Sometimes Night is a Creek Too Wide to Leap 

From Begin Empty-Handed

 

The sky wears black serge pants while

hemming up another pair for tomorrow

night. A bit shorter, but you won’t notice.

Some nights the blue pill brings a dream

where a young girl is trying not to cry

in the sheep pasture, stuck where her brothers

eyed the watery gap and mossy stones and sailed

to the other side. We didn’t know about E. coli

then, how our waders must have buzzed with it.

By the time I was ten, I’d pared my list of things

I was scared of down to four: the high board,

hoods and kidnappers, blue racers, and shaking

hands with Uncle John who’d lost four fingers

in the cornpicker. I pushed the scared parts of me

away, like the two finches my mother watched

nudge a dead fledgling off the edge of her deck. 

To My Hips, Both Removed
Published in Blackbird

Near the Air Force base in Tucson, the boneyard 
stretches for miles, mothballed warplanes

parked wing tip to wing tip in the desert.
Abandoned and ransacked, cannibalized

for fishhooks and Chevy fenders. Of course 
boneyard makes me think of you two, incinerated 

by now, back in Michigan. I’m recovering from the loss 
of you, my days play out counting lizards and their 
shadows. 

 

The saguaros hum with patience, waiting fifty years 
to grow arms. The night-blooming cereus bides 

her time to bloom just once before dying. 
The desert is a harsh home. The devil’s claw 

knows it, creeping forward on thorny elbows, 
survivor gasping for water. We prop the hood up 

on our rental car at night so pack rats don’t settle in. 
And once, it would have been enough

to know there are species of fish who live here,
perennials—bonytail chub, r­­azorback sucker—

resting and riding out the hard season. But 
you have surprised me, the way truth can. You 

let me down—collapsed like the biohazard 
waste you’ve become—and the truth? 

I miss you. Like the flyboy misses his B-52. 
The cereus doesn’t in fact die, she breaks just once

into flower, that alluring perfume, and goes back 
to being a brown stalk in the desert. Nothing lasts.

 

Hummingbirds rappel down the palo verde trees 
above loose-jointed cholla. And still the cactus wren 

thrives inside thorns, and although the fire-tipped ocotillo
lifts its barbed arms to the sky, it does not surrender.

Any God

From The Hourglass Heart

 

The rocks beneath her heart began to move 
the night her daughter lost her native tongue. 
No god of French-milled soap and lavender
could build a church on cradled hands and love.

The night that artist lost her native tongue 
something seismic dropped, rolled away,
faith in that childish church of hands tested 
and sung, the green-faced violinist played.

Something seismic drops through an open heart 
these nights, gone missing between the cradle and now. 
The face of the violinist green and dark, 
fiddling toward some unknown gift, not found.

Gone missing between the cradle and now, hands reach 
for any god—of hardboiled eggs, of nail heads—
fiddling on toward gifts not recognized nor found.
The girl keeps playing, beating time. She says

any god will do: god of plum pits, ice cubes, 
dog hair, there’s always something to believe in.
This girl—the gift we recognize—found
and rocked, o hourglass god, beneath my heart.

The World We Wanted Shone So Briefly
Published by New Ohio Review

Real life was finally about to begin.

Remember the romance of the silver cigarette case

in college? The integrity of your firstborn’s eyelashes?

 

We discarded alternate destinies like tired cards

in the Flinch deck.  We were only looking forward.

 

Of course, like the teeth of beavers and horses, there

are parts of the past that never stop growing.

Garage – tree house – vacant lot kinds of cruelty–

how we took turns being mean.

 

And later, some serrated evenings, dinners

of bluster and recoil, dodge. Flowers sent

or not sent to someone’s funeral.

 

Mostly there are the years you watch

your neighbors’ cars slide in and out of their garage.

Between blue herons and tumors, you change

the sheets.

 

We were all surprised to find ourselves old

but really the signs were everywhere, and we

acknowledge we’d been told. Name one

important thing that has not already happened.

Late Night Desert Walk, March 2020
Published in Guesthouse

I can’t imagine crossing this. In the black sky, I can name four constellations: the dippers, Orion . . . Okay, three. Appalling, really, how little I know. I can’t even figure out how to spend a slow afternoon, walk a rough gully between should and want. Not everyone has this voice in their head. Stick with what you know for sure. The shape of agave, saguaro, brittlebush. The Catalinas severe in this odd light. Tonight, the flat edge of the half-moon looks torn by a careless hand. Will we turn back now? Will we build a small fire?

Picture Window

It is this evening I want to remember: my skinny husband reclining, wearing the wool socks he wears year round. We are eating sandwiches and watching NewsHour. The din of the day’s evils runs through us, begins to blur like bird smear on the window. I lean into the mercy of this room, this ordinary. My friend two doors north texts that she has an oriole at the hummingbird feeder. I take such pleasure in this fact. In the weight of it somehow, and in the lightness too.

November Swim at Barton Springs

Published in On the Seawall

(after Amy Lowell)

 

A pale salamander, blind among the bluestem,

limestone ledges, their trailing green beards,

the cold flow of water oddly hot on my skin.

This underwater garden keeps breathing.

Shafts of copper light channel something

as I swim, dreaming the dreams of silver tetras.

Arrowhead grasses sweep the current.

Tiny white blossoms drape, then sway.

You could call it beautiful but it isn’t really.

Only the little spotted face of the salamander,

who seems to stare at me but cannot see.

I swim slower and slower ravaged by grace.

Then you show up. It is the day after your birthday.

It is two weeks after your death. You are quiet.

It is as if we are both underwater and as beautiful

as these unnamed blossoms.

Oh mother, do you see me at all?

I have travelled so far from home

and something is either being erased or creates

the ways in which we’ve known each other.

 

 *     *     *     *     *     *

 

At Eleven

 

Even if I could see the cotton nightgown

I wore to breakfast then, even if I held

the smell of that water in my nose, that frosty

aluminum cup sweating wet on my fingers,

even if I had those very poached eggs, yolks

floating in bowls of butter, the way my mother

never ever made them. Even if I had those

blue plates. Even those plates vibrating

on the yellow kitchen table, the row

of glistening jars, cherries and pears

she’d canned while I slept. Even if I had

the bang of that screen door, the mess

of beets and carrots he flopped in the sink.

Even the mangle smell hot against sheets,

the crease pressed into his work pants,

the miniature dustpan and broom used

for table crumbs, the spoon collection,

ordered in its rack. I think I could not get back

how it felt. I think about the course of my soul

over time — didn’t I already know how mutable

it all is? Even then, during those long days

that should have been boring but were not,

I knew. My world would be more sweeping

than this, larger, louder, and less.

© 2015 by GAIL MARTIN