she used to say, when the ground grew too hard
and she’d sit on a pillow to weed the garden,
when her skin had been folding up for years
and her world had long been slipping toward silence.
It wasn’t that she wanted to leave us,
but I think she was tired.
Did she picture sheets made of stars, smooth
and tucked in like clouds, maybe
smelling like spring blossoms, or like old pine?
Did she dream of quilts crafted by
his careful hand, filled to the binding
with a century’s worth of stories—did she want to see
his gentle smile as he drew the covers to her chin,
did she imagine clean summer wind
as she slipped away to rest at last?
She left so much behind, even my house bends
to gather the pieces. My mother tends
bereaved orchids at the window and keeps
one of her blankets on the living room couch, which
I’ve been hiding under and wondering
if we got it backwards all along: could it be
we were the ones who made the bed, smoothing
sheets and trembling at the emptiness beneath,
the best our human hands could do—
we braced ourselves for night, and
maybe we were wrong,
maybe he burst into the room and threw back the curtains,
maybe he pulled her up as sunlight streamed in
and he sang in his joy, I couldn’t wait
to wake you, there is so much for us to do today,
so many birds and trees and flowers to see,
mountains to scale with your new strong knees and
rivers to splash with your new young feet,
a whole city to show you and all your friends
looking for you, my darling,
my little girl, get up!
but we have lost some of our wisdom.
I think maybe my ancestors knew:
gnarled carrots and lopsided smiles were just
the way of things, the warm and imperfect
voice of the earth. Nobody asked apple trees
to bear crystals, or women to bear marble—only
fools, open-mouthed, scrabbling at
Ellen really did it, can you believe?
Traded her baby boy for one of the fae!
Oh sure, he’s beautiful, but
she hasn’t heard what happened to
old Katherine’s second one, seventeen
years past? Grew up a right horror, he did.
ghosts all dressed up
like the backs of their eyelids.
I think we used to know.
These days we have worn our pockets out
with asking, and our gods yield freely,
There is a fragment of the sun
caught in your hair, so that
I want to weep . . .
delighted, while lethe slips under our tongues;
we reach for the same illusions now
and never stop to wonder. Our grandmothers
tried to warn us, and we laughed until
we cried, jaws unhooked and gaping.
We fastened the chains with
our own hands.
with snowmen waving at you under the rim,
and the clementine you just ate
was your fourth of the day.
Your vacuum cleaner smells like your Christmas tree.
There is a dark-green ornament hook snagged
on your fuzzy reindeer socks
and you’re looking at a jar full of colored
marshmallows that nobody is going to eat.
Your father offers you a mostly-melted
peppermint chocolate that he left in his pocket all day
(or longer, you’re not sure).
You’re wearing four blankets
so the fireplace on the TV seems almost real,
and the twinkle lights are still twinkling outside,
and you’re finding it very difficult
not to smile.
Here you are. Eighty-four staircases
and daisy chains later, and here
you are, listening again.
You think there is something about a kiss
that feels like a song:
you hope your children by now
have felt that too.
Every time you drop your glasses,
the sound of them hitting the ground
opens a door for a split second.
Through it, you can see the ropes
that pull the stars out every night,
and the puzzle pieces that fit oceans and cities
together like chords.
Your headphones wore out years ago.
You miss the way you used to put them on
and play with time,
the days and moments slipping under
your fingers like wet sand,
while light went on for miles in both directions.
You are here now, alone. Listening.
Thinking there is something about a song
that feels like a kiss.
I met a man on the road to the city
who asked me if I believed in love.
We were walking over ashes
that smelled like human flesh, the dust of it
getting into our shoes, and
I didn’t know what he meant.
Maybe he was talking about the way
a kid’s face lights up to see her mom.
Maybe he was talking about laughter,
the easy silence between old friends,
the soft look some people slip into
when they don’t think anyone’s watching.
But he cried and covered his face with his hands,
and I think he meant forgiveness.
2. in the dark
Last night I fell asleep with sirens
under my bed and the sound of terror
cracking in the streets.
Somehow I kept breathing
until the ceiling turned from black to gray.
Who will be the next person
to tell us it’ll be all right, to hold out promises
like cabinet medicine for our cancer,
and how long will it be
before the bandages fall apart again?
And even then, who will we have to blame?
I must remember . . .
somewhere, there is
a king who keeps his word.
4. the sound of his voice
We came to the dock, where they were trawling
the riverbed for rubble but kept pulling bodies
out of the mud.
A woman from the boat
stood scrubbing the silt off her arms
and she couldn’t stop shaking,
couldn’t look at the day’s haul as the muddy tarps
got carried off.
I think she remembered each face too well.
Maybe she kept finding them everywhere:
fathers like ghosts in the kitchen,
phantom kids running around the backyard
and shadows of mothers stuck in traffic.
Maybe she was afraid if she opened her eyes,
she might see herself, washed too pale
and long past drowning.
The man spoke to her the way he spoke to me.
When we left, her eyes were still closed,
but her hands were clean.
5. “do you believe in love?”
At an old gravestone we stopped.
A whole family was buried there, so long ago
the stone was washed blank of memory,
a second burial,
an extra layer of death.
But when he squatted down and his fingers
touched the cold soil—as morning
crept across the frozen earth,
I saw their names,
bright and unexpected, kept
so carefully for all this time.
They were waiting
just behind his teeth.
and give our fragile language wing;
ye need not lips nor tongue to sing
the hymns of all our dreams—
and we who watch, if listening,
might find we recognize the sound
of skeletons and souls unbound.
Our hearts, uncoiling.