Orphanage

- 1945-

Awake suddenly and afraid, I looked down from my
high window into the spinning prism of snow, past
the new flattened macadam to the white meadow below.

I watched the drifts cover the tall grass, where in
Summer, rabbits and whip-poor-wills hid from eager
slingshots and family-size plots following the surveyors’

black flags.  I’d been awakened by a sound: something
stuck, spinning its wheels. A truck, I could see now, as
it lunged suddenly out of the deep rut it had made trying

to downshift at the top of the meadow path leading to
the orphanage below. As the truck lurched free, I could see
its tail-gate shudder, gape, then a quick cascade of tumbling

shapes. Back-up lights, bright red blurs, vanishing.
Moon-lit, my school coat and scarf drawn on, I
went spinning down through the sleeping house:

feeling its familiar steady rebuke. Slipping out, ghostly
in blowing snow, I found them where they’d fallen.
Dolls. A scattered family, lying face-up, eyes staring

past me at the sky as their silly faces were slowly erased.
Kewpie-pouts, clumsy spit-curls. Raggedy-Ann dresses,
cheaply-made. As if a collection taken at the new church

nearby had paid a doll factory to spin off a poor version
of something loveable. Special delivery. Though now I
heard a chime. It must have been Christmas. It must have

been hours before the nuns led their small charges out to
salt the ice and shovel the hill where others sledded. They
honored the earth: I’d watched how their gardens grew

lush in summer, all the way to the iron gates.  I thought how
soon they would be gone, along with the living meadow.
So why have I kept close for years this dream of them, coming

upon the tossed dolls, face after unloved face, in the bright
new morning?  Holding them tight all the way home. Though
there was no home, of course:  I knew there never was one.

More by Carol Muske-Dukes

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                     -- Morituri te salutamus.
                        Los Angeles Times, 1927

Maybe it's not the city you thought
it was. Maybe its flaws, like cracks
in freeway pylons, got bigger, caught
your eye, like swastikas on concrete stacks.

Maybe lately the dull astrologies of End,
Millennium-edge rant about world death
make sense. Look. Messages the dead send
take time to arrive. When the parched breath

of the Owens River Valley guttered out,
real voices bled through the black & white.
The newspaper ad cried, We who are about
to die salute you. Unarmed, uncontrite.

Gladiators: a band of farmers, entrenched.
And how many on the Empire's side recognized
the bitter history of that Bow? Greed drenches
itself in a single element, unsurprised.

Like strippers, spotlit. Tits and asses
flash red-gold, while jets shriek above.
Rim-shot. History, like a shadow, passes
over a city impervious as a bouncer's shove

to dreams. Images tell you what's imaginable.
Here comes another ton. We bathe in
what's re-routed from the source: a fable
of endless water in a dipper made of tin.

An Octave Above Thunder

                                       ... reverberation
                              Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
                              He who was living is now dead
                              We who were living are now dying
                              With a little patience.

                                            --T. S. Eliot,
                                            "What the Thunder Said"

1

She began as we huddled, six of us,
in the cellar, raising her voice above
those towering syllables...

Never mind she cried when storm candles
flickered, glass shattered upstairs.
Reciting as if on horseback,
                   she whipped the meter,

trampling rhyme, reining in the reins
of the air with her left hand as she 
stood, the washing machine behind her
              stunned on its haunches, not spinning.

She spun the lines around each other,
her gaze fixed. I knew she'd silenced
a cacophony of distractions in her head,
              to summon what she owned, rote-bright:

                             Of man's first disobedience,
                                        and the fruit...
                              of the flower in a crannied wall
                              and one clear call...

for the child who'd risen before school assemblies:
eerie Dakota rumble that rolled yet never brought
rain breaking over the podium. Her voice rose,
                        an octave above thunder:

When I consider how my light is spent--
I thought of her light, poured willy-nilly.
in this dark world and wide: half-blind, blind,
a widening distraction Getting and spending
 we lay waste our powers...Different poem, a trick!

Her eyes singled me out as the wind slowed.
Then, reflective, I'd rather be / a Pagan
 sucked in a creed outworn / than a dullard
                         with nothing by heart.

It was midsummer, Minnesota. In the sky,
the Blind Poet blew sideways, his cape spilling
rain. They also serve! she sang, hailing
                                  closure

as I stopped hearing her. I did not want to
stand and wait. I loathed nothing so much
as the forbearance now in her voice,
              insisting that Beauty was at hand,

but not credible. I considered
how we twisted into ourselves to live.
When the storm stopped, I sat still,
                             listening.

Here were the words of the Blind Poet--
crumpled like wash for the line, to be
dried, pressed flat. Upstairs, someone called
                   my name. What sense would it ever

make to them, the unread world, the getters and spenders, 
if they could not hear what I heard,
              not feel what I felt
              nothing ruined poetry, a voice revived it,
                                              extremity.

After Skate

He glides in on his single wing, after the signs go up. After
the truck leaves with the bunkbeds, grill, broken hall mirror.
After Scout is dropped off at the shelter. After the last look,

on the dying lawn. In the backyard, where the empty pool
stands open; he pops an ollie over the cracked patterns of tile:
tidal waves in neat squares. He kneels, checking angle against

depth. He lifts off where the board once leapt and leapt: cannon-
balls, swans: endless summer. He hurtles downward, kickturning,
sparks grinding hard on gunnite. Round the bend: the kidney,

the heart. The stone path where once glowed tiki torches at
the kingdom’s ukelele gate. He rockets out of the dead lots each
day, past swingsets and shut-off sprinklers, his board struck up

from whirlwind. Nobody’s home to the ownerless: he turns
inside their names, never minds ghosts, nothing in his wake.