In Robinet Testard's miniature illustration of Ovid's Heroides, the painter captures the moment shortly after 49 of Danaus's 50 daughters have slit the throats of their sleeping husbands— Their beds, canopied and striped in crimson and gold, are spread through what looks almost like a drafty dormitory room. The floor is tiled in what could be pink- and green-flecked marble. Pillars and double doors guard their enclosure. They've been forced into marriages of convenience with their first cousins, for political reasons— their father has asked them to play along, then given each one a dagger for this deed on their wedding night. Only one of them—Hypermnestra— spares her husband because he honors her wish to remain a virgin. Each woman sits, startling pale feet swung over the edge of her bed, looking more shell-shocked than dismayed by what they've done. The unfilial daughter sister is handed to the courts by her angry father, who accuses her of faithlessness. And the others are condemned by the gods to an eternity of ceaseless labor: carrying water in perforated vessels, they can never fill a tub in which to wash away their sin. Eventually, they gain pardon, even getting to choose new mates from the winners of some athletic contest. But neither myth nor painting tells how long they had to work at their futile task, or if in the end one of them filed a workplace grievance. I can think of several that fit the bill: excessive work- load, bullying, toxic work environment, health and safety hazards; defective equipment, lack of clear term limits.
A souvenir, you said: passing me the stub of a parking ticket we didn't have to stick into the exit machine. How often does it actually happen like this? — Free passage back into the life we try to manage with all its awful messes and missed connections, its swing shifts making us look both forward and back in order not to get smacked by an eighteen-wheeler plowing down the road. These days I look around, more easily bewildered: how sorrow is profound though sweetness persists, even abounds.
The day we wanted to walk to the cathedral, it rained. I would have pointed out the stained glass roses, the dim alcove where the figure of the crucified Christ was laid prone on a table, one plaster foot extended so the faithful could seal the wound with their lips. There is perhaps no real lesson here—only another illustration of how we're made to think we could never offer enough atonement for the great audacity of being alive past childhood, past war, past calamity, past ruin. I wanted to say, I've lit enough votives for a lifetime of several conflagrations. I wanted to just sit on a wooden bench, no longer waiting for a voice to tell me anything about how I should live my life. I wanted to walk out into the damp air, believing that was enough absolution.
no matter how often I think it, I can't stop loving the first cold slap of water coming through the pipes in winter, the cornhusk smell of heat pressing down on eyelids in summer; on my face, my skin. Windowless nights and how they dress in persistent light— And if I gave up, if I stopped desiring the ordinary things, ordinary rituals we hardly thought about even as we did them— Could I forget, completely? Moths tuck themselves into drawers, where they work out their hidden citzenships in scripts of perforated silver. The taut threads of the hammock loosen; day loses to night, and night again to day, Who was I before the earth shook my world to pieces, before parts of barely formed history were buried along with beams of a house that no longer exists? At the Chinese restaurant they served coffee or service tea in thick white cups, and old men in frayed sweaters hunched eternally over chessboards. Roads wound through mountains but at a certain juncture, one could glimpse the sea. Perhaps I am that house to which I can no longer return. Even now, more than just the stones are forgetting me.
Is it the dream or is it the poem that wants to return the cry torn from a mouth A dream is a poem working out the question for an answer you think might never come When is that future when we look at the sky and the sounds we make arrive dressed in light
~ after Linda Pastan I have not yet learned that lesson of abandoning the world, of letting fall the various claims we make on each other as though it were our right as humans. If I were a tree, I might be the one that hasn't quite shed its overgrowth of foliage despite the blight worked by heat, the blasts fired by winter. Sometimes I feel like a small insistent animal pushing its head into your lap, circling your ankles, angling for a crumb of forgiveness or love. Though the moon floats in the sky as if it's worked free of its own tethers, still I feel the tidal pulse go through me as if it were an umbilical cord uncut. And in the dark I tense, anticipating the sterile blades' descent, fearful of the moment you might turn away, wanting nothing more to do with me.
I have a form on which I am to list last wishes, final admonishments. How to divide my worldly goods, portion them like I might a pie or quiche— I look around but can't imagine the absurdity of listing every book, every bauble I ever bought, every unworn shoe; service for tea, anything in this life that gave however brief a pleasure. As for the money— mostly enough, sometimes lacking; never the jackpot, a windfall to stun me. I have a mortgage on a house that homes me and mine: green trim, yard with fig tree as dear as if this was an Eden. All on loan: tear-studded planks, every love that shone.
Two-and-a-half scoops of flour, salt,
the sugared bloom of yeast. I measure
out the sadness of mother’s milk,
the quiet spores simmering alive—
until the dough rises as though intention
were simple as the thought of bread.
As a child, you loved sugared bread.
First I spread toast with butter: unsalted,
as ideal backdrop; always intending
to feed more than the mouth—measures
any parent would take to grow and keep alive
the humans put in their care. Milk-faced
and squalling, immediately rooting for milk,
you came into this world. Bread
of my skin, pulled and kneaded, kept you alive
and sated. But we grew hungrier, salting
each year’s wounds to try or curb its measure—
How could we know what we intended
would fail test after test? What one intends
runs counter to another’s growing desire. Milk
the days before you count them missing, measure
being the unsmiling steward who locks up the bread
instead of handing it out, until it hardens to rock salt.
So the years have turned, and still we are alive.
I know I still keep many things alive.
Burnt toast, burnt sugar: not what I intended,
nor the gaping spaces between, salted
with the hard absence of years. I too want the milk
of contentment, the daily grace of love like bread
though I haven’t figured out why some measures
didn’t seem enough. The great immeasurables
are those that swell our hearts, that keep us alive
despite the absences: night falls over day, bread
crumbles to dust in its box. Isn’t love a form of intention,
and any kind of exchange of language the sign of milk
not completely curdled, not all diminished into salt?
I’ll eat old bread, dry bread, remembering it was intended
for sustenance in immeasurable wilderness. And I won’t milk
the heart I’ve kept alive in its stall, but sit with it in salt and ashes.
In what country does the word matter not matter In what country does systemic care nothing about the health of the whole The new year already thick with harm new forests of grief
In the quiet well of a Friday afternoon, I carry laundry in my arms up the stairs. As long as the light falls without burning, the plant by the bathroom window can lower its hands after a night of praying. It takes a lifetime of work to learn how to consume your portion, and just as long to even begin to understand you are not what you choose to carry, you can choose to set it down.