July In the Roman Forum A gray woman steps from a taxi cab, a gray woman, head to foot, a basket in her hand, and tools she carries natural as her skin. A thick light links the space between the driver and her--substance and the sparkle of air, and a ritual comfort between them. I wish I could get it back, that sense of them, that taste. I believe he will come back for her in a while. She does not smile, but energy spreads from the easy purpose on her face, the athletic grace of her trim shape. She steps past ruins to join the plot of ground she chose for growing something succulent, brimful, a small square of zinnias in this gray dust, basil and thyme, tomatoes and peppers, lavender. Oleander grows thick and enticing. I imagine she might loosen the ground around their roots, pour water into their mouths, know their leaves. I stay a while to see, and watch her cultivate sharp-angled beds near a half-column and a long-empty well, an old empire sighing off in the fused distance. She, so far from tired, so certain in her pace, points a steady path to that one place.
Closing Doors My father sits on a dining room chair, the front door braced between his legs. He fits puzzle pieces of brass and steel into precut holes and grooves. Now he chisels out the rectangle where the striker will go, replacing an older one that worked under an intruder’s key. This is the third door he has held braced like this, the third day he has spent cursing softly in the shadows of a room not his, but his at eighty-two to protect. Wood shavings fly out in a circle on the carpet; scratches mar the door frame, exposing the blues and mustards of other years, other dwellers. Never mind. I will paint again, layer on layer. “He needs a project,” said Mother. “Let him do it.” Yet I look at the door bell mounted crooked and the knob a quarter-inch from the door. I wonder if I should have called a professional who would have done this job in an hour, and I worry that these trials and errors make him feel frail and uneven. I pull weeds outside. Soon, a nagging tugs--to check that a stroke hasn’t felled him to the floor of the silent house. But there’s his silhouette in the door-light. He bends to retrieve a fallen screw, squints at the tools in his lap, chooses the small Phillips head. At last he calls me from the garden to try the keys from the outside. The dead bolt slides home. The lower lock twists into its seat. Click. Everything works. He smiles out the side of his mouth, says it was nothing. One day, when he cannot get out of his bed, I will perform some awkward task for him, perform it badly and with an aching love, protect him against unwanted guests and ghosts.
Mother Refuses a Funeral Her going will be a silence, a door locked, a house re-keyed, the sprinkles of her powder dusted from her dressing bench, her shoes alligned; threads for needlepoint sorted and tied, a plumped and corded handwork pillow, an envelope sealed and stamped, an indexed file; refusal to answer, neglect to call. No words by clergy, no visitation: as though she had a cold, nothing to wear, an argument with the world, a solemn task, she will be indisposed, will not receive guests; will keep to herself, that day.
Terroir Wednesday is a catch in the throat, a janus, a rainy day of the mind for me, that is, today, unmeditative, teetering, a tight-nerve day seeking a pathway and an open way to the fruits of mind and vine. Trim, straighten, cover with care, mind the elements—thunder and storm of voices, rain like needles prodding-- that loosen bindings to the strong stake holding me firm. Move, please, so that I may step into the last days of the week, all the Thursdays and Fridays to the end, and make excellent wine, unblended or watered down and from my own, own roots and from my soil. Hump-day, they say, rushing downhill. I call it reckoning here, halfway through and haven’t done the thing I’m meant to do. And Clay After Lucille Clifton, “Come Celebrate with Me” It is a dream. A sorrow. I’ve never run in the rain to escape it, but run to meet it, run for joy in its debate with sun. I’ve never carried an umbrella: I untouchable, unmeltable, unscorable; so confident of being saved. I never carried a painted sign even though some were soaked every rain that came, though some ran every day from fear of loss, from dread of pain, from floods that drown. I’ve never stopped on streets beyond my own where babies cry I’ve never comforted. Those lost and harmed beyond my knowing: I’ve never helped them make some sense of what is possible, and what is not. I’ve never lived in tenements, I’ve never been invisible while visible, except my slow-poke soul. Maybe that. Abstractions float easy. The specific squirms in darkness. A shovel. Love rises from dug-out open-skin words that say, that do. Only that. Where is the bridge between starshine and clay and how to find it early and walk it long and true to the side of grit and shout? To I’ll-come-too? Rain can be more than joy and less. Come celebrate every crossing from the safe side of the stars to where clay firms an instinct, what kills, what saves, where I will stay unsafe. Dove Flight For weeks I didn’t water Mother’s fern that paled beneath the eaves . Among the wilting fronds two doves sat still in solid watch, ceramic thieves, eyes round and dark and stern. One day the male was gone, the mother crouched beside two downy young, necks thin with spring. I ached at their beginning, fed from her mouth, and watched for flight. I didn’t see their wings-- one day the nest was empty, just in time to drench the fern and coax it back to life. All this coming and going such a fragile rhythm: water and sun, withhold and give, nurse and free . My mother in a darkened room had packed for flight. Her face like polished marble, set past sight. Couscous (from Morocco) Here, beyond the sea that halves us I sink my hands deep into couscous three times, reaching across waves to you. With time, with silence, the grain swallows water three times and three times increases and becomes whole. I miss the skin you lay against my skin, your hand’s expanse on my open back, the warm envelope of you. My hands touch and turn barley, semolina, then the corn—three rounds— then choose carrots, zucchini, turnips. They will be succulent in my mouth, handed in, cradled as if we were tasting it together, all skins blending, nourishing like a story’s bones linked and told in the dark. Geometry, Lost Cove The ridge across this cove is straight as a ruled line, its bend as pure as an angle on a student’s quadrilled page. Beyond it another ridge lies straight-backed, as well, drawn off by its touch with sky. Such perfection is a subject I’d like to think about here on this thin shelf of land: the earth, for instance, seen from an orbiting craft, is smooth and round-- an eyeball, a gem on black cloth. Where is the rough, rooty skin of it we know, the jagged heights of pine, poplar, sycamore, oak? Where are our lumpy villages, the brutish smoke of wars, the unsmooth teem of antlife in its scurry? At a distance, surface is easy truth: latitudes and longitudes, altitudes, and lines acute, obtuse. A mountain trail is straight as shot, a slight incline from the east, a thirty-degree descent on the other face. A hurricane is a cotton swirled disturbance on a blue plate; yet underneath it secreted on another plane, pain rises red and anger-pussed. This limpid, lustrous earth. With this design I make up my face for someone combed and groomed into the angled, elegrant shape of vee, leaning in an easy obtuse against the far wall.
Georganne Harmon Philip Spears of afternoon light leaned between buildings where I picked my way among bricks and concrete blocks, half-hewn stones and rough cut metal strips that cluttered the alleyway to the parking lot. In front of me a short man powdered with a month of street dust half-turned to say from the shy thickness of his throat, “Be careful,” and I said, “I will, you too, thanks.” “My name is Phillip,” he told me, his head ducking into smile as he reached the sun on Seventh Avenue. I turned toward Commerce Street. “Hello, Phillip,” I said. “You have a good afternoon” and his name was in my head, in my car, as I jerked to stops and starts in traffic until the way grew easy, and he lived in my quiet house, where the shadows behind china lamps grew into shapes of Phillip, his sweat-stained neck, turning to caution me, his matted beard. In the shadows of alleyways and downtown bridges, he carries the sweet and honorable name his mother gave him, his father gave him, his brother in denim overalls called to him in a Dixon County farmyard. Though he has forgotten, I take him back to the heading of his fourth-grade homework, uneven columns of borrowings from tens, from hundreds-- and his name in pencil, larger than any number: Phillip, my name is Phillip. I take him back to another October, his pockets and a feed sack full of white walnuts from along the Piney River, his Pappy scolding him to the barn to milk the cow before dark, to brush down the mule before dark, his mammy smiling at walnuts. He emerges from shade. His name of Phillip. When I lived in Italy in a bare brown place four flights of stairs above a shoe store, my children wore sneakers and tee shirts. When we walked out together into an autumn street busy with buying and building amid perfume of espresso and baking bread and diesel fumes, we passed wool-clad bambini in navy knee socks, great white bows in shining hair. I mailed a plea to my sister to send my linen placemats, Grandmother’s wire-rimmed glasses, Great-Aunt Emilie’s lace hanky I carried at my wedding, my father’s pipes, a silver spoon with my own toothmarks, my high school yearbook scribbled with notes signed “Luv ya.” It would have been enough to say my name, clear above the rumble of the city--my name--enough for shafts of sunlight to stretch across alleys, enough to sweep away shadows.