By Susan Ludvigson
The boat is a boat gliding
down the river whose fragrance
spins us to shady places
under apple trees
and into bedrooms. When
it ties up at shore,
the soul and drifts and returns.
More and more I see
how everything goes together.
There is such grace
in this reconciliation–
even the stomach, that restless
loner, begins to understand.
Surely the body is mind’s
gift to the soul. How else
would the dance of ecstacy begin
except in the muscles, in how
the eyes light on beauty,
and expand it, blue
when it needs blue?
Think how love penetrates
like music, rhythm
as the nerves, the pulse
propel us toward moonlight,
and how the body celebrates
wholeness, its first desire.
Dressing My Daughters
by Mark Jarman
One girl a full head taller
Than the other—into their Sunday dresses.
First, the slip, hardly a piece of fabric,
Softly stitched and printed with a bud.
I’m not their mother, and tangle, then untangle
The whole cloth—on backwards, have to grab it
Round their necks. But they know how to pull
Arms in, a reflex of being dressed,
And also, a child’s faith. The mass of stuff
That makes the Sunday frocks collapses
In my hands and finds its shape, only because
They understand the drape of it—
These skinny keys to intricate locks.
The buttons are a problem
For a surgeon. How would she connect
These bony valves and stubborn eyelets?
The filmy dress revolves in my blind fingers.
The slots work one by one.
And when they’re put together,
Not like puppets or those doll-saints
That bring tears to true believers,
But living children, somebody’s real daughters,
They do become more real.
They say, “Stop it!” and “Give it back!”
And “I don’t want to!” They’ll kiss
A doll’s hard features, whispering,
“I’m sorry.” I know just why my mother
Used to worry. Your clothes don’t keep
You close—it’s nakedness.
Clad in my boots and holster,
I would roam with my six-gun buddies.
We dealt fake death to one another,
Fell and rolled in filth and rose,
Grimy with wounds, then headed home.
But Sunday ... what was that tired explanation
Given for wearing clothes that
Scratched and shone and weighed like a slow hour?
That we should shine—in gratitude.
So, I give that explanation, undressing them,
And wait for the result.
After a day like Sunday, such a long one,
When they lie down, half-dead,
To be undone, they won’t help me.
They cry, “It’s not my fault.”
by Andrew Hudgins
Our Father who art in heaven, I am drunk.
Again. Red wine. For which I offer thanks.
I ought to start with praise, but praise
comes hard to me. I stutter. Did I tell you
about the woman whom I taught, in bed,
this prayer? It starts with praise; the simple form
keeps things in order. I hear from her sometimes.
Do you? And after love, when I was hungry,
I said, She yelled,
—and laughed so hard
she fell out of the bed. Take care of her.
Next, confession—the dreary part. At night
deer drift from the dark woods and eat my garden.
They’re like enormous rats on stilts except,
of course, they’re beautiful. But why? What
them beautiful? I haven’t shot one yet.
I might. When I was twelve, I’d ride my bike
out to the dump and shoot the rats. It’s hard
to kill your rats, our Father. You have to use
a hollow point and hit them solidly.
A leg is not enough. The rat won’t pause.
it screams, and scrabbles, three-legged, back
into the trash, and I would feel a little bad
to kill something that wants to live
more savagely than I do, even if
it’s just a rat. My garden’s vanishing.
Perhaps I’ll merely plant more beans, though that
might mean more beautiful and hungry deer.
I’m sorry for the times I’ve driven
home past a black, enormous, twilight ridge.
Crested with mist, it looked like a giant wave
about to break and sweep across the valley,
and in my loneliness and fear I’ve thought,
Forgive me. This is my favorite sin: despair—
whose love I celebrate with wine and prayer.
Our Father, thank you for all the birds and trees,
that nature stuff. I’m grateful for good health,
food, air, some laughs, and all the other things
I’m grateful that I’ve never had to do
without. I have confused myself. I’m glad
there’s not a rattrap large enough for deer.
While at the zoo last week, I sat and wept
when I saw one elephant insert his trunk
into another’s ass, pull out a lump,
and whip it back and forth impatiently
to free the goodies hidden in the lump.
I could have let it mean most anything,
but I was stunned again at just how little
we ask for in our lives.
Two young nuns tried to herd their giggling
schoolkids away. they called.
I laughed, and got a dirty look. Dear Lord,
we lurch from metaphor to metaphor,
which is—let it be so—a form of praying.
I’m usually asleep by now—the time
for supplication. Requests. As if I’d stayed
up late and called the radio and asked
they play a sentimental song. Embarrassed.
I want a lot of money and a woman.
And, also, I want vanishing cream. You know—
a character like Popeye rubs it on
and disappears. Although you see right through him,
he’s there. He chuckles, stumbles into things,
and smoke that’s clearly visible escapes
from his invisible pipe. It makes me think,
sometimes, of you. What makes me think of me
is the poor jerk who wanders out on air
and then looks down. Below his feet, he sees
eternity, and suddenly his shoes
no longer work on nothingness, and down
he goes. As I fall past, remember me.
by Brad Leithauser
There was a vase
that held the world’s riches, but it wasn’t cheap.
It cost a dime — and this in a time and place
when dimes were sizable, especially for
a girl of eight whose construction-worker father
was unemployed. The old metaphor
was literal in this case and she
till there were ten —
then embarked on a mission of great secrecy,
a purchase whose joys ran so deep,
seventy years later, as she told the tale again,
her face flushed. It was a birthday gift for her mother.
There was a race
of people heretofore glimpsed only on hanging scrolls
in library books. They were on the vase —
the smallest whole figures imaginable,
purposeful and industrious
as they fished or planted rice or hiked a hill
whose spiral trail led to a temple perched upon
a crag between cloud and waterfall.
They were a vision exported from Japan —
a country far as the moon, and far more beautiful,
whose artists grasped an eight-year-old girl’s soul’s
need for the minutely amplitudinous.
There was a place
(Detroit, the thirties) now slipped from sight,
though here and there I’ll catch some holdover trace —
maybe the grille on an old apartment door,
or a slumped block of houses, draped
in torn sheets of rain, apparently posing for
black-and-white photographs. Even the out-
of-a-job, men like my grandfather, donned hats back then
before leaving the house — to circle endlessly about,
as if a lost job were a lost coin that might
yet be found on the street where it had been dropped,
making them whole again.
There was a face,
rucked with care, that would dreamily soften
if talk floated off toward some remote someplace
beyond the seas. My grandmother had a yen for the faraway
(which she imparted to her daughter),
even as her life was tethered between a gray
icy motionless Midwestern city —
stalled like a car with a frozen ignition —
and a Tennessee farm without electricity.
(She did once see Washington — cherry season — and often
spoke of those long pink walkways beside the water
that were Japan’s gift to a grateful nation.)
There is a vase —
a piece of gimcrack that somehow
made its way to a crowded curio case
in a small souvenir shop
in Detroit, seventy-plus years ago —
which today stands atop
the mantel in the apartment in DC
where my fading mother is now living.
When she was eight, in 1933,
she gave it to my grandmother, who
for all her poverty bequeathed her daughter so
rich a bounty, including a taste for giving:
the gift of grace.
It seems a little miracle
almost — that it’s intact, the little vase,
conveying what its makers set out to convey:
an inward island spared by Time,
by the times. These days, she can scarcely say
who she gave it to, or on what occasion.
A — birthday? The pilgrim climbs the winding hill
forever, station by station,
and “Isn’t it beautiful?”
she asks. “You bought it for a dime,”
I tell her. It holds the world’s riches still.
Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons
by Diane Wakoski
The relief of putting your fingers on the keyboard,
as if you were walking on the beach
and found a diamond
as big as a shoe;
you had just built a wooden table
and the smell of sawdust was in the air,
your hands dry and woody;
you had eluded
the man in the dark hat who had been following you
of putting your fingers on the keyboard,
playing the chords of
in an afternoon when I had no one to talk to,
when the magazine advertisement forms of soft sweaters
and clean shining Republican middle-class hair
walked into carpeted houses
and left me alone
with bare floors and a few books
I want to thank my mother
for working every day
in a drab office
in garages and water companies
cutting the cream out of her coffee at 40
to lose weight, her heavy body
writing its delicate bookkeeper’s ledgers
alone, with no man to look at her face,
her body, her prematurely white hair
I want to thank
my mother for working and always paying for
my piano lessons
before she paid the Bank of America loan
or bought the groceries
or had our old rattling Ford repaired.
I was a quiet child,
afraid of walking into a store alone,
afraid of the water,
the dirty weeds in back yards,
afraid of my mother’s bad breath,
and afraid of my father’s occasional visits home,
knowing he would leave again;
afraid of not having any money,
afraid of my clumsy body,
that I knew
no one would ever love
But I played my way
on the old upright piano
obtained for $10,
played my way through fear,
through growing up in a world of dime-store purchases,
and a desire to love
a loveless world.
I played my way through an ugly face
and lonely afternoons, days, evenings, nights,
mornings even, empty
as a rusty coffee can,
played my way through the rustles of spring
and wanted everything around me to shimmer like the narrow tide
on a flat beach at sunset in Southern California,
I played my way through
an empty father’s hat in my mother’s closet
and a bed she slept on only one side of,
never wrinkling an inch of
the other side,
I played my way through honors in school,
the only place I could
or at my piano lessons, Mrs. Hillhouse’s canary always
singing the most for my talents,
as if I had thrown some part of my body away upon entering
and was now searching every ivory case
of the keyboard, slipping my fingers over black
ridges and around smooth rocks,
wondering where I had lost my bloody organs,
or my mouth which sometimes opened
like a California poppy,
wide and with contrasts
beautiful in sweeping fields,
entirely closed morning and night,
I played my way from age to age,
but they all seemed ageless
or perhaps always
old and lonely,
wanting only one thing, surrounded by the dusty bitter-smelling
leaves of orange trees,
wanting only to be touched by a man who loved me,
who would be there every night
to put his large strong hand over my shoulder,
whose hips I would wake up against in the morning,
whose mustaches might brush a face asleep,
dreaming of pianos that made the sound of Mozart
and Schubert without demanding
that life suck everything
out of you each day,
without demanding the emptiness
of a timid little life.
I want to thank my mother
for letting me wake her up sometimes at 6 in the morning
when I practiced my lessons
and for making sure I had a piano
to lay my school books down on, every afternoon.
I haven’t touched the piano in 10 years,
perhaps in fear that what little love I’ve been able to
pick, like lint, out of the corners of pockets,
will get lost,
into the terribly empty cavern of me
if I ever open it all the way up again.
Love is a man
with a mustache
gently holding me every night,
always being there when I need to touch him;
he could not know the painfully loud
music from the past that
his loving stops from pounding, banging,
battering through my brain,
which does its best to destroy the precarious gray matter when I
he does not hear Mrs. Hillhouse’s canary singing for me,
liking the sound of my lesson this week,
confirming what my teacher says,
that I have a gift for the piano
few of her other pupils had.
When I touch the man
I want to thank my mother for giving me
all those years,
keeping the memory of Beethoven,
a deaf tortured man,
of the beauty that can come
from even an ugly