BY TERESA WHITE
My mother was graceful hanging out the wash.
She wore dresses and black horn-rimmed glasses,
hummed and read and painted her nails.
Bronka's Mother was sturdy as cord wood.
I watched her thunk puppies over the head
with a shovel, carry water in galvanized pails,
watched her knees buckle.
The house was smaller than our living room.
Chairs were hung on pegs; A steamer trunk full
of embroidered clothing doubled as a table.
I only ate there once. They blessed the American,
blessed me, before taking bread to soup.
I walked the long way home.
The Australian sky was black and blue with rain
Poland was a copper samovar.
TAKING DOWN THE ALTAR
I'm slowly dismantling the altar I built to you.
The votives were becoming a fire hazard.
I couldn't sit all day with them burning
whitely in my bedroom with the curtains hungry.
And who saw me strike the matches,
lip to lip upon the dumb candles?
I've lost all faith in fire.
I prayed on my knees until I had rug burns
but now I'm convinced no god heard me.
There's proof of that.
If I'm lucky I won't know you by the time I scrape
up all this wax.
This morning I try to understand
how you make me feel
but the bones and fish of poems
won't leap to the page.
You had secrets
but I know them all.
All. But I am no interrogator
just someone who listened
long after empty beer cans
cluttered our apartment.
And when you were busy
speaking into mirrors--
the family beauty, the smart one--
your boyfriend chose me.
You tried on men like clothing
that didn't fit.
I'm not surprised that you live alone--
with one dog and one cat
to follow you around.
If I could only bleed I would be done
with this poison sac around my neck
like some bird though not the albatross,
more like the arrowed quail or bitten wren.
Your going didn't bother me at once,
the mind is slow to know, is circumspect
of facts though turning on a turning spit:
the rage, the clunking truth. I have not won.
So if you see me kneeling at some grave
and wonder what I've buried and how small
the headstone rising in the new-shorn grass,
be glad that I have cut the tie--a naive
woman offering a brief damp farewell
to that which only lived in cold trespass.
The rising sun was a red stain spreading
over the Willamette Valley and roses grew everywhere.
Jim and I lurched along in a decrepit yellow bus
while old men coughed and burped and wheezed.
In the raspberry fields we headed for the cook shack
where I drank coffee from a Styrofoam cup,
picked up a large plastic pail
and slung it over my back.
By noon my armpits ached from reaching up up up
and blood seeped from scratches where the thorns bit.
Dusk dropped over the countryside like a net
while the bus carried us back to a welfare hotel
in Portland where a TV in the lobby broadcast
Neil Armstrong's giant step for mankind.
As a camera zoomed in on the American flag
unmoving in the lunar atmosphere
we went to our room,
lay down on the exhausted bed
and tugged out the light.
THE LAST TEMPTATION
I fell asleep with Christ
last night, his wasted arms
around my neck. Who was
hanging onto whom?
Summer had gone dragging
roses in her skirts
and my hair struggled down
my shoulder like Magdalene's.
I told him I wasn't up
to washing his feet.
I wanted him to touch me
but he just lay there asking
did I know what it was like
to be crucified.
When I turned on the light,
he looked like any other man
wanting the woman to go first.
I WISH I KNEW THE LATIN NAME FOR THIS
Tinfoil in my teeth,
the scrape of a popsicle stick
when the sweet ice is gone
daughter, you remind me of this.
I cringe at the sound of a fingernail
across a blackboard,
a neighbor's bleat at 2 a.m.,
a squad car twinkling
its blue authority.
I have one weapon and even this
loses potency: that you love me
or did or might have or could.