For Pamela Stewart
In our house everyone slept on cold floors
in rooms full of chilly faces. No one was taught
how to howl or speak our whirling light
in a raucous world always brightened by fire.
I begged for the family bible’s burning,
unraveling hurt page by page. Hell flickers
in the throats of fallen birds. Dust on tongues,
how long must we wait for ashes?
I was seven when the man who was the father
delved into an icy hole in the lake
and faded from our lives like a sliver of light
adrift in the russet shade of an autumn afternoon.
The mouse behind the stove slowly stirs
in her nest of scrap paper, pine needles,
and dryer sheets. In the corner of the room,
my young bride begins to hum old songs
full of sorrow and desperate hunger.
Slipping off her skirt of winter moonlight,
her mouth opens, darkness breathes
and still blesses everything. I keep losing
her hand beneath the table. I press a hand
against a cold window. How attentive
are the spiders who live in the corners
of the sills. When human touch fails,
buttercups extend their hard luster—
this is what marriage means to me today.
Mama hums Easter hymns in the chicken yard
as she plucks breastbone away from feathers.
She pours bowls of soup at the church supper.
She washes vegetables, peels apples, fills up
the ghost’s mouth with bread. At home, she hides
her first love’s kisses under the doormat,
flings sheets over prayers kept in a room
that no one enters. Up in the attic, she stows away
a handful of men in cardboard boxes, drapes
a blanket over a rocking chair shaped like Father.
Birds sing wet songs smudged by midsummer heat.
Black cows enter the barn, chewing their cuds.
In Hawley, Massachusetts, a Tibetan man told me
Death’s long fingers root through his hair.
Sometimes summer smells like warm, soapy water.
Mama’s thin scent of August dusk drifts downwind
toward the churchyard cemetery. Returning home,
my mind strays into the lullabies we never sang.
A scrabble of tulips bloom on the edge of a plowed field.
A dog runs silently behind Mama’s strained voice.