The Little Book of Cheerful Thoughts

Small enough to fit 
in your shirt pocket
so you could take it out
in a moment of distress
to ingest a happy 
maxim or just stare
a while at its orange
and yellow cover
(so cheerful in itself
you need go no further),
this little booklet
wouldn’t stop a bullet 
aimed at your heart

and seems a flimsy 
shield against despair,
whatever its contents.
But there it is
by the cash register,
so I pick it up
as I wait in line and
come to a sentence
saying there are few
things that can’t be 
cured by a hot bath
above the name 
Sylvia Plath.

I rest my case,
placing the booklet
back by its petite
companions Sweet Nothings
and Simple Wisdom
but not The Book of Sorrows,
a multivolume set
like the old Britannica
that each of us receives
in installments
of unpredictable
heft and frequency
over a lifetime.

Enough

It's a gift, this cloudless November morning
warm enough to walk without a jacket
along your favorite path. The rhythmic shushing
of your feet through fallen leaves should be 
enough to quiet the mind, so it surprises you 
when you catch yourself telling off your boss
for a decade of accumulated injustices,
all the things you've never said circling inside you.

The rising wind pulls you out of it,
and you look up to see a cloud of leaves
wheeling in sunlight, flickering against the blue
and lifting above the treetops, as if the whole day
were sighing, Let it go, let it go,
for this moment at least, let it all go.

Last Advice

The night before my father died
I dreamed he was back home,
and I in my old room
on the third floor, and he
was calling up to me
from the bottom of the stairs
some advice I couldn’t hear
or recall the next day when,
standing over him
back in the ICU
full of the chirping of machines
we had decided to unplug,
I remembered the dream
and heard him call my name.

Mushrooming

Christopher and Helen, our new expatriate friends,
meet us at their favorite winery
where they fill their plastic jerry cans from hoses
exactly like the ones at gas stations,
as though they were planning to go back home to Aix
and treat their lawnmower to a nice red.
Instead, they take us in their forest green Peugeot
to the home of their old friend Brigitte
in a village at the foot of Mont Ventoux—
actually, not a village, Brigitte corrects me,
but “un hameau,” a hamlet. The French
are exacting about such distinctions, but Brigitte
has a kind, mischievous smile. Back in the car,
we tear along a series of rutted, stony roads
that web the mountainside, with Brigitte
directing Christopher, “à droite, à gauche, encore à gauche,”
until we come to a grove of pines, cedars, and oaks,
where she says the mushrooms are hidden.
We fan out under the trees, searching the slope,
while Brigitte, looking elfin in her orange hoodie,
waves a stick like a wand, pokes at the dried pine needles
or the dead leaves under the wild boxwood bushes,
and sings, “I think there are some over here,”
like a mother leading her toddlers toward the Easter eggs.
We laugh and follow after her, cutting the stems
with a tarnished knife she lends us, warning
Faites attention,” because the blade is sharp.
And gradually we fill our plastic shopping bags
with gnarled orange caps, stained green,
which, much later, back in the States, I learn
are called Lactarius deliciosus or
orange-latex milky, like a shade of paint,
the field guide commenting “edible, although
not as good as the name deliciosus suggests”—
but we already suspect that (they look awful),
and we will later unload most of ours on
Christopher and Helen who clearly think of them
as a delicacy… but right now we’re
having fun just hunting for them
among the sunspots on the forest floor,
filling our bags, and shouting through the trees
to one another, the whole afternoon gathering
into the giddy moment that Brigitte keeps
calling us back to—and it’s delicious.

Related Poems

Hans Reading, Hans Smoking

My mother, poised around behavior, would say
You are sitting there reading and smoking, Hans,
And this would describe for her, to her utter

Satisfaction, what it is you are doing.
Knowing you I guess you are stationed there
In grief, reverie, worry--your car broken

Down, the mechanic wanting money, and you without,
For the moment, what it takes--and you thinking
Of love lost as you read that impossible book

Your father last gave you....I see you smoking
And as an addict myself I know this is something
You are barely doing....The habit smokes itself

And you, you are turning the page where the woman
From New Orleans, like your woman, goes to Manhattan.
I suppose my mother, in her mania, could never afford

To think there was anything hovering around, anything
Behind behavior. Unable to sit, to go into that sorrow
Where what failed to happen presses against what did,

She would get up, go out looking for "Something
Different," do anything to keep moving, behaving...
Going. But you, Hans, you are a sitter, and I know

You will not be getting up until you have put this time
Behind you. And so your friends pass by waiting,
Wanting to know what you will come up with when you rise

From your stationary chair, our Hans reading and smoking.

Lady Lazarus

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it—

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?—

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot—
The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call.

It's easy enough to do it in a cell.
It's easy enough to do it and stay put.
It's the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

'A miracle!'
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart—
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there--

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Beware
Beware.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

23-29 October 1962

Instructions on Not Giving Up

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.