Upon this altar I place
the sweet honeysuckle of those
truth or dare behind the neighbor’s shed,
the color of your hair that lies somewhere
between sweet honey and the blazing butter
of fall leaves burning through that railroad
and graffiti town.
Laughter rising hard and fast,
a freight train carrying us to
pregnant too young and married
to hard-fisted men.
I place my closed heart
next to your silent misery.
Take my blindness and guilt
and all those cold days kissing boys
who tasted like cigarettes.
Let’s waft the scents of lavender
and fresh linens,
listen for the sounds of our babies
screaming on the rusty swing set,
the dirty lake lapping at their tiny toes.
The way you could whip up dinner delicious and hot,
with only scraps from those empty cabinets,
the food stamps long gone for the month.
Popsicles and sprinklers, the sound of storms
coming in like cloaked men in the night.
The taste of lemon drops and whiskey tongues,
sound of quarters dropping down deep,
pool balls clinking like bullets loading
into the chamber of a 9mm.
Heap together the damp carpet and the quicksilver bugs,
the mice shuffling through the cabinets,
that tiny, useless built-in air conditioner,
and the back porch that nobody ever used.
I place my heart pounding with so much fear.
I place the home that raised my sister
to learn not to want to live.
Take these mud pies on Plexiglas as an offering.
Let’s pray together to the gods
of old folding chairs and appreciate how they scrape
the concrete floor of the church basement and the way
that they leave permanent marks on my heart.
after Archibald MacLeish's poem of the same name
A poem should be smooth,
worn slick as supper plates
waiting in warm water
as the night wears itself out.
Damp as a basement
with graffiti-rough walls,
no college degree in sight.
A poem should shoulder
A poem can't do the dishes
because it’s too busy
A poem is the time between
when I realize I don't love you
and the day I say it out loud
in an empty room.
A poem takes its time.
Running, as the mountain pulls
boulder by boulder, my legs
gasp poetry under their breath.
Leaving, as the elk bounded
from the meadow
the night of blazing vodka stars.
A poem should be equal to:
The way the curtains catch
the sunlight, paint a perfect slant
across the linen.
the crooked house and two hands
in the dishwater -
A poem should not mean
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom
from In Memory of W. B. Yeats by W. H. Auden
Wander the towns of America,
are you free?
I asked this of a woman in the Dollar Tree parking lot
which had been wilting under the sticky Cleveland heat for weeks.
My head was a donut just out of the fryer.
She barely looked my direction as she gathered small children
set them right in the cart, tied a shoe, patted her purse.
Her hair needed a wash.
With a heave, she drove the cart, rusty and listing to the right,
up the ramp. The door opened out
and I watched as she maneuvered through
with a hard twist of her shoulder and a quick two-wristed shove.
But what I want to know, ma’am, is
are you free?
She turned on me then.
Her eyes were broken bottles
against a backdrop of painted bridges,
blackened three times and counting, and held enough hope
to kill a man.
The sound she made wasn’t a laugh
or a cry, it was the sound
of supper time forks clattering
but not enough vegetables or meat.
It echoed with the resolve to save beloved children
from war and the knowing that you will fail.
It was blood and spit, looking your enemy right in the eye.
It rang with the hammer beat of labor camps and the slow seep
of gas oven deaths.
Without one word, she spoke of children who aren’t safe
even in their own homes,
held all the too-early deaths
of the falsely accused
and unjustly persecuted.
It sang from a hymnal clutched in rosary hands
passing baskets of money. It held up choir boys forever changed,
and looked down upon televangelists just in it for
private jets and swimming pools, amen.
It broke her heart.
It shouted poor is bad and I will kill you for that,
one way or another.
Her voice was heavy smoke, rising right there in Aisle Four
between the Pringles and five dollar frying pans,
and it threatened to burn the place down.
And then it was gone and in its place, a soft breeze.
She patted a startled child on the head, smoothed his porcupine hair.
We have never been free, she said, sliding
a box of Strawberry Frosted Pop-Tarts in the thin space between
a son and a daughter, you just like to think we are.
Note: this piece was first published at Short Edition.