Poems

HOW IT IS

                                                             

Late October 
and the pitiless drift 
begins in earnest. And all 
that whispered in the pockets 
of summer’s green uniform 
is shaken out and dumped.    

 

My mimosa knew, for wasn’t 
that death fingering the leaves 
all summer? Yet the tree
plumped its pods, spending 
all July squeezing them out,
going about its business, as did 
the slash pine and loblolly, 
spraying pollen—coating 
windows, cars, filling every 
idle slit with sperm.

 

What does life mean
but itself? Ask the sea.
You’ll get a wet slap back-
handed across your mouth.
Ask the tiger. I dare you.

 

And your life, with its
tedium of suffering, what 
does it mean but what it is?
And mine—balancing
checkbooks and whomping up 
a mess of vittles as my son 
used to say. My son, the funny one, 
the always-hungry-for-supper- 
and-the-happy-ending- 
I-was-never-able-to-give-him one.

 

Who am I to write the user’s manual
for a life, except to say, 
Look at trees, dug in and defiant.  
Be like the river. Stick out your tongue.

 

Why not? What’s to lose 
when what’s to lose is everything?


 

Published in The Georgia Review

 

VEXED

I like the word vex.
Not honey in the mouth
like barrette and gorgeousness
but raw edged. I like tonic too   
and flunk, words easy to say
but hard to swallow. Burdock,
punk, mock, fang. Brave    
words that begin by playing 
about the lips and end 
low in the throat, packing 
a blade. A watch out!

I like words that can live
on their own. Unadorned.
Detached. Their own sentences.
Ah, but you will read this
as Rorschach, the poet
vexed and embracing it.
Better vexed than a sibilance 
like silence which begins 
at the front, makes a wee trip 
down, then seized by what it sees
backs up like a flunky, slithering
through gritted teeth, and out
the way it came.

 


Published in New Letters

ROCK-A-BYE

Not even a smother-mother
holds on to her children
tighter than do these trees,
buttoning each to each twiggy
finger so they’ll feel safe 
flipping and flying about— 
acrobats in a delirium of green.

 

I stand at my window
watching the May winds
have their way with these 
rooted mothers giving in
to being bullied and tossed, 
pantomiming the great 
drama of grief and keening
to indulge their progeny, tender 
with infancy, their first ride.              

We live in a sea of air— 
breath moving on the waters
animating all things. See how
the wind lifts the limbs 
to reenact the ocean’s heave 
and swell. How new leaves 
flutter about the crowns 
like giggles of foam, and all 
is up and down, gallop and glide,             
carousel horsie and whee.  

 

Then my daughter calls. 
My own long-stemmed Lilly—
grown from the heart’s bulb 
and nurtured behind the briars 
of vigilance—to say she’s found
a lump. What an ugly word 
to take over this poem. To squat                           
on its one-syllable immensity                                 
and not move.    

 

Published in The Georgia Review

ARS POETICA ON LAVA
                        So much depends…
 —William Carlos Williams
                                                           
The night I picked my way
across the lava slicked by rain 
in the moonless dark, all past 
and future sliced away 
like bread. Nothing existed 
but the blade of my held breath 
and the flashlight probing 
the black and roiling rock 
for a safe place to place 
a sneaker down. One shoe 
after the other, disembodied 
from the feet they were tied to, 
with orders to swing out, land, 
grip, and pass me on.

Two hours it took to cross 
that stretch of Stygian black, 
having no thought but the need 
to prevail, upright. Now I know
what it means to balance 
a writer’s life. Each footfall, 
each stopping point, a fulcrum 
around which the body teeters 
and sways: a high-wire act 
demanding concentration—
the chattering mind delivered up
blank as cardboard with a pinhole, 
dependent, in the pit-dark, upon one
thin thread of dazzle coming through.

 


Published in The Georgia Review

 

VISITING THE RUINS

Imagine the missing sounds.
A salt lick without the scuffles.  
Stolid maples without their 
raspy spray of leaves, dense 
to the height of them. A child’s 
scramble.  
                Then picture papyrus 
or clay tablets or even this paper
blank, leaving not even a doodle 
to be dug up, or a line, nor ring 
of fieldstone to mark the quirks
and manner of the one who held 
that instrument, quill or stylus. 
Or pen. The fields plucked clean, 
the parade grounds emptied, 
all connections cut.
                               Why else
does one write, but to deliver up 
the vacuum and fill it. Not 
to fix or finish, for what was 
is sealed off and done, but to 
wheel it out again on its own 
cobblestone streets. And given 
one’s own slippery notions 
of truth, to erect a stop sign 
that says here:
                        Here is the table 
where the child drank her milk 
and figured her decimals. Here
the arch under which soldiers 
came, their boots ringing the stones.  
And here in the weeds behind 
the mechanic’s shop, a child’s 
nightgown, tossed aside like 
an afterthought of no account, as if
deeds were porous, and the gag 
and thrashing legs were only smoke. 

 


Published in New Letters

AUNT NELLIE'S WALK

An oscillating fan. That’s
how my Nellie walked. 
A metronome on tiny feet—
hips sashaying side to side,
swinging in importance.

Now she sleeps in a chair, 
unable to recall how she once 
marched behind the fire truck
in the parade and danced 
the two-step with flowers 
in her hair. Her mind, a blowout 
in a bowl. But given a nurse 
with biceps and a bully streak 
to hoist her up, glue her
to a walker and command, Walk— 
you’d see it. Even if her feet 
couldn’t move and she were reduced 
to reflex under the cotton gown 
tied in back, there—beneath the flesh 
trembling to be off the bone at last— 
that built-in hint of impudent wag. 
Oh Lord, give us back this day
a little butter for our bread. 
What shame to have such flaunt 
gone from this world. The tap 
tap of summer sandals, 
the swinging counterpoint 
of her arms, the lilting seesaw 
of her hips. I swear, that woman’s 
to-and-fro could hypnotize a watch.
My Aunt Nellie, soul of propriety,
queen of good causes, trailing
in her wake such endearing treason.

 


Published in The Georgia Review

 

THE RIVER

I stood in my grandmother’s kitchen
watching my mother roll her mother’s hair.

She wanted a permanent.
The hair a white mist, nothing more.

 

The rollers, pink. Her scalp
pink too, but different. I was

 

twelve. I thought no one could be
so old and trembly. And pink.

 

I thought a lot when I was twelve—
I thought nobody thought the way

 

I thought, to be so old and still want.
What could be left for her to want?

 

Her face a crosshatch of lines.
The head, the hands. The terrible shaking.
 
Little ghost, if you could speak, you 
whose eyes look at me now—tell me 

 

my charge. You are sixty-two years gone,
surely nothing but splinters left.
 
What do you order me to write
other than what I know? That nothing

 

is as cruel or sweeter than the shortness
of our days. That flesh clings,
 
refusing to be destroyed even as it is.
That, yes, there were three of us,

 

and after, to celebrate your curls,
we had tea in the yellow cups, 

 

and the best Russian coffee cake 
in the world—your favorite—

 

with eddies of walnuts and cinnamon 
roiling through, dark. Like a river.


Published in Cortland Review

THE REAL THING

You can always tell the Greek
from the Roman copy, the same
way the lover knows the lover 
in a crowded room and how
not to get in the way 
or fill the space between
with finger food or chat. To just 
let it come—head on and straight—
the real thing.
                       I was nineteen, 
New York, and he wasn’t even 
Greek but second-generation 
Polish with a wife on vacation. 
(How tacky can you get?)
But if he wasn’t the real thing, 
he was as close as I ever got—
love’s seal and stamp, my first 
journal entry, my preview 
of coming attractions, my
press your head to the X 
on the wall—desire.
I still see him walking away 
down Eighth Street in the day’s 
last lingering light. Golden he was.
Even the sun was stuck on him.

All these years, persistent 
as a jailhouse dream, he’s been 
with me—my favorite CD played 
on long car trips, or in the tube 
of an MRI when the only itch 
you’re allowed to scratch 
is a bite of memory. And when 
I finally decided to push delete,
for after all, enough is enough, 
I couldn’t. So burned in he was—
his left wrist bone, his arm’s sun-
kissed treasury of fine gold hairs.

 


Published in Cortland Review

ADRIENNE RICH
               1929-2012

 

She came to read her poems—
those straight-talk towers 
of brick and mortar—and to speak 
of the cracked earth and seething
rock beneath them. Each poem, 
a requiem for the rubble she stood in:
the twentieth century that cast her 
and cost her. A serious woman
who spent her life spending every
thing she had.
                       Outside the room, 
winter maples organized themselves
against the sky, and sparrows 
pecked at what they could find
as they had always done. And we, 
of the chicken salad and buttered roll, 
folded our linen napkins, laid 
down our silver, and hushed— 
waiting for gold.                                                
                           But as soon as 
she mounted the stage and leaned 
to the microphone, we leaned back 
and away in our chairs. You could 
barely discern it, but yes, back away 
is what we did, for in her voice 
and in the match strike of her eyes, 
she flared fire, and I saw again 
the ghost of the old refinery, the one
off Township Line Road, its towers 
lighting the night sky, each burning off 
in one pure flame the impurities we were. 
You see, she spoke true. She spoke witness. 
And we knew it.

Published in The Southern Review

BEHIND THE DOOR 
                         for R.

 

Letter left in a pocket, strange 
earring in a glove compartment—
such simple things—and the world
implodes. Wife rattling around
a house that used to be home,
child staring at her plate, picking
through her peas. The lover lost
without love’s current that had
like a river carried him so long:
the sweet rush he’d lived in—   
tent in the woods, motels in
how many towns. And, of course,
the unnamed, the dear someone
somewhere sitting by a phone,
daring it to ring. Do not think
I am a stranger to this story: 
the promises, the required apologies, 
the ritual baring of the jugular.

Oh friend, be warned. The heart
may not stay in storage long,
riding an iron track, obedient 
as a shooting-gallery duck. 
A heart wants to be used, fed,
nourished on nuzzle and whim,
practicing the skills it’s learned 
of whisper and cunning. It needs
to believe that on any ordinary night
before the pitiful throbbing stops
and the body—that new amazing toy—
is laid out and displayed like a plastic
floral arrangement, a rocket
will slip in low under the radar, 
roaring and flashing lights: the stars’ 
own emissary. And why, but to test 
the line of Do Not Cross, the line 
of unprofitable, for the heart is not
mollified by notions of safety nor apt
to thrive on a diet of crackers and milk.
It wants what it wants: what’s behind
the door, knowing full well the key
swings on a rope hanging from one’s
own neck. That’s the place, isn’t it?
Such sweet skin, there in the neck’s
hollow where she’d lay her mouth, 
cupping the pulse as if to drink 
and hold inside her all that ecstasy,
that mad hammering before it dies away. 

 


Published in The Georgia Review and on Poetry Daily
 

Alice Friman talking about and reading her poem, The Mythological Cod.

© 2020 by ALICE FRIMAN, Poet

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