What we keep

Growing up, my mother was the one who decorated my room. She picked out the furniture; she made my curtains (to match my sheets). She wouldn’t let me paint the walls. It was a small room, maybe ten feet by ten feet, with just enough room for:

  • One iron-framed brass bed (twin)
  • One wide bureau
  • One bookshelf
  • One wooden desk, with chair

My mother felt very strongly that I should have a desk, someplace to do homework or create art or write poetry. Having two kids myself, I now believe that it was actually a ploy to keep the overall household entropy at bay. I ought to note that I never actually did homework at that desk. I did my homework on the bed, feet up on the wall, TIME Magazine clock radio blaring Top 40 pop music on KC101 as I read history, or lying on my belly trying to make sense of algebra. I did art projects on the floor, and wrote poetry high up in the branches of the peach tree or out on the hill overlooking the church’s duck pond.

Mostly, I used that desk to store things. In the top drawer there was a plastic tray full of novelty pens, pencils, erasers, broken paper clips, safety pins, stickers, notes and confessions – all the bric-a-brac of a girl’s life that had nowhere else to go. In the side drawers, I kept old schoolwork, spiral notebooks, drawing paper, modeling clay, crossword puzzles. Every now and then there came a point when the drawers would stick, they were so full, and I’d have to clean them out, start to throw things away.

When I went off to college, my mother kept my room pretty much how I left it. She changed the bedspread, I think, and added a few things to the bookcase, but she never touched my desk. Every time I went home, I’d snag something else out of the desk. My old library card. A keyring. A notebook of terrible teenage poetry.

Some things, though, I never touched. I kept a sunprint kit in the top drawer, an elementary-school birthday present that was somehow too precious to use. I kept waiting for the right time.

Last year, my mother died. My brother and I found ourselves digging through two storage units full of her things – things she’d collected over nearly seventy years. She had rows upon rows of Rubbermaid totes, each labeled neatly. Baskets, read one. More Baskets, read another. And also: More Damn Baskets. It made me laugh. At least she knew what she was holding onto.

Among the totes and the boxes and the shattered remains of our baby grand piano (oh my heart), I found my bureau. I found my old brass bed.

And I found my desk.

At first glance, it didn’t look so bad. Someone could use this, I thought. The drawers still had their pulls. With a little polishing, I thought maybe I could even take it home.

But once I dragged it out, pulled it onto the dusty gravel of the U-Store lot, I could see that it was, in fact, ruined. Water had gotten into the storage unit at some point, and the desk was mildewed and warped. The drawers had their pulls, yes, but they also barely moved on their runners. The writing surface was bubbled and pocked.

If I opened the top drawer, I wondered, would I find the sunprint kit? I decided not to check.

Instead, I turned to my brother and shook my head. No, I was saying, I don’t want it. I didn’t want to be my mother, keeping broken things for the sake of nostalgia. I watched him lug that desk to the truck we were using to haul away trash. Watched him yank out the drawers, rip off the warped, cracked legs, splintering the wood and breaking my heart in unexpected ways.


Catching wind

When I was eight I locked the wind in a box.

It didn’t weigh much, made no noise if I shook the box, and looked rather a lot like a handful of dandelion fluff. I’d toss a pinch into the air and a breeze would whisper secrets in my ear. Other kids had soccer trophies and name-brand Keds; I had the wind in a box. It made me feel powerful, strong, magical. Special.

I don’t know what happened to that box, but the wind remembers me, I swear it.

Do you know that feeling, when you walk out your front door and there’s no traffic, there are no people, there’s only you and the sky and the trees and you wonder, where is everyone? What do they know that I don’t? That’s when the wind speaks to me. Sometimes the wind is that lover who rents out an entire restaurant just so you can have a quiet conversation.

In Burlington, Vermont, the wind cuts across Lake Champlain bringing cold air and snow from the Great Lakes region into the valley. That never stopped us from spending New Year’s Eve on Church Street. We’d duck into bar and restaurant and cafe, one after the other, to listen to music – and to escape the bitter cold – until finally, our noses and ears aching, our fingers painfully numb, we’d hurry home to our apartment and the pot of mulled wine on the stove. Sometimes the wind is the voice of reason, the good friend that pulls no punches when she says, this relationship is no good for you; it’s time to leave.

The very first night I spent in Michigan, I dreamed of tornadoes: great, towering funnels of malignant air that chased me across broken staircases and swallowed up the people I loved. I’m not one to believe in signs, exactly, but I like to think the wind was giving me a hint. I don’t want to hurt you, it said, but this isn’t the place for you. As though the flat landscape and flatter stares hadn’t already given that away.

This time of year, the wind comes howling out of the Columbia River Gorge and lodges itself in the great Douglas fir in our backyard, scratching at our windows and shaking branches like fists until the pine cones rain across the roof. It sounds like someone trying to break in, and I understand why my kids can’t sleep.

It’s just the wind, I tell them. It’s telling us we’re safe inside.

They want me to make it stop, but I’m not strong enough for that. I only listen to the wind, I don’t control it, not anymore. If I could, though, I’d catch the wind, put it in a box for them. I’d tell them to keep it secret, to take it out only when no-one is watching. At night, I’d say, if you tuck it under your pillow, the wind will tell you things.


My fair one

Under a tangled arch
of willow, ivy, and rose,
she presses me back,
back, against the rich loam, back,
her fingers sly, her smile arch,
her lips tipped with rose.
Ever since the moon rose
she has loved me well: my back
is a bow, a lover’s arch.

I arch my neck, cursing the rose-tinged dawn that calls her back.


A tritina for this month’s Poetry Slam retrospective and YeahWrite’s 400th consecutive week!

Kismet

Six months ago I’d’ve said it’s crazy, the idea of you and me. Six weeks ago I almost walked away.

Shaking my head, I button my best shirt, red garnets winking at collar and cuffs, and watch your face light up in the mirror.


The truth of honey and salt

You once told me, the moon is made of salt,
that all the tears that ever were are kept
hidden there, disguised as dust. You spoke
matter-of-factly, your pale face made sanguine
by the dying sun. With deft fingers you stole
dew from the grass, bade me drink from your palm.

Above us, fronds of fern and palm
swayed like dancers, grains of sand and salt
working their way between the blanket we stole
and the promises we had not kept.
I understood, then, how to stay sanguine;
my heart beat faster with every word you spoke.

You plucked the petals from a flower, spoke by spoke,
and pressed them like kisses into my palm,
each one as soft and sanguine
as your lips. I tasted honey, tasted salt,
wondered what it would be like to be kept
by the woman I stole.

On bare feet and keeping to shadows we stole
like thieves out of the garden; we spoke
softly, and only when necessary. We kept
silent, my breath caught under your palm.
You asked me once, what is honey without salt?
Only sweet. You were my salt, sharp and sanguine.

Forgive me: I could not remain sanguine
after all. Your hair was a silver stole
across your bare shoulders. I licked salt
from your skin, seined words from your breath; you spoke
my name, teeth against my palm:
another promise never meant to be kept.

If I had known, then, I would have kept
quiet, would have watched the sanguine
light crest the garden wall at dawn, palm
shading my eyes, dust in my throat. You stole
peace from my heart when you spoke
the truth of honey and salt.

You always seemed the sanguine one; I am the one to salt
wounds. I kept my heart in my palm; I never spoke
how willingly I gave what you claimed you stole.


This month’s poetry slam form is the sestina. It’s harder than it looks, if you can believe that.