Made in detroit poems, p.2

Made in Detroit: Poems, page 2


Made in Detroit: Poems

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just broken free of the eggshell.

  Her hair fell over her face, a black

  veil hiding her staring eyes that

  sought distance and strange places.

  Within her will was tempered

  like fine steel by every rebuke

  every insult, every beating—

  a weapon she honed in dreams,

  in solitude till its double-bladed

  ax could knock a hole in any wall.

  She held forth

  The neighborhood women

  always came to my mother,

  never she to them. Salesmen,

  solicitors, invited couples

  rang the front doorbell.

  The women came to the grade

  door in the yard, following

  the cracked cement walk around

  the asbestos siding, then knocking,

  calling, Bert, my mother’s full name,

  or softening it to Bertie! Bertie.…

  She would summon them up

  the steps to the kitchen past

  rows of shoe polish and garden

  tools on the shelf to the side

  into the kitchen with its worn

  yellow linoleum and oilcloth

  covered table. She would serve

  tea or lemonade and they would

  hold out their palms to her,

  hands cracked or water-softened

  with labor, a few manicured,

  some twisted with arthritis

  to gnarled burls. She would study

  their palms and then she would

  tell them what was and would

  be, what to fear and what to

  avoid and sometime promises

  of windfalls or even love.

  Again and again they came

  as if she could change their

  futures. Sometimes she’d give

  them folk remedies for ailments

  they would not tell the doctor

  or hadn’t the money for him.

  By four she’d shoo them out

  because what she feared might

  come at any moment, my father’s

  bolt of temper, acid mockery.

  She wiped the table and set it.

  The scent of apple cake

  My mother cooked as drudgery

  the same fifteen dishes round

  and round like a donkey bound

  to a millstone grinding dust.

  My mother baked as a dance,

  the flour falling from the sifter

  in a rain of fine white pollen.

  The sugar was sweet snow.

  The dough beneath her palms

  was the warm flesh of a baby

  when they were all hers before

  their wills sprouted like mushrooms.

  Cookies she formed in rows

  on the baking sheets, oatmeal,

  molasses, lemon, chocolate chip,

  delights anyone could love.

  Love was in short supply,

  but pies were obedient to her

  command of their pastry, crisp

  holding the sweetness within.

  Desserts were her reward for endless

  cleaning in the acid yellow cloud

  of Detroit, begging dollars from

  my father, mending, darning, bleaching.

  In the oven she made sweetness

  where otherwise there was none.

  By the river of Detroit

  By the river of Detroit

  I did not weep but sulked

  and stormed and bit hard

  into anything sweet or

  succulent I came upon.

  My adolescence was grey,

  fogged in with prohibitions

  My lust was a stunted gnarled

  tree that bore onions—

  fruit tough as horse chestnuts.

  I would have run off

  with any stranger who asked.

  I beat against the walls

  of my room like a rabid

  bat and in my diary

  I confessed madness

  and amorphous sins I

  could find no partner

  to share. I praised suicide

  and went on crossly living.

  I understand those girls

  who hang themselves in closets.

  Wait, I want to whisper,

  then run and hide and run

  out of that mangling time

  only jocks, pink girls and idiots

  think wonderful. Get

  thee to a place where

  other freaks and geeks

  flourish and join the dance.

  The street that was

  I walk down the same street

  as always past the same brick

  apartment house with the marble

  step, past the scabby clapboard

  the owners never bother to paint.

  There’s the porch with plastic

  geraniums, there’s the woman

  with the goiter peering through

  lace curtains hoping to spy

  an affair or theft ripe for gossip.

  There’s the house where upstairs

  Dolly’s dressinggown caught fire

  at the stove. I watched firemen

  carrying her out. Her dog

  went whimpering after them,

  was left at the curb. How

  could I know that cloudy morning

  was the last? In my mind

  those houses still stand peeling,

  lace curtained, everything stuck

  in a diorama of working-class

  fifties while I am the bird

  that has flown east, south, west,

  across the ocean and back

  to some place but never there.

  City bleeding

  Oh my city of origin, city who taught

  me about class and class warfare,

  who informed me how to survive

  on your ashgrey burning streets

  when as a Jew I was not white yet,

  easy among friends of all colors,

  how you have been plundered

  and picked to pitted rusting bones.

  Around you squat suburbs that never

  saw a rat or woke to sirens cutting

  machete wounds through the night,

  whose lush lawns were fertilized

  by your jobs exported to China,

  by bodies of desperate murders.

  This sand is fertile. Two years

  after fire leaves a blackened pit

  bushes are already sprouting

  among blue and gold wildflowers.

  In blocks of zombie houses, crack

  houses, walls of gang graffiti,

  where packs of wild dogs turn back

  to wolves and the police never come,

  people still try with little help

  to remake community, to reach up

  and out of rubble into some venue

  of light, of warmth, of dignity, into

  whatever peace they imagine. Out

  of ruins eerie in their torn decay

  where people lived, worked, dreamed

  something yet begins to rise and grow.

  Mehitabel & me

  My junior year of college I played

  a record of Archy and Mehitabel

  dozens of times. I knew all

  the alley cat’s lyrics. I was sure

  I was her, poor, ill dressed

  in a crowd of cashmere virgins

  already had several lovers, a self

  administered abortion, working

  three jobs to stay in school, a poet

  no one but myself took seriously.

  Poets weren’t street sluts from Detroit.

  I dressed all in black, turtleneck,

  black jeans, heavy eye makeup.

  Black doesn’t show dirt. Not

  infrequently I was hungry. No

  winter coat so I shook in the win

  like a tree stripped of leaves. I drank

  whiskey as poets were supposed to.

  While good girls were locked in dorm

  rooms, I wandered, partied, got laid.

  I expected little but trouble. Yet

  I wrote and began to win prizes.

  I still expected to die young, poor

  and unmourned, but with a grin,

  a wry joke, in love with lady irony.

  I’m middle class now and loved

  in a funky house I own with money

  from writing I saved to buy. I take

  in cats. I drink good wine and my

  own cooking. I’m still surprised.

  What my mother gave me

  Oh mother running an old vacuum

  back and forth on a threadbare rug

  while my retired father supervised—

  if you had the wings of the robins,

  jays and cardinals you fed daily

  out of the window you’d have flown

  to some garden of peach trees

  and peonies, a garden of roses

  and tomatoes red as lipstick:

  a garden where you could sit

  on cushions and cats would circle

  your feet purring your Hebrew name.

  Oh mother your ashes feed

  wisteria rampant as your dreams

  that withered to salt on your pillow.

  You dreamed of love that would

  bathe you in radiance and got

  the lye of contempt in your throat.

  Who ever looked past the faded

  housedresses limp on your breasts

  to the child still hungering within?

  That hunger haunts me staring

  from eyes of women in the subway,

  women in the unemployment office

  women cowering under a rain of fire,

  women bruised in emergency rooms.

  You are my first muse. Your pain

  is my ink. I am the daughter

  of your fierce lonely cry: poverty

  of respect, of love, of hope.

  Our neverending entanglement

  How long do we mourn our mothers?

  Unfinished business. Unspoken

  sentences that burn on the night.

  Tangled thickets of stymied

  love. Steps worn smooth

  with scrubbing, never to be

  climbed again.

  We mourn our mothers till

  we ourselves are out

  of breath. That umbilical

  cord between us, never

  really cut no matter how

  hard we tried in adolescence

  to sever it.

  Once there was warm

  milk in a sweet stream

  Once there was a brush

  stroking through my long

  hair. Once there was a lap.

  Once there was a slap.

  Shards of glass.

  Will anyone ever come

  as close or push as

  hard? As we age we

  see your face mirrored.

  Your diseases weaken

  us. Your silences haunt,

  your stories echo.

  We feared becoming our

  mothers yet when we were

  not you, we felt guilty.

  You made us even when

  you hated the results

  for you opened your fists

  and off we flew.

  Ashes in their places

  I put my mother into the garden

  I put my father into the sea.

  Without her he complained of the fish,

  the cold salt water too rough.

  Without him she became

  a climbing rose and rushed

  up the arbor, twining, bursting

  into lush pink perfumed bloom.

  Gradually he swept out toward

  tankers, container vessels,

  a passing destroyer. He liked

  their engines. He understood

  engines. Women were too

  emotional. He had to scare them

  quiet, but ships had a purpose.

  When my cats died, she welcomed

  them into her bed. When I

  picked her roses, she crooned

  to me. I don’t need lullabies,

  I said. Everybody nowadays

  needs more sleep, she whispered.

  I sleep much better here.


  Ignorance bigger than the moon

  January orders

  Snow turns the garden white

  as soap powder with blue shadows

  striping the abraded furrows.

  Even the pebbles in the drive

  glint with ice, but inside bent

  over an old coffeetable dragged

  from the shed, we peruse out loud

  seed catalogs, debate inflated

  verbiage on tomatoes, peppers,

  lettuce. What glorious photos

  of polished perfect eggplants,

  of even orthodontist rows

  of corn kernels like model’s teeth.

  Everything is super early, tasty

  and resistant to all plagues

  known to the studious gardener.

  Surely we’ll be buried in squash.

  No cuke beetles will nibble on us.

  Our harvests are blessed in advance

  by glossy pages of promises

  that seduce us to order too much

  of what will endure weeks of rain,

  a month or two of drought, beetles,

  chipmunks, deer, hail and hurricane

  before we plop it into our mouths,

  the freezer, the frying pan, or, alas,

  rotting into the compost pile.

  We have come through

  The faintest paring of moon rises

  tonight just barely silvering the mounds

  of snow that used to be cars, fenceposts,

  bushes, a wheelbarrow perhaps.

  The world has become anonymous

  everything painted and padded white

  the road the same as the field it ran

  through, the tallest bushes bowed.

  We are stuck here without exit,

  barricaded into silence. The wind

  that pelted the windows opaque

  that broke the white fir at its base

  that pushed tiny crystal knives

  sideways and froze birds on their

  perches has slunk away to sea

  where it harries ships and gulls.

  We will dig out. We will clean up.

  A plow will come and recreate

  the asphalt road. Town will awake

  into lights and people will meet

  and ask, how was the storm for you?

  How long were you without power?

  Trees down? We the survivors

  cautiously examine our luck.

  How I gained respect for night herons

  It was shortly after dawn.

  We were passing an inn closed

  for the season when I yelled

  “Stop!” I’ve often heard night

  herons squawking hoarsely

  or the screech of a murder

  victim deep in the marsh.

  Seldom do I see them. They

  hunch on dead trees like old

  men in cold weather. But

  this black crowned night heron

  was standing in the driveway

  of the inn engaged in mortal

  battle with a five-foot-long

  water snake twisting, striking

  him whose impulse was to fly off

  from us but here was a huge meal.

  Breeding season. A nest of young

  gaping for food. It stood its ground

  the snake grasped in its beak

  shaking it, biting into it, lashed

  by the long muscular tail. We

  crept close eno
ugh to see

  the heron’s bright red eyes

  polished buttons glinting fiercely.

  It was an epic battle, Laocoon

  encircled by serpents, but here

  he was winning, barely. Not

  a commanding figure, squatter than

  most herons, drably plumaged

  not the sort of bird we’d cast

  as hero, but he wouldn’t give up.

  At last he cut through the spine

  and slowly overloaded made his

  way flying low toward his home.

  Remnants still visible

  Robins migrate, all schoolchildren

  learn but here on the Cape, every

  winter a flock forms and stays,

  long frigid months after their

  compatriots have flown south.

  They live deep in the woods on

  hips and berries wizened by cold.

  Sometimes they appear here

  among the feeder birds, one

  or two almost outcasts.

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