I wrote this poem, a broken sonnet, as part of a poem-a-day series I did last fall, on the approach of the winter solstice. It appears online (and in print) in Bear Review, out of St. Louis, Issue 3, Spring 2017.
November Sunset: 4:14 PM
As I cut the skinny branches of the smokebush
I hear a loud rattle in the sky. A black helicopter
descends, disappears. The noise of the chopper
carries from the playground at the end of the block.
I snip branches into small pieces, toss them
into the leaf bag with the rosebush clippings.
A woman walking by with her young daughters
tells me the helicopter med-vac’d someone,
deposited the accident victim with the EMTS.
The afterschool director ran out to investigate.
I drag the last leaf bag to lean against the retaining wall.
All that’s left alive: the rosemary, hellebore, a lone red cabbage.
The solstice approaches, a fixed point in the middle distance.
Inside, the black night shows itself in tall kitchen windows.
I’m pleased that my poem appears in Silver Birch’s My First JOB series, and wonder if a few of my former Rye Middle School students might stumble across this reminiscence…
I finished my degree, found a teaching post
at a good university, my chairman, a tall, broad
Iowa-bred guy of sixty with big hands, big feet,
Told big stories about flying in the bombing raids
On Dresden during the war. He seemed kind,
Jovial, devoted to the work.
He made sure I met all the right people at conferences,
encouraged me to publish more, he raved
in his observation reports about my classes.
He shared details of his
grown children’s good news, he praised his wife.
But one late afternoon in his office, when everyone else
Had gone home, when we were talking about plans
For summer school courses, when we had finished
Talking, when I had glanced at the bits of peanut shells
And husks on his desk, he suddenly rose from his chair,
The heavy green metal desk no longer between us,
Came at me fast, a strong arm swept around me, he
Began to pull me close. He said he’d
“earned the right to do this.” Stunned,
I leaned away, he pulled me in tighter. I ducked out
of this bear’s embrace, grabbed
my coat and book bag, ran upstairs to the lobby,
my heart thumping. The night custodian
slowly pushed his wide dust mop across the floor.
Shy, a man of few words, he smiled weakly at me,
Told me it was time to go home, his usual farewell.
When I got to my car my hand shook
as I tried the key in the ignition switch.
I didn’t tell anyone for years.
Yes, yes, my mother schooled me well,
said if this ever happens,
Kick him in the privates, or use
Your knee to the groin—as hard as you can.
I trusted this oaf, mistook him for a mentor.
Now I see it was all training me for that moment,
when students had disappeared to their dorms,
Faculty had packed up their lecture notes, headed home.
He had handled me as he would a feral cat,
slowly brought from the wild into his sphere of influence
With bits of food, kind words, shelter from weather.
It’s been decades. He’s dead now, or
I’d have a few words with that
Reprinted from Bad Hombres and Nasty Women, The Raving Press, 2017
Two of my poems appear in the May/Spring 2017 issue of the online South Florida Poetry Journal. You can find them here–and use the audio link to hear me read them! Scroll a long way down on the page –or do a Find /search for Viti.
We’ve lived in these bodies so long.
Don’t think about their diminished condition,
the damage gravity has done,
don’t worry if our legs feel papery.
I like the way they intertwine
on the old blue sheets.
Forget that your beard’s now flecked with white,
that what once seemed merely sun lines
are crow’s feet etched in deep symmetry on my face.
Ignore the muscle cramps that interrupt our play.
Your eyes are the dark eyes
That saw me that first night.
Your right hand is the same one
that brushed against me. You leaned over to
open the car door for me,
spilling me out onto the sidewalk.
I slid out, muttered thanks, goodnight—
Turned at the front steps, perplexed,
went home when I should have turned back to you.
Originally published on March 10, 2017 in the online ‘zine, Work to A Calm
I thank those of you who have already purchased Baltimore Girls for your support–especially if you pre-ordered from Finishing Line Press.
If you pre-ordered but have not yet received your book, contact me immediately and I will see that another copy is mailed to you within one business day!
I’m collecting photos of my readers holding up the book, for a checkerboard poster I am assembling. If you’d like to be in the poster along with the 23 readers who’ve already sent me their photos, please send your photo along, as a posting to my Facebook page (Lynne Spigelmire Viti) or by email. It’s time for your 15 minutes of fame!
And-your turn to write something– a review of Baltimore Girls on amazon.com. Go to the amazon listing for the book, and scroll down to the bottom where you see Write a Review. Then write!
If you did not pre-order Baltimore Girls, I have 100 copies of BG in my home office that i would love to unload. Proceeds from sales of these copies, which I received from Finishing Line in lieu of royalties, will be divided equally between the scholarship fund at my alma mater, Mercy High of Baltimore, MD, and Epiphany School, Boston, a private, tuition-free middle school for Boston youth. Both are strongly faith-based schools that emphasize academics and character development. Both schools need financial support.
The cost of the book is $13.99. I will take care of postage costs if you live in the U.S. If you’d like to round up and give even more to Mercy High and Epiphany, I’ll be delighted.
You can email me at my school address, firstname.lastname@example.org, leave a comment here with your contact info (I won’t publish the comment ) or send me a tweet @Lynne Viti.
Nancy Ruth Levine, my former student from my days teaching in the English Department at Westhill High School in Stamford, Connecticut in the mid-Seventies, challenged me and others to a Tanka contest.
The Tanka is a Japanese closed form. The most typical meter is 5/7/5/7/7.
No one’s read the book
Except my three best students;
The slackers dream of spring break—
Add yours, in a comment!
Since today, March 18, is the 27th anniversary of the Gardner Museum heist, in which 13 works of art (including several by Degas, a Rembrandt, and a Vermeer) were stolen from the Isabelle Stewart Gardner Museum and never recovered–I thought it was fitting to republish my poem about the robbery. The thieves have never been found or brought to justice, and to date, the paintings have not been found.
Sunday Afternoon at the Isabella Stewart Gardner
Thieves in darkness smart enough to wear
cops’ uniforms, clever enough to talk
their way into the mansion
crammed with rich tapestries,
room after room of paintings, drawings
bowls, sculptures, carvings—
thieves experienced enough to tie up
museum guards, dazed and sleepy on the graveyard shift,
I suppose these interlopers came armed
with a shopping list and box cutters,
worked quickly, lifting the art
from the wall, and not gently,
slashed the canvass from each frame.
In the dim light they must have complained
about the working conditions as they moved
from the Rembrandt to the Vermeer, the Degas
— the unlucky thirteen stolen works, thirteen fruits
but for whom? A prince shut up in his rich apartment
somewhere between Boston and the South Seas,
or a Brandoesque recluse in London or Philadelphia
with only a handful of friends—no, acquaintances—
who’d see his art, and gasp or sigh, perhaps even
touch the oil paint, tracing the drapery of Christ’s garment,
so that nicotine-stained fingers rubbed against
the master’s brush strokes, the light that seemed
to gather in the painted figure’s eyes and shine out
from paint and canvas to catch the viewer’s gaze?
Or maybe the canvasses are shut-ins themselves,
rolled up and stashed in an attic or barn,
the thieves perhaps not so smart after all,
now long dead and their confidants
addled hoarders, barricaded behind newspapers, junk mail,
packing boxes that fill floor to ceiling, leaving
only a narrow path from front door to kitchen.
The museum’s glass addition sparkles
in the winter sun, people line up in the glittering
entryway, pay the price of admission and wander
from gallery to gallery, fixing on what’s here,
every wall covered, the art jammed so closely
it’s easy to forget what’s not there
till you enter, single file, the room
with the empty frames, the nothing of it all
startles you, and you think
who did this, and why?
Hard not to take it personally,
the absence of these canvasses,
as if you could walk right up to the woman
in long black evening dress, the pearls glistening
around her white neck, roping her waist,
and whisper sympathetic words– great loss,
dear Isabella, infuriating, irreplaceable, tragedy—
Walk through the crowd waiting to retrieve
coats and umbrellas, more people
than you’ve ever seen here, hear them
talking about the missing stuff, wondering
aloud, asking guards for details, hear
the same story over and over, it’s
a prayer that ends with
Give it back, give us back our art.
Claire was stuck in traffic, edging into the left turn lane just before Central Square, when she glanced over to the near left corner of a side street and saw the makeshift booth set up. Someone had used black magic marker to draw a Hitler mustache on Barack Obama’s face. She used to love that campaign poster from 2004, the one that proclaimed HOPE in large letters across the bottom.
Claire was on her way to visit her friend Rosie…read the rest at Quail Bell Magazine.
My friend –and guest lecturer visiting from U of Miami– Gina Maranto snapped these photos, as I was opening the shipment of my 100 copies of Baltimore girls, last Thursday when we returned from a long teaching day.
If you did not pre-order, I have 100 copies I’d like to part with, so if you’re in the greater Boston area, let me know. I deliver signed copies!! If you’re farther away, Barnes & Noble, Amazon and Finishing Line Press carry the book. Or wait till I come to Baltimore or Stamford, CT, and come to my readings–I will be selling and signing books!
Next reading: Sunday, April 2, 2017, Westwood Public Library, 660 High St, Westwood, MA 02090, 2-4 PM
No more will I poke fun at people who wear surgical masks on public transportation, or those who eschew the hug or handshake of peace at church, preferring the elbow bump, so popular a couple of years ago when flu was rampant.
Remember? Hand sanitizers appeared everywhere–at the public library, at a front pew at my Episcopal church, and in the hallways at the college where I teach. I kept a pump dispenser of Purel on the desk in my faculty office. I washed my hands so any times a day that it called to mind Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy, the one that my Hamilton Junior High eighth grade teacher, Miss Ruth Magill, made us memorize. Continue reading “Influenza”
Please post your questions and comments there about poetry, Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson, Robert Louis Stevenson. Shel Silverstein, Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, Leonard Cohen, Alice Notley, Joyce Kilmer, John Greenleaf Whittier, and more!
My pal Hallie Ephron, one of the Jungle Red mystery authors, has invited me to guest blog on Jungle Red next Friday, February 25. their tagline: “8 smart and sassy crime fiction writers dish on writing and life. It’s the View–with bodies.”
The Jungle Red website features eight women mystery authors, many of them winners of prestigious awards: the Edgars, Agathas, Anthonys, Neros, and more.
Of course, I won’t be talking/writing about Private investigators, or who was responsible for that corpse in a mystery novel, but about my poetry–how I came to it, my writing process, where I come up with ideas for the poems.
My poetry collection, Baltimore Girls, is in the works at Finishing Line Press, although the February 24 delivery date has been pushed a few weeks later. Pre-orderers, please be patient–this small literary press in Kentucky is working as fast as it can to get the book to you.
Take a look at the Jungle Red blog now, and again on February 25 when I blog. Its interactive feature allows readers to comment or ask questions of the guest blogger, and I will be checking in all day (and early evening) long to see what you have to say.
Hallie will start us off with her interview with me, and you, readers, can take it from there!
Hope to see you–virtually–on February 25, from 9 AM EST to 9 PM EST! Please come!
The Color of Her Volkswagen
Atlas blue. First Bug I ever saw.
It showed up one day, a shiny little thing
in Miss Kay’s driveway two doors down.
Their old Dodge long gone.
People on our street drove Chevys or Fords,
nobody even knew how to say Volkswagen,
were skeptical about a foreign car, but
Miss Kay packed up picnic basket, playpen, her toddler son,
the baby, her Coppertone oil. There was room
for my sister and me. I rode in the front,
watched Miss Kay shift the gears, her pedicured feet
depressing the gas pedal, working the clutch
like an extension of her body. She tuned
the radio to WFBR, the Four Lads sang
Standin’ on the Corner Watchin’All the Girls.
She didn’t like rock n’ roll.
When we got to the swimming place, an old
quarry now flooded with water, now a club
where you bought a daily membership,
the loudspeaker blasted my kind of music—
repeated every hour. We ate peanut butter sandwiches,
Miss Kay plunged into the water from a dock.
She wore a green bikini, adjusted the top
over her small breasts when she emerged from the water.
I slathered on her suntan oil, bounced the baby.
Around us, teenaged girls mixed iodine and baby oil,
greased up their arms and legs and shoulders,
lit Newports and blew smoke rings.
I longed to be like them. Homeward, the blue VW
rolled up and down country roads back to the city,
steaming streets, dried little lawns.
[Reprinted from Maryland Writer’s Association magazine, Pen-in_Hand, January 2017]
Catherine Mumford Cave, Miss Kay in this poem, shuffled off this mortal coil on September 22, 2016. She was a kind and inspiring neighbor who shared her talents as a cook, gardener, seamstress, and all around cool adult with the neighborhood kids. She also gave me my first babysitting job. I wrote this poem last winter.
My poem, “The Color of Her Volkswagen,” about an afternoon at Oregon Ridge Swimming “Club,” circa 1960 , appears in the winter issue (page 17) of Pen-in-Hand, the official literary and art publication of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Mad props to Sr. Carol Wheeler, and Sr. August Reilly, RSMs who taught me in Creative English class at Mercy High, Baltimore, and my 21st century poetry mentor, Boston Poet Laureate Emeritus Sam Cornish…
This is the day we do that summing up.
Annoying, isn’t it, the way
we tally and sort the year’s days
into the things –or people—we like and those
that caused us pain? We inventory
and discard, if we’re smart, whatever
no longer works, or what
carries no joy. We have this need
to take stock, as though we
were running a giant store full of
stuff, boots and gloves, or jars
of face cream and scented soaps.
This year let it alone,
think instead of the faint yellow blush
on the forsythia. Soon we can snip
its branches, hammer the stems
against the stone walk, set it all
in warm water in an old jar.
The small blooms, and then
tender green leaves will unfold
in the corner window.
Reprinted from Hedgerow, # 19
Here’s a reprint of a poem I wrote a couple of years ago, about the day after Christmas, also known as St. Stephen’s Day. Fans of Downton Abbey will know that Boxing Day takes its name from a British tradition — families with servants gave them the day off, to allow them to go home and visit their families. Employers gave their staff gifts in “Christmas boxes.”
Pre-ordering window for my forthcoming poetry collection, Baltimore Girls, part of Finishing Line Press’ New Women’s Voices series, runs through January 6, 2017. You can pre-order online here.
as part of the poem-a-day “Transitions” Project–A poem-a-day by a different poet responding to the recent Presidential election, from Nov. 9 to Jan. 20
.. to those who pre-ordered “Baltimore Girls” last week! Thanks to my cousins in Ohio and Baltimore, old UNY of Maryland pals from high school days, former teaching colleagues at Boston U, Westwood women, my St. John’s family, my librarian network, Dwight Street alums, Stamford friends, and Barnard women. Continue reading ““Baltimore Girls” -Enormous Gratitude!”
I was a junior in high school when my my mother took me downtown to Ford’s Theatre to see “Black Nativity.” I had never heard of Langston Hughes before, Continue reading “Black Nativity”
Children weren’t invited. That
wasn’t fair. I was thirteen,
had never seen a wedding, except on television.
She opened a small flat box of nylon stockings,
pulled them on gently, fastened them to her girdle.
I watched her pull the beige lace dress over her head,
shake it down her slender frame, gently push
her arms through the sleeves.
I zipped the dress closed.
I climbed onto her bed, mesmerized by the lace sheath.
Paid full price too, she murmured. Coral high heeled pumps,
matching clutch purse, sparkling costume jewelry.
She leaned towards the mirror to put on her lipstick,
coral, like the shoes. From a department store box she
withdrew an ivory hat, broad brimmed in the front,
covered with tulle.
My father waited downstairs in his favorite chair
trying not to sweat in the August heat.
I followed them out the front door, sat
on the porch steps, the concrete hot on my thighs.
The green and white fins of our Chevy disappeared
down the street. She was forty-five. I knew
she’d be the prettiest, best-dressed lady there.
She wore the lace dress again, over and over,
and the coral shoes. But the hat
Stayed in back of the closet for years
till one day the square box went to Goodwill
because nobody wore hats any more.
Reprinted from Light:A Journal of Photography and Poetry, January 2017, inaugural issue
For more Baltimore poems, pre-order my forthcoming collection, Baltimore Girls, from Finishing Line Press. You can order from the publisher’s website. Pre-ordering runs now through January 6, 2017. Profits from pre-orders will be divided between the Mercy High School, Baltimore scholarship fund, and Epiphany School, Boston.
It’s oddly warm. We strip the garden,
pull down three-foot-high blackened marigolds,
cleome, borage, yank out bamboo stakes.
The young arugula we planted weeks ago is
ready for harvest, the lily leaves slimy, brown.
Mole tunnels run under the sandy soil
in the mulch-covered plot by the fenced-in garden.
By three the sun is low, a glare in our faces.
We work against the clock, against the moment
when the sun will drop behind the trees, the sky
will be streaked with a narrow line of pink-orange.
The cottage is cold, the water shut off.
The detritus of last summer’s glorious blooms
lies in a pile. We weight the mess with fallen branches.
There’s no time to rest, put our feet up, imagine
what this will all look like, come spring.
Now everything must sleep the sleep of winter,
must die, and must— we hope— come back to life.
But first, the death of the garden, dormant, cold
shadowed by our uncertainty, our fears
that this short day is all we have, and own.
Last day of raking, raking and bagging leaves. First, a visit to our friend D who’s been back in the hospital the past three weeks. Now, he’s waiting for blood count data pending a possible second stem cell transplant.
I come home to face one last hour of leaf bagging before the sun sets. I grab handfuls of damp, decaying leaves from the edges of the stone-bordered garden. I leave the rest in the center,stuck to the ground in flat sheets, a blanketlike mulch to keep the perennials safe till spring. Continue reading “Black Sunday, Sunset 4:14 PM”
East Coast of the U.S. of A. Overcast, chilly, at noon it seems as though it’s nearly day’s end. The rain turns to a drizzle, I find it’s easier to rake leaves and stow them in the brown paper leaf bags, I’m not concerned someone will see me in my black and white flannel p.j.bottoms, the ones that have a matching Ruth Bader Ginsburg top, though that’s well hidden under my fleece, a nine-year old Polartec made in U.S.A. that’s my bed jacket, my go-to-yoga-class wrap over my t-shirt, my crawl half under the bed and pull out the dust bunnies uniform. Continue reading “Sunset, 4:16 PM EST”
I began my day at an early yoga class, twenty of us on the mat at 8:30 A.M. Leaf raking and filling the lawn bags with garden detritus by 10. Now, the turkey’s in the oven, the vegetables are all trimmed and ready to cook, the pie is cooling on the counter, the table is set, and the men in my small family are downstairs talking about the electoral college and playing with our new kitten.
I’m thankful for many things, but for you reading this blog, I’m thankful for your continued attention your comments, and to many of you–65 so far–a sincere thank you for pre-ordering y poetry chapbook, Baltimore Girls, from Finishing Line Press, due out February 24, 2017. You can pre-order online here, and be certain of getting your hands on a copy of the collection.
Why pre-ordering is important: Finishing Line, a small poetry publisher, does not pay authors in cash, but in copies. The more pre-orders, the large the press run, and the more copies of the book Finishing Lien will give me in lieu of payment. I’ll be able to sell these at the same price, $13.99, and give the proceeds to Mercy High Baltimore‘s scholarship funds, and Epiphany School Boston, an independent, tuition-free middle school for children of economically-disadvantaged families from Boston neighborhoods.
Fans of the HBO series (2005-2009) The Wire, check out the blurb from Wire teleplay writer and stalwart Crabtown author, Rafael Alvarez.
Here’s the dedication for the book:
For the Baltimore girls: Chris, Debbie, Francine, and Gay
–and one of the poems to whet your literary appetite:
Along the Fuller Brook path wending
through backyards, there’s no one about
except a few women with
small dogs on leashes. The brook – Continue reading “from “Baltimore Girls””
Here’s the opening poem from my forthcoming chapbook, Baltimore Girls, available for pre-order now from Finishing Line Press. The poem originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of A New Ulster, a Northern Ireland literary and arts magazine.
We lived at home, were always home
for dinner. We thought we dressed like women, but only
when we peeled off the school uniforms and slid into
plaid kilts, blouses with Peter Pan collars and circle pins,
loafers, on Friday night, for a church hall dance.
We thought we knew everything, though we only
knew everything about the things we read in books
or heard on the bus, or on the street. We read
magazines to learn how to flirt.
Being sophisticated meant smoking Benson and Hedges,
we wondered how old we’d have to be
to drink at a cousin’s wedding.
Our mothers thought our world was crazy.
Too much Orbison and Presley, then in a whirr,
James Brown, the man in the orange cape, and
the Beatles, who made us scream, or the
Subversive Dylan, who questioned us,
How does it feel, to be on your own?
–when our mothers wanted us to be safe,.
Take the bus to school, be home on time.
No drinking, no smoking, study hard,
Go to college. Find a nice boy. Get
married, stay in town. Our town, which
changed and burned, changed and burned again.
Some of us left, and those who
Stayed didn’t always follow the playbook.
We are neither who we were when we were sixteen
Nor are we different from who we were, inside,
even though we’ve tried like crazy to: speak up,
grow up, let go, not judge, relax, achieve, kick back,
question, breathe, believe, not believe—
Now we size ourselves up
against the dreams and goals and fantasies
we had as girls, the plans we spoke of,
the ones we hid. Back then, we didn’t say
It’s all good, but it is. The whole journey,
The paths and detours, all good, all worth
something, the living of it, the becoming,
never stepping into the same river twice.
Please support my writing and Mercy High School, Baltimore and Epiphany School, Boston, –by reserving your copy of my poetry chapbook between November 19, 2016 and January 6, 2017-at Finishing Line Press. The number of pre-orders will determine the number of the first press run!
Baltimore Girls … examines the poet’s early life in the 1960s and the culture in which she grew up. It is personal history — tales of a small group of young women who lived in the segregated city of my youth. The poems are mini-memoirs, snapshots of young women who had determined they were bound for greater things: “we were in a hurry to get out of town, out of state, through school, to a job…”
Although Viti tells us she “left as fast as she could,” her memories of people, places and her hometown culture remain vivid and sharp, filled with the manners and rituals of the era. She recounts a teen-age date as “a talisman of my life to come” because they spent the time talking “about the war, about Yeats…” This collection is significant for its realism, its honesty and its attention to detail. The poems are specific and descriptive, reminiscent of the lyric realism of James T. Farrell. This book establishes Viti as a poet of the memoir and local history. Her memories of time and place will resonate with many readers.
— Sam Cornish, Poet Laureate of Boston, Massachusetts, 2008-2014
[Read the full poem in issue 3 of the SoFloPoJo!]
The garden was there before we were.
It was so easy to tend. We had only to pluck
the ripe fruits, gather flowers–
I loved the red ones best–
to fashion garlands for our hair. Mine
was long, I combed it with my fingers,
pulled it hard to one side, always to the left–
braided it so that the rope of golden hair
grazed my shoulder, fell over my breast.
We sometimes pruned branches
after the deutzia dropped its last white blooms,
tossed the clippings in the corner of our vast
yard, returned to lie under the rose-covered pergola.
We spent our days singing, entwining our limbs…
for the rest, please go here, to the SOFLOPOJo site!
Happy to announce that I am one of five finalists for this poetry chapbook contest sponsored by Grey Borders Press. The finalists are:
Lynne Viti “Shades at the Reunion”
Dane Swan “Tuesday”
Piotr Pawlowski “Wintergreen Studio Press”
Jonathan Lepp “Hopping On”
Ken Pobo “Dust and Chrsantinums”
A decision on the winner will be announced (hopefully) by Friday September 30th on Grey Borders’ homepage. Stay tuned!
My poem, “God’s Thief,” appears in the August issue of South Florida Poetry Journal–
Sun, then not-sun, clouds
warm, then not-warm.
This slender land can’t
make up its mind.
fungi of every color erupt–
red, colonies of chocolate brown,
or white, something you might
find in your salad.
Not much to do save
listen to Bill Evans ply the piano,
wrestle with the crossword,
turn off the phone.
Not Monroe but Marilyn the English teacher
Who befriended me the first day of my first job
Who invited me to her thirtieth birthday—
Marilyn the inveterate New Yorker
from West Virginia who lived
in a tiny studio on the
Upper East Side when
Nobody could afford to live there.
Marilyn who taught me how to sew pantsuits
When it was radical to wear them to school.
Marilyn who had pale skin and black hair
A long face, a cutting word,
Who wouldn’t let her students say, This is boring,
But made them say instead, This did not reach me.
Marilyn died who slept with my ex after our breakup—
He can’t remember this because
He never remembers anything he did before
The new millennium.
I lost touch with Marilyn after she met a man
on the train coming back from Lake George.
She called to tell me she was engaged,
warned me not to get involved with a younger man.
I ignored her, never saw her again.
She liked dogs, a special breed, I don’t recall which one.
She never married, became one of those beloved teachers
Everyone remembers forever—
She told me her father used to leave her and her kid brother
Locked in the car on his way home, he stopped at a bar,
He’d be in there for hours drinking—
I’d never heard of a Jewish alcoholic
Or even Jews in West Virginia
She said they weren’t observant,
never went to temple, there was no bat mitzvah.
She loved the theater, the students, the Upper East Side,
Expensive scotch, fine restaurants in midtown, and the beach.
She loved Gatsby, Hamlet, Sylvia Plath, Melville,
Anne Sexton, John Donne.
She had the saddest face, even when she smiled,
Black lashes against white skin.
Her dark wit made me laugh and wonder
Really, what was so funny about what
Was so sad. I wish I knew
What became of her, before
Her short ticket was punched.
Reprinted from the Little Patuxent Review, Summer 2016
The bell had hung there forever, it seemed.
We came to the church with our children
after years of childlessness—sleeping in,
reading each section of the fat Sunday paper,
drinking café au lait from bowls made by potter-friends.
Sundays were for museum-going,
brunches out with mimosas, omelets filling
elegant white plates, walks around the reservoir.
The gray wood church was nothing like
the brick edifices of our childhoods,
pews stuffed with families,
lines of men standing along the aisles, holding their hats.
By the time we prodigals returned to church,
it was a half-forgotten ritual.
You could always get a seat.
White-robed acolytes, tasked with pulling
the fat white rope each Sunday,
were lifted up on tiptoe, pulled by the heavy bell.
Once, the smallest boy went aloft for a second.
Now the tower’s closed for business, the bell silent.
Rotted window frames, sagging beams
wait for the engineer’s report.
No peals disturb neighbors on the street
where the church stands, unremarkable, plain,
against a backdrop of pines and oaks.
This sixty-year old bell used to strike ten times,
a call to worship, a wedding. On the day
of the death ritual, the bell rang the ancient
three times three strokes for a man,
three times two for a woman.
Sliding into a pew this winter morning
I hear the near-absence of sound, or maybe only
the rustle of a choir robe, a cough, the accidental slam
of the front door as a latecomer slips in.
If it has a soul, the bell
must be bursting with the long wait,
its peals constrained. It’s an unnatural quiet—
its barrel still, ear asleep, its tongue tied.
Spring, I thought, pawing through the pantry
when the fat onion came into view,
its lemon-yellow sprouts a foot long.
The onion had shrunk back into itself,
responded to the slight pressure of my thumb
by caving in. A ruined bulb, it gave
all its life to those useless stems.
Outside it was nothing like spring, only
snowy, clouds obscuring the day.
Rigid piles of last week’s snow seven feet high
lined the roadway, soiled ramparts,
muddied, blackened, covering hydrants and saplings.
For weeks, the cat refused to go out,
preferring to lie on her favorite chair,
or leaping onto the bed at night
to steal some human warmth.
Boots lined the entryway, caked
with road salt, or chemicals strewn
along sidewalks and parking lots.
Our down coats shed tiny feathers,
gloves sprang holes,
shovels bent at their corners.
Everything in the house
was tired of winter, wanted to be finished
with clearing, chipping the detritus
of four storms, systems Siberia or Alaska
knew how to manage better, through
long years of bending under winter’s yoke.
This onion’s worth saving, was my first thought.
Then I tossed the pulpy thing
into the compost, consigned
to a pile of sweet-smelling rot.
Reprinted from BlazeVOX Spring 2016
Not Italian– I never saw garlic bulbs,
not even garlic powder in our kitchen.
Years later, when my Welsh mother
visited, sniffed the garlic cooking
in the skillet, before the bread cubes
joined it in the olive oil to brown
she said— Smells Italian. I watched her
pick the golden croutons out of her salad,
push them to the side of the plate.
It’s cold for October—yesterday
snow specks fell on our fleece jackets.
I yank up spent basil, arugula, cut rainbow chard,
consign tomato and pepper plants to the compost.
Along the inside periphery of the garden
I dig the holes, work in manure,
reach into my pocket and crack off a clove.
I lodge each one in its winter pocket,
make a row, turn the corner, make another,
cover the cloves and tamp down the earth.
Then for good luck, stamp it all down with my heavy boots,
the ones that took me from Enna to Cefalu last May.
Not Italian, love garlic, wish it were April–
Better still, late June. When the school year ends,
we’ll dig up our succulent cloves, slice
the translucent segments of the holy bulb.
I’ll think I hear my mother’s voice, long ago stilled
Reprinted from BlazeVOX Spring 2016
Tried to see it from the soccer field
At the school some want torn down—
no way to rehab it,
poor drainage, asbestos lurking in walls,
wrapped around pipes, Eisenhower-era
construction, additions tacked on when
children cropped up everywhere.
It’s chilly for September, the moon
a bright white orb. No competition from stars.
A sliver of shadow appears at the moon’s side,
It’s not happening fast enough for us.
We want to see the pink moon, the blood moon—
Huddled in this playground, we wonder
why no one else is here. Are they watching
the blood moon on their televisions,
getting a clearer, sharper, super-pink image?
I pull my sweater tighter around me.
The shadow across the moon moves—
Now the moon turns salmon pink
smaller than the white moon.
Out on the grass this night
we six— a tight knot— suck in cold air.
Not another blood moon for years.
Will we be alive then, will we care enough to step
outside wherever we live then,
tilt our heads back, marvel at the sky?
Reprinted from Spring 2016 issue BlazeVOX
Could I go back there, could I return today?
By happy accident of physics, fly there today?
Transport myself back to those pale rooms,
Those hallways full of laughing girls, today?
We leaned in doorways, in late afternoons,
Confided secrets, triumphs, as we might today.
Our hair was gold, chestnut, or raven, catching light
From sunlight’s slant through windows, like today,
Though stronger rays, intense, in memory’s eye.
We sang in empty classrooms, looking towards today.
Who were we then? And are we still the same—
Though life has marred and marked us all deeply—today?
Thread the way back through long tunnel of years,
With young girls’ eyes see who we are today.
Make time collapse, forgive the petty sins and slurs,
The slights and cuts, back then and today?
Recall when all was bright before us, all was fresh,
Vows not yet made or kept or broken, as today.
Could memories of youth –not specters of old age,
New disappointments—infuse our hours here, today?
Reprinted from Blaze Vox, Spring 2016
for Christine V.
The December you made a poundcake
your mother’s fat cookbooks were stacked
all over the white kitchen.
The cupboards were so high you had
to stand on a wobbly stepladder.
I steadied it as you pulled down
the old china from Sauveterre.
It was painted with tiny roses and vines.
Plates just large enough for a fat slice
of buttery cake, dotted
with gold raisins and crushed pecans.
You couldn’t have been more than fifteen.
That winter you made your way through
Craig Claiborne, James Beard, Julia Child.
I’d see you
chin resting in an open hand, one elbow
on the white table, the other
flipping through stained pages.
That egg yolk yellow cake was just
The moister side of dry
but not dry, so solid
I made a meal of it. Have another,
you said, slicing through the thin brown top
into the golden mass of cake.
a pound of butter, you told me, a pound of flour,
a pound of extra fine sugar.
It’s a recipe that’s
almost not a recipe at all.
You went off to college, immersed
yourself in semiotics, found
a boyfriend, then later,
a husband, a divorce, then
a business partner, then two. You got
a love, a child, a flat that made its way
into the Times Home section.
There have been awards all these years
but not for cakes. There have been
honors, attestations, prizes. You’re famous,
on panels, on juries, you’re in Wikipedia!
Has there been no poundcake? No chipped china
from your grandmere? No recipe that’s
not a recipe at all?
You wore small tortoise shell glasses. Your hair
needed a good cut. You wiped
your buttery hands on your flannel shirt
and scraped the last bit of batter from the bowl.
You licked your fingers, wrapped
dish towels around your hands,
Slid the cast-iron pan into the oven.
Come back in two hours, you told me,
we’ll have cake for dinner tonight.
This poem was awarded an Honorable Mention in the 2015 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Contest, and appears in the 2015-2016 Paterson Review.
I wrote this poem, published in the latest issue of The Long Leaf Pine, about a day long ago in math class. This one’s for you, Fran Brolle!
Sneaked in from Australia or Asia, settling
wherever it could, not minding poor soil,
rocks, sand, clay. Conquered woodland and garden.
We used to love the bright orange berries
popping from their yellow shells.
to cut it
at the roadside.
Across her dashboard,
one of my housemates
strewed the stuff, the berries
would dry out and roll around, fall into our laps….
— Let out the clutch! Let out the clutch!
We were sitting at the top of the hill on the street where I grew up, suitably named Hilltop Avenue. My grandmother sold me her old Opel Kadett station wagon for a hundred and fifty bucks, and Dad appointed himself my driving instructor.
Dad’s instructional method was to yell when my response had to be quick. Though I was twenty-three, with years of driving experience, I felt like a clueless adolescent…..
You can read the full memoir essay on Silver Birch Press, published today.
“I was one of four kids in Mrs. Well’s class at Hamilton Elementary School No. 236 to cast my vote for Adlai Stevenson in our fourth grade straw poll. Everyone but my three fellow Democrats and I wore “I Like Ike” buttons. Nobody wore a button that said “I Like Adlai.” Although my grandmothers, both staunch Republicans, liked Ike, I did not. I especially did not like his running mate, Dick Nixon. But then, I got my politics at the dinner table, from my dad.
A union man back in the ’30s when he worked at Bethlehem Steel, Dad voted for Stevenson even though he said the Illinois Democrat was an egghead…”
Read the rest here: my OpEd appeared in the Baltimore Sun online, and in the Sunday Baltimore Sun‘s paper version on March 20. I urge you to comment online at the Sun on this opinion essay.
Post chemo, i.v.s, dull food, and infection,
from Boston you have travelled home to stay
for R & R, a good steak, and affection
from family, family dog, just for a day
or two or three, in which to laze in bed, but not
that metal hospital cot with sterile linens.
You might walk out on late summer grasses
or shuffle through the leaves, sort of beginning
to bask in autumn sunlight, turn your face
up to the sky, squinting against the rays
that slant onto the earth in this, your own place
not thinking long on next week. No, today’s
the day you want to sit and read the sports page,
reflect on what the odds are for your team,
listen to music, drink tea, begin to gauge
how much you’re loved, how great the stream
of life around you, going on quite as usual,
elections, wars, casinos, Nobel Prize
littering the front page. Soon, you’ll
nap and dream, and waking, will arise—
It’s good to leave the battle for a while
gather strength, breathe deeply, smile.
[reprinted from The Basil O’Flaherty March 2016 issue]
Joey’s tacos, the bright green truck parked near the bay beach
has vanished overnight, regardless of whether or not I craved
a chicken quesadilla. The forty bottles of hot sauces, each
sporting its own label boasting of heat hotter than any known—
all gone. There’s not even a mark in the grass where
the truck sat, where Joey leaned out and took your order.
Hard to believe that yesterday the three of us sat under
the Bradford pear tree, drinking lemonade or ginger ale
downing pork burritos layered with slaw, beans and rice.
The juice ran down our chins. We wondered how one man
could feed so many, what makes him work so hard,
cook so well. That afternoon seems weeks ago.
Town Pizza’s closed, though not the expensive women’s shop
that shares the old railroad depot.
Brown cardboard pizza boxes are stacked high in the window
but the place is dead—no smell of baking pies wafts from the door.
The transfer station no longer resembles a Richard Scarry book,
with pickups, Priuses, old Corollas lined up next to
the paper, plastic, glass bins. It’s just me and a man
whose black t-shirt reads, Keep Calm and Paddle.
We sullenly toss our plastics and tins into the green bin.
I don’t suppose the ice cream shop is open today.
I stop by the water hut and slip my quarters into the slot,
fill my empty plastic jugs one at a time, head home.
I glance at the Summer Chapel sign and wonder if
That’s done for the season, too.
But I have tomatoes, basil galore, beans, the third crop
of peppery arugula in the garden. The Italian flag still flies
from the potted rosemary bush on my stoop.
Low tide tomorrow at noon—one last swim in the sea.
Three of my poems, “Baltimore Girls,” “Tuesday After Labor Day” [shoutout to Joey’s Tacos of Wellfeet in this one] and “Not Irish Enough,” out today in The Basil O’Flaherty online lit mag, heree
Cardboard box of old journals, notebooks
full of the ephemeral and the wannabe
profound, words I wrote for an audience—
the high school journal, read weekly by
Sister Seraphia, and later, words for my eyes only—
about unrequited love, loneliness after a breakup—
Dominique has two words of advice—
Burn them. She did, and found the fire Continue reading “Burn Your Darlings”
My sister and I are walking down a long pink hall in the nursing home at Charlestown. A Catholic seminary in its former life, it’s now a huge complex of buildings on the south edge of Baltimore, apartments for affluent retirees, and an assisted living building. We pass a few patients sitting in wheelchairs and nodding at the television. We’re here to see Aunt Kate. Julia goes over to the nurse’s station and asks for the number of Mrs. Hopkins’ room. She steers me by the elbow and whispers, “This is it– this is her room.” Kate is not our aunt, not a blood relation, but my godmother. Her closeness to us was born out of my mother’s friendship with her. They were just neighbors at first, then they were two women who had their first babies late in life. They became as close as some sisters.
I haven’t seen Aunt Kate for a couple of years. It’s obvious that she hasn’t had a perm since then. Her hair, still mostly black with a few streaks of white, is blunt cut, held back in a tiny ponytail. She is in bed, covers up to her chin. They’ve put little socks on her hands, impromptu mittens.
“Hi, Aunt Kate,” says Julia cheerfully. “We came to see you.”
“Oh, dear,” says Aunt Kate, looking at us from her lying down position. She starts to cry.
“What’s the matter, Aunt Kate?” says Julia, very sweetly, as if Aunt Kate were one of her children, who are still quite small.
“I can’t remember.” says Aunt Kate, then again. “I can’t remember.” She continues to cry.
“Don’t cry, it’s okay if you can’t remember. We’ve brought pictures,” says Julia. I am always impressed by Julia’s preparedness. Out of her large handbag, she pulls out a little binder of snapshots. I know she has pulled these from a dozen large albums. She has made a little anthology for Aunt Kate, just for this visit.
“Here’s a picture of you and our mom; that’s Sara, our mom,” says Julia. It’s a photo from a cruise in the Seventies. They are wearing long gowns. Kate is more than a head shorter than Mom, and she is wearing a pastel flowered dress that seems to have no shape. But tall, silver haired, dark eyed Mom is dressed is a pale green satiny thing. You can see her wonderful figure; the satin hugs her breasts just enough but it isn’t too sexy, not cheap looking. She’s wearing sparkling drop earrings, rhinestone but you wouldn’t know. She looks elegant and happy.
“I can’t remember,” Aunt Kate says again, and tears are running down the sides of her face towards her ears because she is still mostly lying down. Julia and I pull our chairs closer to her so our faces are nearly touching hers.
“It’s okay,” says Julia. “You two had some good times together. This was one of them. You were on a cruise. Dad was there too. You three took a lot of good trips together.”
Aunt Kate lifts her head a bit and looks at us. The look in her eyes changes slightly; she has attached on to something she recognizes from the past. “I know she was my good friend,” she says pointing to Mom’s image.
“She was your friend.” Julia echoes. Now Julia and I are both crying. Aunt Kate is crying too.
I signal to Julia and we get up from the stiff chairs and walk away from the bed for a minute.
“I think we’re upsetting her,” I say.
“Maybe,” says Julia. “Maybe we should get ready to leave soon.”
“No, just a few more pictures, some of us,” I say.
We sit down again. Julia takes out more photographs.
“Here I am when I was a little girl,” she says to Aunt Kate. “And here’s one of Isabelle.”
“I lived with you for a bit when I was little,” I say. ” After Daddy had his fishing accident, when he was in the hospital. I learned to eat fresh peaches at your house, do you remember?”
Of course she doesn’t, and I don’t know why I thought I could jar loose a few cells in her crackled brain so that she would reminisce with me. It strikes me that Julia and I are going through this exercise just to make ourselves feel better about Mom. I start to cry.
“You were very good to me,” I tell her.
Aunt Kate studies the picture for a minute, then looks at me. “You are very big now,” she says slowly. ” And you have such pretty…glasses.” I am puzzled, they’re just ordinary wire rimmed frames.
“Eyes,” Julia whispers to me. “She means eyes.”
“Thank you,” I say and kiss Aunt Kate. She has almost no wrinkles. Her skin is smooth and tawny. It’s the Indian blood, I realize.
Julia tells Aunt Kate we must be going. We hug and kiss her again. Julia stops to talk to a nurse in the hall while I pretend to read the notices on a little bulletin board in the hall outside Aunt Kate’s room. Julia is taking in information like a social worker. She’s so good at getting the straight story from just about anyone. I watch her talking–so animated, her hands moving quickly to punctuate her words. Then she cocks her head fast, towards the door, to tell me it’s time to go.
“I want you to see one more thing,” she tells me. “The chapel. It’s beautiful.” We walk down the stairs and out the front entrance of the building, past the same smiling young receptionist who gave us directions a half-hour earlier. As we walk out into the cold air I start crying again, this time huge sobs and a seemingly unstoppable flow of tears.
“I feel so empty, I feel like my whole life is falling away,” I say.
“No, it’s not leaving, it’s all still here, it will always be here,” she says,” taking my arm and pressing it against her side. “Come on, this chapel is lovely, it will make you feel better to see it.”
We enter an old stone building; it must be part of the old seminary. A couple of young guys are sitting behind a desk there too, and they point us down the hall to a new-looking door. There is a little vestibule with a plaque saying how some cardinal began building this chapel in the 1920’s but ran out of money before it could be completed.
Inside the chapel is all little mirrors and tiles, on the fat pillars, on the altar floor, just thousands of tiles in mosaics. Statues of angels leaning out of the wall above the altar. Like the Roaring Twenties, all excess and wealth and showiness. I am still crying, and I sit and think about Mom. Yesterday we went to the funeral home to identify her body before she could be cremated. Her body, her corpse I had to keep telling myself so I don’t really believe it’s her, lay on a plain gurney, a burgundy blanket covering her up to her chin. We had to go into the basement of the funeral home; it was carpeted and painted, but it was still a flight down from the ground floor. Then Julia and I had to give all the statistical information to the young woman at the Cremation Society desk.
She was pleasant and businesslike, and when we finished with the forms, she said, “You may see your mother now. She looks pretty good. But we had to clean her up a bit because there was a lot of blood, and some scratches on her face.”
My heart started pounding. Her body looked so small, lying on a gurney, covered to the chin by a burgundy blanket. She looks okay, but not really asleep. I kept telling myself, this isn’t really her.
Julia started crying that time. “It isn’t really her,” I whispered. It’s just her body, Julia.” I didn’t want to touch the skin; I didn’t want to feel it cold and stiff; she’d been gone for hours. I touched her hair. It was soft and so white and thick. I wanted to go back into the Cremation Society woman’s office to borrow a pair of scissors, to take a lock of hair. “Goodbye, Mom,” I said almost in a whisper, and Julia and I held each other for a few minutes. I looked down the long narrow low ceilinged room at coffins, propped open, revealing lush satin linings. I am glad Mommy is going to burn up in a burst of flame, I thought. This is the way she had always planned for it to end.
On the way back to Julia’s house we stop at a Dunkin Donuts for coffee; we drink it in the car as she drives the beltway home. We don’t have any music, and we don’t say very much. Maybe we talk about how much it will cost. Maybe we talk about how long I will stay before I fly home. We speak about how glad we are there isn’t going to be a funeral, a Mass or anything. Mom’s wanderings through various denominations has made it clear what she didn’t want; she didn’t want the Funeral Package. Not a Mass. Probably nothing Protestant either. We aren’t in California so we can’t do a New Age thing. We will have to work something out over the next weeks, something she would have liked.
When we get home, Julia takes a long bath. She fills the tub with Epsom salts and pins up her hair. She props her head on one of those inflatable plastic pillows that are supposed to look like a scallop shell. From several rooms away, I hear her crying. I ask her if she’s okay and she apologizes for crying so much. I take her a mug of herb tea, and leave her alone. Actually I’d love to be alone myself right now, in the bath and crying. Instead, I check my email on Julia’s old computer but there’s nothing there for me, nothing from anyone. Especially, there’s nothing from Mike. He’s silent from his end in LA. If I could talk to him now, what would I say? Please make me feel better sounds so pointless, as if he could do anything anyway.
We have the memorial service for Mommy on a sunny day in February. Julia’s boys are dressed up in these suits she’s bought at the Goodwill store; they look so grown up. Alex plays the violin, he’s chosen the Chorus from Judas Maccabeus, in his Suzuki book. I play “All Blues” on the piano, with the music teacher from Julia’s school on trumpet. Julia reads a poem, all I can remember of it now is “the refrain, “I had a mother who read to me.” Then Mommy’s old protégée Sis gets up and tells some funny stories not even Julia and I had ever heard about Mommy at work. Afterwards a blur of our friends from high school, the few who stayed in Baltimore, come over and kiss us, and there are a lot of teachers from Julia’s school, and some old neighbors, and Mommy’s handsome young lawyer Al, who’s been married three times. “I just loved your mother,” he says. He’s got dark brown hair and blue eyes and doesn’t look old enough to have been married so many times. Julia has her arm around my waist and is being very sweet. There are flowers from my friend Joyce who lives in Washington State, and two of our old teachers, nuns, from high school are there, wearing civvies as Dad called them, regular middle aged lady outfits with printed flowers, sensible shoes. When we get home, we spend the afternoon sitting and eating with our old neighbor Mrs. Frank, who has driven up from her retirement home in Annapolis. She is a laid back, chatty woman who doesn’t seem in a hurry to leave like everyone else. After she finally goes, Julia points to the box with Mommy’s ashes on the top of the CD player and says, “In the spring we have to decide what to do with these.”
But that spring, we can’t decide. We’d asked Mom once where she wanted her ashes scattered. Dad’s we put in a tributary of the Chesapeake, the Choptank River. Julia and I drove to the Eastern Shore one day in August with her boys, they were still small then, and we walked out on a stone jetty Julia had found on the way back from Ocean City. We were near a place where our father had fished many times. We told the boys what we were about to do, tried to explain that the ashes would be more like chunks than the ashes they were used to seeing in the fireplace, and we opened the tin. We each took some and strewed them on the water. The current was swift. It seemed to take a short time to do what we had come so far to do. On the way back we stopped and bought watermelon and corn.
But Mom always said she hated the water; in fact, she was a poor swimmer and afraid of it. “Oh, just put me in the garden,” she would say. But which garden? What if Julia sold the house and moved? Of course, she would, eventually. Where could we dump those ashes that would be a timeless, forever spot? And why did we fool ourselves into thinking that even the sea was some timeless way to dispose of their remains? I had no garden to speak of either, and we might not stay there forever anyway. So the ashes sat on top of the CD player. “Mom liked music, let’s leave her there awhile,” Julia said. Really, I was happy she was taking care of them, I would be uncomfortable with them in my house. It’s been three or four years now and I think Julia’s moved Mom around a few times. Right now she’s in Julia’s bedroom, near the books. Maybe this spring we can finally figure it out. Or maybe we will just wait twenty years.
“It’s going so fast,” Mike said as we spoke about our work and our lives, all the books we’d read and talked about. I remember that he was standing up and I was sitting on the green sofa, at his old apartment on West 104th. It was years ago. He took my face in his hands for a minute, looking down at me. Again, he murmured, “It’s going all too fast.” It was early summer, and we went for a walk, then, in the golden light.
Reprinted from moondance.org (2000) and The Woven Tale, Spring 2017
I commend this poem to your attention–by Jackie Oldham, a Baltimore writer.
I used to be a Night Crawler:
one of those people
in the dark,
Now, I nearly run them down,
barely able to see them
skittering across the street,
in dark clothing,
with only the dancing light
of their sneakers
visible in my headlights—
if I’m lucky—
as I drive across town
on a Sunday night.
I wonder where they could
possibly be going
at this hour—nearly midnight!
At the corner of North and Fulton,
on the unlit side of the street,
I spot a lone woman
walking her dog.
On my side of the street,
a corner lit garishly bright
by a large, portable rectangular
spotlight on the sidewalk,
and, a few feet away,
by a neon-blue police light
flashing atop the streetlamp,
a gaggle of male nightcrawlers
hangs outside The Oxford Tavern,
an improbably British-style building
in the heart of Sandtown,
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