Published poems and drafts, a rotation…

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.

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.

	(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	

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.