Other notable works by Diane Lockward, Ellen Bihler and William J. Higginson.
Peat Bog Woman
She had red hair.
She has red hair,
a wild bloom still sprouting
from her leather scalp.
She is stained brown,
her face a hard raisin,
her eyelids ridged closed.
I would touch her breasts—
one tilts up, the other down,
no longer twins
humming in harmony.
She died in her early thirties.
She sank on her back.
She was pressed by the bog
for two-thousand years.
She died in her early thirties.
On the laboratory table
their gloves brush peat
from her face.
She sank on her back.
She has red hair.
Carefully, they wash it
strand by strand.
Scraps of faded linen
stick to her stomach
under clasped hands that curl
like claws and meet at her navel.
Her arms bridge her torso,
an arc from there to here,
her red hair—a forest of fire.
If they scrape cells
from the inside of your cheek
and carry them away,
the cells will know
when you touch that place again,
will shiver if it hurts.
And if they probe the mouth
of Peat Bog Woman, find a tongue
and scrape from it her cells,
will her children millennia away
cry out in recognition?
At night in the museum
her body lies in a glass coffin,
preserved like the bones of a saint.
Dust settles on the things
we think we ought to keep.
She has red hair, a galaxy
streaming from the promise
of her head, the cradle
of her flesh. Red hair.
(from The Night Marsh)
In the documentary, the scarred old elephant—
kidnapped in her youth from Africa,
then bumped from circus to zoo
when an accident crippled her foot—
after twenty years with none of her kind
is released into a sanctuary where she finds
trees, grasses, gentle hills, and an old friend,
daughter of her heart from their circus days.
And oh, the trumpeting joy of reunion,
the prolonged welcome of twined trunks,
the stroking of one another’s flanks,
remembered and beloved in this
elephant heaven on Earth.
Perhaps that’s how it will be for us
after long isolation in the zoos of our flesh
when our chains are removed, and we exit
the cage, moving fearfully down the ramp,
dazed and blinking, into the verdant landscape
of our dreams, an Eden from whose forests
all manner of spirits come to welcome us,
their cries in every language of the beasts.
(from The Night Marsh)
At dusk, rain begins.
A black bird flies into black leaves.
Rain enters the dry dirt.
I step on an ant.
Last night I could not sleep,
Something buzzed just under my skin.
Today a dragonfly lit on my arm.
Its wings were humming.
Startled, I brushed it off.
The wind blew it back into my face.
Last night I could not sleep.
Something buzzed just under my skin.
The black leaves of the tree are raining.
The black bird has disappeared into rain.
The ant is gone.
Buzzing is the same as humming.
I have no wings.
Green at morning, black at night—
Where are those leaves now?
The ant is in the dirt.
The dirt grows black with rain.
I cannot sleep in this tree.
The Rasp of Katydids
A train rushes past in the night,
its nose following the scent
of steel as it drags its harsh clatter
through the hot and humid air.
In rustling trees above the rails
katydids rasp, a relentless chorus.
A train rushes past in the night,
and the hot and humid air
opens for it like a bride.
Beside the tracks, mushrooms
explode, throwing spores
into the waiting dark.
Tonight is fertile with the rasp
of katydids, rapid and persistent
in the heat of urgent need.
There is no help for it.
Here Be Dragons
We are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon . . . .
Jorge Luis Borges
We lift up our eyes unto the hills,
scanning the dusk for sudden spurts
of fire between the stars.
We listen for the rasp of scaly wings
scoring the night sky, as talons
rake the rising wind,
and for the remnants of their songs—
the ashes of their hollow, fire-borne keening
falling into fallow fields below.
Blood sprays the dirt.
Women and children.
Armored bodies plummet
Toward scarred earth,
Gorge upon the corpses
Left to rot.
We wait for the dragons to sing to us,
burn the sorrow from our aching throats
as we call them home.
Penny Harter is published widely in journals and anthologies, and her literary autobiography appears as an extended essay in Contemporary Authors. Her poems have recently appeared in Lips, Tiferet, Sea Stories, U.S. 1 Worksheets, The Valparaiso Review, and Umbrella. Recent books include Along River Road, Lizard Light: Poems From the Earth, and Buried in the Sky. A new collection, The Night Marsh, was published by WordTech Editions in January, 2008, and her illustrated alphabestiary for children, The Beastie Book, will be published early in 2009 by Shenanigan Books. She has won three poetry fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, as well as awards from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Mary Carolyn Davies Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, and the first William O. Douglas Nature Writing Award for her work in the anthology American Nature Writing 2002. She lives in Summit with her husband, William J. Higginson, and is a teaching artist for the New Jersey Writers Project. For more information, please visit her web site at http://www.2hweb.net/penhart.
A nervous shuffle, some kind of fluke,
commotion stirred with his James Dean leer,
the words he spoke, nonsense and fluff,
and yet, he could dishevel and fuel
a firestorm I could feel
throwing me off balance, off my usual keel.
An agitation about the heart, a ruffle
of air. He made me break every rule.
He was onomatopoetic, able to reel
me in, his flurry and fuss a feathered lure—
the stutter and lisp of him, his assonance soft as fur.
That time of day when the almost dark slips
through the window and the light diffuses,
no longer daylight, not yet night, that still
blue moment, hesitation between what
was and what will be, blip in Time, dollop
of dough, transitory like pregnancy,
that time of day when she thinks of her child,
the air returning the fragrance of powder,
sweet baby’s breath, his lily-soft skin, plump
muffin of his belly, unbroken, unbitten,
unburnt, no knife in sight, delicate as a wafer,
that child more than bread, sustenance
unsustained, his pure buttery goodness
for just that moment filling the room.
When his teacher forces similes,
my small son writes, I am wild
as a bobcat. He has the sleek
body, muscular limbs of a cat,
the salty kiss. Curled in a corner,
he pretends he’s a kitten born
blind. Nights, he sleeps like a boy,
thumb in his mouth, limbs twitching.
Days, he romps in woods, chases
chipmunks and birds, comes home
dusted with duff. He grows greedy
for meat, feeds on chickens, rabbits,
and squirrels, collects feathers
and bones. His rust-colored hair thickens,
each day more beautiful, more terrifying.
Long-legged, feet padded, he ravages
furniture, prowls the neighborhood
from dawn until dusk. Once he brings
home a lamb, once a young pig. My child
disappears into the rocky hillside, paces
the jagged ledge of his difference. Do I
only imagine tufted ears, cheek
ruffs? My lynx-eyed son, my wild
boy. Nothing can hold him.
Sometimes he comes back
as a boy, still calling me Muvver.
Sometimes the house fills with the must
of his fur. Sometimes night breaks
with mournful howls, cantillations
come down from cold, dark hills.
(from Eve’s Red Dress, Wind Publications)
Eve Argues Against Perfection
And the woman said, The serpent
beguiled me, and I did eat.
Beguiled, my ass. I said no such thing.
You say I lost the gift of Paradise.
I couldn’t lose what I never had.
You say the serpent tempted me to eat.
You omit that he entered the Garden
on two legs and walked like a man.
And here’s what your story always ignores:
I had pure gold, rare perfume, precious stones,
but Adam hadn’t touched me all those years.
Perfection in the Garden didn’t mean that way.
Not having it and not wanting it
was God’s idea of perfection, not mine.
So when that serpent strolled up to the tree,
all upright and fine, he threw off the balance,
and I began to pray, Oh let him be mine.
When he held out the apple, so round and lush,
when he stroked it to a keen red glow,
I didn’t fall to temptation—I rose to it.
I ate that apple because I was hungry.
I wanted what lay outside Paradise,
a world without the burden of perfection.
Now you call all sinful women my sisters.
I say, let them claim their own damn sins.
The apple may not be perfect, but it’s mine.
(from Eve’s Red Dress, Wind Publications)
It was always linguini between us.
Linguini with white sauce, or
red sauce, sauce with basil snatched
from the garden, oregano rubbed between
our palms, a single bay leaf adrift amidst
plum tomatoes. Linguini with meatballs,
sausage, a side of brascioli. Like lovers
trying positions, we enjoyed it every way
we could—artichokes, mushrooms, little
neck clams, mussels, and calamari—linguini
twining and braiding us each to each.
Linguini knew of the kisses, the smooches,
the molti baci. It was never spaghetti
between us, not cappellini, nor farfalle,
vermicelli, pappardelle, fettucini, perciatelli,
or even tagliarini. Linguini we stabbed, pitched,
and twirled on forks, spun round and round
on silver spoons. Long, smooth, and always
al dente. In dark trattorias, we broke crusty panera,
toasted each other—La dolce vita!—and sipped
Amarone, wrapped ourselves in linguini,
briskly boiled, lightly oiled, salted, and lavished
with sauce. Bellissimo, paradisio, belle gente!
Linguini witnessed our slurping, pulling, and
sucking, our unraveling and raveling, chins
glistening, napkins tucked like bibs in collars,
linguini stuck to lips, hips, and bellies, cheeks
flecked with formaggio—parmesan, romano,
and shaved pecorino—strands of linguini flung
around our necks like two fine silk scarves.
(from What Feeds Us, Wind Publications)
Diane Lockward is the author of What Feeds Us (Wind Publications, 2006) which was awarded the Quentin R. Howard Poetry Prize. She is also the author of Eve’s Red Dress (Wind Publications, 2003), and a chapbook, Against Perfection (Poets Forum Press, 1998). Her poems have been published in several anthologies, including Poetry Daily: 366 Poems from the World’s Most Popular Poetry Website and Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times. Her poems have appeared in such journals as The Beloit Poetry Journal, Spoon River Poetry Review, Poetry International, Poet Lore, and Prairie Schooner. Her work has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes, featured on Poetry Daily, and read by Garrison Keillor on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac. She is the recipient of a 2003 Poetry Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. A former high school English teacher, Diane now works as a poet-in-the-schools.
If I were the ghost in you
I’d be the kind cut down on an ordinary day-
forever running to catch the Hoboken train,
forever riding the elevator to the thirty-seventh floor –
If you were the ghost in me
you’d be the kind who jumps
headlong into a junkie’s body
to surface into one more cloudless drift.
In life we shadow across sunlight,
rustle curtains, leave cold pockets behind.
We’d both be cutters-
brash sting, red peek upon pallor,
were it not for the scars.
The ghost-cat visited again while you slept.
I felt her gentle weight,
tentative steps across the bed,
to never reach my coaxing hand.
Charlie Reorders the World
Like a four-fingered handshake,
reality has a looser grip.
Here on this beach
any random wave could pull
the whole wet horizon away with it.
Any sea creature could as easily
inflict poison as beauty.
It’s like I’ve always said;
Security is illusory.
But your back feels solid
enough against my arm.
And what of prayer?
Despite daily upward emissions
from several orders of monks,
two Protestant churches,
one New-Age shaman,
and everyone we know,
our daughter still squats in abandoned tenements
gouging holes in her face, crack pipe sizzling.
I imagine God
as oversized Rod Serling,
by black and white spinning vortexes.
Visualize a hypercube.
We can only see in three dimensions.
Your arms sketch the air above the sand.
The part we can’t see explains everything.
I evaluate the parts of you I can see.
The shimmer of positive ions charges
across your face in full formal attire,
calling my own disordered atoms
front and center to the dance floor.
We take up the beat, sea foam churning.
Death burrows under
the covers like a kitten
and she strokes it to keep it still.
Her three children
are water flowing back and forth
through the membrane of consciousness.
Evan, fourteen, prowls the house like a fireman,
smelling smoke, never finding flames.
Brie tells her two weeks
after the fact that she got her period.
Evan’s girlfriend showed her what to do.
And every time she opens her eyes, Jen
the youngest, is talking, talking,
as if her mother’s long sleeps were
dead cell zones interrupting
a single conversation.
Does the morphine take the pain
away, or me,
while the pain remains?
There are rhythms and secret
melodies within the room.
Sometimes her body hums along.
She understands time
is a great thrumming wheel that churns desire
into experience, experience
into memories, memories
Cousin Evelyn has brought cake.
Her brother Daryll flips channels
while his boys fidget and turn away.
Finally, she sends them all downstairs.
The kitten snuggles close and purrs.
Ellen Bihler is a Registered Nurse, working with severely disabled children. Her poetry has appeared in Cream City Review, American Journal of Nursing, Square Lake, International Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She is also the author of the chapbook, An Avalanche of Blue Sky (Foothills Publishing). Ms. Bihler resides in Hackettstown, NJ, with her husband.
William J. Higginson-
When that old poet said “New Year’s Day . . .
I remember—loneliness—an autumn dusk”
what did he mean? He was simply where he was,
then, that first day of the New Year,
a day we notice mainly in fireworks outside
of Chinese restaurants, when winter doldrums
get pushed aside and everyone greets the owners
with “Happy New Year!”—theirs, not ours.
It may be New Year’s Day where he is,
but now his mind has gone to another time,
some autumn dusk where loneliness entered
and chose to stay a while, occasionally knocking
an opening into the present where it must live,
or have no life at all. This singularity.
BUSSING NEW JERSEY, I
ROUND-TRIP TO PATERSON
1. Summit to Newark
Something says “Newark, Penn Station” . . .
The driver can see I’m not used to this.
Schlipp, schlipp, in go the dollar bills
and a coin disappears without a sound—
I remember the old machines, with glass cages
that used to spin the coins about like
a slow-motion food processor,
mechanically calculating dimensions and weight
and announcing with a cling, clang, or ring
what denomination had been sent
to the heavy safe below—
but it’s only another way to pay the fare,
trade some cash for being carried
from one place to another.
By the time I’ve collected my transfer
and gotten seated where I want,
the bus almost empty at this hour
when most people are already at work,
the driver’s stopping for another fare.
And pretty soon there are five or six of us
bound for Newark, Penn Station,
most just staring out the windows,
when a sheesh-crash up ahead
and a stop and a bit of a knot
as the traffic tries to go to the right
around the banged-up blue Honda
then stops again, has some of us
looking out the front as our bus finally
does join that narrow eddying stream
going by the old man and young woman
sitting side-by-side on the curb a few feet
from the car’s airbags flaccid in the morning sun.
They should have left the driving to us,
or at least to our driver, as we’re on our way again
accelerating from the turn onto Milburn Avenue.
Some driver out there’s more familiar with his horn
than with his brakes, his mechanical curse
more effective than the f-word in this
bumper-car parade in morning sunlight.
Another stop, as we all roll a bit forward,
then back. Two Hispanics, a woman and a man,
rise from opposite front-wheel seats and get off,
each headed in a different direction.
How green New Jersey is, all these lawns
gleaming in the light after more than a week
of flooding rains. The bus arcs close to the curb
for a mother who carries a toddler quickly aboard,
places him carefully in the seat by the door.
A touch of red shines in her long black hair
as she rises from the seat and leans to pay the fare.
Again, the canned announcement:
Newark, Penn Station,
as two more passengers board,
and the bus arcs again, out into traffic.
The mother touches the “next-stop” signal,
scoops up her toddler, and, after we stop,
swings off the bus like a rocket sling-shotting
around the moon to go off into space.
Another passenger climbs through her wake,
a cup of coffee, a newspaper, and the fare
all jostling for his attention. A quiet snick
as the driver pulls off the receipt
he left in the machine.
Springfield Avenue, Maplewood,
by the diner, one off, four on,
three of them students with passes.
Again the brief plink of the signal
and the bus slows toward the stop
as an elderly man, slightly hunched,
works his way down the aisle
grabbing one seat-handle then the next,
and gets off. A young woman boards,
fumbles her cash into the machine
and walks back to the seat he left.
Another mother and toddler:
the same seat by the door,
the same careful placing of the child,
the reaching out to place the fare.
“Back door!” calls a passenger
and descends to the street
to walk swiftly away.
The next pick-up, a worried look on his face,
steps into the street arms outstretched
as if to stop the bus, and soon joins us.
A cell phone goes off, a public
conversation begins: “Where you at?”
An elderly couple boards;
she hobbles in and sits
while he talks to the driver,
“You need the 25 . . .”
He beckons her off,
helps her down the steps.
More on and off, off and on,
the pace picking up as the bus moves
more slowly through city streets.
The toddler’s feet stick out,
patent leather gleaming in the sun.
A wave, half a block from the bus stop;
we pull up to the bus-stop sign,
listen to “Newark, Penn Station”,
and wait for the passengers.
She climbs aboard, motions the driver to wait,
and her man comes slowly, lifting his crutches
with one hand as he pulls himself up the steps.
Next stop, a chic, slender woman gets off,
extracting a schedule from the pocket
by the door as she descends.
Among the empty, boarded up, desolate
buildings of Newark, here and there
a new house, a refurbished gas station.
Ponderosa Unisex Shop—
Roberto Clemente Shalom Towers—
a senior citizen residence?
The six-by-eight foot graffito on the truck ahead
a morning’s entertainment. It turns the corner
and we follow it around.
The arc of a street-light pole breaks up in the windows
of One Newark Center, and we arrive.
2. Newark, Penn Station
Fast food shops of a half-dozen ethnicities, a newsstand with candy,
a shoeshine stand—I have always wondered why train and bus stations
are the only places one sees a shoeshine stand—and a flower stall ,
a customer considering which bouquet to take on the rest of her journey.
Deep inside, Indian music spreads into the corridor from a small bookshop.
A Malcolm X poster announces “by any means necessary”
over stacks of books about guardian angels, The Gospel of Thomas,
and assorted other Christian subjects. “SitaRam, SitaRam, SitaRam”
the hypnotic, “ecstatic” drone of the music goes on, filling the aisles
with the name of the holy couple among racks with birthday cards—
some in Chinese—and dictionaries, including English for Speakers of Hindi.
Outside, the bus lanes, now each with an enclosure of bright-lit glass
and automatic gates opening to each freshly arrived bus. I go
to 3B, to get the 72 for Paterson, and stand in the air conditioned cold
as another public phone conversation proceeds and trains rumble overhead.
3. Newark to Paterson
I slip earbuds into “the porches” of my ears,
and Bach slides with me out of Newark
in another direction, past the park in Bloomfield
and the high school with its addition rising
as I read of Plato’s cave, that lair of everyday life
and the transcendent Grove of Academe.
This is the real life of a bus ride, immersed
in a soaring partita and the diabolical Republic
where only The Good get to decide how to live
and everyone else just plods on through
days of labor supporting it all
and nights of debauchery forgetting it all.
Clifton, its rows of lawn-aproned homes
so nearly the same in late morning sun.
And suddenly, it’s glittering downtown Paterson, Main and Market,
where I swing to the ground, walk past the shops spilling cheap jewelry
onto the street in front of the otherwise empty building where Keith Keller
used to paint carnivals and circuses full of boobs and butts in his third-floor loft
and taught the street kids Tae Kwon Do, so long as they cleaned and polished his floors.
I walk past the narrow entrance of Hamilton Street, go back to inspect
the building where my old cats, Smoke and Kaji, were born, rescued
from the fire by their owner Mike, who climbed down the fire-department ladder,
the whole litter in a box in his arms, their mother clinging by her claws to his back.
Where Keith, his friend the painter Gilbert Riou, and Keith’s Playboy Bunny
girlfriend Linda ran a coffee house and I drank free so long as I supplied
my three blends of herbal tea, compounded from the bounty of the import shops
over on my side of town. Now it houses an Hispanic sandwich shop,
the bar next door with the flag of a Central American country still in its window.
On the other side of Main, a couple of doors from Market, La Vie en Rose continues
to sell alcoholic beverages only to those with ID. With Keller’s painting of the interior
in mind, I forgo a midday beer and head in the other direction.
On up Market, I stare at the yards of black wire mesh disfiguring City Hall tower,
there to prevent the more common disfigurement of white pigeon droppings.
Down the block, McDonald’s serves me a“grilled chicken club sandwich and a Coke,
no fries.” I should have gone to the Hispanic sandwich shop around the corner.
Stepping out quickly, with only a half-hour before my next bus leaves,
I pace my old downtown haunts, the Post Office with its ever-grey interior light
no matter how glorious the shining sun and blue skies outside,
the bebop bustle of the students around the steps of Passaic County Community College,
and lower Broadway, where I used to live across the street from the old Call building
and Hung’s Chinese Restaurant.
The restaurant’s gone, the school-aged daughters
who used to do their homework between customers now perhaps running their own
Chinese restaurants in more affluent suburbs, or baby-sitting their first grandkids
while their children ride commuter buses to dentists’ and lawyers’ offices, rising
with the American dream from these dusty streets full of trinkets for the poor.
A small tin sign tacked on the lintel over the boarded-up door of The Call building
says it all, silver letters surrounded in blood red: EL AMOR DE DIOS ES ETERNO.
But now I hike nearly to the end of Broadway, the sign of The Salvation Army Thrift Shop
beckoning in the distance as I turn in at the Paterson bus station and find the men’s room.
4. Paterson to Newark
Riding through downtown Paterson on the 72,
we head south, uphill toward Garret Mountain’s
changing colors under blue and white sky.
Paterson’s First Presbyterian Church,
a modest structure in red brick,
sports a new sign under the old one:
Iglesia Presbiteriana Hispanica
followed further up the street by
Congregación de Yahweh.
The threatened inundation of Spanish
Catholics having brought their own
Protestant nations north.
Bach and Plato accompany me back
through Clifton and Bloomfield,
all going by in a blur of unseen images.
Then, after getting on at Bloomfield Avenue,
one new passenger fumbles unsuccessfully
looking through his pockets for exact change.
Gratefully, he trades a dollar bill for quarters
a woman holds out to him, her wrist braceleted
in unmistakable hospital plastic. He shoves
the coins into the box as she tears
the bracelet free with her teeth.
“How long were you in the hospital?”
“A long time, couple of hours in the ER—
a pain in my lower back.”
“Are you feeling any better now?”
“A little bit. You ever been there,
to Mountainside Hospital? . . . No?
I have to get to Morristown, the best way’s
the train, right? From Broad Street Station?”
She grabs her bag and her coat, drops
to the street and disappears into the maze
of concrete and brick as the bus pulls away.
5. Newark to Summit
Barely five minutes between busses, when seated
I sink back into Bach and Plato, lost to the world.
Vaguely, I notice a commotion as the driver
calls out several times, “You want Bergen Street,
you need to get out here! I have to turn the corner.”
The driver points up ahead, where a phalanx
of fire trucks lies across the street, blocking it.
A dozen passengers head for one door or the other,
start walking up the street for the connection at Bergen.
The driver takes the bus around the corner,
into unknown territory, off the route
that was like a habit no one notices
until it’s gone. Soon the street ends
in fresh macadam, a parking lot
under construction, and he moves us gently
through an unmarked sea of curbs and islands
to a street on the far side, where a left turn
has us headed back toward Avon Avenue,
then onto Springfield Avenue in Irvington
and the rest of my uneventful journey
with Bach and Plato, the grim realities
of his post-democratic, tyrannical day.
Getting off by the Summit Train Station,
I thank the driver for taking us around the fire,
and my feet slap the pavement
the way the leaves ride the wind down
to the familiar ground.
~Note: “3. Newark to Paterson”, was first published in The Poetry of Place: North Jersey in Poetry, from the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College, Paterson, May 2008.~
William J. Higginson is best known for his historical-critical writings on and translations of Japanese poetry and the globalization of such genres as haiku, renku, and tanka, including The Haiku Handbook (1985, still in print from Kodansha International), and The Haiku Seasons (1997, a second edition coming later in 2008 from Stone Bridge Press). His own poetry has been recognized by a fellowship from the NJ State Council on the arts. His most recent collection is Surfing on Magma, From Here Press, 2006. His web sites may be accessed through http://www.2hweb.net/.