Seven Poems from Illinois State Festival Writer Magazine

We Sit Together Friday Evening

…and Elizabeth says she knows this to be true:
Each step defines patterns on the earth below my feet
in a lonely dance of circular footprints that spiral, reverse,
edge forward, drop back, until the beginning becomes the end.

She is aware that I don the cloak of a smile each evening,
its fiber thinned to a ghost that floats across each room.
Elizabeth counsels patience, says this is the path I chose.
Still, she knows one sip will not diminish my thirst.

She is intimate with the literature of my existence,
dry habits that hold these eyes to each familiar page.
That there is no rising action from which I cannot anticipate
a fall, that there is no more, no less, than this hour, this day.

On a morning when I have settled, opened my book to a page
where I thought my place had been, the journey is new.
A stranger offers secrets, treasure, undeclared gold that fills
the empty pockets of my day, and soon, I begin the leaving.

I wrap my hope in precious cloth and hide it. Terrified,
I want, and then despair, that my breath might slow again
to a static rhythm, that the blunt thrust of this wandering heart
will surrender to the dimensions of its cage.

I ask Elizabeth if she thinks this love I’ve found
may be a chapter that remains to be written.
Elizabeth tells me she does not know the answer,
but she offers a pen, a blank page. We begin

***

Finger Weaving A Voyageur Sash

Twine ribbons: gold, red, emerald, for his eyes
Her furrier trades, her babe a nascent flame.
Her hands keep weaving: Listen to the cries.

This sash will dip for water, tote supplies.
Spread beeswax forms the cup, deft hands the frame.
Twine ribbons: gold, red, emerald, for his eyes

A chevron pattern forms as threads embrace.
Skinned beaver pelts all sold, he paddles home.
Her hands keep weaving: Listen to the cries.

Skilled fingers work, a smile in place denies
approaching screams–perhaps a children’s game.
Twine ribbons: gold, red, emerald, for his eyes.

Her focus on each knot fast fingers tie
–not Frenchmen overrun, not bodies maimed.
Her hands keep weaving: Listen to the cries.

Night’s air awhirl, the sky shoots fireflies.
Sometimes, she bleeds black arrows in her dreams.
Twine ribbons: gold, red, emerald, for his eyes.

Sad voyageur, death swooped with swift surprise.
Thuds shake the door. A sister screams her name.
Her hands cease weaving: Listen to the cries.

Her lover, bones and ashes where he lies.
and still wild roses star far fields the same.
His sash weaves with the fire’s flames that rise
in ribbons: gold, red, emerald, for his eyes

***

Black and White

That little detail
in an old photograph,
seemingly insignificant–
that broken toy
on the ground,
a knowing daughter
frowns at her mother,
a fisted hand,
a missing earring,
that reckless weather
in a married lover’s gaze.
Each arrests our attention
out of all importance
to its ostensible place
in the composition
of things –That element
unveils a secret
with unintended power,
the unexpected
that makes us wonder
why it is we cannot
look away. The unseen door
through which sorrow saunters
–An uninvited guest
we end up talking to
all evening.

***

A Thousand Days
It’s so much more respectable to drown
one’s woes beneath the channel’s oily sheen.
I never should have married for a crown.

The tower’s chill. I pace from stone to stone,
my throne a threadbare carpet, and it seems
it’s so much more respectable to drown.

My daughter has her father’s hair. She’s known
to be a legal heir. I hope she yearns
to marry no one, even for a crown.

Some claim my brother lay with me, I own
it’s possible, but not whilst I was queen–
It’s so much more respectable to drown.

Lord Cromwell’s stock is rising like the sun,
his stealthy machinations slipped between
King Henry and myself. I’ve lost the crown.

The swordsman from Calais, whose stroke is clean,
will part me from my life for Lady Jane.
It’s so much more respectable to drown.
I never should have married for a crown.

***

East Memphis
In every sorrow there is profit (Proverbs 14:23)

Girls walk together, arm-in-arm
their denim skirts modest and long,
each covered elbow must not seek
the sun.

Small houses circle round the school;
each Sabbath day, they stroll to shul.
Thick hair pulled back erratically,

tendrils escape by noon each day;
a girlfriend tucks them back again.
It’s hard to be chaste at sixteen.

They often hold each other’s hands,
pretending to avoid the eyes of boys
who wish, but never voice
the dangerous, forbidden words of love.

Men rise to meet the nascent sun.
They don their kippas, clip them down.
Wool tsitsit hang beneath each shirt,

Humash reveals a parashah.
Foreheads enlaced, left toward the heart;
with leather blessed before the knife,

they shokel as the Torah flame
ignites a vast, complete, celestial soul.
They know in faith this is their world.

Each glance direct, each voice assured.
Hashem instructs directly here–
these lives carved by dark-hatted men
who lived and died six hundred years ago.

Each boy will travel far in life, Yeshiva. Israel,
a wife who’ll clothe herself in wig or hat,
decreed by ritual and rule.

An iron drape of custom will compel her —
cook the Shabbos meal. Bear children. Remain clean
and calm. Embrace this space you’re given,
this, you own.

***

Ages

I — Black

Bereft of oestrous
night sweat sheets
simulate passion flown

II — Gray

An overcast eye
gentles every landscape

III — Blue

My mother’s veins
river my hands

IV — Yellow

Brittle t e e th
    c
   r
      o
   o
        k
        e
        d

        b
        o
      n
  e
s
curl over
bunioned feet

V– Green

Dying is one gift
our children keep.

***

While the Light Lasts…

I.
Pockets stuffed with extra ammo, rifled men deconstruct bodies clinging to steel cables. The trapped link arms on truss ledges: black, brown, white sail into air, leaving red Pollack arcs shooting behind.

II.
Lovers whimper between clenched teeth, then jump, as bullets whiz by overhead. Church women crouch in the uptown direction to bat at passing souls, desperate to save a few, but spirits slip like yellow silk through their fingers and the wind from their leaving floats over the cantilevered arch spanning the blazing river.

III.
Smoke from bodies aflame tongues the strung moon; ashes flake their wings as cardinals litter the sky like liquid roses, their trajectory a drunkards’ scribble across the fire-haloed clouds.

IV.
The thump of a falling body startles a cur that scares under the spandrel. Nosing the air, he yips from his hinged jaw, smells his own dog denouement in the gathering atoms of night.

V.
The water’s breast is lumpy with meat; painted waves flicker an oily rainbow of expanding heat.

VI.
The fearless dead lie coffined beneath earthen slabs of clay while beyond the water, fires wink out, one by one by one, the light fails, and midnight capes fresh corpses sprouting metal petals from their breasts.

VII.
A neon billboard’s words flash a riddle over Times Square no tongue will ever solve. A New York Times front page from yesterday tumbles and folds itself around a trembling lamppost.

VIII.
In a hot green room across the river, a red-headed girl flips the pages of a photo album perched atop her nine month belly, a frown on her face. She gazes at photographs collected by those whom she does not yet know have joined the dead. She raises her head and asks the quickening air, where do people go when they don’t come back no more?

Thank you to Editor Jane Carman for publishing these poems.
2014 copyright JP Reese