.
Telephone Road Supper, November 21, 1963
Smells like LaTrobe’s got chicken on the grill,
making me hungry coming through the open window.
You ‘bout ready for supper, baby?
Walk up to the packy for some Lone Star,
there’s frosty mugs waiting in the freezer.
I’ll peel and soak some spuds in salt water,
when you get back you can cut‘em up
paper thin, ready for the hot Crisco.
See that white wrapped package in the fridge?
That’s one-inch thick sliced beef bologna, on sale
ready-to-fry, and Opalene brought tomatoes by
so fat and so red you should take a picture.
When we’re done let’s head over to the Trail Drive-in
and watch a movie, it sounds like a good one,
somebody said at intermission there’s a special show
with prizes and stuff for the kids.
I’ll make some fresh tea. Oh, your mama called,
she wants a ride to the airport to see Jackie Kennedy
leave for Dallas, then you can drive her to the doctor
and after to the store to get the cranberry sauce.
She started in again on your sister not lifting a finger,
wants us to have everybody for dessert after turkey.
Fine with me, though nobody wants to watch our little TV,
nothing on but football anyway, every year the same.
At the Museum, Molly
reads poems long and thin
as her loblolly legs
rise from the hardwood floor.
With a mouth full of feathers,
she hums Dulce Domum,
the air tastes like fresh pears.
I would embrace her there
while the sun slides into the wall,
touch behind her ear, treasure her
until a draught takes the words
off the page onto our skin.
Then we can feast on syllables
in front of a new acquisition;
the statue of a faceless woman,
Jaipur marble perfectly carved.
Angels in the Architecture
She spends too much energy
censoring what gets scribbled onto the page:
like when everybody did crystal and blow
in the upstairs room where a guy called Easy,
who wasn’t, said
Get me a beer, I’ll roll a fat one just for you-
and she was just fine,
it seems someone always shows up
to run interference- keep her in a bubble,
away from bad boys, hard stuff.
She’s picture perfect with no
now she wonders what got by her, why
she needs angels appearing to carry her away,
with all sorts of diversionary devices.
She finds out later that guy she wanted,
up to his blue jeans in anarchy,
beat up the girl he took home,
and it wasn’t her-
but it could have been,
after all, she’d had a mouthful of his politics
before the real party had even started.
It can be pleasant under glass, looking out
while other people take risks
so you don’t have to
because some guardian angles the shots
to bank right, you gotta figure maybe
if bad things happen early on,
you get a break later in life.
A hairline fracture,
the kind that shows up in an autopsy
but hasn’t hurt for a long, long time.
Bread n’ Butter Pickles
They make or break a sandwich she’d say
you got to have real beef bologna
and American cheese,
summer tomatoes and salad greens,
jabbing with the knife for emphasis
two slices of meat, two pickles.
She always cried if it was right before her period
telling anyone who’d listen
how she’d never had two slices of meat
on a sandwich until she was grown.
After a wine cooler or two it’d be the tuna fish tale,
how she had to make lunch for seven people
out of one six ounce can, half a jar of relish,
he wanted to say just shut up about it,
you have what you need now
but he’d grunt and nod, no use begging trouble
She could always suck him in, had a way
of sticking her fork, twirling him like spaghetti,
and before he could untangle he’d be hers.
Comfortable, familiar warmth between two people
who might’ve have done better.
Adios Jole Blon
He’d sing that song in his drunken, Cajun way-
Rembert Randolph Darby- Ila Faye’s last husband,
number seven in a long and undistinguished line.
He died in her arms, daddy said- like number three,
or two, he wasn’t sure, but Rembert was the one
she loved most of all. He was a tall dark pine of a man
from Houma, Louisiana, full of whiskey and talk.
When they weren’t fighting, they made crazy hot love,
passion more than sentiment, hard-scrapple lovers.
He towered over her tiny frame, but when it came to fists,
being the better drunk, she bested all his punches.
He moved the trains at night working as a snake, or a swing
in the hump yard, lost three fingers when a switchback popped.
We’d go pick him up if his driver’s license had been suspended,
everybody there had something missing, and damned proud of it.
He could cart Nanny and me on his shoulders at one time,
the ‘wobble and bobble express coming through’, he’d yell.
Sometimes he’d have a paid for photograph taken of me,
on the car hood, on a Shetland pony, as if I was his own.
When he took his teeth out, you couldn’t understand
a word he’d say, except for her. She’d always tell me:
Marry a railroad man, you’ll never want for a thing,
though sometimes she did. She wasn’t a real blonde,
I was for a few more years. By the time my hair went brown,
they were both long gone and I can’t remember the tune.
Deus ex vagina
Typing into black pre-dawn, he stands
frustrated, stranded in the lining of a story.
Across the gravel parking lot he grendels,
drawn by neon flickered promise- Waffle House.
In syrup and savory sausage, he finds his muse
at last, the waitress Wanda Prine,
full-figured and alone at sunrise.
She gets off at six, again at seven,
wrapped in grease and grits, her perfume
on his fingers, sticking to task he types
while she snores in beauty, tattoo taut
across her butt- a single Jacobean rose.
This novel undertaken, overcome
he falls beside her, limp and spent,
his book rewritten, ending still not done
A recurring dream of perfection
gone awry, I move out of my skin
smooth, accomplished at sliding
into simile from another direction.
I long for simplicity, to be grisaille.
If history must repeat then let it,
I welcome authority, to rest secure
beneath someone else’s sheets.
Odalisque, but for the century:
Instruct, command- I am too tired
to decide what to what movie to watch,
what to cook for dinner: Let’s talk about you.
Ambition is for the energetic,
I am bruised from bumping ceilings,
falling from ladders, jumping ships.
Carry me off to your secret places
To accommodate God’s immensity
scales slide, curve into a new measure,
here hummingbirds are miracles.
Numbers abandon significance,
in ten years only a few remember,
soon we move on, no longer bound.
Seasonal flowers out of petals, empty
heads where glory crowned before, listen-
they sound like trophies being put away.
Life begins when breath pulls us awake
into bigger rooms, to wrestle tradition,
bend rituals, cross one river, then one more.
Previously published: “Annabel Lee of Dumbarton” in Wicked Alice, “Ruby Redd in Alice, Texas” in Gin Bender, “Being hungry” in Shakespeare’s Monkey, “At the Museum,”Molly” in The Bedside Guide to the No Tell Motel, Second Floor, and “Bread n’ Butter Pickles” in Moondance.