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The problem of naming

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THE PROBLEM OF NAMING
by
Amie Whittemore
M.A.T Lewis and Clark College, 2004
B.A. University of Illinois, 2002
A Thesis
Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the
M.F.A. in Creative Writing
Department of English
In the Graduate Department
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
August 2010
UMI Number: 1482695
All rights reserved
INFORMATION TO ALL USERS
The quality of this reproduction is dependent upon the quality of the copy submitted.
In the unlikely event that the author did not send a complete manuscript
and there are missing pages, these will be noted. Also, if material had to be removed,
a note will indicate the deletion.
UMI 1482695
Copyright 2010 by ProQuest LLC.
All rights reserved. This edition of the work is protected against
unauthorized copying under Title 17, United States Code.
ProQuest LLC
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P.O. Box 1346
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THESIS APPROVAL
The Problem of Naming
By
Amie Whittemore
A Thesis Submitted in Partial
Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degree of
M.F.A.
in the field of Creative Writing
Approved by:
Judy Jordan, Chair
Rodney Jones
Allison Joseph
Graduate School
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
May 7, 2010
AN ABSTRACT OF THE THESIS OF
Amie Whittemore, for the Masters of Fine Arts degree in Poetry, presented on May, 7
2010, at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
TITLE: The Problem of Naming
MAJOR PROFESSOR: Judy Jordan
In Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, the narrator wonders, “if ever again
Americans can have that experience of returning to a home place so intimately known,
profoundly felt, deeply loved, and absolutely submitted to.” My manuscript, The Problem
of Naming is an attempt to explore the idea of home, as both a place and a people, and to
affirm it is still “profoundly felt.” The poems examine how abstractions such as presence
and absence, grief and joy matter due to their intersection with matter: the individual
body; the land, time, weather, from which that body sprung; and also the family that
made a place home, its members living and dead – all of these are points of such
intersection. It is the rich web of fact, myth, and story that surround a home-place that the
speaker/narrator of these poems embellishes, questions, revises, and celebrates in order to
make and expand meaning.
And so, this is not merely an autobiographical collection about a woman who
grew up on a farm and lost two grandparents in quick succession, who left farm and
family only to return due to an obsessive love and need – though it encompasses this
story. Rather, this story seeks, through its self-awareness, to complicate its narrative and
lyrical moments through form, syntax, and content. It orchestrates a collision with fact
and myth: what happened with what seemed to or should have or nearly happened.
i
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
A special thanks to the following publications where some of these poems have
appeared or will appear (some in slightly different versions):
Rattle:
Sycamore Review:
“The Calendar”
“Movement of Heat”
ii
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Abstract…………………………………………………………..…………………….i
Acknowledgements……………………………………………………………………ii
I............................................................................................................................................................... 1
T HE PROBLEM OF NAMING ................................................................................................................................ 2
LIGHTNING BUG SEASON .................................................................................................................................. 3
LATE SPRING...................................................................................................................................................... 4
NOT HONEY, NOT MOON .................................................................................................................................. 7
GEOMETRY LESSON ........................................................................................................................................... 9
PORTRAIT OF HIRAM, AGE 60 ......................................................................................................................... 11
MOTH HOUR .................................................................................................................................................... 12
AFTER THE FUNERAL ....................................................................................................................................... 14
WIDOWHOOD ................................................................................................................................................... 15
GEOGRAPHY LESSONS ..................................................................................................................................... 16
BUILDING THE CABIN, 1946 ............................................................................................................................ 20
AFTER SPENDING WORLD WAR II IN PANAMA .............................................................................................. 21
METAPHORS FOR LEAVING .............................................................................................................................. 23
GRAY WISHES .................................................................................................................................................. 26
PORTRAIT OF KATHRYN, AGE 85 .................................................................................................................... 28
II. .......................................................................................................................................................... 29
V OCABULARY LESSON .................................................................................................................................... 30
THE OTHER FIELD............................................................................................................................................ 32
THE UNKNOTTING ........................................................................................................................................... 34
WEDNESDAY, LENTEN DINNER, CHURCH GYM, PRIOR TO CONFIRMATION CLASS ..................................... 38
TADPOLE SEASON ............................................................................................................................................ 40
TORNADO SONG ............................................................................................................................................... 42
IN WHICH GREAT AUNT WHITT BECOMES THE PATRON SAINT OF LEAVING ............................................... 44
III.......................................................................................................................................................... 45
L AST MIRACLE ................................................................................................................................................ 46
THE SEIZURE .................................................................................................................................................... 48
WATER CYCLE ................................................................................................................................................. 51
THE CALENDAR ............................................................................................................................................... 53
CHAFF .............................................................................................................................................................. 55
ENCOMIUM FOR A PEACE LILY ........................................................................................................................ 58
HISTORY LESSON ............................................................................................................................................. 60
IV. ......................................................................................................................................................... 61
A ND SO I LEFT HOME, ..................................................................................................................................... 62
HEAT IS THE STORY OF THE BODY .................................................................................................................. 63
VELLEITY ......................................................................................................................................................... 65
CRICKET LEG SEASON ..................................................................................................................................... 67
SAPLINGS ......................................................................................................................................................... 69
THE PROBLEM OF NAMING (2) ........................................................................................................................ 70
ELEGY .............................................................................................................................................................. 72
VITA................................................................................................................................................................ 75
iii
.
1
I.
2
The Problem of Naming
is a creek clogged with Hirams: the after-splash of skipped stones. Hiram the first sold
X acres to Tornado Alley Railroad Company so it could hire men (former
sharecroppers; sons of slaves) to lay tracks; Hiram #1 named the sprouting town
Pembroke. Hiram Junior had his money, his straight-hemmed fields, his daughter’s
flapper dresses, and the gallon jug of his heart swiped by the Great Depression, which,
in its compassion, left the family with 200 acres, a shed, a stand of pines. The third
Hiram added a cabin-cum-chicken coop to the property, learned piano, healed (or
crippled or scared or hijacked) his stomach ulcer with meals of white bread. No attic
or water-ruined trunk files their signatures. A dog chained to the rusted windmill
gnaws their bones. But which dog? Gus, Jesse, Lakota? Every dog bound to this farm
runs away and returns three-legged, howling at the chicken-coop. Again my father
spills a pail of eggs. Again he and my grandfather pitchfork possums in a corn bin.
Again, I am fourteen, power-washing chaff and caked soil from a combine, my first
kiss a secret flutter in my throat. AM radio chatters in the shed – but what song? What
new weather could it possibly report? A flock of starlings – or are they bats – flush
through the shed doors, tunnel toward a sky neither dark nor bright, but grained like a
thin sheet flapping in the wind and each bird (or bat) clamps a soybean in its beak (or
mouth) and marbled in each is a well-worn name: John who plucked his daughter’s
front tooth, John who fought in Vietnam. Nell who was never Ellen, Kathryn, who was
never Kay, and Kay Ellen named for them both. The birds drop our names into the
fields that sprout tract houses with identical basements, each lacquered with our
nameless ashes: no one to say if we were good stewards. If the creek slicked with
Round Up misses us. If the pines sheltering the birdbath, their crowns lobbed by
tornadoes, remember. Or if Pembroke, a town we named but never inhabited, a town
of dirt floors, churches, and liquor stores, its children crying for grilled cheese would
recognize us. And if not, would we look for comfort in what remains: eggshell on the
chicken coop floor, a bent nail, jawbones of yet another dead dog.
3
Lightning Bug Season
for Kathryn
His arm draped across her shoulder, she ignored the cockles snagging
her long dress as he guided her through the tall grass beyond
his father’s barns, away from the fence where the cows lapped salt.
His hand winnowed light from a darkness as thick as a cow’s tongue,
she thought, beside the salt pale moon. He told her the crown of stars
above them formed the mountains that dragged him west.
And because she was sixteen, she nodded, though she knew Cassiopeia’s
story: a snakeskin kind of beauty on her toppled throne, Perseus guttering
across the sky. She wanted their voices to fit between each calling spark,
so she didn’t yell or gasp when he clasped her hands, saying, tomorrow,
I’m hopping the train. West, an ugly maw towing him to a ferrous life
of shoeing horses and birthing calves. Well. Every current could be cupped
and to prove it, she let him unlace her. The next morning, tugging
on her dew-damp stockings, she tried to explain about sand and hourglasses,
pie tins and filling, held and holding, but he only kissed her cheek
before the train tore him away, a razor snipping thread and she cut loose.
Sad snail unshelled. Turnip torn from earth. That evening, she paced
her bedroom, worrying a scrap of cotton into knots. I joined her then,
my unmarried, unmotherly great-grandmother. I appeared
and together we crafted a new season. We snuffed out desire’s small lamps
and shook humidity from the air as if snapping dust from a rug.
I unbraided her hair and massaged her scalp, and told her about the bald eagle
I saw one winter, a silver fish gripped in its talons, as it skimmed the river
we both knew, told her we would fashion our futures not from its talons,
nor its hooked beak, but from torn scales, from fish-blood drying on tree bark.
4
Late Spring
April, 1903
Damp crunch and lurch of snow from yesterday’s blizzard
clumps and slings down the eaves as Kathryn eyes the ice,
careful not to slip. Juncos parse the ground, and waiting in his office,
Hiram organizes his notes on leases and ledgers, while men outside
lean on their shovels and joke – small fogs grazing their lips.
Never before had he thought a new secretary is like the sweet clatter
of coins collected in a jar, but he thinks so today as he waits for Kathryn,
hail smattering the roof. Strange weather, he says and shakes her hand.
Strange, she agrees, thinking his eyebrows are gray foxes;
her clammy hands dust flurries from her skirt. Accounts, letters, receipts
form a scrim between his lips and hers as he explains her tasks.
He offers her a glass of water and sunlight curtains the sidewalk,
tugs mud and horse manure from beneath boot-cracked ice.
When Hiram’s elbow tips the inkpot, Kathryn’s hair, looped and pinned
at the nape of her neck, unwinds. She fixes her hair
while Hiram wipes up the ink with his handkerchief. Ink stains
his fingers, his narrow white wrist, cuffs of his sleeves.
And Kathryn stares into the glary light pouring down the icicles
to remember decorum. To remember she prefers winter to spring.
Still, yarn balls in her chest and a sick taste pastes her throat.
She looks away from him and searches for a chore,
something calming, like kneading dough;
5
the tear on Hiram’s jacket saves her. She offers to mend it
and concentrates on her cold, pinched toes.
~
Kathryn stiffens a thread with spit and Hiram, in order to stop
imagining himself the fabric she holds, the thread she leads,
cracks his knuckles, shuffles paper, refills the inkpot, and tells her
about skipping stones on the river – an old boyhood habit. Kathryn’s
laughter moves like cursive across his skin. The ball of yarn
in her chest begins to tip and before it falls to her lap and skirts
across the floor, she imagines a wiry net to catch it, but still it unreels
like a line hooked to a quick fish, so she watches as the yarn
rolls out the door and banks against the snowmelt muddying
the nearby churchyard, where, upon feeling that soft collision,
a dormant daffodil wakes. Kathryn bites her thumb while Hiram
stares out the window, rambling on about the church’s architecture,
but thinking about the tulip poplar in his backyard, its apricot cups
filling with sweet, lemony tea. He wants to tell her about the tea.
He turns to her; she glances quickly at her bruising thumb, tries to craft
Hiram’s eyebrows into something unpleasant, like slugs, while handing him
his jacket, saying, it’s about time we got to work. Hiram nods,
though he wants to topple the first domino in a snake-tail of dominoes.
~
Outside, downtown Kankakee thaws. Snow clomps from crabapples.
A clock chimes the hour and the chimes remind them
6
of handmade lace, and bells rung by gloved hands, and rabbit-skin
gloves, and skin, and the promise of wet bark and soil no longer frozen.
Fragrant with leaf bud and new roots, a breeze skitters off the river,
leaks through window seams. And if a river could blush,
Kathryn thinks, the river is blushing today, so pompous and robust
with melt even a stone could float or skip from bank to bank.
And try as she might, she can’t seem to tally the totals of rent checks
Hiram handed her. And he can’t help her, though he watches her
linger over an addition sign, a scribble of carried numbers, and thinks
the wisps of hair curled around her ears must smell like blueberries.
He thinks pine needles; Kathryn thinks pine needles; and pine needles
crushed under last night’s snow rise up and pin themselves to their trees.
A racket of children clatters past; women and men shake snow from their hats;
Kathryn and Hiram work while tulips nose out of the earth.
7
Not Honey, Not Moon
but maybe, Kathryn said to Hiram,
marriage was a grapefruit dusted with sugar,
or its fat and pulpy seeds, or maybe the faraway tree,
sagging under its load of fruit. She sliced the fruit
and asked him what he thought and he shook his head,
certain he’d found a woman more absurd
than himself. He lifted the salt and pepper shakers,
asking her, why not this? Or this? He fanned
a stack of spoons, shook out a dishrag. This?
She shrugged. He said, marriage is a grandfather clock
losing time despite repairs. And she sighed,
pouring oats into the water boiling on the stove.
And of course, he added, like every good clock
it needs a good cranking. He tried untying her apron,
but she pushed him away.
Later, after Hiram left for work,
and she cleaned up the breakfast mess,
she missed being his secretary,
and not yet his wife. Sometimes a train whistle
gripped her in its silver beak and she thought,
if she’d been born a man, she’d have learned
to build and polish rocking chairs,
to hunger for gold, or at least to develop
a taste for whiskey. As it was, she mopped
the floors and waited for what she could:
Hiram home from work, her belly to expand
like yeasty dough. And in the afternoons,
she read novels about women for whom marriage
was like a corset, framing their waists and busts,
that didn’t bind, she thought, but formed them –
just as the cracked glue allowed the book
she held to flex its damp must, a scent
she imagined the unmarried women she read also smelled
and which drove them to throw their tea cups through the lead glass,
8
to never again curtsy for a dull preacher,
whose salary, they whispered, was most becoming.
9
Geometry Lesson
When the midwife lips the first push and presses
the word like a stamp against Kathryn, she imagines herself
an envelope, the child a letter from a foreign country.
Kathryn tries to invent its language to buoy herself,
to collect breath in each muscle but thinks
syrup instead, syrup and string. Then pain drops
her in a prairie and bug song fills her ears
so she can’t hear Hiram pacing. She pushes the stone
of her child’s body, gathering her weight with it:
roses blotting her father’s chest with typhoid fever,
her mother’s fractured hip, the weeks spent spooning
chicken broth and soft bread to them both.
Her mother tolling toil and sorrow so often Kathryn felt
the phrase rope her like twine trussing a hay bale.
The child’s skull crests against her pelvis. She leans
into a stubborn door, tastes its hinges in her mouth;
the midwife asks her to concentrate and Kathryn focuses
on sweat beading her forearm, each sphere a world:
one, bed-sheet billow; the next, mouse droppings;
the third, Hiram’s hands measuring her blooming waist.
The midwife’s command – push – and she sees mealworms,
a child’s tooth in her palm, the grand piano dusted
with hawk feathers; then a darting bat, night’s thick cloak,
her mother’s hymns filling the air as her sister
squeezes her hand. The doorway frames Hiram’s face,
and the midwife’s gonging voice swabs her forehead –
10
she sucks in air. Such absence awaits. These worlds
sluicing her will erode every curve and hip.
New blood on its own path, with its wailing and shoulder-down,
mucus and talcum, sprinting heart and witch’s milk –
Child, she wants to say, you’re abandoning me.
Then the midwife calls her from the bottom of herself,
away from the sheet pulled over her father’s face,
from her mother’s clutch on her shoulder as they crossed
the icy foot-bridge following the casket to the snowcrusted plot, a bird claw gripping her chest as it grips it now.
Her sister’s palms brace her back, urging her to unlatch
that fierce grip, that coyote’s clenched jaw, that arrowhead,
that bear-trap, that splintering wood, that….
No more bellows-pinched air, no child and opening,
no muddled cherries, tongue pressed against spoon,
chestnuts unpeeling their warm, nutty hearts.
The child’s own geometry takes shape –
no longer a flame sheltered by a hurricane lamp,
the child still brief inside her
like marrow. That joyous part of the bone.
11
Portrait of Hiram, Age 60
Heel to toe, boots squishing spring mud,
he surveys the last acres he’ll buy – marshy.
Sky like gray flannel, he licks his thumb, discerning the wind.
It is 1926 and Hiram, though bald, though he wears a red wig to work,
which amuses his teenage children and irritates his wife,
still would leave them, buy a car, and head to New York
if it meant he could be an inventor.
At night, while Kathryn sleeps beside him,
he imagines constructing complex machines that chop vegetables,
heat homes, and sing songs from popular musicals
on command. The ceiling upon which he casts
these visions fills also with the slender hands of young women,
whose imaginary skin tastes haunts him
until day drops its bright net over the sky.
He winds his pocket watch and remembers the quiet
that once draped his house,
those years his were the only shoes in the mudroom.
Before marriage lassoed him to a noisy life:
his daughter’s hands splashing water across her face,
the boys during baseball season jeering at the radio.
And the hazy quilt over him seems seamless,
beyond doubt, though for an instant,
before he sets his watch, thinking he knows the time
by weak daylight, faint honey locust shadow at his right,
he imagines the sky peeling away like paint, and beneath it,
carious wood, a cedar plank’s sweetness gone rank.
12
Moth Hour
October, 1929
Kathryn splits the sugar pumpkin and scoops
its strangle of seeds into a blue china bowl,
then mottles each half with cinnamon and nutmeg.
Frost trots at the heels of the late sun when Hiram,
returning home, lays his keys on the front table.
Her peach and navy apron floured with fingerprints,
a rush of leaves against the window. Then, Hiram’s footsteps –
a bright noise darting through the house – and she turns
as his footfall clatters and stops
like a wooden spoon dropped to the floor.
Trying to work loose his tie, he gasps and pants
as if codling moths sputter from his mouth
and hover over his splayed body in the hallway –
slash of wings, smell of ripe pears – and bent
over him, Kathryn tries to peel away the thrashing cocoon,
pull him through it.
She flickers across his vision like an eyelash,
a gnat, the cat’s tongue lapping milk, her eyes
like two dimes – my last dimes, he thinks
as he begins to agree with the quieting inside him.
He wants to say, the house smells nice. He tries,
but she presses his chest and he coughs up
13
wing-dust. Her face films over and he thinks
he’s become the river and she the morning fog snaking over it.
Their world flattened, cool air quilts her shoulders
as frost gallops across the grass.
And she stares at her husband’s suit
caked with flour, his gaze frozen on some
distant bird as if he wanted to know what
type of hawk it was that hung in the air.
All she wants is warm marble, lemon zest,
clove and pie crust perfuming the house,
not that red-tail winnowing mice from the fields,
not these moths fluting through her chimney.
14
After the Funeral
It’s last winter’s hat or a bare head.
Kathryn tells her daughter, Whitt, to choose three dresses,
pawn the rest. No one’s found the will,
so her sons sit at the table, mimicking
their father’s language. Kathryn begins packing
wedding china into newspaper.
It too must be pawned.
Lingering over the ironstone jug,
its blue daisies stretched like children’s palms
above a raft of melon-colored peonies,
Kathryn inhales its scent – lemonade and rosemary –
and rubs her finger over its chipped lip,
cradling its cool weight against her stomach.
Her sons argue while Whitt looks over her brothers’ work.
Their cigarettes cool in the tray.
Quiet fills the room the way a skeleton key
fills every lock and Kathryn, tasting smoke and iron,
drops the jug.
15
Widowhood
A red hourglass on a black abdomen seems right.
When Kathryn turns out the lamp, alone for the first time
in bed, she knows what the cicada’s shuffed skin knows:
a single poppy crumbling in its papery hoop skirt;
black thread to mend a black dress, yet the shades don’t match.
It isn’t enough to know how wide, dusty, and empty
the world is, it isn’t enough to know her son Robert
inherited these drought-steeped acres she walks now,
rubbing her hands over limp cornstalks. Even tin cups,
etched with children’s rhymes seem sad now,
like carnations are sad – common flowers one gives to strangers
when there is no word to say. Not that Kathryn wishes she
devoured him – just. So much of harboring absence is looking
to fill it. Each time she polishes silver, she hides one more spoon.
If it appears in a flower vase or wedged in a stack of firewood,
she knows it’s a ghost who’s found it.
16
Geography Lessons
I.
Whitt, on finding her dead father doused in flour
and her mother bowed over him, weeping, nearly laughed.
How funny people look when they cry, eyes
like watery red balloons, wringing mop sound in their voices.
And, years later, that swallowed laughter remains a bulb in her gut.
She hangs maps on her bedroom walls and locks the door
when she leaves so her mother won’t see the places
she would rather be. Someday,
she’ll wish she kept those maps to remind her
that once her father’s death seemed as unlikely as two Germanys.
A kind of dampness trails her.
Daily, the young men vanish, like auburn from the hair
above her left temple, which her mother insists
is simply the fate of all red-heads, gray by thirty,
but which Whitt believes is caused by loneliness.
II.
Kathryn’s heart is a globe and its axis falters
each time her sons write home. She’d hoped her son Hiram
would fare better in South America, far from the front,
but when he writes about mending mosquito netting,
malaria casts its yellow glare across her sleep.
And Robert’s short notes – raining in London, foggy
as pea soup – remind her that she taught him
weather-talk replaces feeling-talk. So she writes back,
Saw the first violets. Boy were they something.
III.
17
Though Robert scratches it out twice,
he's fallen in love with a war-bride in London:
Her hair, like apricots.
And her voice like a pearl.
He crumples the letter to his brother
and starts over, I actually went bowling
last week, have you heard this idea Whitt
has of being a nurse, talk her out of it,
will you,
she won’t listen to me.
But his mind’s on the countryside,
behind the black-out curtains shrouding
the woman with apricot hair. Once she brought
him a handful of freshly sheared wool.
He finishes the letter, swearing never
to say her name after he returns to the States.
And he doesn’t.
He marries, has children,
comes home from the fields stinking
of engine exhaust and grain –
yet every June when the cottonwoods unlatch
their white umbrellas as frail as a sick child’s breath,
he thinks of that wool, and her hands
as she cleaned his glasses with the hem of her skirt.
18
IV.
Far now from Panama’s brackish mangrove thickets,
at the border between jungle and grassland, ashy dirt
smoking where the trees have been cut back, Hiram watches
his crew hack through a sugar cane field,
thick motion of their arms flashing like wings
between the stalks. Tonight, grunts and trills
of night monkeys will canopy his tent, and robed in sweat,
he’ll be unable to sleep. He’ll open his notebook
where he’s recorded sketches of orchids and hummingbirds,
knowing if he looks through the narrow ring of light
from his lamp, he’ll see once more his father’s ghost begging
for a dollar, pleading again for a loan from an old business partner,
and the man refusing.
Hiram considers stacking silver balboas
at the foot of his cot, though he thinks such offerings
are signs of the mind’s shabby wiring.
He sips water from his canteen, then returns to the field.
The capybaras scatter as he passes them,
and the sound of their grazing, like the sound of women
brushing their hair, fills him with homesickness
for a tea kettle’s piercing song, the shed door rattling
during a storm, the age-spot on his mother’s left cheek,
even cow manure caking his boot heel.
V.
The dream thickens her sight so Whitt can’t tell which brother appears, only his armyissued olive socks, mud-flecked, his face unwrapping from itself like a spool
unwheeling its thread. Leather-fat tongue, she can’t shout. Nails clank in her mouth. A
gull hangs in the air above her as she kneels at her brother’s feet and claws red moons
into his shins, blood drying into ragged strips of bark until it is no longer her brother
but a honey locust she climbs, her nightgown snaring on its bundled thorns. She lugs
herself up to the crown and the gull lands on her head, pecking her scalp so gently she
thinks, this is how soil feels as each seed’s tucked in. Salt-taste, fish-smell, a feeling like being
19
a bowl filled with fresh fruit. The bird falls asleep and her hair grows long until it has
wreathed the bird and her body in its nest.
VI.
Like the dog she read about in the papers,
who waited two long years at the train station
for his master to return from the War,
Kathryn has grown strange with patience,
able now to watch a slow rain splatter the entire walk
without heat building behind her ears,
pliant and thin as a young willow.
She doesn’t use food to fill the time anymore.
Now, she sweeps but doesn’t mop, doesn’t bother
with grocery lists, doesn’t cry when she finds
mice droppings in the sugar bin.
She’s mellow as a wind-chime
as long as she doesn’t think about that bomb.
Those bodies rushed into stains on the pavement.
Hair burnt from their scalps, skin sagging,
stone and clay melting around them.
She waits until the walk is dark
with summer rain before she closes each window
and feels the house grows hot and still around her.
Her sons will be home before winter ends.
She imagines them returning to her as children,
with buzz-cuts and missing front teeth.
The windows are buckled against the storm
and the screen door’s latched when she sees she’s left
the clothes on the line, her dresses flailing like paper dolls.
20
Building the Cabin, 1946
Through the rafters, sunlight flanks the brothers
as one centers a nail and the other holds the plank level.
Between the cabin’s south wall and the field, a scrap
of lawn wide enough for a deer path from creek to pond.
An applause of hammers, and across the yard, Robert’s farmhouse,
his wife, Bea, sweeping the front porch.
Hiram whistles, a nail tucked behind one ear; Robert glosses
the sky for rain. Like burlap, July drowses over the day,
soused in milkweed bloom, honeybees teasing nectar
from the plum and white trumpets of petunias in baskets
on the porch steps. While Bea cooked eggs for the brothers,
she promised Hiram one for the cabin, hoping
he’d take it as a good-luck, stay-put sign.
The brothers lip nails and mop sweat from their brows.
In the shed, their father’s ghost mimics a barn swallow,
toppling empty paint cans with each swoop and dive.
Willow lath, Robert suggests as a sealant. Hiram nods,
realizing he hasn’t bought a bed yet. Or even a razor.
A scent Robert can’t siphon from the air drags Hiram away –
not ghost breath, not skunk stink. A scent sweeter than first
rain. Robert can almost see it, a kind of cloud cover pressing
his brother’s shoulders, making him twitch and scratch his neck.
Robert sees it’s collared him like it has their sister – that wanting,
that forgetfulness letting them do what he cannot: abandon
a life sewn to rainfall, each drop a stitch and an unstitching.
21
After Spending World War II in Panama
studying sugar cane as an alternative fuel source,
Hiram bought the old farm truck, a beat-up Ford KB2, from his brother
and headed south, the family behind him like driftwood
banked on a high tide-line.
When he arrived in eastern Kentucky, he chiseled his name into a sandstone ridge.
Same name as his father, as his father’s father,
and because he had no wife, no land, and only one pair of overalls,
he felt like the only negative number on a long line of integers.
Only the ailments he listed in his cloth-bound journal comforted him:
eczema, allergies, dry nose; mornings split across cracked knuckles;
white bread to calm an ulcer-curdled stomach;
myopia, flat feet, a beloved woman lost.
Hiking into the humid gut of the Red River Gorge,
he slapped mosquitoes from his arms and thighs,
his hands remembering pianos, the small of Deirdre’s back.
In the old lace of her last letter hung the words,
I’ve married,
a child,
waiting a whetstone,
and each phrase plucked a hair from his head,
made his jaw ache, plugged his ears.
In Panama, her name slipped like rain
from the thatched rooftops,
a damp dew cresting the cane fields
unclasped her hair from its pins,
22
and each day he plunged his head into the cold stream
just to feel her hands smooth his cowlick.
He hiked out of the gorge
drinking water from an old pickle jar,
thinking that if he stormed Michigan to find her,
he could make of her a glass vase
filled with ribbons, lemon balm, saltwater taffy.
But sunlight licked the road toward Georgia, the test fields of sugar cane,
spitbugs lining the stalks with their nests, chanting his name.
23
Metaphors for Leaving
Deirdre packs her son’s toy tractors,
folds her dresses into a suitcase.
The left behind husband is uncut fabric.
Scissors misplaced.
She is the beautiful idea of a dress.
~
Her son sleeps on the stripped mattress.
He dreams a net to catch his parents,
one a swampy shoe,
one a flapping fish.
~
On her wedding day, chimney-smoke ruffled
her white dress. Her bouquet of daisies drooped.
The next morning,
when she awoke, naked and sweating,
her new husband running water in the hotel bath,
she saw her ring had slipped from her finger,
rolled off the mattress, and a spider
had webbed it beneath the king-sized bed.
~
24
The stripped mattress and the scent
of soured milk greet the husband.
He finds her keys on the kitchen table,
but thinks his wife is waiting somewhere,
like a dress, pressed and hung, in a closet.
But the fruit bowl is empty and in the freezer,
two pork-chops, two empty ice trays.
He drifts through the house and discovers
he is the blank margin of a book
and she is a train whistle, the air the whistle parts.
Then he knows some other man will teach
his son to write his name and multiply fractions.
He waits for someone to pour him a glass of milk.
~
What is divorce but a kind of Braille
and Braille a way of pinning light to darkness?
The child will remember his sandbox,
his mother’s shoulder beneath his chin,
train whistle threading his sleep
while they waited at the station.
The child will forget
the small bruise on his knee.
~
Her jaw unclenches
25
and her son leans his head against the window.
The train whistles them south.
The almost smell of sugar cane
and the man she imagines harvesting it,
makes her body the bulb of a blooming tulip.
She opens her novel and finds her place:
Gatsby harpooned by a green light.
The margins fill with her careful notes;
her fingerprints smudge the story.
26
Gray Wishes
First light, and Hiram tries to catalog his dream:
Deirdre in a yellow gingham dress flickering
through cane stalks, a string tied to one wrist
as she weaves a labyrinth through the cane,
he’s trying to clutch the string’s far end
and follow her zigzagging trail, but always
her dress is a distant flag, her laughter receding,
and heat builds at the nape of his neck…
He sweats the dream out while staring at the ceiling,
the walls of the cabin he built for Deirdre, her son, and himself,
far from Illinois and that other cabin he never inhabited,
the sun clinging to the fog as it blankets the Blue Ridge mountains.
Deirdre winces as the light glares across her face,
and remembers a dream of her first husband:
A dried well. Cracked bucket.
The scent of pickled asparagus.
A pearl in her mouth she couldn’t
swallow or spit and then Hiram
is an egret preening in the marsh.
The distant taste of molasses. Air like burnt sugar.
How strange, she thinks, that somewhere her first husband
still lives, wearing gold rings and bowling on Sundays.
That he has a name and somewhere people say it –
though she tells her small son his father is a stork
and Hiram is – what? A giraffe, he says, and laughs.
27
She shifts her weight and Hiram wonders
if she’s awake, her movement like sand tracing
his palm; she listens to him sigh and recalls
the ducks they saw last night lifting from the lake,
water loosening from their feathers,
like this morning’s wind whisking the leaves.
Twigs snap against the roof.
Deirdre coughs; Hiram squints
at the light rolling out like dough across the bed.
He catalogs his dreams under old fears
and contemplates the opposite: bacon sizzling in a skillet,
maple syrup on French toast,
the shoe-shaped mole on Deirdre’s stomach.
When he reaches for his glasses,
hungry now, and yawning,
Deirdre thinks of him slicing cane
after the war ended, machete in his hands,
the autumn she carried her child from train station
to taxi to the test fields to find him,
muscles rippling beneath the sweat
darkening his shirt like an anhinga,
the dark eaves of its wings splayed to dry.
She whistled then, like she whistles now,
low and trilled,
and he turns to her, smiling,
the light around him fuzzy
as if flown through with the dandelion seeds
they blew across the lake with her son.
He called them gray wishes.
28
Portrait of Kathryn, Age 85
What would she have me see?
Not an old woman with a peach-pit face,
graveled hair smudged nutmeg at the roots.
Nor her hospital bed parked in her son’s dining room,
a fuzzy parade of grandchildren twisting dandelions
into her fist. None of this,
nor of the boiled, spoon-ready foods, only she
and her soured breath arrived one night to tell me:
bald eagles are no comfort.
And, shining with a glossy heat, she crawled into my bed
and clamped my palm against the uneven scar
that jigsawed her belly shut after a child
had been torn from it. Then her bruised hip,
every gap pocking her gums, she pulled my hands
across her brittle ribs so that I felt I had been blind-folded
and a stranger led me across swollen creeks,
through the smack and scratch of a summer-green cornfield,
along a clay path spiraling up a mountain,
until all the territory of my life seemed as foreign
as her body that night, the feathery sounds in her throat.
She wanted to hold my gaze like a storm holds the outline
of lightning long after it passes.
But as the magnolia-skinned air drifted through the open window,
I could only repeat the cut and curl of her name
until she tired of hearing it.
She stood beside my bed and with an old pocketknife,
hacked free the long braid of her hair and gave it to me.
Then it seemed like water rose slowly
around her ankles and climbed her like the song
that carries salmon as they dash against the rocks –
home and compass song, song pearled with eggs –
until its current pulled her gently through the window.
I held the thick braid in my lap,
neither damp, nor limp, but heavy as ironwood.
II.
30
Vocabulary Lesson
My father wrote, my sister’s crying filled me with rue
to complete his vocabulary homework,
but before he started a siege, in which he hoped captivate
would mean the troops could capture his sister,
he saw plummet into the snow-spackled field
a parachute yellow as the belt a hornet wore around its waist
or the daffodils he picked for his mother each spring.
A man shouldered out of the straps as if they were suspenders
and the parachute folded into an origami swan
and followed the man,
who jumped the ditch to walk the road into town.
Years later, he told me this story when I came to him
with a novel opened to the word beau,
certain it was related to bureau, which made the softspoken men with hats in their hands
and the 19th century women blushing in their petticoats
confusing and wonderful. But it was when
he said, “look it up,” that I knew the world I read
of girls living in sod houses, who knew the inside
parts of a pig by shape and color and how to churn butter,
was not waiting somewhere.
That afternoon, I bicycled down the gravel road,
wind shushing through the cornstalks,
and saw that though I’d spent hours exploring
these fields and ditches, I could not name
the yellow flowers that formed soft globes
like dandelions when they seeded, nor the thin reeds
striped red and yellow growing along the creek.
And I had no idea how to learn those names.
For, like beau, no one used them.
I lay my bicycle aside and sat on the culvert,
31
that precious word hulled from my father,
its name meaning the sound of rocks
thrown in its steel, water-filled mouth,
and waited for a parachute to land and turn
into a swan, the names for everything
gripped in its beak like pondweed.
32
The Other Field
Well, it’s not cursed though it looks it
with its windrow of scrawny oaks
and the old drive-in screen flapping
like a piece of overcast sky.
Chaff wings the tractor ruts.
Dusk persists in that low spot
which each spring culls rain,
where so many autumns ago
my father found the dead body.
As a child I sat cross-legged and counted
mushrooms in that curved place,
its water drained, its drying muck smooth
as the inside of an acorn’s lid. It was there,
beside the rows of new corn raising their tiny V’s,
I learned to whistle killdeer and redwing,
their notes like speckled pebbles in my throat.
And that dead man did not visit, nor take
my hand. I didn’t whittle his ulna into a flute –
they took him.
The newspapers, the police. And my friends
said, maybe he was like an old dog slinking
towards the woods to die.
Maybe a murder.
But my dad’s blue eyes turned dirtcolored that day because he knew
that man sought the field.
And if you’ve stood in a field,
if you’ve chewed a foxtail stem or snapped open
a dried soybean pod, you’d know
why a child would imagine a killdeer
landing on her outstretched finger.
My father didn’t plant a maple for memory,
33
but chisel-ploughed that field, then guided
the seed-drill, which sank its kernels into each row.
34
The Unknotting
The young sisters wore cotton dresses the landlord bought:
yellow for Bea, my grandmother, pink for her sister, Alice.
Their father’s axe splitting wood snapped the air and scattered
the chickens while the girls spread a quilt on the lawn.
Alice flexed and shuffled a deck of cards, gushing about Clark Gable.
Bea watched, eating a peach, her tongue bothering the slim gap
where her father yanked her front tooth to make room
in her crowded mouth. She imagined her teeth elbowing for space
like men at the fair jostling to view a winning steer,
until her sister shouted: Jack! Let’s play.
The name their father used to call her to chores, to scoff at her
good grades, to say: you are not the wanted thing.
She threw the pit at the chickens, grabbed the cards, and dealt a hand
of solitaire. Alice pouted, squinting in the sun, unwilling to leave
her sister for the kitchen where their mother made stew
from squirrel and cabbage and onion grass.
She clutched the hem of her dress: I could tear it. Say you did it.
Bea clutched her own hem. The windmill spiraled and wheezed
while they stared at one another, each sister ready to ruin her dress,
each imagining a hiding place in which to mend it.
~
Grandma Bea taught me to let the dog
cup my hand in its mouth when we walked,
35
how to link clover blossoms into necklaces,
fold batter, tell grosbeak from goldfinch.
Her hand like cat purr guiding the knife through dough
spiraled with butter, sugar, and cinnamon;
sewing needle in pin cushion, french braid;
She’d hum all day in the kitchen.
She never told me her father’s name, how he died,
nor about visiting her mother in the nursing home,
the way she’d weep for Alice. Always her hands
turning dough, I couldn’t imagine her other lives:
her small grip on the handles of a jump rope.
The flounce of her taffeta prom dress.
Her life as a new wife tucking apron and skirt
into overalls to help my grandfather haul corn,
sunset settling on her hair like marmalade and plum
draping sweet-gums in the fall.
~
Harold Skidmore loved the sisters
like a skillet loves the popping of hot oil:
Bea for her whipped cream and pecan pie,
Alice for dancing, the lift of her skirt.
He wanted to marry the sister who would keep
him fat, but the other showed up bawling
on his doorstep, her hands pressing her waist,
so he did what he thought kindness
and married her. Her voice the hot iron
on his ear, his hand the hot iron on her cheek,
36
the baby a squall, their lives a place of wind-battered
locusts and tumblers of whiskey and ice.
Alice walked a mile in the dirt to mail
letters to her sister; Bea avoided her name
in conversation, the way she would, in old age
favor her left hip. After she married, she never wrote,
“Robert’s worth ten of your Harolds,”
but she mailed her niece five dollars every birthday.
~
One summer, I threw cherries where the burn barrel tipped
its heat across the lawn. The crushed wetness like poultice
on the burnt grass, I swore by caterpillars and tar popping
on the road to conjure the green I knew still bunkered in the roots.
Grandma handed me a bowl; no use to waste the fruit.
We’d make a pie. She crimped the crust with a fork,
the pattern like light through venetian blinds.
While it baked, she asked what I thought about boys
and I said I didn’t. She asked what I thought
about beer and I swore I’d never drink it –
She left me in charge of the pie and a promise
to make my brothers swear the same oath before I let them eat it.
~
When Alice phoned, Bea played hard of hearing.
When Alice and Harold visited to play cards,
Bea made certain she and Robert won bridge.
And when Bea’s children visited their aunt and uncle,
37
complaining of their outhouse, tinny water in chipped glasses,
pies, nothing like your pies, Mom, Bea nodded,
then noted an oriole on the fencepost or asked a child
to snap some peas for dinner. When Bea died,
Alice complained: she was always too stoic.
~
Green grass filled the jagged blond path
and the black dog in the bare field wore her necklace of knotted clover.
A mosquito bite and my grandmother spent a season
in the hospital: Encephalitis. She returned to us
with a stone in her mouth, a hardness like a baked roll that never rose.
When she asked for gossip, she asked twice,
and her lips pursed, she doubted us.
No recipe card written in her hand revealed all its ingredients.
Our bread remained dry and flat.
Wagons piling with soybeans, looping turkey vultures
snipping the scent of carcass from harvested hay,
I tore daisies to see what boy I liked
and the rabbit in the field pressed its small heart against my hands
38
Wednesday, Lenten Dinner, Church Gym, Prior to Confirmation Class
I slurped soup from a plastic spoon and tasted sickness –
that dry-throat, dust-sheen taste, and washed it down
with red punch, saccharine slick of birthday party games,
chairs back-to-back, someone always left out.
Two boys shot hoops at the far end, clipped ties wagging
like dog tongues, dress shoes squeaking and scuffing
the floor, and the ball’s thump and dashes mimicked
the thunder that shook the rafters and made the gym lights
creak and flicker.
My mother crumbled crackers into her bowl;
between us lay my catechism, the Nicene Creed dog-eared,
its best lines marked: “spoke by the prophets,”
“the quick and the dead,” “very God of very God,”
each phrase a lure for some strange image.
When I said “quick,” I thought candlewick, lit and unlit at once.
I saw a bicycle spoke instead of the prophets’ tongues.
And “very of very” felt like a carousel in my mouth,
the stresses rising and falling like those plastic mounts
I once rode in circles. What wind blew my hair as false
as the motion that made it –
and yet such calm in that motion’s lasso.
I asked my mom for her favorite lines,
she sighed, began to agree –
Women stopped to say hello
and she said their names back to them.
I nodded and stared at the scratches I’d made
in the plastic tablecloth, thinking about the phrase
hieroglyphics of loss, lightning outside filling
and emptying the prints our shoes left on the walk,
39
and the creed like a backdrop, a rustling inside me.
One boy, missing the hoop, cursed into the cuffs of his sleeves.
40
Tadpole Season
Summer ripened as my cousin and I fished
tadpoles from mud-puddles with small nets
the year we were both fourteen and flush with desire,
that nuthatch whose beak and footlatch climbed us,
planted seeds beneath our skin, seeds of fruit
we could not name, just as the tadpoles did not know
what made them write the story of legs.
We dropped them in the river and bicycled home.
Once we thought growing up was becoming the animal
you loved best: she would be a horse. I wanted to be myth –
a winged tiger, a four-legged bird, a speaking tree.
The prior winter our Great Aunt Whitt told us
that after her husband died he returned each morning
as juniper berries on her pillow. She couldn’t eat plums.
Though she hated everything domestic, she knitted
a scarf as wide as a mole’s dark tunnel. She coiled
it in heaps like dirty laundry beside her sofa,
where she sat each evening, knitting and watching
the news, then phoning my grandparents to argue politics.
She said she wanted to knit a mile for every year
of widowhood in the cheapest, toughest yarn
she could find. I thought of the scarf as a rope,
each end plugged with a paper cup
41
through which she and her husband spoke –
his voice a knife whittling a tree trunk,
hers the click of needles, though she would prefer
a voice like the Pacific, each syllable a soggy strand
of kelp like that which she collected and dried.
My cousin and I waited for boys,
our feet itchy, as if we stood at the edge
of a diving board, unsure whether to dive or clasp
our ankles and tip backwards into the water.
All that summer I dreamt giant commas
of tadpoles crowded the river.
My cousin let the boy she liked drive her
along the country roads – lightning bugs
in the pastures flashing Morse code –
her translation dusted into gravel
for the boy to read. No moon in the night
blooming like a hibiscus though Aunt Whitt,
cloaked in California’s dusk, tried to lasso it,
her giant scarf finished, one end curled
around her throat, the other flung
across the dark like a lighthouse beacon,
her body at once the ship and the flame.
42
Tornado Song
For James Hull
My brothers and I slept unmoved
as ditchwater under the hands
of the wind, which pitched the roof
from the neighbor’s house.
She knuckled in a ditch,
her children sacks of sleep in her arms.
I dreamt torn shingles, rainwater
troughed in bathtubs. James Hull’s
note beneath my pillow, then
his moist hand in mine: he called
and called. Tornado siren.
I sheltered in a corn bin
and flicked old kernels against its walls.
We were ten. He stole a gold
necklace for me. When I gave
it back we never spoke again.
Grain trucks groaned
with loads of cement and steel,
the neighbor’s wrecked silo
hauled away. A new roof.
Years and then I saw James again.
Smoking with the neighbor girl.
Our eyes met, two birds
in a quick scuffle.
His life snapped shut when he hit
a telephone pole. The neighbor’s
clothes flapped in the wind
and the felled tree that nearly
broke our roof fed a bonfire.
No one shocked. Just another
reckless boy dead, his lips
stinking of Jim Beam.
I wished briefly for that necklace.
43
14-karat heart on a chain.
My life an unsplit path.
Clothes smelling like sweat,
my skin a damp rag. I could
walk into the neighbor’s house
and feel water singing in their walls.
Tell them about the mangled trees
I still saw untouched,
their limbs veining the sky.
44
In Which Great Aunt Whitt Becomes the Patron Saint of Leaving
Still, I see her wading across the Kankakee River to meet her beau, hair the color of
pumpkin pie, her mouth a geranium; skirt pulled taut to her thighs, and bluegills
nipping her calves. She wades from her best friend’s house to a stand of birches along
Sandbar Road, the hammock someone hung there. Each afternoon, she and her beau
slip into its net and become the song slicking a loon’s neck as it admires the fish-egg
moon. But during this particular visit, the young man, whose hair smells like washed
cotton, slaps her, angry she won’t say – what. Won’t unbutton – what. That the crow
she says lives in her heart won’t open the clamshell gripped in its beak. Then wading
back across the river, her red-stained cheek and bruised eye flash like two lanterns
aloft in a church spire, their light unspooling rebellion and – without glancing back or
shucking the algae clinging to her legs – she keeps walking. All the way to California
because something about flinging starfish back into the tide and a whale’s trombone
mooring the night-time begs her, fills her knees with heat. And after she marries a man
whose hair smells like honey and cigarettes, after her stray hairs no longer unpeel like
bark from that stand of birches, and after time has hunched her and her brothers’
shoulders, she comes back to Illinois and plants inside me that squabbling crow. She
makes my heart like hers, a beak plunged in it, cawing go, go, go. Because flat land will
stifle you, she says, because that crow is hungry for sunset mouthed by ocean and
fringed by redwoods. So I know then, though I am only sixteen, I will leave. And a
certain triumph clouds the summer night so that I must run in the pasture grass like a
child pretending to be a deer; I must tell something goodbye. I drive to the river and
wade to its shallow center, and the same stones my aunt felt lining the riverbed fit like
fists beneath the arches of my feet.
III.
46
Last Miracle
July 2005
When we tried to count back to the last rain, we found the gauge
on my grandparents’ porch rail swabbed in a torn cocoon.
They asked me about Oregon, my students, and I pretended
I was happy. But homesickness clouded my chest with a hunger
like that of a plant in the night. Faint buzz of the crop report,
flies popping against window screens, we crumbled saltines
over small talk about the finch that struck the sliding glass door
yesterday, their last bridge party, my brother’s baseball season.
Later Grandma called me to the kitchen to help with dessert,
and as I rinsed berries she whispered, Grandpa’s not well.
And because what followed was a leisurely card game, I am tempted
to make something up. Tempted to say we saw two kayakers
fist-fight in the middle of the shallow river. Or that a wasp circled out
of the ceiling fan and landed in my hair, Grandpa swiping it with his cane.
Maybe Grandma sang her first and last aria. So when I say
that while we shuffled and dealt our hands, dishes soaking
in the sink and sparrows perched on the feeder, believe me when I say,
it rained. Believe that something smelling of hay and sweaty horses
lifted in us, like the corn leaves lifted in the fields, though we didn’t cheer,
or weep, only laughed a little, for the brief rain hardly wetted the gauge.
But, it rained. Months later, after they had died, and I was back in Oregon
teaching a student the meaning of awe, trying to make him think
47
rainbow and mountain shadow, he scoffed, familiar with such wonders;
I wanted to tell him about that rain, that last afternoon with both grandparents,
but I knew it sounded like invention, the real miracle more subtle:
after that last visit, I bicycled to my parents’ house, body dusted
with pollen and sunburn, farm dogs nipping my tires, and pausing
at an intersection where gravel met pavement and a distant stand of oaks
tucked sunlight into its leathery leaves, the old restlessness
that made me shuck flat land for hills, didn’t rise up. And my childhood
meals of bologna and cheese, salads of iceberg lettuce as unimaginative
as the landscape, endless in its redundant acres of corn, corn, corn,
didn’t choke me – instead the humid air felt like my own hot breath
cradling my hands during a winter walk. I could, maybe, one day, stay.
Not among the soybean rows, whose repetition mimes the dullness
of writing again and again a misspelled word, but in the basil field
I coasted past, its tang like spice and clean skin, its presence like tearing
shag carpet from hardwood floors. There, I could hold still.
Find something. There and in the ditches where monarchs unweb
their bodies, wings stained with honeysuckle and ink,
their minds changed, no longer understanding their old
hook and latch ways, dizzy with flight and nectar.
48
The Seizure
When Robert woke his wife, Bea, to ask what was burning,
she smelled nothing. His right arm swung at her like an oar
then his eyelids motored like june-bug wings,
his whole body infested with a wild blinking.
His spine sputtered like smoke toward the ceiling
until she saddled him. With one hand she dialed
the ambulance, with the other twisted
their sheet to clamp his tongue.
~
I dream my grandfather as wet sand
or as my arms loaded with kittens
while I cross a frozen, corn-stubbed field,
or as a sun-bleached road atlas,
the Florida everglades circled in pen.
Sometimes he’s my body laved with seaweed,
gulls nesting in cliffs, portholes, uncrested waves.
Then the dream where he’s forgotten he’s dead.
He visits my classroom and demonstrates golf swings
to the high school sophomores I taught the autumn he died:
they watch. Take notes.
When he’s gone, they throw their desks onto the roof.
~
The seizures multiplied:
his head the hive, the bees
the seizures, he couldn’t nap
without his body
49
clapping like a storm shutter –
then dilantin, each dose
a lead weight in a canoe.
My grandfather dreamt nothing
and each morning, complained over breakfast
about the sour cantaloupe,
cold coffee, this toast bland as toast.
~
In Oregon, my AP students studied The Odyssey,
their tongues tripping across “Telemachus,”
Penelope’s hair tangled in her tapestry.
Call home, the secretary said as she entered the room.
They closed their books; I called, I stood in the hall and shook.
Maybe grief shaped the siren dialect I heard,
rocking on the briny waves, as much as it shaped
Penelope’s hand, so precise in its unraveling.
~
To recall the way he slurped his soup,
I remember my aunt’s bell collection.
For his middle name, Lyman,
I must remember it means man from the meadow.
~
After the seizures passed, he walked the coastline;
thin waves tarred his feet and my father walked beside him.
50
I stayed with my mother and grandmother
and spread a picnic on a beach towel.
Gulls clacked and swooped at our sandwiches
and I watched the men face the ocean, spotting
distant manatees that rode the waves like fat saddles,
my grandfather folding his left arm to his side.
I imagined the screws that held it turning like augers,
strained to hear their music against the sea’s fierce crooning.
51
Water Cycle
Because like water they clung to each other,
one grandparent, then the next evaporated
with a pearl-rimmed cohesion, and their friends
gathered around us saying, such beauty
in that kind of going:
two Sundays, six months apart.
The clouds collected my grandparents
and they fell on us like rainwater
yet we remained desiccate and dreamt
of sluggish backwater, rank canals.
We dropped a roped bucket into the old well
to cull what water remained.
I held that rope as it pulled me from the sledge
of a lake where I had become a battered sail,
a drowning woman,
a swan’s crippled foot. A stone.
The rope became a kind of waiting.
~
After the funerals, we divided my grandfather’s sweaters,
my grandmother’s jewelry, set lights on timers.
Years later, when we finally spread their ashes in the field,
we took out the pie crust my grandmother saved in the freezer,
52
and cracked it against the drought-hard dirt.
And the house became a held breath,
safe where we kept their scent, their half-used shampoos
like time-machines on the bathtub rim,
so that each time my father came to repair
windows or check the pipes in winter, he stood
on the front stoop, rang the bell, and listened for their footsteps.
53
The Calendar
My grandmother refuses to remember she’s dead.
She crashes family gatherings and pesters her old neighbors.
It’s hardest in April when her birthday snags her like a loose seam –
the special day cake, tally of cards in the mail.
I told her to stop.
One blue eye watered, one eye fell out.
When I woke I was holding her
and we were snared again in the morning after her husband died,
knotted in each other’s throats,
my arms girdled around her waist.
It took months for her to slip through the sieve of months.
The first calendar arrived the next year, a note slid
from her side of eternity to mine.
She tells me she hates its datelessness, misses memory –
first kisses, lost marbles, broken legs, farms sold, resold, divorces set.
Dough rising. The warm crowd of days.
Now her face slides off her face. Now when I find her
organizing my recipes and rearranging spices,
I yell at her. I draw a shade between her insistence
and the sleet gray of winter months, sun-slate of summer.
I can only stand her in the spring –
tulip world of new birds and leaf bud,
swans she once fed webbing her name across the river.
Her face no longer a jar holding a face.
54
Her face the globe of a peony.
I sink into its scent as she once did,
read the petals until May ends
then I let the wind bow her head into its hands,
her face a patina over mine, cracked in two –
one half, steam rising from the river,
one half the frozen glare of a severed hoof in the snow.
55
Chaff
My unborn children dream of snow
impressed with a single boot print,
its mark a map of their unformed faces,
of the Illinois town they imagine
in those coiled years before birth.
The dream snow drapes the fields
and their windrows, and the unborn
sleep like wildflower seeds, dormant
until a gush of warm spring rain
flushes them with sunlight…
Another print lands in the snow.
Not a boot but a small bird’s claw.
~
Dear one, whose breath smells like warm molasses,
I will not forget how the sheets sound while you sleep.
~
Foxtail and witchgrass.
Smudged clutches of quail.
My father hears the bob-white
pulling its name from the evening air.
He discharges the shells, hefts the shotgun
over his shoulder, its weight no longer
seeking the sound unlatched from the twilight.
~
Lightning backlit every cloud.
56
No sound tailing it.
Wind stutters to a halt,
wrestles its way
between the dogs looping my legs:
fur bristled, tongues loose.
I cradle quiet like a basket
filled with eggs.
Rain nestles in my hair, then sags
onto the dogs, whose backs
flinch it free to slick downhill
and join the prairie grass and the heavy creek.
~
Small and future daughter asleep on the trampoline,
her cheeks, heavy pouches stowing her new teeth.
~
Again, the laundry folded.
Dishes drying in the sink.
Dear, the kitchen rag stained with mustard
smells like aftershave.
Dear, the ink-stain on my knee.
~
When I don’t hear the bob-white, I hear my father’s name.
It sounds like my grandfather’s heart thrumming below the field
57
tilled for one hundred years by a single name,
all his father’s fathers with it: a harp-strum chorus.
My feet bare in the soil steaming with rain,
a thirst so close to being slaked.
~
A clean rib-bone, its wet gnaw
clutched in the dog’s mouth,
who in the soot and gleam
of a cloudless country night
will rise from the floor
out of a dream of its past
to heckle the coyotes, who cross
the moonlight and its prairie,
dragging their longboats of sound.
58
Encomium for a Peace Lily
Let me praise the cobra-hooded spathe,
milkweed-white,
white as new tooth,
altar cloth,
and sunlight through organdy.
Spathe: the end of a child’s shovel,
a boated leaf on a still pond.
Gloved hand open to hold wedding rice,
wedding white spathe the color of my grandmother’s hair.
In the chevron of your waxed leaves
is written: an old woman watered me.
When she said my name, a thousand butterscotches unwrapped
and melted on her tongue.
Let me praise the spadix, slender tube
of knotted yellow thread,
teethed-over cob of corn,
thimble,
miniature spruce, pollen-flecked,
spadix of wasp breath, slim hive,
slight beneath the sloped palm of the spathe;
how daring your hope to eradicate toxins from the air,
59
to cure our sick buildings,
prevent our carcinomas.
Remember the hands that once clipped
your dry leaves, the woman who watched
for root rot, who tipped the watering can –
carry on.
Caress the light passing through
the many flags of your body.
60
History Lesson
Great-grandfather Hiram and I walk the three-mile loop because I tell him the trail is
easy. Grasshoppers flutter against our faces as we pass through a clearing, and he
complains about the heat until we’re under trees; then, he relaxes, swinging the picnic
basket I’ve filled with leftovers from his son’s funeral. Tomorrow, I tell him, I have to
go back to Oregon, and wait for him to ask me about my faraway life, but he lists the
stats for his favorite Cubs – Jack Taylor, Three-Finger Brown. How the sport’s skinny
on fielding now, heavy on homeruns. Chucking black walnuts at tree trunks, I ask him,
“Whom do you miss the most?”
He hits his hat against his knee. “How can you ask me that? We hardly know
each other.” I offer him a piece of gum; he refuses. “It’s not right,” he says, leaning
close to me, resting his fishy palm on my shoulder. “And anyway, it’s pointless. I’m
quite dead you know.” I motion for him to keep up – we’re almost to the river. He
grunts. I suggest skimming stones, but he ignores me. A beaver flaps its tail against the
water’s back. Along the opposite bank, I see Aunt Whitt fishing from a pontoon boat, a
bucket of fish at her side. She waves, I motion her to join us, but she shakes her head.
Great-grandfather yells to her in a language that sounds to me like cattails and snap
peas climbing a trellis; they laugh before she reels in the line and motors downstream.
He flings the picnic basket after her and it tails her like a stray dog. “You think you
know everything, don’t you,” he says, before turning back up the path. I toss stones
into the river, ignoring him as he walks away, each stone plinking I know, I know, I know.
61
IV.
62
And so I Left Home,
refusing to believe in ghosts,
their lives like ruined foundations,
their drift through pasture clinging to our boots
like flames as if fire was like all inheritance,
a slim story with a flair for nostalgia,
its ashes settling on the spooned leaves of the soybeans,
its embers braising my scalp
no matter how many miles I fled
from those fields furrowed with bone and hair,
fields of drought and seed, flood and rapture,
that ashy taste in my mouth webbing every thought
so that finally the land dragged me back
and the ghosts in dusty clothes surrounded me,
their voices like harps of kelp and coral.
63
Heat is the Story of the Body
Heat sang inside birds,
empty silos and sky the drought of ’88.
Saplings wilted like wrung-out rags.
I plucked bleached grass, brittle as hair,
while my mother watered geraniums
and my dad gave up on the vegetable garden
saying, it’s a good year to grow thistle.
We watched heat fill the rain gauge.
At night I slept in my mother’s old t-shirts.
She told me not to eat ice-cream
before bed unless I wanted to be fat.
Then I began to admire scrawny barn cats
and by 18 I learned to sweat heat,
to run for life, certain that life meant skinny,
meant beautiful, meant if I were lean enough
our dead landlady, the auctioned house,
gone trees and lost barns couldn’t haunt me,
that I could trade troughs and fence-posts
looped in their cursive of barbwire
for college courses on the history of gender.
I shaved my head, told my mother
I was the moon and when we spoke
we spoke only of weather –
a late snow; a replanted soybean crop.
Other weathers emerged:
my grandfather spent his last summer
in sweaters, wool socks.
He listened to flagging crop reports
while my grandmother made soup.
Bushels of corn, worth a margin more
than the dust coating the elevators that held them,
forced my dad to sell ball bearings, learn
radial and axial loads, the coefficient of friction.
We kept the farm.
64
Some droughts, my brothers and I fed
tail feathers from red-tailed hawks
into the cracked lips of the earth
and dreamt of the cool backs of dolphins.
Now heat flaps in my mother’s body
and she names it after birds:
grackle, starling, brown-headed cowbird.
My dead grandfather still naps
on summer afternoons and after a year
of rain, sedums flaunt their reds,
asters unclench their violets.
My hair has grown long and my mother tells
her friends I haven’t gained a pound
since high school. Heat pours
from the hole in the roof
of my grandfather’s mouth
and swamps my dreams.
The doctor who plugged it,
and nearly killed him at 18,
shakes dirt from his white jacket,
tells me, heat is the story of the body.
Then he pulls thread and caged bearings
from between my ribs, whispers prognoses
in my ear until July light spreads across the quilt
and my mother appears, younger,
smelling of wet earth and sweet corn,
birds perched on her outstretched arms.
She says she and my dad will plant peppers again.
Then she combs the knots from my hair.
65
Velleity
My unborn daughter is a longed-for ghost,
the quivery place a fish lips onto a pond’s surface,
the happy half of a wishbone.
I wanted her.
I knew if I held her, child I dreamt
as bluebird in a stone bath,
I could see that other land:
where the dead and unborn live
in their lake-colored clothes,
hair wreathed in marigolds.
Where leaf blight, arthritis, and hail
form the nonsense syllables of children’s songs.
She followed me home, back to Illinois
and my grandparents’ empty house.
We opened every window and snapped
throw rugs because she knew the ways of ghosts:
my grandparents’ dead skin and stray hairs would call them back.
I told her here, where grief roosted,
we would unclip its wings.
We’d bake zucchini bread, build bonfires,
and together hike Mount Langham
where my grandfather spent a childhood
climbing trees, his pockets filled with arrowheads.
My body was the cove that quelled her watery
dreams when we slept side by side in my grandparents’ bed.
66
She liked the geese wintering on the hoary river.
She smelled like old books and saltwater,
though her hand in mine was pressure on a bruise.
No name to name her but viridian,
may apple, life raft.
She never grew,
never asked for her absent, imaginary father.
A cicatrix and not a bloom, she never wanted
sunlight, nor asked for sweet, soft foods.
She showed no nuance of pain, hunger, or thirst.
I had to let her go.
That tiny anchor sweetening the undertow.
I fashioned her a canoe of twigs and leaves
and filled her hands with cherries;
this world with its bedsores and smoggy sunsets,
its dying frogs, its earworms turning corn to cud,
its surfeit of disaster and beauty,
will never add your name to its troubled clan.
Go back to that unlife, that seasonless world,
world without bridles, lax world whose skies
sing with countless colonies of swallowtails.
Let luna moths land in your hair. Fill tulips
with sunlight and count lily-pads on the bog.
67
Cricket Leg Season
Torn from the cricket by the cat,
the cricket’s legs are a kind of pleading.
The cat and I stare at one another,
waiting for the other to clean up the mess.
~
A wren nests in my grandparents’ mailbox
and summer clenches me in its humid fist.
I tug weeds from the garden and lay mulch
while the cat nudges through the catmint.
A shovelful of tree names, my lover’s name among them.
Then his name on my lips, then my lips parted.
Thin clouds scuff the sky
and I ask the wren if it knows the rhyme for departure,
the charm for safe return.
~
On the PVC pipe’s rim, water frowns
like a fat lip and for a moment I believe
rain falling on furnace so exquisite a phrase
I can almost forgive the roof for aging so gracelessly.
~
Sweat runnels between my breasts
as I bicycle home from the grocery store.
Home, and I find the cat dancing her front paws
against the door to show me what she wants.
68
~
Yellowish-brown, like a sick leaf as it fans open,
the water stain wants to swallow everything.
I imagine mold blooming above the dry wall,
thickening like a muscle pinched asleep,
spores wincing into the dark smell of vinegar and moths.
Each spore thinner than the teeth fringing a cricket’s wings,
thin as the song rivering through them.
~
When he returns, can he know how a damp ceiling
yields beneath a fingertip?
Or how, after I plastered each faint crack,
I held my grandparents’ urns as if holding small children
and whispered stories about the wren,
the spider I saw binding a mayfly inside a silk dress,
and then finally, I told them about him – this man
who will greet me the way spring greets the lilacs:
quietly at first, each small basket pursing its secret
until one, unable to bear such an extravagant burden,
opens, and invites the others, until the air gleams
with the laughter of lilacs, which we humans,
with our limitations, interpret as scent.
69
Saplings
Two maple saplings sprouted in a bucket of wet ashes
and convinced me to stop looking everywhere for cancer.
I transplanted one into a field of milkweed
and it grew milky and wild as the spines of sleeping children.
The other I planted in my aunt’s gutters.
When its roots scrambled through the downspout,
we knew the foundation was secure.
It is not a world of termites in the end.
Not a world of hornets nesting in an empty birdfeeder.
And because I saw three honeybees pulling nectar
from joe-pye weed, I trusted my parents and brothers
would wake up another day to eat cereal and trim their toenails.
Foolish, surely, such a trust, but then the wind
picked up the pink sprays of buddleia
and the bleached whiskers of maiden grass and I knew
I was lost to a feeling shaped like a hula hoop.
Call it giddiness. Call it tight-rope. But I swore
I’d never complain again or worry about what wasn’t.
That when grief visited and clouded the poplar leaves
with its wormy, webby gravity, I’d put on a sundress
and praise scar tissue, its waxy fibers that hold together.
70
The Problem of Naming (2)
My brothers will not name their sons Hiram though I see them: bird-chested boys with
floppy ears and big noses, limbs meant for tree-climbing and throwing rocks through
windows of abandoned garages. Their ribs lined with all things past: loose coins,
frayed yarn, copper wires, an untilled field gone golden with winter. But their lives are
ladders with missing rungs. And whenever my brothers and I meet for dinner and
speak of our future children, it is like children reconstructing the lives of dinosaurs.
And here I am now, left staring at tea dregs on this December afternoon, wishing for a
body made of lace and photons. I want my future nephews as much as I want this late
harvest to deliver its corn before Christmas, as much as I want to know the past lives
of the geese landing on the river, gunmetal water peeling off their bodies in ragged
fans. Maybe each goose was once a grizzled bagpiper. Maybe they are the dreams of
salt as water bears it into clouds.
In one past life, my lover and I were the stock and scion of a grafted apple tree, never
thinking of the future as a leaky rowboat. Never the future as a crow choking on a
marble. In this life, our sleeping bodies form parentheses to cup my dreams of bathing
in a neighbor’s house and raising parakeets in the basement. And when we wake, and I
tell him these dreams, what I’m saying is I don’t believe we’ll ever harvest blueberries
or wipe chicken-shit from eggs we gather ourselves. And he says, there are no new
tragedies. He doesn’t see the body as a difficult riddle. Then my reckless, future
daughter appears, smoking a joint beside an ocean polished with sunset, her new tattoo
of a skull laughing on her shoulder. She hates when I call her lily-pad. She flings curse
words at the sky like they were empty beer cans. Mile long hair, voice like a mosscoated stone, I imagine her into more and more beauty, and the other side of my mind
gives her a weak heart and bundles her bones in a burlap sack. I tell her the future is a
skinned animal that stalks us all. I tell her the swan’s neck is knotted in a noose.
Winter trees braid the white sky; empty cradles creak. Bodiless future. Hiram – not a
name, only wind whistling between smokestacks, only smoke-choked light. I leave her
over and over again, then I swallow the tea’s wet leaves.
My love returns from shoveling the walk and I tell him today is the shortest day of the
year. Let’s climb into each other’s bodies, beneath the marimba of our clacking bones.
Let’s name the color we find there. I want to unbutton the future’s jacket and see a
breathing lung. Not this unlit river. Not the robin drowned in the well. Not the moon,
71
once more thanklessly tethering the oceans. Let’s thank the moon. Let’s build ladders.
And once we’ve sanded and finished each bone-like rung, turned every empty womb
into a flowerpot, and spent a whole day thinking the thoughts of an alder, help me
uncase my body from its dream of ice. Help me down the icy steps. Help me kick loose
the barn door, jammed with age and cold. And if we find Hiram’s weathered saddle
and replace its musty lining with new sheep’s wool, a horse will appear to carry us
through the snow.
72
Elegy
For Kathryn, Whitt and Bea
Dawn unhinges the night to cracked linoleum
and the torn roof of the derelict farmhouse.
Three widows in sky-colored dresses,
whose bones laid across mine form a thatched rug,
take turns dipping and spinning each other,
skin rinsed of age, hair pollen-dusted.
A song of pear blossoms and sunflower seeds hums
in their throats, its notes like rain pelting a glass bowl,
or a slip sloughed to the floor.
Their husband’s names not sung, but the percussion caught in their wrists.
Gone, the catbird perched on a crossbeam flutes
and the women shut their eyes,
their song dimming as the shutters sigh and creak in the wind.
Sorrow, I want to tell them, is useless.
Let clematis cover the house and I will board the windows.
All of us abandoned, I say.
Yet they dance, housed in glass, their eyes shuttered and wet –
I cannot reach them: dust drapes their shoulders,
fills their footprints.
Gauzy light clings to the white oaks
and I leave the women to gaze at the house, its fields,
wondering if they dance for husband-longing
or for what bound them to their widowed lives:
lemon-chiffon pie; raked autumn leaves.
73
Dew pearls the grass, the clapboard house,
the catbirds, finches, and cardinals.
And though I can weave crowns of ragweed
and chicory for myself and the ghost women,
suck a soybean from its pod or boil corn into hominy,
a distance like that dividing an acorn from its branching future pervades:
what use is this need to mend the tattered hems of old lives,
to try to fill bells with the voices of my ancestors,
that ringing I hear dusting the fields each spring,
a tin and water chime beckoning monarchs to our gardens
and tangling my hair with a promise of soil, worm-rich and seeded?
For this land is its own elegy,
its creek-beds slaked with arsenic,
soil beaded with nitrogen and phosphates,
nightmares of subdivisions and cul-de-cacs
emerging like crabgrass in brittle fields familiar with drought,
happy to erode and caress a wind
and a bedrock that remembers bluestem,
an idea buried beyond plough, below the buckle
of dancing feet, its flame-tipped seeds flickering
in a breeze glossed with glacier melt.
Though I cannot condemn the harvest
barnacled with fish-genes,
I too long for prairie,
for coyote and pheasant,
for a bullfrog’s ratchet rising from the rushes
of a marsh, and for marshes,
whose sinuous fingers ribbon water
around the rust-colored legs of a great blue heron.
I return to the women and press my palms to their sallow palms,
an awkward body in their ghostly coven,
their song filling my mouth.
74
I taste violets growing in a ditch,
a softness like fontanel and hummingbird wing,
and the song they once cradled, cradles us
so that our departure from each other
and from this land, from the lanterns we once hung
on the porch and the days we spent stitching patches
to torn jeans or walking beans to flinch weeds from the rows,
this going, looped in sound and flushed skirts,
looks like a rain-heavy leaf as it bends toward the earth.
75
VITA
Graduate School
Southern Illinois University
Amie L. Whittemore
Date of Birth: October 12, 1980
913 S. 12th Street Herrin, IL 62948
whittemore.amie@gmail.com
University of Illinois Champaign Urbana
Bachelor of Arts, English & Rhetoric May 2002
Minor, American Cultural Studies May 2002
Lewis and Clark College
Master of Arts in Teaching, Language Arts August 2004
Special Honors and Awards:
Roxana Rivera Memorial Poetry Prize 2010, SIUC
Roxana Rivera Memorial Poetry Prize 2009, SIUC
Honorable Mention 2008, Rattle poetry contest
Roxana Rivera Memorial Poetry Prize 2008, SIUC
Master’s Fellowship 2007-2008, SIUC
Mary Stuart Rogers Scholar 2003-2004, Lewis and Clark College
Olive Chacey Kuehn & Alfred L. Kuehn Scholar 2001-2002, UIUC
Raymond Seng Scholarship 2001-2002, UIUC
James Scholar 1998-2002, UIUC
Judith Ikenberry Award for the Arts 2001, UIUC
Delmar G. Cooke Scholarship 2000, UIUC
Thesis Title:
The Problem of Naming
Major Professor: Judy Jordan
Publications:
“Movement of Heat.” Sycamore Review 22.1 (2010) 105.
“Visiting.” Atlantic Review 15.2 (2009) 108.
“Daughters are such a blessing.” Bayou 51 (2009) 62.
“The Sting.” The Packingtown Review 1 (2009) 59.
“The Calendar.” RATTLE 14.2 (2008) 91.
“The Other Runner.” Quiddity 1.1 (2008) 128.
76
“Visitation.” Fifth Wednesday Journal 2 (2008) 154.
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