Thursday, March 11, 2010

Jane Shore, First Five Books of Poetry

Jane Shore, Eye Level, The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1977.

For my parents

Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.
-Emily Dickinson (419)

A child peers through
the bakery window.
I slit along the window frame,
lifting the boy
and the glass wall of tortes
off into a prophecy…
As the window swings open
the boy begins to see himself
up to his elbows in flour
beside the pyramid of loaves.
Is the night wind sifting the flour?
Has the blizzard turned the kitchen
inside out?

(The Advent Calendar, 1)

A snowstorm is always about to happen.
Here is a country under siege.
The children in the cottage
feel the world tip over,
and with an astronaut’s notion of gravity,
turn over in their beds and dream.
But the child in the sled in the paperweight
is always caught outside
regardless of the weather.

He stares at the sky
that is always collapsing
and sees my magnified lunar face rise,
wishing the light or my hand’s heatwave
would melt the immutable snow.
I stare through the glass an inch away
pressed against the window
like the mother calling to her child.

If only she could unglue her mouth
from the glass
where her breath sticks
like frost on the pane,
if only the sound could leave her mouth
the way a locamotive
shoots from a mountain tunnel,
then the order of their silence
would break with my cry
moving its bat-perfect sonar
through the climate of their sorrow.
Frozen in that lit interior,
who will warn them
when the bad weather will begin?
Who will bring the child in?

(The Glass Paperweight)

The occupy our lives so briefly,
the insect rocking in the bowl of its shell,
the fish pumped up to the water’s breakable surface,
in death appear more innocent
than the shapes our minds invent.

Imposing on us a kind of isolation,
they seem much more human than we are;
when solitary and cautious, they watch us
lie in our formal positions
in the deep grass, in the woods, together.

(Animals That Die in Our Houses)

Oh summer if you would only come
with your big baskets of flowers,
dropping by like an old friend
just passing through the neighborhood!

If you came to my door disguised
as a thirsty biblical angel
I’d buy all your hairbrushes and magazines!
I’d be more hospitable
than any ancient king.

I’d personally carry your luggage in.
Your monsoons. Your squadrons of bugs.
Your plums and lovely melons.

(A Letter Sent to Summer)

Oh, the lake is calling
to its banks. It sounds
like a birdcall, but in a deeper, more human voice.


…This is
the way I remember
the story, though I never saw the boy.
When I search for the spot he drowned in,
when I try to find
his face, I see
my own face, a small Atlantis rising to the surface,

trying to break
through. Not a child’s face
but the face of a woman
who has been a stranger for thirty years.


I woke, for an instant,
not knowing you.
Before touch, before

the thought of touch.
In the level darkness
I could locate

nothing of you,
no manacle of outline,
and I thought

how, each morning, the body
wakes to recognize
its shape, again

the tender landscape
given, the strangeness
of the right hand

orbiting the side,
the wrists where pulse
can quicken at a word.

And the body,
fluent in its element,
is water that the dailiness

of life runs over.
Now this, now
that: heartbeat,

the pupil widening
to light, admits
what’s attended to—

a chair mimics
the woman seated,
cup’s handle accepts

her hand. The body
receptive also, and birds
occupy the ear.

In darkness, the eye
shapes its constellation.
The hand

traces. Two fish
swim in their starry
perimeters; but the bird’s

song’s instinct,
a template in the brain.
Never let me fix you

ever, be the cloud
constantly inventing
its body like a dream

passing through your eye,
each morning dreaming
the sky a moment earlier

to light, skimming the sudden
unfamiliar coast.
And below the coast,

in the clearest water
senses can distill, here,
before love, touch returns

us to that density
silence roots the very
centers of.

(Constantly [complete])

God evicts his tenants
on such short notice
who knew
what to take?
My husband, my daughters
loaded down
with things, things, only I
lagged behind.

Old men used to come to me
to pray and weep
and pull their long white beards
and the fringe
on their prayer shawls
as if I were the Wailing Wall.

If only I were the Wailing Wall
with a tenement of weeds
in my wrinkles.

(Lot’s Wife)

Because we landed on the moon, all Americans
can walk a little taller.
Planting our carpet roll of flags,
fifty miniature silk flags,
one for each state in the Union!
I feel so proud of my own Garden State
with vegetables stitched onto the blue field
of sky instead of stars.

One of the seas is called Tranquility.
Up here I am so lonely.
If only the sea would fill up with water
so I can go sailing, if only the sea
would stop acting like a cranium
always filling up with thoughts.
Then there could be a Sea of Stimulation
where boats go by but the captains
all are naked
and everyone is sunning on the decks.

But the best part of being here is
no gravity. There are drawers for “Food”
and a drawer for “Shaving.” I am wondering
what to put in the “Rock Drawer”
till the others come back.
Even the painting that makes our module
make me feel less homesick
for its mountains and trees and fish
has a tree with drawers for the birds to live in;
and if I push a button marked “Sunset”
the sun drops like a nickel into its own little drawer
which locks automatically the drawer marked “Sleep now.”

(An Astronaut Journal [complete])

Such delicate maneuvering. My clumsiness
comes off as grace, comes off as fast
as my hands can tug at your heavy sweater,
unzip you. It’s dangerous.
Look what it invites. Houdini under ice,
chains and handcuffs,
and half the city of Detroit counting off
the seconds. Another stunt. The lead
trunk hoisted up from the river.
Empty. Crushed beneath you, kissing
you, our timing is precise.
Bless calculation. How air can last!

(Epigram of the Smothering Lover [complete])

Always I am full of numbers,
the sad arithmetic of my body.
Every morning I weigh my feelings in
like a heavyweight champion,
wishing my robe were satin
with my name stitched on back.
Oh, I am an enormous harbor.
Fear is in the breeze.

Where do the ounces of fat go? To China?
This is how the Christmas turkey feels
as the white meat is carved from him.
This is the loneliness of the last tooth
in the gum-plateau
when you are hungry
and the body comes on with all the commotion
of the Industrial Revolution.

This is how the skinny Madonna feels
as she shies away from the angel
in Martinti’s Annunciation.
The room is full of terrible surpises
each time you walk in.
sometimes the strangers have wings.
They’re always wanting you to do them a favor.

I have never eaten at the celestial Maxims
and so escaped the embarrassment of not knowing
which fork to use.
Instead, I am sinking into your three hundred dollar mattress,
this fleecy hung of white bred.
Remember when we ate our way through Italy?
My hair fanned out like spaghetti on the pillow
and the pensione smelled garlicky under the sheets.

I have always wanted to fall for a nomad
and be swept away like a tent.
Or be folded up neat as an altarpiece.
If only you could look at me that way!
From all sides! Cherubs dangling
from wire hangers in a soup bowl full of clouds.

All the suitcases spilled from their racks
when the train lurched near Nice.
Our hearts hurt! You said:
Words are such spies. Let’s eat a ham sandwich.

Oh, hot apple of my eye,
all through dinner I was starved for you!
I wanted to swallow your colors whole,
your ivories and lapus lazulis,
the way the sea does, the way the blind do.
I love the lime look your eyes have
this early in the morning.
You taste better than all the fresh fruit
cocktails in the world,
better than the bunch of radishes
that hangs in the still life over your bed,
better than the bronze Poseidon in Athens
which the museum guards would not let me taste
but if I did, he would taste salty,
collecting the sea for so many centuries.

Am I a cannibal?
Eating little, I digest myself.
Meanwhile, Dawn is breaking over Boston,
her rosy fingers curled like shrimp.
Picasso’s omelet is singing on my plate.

(Dieting [complete])

I turn off

the dashboard’s
dim constellation.
A plane

threads the darkness
of the evergreen.
Now, another

arcs over your
yard. Attentive
to an echo,

a woodthrush flits
under the eaves.
Distance is

the cautionary
bird, marking
its territory

by song.

(Night Flight)

that the bird
is silent, empty
of all

that would
unbalance you
to flight.

(Night Flight)

Waking in the dark the dark takes on
a kind of radiance and gives the trees
an elegant human shape. I hear
cars approach from miles away and
celebrate the personality of engines!
I imagine I hear our neighbors
breathe across our acres. The bird-hearted
pulse of the raspberry bush in bloom.
And the armor of one mosquito squeezing
through one wire square of bedroom screen.

(The World without Miracles, 1 [complete])

A poet has just committed suicide.
There are reasons, I tell my students’
anxious faces, you may not know.
The slow poisons working as the car idles
start long before we turn the engines on.
I say I think
despair sets the mechanism going.
Skin is palimpsest: the child’s face
sunk indelibly into the face of the adult.

There are no questions. One cough.
I have disturbed the order of our class.
I sit at the head of the table rocking
on the hind legs of my chair,
like a woman teetering on the ledge
of the city’s tallest public building.
I am afraid
I have said too much. One hand is raised.
A voice. A first tentative gesture.
Their rescue nets flutter open. Make room.

(The World without Miracles, 5 [complete])

I feel like the man in the desert,
approaching, always in his mind, an oasis,

not yet knowing himself a survivor.
One by one he carries on his back,

(as if a man could life a weight like that)
all he remembers of the shapes of the world:

a dish, an antelope, a pillar, a stair,
the snowflake’s architecture, or a pear’s,

and holding each, he fells in their contours,
the beginnings of tenderness, and fear.

I was raised to practice such economy
of feeling! The way my street at night

drew in its houses and trees like a breath.
I wanted to be the air between the mountains

of my parents’ sleeping forms!
I wanted to be the air you could breathe.

I live here, where I live.
I live in my body, which is not a man’s,

but fear, as a man does, his isolation,
the journey in the dark where the desert is.

I know that colors occupy the darkness;
the inconsistent clots of red, spasms

of violet as the forest changes seasons
on the hill below; and I know

my blood cannot reverse its current
or expect the sky to drop its miracle

of water or of manna right into my mouth.
I cannot carry every memory.

So like the snail I am learning patience,
my household on my back.

Only my body can move with grace
in its single room, in its fixed space,

that moves as I move, east or west,
its small space with room to spare.

Living with my hunger, I can name the fear.
Four walls are four walls anywhere.

(The World without Miracles, 6 [complete])

He wanted to describe the changes in the sky—
the landscape darkening and the shapes

on his table, roses and a bowl of fruit
becoming only fragrance.

He wanted to describe how light
became a conspiracy against the eyes

and was not a question of what he chose to see,
a cloud passing over or a mote on his eye.

The sky kept changing and displayed its stars.
The animals in the woods were confused into sleep.

He assembled the objects and mixed his colors
by candlelight in the afternoon.

(The Eclipse, the Still Life and the Painter [complete])

Up up the shaky ladder to the top
the gilt dome balloons above
his ropes and buckets of whitewash
as he ducks behind the peeling columns
and begins. Every sound is a small sound.
The slap of the brush on wood
is carried off. Everything that moves
is dangerous. The river must be stopped.
Stoops and windows suddenly are sharp.
That windshield, there, glares back.
Braced and aiming now. When I squint,
I see him squint. He follows the whitish
blur of my wool hat, bobbing.

(The Sniper as Axis Mundi [complete])

If I could wear my anger around my neck,
that ugly jewelry clinking, clinking,
it’d be strung with teeth: strong chewers
of mukluks, teeth that twist off
bottletops, shark and tiger teeth, sets
of chattering false teeth, the funny ones
you wind up to mow the lawn.

When I’d walk,
I’d walk with a terrible loudness.
I’d ask the dentist to fill each tooth
with a silver microphone. My sensitive
necklace would pick up all the sounds
in my head. You’d hear great cyclones
of breath and the motes that slide
across my eyes like continents.

And still I think I might scare myself
with the noise I make. Something quieter,
a blizzard inside a glass paperweight,
offends no one. Facing you when I am angriest,
I wouldn’t need to be articulate or move
an inch. There I’d sit, wearing my necklace
around my throat, a string
of covered wagons when you attack.

(The Necklace of Anger [complete])

“Dangerous,” he says, “I am dangerous
to women. I must be kept
away from them.” He does not say,
“You terrify, you astonish me.”
Houdini, heart-breaker,
“a chain of broken hearts
five miles long,” I sing
over Bloody Marys in a bar.
Winged, we move out in the wind
whipping in from Boston Harbor.

His bedroom’s done up as a cave.
Collapsing into goosedown,
his one arm pulls me toward him,
the other pushes me away.
The ceiling is so low
I can feel the peeled paint craters,
some touchable moon!

Oh, he is swimming upstream to me.
“No,” he says, “we’re those deep-sea fish
who shy away from light
growing stranger, less intimate
the deeper in we go.”

“But we are a colonial order
like coral reefs,” I say.
“No,” he says. “Corals extrude
their sex cells into water
without ceremony, without ceremony.”

“And jellyfish,” I say.
He : “At times, amphibians produce ova
when the males are far away.”
“Their courtship is elaborate,” I say.

He says, “Loving you is dangerous.”
We disconnect. He says,
“And terrible. I read someplace
enough ova to provide

the present world population
could fill a silk top hat.
And the sperm to fertilize it
Could fill a thimble.”

“A thimbleful in me,” I say.

(Survival Tactics [complete])

I can locate isolation on any map.

(Landing Off Season)

My legs break
the thick glass floor
of water.

My foot magnifies
blue as the foot
of a corpse.

One unshuttable eye
spans my face
and sees easily

what two eyes
can hardly see.
I breathe

and go under.
Sea urchins fan
black sprays of quills.

Sea fans sway
at right angles
to the current.

My snorkel’s ball
spins in its atmosphere
of breath

like tiny Mars
above my head.
The sixth sense

must be gravity!
I measure distance
now by fin-kicks,

by the sun’s angle.
Finned, the swimmer
wades backwards

to the sea,
waist-deep, to plunge
and turn almost

weightless inside
the moving
body once again.

All the lyre-tailed,
stippled, rainbow-
flecked bodies

flash—shaped by water.
A school of fish
spills from the coral

and circles me.
I stiffen
Without moving.

My fingertip’s
slightest tremor
could shatter that order,

as my breath
clouds the mask.

(Eve Level, 2: Haiti Skin Diving [complete])

The scientist shuts off the lights
and guides me one step up, unbolting
a room of cold and dark so dense
its clarity shocks instantly—
as in the nightmare dive, the dreamer
wakes mid-air over water.
In the frozen halo of my iris,
the dark target widens.

Total darkness isn’t black
but is a deep and pit-like grey
that draws the eye into its depths.
The scientist passes me the flashlight
like a cigarette. Each fish
looks like a finger’s length of quartz.
The colorless scales have the sheen
of silk, the silver mesh around the gills.
The fins, thin undulant fans, quiver.
If you should cut one open,
its blood would run clear as water.
Light shines straight through its head.
I focus on where the eyes should be.
The skin stretches unbroken over the skull,
flat and smooth as a thumbnail.
The sockets are shadows trapped in ice.

I dip my hand into the water
to touch the glacial head.
The fish darts away!
It stuns like current as I jerk back,
my hand rigid at my side.
My eye burns beyond its chemicals.

(Eye Level, 5: North: The Fish)

Across the garden
two birds call
into my sleep.

What was it
I was dreaming?
—a mermaid turning

in your net
you wished to make
human by an act

of love? Landlocked,
I was only
divided by desire.

In sleep,
when each has lost
the enterprise of

self, and the heart
no longer steers
within the body’s

limits, then
sun, moon and skull
are equal in mind.

On a sea bed, or bed
of linen, the same
skeletal thrash

in darkness:
to choke on water
as on air.

just the interval
in birdsong.

The two call
across the distance
of the bed.

The voices call
despite weather
or temperament.

I let you go.
But see how my desire
drew you in.

(Eye Level, 6: [untitled] [complete])

Jane Shore, The Minute Hand, The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1987.

for Howard

Even while we speak, the hour passes. Ovid

Summer twilight tamps down the farmhouse roof.
Kneeling in his lettuce patch, the farmer
states through the wrought-iron bars of the III—
a rusting harp that heaven plunked down
beside him, junk too heavy to haul away.
He squints at his wife beyond the IX
tending her even rows of greens.
Rising and falling between them,
the steady hands of the Planter’s Clock
skim the white enamel dial that time has turned to cream.

The sun dips and disappears
as the moon rises over the minute hand.
The pageant glides by, on gears.
Up in thinner air where the moon aspires,
a cornucopia spills stars and ripening planets—
a tomato Mars, a turnip Saturn, and four
greenbean comets whipping their tails.
Gigantic as the silo, an ear of corn
floats light-years over the barn.

Rooted in the ticking rim of earth,
The farmer and his wife can never touch.
Brighter than the moon, an onion sheds its light
on their awestruck faces morning, noon, and night.
If only she could slip inside
her pretty trapezoid of home
and cook her husband a good square meal,
but the farmhouse door is painted shut
and the curtains drawn—
hiding the feather bed, the empty crib,
the cupboard filled with loaves of bread.

High in that harvested astronomy,
the onion is incapable of tears.
Whatever Intelligence placed it
like a highlight shining in the farm wife’s eye,
also chiseled the lists into the bedrock
of the planting charts on which she stands—
tables of days and months and seasons,
killing frosts, auspicious times to sow—
indelible as the stone tablets of the Law.

The farm wife casts her vision higher even
than the moving parts of heaven.
Do other worlds like hers exist
in rooms in distant galaxies—
exact copies of her farm
with weather vane, weathered barn
and a husband bent upon his knees,
praying or weeding,
his face, a wrinkled thumbprint?

Like opening a familiar book,
the illustration always stays the same
no matter what time of day she looks.
The same furrow stitches the fields;
and haystacks, heaps of golden needles,
dot the farthest pastures, the last of which
drops neatly into the horizon’s ditch.
Dig potatoes now. Thin the beets.

It’s five to nine. Years later than she thinks.
She feels the earthquake each minute makes
behind that shaking scenery,
heartbeats coming from so far away
she has to cup her ears to hear them.

(A Clock [complete])

Six inches tall, the Russial doll
stands like a wooden bowling pin.
The red babushka on her painted head
melts into her shawl and scarlet
peasant dress, and spreading over that,
the creamy lacquer of her apron.
A hairline crack fractures the equator
of her copious belly,
that when twisted and pulled apart,
reveals a second doll inside,
exactly like her, but smaller,
with a blue babushka and matching dress,
and the identical crack circling her middle.

Did Faberge fashion a doll like her
for a czar’s daughter? Hers would be
more elaborate, of course, and not a toy—
emerald eyes, twenty-four carat hair,
and with filigreed petticoats
like a chanterelle’s gills blown inside out.
An almost invisible fault line
wound undermine her waist,
and a platinum button that springs her body open.

Now I have two dolls: mother and daughter.
Inside the daughter, a third doll is waiting.
She has the same face,
the same figure,
the same fault she can’t seem to correct.
Inside her solitary shell
where her duplicate selves are breathing,
she can’t be sure
whose heart is beating, whose ears
are hearing her own heart beat.

Each doll breaks into
a northern and southern hemisphere.
I line them up in descending order,
Careful to match each womb
with the proper head—a clean split,
for once, between the body and the mind.
A fourth head rises over the rim
of the third doll’s waist,
an egg cup in which her descendants grow
in concentric circles.

Until last, at last, the two littlest dolls,
too wobbly to stand upright,
are cradled in her cavity as if waiting to be born.
Like two dried beans, they rattle inside her,
twin faces painted in cruder detail,
bearing the family resemblance
and the same unmistakable design.

The line of succession stops here.
I can pluck them from her belly like a surgeon,
thus making the choice between fullness
and emptiness; the way our planet, itself,
is rooted in repetitions, formal reductions,
the whole and its fractions.
Generations of women emptying themselves
like one-celled animals; each reproducing,
apparently, without a mate.

I thought the first, the largest, doll
contained nothing but herself,
but I was wrong.
I assumed that she was young
because I could not read her face.
Is she the oldest in this matriarchy—
holding within her hollow each daughter’s
daughter? Or, the youngest—
carrying the embryo of the old woman
she will become? Is she an onion
all the way through? Maybe,
like memory shedding its skin,
she remembers all the way back to when

her body broke open for the first time,
to the child of twelve who fits inside her still;
who has yet to discover that self,
always hidden, who grows and shrinks,
who multiples and divides.

(The Russian Doll [After Elder Olson] [complete])

Marooned on the piano stool
on the stage of her grammar school,
she plunged into the medley
she knew by heart—the first few bars
of “Georgia…” And forgot.
Then stuttered them out again.
And like an amnesiac, woke
to the auditorium’s tense silence,
then applause—each a slap
in the face for the absent music.

Everyone makes mistakes, he said.
He tallies up the day’s receipts.
It’s 1959. His New York buddies
washed up on the Jersey Shore.
The Goldwyn Girls, Follies of ’35.
Any one of those showgirls
might have been her mother—

(Eighth Notes)

Thumbelina, poor sleeping child,
swaying in the hammock of a leaf,
nested in my left hand the whole
summer of my seventh year,
her skull just the size of my thumbnail,
her bird heart ticking against my pulse.
Only a child, I was an only child
small for my age, but a giant
towering over a clump of crabgrass.
A belly button in the dirt,
the anthill was the slave plantation
I oversaw, ants laboring
in the fork-raked furrows,
hoisting heavy sacks of cotton—
crumbs fifty times their body weight.
To be a giant, you must learn to step
softly, carefully, so as not to hurt
the working earth.
That year in school I was learning
how to add. The backyard thundered
with my mother’s yelling. “Ssh.
Don’t wake the sleeping Thembelina,”
I’d whisper into my left hand.
“Don’t hurt the left hand echoed.
At home I was learning to tell time.
Each night when I tried to sleep,
I heard the alarm clock’s jeweled
movement, seventeen diamond planets
on saw-tooth wheels orbiting a ruby sun.
but something else was ticking
in another part of the Milky Way.
A cloud-spasm in the utter darkness,
something else was swimming into the galaxy.
Who could imagine anything so foolish
as a child the size of a thumb,
a replica, a shrunken opposite,
a speck of sand that no amount
of wishing could dislodge.
Inside my mother’s body, a girl-child
already as big as a lima bean
was growing. But the child I carried
with me, who slept the sleep
of a speechless animal,
I carried for my own protection.
I never raised a hand against my mother
Because the hand can crush with it protects.

(Thumbelina [complete])

Spinning high above the weathered barn,
the axis-mundi of our muddy yard,
the copper weathercock
rules with an iron will,
a will identical to the arrow he perches on.
On one squeaky leg, he swivels south,
southeast. The wind can’t flutter
his battered tail. He swivels north.
Gaining in velocity,
the wind follows him obediently.

Or so he thinks. Directly overhead,
the dime-sized sun has just begun to spread
a dime’s worth of warmth.
Smiling Brumhilde pops out her door
and stands on the porch at full attention.
A guardian of good weather,
her right cheek bruised blue
where the paintbrush missed her eye.
Her braids, two blonde antlers,
stick straight out of her head.
Fuming behind his matchstick door,
her grumpy husband, Hans,
picks up where she stopped dusting
the black ladder of thermometer
and rinses out the mop.

Marriage isn’t made in heaven.
Like Heraclitus, neither
can step onto the same porch twice
during the same weather.
The wheel their feet are glued to
binds them together for better or for worse,
her cheerful face opposing his at every turn.
But when his cloudy eyebrows begin to gather,
Hans throws a trenchcoat over his mossy lederhosen
and lurches forward like a second hand
while Brunhilde lurches backward
toward the midnight of her door.
Above her trembling lintel,
herds of thunderclouds stampede the roof,
slamming Brunhilde’s door shut, lock her

inside the dark particulars of home.
Mopping the floor, she wonders
if she’s responsible for the storm.
The armor guarding Brunhilde’s heart
is a cotton pinafore.
Cowering behind her flimsy door,
she softly calls her husband home,
but Hans feels most at home
outside, conducting the Wagnerian sublime;
his anger, the leitmotif that sparks repeatedly
like a trick candle that won’t blow out.

But high above the weather house,
the weathercock thinks that he’s the maestro!
Dead center in the hurricane’s eye,
he’s just ordered the sun to rise
for the second time today!
Dawn’s alarm clock, aren’t all moving bodies
subject to his whims?
Why else would those two below
pop out their doors like manic cuckoos
and jerk along their miserable circle
unless he were their oracle…

And the eye of the storm blinks, and moves on.

(German Weather House [complete])

Slamming down the phone,
she breaks the connection from coast to coast
and shifts to his side of the bed.
What would he do, if he were here now?
The TV screen blooms in monochrome
with the sound off:
two boxers stagger to opposite corners
of the ring to recuperate from Round 4,
where the challenger spat some blood out
and got his second wind.

(Friday Night Fights)

As you slept, your pulse
flickering on your neck like a trick of light,
I thought how, earlier, beside the sleeping shape
Adam labored the whole night to stay awake,
afraid she’d vanish in the morning with the moon.
Out of the earth sprang the planet’s
blurred, unpredictable life.
The pulse of the near hill,
or was it the shudder he was born with,
rocked him. The animals, also,
that yesterday brushed like wind against his body,
were now given form. On a branch,
an icicle began to melt.
It hung, glistening and patient,
while a zipper of vertebrae inched all the way down
its back. Then bands of bargello
stitched the skin—tiny saw-tooth flames
of dull gold and rust, rust and gold.
This he named snake.
On the topmost branch of the tree,
a bird bristled with little white thorns.
Then each thorn fanned out like a palm-frond
and the bird flew away.
All day, Adam watched and listened,
but he couldn’t name his loneliness—
the long “oh” of sorrow, the “ooh” of hallelujah.
Eleven curved knifeblades
of his rib cage, and the twelfth
that cut his flesh without injury,
he accepted,
as he accepts these other gifts placed before him.
All night, he memorized her human shape,
so that later, were she not there,
his memory could reconstruct that absent body
from the air, and wrench him from his solitude
before the tender acre cradled her.

(Tender Acre [complete])

negotiate their way across a frozen lake,
careful not to touch, careful not to upset
each other’s balance. The house is quiet;
I have been thinking about them all evening
and now, my window spills across the ice
the narrow path of light they are walking on.
It’s hard to see but I think the smaller one
is a woman, her parka sparks some color—
though most colors go neutral in the dark.

I think he’s just said something that’s hurt her
enough to make her stop.
He must be sorry, because he’s stopped too.

Now one of them is talking instead of listening.
One of them is in danger. Their words fly
like white birds out of their mouths.
I wish I could stop them a minute; stop them
from hurting each other, but which words
would I put back in their mouth?
They are almost on the bank below me
and soon they will want to come in.
If only I could hold them off a little longer,
for a little longer keep them anonymous
and safe, before they will become me.

(Two Figures)

At eight o’clock we woke to the chain saw.
The clumps of pine
quivered as the empty flatbed lumbered by,
printing snake skins up the snowy road.
The telephone company was thinning out the woods.

That afternoon, we snowshoed to a neighbor’s farm.
They were gone, but their brown cow leisurely chewed.
She tried to ignore us, keeping an unforgiving eye
on us, and on the rags of grass beneath the snow.
—The sound her teeth made tearing
was like a seamstress ripping out a seam.
The enormous head swayed and dipped—
it scared us too. A skein of spittle
dangled from her lower jaw;
her tongue was big as a boot, awkward and dull pink;
her black leather nostrils snorted
a storm of cumuli, hot and white.


Later, when we fed the fire, the embers
glowed under the logs which the flames systematically ate,
nibbling slowly, deliberately,
from left to right. Like reading.
Sometimes, a fire devours a book all at once
in one sitting; or slowly, disinterestedly, leafs through it,


For six days and night
a luna moth, pale green,
pinned herself to the sliding screen—
a prize specimen in a lepidopterist’s dream.

Tuesday’s wind knocked her off the deck.
She tacked herself back up again.
During Wednesday’s rain she disappeared
and reappeared on Thursday
to meditate and sun herself,
recharging her dreams from dawn to dusk,
and all night draining the current from
the deck’s electric lantern.

A kimono just wider than my hand,
her two pairs of flattened wings were pale
gray-green panels of the sheerest crepe de Chine.
Embroidered on each sleeve, a drowsing eye
appeared to watch the pair of eyes
on the wings below quite wide awake.
But they’re all fake.
Nature’s trompe l’oeil gives the luna
eyes of a creature twice her size.

The head was covered with snow-white fur.
Once, I got so close
it rippled when I breathed on her.
She held herself so still,
She looked dead. I stroked
the hems of her long, sweeping tail;
her wings dosed my fingers with a green gold dust.
I touched her feathery antennae.
She twitched and calmly
reattached herself a quarter-inch west,
tuning into the valley miles away
a moment-by-moment weather report
broadcast by a compatriot,
catching the scent of a purely
sexual call; hearing sounds
I never hear, having
the more primitive ear.

in the middle of the screen,
she rules the grid of her domain
oblivious to her collected kin—
the homely, brown varieties of moth
tranced-out and immobile,
or madly fanning their paper wings,
bashing their brains out on the bulb.
Surrounded by her dull-witted cousins,
she is, herself, a sort of bulb,
and Beauty is a kind of brilliance,
burning self-absorbed, giving little,
indifferent as a reflecting moon.

Clinging to the screen despite my comings
and goings, she never seemed to mind the ride.
At night, when I slid the glass door shut,
I liked to think I introduced her
to her perfect match
hatched form an illusion
—like something out of Grimm—
who, mirroring her dreamy stillness,
pining for a long-lost twin,
regarded her exactly as she regarded him.

This morning,
a weekend guest sunbathing on the deck,
sun-blind, thought the wind had blown
a five dollar bill against the screen.
He grabbed the luna, gasped,
and flung her to the ground.
She lay a long moment in the grass,
then fluttered slowly to the edge of the woods
where, sometimes at dawn,
deer nibble the wild raspberry bushes.

(A Luna Moth, [For Elizabeth Bishop] [complete])

Each day, each morning, before the sun can touch
one edge of anything, within the oak’s shadow
an unfamiliar bird begins to sing.
Against the sky,
the leaves the dark has polished are now
shingled like the grisaille wings of the bird,
and the whole garden’s gone over with the same
meticulous hand, the grass held down
with long, even stitches, as morning settles
on the rosebush, anchored by each thorn.
On the near hill there are flowers like small fires.
Inside the house, a man and a woman are sleeping.
Daylight’s an infusion of pain so slight
each barely feels it ribboning down the spine
until the bird beings to call them
back into the landscape their closed eyes
labor to admit.
For an instant, the man sees himself
twist up to light as he reaches for the woman
preparing to open herself to him,
as later, earth will take his body wholly in.

(Aubade [complete])

Jane Shore, Music Minus One, Picador USA, New York, 1996.

My family admired the Dutch people;
they’d hidden Jews in their houses during the War.
Once, while I was playing with my tea set,
I heard my aunt Roz say that exact thing:
“The Dutch hid Jews during the War.”
My aunts and uncles sat in the living room,
arguing the Holocaust—the inevitable subject—
who had helped and who had not.
A moment later, our German cleaning lady,
Mrs. Herman—my mother liked her—
literally scrubbed her way past,
on hands and knees, dragging her pail and rags.
My aunt Lil spoke a few sentences in Yiddish.
“What did you say?” I begged her.
Mrs. Herman had just rolled up the oval rug.
My aunt said, “Germans were bad. The Dutch were good.”

“And the streets of Holland are immaculate,”
my mother said, “because every morning
the Dutch wash their sidewalks down.”

And so I made up a game I called
“Washing the Streets of Holland.”
During my bath I’d climb out of the tub,
and sprinkle Old Dutch Cleanser on the floor.
I’d hold my breath, careful
not to inhale the deadly powder.
The Dutch Cleanser lady wore a bonnet
whose flaps completely hid her face.
In her clogs and blue skirts and clean white apron,
and with a raised stick, about to strike,
she was chasing something—or someone—
on the other side of the can.

(Washing the Streets of Holland)

I was miserable every day that summer
at Camp Bell, summer of the iron lung
and Joe McCarthy. Miserable
eating my kosher lunch and playing tag
in scratchy new shorts, my name repeated
on the labels my mother whipstitched
to the stiff elastic waistbands of my underpants.
The pool gleamed, dangerous and inviting…
I could catch polio from the locker room’s
wet concrete floor, the pint-sized toilets
behind rustic swinging doors.

I’d be so much happier staying at home
playing with my Tiny Tears Doll,
and watching Catholic boys who smoked and swore
playing stickball in the alley behind our store,
their hair slicked back in long DAs.
Camp Bell’s yeshiva boys
wore velvet and satin skullcups
the size of the saucers in my china tea set;
some were crocheted like doilies
and held in place with a bobby pin.

There were days I’d be so homesick, I’d dawdle
behind my group, the Peewees,
whimpering on the path of our nature walks,
the Manhattan skyline hovering in the east
in its dirty snarl of cloud.
Bending over a stream, combing the shallows
for tadpoles, in the swirling mirror of water
I’d suddenly see my mother—
her scuffs, her terry cloth robe—
anything could set me off.

It was easy to spot other crybabies,
bloodshot eyes and splotchy skin,
hiccupping and sobbing out in the open.
A few sat on the toilet and bawled
in the privacy of a bathroom stall.
One ingenious boy made a “church”—
by folding hid hands together, as if in prayer,
over his nose and mouth
into which he’d slide his thumb, and suck.
His straightened pinkies raised the steeple.

He’s walk from Baseball to Arts-and-Crafts,
from Rowing to Swimming to Volleyball,
all day clamping his hands
like an oxygen mask over his face.
The steeple jutted up between his eyes
as each day he erected his sanctuary,
breathing the air of his own consoling breath.

(Crybaby [complete])

It was hot, so hot
the Chamber of Commerce
canceled the annual chicken barbecue,
the coals already burning
under the empty grills.

My father closed up early.
We lounged around all afternoon
in our apartment over the store.
My mother wore her sheerest bra and panties.
My father stripped to his boxer shorts.
He sat at the kitchen table in the path of the fan;
like a game of solitaire, the ticket stubs—
the week’s receipts—before him.

(Heat Wave, Cold War)

The Cold War was on TV.
My scissors cut along the shoulders, hips,
the perfect neutral bodies.
The Father didn’t have my father’s bald spot,
nor the Mother my mother’s belly.
Their modest children—a girl and a boy—
had underwear painted onto their skin.

(Heat Wave, Cold War)

Too hot to talk, too hot to eat,
we lowered the blinds
and sat in the dark all day and evening—
turning on lamps only made more heat.
We caped out on the living room sofa.
Ozzie and Harriet. Canned laughter. The News.
The station signed off, jets flew in formation
to the strains of the national anthem.

When the peacock’s tail feathers fanned out,
an array of grays,
my father flicked the dial.
We watched a white dot fade and shrink to nothing
in the center of the blackened screen.
Finally, we all tried to sleep.
My mother lay down in the twin bed
across from mine, on top of her separate sheet,
dabbing her forehead with a cold washcloth.

(Heat Wave, Cold War)

The electric eye of the mezuzah
guarded our apartment over the store
as innocent of Christmas
as heaven, where God lived,
how many stories above the world?
Was He angry when He saw
all the windows on my street—
the assimilated grocer’s, druggist’s,
even my father’s store—lit up
like windows in an Advent calendar?

Alone in my bedroom
the nights my parents worked late,
I’d hear voices and laughter
floating up through the floor—
customers trying on dressy dresses
in the fitting rooms below.
The store was dressed up, too,
with tinsel, icicles,
everything but a Christmas tree—
“Over my dead body,” my mother said.

Christmas was strictly business
in my parents’ store.
Fourteen shopping days to go,
my class sang carols
in front of the school assembly.
In starched white blouses
we marched up to the stage,
our mouths a chain of O’s.
When we came to the refrain,
“Christ the Savior is born,”

as if one cue all the Jewish kids
were silent, except me,
absentmindedly humming along
until the word Christ slipped out.
It was an accident!
Gentiles believed in Christ.
We Jews believed in a God
Whose face we were forbidden to see,
Whose name we were forbidden
to say out loud, or write completely.

We had to spell it G-d,
the missing o dashing into its hole.
That afternoon after school,
I sat near an empty fitting room
Folding cardboard gift boxes,
carefully locking the flaps in place.
Was God going to punish me?
My father knelt in the window display
among the mannequins,
like one of the Magi in a crèche,

dusting a plastic angel three feet tall.
Stored in the cellar under the stairs,
draped in her dusty cellophane caul,
waiting to be reborn,
she lorded it over the old mannequins,
naked, bald, their amputated limbs
piled in the corner like firewood.
The Sunday before the holiday season
she ascended, one floor, to the store,
trailing a tail of electric cord.

After my father plugged her in,
she glowed from halo-tip to toe,
faith—a fever—warming her cheeks,
her insides lit by a tiny bulb.
I longed to smuggle her up to my room,
to have some company at night
when the store was open late.
I gazed down the darkening street,
Seventy-ninth to Boulevard East,
and out over the Hudson.

(The Holiday Season)

Jetting safely from the Jews in New Jersey
to the Jews in Miami Beach,
my mother and aunt and I
took a week’s vacation at the Hotel Seville.
We’d left the men back home.

Every morning after breakfast,
we’d head for the pool, weaving
through rows of recumbent sunbathers,
the lounge chairs filling up as fast
as cemetery plots in Queens.

My mother and aunt unfurled their towels.
They ordered iced drinks from the bar.
They took turns greasing each other’s backs
with tanning lotion white as semen,
gently, gently, rubbing it in.

(Peak Season)

a boy I’d seen eating breakfast
in the hotel restaurant with his family—

as well behaved as a bar mitzvah boy.
Braces gleaming beneath his faint mustache,
he teased me with splashes, showing off
the way the boys at school punched girls
they liked. He did handstands in the water.

Popping up, he pushed my head under,

long enough to show me who was boss.
Long enough for my head to shatter the glass roof
of water, and we could be ourselves again—
a boy and a girl—not mortal enemies—
years before we’d enter the world for real.

(Peak Season)

Sometimes when I pick up a razor and shave my legs,
I remember that summer in Rockland Lake, New York,
and my mother’s admonition:
“If you start shaving your legs now,
for the rest of your life the hair will grow back
thick and black and ugly, like a man’s!”
Lucky for me, she never found my father’s razor blade
I’d sandwiched between my mattress and box spring.
That was the summer I slept on the studio couch
in my little sister’s room
at Applebaum’s Bungalow Colony—

(Days of Awe)

On Friday evenings, the fathers would return to us
dead tired, from working all week in the city.
Soldiers on furlough from no war,
they’d drive up to the country,
only forty-five minutes away.
Changed into Bermuda shorts and aprons,
they’d carry platters of scored meat
to the brick barbecue pits out back.

(Days of Awe)

And last of all, my mother’s skit
inspired by the Broadway musical, South Pacific,
where my father had fought in the War.

When Mrs. Applebaum sat down at the piano
and played the opening bars
of “Bloody Mary is the Girl I Love,”
a dozen husbands stormed the stage,
wearing grass skirts, and bras—two coconut shells
clamped over their hairy breasts.
Hairy potbellies, pale hairy legs,
their own skin was a kind of hirsute costume they wore
with their street shoes and black socks,
lipstick, wigs, and gag glasses
with eyeballs popping out and jiggling on springs.
It brought the house down.

(Days of Awe)

One Saturday morning, after Larry and his father
davenned Kaddish with the elders
in Temple, the Cohens’ curly red hair,
sore thumbs, in that sea of bobbing gray,
I caught the bus to Manhattan
for my lesson at the Metropolitan Opera House
School of Ballet. I sat behind the driver,
leaned my head against the humming glass
flashing with the street that I grew up on—
Noveck’s Drugs, Wolf’s Deli, Embassy Theater,
kids already lining up for the Saturday matinee.
In my high upholstered seat, I felt superior,
immune, as the bus lumbered through Guttenberg,
West New York, Union City, and Weehawken,
perched on the Palisades.
The Manhattan skyline glittered across the Hudson.
Traffic funneled into the three mouths
of the Lincoln Tunnel; buses filed into the fumes.
I gulped down my last breath of good air, and panicked.
The tunnel might spring a leak, the Russians
might bomb us and I’d be stuck down here
forever, my past behind me, my future
an eye of light dilating on the other side.

(Last Breath)

“Ma,” I shyly said, “I got my period,”
then over to receive her kiss,
her blessing.

She looked as though she were going to cry.
In her blue nylon nightgown, her hairnet
a cobweb stretched over her bristling curlers,
my mother laughed, tears in her eyes,
and yelled, “Mazel Tov! Now you are a woman!
Welcome to my club!”
and slapped me across the face—
for the first and last time ever—

“This should be the worst pain you ever know.”

(The Slap)

When I was seventeen I had a vision of Christ.
One day I’d said something bad about God,
and by God I meant
the one I’d worshipped since Hebrew School,
God of the Burning Bash, the Red Sea Miracle,
the one-and-only God of the Old Testament.
That night I had a dream of me in my bedroom,
the very room in which I’m dreaming the dream,
and something wakes me, I look up and see—
projected on my white wall like the roll-up
screen on which my father shows home movies—
a picture moving, alive, streaked with pastels
like a page in my Illustrated Children’s Bible.

Suddenly, I whirl around and see a stranger
sitting at my desk, handsome, young,
bare-chested, wearing a toga; there’s sand
in his beard, on his feet between his toes,
on the blond leg hair wrapped
in the leather straps of his Jesus scandals,
the kind you could but on 4th Street
in Greenwich Village. The funny thing is,
I recognize that he is Jesus, Jesus Christ,
and in my throat grows a gutteral, terrified cry;

and as I try to speak, he begins to rise,
seated in the same position,
as though an invisible string from the ceiling
pulls him three feet off the ground;
and as he begins to rise, I begin to sink,
in slow motion, I fall to my knees and bow
before him, breaking the commandment;
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Kneeling, I begin to cry, not a cry of sorrow
but a cry of joy, and he looks at me kindly
and says, in a gentle voice, in English,
It was so simple, you should have known all along.

I woke up shivering, alone; the luminous hands
on my Baby Ben alarm clock glowing 3:19.
I wanted to run to my parents’ bedroom,
screaming, “I have just seen Jesus Christ!”
But first, I wanted him to send me a sign
that he was real, that it was really real—
what I had seen—I wanted a light to flash,
a picture to fall off the wall, a car horn
to honk three times from the street below.
Then I didn’t want a sign. I didn’t want
to think that it was real. If it were real,
I’d have to live, knowing that I’d seen Jesus.

What would the rabbi say?
Would my parents send me to a doctor,
lock me up in the loony bin?
Should I convert and live in a convent
with the other Jewish nuns from New Jersey?
How could I eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner,
and chew my food day after day after day?
Too frightened to fall asleep again,
by sunrise I had decided to try to forget it,
until one afternoon seven years later,
when sitting at a lecture in a dark auditorium,
a slide of Simone Martini’s Annunciation
flashed huge on the projected screen—

the moment when the Archangel Gabriel
arrives from heaven to greet the Virgin,
interrupting her reading in the garden.
The golden words flying out of his mouth
head straight for the bull’s-eye of her ear.
I recognized her shocked look, her awe,
the exact moment it dawns on her
that from now on she will never again be
the same person she woke as that morning.

Then I knew it was Jesus Christ I’d seen,
not Gabriel, not David, or some wing’d
messenger from heaven God had sent.
I didn’t have to wrestle Jacob’s angel,
or offer a glass of water to a thirsty
stranger knocking on my door.
I knew what I had seen was real,
as real as the prayer book Mary was reading,
with the light falling on it and with shade
between the pages, when the Angel
took her by surprise: a real girl, my age,
a real angel, an angel real as Jesus—
as real as your fingers touching this page.

(A Vision [complete])

Sunday afternoons, my father practiced
flute in the family room.
He warmed up, playing scales
while my mother worked the crossword puzzle
in her wing chair, like a throne.
Three o’clock and she was still
wearing her nightgown and slippers.
Our store downstairs was closed.
She was sick of looking at dresses all week.
Sunday was her day of rest.

I sprawled on the floor with my homework.
Each in our little orbit.
My father gave it all up when he married her.
Abdicated, like the Duke of Windsor.

Music was no life for a family man.
During the War, he had led the band
in the Marine Corps, in the South Pacific.
In the photo, each man poses with his instrument
except my father, holding a baton;
clarinets and saxophones leaning against their chests,
like rifles at port arms.

It was my job to start the record over.
The sheet music, stapled to the album cover,
was propped on the music stand.
The needle skated its single blade
in smaller and smaller circles on black ice.
The needle skipped. He was a little rusty.
When he lost his place, it left a hole in the music,
like silence in a conversation.

You had to imagine his life before the War.
At fifteen, on the Lower East Side, he played weddings
and bar mitzvahs;
at sixteen, he toured with the Big Bands.
You had to imagine him before
he changed his name from Joseph Sharfglass
to George Shore; you had to imagine him
handsome in his baby blue tuxedo
when he played with Clyde McCoy’s orchestra
lighting up hotel ballrooms from New York to California
and all the road stops in between.
One enchanted evening in Connecticut,
he saw my mother.
A week later, he shipped off to the War.
You had to imagine his life before the War—
The one-night stands, the boys on the bus,
and in its wake the girls
with plucked eyebrows and strapless dresses
surrounding him like the mannequins
as he stood behind the counter
of his store, waiting for customers,
in New Jersey on the Palisades.

You had to imagine him occupying the uniform
now folded neatly in his footlocker
under the telescope pocked with rust—or bloodstains—
a souvenir from the War.
The record spun. He caught his breath.
The music raced on without him.

(Music Minus One)

The year I had the affair with X,
he lived downtown on Gansevoort Street,
in a sublet apartment over the warehouses.
They were considered chic places to live.
He was wavering over whether to divorce
His wife, and I’d fly down
every other week to help him decide.
Most nights, we’d drop in for cocktails
on the Upper East Side and hobnob
with his journalist friends, then taxi
down to Soho for an opening and eat
late dinner in restaurants whose diners
wore leather and basic black.
We’d come home at four in the morning
just as it was starting to get light
and huge refrigerator trucks were backing up
to the loading docks and delivering
every kind of fresh and frozen meat.
Through locked window grates I could see
them carrying still carcasses, dripping crates
of iced chickens. We’d try to sleep
through the racket of engines and men
shouting and heavy doors being slammed.
By three in the afternoon the street would be
completely deserted, locked up tight;
at twilight they’d start their rounds again.
The street always smelled of meat.
The smell drifted past the gay bars
and parked motorcycles, it smelled
like meat all the way to the Hudson.
And though they hosed it down at best
they could, it still smelled as though
a massacre had occurred earlier that day,
day after day. We saw odd things
in the gutter—lengths of chain, torn
undershirts, a single shoe, and sometimes
even pieces of flesh—human or animal,
you couldn’t tell—and blood puddling
around the cobbles and broken curbstones.
On weekends, we’d ask the taxi
to drop us off at the door
so that no one could follow and rob us.
We’d climb to our love nest
and drape a sheet over the bedroom window—
the barred window to the fire escape—
which faced across the airshaft the window
of a warehouse—empty, we assumed,
because we’d never seen lights on
behind the cracked and painted panes.
In the morning, we’d sleep late,
we’d take the sheet down and walk
around the apartment naked,
and eat breakfast in bed, and read,
and get back to our great reunions…
One Sunday, we felt something creepy—
a shadow, a flicker—move behind a corner
of broken glass. And we never knew
who they were, or how many,
or for how many months they had been
watching us, the spectacle we’d become.
Because that’s what we were to them—
two animals in a cage fucking:
arms and backs and muscle
and flanks and sinew and gristle.

(Meat [complete])

That day, I was wearing an Indian cotton skirt
printed with huge vivid flowers.
A bee flew into the open window of the moving car
and tried to pollinate my skirt.

(The Wrong End of the Telescope [For Elizabeth Bishop])

Before she was born,
I was a woman who slept
through the night, who could live
with certain thoughts without collapsing…

if my husband died,
I could remarry; if I lost
my job, I could relocate
start afresh…

I could live through “anything.”
Even my daughter arriving
four weeks early,
a smile stitching my raw abdomen, hurting
as if I’d been cut in half.

When they brought her to me
for the first time, her rosiness
astonished me, she
who had been so long in the dark:

swathed in an absurd cap and a blanket
washed, rewashed, folded precisely as origami;
a diaper fan-folder to accommodate
her tiny body, a long-sleeved undershirt
with the cuffs folded over her perfect hands,
making them stumps.

In my private room
filled with expensive gift bouquets—
I hardly slept a wink—
the stalk-necked bird-of-paradise flowers,
blind under their spiky crowns of petals,
gawked at me, and the anthurium’s
single heart-shaped bloodred leaf
dangled a skinny penis.

The next morning, they wheeled me to the nursery.
Behind the glass window,
the newborns were displayed, each
in its own clear plastic Isolette.
A few lay sin separate cribs, under heat lamps,
and among them, mine
born thirty days early, scrawny, naked, her skin tinged
orange with jaundice.

Under the ultraviolet lamps, her eyes taped shut,
like a person in a censored photograph,
a strip of tape slapped over her genitalia,

a prisoner, anonymous, in pain—

my daughter, one day old, without a name,
splayed naked under the lamps,
soaking up the light of this world,
a sad sunbather stretched out on Waikiki.

(Postpartum, Honolulu [complete])

At first, she seemed an apparition,
the white chiffon on her party dress,
the sheer moth-wings of her sleeves
caught in the web of our car beams.
The setting was perfect, a graveyard,
the weather, summer, slightly chilly,
a scene in a movie, a couple
driving home from a party,
a lonely country road, a woman
in distress, the decoy’s murderous

accomplices hiding in the trees,
our good baby slumped in her padded
car seat in the back beside me.
You slowed the car to a crawl,
the tires crunching dirt and gravel.
Up close, she looked human enough;
the ghost a teenager, barely a woman.
You said quietly, without turning,
lock your door. In seconds,
the windshield fogged with breath.

Between gasps and sobs, she told
how she had been out driving alone,
and a car of boys—of men—she corrected,
had chased her up and down
the back roads, down the Calais Road,
the Jack Hill Road, the Pekin Branch,
forced her into a ditch, and run off.
Down the hill past the cemetery hedge
we saw the faint blush of taillights,
just as she’d said, and the tip

of tail fin sticking out of the ditch.
Should we take her to the hospital?
She was unhurt, she said.
Should we call the State Police?
Had she been raped?
Your foot poised on the gas pedal.
No, no, she said. You said, Get in.
She wedged herself into the backseat
with me, the baby cradled in the middle.
Reeking of liquor and cigarette smoke,

she shook as violent as our idling car.
What to do? I was new at being a mother.
Reaching across my sleeping daughter,
I shyly touched the girl’s trembling arm
cold through the layer of chiffon,
and patted her, and petted her, like a cat,
while you asked her her name,
her phone number, the road she lived on.
Our road, how strange. She’d show us
the house. We passed her car, blue,

its headlights extinguished in the ditch.
Halfway up Peck Hill, she stopped us
at the farmhouse just below ours,
our neighbors Kay and Morris
asleep behind dark windows.
I waited in the car with the baby
while you shouted and banged on the door,
until the bedroom—then the kitchen—
lights blazed on. Next morning,
Morris told you the story, beginning to end,

leaning against his pickup truck.
Where was his granddaughter?
Upstairs sleeping. They would send her
to live with relatives in Maine;
she was wild, a troublemaker, a liar,
always had been, the family
had had it up to here—he karate-chopped
his thatch of ragged gray hair—
she’d got drunk again and crashed the car
and blamed it on some men.

You told me, while I nursed the baby.
I felt a little foolish.
We’d both been had.
Carrying the baby to her crib,
I put her on her stomach, patted her back.
She began to cry. Over she rolled,
and yawned—I can’t explain why
I started getting mad—
The inside of her mouth growing
Wider and redder, like a wound.

I carried it in my wallet,
the way teenage boys used to carry
a single condom—just in case.

On my visits home, after dessert,
my father would nod to my mother,
my younger sister, my aunts, my uncle,
and, catching my eye, he’d given me the signal—a wink.
He’d stand up, excusing us
from all the coffee drinkers at the table.
The two of us would go downstairs,
unlock the store, deactivate the alarm,
and lock the door behind us,
making sure we were alone.

I’d follow him past the dress racks
into the last fitting room in the back.
He’d draw the curtain,
Unlatch the door disguised by a mirror,
and then, he’d point to the family safe
hidden under a green drape,
always prefacing his apology
with, “It’s only just in case,
in case something should happen,
I’m no spring chicken, let’s face it.”
And then he’d shrug.

I’d kneel before the squat steel box.
While he shone the flashlight on my hands,
nervous, I practiced the routine
I’d rehearsed for the last twenty years,
ever since he’d had his heart attack.
Every time the heavy door swung open,
I’d close my eyes, not wanting to look inside.

When my aunt called,
I drove north all day, checking my wallet,
checking the numbers he’d jotted down
still legible on the torn pink slip.

Behind the faded GOING OUT OF BUSINESS sign
he had placed in the window
a month before my mother had died,
the empty store was a tomb,
the upstairs apartment was a tomb,
the safe had been moved to his closet.
Underneath the chorus line of laundered shirts,
lay the green drape shrouding the safe.

I got down on my knees.
I started with the dial turned to 0.
I turned the dial to the left two whole turns
and stopped at 79.
I turned the dial to the right one whole turn
and stopped at 35.
I turned the dial to the left
and stopped at 10.
I heard a click, turned the handle,
and pulled open the heavy door.

In the sliding metal drawers and shelves,
sets of keys and stacked envelopes
stuffed with green, with gold
cuff links, his gold wedding ring
and gold Jewish Star I’d seen him wear
every day of my life,
his dog tags, expired membership cards—
musician’s union, driver’s license,
smeary photocopies of birth certificates,
and the key to the safety-deposit box,
(the duplicate key I’d locked in mine
after my sister and I
divided up our mother’s jewelry)—

everything on the up and up,
no mistresses, no skeletons, a life
apparently as orderly
as the inside of this safe.

—All those years of spinning the numbers,
rehearsing the combination—
father, mother, daughter, daughter—
until I got it right.

(The Combination [complete])

She stopped singing. The year before she died,
we didn’t talk much on the phone,
her voice disembodied, searching
for a neutral subject.
When I’d call and ask to speak with her,
my father said that she was “indisposed.”
She shut me out, hung up on my life, the line went dead.
So I missed it all, the tubes, the nosebleeds.

(The Visible Woman)

I agreed to “respect her wishes”
and not visit her.
She said that she “didn’t have the strength” to see me.
I asked my aunts to beg for me.

I argued with her about it on the phone.
I pleaded with her to let me come home.
She discouraged me
from attending Aunt Lil’s funderal,
but I came, anyway, and watched her
stare vacantly at the hole in the ground.
She stared as they lowered the coffin.
Later, sitting in our family room, in her usual chair,
she stared straight ahead for hours,
as if having her portrait painted.
She stared, except for when my daughter
made her smile.

(The Visible Woman)

On the phone the last words she said to me,
“Have a nice life.”

(The Visible Woman)

Jane Shore, Happy Family, Picador USA, New York, 1999.

For Howard and Emma, and Florence Abramowitz

…All of them are gone
Except for me; and for me nothing is gone—

—Randall Jarrell, “Thinking of the Lost World”

In Chinatown, we order Happy Family,
the Specialty of the House.
The table set; red paper placemats
inscribed with the Chinese zodiac.
My husband’s an ox; my daughter’s
a dragon, hungry and cranky; I’m a pig.
The stars will tell us whether
we at this table are compatible.

The waiter vanishes into the kitchen.
Tea steeps in the metal teapot.
My husband plays with his napkin.
In the booth behind him sits a couple
necking, apparently in love.

Every Saturday night after work,
my mother ordered takeout from the Hong Kong,
the only Chinese restaurant in town.
She filled the teakettle.
By the time it boiled,
the table was set, minus knives and forks,
and my father had fetched the big brown paper bag
leaking grease: five shiny white
food cartons stacked inside.

(Happy Family)

My mother somber, my father drained,
too exhausted from work to talk,
as if the clicking chopsticks
were knitting something in their mouths.
My mother put hers aside
and picked at her shrimp with a fork.
She dunked a Lipton teabag in her cup
until the hot water turned rusty,
refusing the Hong Kong’s complimentary tea,
no brand she’d ever seen before.

(Happy Family)

An ad on the radio says that you can buy a star.
Can the toll-free number, charge it
to your credit card, and they’ll send you
a parchment certificate of authenticity
and constellation chart with your actual star circled,
mapping your province of gaseous darkness, fire and ice,
over which you can rule, like the Creator.
The summer we got married, remember the night
we wrapped ourselves in blankets
and lay on our backs on the hood of our Toyota,
watching the meteor shower?
For an hour, we lay so still—
a husband and wife side by side
atop the stone lid of a medieval sarcophagus.
Beneath us, the damp grass
shivered with crickets and, above,
quick as eye blinks,
meteors streaked across the sky.
Every few seconds we’d see one die.
There! there! in the upper-right-hand corner—
no mortgage, no upkeep, no perpetual care—
there we are! buried in darkness, flashing,
then out.

For Howard

(Buying a Star [complete])

“Rabbi,” I said, “Jesus started out Jewish.
Then he started a religion of his own.
If Jesus was Jewish,
how come we don’t worship him?”

My family worshipped everyone else
who was Jewish.
Eight o’clock every Sunday night,
we’d sit in our living room
and watch Ed Sullivan on television,
my aunts and uncles clapping at the screen
whenever a Jew came on.

Richard Tucker? A great Jewish tenor.
A cantor, who made it big in opera.
Jack Benny? A great Jewish comedian.
A penny-pincher, he made millions.
Sammy David Jr.? A great entertainer.
A shvartzer, but he converted,
so now he’s a Jew too.

The rabbi wet his lips.
Out from a pocket came a handkerchief.
“Boys and girls,” he said, “we believe
that when the true Messiah comes—
the Mashiach, the anointed one—
there will be peace on Earth.
How could Jesus be the Messiah
when there are still wars,
people killing each other,
sickness, suffering, and famine?”
Rabbi Nissenbaum looked grim.
“That’s why we don’t believe in Him.
Any other questions?”

(The Second Coming)

Mary, my baby-sitter, once took me on a bus
to her shabby boardinghouse in Jersey City
where she showed me a white plastic statue
of a bearded man wearing a bathrobe
who stood on her dresser among her dime-store perfumes.
I remember Mary telling me, “This is God.”

God was about the size of a bottle
of eau de cologne, light as a chicken bone.
I held Him in one hand, turning Him over,
the way you’d examine an object
you’d picked up off the ground, thinking it was
just a rock but a minute later discovering
it was a gold ring, and how lucky you were
finding a thing like that
when you weren’t even looking.

In Sunday school, the rabbi told us
that God was invisible. It was a sin
even to draw a picture of Him
or to say His name out loud.
If you did, you’d die on the spot.
But here I was, staring at God, holding God,
and I was still on this planet breathing.
My best friend, Janet Crosio, had the same
statue on a shelf in her living room:
I’d thought it was one of her mother’s knickknacks;
I never dreamed that it was God.

Mary told me God’s name—Jesus Christ—
and that his mother’s name was Mary, too.
But Mary—my Mary—was sixteen, Italian,
a high school dropout, a heavy smoker
who lived in a boardinghouse, alone.
Why my mother had hired her, I don’t know.
I quickly slipped God back to her.
And while I waited to be taken home,
still amazed that I’d seen God,
I stared out of the second-story window
at an ugly concrete yard below.

On the windowsill Mary’s glass ashtray
overflowed with ashes and cigarette butts.
I wasn’t thinking, something came over me—
I blew into the ashtray, and ashes flew
into my eyes, a whirlwind of ashes
stinging and burning, gritting up under my eyelids.
Rubbing only made it worse.
I had to cry the ashes out, every last one—
Tears like burning rain.
I had to be blind for the hour or so
until I could see again without hurting.
Since then, I often confuse revelation and pain.

(God [complete])

Crazy Joey was famous,
more famous than the mayor.
Though he was as old as my father,
and tall and clean shaven,
he wore his navy blue stocking cap
pulled way down over his ears,
dressed for winter even in June.

What was he doing
hanging around the school yard,
slowly pedaling his dented Schwinn
just as school was letting out?
He’d pick a kid. Boy or girl.
He’d wait until you turned the corner.
Then, he’d follow you home on his bike,
an empty red milk crate strapped
to its back fender.

There were rumors
that he lived with his mother in a basement.
Rumors that he was born wrong end first.
Rumors that his father beat him senseless.
Rumors that some eighth-grade boys
lured him into an alley, and made him
pull down his pants and pee,
and that Crazy Joey did it, cheerfully.

When, in the seventh grade, my turn came,
I pretended to ignore him,
clutching my homework, my empty lunchbox,
never once turning my head.
Crazy Joey trailed me
past the used-car lot an the deli,
through the neighborhood
neither of us lived in,
grid of locked garages, neat shoe-box lawns,
house after house
like televisions all tuned to the same station.

It wasn’t my fault
I studied piano and ballet.
It wasn’t my fault
both of my parents were alive.
It wasn’t my fault
I lived in an apartment over our store,
and not in a real house, either.

So I didn’t take the shortcut,
or try to hide, or run crying to my father
rolling up the awning of our store,
but watched my every careful step
the day Crazy Joey chose me.

(Crazy Joey [complete])

The cheese supply allotted me—
like my father’s Marine rations—
was to last exactly thirty days:
I divided my cheese into a grid
cut into thirty pieces,
I popped a tiny cube into my mouth
like taking my daily vitamin,
and gobbled it down, then whispered,
so my mother couldn’t hear,
“I was very hungry, thank you.”

A moment later, I’d gruffly reply,
“You’re welcome,” pretending
to be my jailer, a Nazi guard;
taking on both roles, both voices,
at once—one high, one low—
just like when I played with doll.

(Mrs. Hitler)

“I could make you the best-dressed girl in school,”
my mother used to say. “But I won’t.
Better that you’re famous for something else,
like getting good grades
or having the best manners in your class.”

(The Best Dressed Girl in School)

“Give me, give me,” I’d say in my head.
And my mother would answer
as though she’d heard me,
“If I give you all these dresses now,
what will you want when you’re fifteen?”

(The Best Dressed Girl in School)

from the date I hardly knew, a gentle
brainy body, a head taller than I,
imported from a high school in the Bronx.
He was cute, I could show him off.
He’d rented a tux, borrowed his father’s car,
made a reservation at the Copacabana
for our night out on the town after the prom.

(A Night in Shangri-La)

Twenty years later in the same Grand Union,
wheeling my baby daughter down the aisle,
I see a girl meandering in Produce,
a college student from my old school.

On top of her shaved head, a spiky nest.
Breasts jiggling under zipped leather vest.
Army boots. I pass, wincing at her pierced
eyebrow, her left cheek etched with a tattoo.

Glancing at my jeans, my Birkenstocks, my baby,
my graying hair shagged and hennaed red,
she turns back to her organic scallions.
I know what she is thinking. I thought so, too:

when she grows old, she’ll never be like me.
At loopy Goddard, the facts fell
straight from Dewey: Learn by doing.
My senior year, smoking dope, reading Keats,

embroidering rainbow on my bell-bottoms,
ironing my long hair straight as Joan Baez’s,
I was weighing poetry and marriage,
trying to imagine myself in twenty years.

(Next Day)

I used to think about poetry in the library.
Now I worry about what to make for dinner.
Dare I buy mesclun at five dollars a pound,
chicken tenders, skinned and boned?

But I wrote poems, chose “the life of art,”
though “chose” isn’t entirely the right word,
because life and art were equal pulls.
How much was fate, and how much will?

That Goddard girl and I cross paths again
before the freezer chest of Healthy Choice.
I’m old enough to be her mother. Maybe
she thinks I’m my daughter’s grandmother!

She’s thinking middle-aged ex-hippie,
ex-yuppie, ex-patriate from the city.
What does she know? She’s probably
as dumb as I was, at her age.

(Next Day)

I had my “miracle baby” at forty-one,
ten years later than my poem predicted.
Should I feel guilty she’s an only child?
I had one. Should I have had two?

(Next Day)

Meeting my husband late in life.
But if I’d met him twenty years earlier?
Writing poems, before and after.
But if I hadn’t had the jobs I had?

I chose. And life chose, Like my mother,
I’m still split between the two.
My baby coos, sucking on a breadstick.
Nadezhda Mandelstam quotes Akhmatova—

“What makes you think you ought to be happy?”
Twenty years later in the same Grand Union,
Living five miles from my former dorm,
I’m having a little déjà vu,

(Next Day)

“Why didn’t you just break its neck?”
That’s what I asked him the morning after
its cries kept us awake all night.

When I moved into his Tribeca loft,
he was between marriages, and I—
I was hungry for something.

He was cordial on the phone to his ex-wife,
with whom he shared joint custody
of boys, nice boys, ages ten and twelve.

Both of them had a crushed on me.
Three nights a week, they’d sleep
in the plywood alcove above our bed,

their tree house stocked with the duplicate
comforts and clutter of home—
comic books, games, Legos, toys—

while below, their guilty father and I
would slide the shoji screens shut
and make love without breathing.

His designer loft was divided into areas,
not rooms, so I had to imagine walls,
had to invent my privacy when his sons

spied on me through the bathroom’s
smoky Plexiglas partition, staring
as I sat on the toilet shaved my legs,

or bathed in the deep redwood tub.
One morning when I was toasting
an English muffin, a mouse shot out

of the toaster slot and scampered off,
tail singed where it had curled itself,
asleep against the dormant wires.

That’s when I began to notice brown
caraway seeds sprinkled on the tops
of cereal boxes, soup cans, rattling

inside coffee mugs. Mouse shit. And confetti-
colored mouse shit, like jimmies,
after they’d gnawed on a box of crayons.

Getting rid of them was my obsession.
Pretty blue pellets that the exterminator
scattered behind the sink and under the stove

were crumbs leading out of the forest;
the poison they carried back to the nest
and fed to the litter was guaranteed

to make them thirsty, delirious to drink,
desperate to return to water
in the cellar, gutter, sewer, river.

I stuffed steel wool around the pipes,
baited mousetraps with graying hamburger.
By summer, something was dying

inside the walls, something we’d catch
a whiff of, fighting in loud whispers
under the quilt late at night,

mice scurrying up and down the turnpike
between the bed and stripped brick wall
sieving mortar grit onto the pillows.

Four floors over a notions factory,
the clanking cage of the freight elevator
stalled between floors, I memorized

the locks on the loft’s only door:
the police lock’s long steel rod
jammed into a hole drilled into the floor,

the Medeco steel bar, the dead bolts,
cylinders, latches, and sliding chains.
We’d wake to a loud snap, then silence

behind the radiator, he’d get up
grumbling, and dispose of his catch
as he always did, lifting the lid,

and flushing it down the toilet.
But that night he carried a dying mouse
to the bathroom—its neck still caught

between the trap’s snapped jaws—
why do I think it gave him pleasure
as he filled the sink with water

and floated the mousetrap—
the animal, anchored to the balsa raft,
frantically paddling on an oval lake

until it finally drowned.
Those paralyzing cries kept us awake;
Neither of us able to make the final break.

(The Trap [complete])

On the drive back from dropping off
our daughter at sleep-away camp,
again a woman and a man,
we make small talk—
lake, cabins, canoes, cafeteria.

Take that blue Chevy in front of us—
that red Toyota tailgating behind—
a three-car cortege mournfully
inching along the logging road,
three sets of parents driving home
an empty backseat, slack seat belt,
empty trunk. Do you think they’ll
jump into bed the minute they get there?
Tell me, when have we had a week alone together
since our daughter was born?

Home, I pay a visit to her room
formal as a doll museum.
Will the tent she’s sleeping in
spring a leak, will she run out of
clean underwear, will they remember
to give her her allergy pills,
comb her hair? She’s barely nine,
she’s never been away from home
for more than a pajama party.

(Small Talk)

The night she was born premature
in the hospital near Waikiki,
the night they cut me open, removed her,
and stitched me up again,
after the surgery and all the drugs,
I had a nightmare:
I was floating over a cemetery
by the sea in Hawaii,
over gravestones of black lava.

Now, again, she is separate from me.
As in the dream, my body,
suddenly lighter and free from gravity,
bounced from gravestone to gravestone,
the way at a party a balloon
is flicked from person to person
around the circle to keep it in the air.

(Small Talk)

—that’s what my mother used to say,
switching off the bathroom lights behind me.
“Public Service is rich enough,” she’d nag,
when I’d leave the downstairs light on, in the hall.

Afternoons, I’d sit at the dining room table
and do my homework in the growing dark.
When I couldn’t see another word,
I’d turn the chandelier dimmer on low,
then dial the lights bright as noon,
dimming them down to dusk, midnight,
and brightening the night to dawn again,
like God speeding through the first six days,
in a hurry to get some rest.

After my mother’s funeral, my father and I
lit a tall, seven-day Yahrzeit candle
and put it on the stove, on a plate,
so it wouldn’t catch their apartment on fire,
its flame nervous in the breeze I made
walking by, disturbing the progress
of my mother’s soul on its way to heaven.

After my father died,
packing cartons, locking up the place for good,
I was surprised how dark it was, it always was.

“Public Service is rich enough,”
I muttered, trailing after my husband and my daughter,
griping at them as I douse the lights.

Sometimes, when we’re out for the day
and come back after dark
and I’ve forgotten to turn the porch light on,
from the bottom of the hill our farmhouse
looks like a sooty shell,
and for a moment I think that it’s burned down.

But if I’ve left a few lights on,
the house looks like it’s on fire,
flames blazing from every window.
When we pull into the driveway,
and I peer through the screens at the empty rooms—
the open magazines on the coffee table,
unwashed plates in the sink, my breakfast
coffee cup rimmed with kiss marks—
I wonder whether we’re really ghosts
occupying these brief parentheses.

My husband and daughter shuffle behind me
among the mudroom’s scatter
of dirty boots and shoes.
I fumble for the key, open the door,
and burst in upon the kitchen’s glare.
And as my family rushes past me,
tearing through the kitchen, the living room,
slamming up the stairs—
it’s strange, how, for a moment—
those rooms, empty of them, seem suddenly darker.

(“Public Service is Rich Enough” [complete])

Rummaging through the old cassettes my father
taped off the classical radio station,
my daughter finds, among Mozart and Bach,
catalogued and labeled in his elegant hand,
Jane’s and Howard’s Wedding: 1984.
I didn’t know my father’d taped that, too!
Disappearing with the boombox, she shuts
the master bedroom’s door. An hour later,
I walk in on her gate-crashing our wedding,
sprawling on our marriage bed, ear to the speaker.
When she was younger she used to insist
that she was present at our wedding, too,
and we’ve told her it’s impossible,
she wasn’t born yet, but that she was there
in spirit. She’s not convinced, hasn’t she
always been with us, even when she wasn’t?

She laughs at the Wedding March while Howard
and I shakily walk down the aisle
under the rented yellow-and-white tent
filling Mike and Gail’s Walnut Ave. backyard.
Eavesdropping on the prayers we repeat
after the rabbi, phrase by Hebrew phrase,
she claps when the rabbi pronounces us
husband and wife and we kiss to applause,
her future father stomps on the goblet
wrapped in the caterer’s cloth napkin
and glass shatters safely underfoot.

She rewinds the tape back to the beginning,
to what she calls the “really funny part,”
back to before our murmuring guests
sit down in the rented chairs on that
sweltering June Sunday, 96 degrees,
freesia wilting, family close to fainting,
whipped cream on the cake about to turn,
back to before we stand under the canopy,
back to before the ceremony, back to when
my father presses the RECORD button, clears
his throat and says into the microphone;
“Testing. Testing.” —a voice I last heard
five years ago, a few days before he died.

Shocked, I hear my dead mother say,
“George, are you sure the tape recorder’s
working?” And my father answers, “I’m sure.”
My mother says, “George, are you sure
the batteries aren’t dead?” And my father
answers patiently at first, then wearily,
“Essie, I’m sure.” She asks him again,
and he answers again, and here they are
arguing in my bedroom, in the house
my mother never set foot in.
My daughter’s eyes shine with laughter;
mine with tears. Although I’d give anyting
to have them back even for a moment, I clamp
my hands over my ears (just as I used to
when I was growing up) and shut them out again.

(Reprise [complete])

Other mothers have their “Everything Stew,”
“Icebox Ragout,” “Kitchen-Sink Casserole.”
Mine had “Shit Soup,” a recipe she told me
standing in her kitchen in New Jersey.
“Find a big pot, the biggest pot you have.
Shit a quartered chicken into the pot.
If you have an old carcass lying around,
shit it in. Add three quarts of cold water
and salt, and bring to a boil. Skim off
the foam as it collects on the surface.
Halve one large or two medium onions.
Shit them in. Shit in some dill and parsley.
Dried is okay but fresh tastes better.
Cut into bite-size pieces some carrots,
a couple celery stalks. Shit them in.
Those lousy-looking zucchini squash,
Withered wedges of cabbage, puckered peas.
In other words, anything in the fridge.
If you have fresh or frozen string beans,
shit them in. Shit in a few potatoes.
Peel the skin, dig out the eyes, cut off
the bad parts—and shit them in anyway—
they’re filled with vitamins and minerals.
Friday’s leftovers, oh, what the hell.
Shit them in, shit in twelve black peppercorns.
Want to know my secret ingredient?
One ripe tomato makes the broth taste sweet.
What’s under that aluminum foil?
Shit it in. A little mold won’t kill you.
My recipe? I don’t measure. I just shit
a little of this in, a little of that.
Your Mama’s Shit Soup. Enough for a week.
With a pot of this you’ll never go hungry.”
Shit in “There wasn’t time for me to go
to the Shop-Rite and buy steaks to broil
for your father’s and your dinner.”
Shit in “I’d like to sell the store someday
and move to Florida.” Shit in the Recession,
the Second World War, the Great Depression.
Shit in “There’s no rest for the weary.”
Shit in her bunions, her itchy skin.
Shit in “Rich or poor, it’s nice to have money.”
Shit it “Marriage isn’t made in heaven.”
Shit in the Republicans. Shit in her tumor.
Shit in where it spread to her liver
“like gains of rice,” the doctor said.
Shit in her daughters at the cemetery
crying over the hole when they lowered
her in. Shit in one last handful of dirt.
Cover the pot and reduce heat to low.
Simmer on the lowest possible flame
for two hours, or until vegetables
are fork tender, meat falls off the bone.

(Shit Soup [complete])

Jane Shore, A Yes-or-No Answer, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston & New York, 2008.

Next morning, shuffling the cards,
Aunt Sadie frowned.
“What do you need all that hair for?”
She jumped up, yanked open a drawer,
and with a pair of kitchen shears
she lopped off my ponytail
in one big hunk, the rubber band
still holding it together.

It lay coiled on the floor.
Mine. Not mine.
She made me pick it up
and throw it in the trash.

But bending down, I felt it
flick the back of my neck
like the fail of a stubborn horse.

My mother was going to be furious.


Coming home late, I’d let myself in
with my key, tiptoe up the stairs,
and there she was, in the family room,
one lamp burning, reading her newspaper
in her velvet-and-chrome swivel chair

as though it were perfectly natural
to be wide awake at 2 A.M.,
feet propped on the matching
ottoman, her orthopedic shoes
underneath, two empty turtle shells.

Like a mummy equipped for the afterlife,
she’d have her ashtray and Kents handy,
her magnifying mirror,
and tweezers and eyeglass case,
her crossword puzzle dictionary.

Glancing up and down, she never
appeared to be frisking me, even when,
just seconds before, coming home
from a date, at the front door,
I’d stuck my tongue into a boy’s mouth.

I’d sit on the sofa and bum her cigarettes,
and as the room filled up with smoke,
melding our opposite temperaments,
we’d talk into the night, like diplomats
agreeing to a kind of peace.

I’d feign indifference—so did she—
about what I was doing out so late.
When I became a mother myself,
My mother was still the sentry at the gate,
waiting up, guarding the bedrooms.

After her funeral, her chair sat empty.
My father, sister, husband, and I
couldn’t bring ourselves to occupy it.
Only my daughter climbed up its base
and spun herself round and round.

In the two years my father lived alone
in the apartment over their store,
I wonder, did he ever once
sit down on that throne, hub
around which our family had revolved.

After my father died, the night
before I left the place for good,
the building sold, the papers signed,
before the moving vans drove away,
dividing the cartons and the furniture

between my sister’s house and mind,
a thousand miles apart,
I sat on the sofa—my usual spot—
and stared at the blank TV, the empty chair;
then I rose, and walked across the room,

and sank into her ragged cushions,
put my feet up on her ottoman,
rested my elbows on the scuffed armrests,
stroked the brown velvet like fur.
The headrest still smelled like her!

Swiveling the chair to face the sofa,
I looked at things from her point of view:
What do you need it for?
So I left it behind, along with the blinds,
the meat grinder, the pressure cooker.

(My Mother’s Chair [complete])

Nesting in my nest, she slept on my side
of the double bed, stacked the books—my books—
she was reading on my nightstand.
In the closet, her dresses pressed
against my husband’s pants.
These I boxed up for her mother,
with the baby’s toys.
I tossed her blue toothbrush
and her tortoiseshell comb in the trash.
Police took away a rug. My two best knives.

But the kitchen still smells of her spices—
her cinnamon, curry, cloves.
The house an aromatic maze
of incense and sachet.
Almost every day now something of hers
turns up. The way La Brea tar pits
keep disgorging ancient bones, squeezing them
through the oily black muscles of earth
to the surface.

A yoga mat.
I don’t need it. I already have my own.
Prayer beads. A strapless bra.
A gold ring. It’s pretty.
It fits my pinkie.

I wash my face with her special soap,
a cool oval of white clay,
one thick black hair still glued to it.
And is it wrong to brew her herbal teas, try her
aromatherapies, her homeopathic cures,
the Rescue Remedy she’d told me
really worked? The amber bottle’s full.
Why waste it? So I deposit
four bitter drops on my own tongue.

(Possession [complete])

A squatter in my parents’ house,
their Baldwin Acrosonic spinet
didn’t leave home until my father died,
and having nowhere else to go,
was shipped here to my living room.

After ten years’ sitting, it’s out of tune,
the A mute, the damper pedal broken,
the B above middle C sunken in,
the battered walnut veneer embossed
like a notary’s raised stamp.

The piano tuner unpacks the tools
stored in his rolling suitcase.
Sweeping generations of photos
from the dusty lid—Russian relatives,
my daughter’s school portraits—

he stacks sheet music on the coffee table,
pulls out a silvery tuning fork
from his left breast pocket, bangs it
against his balding skull, holds it
to his good right ear, and listens hard,

refreshing his ear to the sound of A
above middle C, the piano’s axis mundi.
I should leave, but mesmerized,
I watched his hairy arm and left hand
disappear inside the piano’s innards,

cranking the tuning hammer this way
and that, moving the rubber mutes
along the strings, a little sharp,
a little flat, up and down the scale
while his right hand strikes the keys.

Two hours later, when he’s gone,
on the piano bench lies a bill
twice higher than his estimate;
the lid wiped clean, the photos
approximate to where they were,

and also, fished out of the piano,
there’s a three of clubs from a deck
I threw out years ago,
five pennies turned pewter gray,
a condolence card, the envelope

sealed with crackled yellow glue.
Its sender, now, has passed on, too.
It’s been decades since I practiced
Fur Elise or banged out torch songs
from 1,000 Standard Tunes,

fakebook my father finagled from
his old musician buddies,
the boys he used to play with
in the big bands.
When I lost my father, I lost music.

When my daughter took lessons,
I’d sit beside her on the bench
just as my father once sat with me,
encouraging, correcting, wincing,
but I wouldn’t play a single note.

The church bells across the street
begin to toll the quarter hour—
dividing my day, every day,
into-bite-sized intervals,
from seven in the morning

until seven at night, another
axis mundi. I find the key
and, instrument in tune, peck out
the melody to the first
Duet for Church Bells and Piano, opus 1.

(A 440 [complete])

Like a needle stuck in the scratch of an old 45,
she keeps skipping back
to the boys I kissed and slow-danced with.
reading the diary I kept when I was twelve,
my twelve-year-old feels entitled to the girl
I used to be, my past’s her private property.
Puzzled, pursuing her lips, sucking air
through the barbed filigree of her braces,
her purple polished fingernail grazes
a word scrawled in greasy blue ballpoint.
“Necking,” I say, and she grins.
A serpent ring snakes down her index finger
stopping at “Spin the bottle.” At twelve,
I kissed the boys, then kissed my dolls goodbye.
At twelve, she traded her bath toys
for a razor. Her legs are silken ivory.
She reads how I lied to my mother about
shaving mine, claiming those bloody nicks
on my shins were mosquito bites.
“God, Mom, you were such a baby!”
Shaking her head, she turns the page.

(My Daughter Reads My Old Diary [complete])

There’s not a shopper here a day over twenty
except me and another mother
parked in chairs at the dressing room entrance
beyond which we are forbidden to go.
We’re human clothes racks.
Our daughters have trained us
to tamp down the least flicker of enthusiasm
for the nice dress with room to grow into,
an item they regard with sullen, nauseated,
eyeball-rolling disdain.

(Shopping Urban)

What do I do with her Post-it notes
she stuck on the fridge?
Do I delete her e-mail asking
was it okay
if her little boy played
with my daughter’s old keychains
stored in the shoebox under her bed?

Yes, of course. Be my guest.
While you’re housesitting,
Mi casa es su casa, I said.
Then I showed her
how to lock the front door
and handed her the keys.

Such a nice little boy, said our neighbor.
Such an attentive mother.
Tony, the locksmith down the street,
would reach inside a grimy jar,
as if fishing for a candy,
and had the boy another key or two—

a bent key, a worn-down key,
a key with broken teeth,
old mailbox keys, luggage keys, and sometimes
as a special treat he’s let the boy
choose a shiny blank from the rotating display
and cut him a brand-new key
to add to his collection.

The morning she locked the doors
and turned on the alarm,
and stabbed her son and slit her wrists
and lay down on my dining room floor
to die, she left a message
on my best friend’s voice mail:
Let yourself in.
Bring your spare key…

Now, it’s as if my house
keeps playing tricks on me.
I open my lingerie drawer to find a key.
Whose is it?
Which lock does it belong to?
I find a key under the coffee table.
A key wedged between sofa cushions.
A key with a tag to a ’71 Chevy.
Cleaning under my daughter’s bed,
I find rings of keys, lots more keys,
none of which fits any lock in my house.

(Keys [complete])

Flickering above the pink rosettes
and your name iced in ivory buttercream,
a bouquet burns on top of your cake,
fifty blossoms of flame.

One candle equals a year of our life,
plus one more to wish on.
Hurry, make a wish, blow them out!
They’re out. Now cut the cake.

But wait—a gutted wick sputters and sparks
as if it suddenly has a mind of its own—
now another is lighting up,
and one by one, the dead reawaken.

Rekindled years return like little waves of nausea.
Here’s 1947, the year you were born.
And 1956, when your mother had your sister.
Now 1993 joins the crowd—that miserable December
you buried your father.
Blow it out, you’ll forget again.

But the dead don’t stay dead.

Mother and Father, conspiring behind the door,
dimmed the chandelier in the dining room
where you sat, a child at the dead of the table,
in your pinafore, your paper party hat,
feigning surprise as the solemn
procession sang “Happy Birthday,”
your future lighting up before you.

There were fewer candles then.
You could blow all of them out at once.
But now, dozens of candles—
you can’t draw a breath
deep enough to extinguish them all.

Gasping, you stand like a fool
before the growing years of your past
and the dwindling years of your future—
choking on smoke, putting out wildfires
while fresh ones spring up around you.

(Trick Candles [after Cavafy] [complete])

After she died, we told him, repeatedly,
to think of our house
as his. By seven, he was fully dressed
in slacks and a laundered shirt.
He made his own breakfast,
carried his coffee cup to the sink, and washed it.
He never opened the refrigerator
without asking our permission first.
All day he sat on the sofa, reading.
He reeled off his lists of medicines, blood counts,
tagging along to the grocery, post office,
the kindergarten at three-fifteen,
grateful for any excuse to leave the house.

Suppose my father comes back again.
Suppose he comes back, not briefly—
as when the dead show up in dreams—
but on an open return ticket.
I’m sure I’ll feel shy, tongue-tied, and formal,
the way I did when I ran into my old lover
years after we’d broken up.

I won’t ply him with questions
about life on the other side.
I’ll put clean sheets on the sofa bed.
All the jokes I’ve saved up to tell him—
I’ll knock myself out to make him laugh.
Every morning I’ll squeeze fresh orange juice,
fry two eggs over easy, just the way he likes them,
even when he says to please ignore him,
pretend he isn’t here.

(My Father’s Visits [complete])

I was sleeping in a round room made of stone.
A voice called out, “This is your room. This is your bed.”
For months thereafter, I crossed a river
on thoroughfares to a city that seemed familiar.
Most nights I’d return there.
Its turn-of-the-century architecture,
wrought-iron and stone apartment houses,
looked like the buildings on Park Avenue, and Fifth.
Sometimes I dreamed hybrids of buildings
over and over: a library-hotel, a train station-school;
and a department store with rickety elevator that took me
to the fourth floor, where the dresses were.

In one dream, I caught myself telling someone,
“These are the clothes I wear in my dreams,”
as I opened a closet. Inside were
shoes, jumpers, coats, a green hat with a feather—
my taste, my size, they even smelled like me.

And, once, I brought someone along with me from here.
Here, where I am when I’m wide awake.
I said, “This is the place I always dream about.”

As I fall asleep, my dream picks up in the place
where it left off the night before—
the street, the house, the room.
The next day, I might catch a glimpse of it
superimposed on what I’m really seeing—
a shard of light bleeding onto the negative.

In time, I began to see my city,
the basso continuo playing behind the melody
of my everyday life, as a kind of everyday life, too:
its industry, the bustle of its people,
its traffic, its history, its parallel ongoingness—

But not long ago, I was traveling
along the Jersey side of the Hudson
where I grew up. I hadn’t been back in years:
the woods were gone—
the collapsing docks and broken pilings
had been replaced with high-rent condos, supermarkets, malls,
antihills in the shadow of the Palisades.

The bridge and tunnel traffic was awful.
Instead of taking a bus, I crossed
to Manhattan by commuter ferry.
In the middle of the river, I looked up
at the skyline, the buildings
bronzed by late afternoon light—
like my dream city’s light—
the city I’d dreamed since I was twelve—

but I wasn’t dreaming.
My husband and daughter were sitting on the bench
on either side of me.
Rows of strangers, too.
Some gazed at the skyline, as I did.
Others read their newspapers, or dozed.

(Dream City [complete])

Dead long before my time,
how young they are, how old—
my mother’s mother
and my great-uncles and great-aunts—
handsome, well dressed, none over thirty—
posed against a painted backdrop of ruins.

(Family Portrait, Minsk, c. 1900)

That’s my teenage daughter’s face!
Her same self-possessed expression.
Except for the mutton sleeves
and cinched waist
and heavy hair braided and pinned
like a load of challah to her head,
they’re so alike they could be twins!
Amazing how the genes for that face,
stored inside those nesting Russian dolls,
skipped two generations.

(Family Portrait, Minsk, c. 1900)

Take this gorgeous gray chemise, Susan.
You should live so long.

(The Clothes Swap)

It was not our story. It was hers.
That’s how friends told us to think of it.
It was not our story, it was hers.
In what book does it say that you’re
supposed to live until you’re eighty?
Our house was hers for the summer.
Our forks and spooks and knives.
She seemed happy waving goodbye.
We said, So long, take care, enjoy.
It was not our problem, it was hers.
Her clothes hung in our closets.
Her little boy slept in our daughter’s bed,
played with our daughter’s old toys.
It was not our sadness. It was hers.
Her sadness had nothing to do with us.
She borrowed books from the library.
Scrubbed the bathtub. Baked a pie.
We were just going about our business.
We were hundreds of miles away.
It was not our madness, it was hers.
She finished the book. Sealed
the letter in the envelope, telling why.
We replaced the bloody floorboards
where their two dead bodies lay.
We stained the new boards to match
the old ones—a deep reddish stain
our daughter first thought was blood
until we told her it was not blood.
And not our desperation, it washers.
It was scraped, sanded, varnished.
No one can tell. It could have happened
to anyone, but it happened to us.
We barely knew her. We weren’t there.
We didn’t want to make their tragedy
our tragedy. It was not our story.
They had their story. We have ours.

(Fugue [complete])

Walking the half mile to Charlotte’s farm,
the Frost tape rasping “Provide, Provide”
into my earphones, I’ll take the shortcut
and drop by Roy and Gabrielle’s new house.
This cassette will last an hour at most,
from Peck Hill Road to the Pekin Brook,
and as my soles negotiate the dirt foad
a snake crosses my path; I let it pass.

(September 9, 1995)

I remember—how could I forget?—
September 9 was my father’s birthday.
He would have been eighty today.
It’s funny how we remember to foget.

(September 9, 1995)

When Caravaggio’s Saint Thomas pokes his index finger
past the first knuckle, into the living flesh of the conscious
perfectly upright Jesus Christ, His bloodless wound
like a mouth that has opened slightly to receive it, the vaginal folds
of parting flesh close over the man’s finger as if to suck,

that moment after Christ, flickering compassion,
helps Thomas touch the wound, calmly guiding
the fight hand of His apostle with His won immortal left,
into the warm cavity, body that died and returned to the world,
bloodless and clean, inured to the operation at hand
and not in any apparent pain—

to accidentally brush against Him arm
would have been enough, but to enter the miraculous flesh,
casually, as if fishing around in one’s pocket for a coin—

because it’s in our natures to doubt,
I’d doubt what I was seeing, too.

Drawing closer, Thomas widens his eyes
Sa if to better absorb the injury, his three companions also
strain forward, I do, too,
and so would you, all our gazes straining toward
the exquisite right nipple so beautifully painted I ache to touch
or to kiss it, press my lips to the hairless chest of a god.
His long hippie auburn hair falls in loose
girlish corkscrew curls, the hairs of His sparse mustache
straggle over His upper lip, face so closet that Thomas must surely
feel Christ’s breath ruffling his brow.

The lecturer closes his notebook and we exit the auditorium.
Conveyed smoothly on the moving sidewalk, as if one water,
but not water,
whooshed through the long, shimmery tunnel connecting
the east and west wings of the National Gallery,
my friend and I hurtle away from the past, that open wound,
and toward the future—

the dark winter colors saturating my eyes suddenly
blossom into the breezy pastels of Italy’s gelato,
milk sherbet quick-frozen and swirled
into narrow ribbons of cold rainbow
unbraided into separate chilled stainless steel tubs set
under glass in a cooler case:

tiramisu, zabaglione, zuppa inglese,
mily breasts whipped, rippled peach and mango, pistachio,
vanilla flecked with brown dizzying splinters of bean,
coffee, caramel, hazelnut, stracciatella,
raspberry, orange, chocolate, chocolate mint; silken peaked
undisturbed tub of lemon so pale it’s almost white,
scraped with a plastic doll’s spoon,
scooped and deposited on the tongue,
then melting its soothing cooling balm.

(Gelato [complete])


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