BY CAROLE STONE
GAS PUMPS, SPRINGS GENERAL STORE
These pumps could be outer space creatures
or angels stranded on earth, the moon
their natural habitat, their hoses reaching down
from another planet or heaven, if there is heaven.
A rusted door opens to inner works.
I want to curl up inside one, my ears tuned
to the absence in its vacant heart,
like my mother's stopped heart,
her plucked eyebrows, beaded gowns gone down
with my father's convertible spin,
its tires squealing, its gas tank on empty.
Across the road an orange-beaked goose pads
past Pussy's Pond, six tiny goslings following.
Somewhere my father's chariot,
never out of gas, glides from port to port
like The Flying Dutchman. Stolid gas pumps,
never changing, real to the touch,
stand here forever, while my parents ride
on their endless journey, pulling
an empty buggy toward eternity. Now I see
his car lights, two white moons pull up,
hip flask at his belt, my mother's
laughter floating in the summer air,
on their way to gin and sin.
She wishes she had an ex-husband,
about whom she could be bitter, like other women
who lived through the Seventies sexual revolution,
leaving their marriages.
She wishes she had ten lovers instead of the one
lover who was too old for her anyhow
and died before she was ready
to give him up.
She wishes her friends hadn't retired
to Hilton Head, Miami and Sausalito,
little by little losing touch,
that she hadn't stayed in her tiny colonial
in a blue collar town but had bought
a big house in an affluent suburb
and could invest in stocks from its sale.
And that, rereading her old poems,
she didn't notice how often she used forms
of the verb to be like her students.
How many times has she admonished them for this?
Or that after making plane reservations
with a $150 penalty for canceling,
she didn't regret instantly, not flying
In her days of psychoanalysis
she believed, at least for the first ten years,
there was such a thing as resolution.
TRAVELING WITH THE DEAD
Can objects explain a life?
Purple-rose wallpaper with robins
nesting and matching drapes, shuttered windows,
a clock on the mantelpiece, Chinese chests.
Now see how the sun sinks into the lake,
casts shadows over neighboring villas,
how water drips from the courtyard's fountain.
Each evening a new wine at dinner. By nightfall
the muse has fled, the oak shutters bang,
the pen sighs as it signs a name
to fragments of the heart.
Time for revelations, each guest's past
a story to be told anew.
God is a fur coat, a Russian cap.
Another says, but isn't being born
and knowing you will die enough.
2 Blue Afternoon
The chateau is still, even the flies faint from dolor.
Last night's brandy drunk up, we float in and out
of the French doors, while our lives run away
with the TGF train's speed. Nothing can stop its galloping,
not the regretful details or even the bright seductive moments.
What will remain of my life? Years of photographs
snapped in Mexico, London, Dublin, my mother's Black Knight china,
my pale complexion passed on to my daughter.
3 Petit Elegy
My father is empty clothing, a navy blue
double breasted blazer and white flannel pants in the photo
that has stood on my piano for years.
My father is a lost listing in the telephone book,
a mouth without a voice. He's historical,
the local color in the city where I was born.
Now, friends very nearly my age, are dying,
and at every funeral death I weep and weep,
no longer the child not told about her father's death,
so long ago.
4 Time Zone
Aubonne's medieval roofs rise over the treetops.
I am the traveler, passing.
It is Saturday but Friday in that other time zone.
My heart flies from here to home.
I walk out into the fields, Lake Geneva in the distance.
Clouds hover like the memories I am collecting.
A hope chest of words. Love used up.
In a school yard, its playground empty,
seesaws and slides lie abandoned like orphans.
At a farmhouse a boy of perhaps ten,
bending over a long string, calls to me
to untie a knot. His blond eyelashes curl
like the child's in the manger. As the knot unravels,
I think, my heart's not dead yet.
I can hear it beating.
6 The Sound of Birds All Day Long
In the garden they tune up all day long.
What are they saying?
They sing without thought,
their small chests puffed up.
This past warm winter, with no snow,
the birds forgot to fly South.
They must be confused as I am,
not knowing where to find their true home.
We walked and walked until we came to this place
where pink, yellow and red roses bend
in the heat, their season almost done.
Buffeted by wind and rain, they will return
as we will not. On such a June night we need no lantern
to light our way as we wander uphill
toward the granite church, the bells silent
past midnight, the full moon and the Big Dipper guiding us.
In the moonlight we see ourselves as we are,
some already old, trying to give a title to their lives,
others young and frisky as puppies with shimmering
years ahead. Soon we must leave, carrying our stories
like bouquets past the village's fountain.
In this brightness, we walk out of the blind alleys
of our lives, into the June light that seems to last forever,
asking ourselves, how does desire end?
Neat yellow fields stretch over rolling hills and small roads,
branch off past grape vines, the sun treading the plants.
The jagged white-capped Alps tell me this isn't Oz,
but Dorothy and the tin man are no cliché.
Every birthday a new Wizard of Oz book,
Inscribed "To Honey." I know there is no Emerald City
that I will come to. Yet I follow my yellow brick road
as if it will take me there.
9 A Late Eulogy
During these late days like lost their shoes
that need to be filled, I think of my uncle,
butcher's apron bloody, as he sliced lamb shanks.
I see him in the kitchen after work, a dinner
of rare steak and onions, rye bread, his back brace
loosened, falling asleep over the newspaper.
I recall Sundays he took me to the skating rink,
and glided over the ice like a knife without a sheath,
a man sentenced to sever animals, and whose legs I hugged.
After two packs of cigarettes a day, his breathing failed
climbing stairs. I was away at school when he stopped
smoking, gained weight. I remember nothing
he said, the uncle who from his shop window,
where chickens hung beside strings of sausage,
watched me jumping rope, unlaced his bloodstained
shoes, and took my hand.
Sunday morning, I find a stone 17th century church
that stands empty, big wooden door closed
without a gesture of welcome. What do I want anyway?
A hawk cruises the clear, blue June sky.
For the first time in days the snowy peaks are visible.
From a distance, Sabbath bells.
Each time I take a step toward them they ring.
God is always in the next town.
11 The Woman Who Retired
She drinks black coffee in the morning,
tea at midday, milk before bed, reads
Nabokov's Speak Memory until 2 A.M. bathes
instead of showering. At the lake, she passes fathers
sprawled in the grass on mobile phones. She goes by,
garbed in long white, unnoticed.
Carrot juice at lunch. Remaining thin still an idée fixe.
Her reflection in the mirror is someone else's.
She has chosen her pension option, torn up the love
letters shoved for years to the back of her desk
drawer, their browning stamps
like overripe avocados, kept too long.
12 Reading Paul Celan at 2 A.M.
Who are we when we speak
the bone, when we dig
the earth? Who are we
when we bow to nothing,
no, not anyone.
Dirt smudges the small snows.
Moon hanging and oh,
13 Col de Saint Bernard
Napoleon's army crossed these Alps,
one hundred and forty men in long lines,
only stale bread for days. At night, the stars spread
like bullets. I feel the snow's glare, see the soldiers
rubbing their eyes, stunned into reverie.
Years later, they march into Moscow, find a city
of smoke, and, toes frozen numb, become corpses
buried in deep Russian snow. Where are their oaths now?
Here in the shadows of Europe's history, no one hears
mine, I, the grandchild of immigrants from Hungary's hatreds,
who left me nothing, not the difficult consonants
of their tongue, not their faces in portraits.
I am like a patient in the Geneva mental hospital who,
when asked, "Who were your people?" replies, "I don't know.
Did they hug you, love you?"
"I can't remember." Yet I feel grief deserting me
even as I write one elegy after another,
for those closer to me now, the near past as holy
as the far. High in the mountain pass,
San Bernard's bright snow melts.
14 Traveling with the Dead, A Ghazal
In memory of Agha Shahid Ali
In a brilliant December sky above missing towers,
clouds are moving over the city that remembers its towers.
Fire blazed from windows and human figures
like fiery birds flew out of towers.
If I forget thee O Jerusalem. . .
When I was young I believed in the world's towers.
Though countries kept disappearing
and cities changing names, I wandered to their towers.
In Ireland, Yeats conjured poems like an alchemist.
I climbed spiraling stairs in his tower.
Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your golden hair.
Lovers touch, skin, mouth, passion's an eternal tower.
Through my years of wanderlust, there was never enough
of gold angels trumpeting on cathedral towers.
In a few paragraphs, obituaries record
the shock of so many dead in towers.
I try to understand what cannot be understood.
Already a great silence is falling over the towers.
Am I forgetting how to feel joy?
I am not ready to give up my towers.
Carole, I remind myself, the poet's golden verses
will outlast civilization's towers.
Carlotta sits at her dressing table and looks into the mirror. A tall woman with brilliant red hair, her large green eyes possess an intelligence that gives them power as well as luster. She lifts her hand to her face and caresses it, the ruby ring on her finger glinting in the morning sun. She worries that she appears gaunt, but Carlotta has not lost her beauty. The white cotton dresses that have become her habitual attire set off her dark skin. Her breasts and hips are round as a young woman's. Today is her seventy-second birthday.
Born in Mexico to an Indian mother and a Swiss father, at eighteen Carlotta married a wealthy landowner twenty years older than she. The marriage gave her the status of a man some said would be the next President of Mexico. And indeed he looked the part. He was six foot, had thick hair, and even white teeth.
In those days Carlotta accompanied her husband everywhere; there were state balls, an official visit to Washington, weeks vacationing in a villa in Alcapulco where dignitaries visited on weekends. When alone, Carlotta and her husband rarely spoke. One night at a dinner party the hostess seated her next to Jose de Sevilla, a portrait painter whose portraits of society women hung in many of their friends' houses. He asked her to his studio, a gesture which flattered her husband.
"Of course." she said. Soon she was spending three afternoons a week at his studio in the San Angel section of the city. Now as she stares into the mirror, she remembers the way he touched his black moustache as he gazed at her. She remembers, too, how he watched as she undressed. She would kiss him goodbye, rubbing her face against his beard. "Until next time I will think only of you." he would say as she left. "How beautiful you are."
Jose would not let her see the portrait until he was finished painting her. When she finally saw herself, she realized he had created a woman of his imagination. This woman was seductive, her breasts rising above a purple gown, her white shoulders bare. How had she become this voluptuous woman? Was painting a fiction in which the artist created fantasy?
"But that's not me."
"All you women say that when you see yourself reflected through the eyes of another," he replied. "This woman is the Carlotta I hold in my arms and who I dream of each night."
One afternoon Carlotta saw Jose in Chapulectec Park strolling with his arm around Luisa, the wife of a friend of her husband's. She began to hear about Jose's affairs with the women who posed for him. As suddenly as she began seeing him, she stopped. But afternoons of bridge and shopping bored her. Then her husband died.
At thirty she left Mexico City with her daughter and went to live in Oaxaca where she bought a large estate. At first, knowing no one except for a few acquaintances of her husband's, she was lonely. She began to study art at the Belles Artes, perhaps out of longing for Jose which she thought she had stilled. The most remarkable thing about Carlotta's paintings was that they were life-like. She began going out into the countryside and visiting the small villages where she would stay for days at a time, painting the Indian women. Yet, in spite of her intention to re-create reality, these women became more exotic than she intended. They seemed to her to be one with the landscape of light and the dense vegetation in which they lived.
When she returned to Mexico City to place her daughter in a private school for girls, she left several of her paintings with an art dealer. A few months from him in Oaxaca; he had sold all her work. Soon her paintings became known in Mexico and an exhibit of her work was held in Paris. There she met Enrico Ponti, her second love, an Italian whose family had lived in Trieste for generations. At twenty he went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. The opening night of Carlotta's exhibit he asked if he could come to her studio to see more of her work. It was clear he was as interested in seeing her as her art. Ten years younger than Carlotta, he liked strong women. Soon he was coming to her studio on the Rue Fauborg, as once she had gone to Jose's.
Enrico had already composed a piano concerto to be performed in London the following season and was working on a song cycle based on Rilke's Orpheus poems. Carlotta closes her yes as if she can hear his songs. How strange, how unreal, Enrico seems. Once his presence was the most palpable thing in her life. He was blonde and had green eyes like hers; he always wore a scarf knotted at his neck and a blue workman's shirt. When he walked into her studio for the first time, a wave of blood rose to her face and her knees trembled. He strolled around the studio, examining each of her paintings.
"I like your work," he said. "And you."
She shivers a little and rises from the chair. She thinks of youth, of passion, of what it felt like to be caressed. So long ago, they were lovers. Mornings she would paint from memory the Indian women of Oaxaca. She could see them laughing together by the river as they washed their husbands' clothes, pounding them with stones. Sometimes she would juxtapose their villages against a Parisian building or use the Seine as a backdrop. The result was remarkably sophisticated and simple at the same time.
Afternoons she would listen to Enrico's compositions. He was a good critic of art who understood light and color, but she could say nothing about his music. Really, she had no ear for music. He explained to her that light and color were present in music as well as art.
"Listen to these notes," he said. "Aren't they bright as that sun you keep telling me about in your country?" Then he played his songs on the Chickering piano she rented for him. Her pleasure in him seemed all she needed.
Evenings they would have dinner in a cafe. Even now she could recall the taste of the mussels in wine, the boulabaisse they both loved. Then they strolled along the Seine among other couples, arms twined around each other's waists. Once he asked, "Do you really like music?"
"I'm not sure. I think it's suffering. Like painting."
"Do we suffer or do we want others to suffer?"
This morning she inhales the jacaranda scent from her garden, remembering their enjoyment and wanting the smell of laurels blossoming that spring in Paris, wanting the odor of fish from the braziers that peddlers set up along the Left Bank. If only she could see Enrico more clearly. But why, she asks herself? He is gone; he may even be dead.
She thinks of the last few days they spent together. Paris was truly in bloom and people were everywhere, in the gardens, at sidewalk cafes. They bicycled along the river and stopped for a picnic of cold chicken and Beaujolais. After they ate, she sketched him as he lay on the grass. Where is that sketch now? What happened after that? She can't remember.
There was no dramatic ending to their affair, no quarrel. She simply had to return to her daughter in Mexico. Enrico remained in Paris to wait for the performance of his concerto. Though she promised to attend, an exhibition of hers opened in Los Angeles and the date of his concert came and went. "Foolish," she murmurs to herself. "Yet," she thinks, "we have done what we wanted to do."
By now she was painting the self-portraits that made her famous. In one she appears as an angel descending through a cloud; in another she has short cropped hair and carries a riding stick. In the best known of all, she is an Indian midwife, delivering a child by the light of a single candle.
Women began visiting Oaxaca to see her. They asked her questions: Has it been difficult to learn her art as a woman among male artists? Can a woman artist live a full life complete with love, marriage, children? How did she come to make these self-portraits? Carlotta would give them answers, have them learn the secret of her art, of her life, if she could. Should she tell them of Paris with everything in bloom? Of how her face began to inhabit her dreams?
She rearranges the ivory comb and brush, the carved jewelry box on her dressing table and looks once more into the mirror. Who is this woman with lines around her eyes and across her high cheekbones that Jose once called fabulous? It is time to paint her.