You can have clouds and letters, the leaping of distances: three poems by Barbara Ras

You Can’t Have It All

But you can have the fig tree and its fat leaves like clown hands
gloved with green. You can have the touch of a single eleven-year-old finger
on your cheek, waking you at one a.m. to say the hamster is back.
You can have the purr of the cat and the soulful look
of the black dog, the look that says, If I could I would bite
every sorrow until it fled, and when it is August,
you can have it August and abundantly so. You can have love,
though often it will be mysterious, like the white foam
that bubbles up at the top of the bean pot over the red kidneys
until you realize foam’s twin is blood.
You can have the skin at the center between a man’s legs,
so solid, so doll-like. You can have the life of the mind,
glowing occasionally in priestly vestments, never admitting pettiness,
never stooping to bribe the sullen guard who’ll tell you
all roads narrow at the border.
You can speak a foreign language, sometimes,
and it can mean something. You can visit the marker on the grave
where your father wept openly. You can’t bring back the dead,
but you can have the words forgive and forget hold hands
as if they meant to spend a lifetime together. And you can be grateful
for makeup, the way it kisses your face, half spice, half amnesia, grateful
for Mozart, his many notes racing one another towards joy, for towels
sucking up the drops on your clean skin, and for deeper thirsts,
for passion fruit, for saliva. You can have the dream,
the dream of Egypt, the horses of Egypt and you riding in the hot sand.
You can have your grandfather sitting on the side of your bed,
at least for a while, you can have clouds and letters, the leaping
of distances, and Indian food with yellow sauce like sunrise.
You can’t count on grace to pick you out of a crowd
but here is your friend to teach you how to high jump,
how to throw yourself over the bar, backwards,
until you learn about love, about sweet surrender,
and here are periwinkles, buses that kneel, farms in the mind
as real as Africa. And when adulthood fails you,
you can still summon the memory of the black swan on the pond
of your childhood, the rye bread with peanut butter and bananas
your grandmother gave you while the rest of the family slept.
There is the voice you can still summon at will, like your mother’s,
it will always whisper, you can’t have it all,
but there is this.


Our Flowers

After the storm white and black clouds hung
in the sky like dogs and cats drinking
out of the same blue bowl.
It has been so long since we danced,
not counting the slow shuffle at the Zoo Ball,
you in the black tie the valet knotted in the parking lot
after the Internet instructions failed.
“Failure” is such a beautiful word for something
lousy, the lure of it not at all like the rain,
the drenching rain after the long hot drought that ended today.
When you said you loved substations, I thought of long
sandwiches until across the street I saw
the electricity-making equipment you’d already started
naming the parts of. I wanted to name the clouds–
dogwood, tiger lily, lilac, the lost flowers
of my girlhood, and of course the thousands of blossoms of phlox
in the rock garden my impossibly young grandmother sat in
for the photograph with the three stone ducks.
What if we went back,
as children, to where no one asks how long the blooms
will bloom, to sleep with our grandmothers
in the feather bed carried from the old country,
all of us dreaming our own painful music, the songs
that will wake us in time for the next storm,
and even if it brings down limbs and live wires
dancing in wild arcs, we’ll watch
the wind rouse the trees while the petals
of where we belong bow down
to rain on the unkissably muddy ground.


A Wife Explains Why She Likes Country

Because those cows in the bottomland are black and white, colors
anyone can understand, even against the green
of the grass, where they glide like yes and no, nothing in between
because in the country, heartache has nowhere to hide,
it’s the Church of Abundant Life, the Alamo,
the hubbub of the hoi polloi, the parallel lines of rail fences,
because I like rodeos more than I like golf,
because there’s something about the sound of mealworms and
leeches and the dream of a double-wide
that reminds me this is America, because of the simple pleasure
of a last chance, because sometimes whiskey
tastes better than wine, because hauling hogs on the road
is as good as it gets when the big bodies are layered like pigs in a cake,
not one layer but two,
because only country has a gun with a full choke and slide guitar
that melts playing it cool into sweaty surrender in one note,
because in country you can smoke forever and it’ll never kill you,
because roadbeds, flatbeds, your bed or mine,
because the package store is right across from the chicken plant
and it sells boiled peanuts, because I’m fixin’ to wear boots to the dance
and make my hair bigger, because no smarty-pants, just easy rhymes,
perfect love, because I’m lost deep within myself and the sad songs call me out,
because even you with your superior aesthetic cried
when Tammy Wynette died,
because my people
came from dirt.

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You can have clouds and letters, the leaping of distances: three poems by Barbara Ras

As a ghost might gaze upon the one he loves: three poems by Brian Turner

Like Lamplight

One day when you are beside me
invite me to speak
of the secrets I never knew
I wanted to tell you, of the warmth
I never knew I owned
until you released it
by moving close as lamplight seems
to glass. Ask me

why I came to you
with the reverence of one
who sees a flower bloom
where none has bloomed before.
By saying what is
I will have said what was.

Sometimes when you are content
ask me what it is
that moves me to want to hold you so,
so often, and laugh when I tell
you the same old
indestructible thing.

One day when you are
where you need no invitation to be
I will tell you
how you flower
like lamplight in me.


Observation Post #798

It is in the watches of the night
that impressions are strongest
and words most eloquent.
—Qur’an 73:1

Tonight, we overwatch the Market District
by the ruins, where we know of a brothel-house:
green light above the door, windows shuttered
in French panels swung open, gauze curtains
hanging translucent in the heat.

It’s over a hundred degrees, even at dusk.
I scan each story with binoculars
and a smile, hoping to glimpse the girls
drawing open the curtains,
their silhouettes edged in light.

When a woman walks out onto the rooftop
smoking a cigarette and shaking loose her long hair,
everyone wants what I hold in my hands,
but I am stilled by her, transported 7,600 miles
away, as a ghost might gaze upon the one he loves,

thinking, how lovely you are,
your pain and beauty a fiction
I bend into the form of a bridge, anything
to remind me I am still alive.


R & R

The curve of her hip where I’d lay my head,
that’s what I’m thinking of now, her fingers
gone slow through my hair on a blue day
ten thousand miles off in the future somewhere,
where the beer is so cold it sweats in your hand,
cool as her kissing you with crushed ice,
her tongue wet with blackberry and melon.

That’s what I’m thinking of now.
Because I’m all out of adrenaline,
all out of smoking incendiaries.

Somewhere deep in the landscape of the brain,
under the skull’s blue curving dome—
that’s where I am now, swaying
in a hammock by the water’s edge
as soldiers laugh and play volleyball
just down the beach, while others tan
and talk with the nurses who bring pills
to help them sleep. And if this is crazy,
then let this be my sanatorium,
let the doctors walk among us here
marking their charts as they will.

I have a lover with hair that falls
like autumn leaves on my skin.
Water that rolls in smooth and cool
as anesthesia. Birds that carry
all my bullets into the barrel of the sun.

As a ghost might gaze upon the one he loves: three poems by Brian Turner

Sometimes I pretend you’re in the other room until it rains: four poems by Anne Michaels

Turning Twenty-Three

You turned twenty-two in the rain.
We walked in rubber boots
along Lowther, the shiny street as albumen
under streetlamps.

At midnight, the sky suddenly clear
we drove your jazz-filled car
through cold, pungent streets to the lake
where we collected stones by flashlight.
The wind wrapped us in its torsions,
we couldn’t hear each other although we shouted,
wet with star-swallowing waves.

By morning the stones we’d found
were dull with air,
but I couldn’t forget the smell
of the trees’ intimate darkness
the scattered sound of the rain’s distracted hands,
husks of buds in green pools on the sidewalks.

To love one person above all others
is despair, you said, turning twenty-two.
Propaganda of the senses, the narrow-minded heart.

We are magnets, averted
by our sameness.

Above the corrugated, elastic lake
the darkening sky holds out its arms.
A thousand miles away, you’re turning twenty-three

I repeat your name, each time different
into sand, into moonlight.

Far off, the lake crumbles at its edges,
the sky holds out its arms.


The Weight of Oranges

My cup’s the same sand color as bread.
Rain’s the same colour of a building across the street,
its torn red dahlias
and ruined a book propped on the sill.

Rain articulates the skins of everything,
pink of bricks from the fire they baked in,
lizard green leaves,
the wrinkled tongues of pine cones.
It’s accurate the way we never are,
bringing out what’s best
without changing a thing.
Rain that makes beds damp,
our room a cave in the morning,
a tent in late afternoon,
ignites the sound of leaves we miss all winter.
The sound that pulled us to bed…
caught in the undertow of wind in wet leaves.

I’m writing in the sound we woke to,
curtains breathing into a half-dark room.

I’m up early now, walking.
Remember our walks, horizons like lips
barely red at dawn,
how kind the distance seemed?
Letters should be written to send news, to say
send me news, to say
meet me at the train station.
Not these dry tears, to honour us like a tomb.
I’m ashamed of our separation.
I wake in the middle of the night and see “shame”
written in the air like a Bible story.
I dreamed my skin was tattooed,
covered with the words that put me here,
covered in sores, in quarantine—and you know what?
I was afraid to light the lamp and look.

Your husband’s a good builder—I burned
every house we had,
with a few words to start the flames.
Words of wood,
they had no power of their own.
“The important” gave them meaning
and humble with gratitude
they exploded in my face.

Now we’re like planets, holding to each other
from a great distance. When we lay down
oceans flexed their green muscles,
life got busy in the other hemisphere,
the globe tilted, bowing to our power!
Now we’re hundreds of miles apart,
our short arms keep us lonely,
no one hears what’s in my head.
I look old. I’m losing my hair.
Where does lost hair go in this world,
lost eyesight, teeth?
We grow old like rivers, get shrunk and doubled over
until we can’t find the mouth of anything.

It’s March, even the birds
don’t know what to do with themselves.

Sometimes I’m certain those who are happy
know one thing more than us… or one thing less.
The only book I’d write again
is our bodies closing together.
That’s the language that stuns,
scars, breathes into you.
Naked, we had voices!

I want you to promise
we’ll see each other again,
you’ll send a letter.
Promise we’ll be lost together
in our forest, pale birches of our legs.

I hear your voice now—I know,
everyone knows promises come from fear.
People don’t live past each other,
you’re always here with me. Sometimes
I pretend you’re in the other room
until it rains… and then
this is the letter I always write:
The letter I write
when they’re keeping me from home.
I smell your supper steaming in the kitchen.
There are paper bags on the table
with their bottoms melted out
by rain and the weight of oranges.


Depth of Field

“The camera relieves us of the burden of memory …
records in order to forget.”  – John Berger

We’ve retold the stories of our lives
by the time we reach Buffalo,
sun coming up diffuse and prehistoric
over the Falls.

A white morning,
sun like paint on the windshield.
You drive, smoke, wear sunglasses.

Rochester, Camera Capital of America.
Stubbing a cigar in the lid of a film cannister,
the Kodak watchman gives directions.

The museum’s a wide-angle mansion.
You search the second storey from the lawn,
mentally converting bathrooms to darkrooms.

A thousand photos later,
exhausted by second-guessing
the mind which invisibly surrounds each image,
we nap in a high school parking lot,
sun leaning low as the trees
over the roof of the warm car.

Driving home. The moon’s so big and close
I draw a moustache on it and smudge the windshield.
I stick my fingers in your collar to keep you awake.
I can’t remember a thing about our lives before this morning.

We left our city at night and return at night.
We buy pineapple and float quietly through the neighbourhood,
thick trees washing themselves in lush darkness,
or in the intimate light of streetlamps.
In summer the planer’s heavy with smells of us,
stung with the green odour of gardens.
Heat won’t leave the pavement
until night is almost over.

I’ve loved you all day.
We take the old familiar Intertwine Freeway,
begin the long journey towards each other
as to our home town with all its lights on.


Phantom Limbs

So much of the city
is our bodies. Places in us
old light still slants through to.
Places that no longer exist but are full of feeling,
like phantom limbs.

Even the city carries ruins in its heart.
Longs to be touched in places
only it remembers.

Through the yellow hooves
of the ginkgo, parchment light;
in that apartment where I first
touched your shoulders under your sweater,
that October afternoon you left keys
in the fridge, milk on the table.
The yard – our moonlight motel –
where we slept summer’s hottest nights,
on grass so cold it felt wet.
Behind us, freight trains crossed the city,
a steel banner, a noisy wall.
Now the hollow diad
floats behind glass
in office towers also haunted
by our voices.

Few buildings, few lives
are built so well
even their ruins are beautiful.
But we loved the abandoned distillery:
stone floors cracking under empty vats,
wooden floors half rotted into dirt;
stairs leading nowhere; high rooms
run through with swords of dusty light.
A place the rain still loved, its silver paint
on rusted things that had stopped moving it seemed, for us.
Closed rooms open only to weather,
pungent with soot and molasses,
scent-stung. A place
where everything too big to take apart
had been left behind.

Sometimes I pretend you’re in the other room until it rains: four poems by Anne Michaels