What Barbara Told Us
She waited until we finished
our self-guided tour of the husks
of buildings that endured
in the former Warsaw Ghetto.
She waited until we had shot
our fill of photographs, switched out
rolls of film. Our steps were caught
in the molasses of history when she
began to speak: It was never a moral
question—bribery and stealing. If
the Polish stole, it was from the Russians,
or the Germans, or the Austro-Hungarians.
If the government was cheated,
that was okay, because it wasn’t theirs.
She offered this not as apology
or excuse, but fact, just as
the bullet-pocked wall would not
apologize for its blemishes
as we skimmed our fingertips
over its marred, but proud, skin.
The nights it happened, we’d set up chairs
in the back yard, watch the skies instead of
the black & white TV handed down
from our grandfather when he upgraded
to a console. We bugged our eyes as wide
as we could, tried hard not to blink
for fear we’d miss one of the flashes
outlining the clouds that separated us
from the stars, the clouds that acted as a screen
against which we could watch this display
of nature’s fireworks. Foolish as pups, we tried
to predict where the light would flare next
looked there instead of where the flash last
occurred, because we’d been told that lightning
never strikes the same place twice.
Even now, I find it just as hard
to witness radiance as it happens,
just as hard to stop myself from trying.
Thumbelina's Mother Speaks: To the Witch
-- from The Scabbard of Her Throat
I didn’t come to hear you parse your words
like gnat hairs for a spell. I came to say
that you are nothing but an old woman:
gnarled bones and parchment skin do not make you
a witch. No special powers come with warts.
Your stoop—no sign of other-worldly wisdom:
time’s constant breath bends us the way
that coastal trees are shaped against their will.
How many were there, tricked into belief
that tender lives could grow from sterile seeds
and thrive in soil worked by sorrow’s hands?
Like Eve, we were beguiled to know beyond
the bastion of our naive garden’s wall.
So high the ladders we built, only to fall.
Scrape the sun from the wall of the sky.
-- Lynn Emanuel, “An Old Woman’s Painting”
Scrape the sun from the wall of the sky
stipple the woods with a gunmetal dusk.
Once, yellow gobs of trees with dun-hued trunks
laid thick against a flaxen background
evoked daybreak embracing the land. Now,
the knife and its erasures. A weathered rag
to blot the day from your canvas.
When a Chiga beekeeper dies in Uganda
his eldest son receives a small model beehive
as a sign that he has inherited his father’s
power over the bees. The crude vessels
that represent my inheritance are
cardboard boxes stacked like hive cells
in my parents’ attic, basement and garage.
Even they don’t know what many of the boxes
hold, some dating back to before
the move from our cramped duplex
to the house I left after college.
Sometimes an artifact escapes “the archive”
and makes its way to me—stowed away
in a care package or birthday gift—
wrapped casually in decades-old newspaper.
One year it was an Indian-head penny
the size of a pie pan. Recently, a clear vinyl
umbrella I used when I was eight. Remembrances
trapped within their own uselessness.
But what my sisters and I fear most
is the inevitable ceremony to come: the months
we will spend opening box upon box, three Pandoras
releasing swarms of tchotchke spirits back into the
How can we refuse their wish to leave us
what they value, even if what they value
is simply the validation ownership bestows?
How can we beg them to sell the house,
pay off their debts and live well while they can?
Portrait of My Father Looking for Four-Leaf Clovers
Abroad for the first time, far from the siren call
of his workroom, my father idles
in a close-cropped field within the ragged
towered walls of Pevensey Castle.
His calloused fingertips graze clovers
instead of clutching sandpaper or guiding
a table saw to rip the length of a board.
I haven’t done this since I was a kid, he says,
and I can only believe it—having grown
used to the sight of him always weeding
and watering, hammering and sanding,
tasked with a vast array of things waiting
to be transformed by his hands.
No, my father was not
a father used to the horizonless ocean
of free time he now faced in this country--
foreign to him in more ways than one--
to which I have brought him and my mother.
In four months this man who leans
into the field with the weight of his years
will have his first heart attack. This moment
a prelude to the leisure and lassitude
he would soon be forced to endure
in the name of recuperation.
What I’m saying is: for 55 years
my father looked at clovers as something
to be eradicated from the lawn,
a blight, a pox, a nuisance.
What I’m saying is: my father
never found a four-leaf clover in that field.
But that wasn’t the reason
he sat there and looked for awhile.
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