In the window of the drawing-room there is a rush of white as you pass in which the figure of your husband is, for a moment, framed. He is watching you. His father will come, of course, and, although you had not planned it, his beard will offset your lace dress, and always it will seem that you were friends. All morning, you had prepared the house and now you have stepped out to make sure that everything is in its proper place: the railings whitened, fresh gravel on the avenue, the glasshouse crystal when you stand in the courtyard expecting the carriage to arrive at any moment. You are pleased with the day, all month it has been warm. They say it will be one of the hottest summers the world has ever known. Today, your son is one year old. Later, you will try to recall how he felt in your arms— the weight of him, the way he turned to you from sleep, the exact moment when you knew he would cry and the photograph be lost. But it is not lost. You stand, a well-appointed group with an air of being pleasantly surprised. You will come to love this photograph and will remember how, when he had finished, you invited the photographer inside and how, in celebration of the day, you drank a toast to him, and summer-time.
From Flight and Earlier Poems by Vona Groarke. Copyright © 2004 by Vona Groarke. Reprinted by permission of Wake Forest University Press. All rights reserved.
My daughter has lived overseas for a number of years now. She married into royalty, and they won’t let her communicate with any of her family or friends. She lives on birdseed and a few sips of water. She dreams of me constantly. Her husband, the Prince, whips her when he catches her dreaming. Fierce guard dogs won’t let her out of their sight. I hired a detective, but he was killed trying to rescue her. I have written hundreds of letters to the State Department. They have written back saying that they are aware of the situation. I never saw her dance. I was always at some convention. I never saw her sing. I was always working late. I called her My Princess, to make up for my shortcomings, and she never forgave me. Birdseed was her middle name.
From The Ghost Soldiers by James Tate. Copyright © 2008 by James Tate. Reprinted by permission of Ecco/HarperCollins. All rights reserved.
Thirty seconds into the barbecue,
my Cleveland cousins
have everyone speaking
and dropped consonants,
whoops and caws.
It's more osmosis than magic,
a sliding thrall back to a time
when working the tire factories
meant entire neighborhoods coming
up from Georgia or Tennessee,
accents helplessly intact—
while their children, inflections flattened
to match the field they thought
they were playing on, knew
without asking when it was safe
to roll out a drawl… just as
it's understood “potluck” means
resurrecting the food
we've abandoned along the way
for the sake of sleeker thighs.
I look over the yard to the porch
with its battalion of aunts,
the wavering ranks of uncles
at the grill; everywhere else
hordes of progeny are swirling
and my cousins yakking on
as if they were waist-deep in quicksand
but like the books recommend aren’t moving
until someone hauls them free—
Who are all these children?
Who had them, and with whom?
Through the general coffee tones
the shamed genetics cut a creamy swath.
Cherokee’s burnt umber transposed
onto generous lips, a glance flares gray
above the crushed nose we label
Anonymous African: It's all here,
the beautiful geometry of Mendel's peas
and their grim logic—
and though we remain
clearly divided on the merits
of okra, there’s still time
to demolish the cheese grits
and tear into slow-cooked ribs
so tender, we agree they’re worth
the extra pound or two
our menfolk swear will always
bring them home. Pity
the poor soul who lives
a life without butter—
those pinched knees
and tennis shoulders
and hatchety smiles!
Copyright © 2007 by Rita Dove. Originally published in Callaloo. Used with the permission of the poet.
That Sunday at the zoo I understood the child I
never had would look like this: stiff-fingered
spastic hands, a steady drool, and eyes in cages
with a danger sign. I felt like stone myself
the ancient line curved inward in a sunblind
stare. My eyes were flat. Flat eyes for tanned
young couples with their picture-story kids. Heads
turned our way but you’d learned not to care. You
stood tall as Greek columns, weather-streaked
face bent toward the boy. I wanted to take his hand,
hallucinate a husband. He whimpered at my touch.
You watched me move away and grabbed my other
hand as much in love as pity for our land-locked
town. I heard the visionary rumor of the sea. What
holds the three of us together in my mind is something
no one planned. The chiseled look of mutes.
A window shut to keep out pain. Wooden blank of doors.
That stance the mallet might surprise
if it could strike the words we hoard for fears
galloping at night over moors through convoluted bone.
The strange uncertain rumor of the sea.
Used with permission by Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org
Once she was a beauty. But that was in Sicilia. Now she is a miner's wife, mother of a big famiglia. Once she wrapped her maiden grace in black lace, now East-Side poverty beams from her unadorned face. The miner, her husband, is giant, but armless, what use is he at all? He lost them somewhere in that pit. Now he sits, watching the wall. He is drawn to the depths of the earth, his missing arms swinging beside him, down to his brothers, to the lamp that burned, a private sun to guide him. And now the miner lives to stare, to smoke, to curse. Two empty sleeves sing a song of a wasting universe. He can't stand the gray of the wall, the children crying, the hunger pains, or the curse of the bread his wife has earned. He curses his own remains. She spreads her misfortune through the streets, gathers pieces of bread about town, meanwhile in black, on the East Side, Need struts up and down.
Copyright © 2005 by Yosl Grinshpan.
What I’ve written for you, I have always written
in English, my language of silent vowel endings
never translated into your language of silent h’s.
Lo que he escrito para ti, siempre lo he escrito
en inglés, en mi lengua llena de vocales mudas
nunca traducidas a tu idioma de haches mudas.
I’ve transcribed all your old letters into poems
that reconcile your exile from Cuba, but always
in English. I’ve given you back the guajiro roads
you left behind, stretched them into sentences
punctuated with palms, but only in English.
He transcrito todas tus cartas viejas en poemas
que reconcilian tu exilio de Cuba, pero siempre
en inglés. Te he devuelto los caminos guajiros
que dejastes atrás, transformados en oraciones
puntuadas por palmas, pero solamente en inglés.
I have recreated the pueblecito you had to forget,
forced your green mountains up again, grown
valleys of sugarcane, stars for you in English.
He reconstruido el pueblecito que tuvistes que olvidar,
he levantado de nuevo tus montañas verdes, cultivado
la caña, las estrellas de tus valles, para ti, en inglés.
In English I have told you how I love you cutting
gladiolas, crushing ajo, setting cups of dulce de leche
on the counter to cool, or hanging up the laundry
at night under our suburban moon. In English,
En inglés te he dicho cómo te amo cuando cortas
gladiolas, machacas ajo, enfrías tacitas de dulce de leche
encima del mostrador, o cuando tiendes la ropa
de noche bajo nuestra luna en suburbia. En inglés
I have imagined you surviving by transforming
yards of taffeta into dresses you never wear,
keeping Papá’s photo hinged in your mirror,
and leaving the porch light on, all night long.
He imaginado como sobrevives transformando
yardas de tafetán en vestidos que nunca estrenas,
la foto de papá que guardas en el espejo de tu cómoda,
la luz del portal que dejas encendida, toda la noche.
Te he captado en inglés en la mesa de la cocina
esperando que cuele el café, que hierva la leche
y que tu vida acostumbre a tu vida. En inglés
has aprendido a adorer tus pérdidas igual que yo.
I have captured you in English at the kitchen table
waiting for the café to brew, the milk to froth,
and your life to adjust to your life. In English
you’ve learned to adore your losses the way I do.
From Directions to the Beach of the Dead by Richard Blanco. The Arizona Board of Regents © 2005. Reprinted by permission of the University of Arizona Press.
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a’climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark,
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back;
Don’t you sit down on the steps,
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard;
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
This poem is in the public domain.
i heard your voice this morning
speaking from the foot of the bed
your quilt crawled to the
as i lay down in the
first whisper of dawn.
i heard your voice this morning
the sound of cloth
a casual sound
a sunday morning
preparing to visit your lord
half your life
half my life
half my daughter’s life
we all dream of landscapes
connecting us together
a half dozen roses
i play out my life
listening every morning
for your voice
at the foot of the bed.
From Breath of the Song: New and Selected Poems (Carolina Wren Press, 2005). Copyright © 2005 by Jaki Shelton Green. Used with the permission of the author.
They say Satan teased Sarah while
her husband tied their son up on a mountain.
It's an old story: a man tests the limits of religion
while the devil’s on a mission to a woman.
The devil said He's dead! Oh wait! He's not!
Sarah heard a gunshot
and did the only thing she could.
She reached beyond herself and died.
Meanwhile Isaac sees a frenzy
on the face of a patriarch,
and an angel's screaming out a name
and everything's going dark. Afterwards,
they never spoke again. One went
his way and the other went another.
Isaac's mother dead, he followed Hagar
to the desert. Hagar married Abraham
but Isaac stayed away, didn't even send a
text. He pulled the blinds down, tried to rest.
Then his father died, so God blessed Isaac, Isaac
never quite recovered from the loss.
Then Rebecca came along and saw it all.
She'd studied Freud, so knew her boys would
tell stories that their father couldn't bear.
She tore her hair out, then devised a plan.
But even she was foiled; her boys grew up.
Her boys forgot the fights of childhood, spat out
bitter herbs, and limped towards each other
when the Angel settled down at last.
There may not be a God or a Sarah.
There may not be a garden or a man who
ordered soup up to his room.
There may not be a mountain.
But there’s always been a woman with the truth.
But there's always been a brother full of shame.
There’s always been a story, and there’s
always been a devil in the details.
“Family Tree” Originally published in Seminary Ridge Review. Copyright © 2017 by Pádraig Ó Tuama. Reprinted with the permission of the poet.
We were the family there on his bed the five of us touching his arms, his chest, cradling his head. For children bending to him, to ease his departure, bless his mysterious journey— then I alone uncovering the bony legs, preparing him for rest. Now I, in the limbo of our fashioned earth, cannot remember how to be alive, crossing abandoned fields, edges of cracked white sea, high priest of sky.
From Fierce Day by Rose Styron. Copyright © 2015 by Rose Styron. Reprinted by permission of the author.