THREE MINUS ONE
When night clamped down and the three
Breathed in their rooms in time to the swirl of the stars
I walked outside their doors and remembered each
Squall when their infant specks awoke to notice
My attention to them drowned in sleep, I swam
Up to their red, open faces to still the fear
That note of panic I heard. I inhabit it now, always
one of the three has flown.
See: He is in the face of the moon's etched valleys
See: He hides under the skirt of the sky
Hear: the coyotes call his name on the arroyo
The hunted are safe in the sound for a time.
The two remain, are huddled in my love, a canopy
So frail it can't repel the swooping owl
That picked the one out of three from me
I feel the claw, all is red.
Meanwhile, in earth time my skin longs
For his lanky bones, I require his presence
as air. Instead a hiss sounds within
A potion of need that simmers
In this space I used to call a heart.
TOMORROW IS GOING TO BE NORMAL
Walking home from the school bus, my son said,
“Tomorrow is going to be normal.”
He spoke with the confidence of relief.
When every day is the same, he can breathe.
I wake every morning to tell myself,
Today, is the day --
I wait for the remarkable to land on my shoulder
or call me on the phone.
Sometimes it is a fortune written on the tag of my tea.
Sometimes it is a bird. Other days
I miss the quiet calling to attention.
I go to bed tired.
My son knows there is comfort in monotony.
Do I really want the phone to ring? It could be the lottery
or a hospital calling. He thinks my life is enough:
the mildness of the room when I am the only thing moving in it.
No. I must begin each day
wanting the next few hours to jolt me out of sameness.
He shakes his head. That we could be so different
We both find remarkable.
A DISTANT SHORE
Inside coal-sooty windowpanes,
the pungent smell of cabbage soup,
the duck-quacks and the hen-droppings,
the muddy roads,
the wind whistling
through the boards in winter,
that is how we lived
and I was very small
once we went to the sea
walking for hours
on sunbaked gravel roads
leapt at by the tall grass along the road
then the sand
between my chubby baby toes
my plaited hair turning
this way and that
to follow seagull's flight
or listen to the call of worried terns
dark and brooding
sat on his haunches
traced the westerly horizon
with his fingertip
I stood between his knees
and heard him whisper
'There, there is another country
a better, freer, fairer land
where thoughts are free
and no heart in iron's bound'
Ever since that day
my heart has longed for western shores
and lands beyond horizons.
Though every land I've seen
shows me that
father either dreamed
or lied to me and to himself,
how else could he
have lived with
the sad joy
of eternal cabbage soup.
HOW TO PAINT YOUR TOENAILS WHEN YOU ARE NINE MONTHS PREGNANT
Bend way, way over, bowing to the weight of the child.
Curl yourself around the bulge of her—
Your spine a ribbon wrapping you both—
Until you see your old friends: your toes
Splayed on the counter,
Pale under the fluorescent lights.
You have ignored them, these months of great expectations
In favor of the zygote, the fundus, the os.
Now they are chipped, half-naked, forlorn.
No starlet would have engaged in this sanctified omphaloskepsis;
being a mother does not mean ceasing to be a woman.
So seize your brightest hue and work fast—
You can't hold this pose much longer.
Fill the blank spaces with bold strokes of color.
Now straighten up
Balance the sweet load before,
Against the bottomless desires within,
And admire, if you can, your handiwork.
Peer past the future your belly holds;
Take note of the perfect scarlet beacons below:
Ten tiny trumpets blaring your intention
To not go gentle into the dawning light
On the day she died, I was smoking bowls of Panama Red with a few friends
in a rundown bungalow and watching Star Trek on TV, so I wasn’t on hand
to offer my obeisance to the corpulent queen. My roommate, who brooked
no calls during his favorite show, took the phone off the hook and steadfastly
refused to recradle it until closing credits were scrolling down the screen.
I would have declined the summons had it come—to attend my grandmother
while she expired under hospital sheets, surrounded by her devoted retinue
of aging daughters. I could picture the scene well enough in my head:
my two aunts hovering over the bed, petitioning her not to depart, my mother
trying to retain her composure, dabbing eyes with a crumpled up Kleenex.
“I tried to call, but the line was busy,” mom later said, “to let you know,
so you could pay your last respects.” The details were filled in afterward:
the fact that Nana was still breathing when the paramedics arrived to hoist
the slumped body where it had fallen onto a litter and ferry it through
the living room, angle it out the door, across the stoop, and down the steps
to the barge that waited at the curb to transport her bulk to Saint Peter’s,
my aunts fluttering behind like wailing pennants in her wake. An hour before,
my grandmother abruptly raised her crippled left arm a final time, the limb
that had to be tenderly shifted from her lap to the armrest of the tatty throne
on which she presided over Lawrence Welk and Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights,
her daughters rubbing her swollen legs with liniment and carrying laden trays
to and from the kitchen. The weight of that arm, its elbow emblazoned
with eczema, frayed a hole in the upholstery that was eventually covered
by a pink heating pad. I remember lifting her bloated ankles onto a hassock,
and fetching the Sunday paper from the porch for her to read, like a good pup,
when I was obliged once a week to pay her homage at the ancient residence
on Hollywood Street. “Look!” she said, rotating her arm like a hall of famer
winding up for a throw. My mother stopped stirring the pot on the stove
and stared as my grandmother rose from her plate. “See,” she proclaimed,
knocking the aluminum walker triumphantly out of her way, “how good
I can stand!” Her elephantine feet encased in purple Scuffies lumbered
thumpishly across the yellowed linoleum, the creaky planks of the parlor floor,
my aunts trailing the billows of her print housedress through the dining room,
past trembling knickknacks bedecking fissured walls, as she led the procession
down the stuffy halls of her kingdom and back into the kitchen where she took
her place again at the head of the table, satisfied that her chandeliered domain
remained intact, her daughters afraid she might fall, afraid they’d be unable to
uphold her onerous body if she did. “It’s a miracle!” one of my aunts blubbered,
exultantly kneading the regal fingers she clutched in a bony paw while the soup
that had been vigorously bubbling on the burner while they were on parade
was dutifully ladled out. My grandmother raised a tarnished silver teaspoon
to her mouth and warned them, “Don’t burn your tongues!” She pursed her lips
to show them how to blow soup cool as if they were poor addlebrained ninnies
needing to be schooled before her spine suddenly stiffened and she toppled.
Two spinster aunts, who sacrificed their lives catering to her royal whims,
inherited the enchanted castle, the clogged pipes, the leaky roof, the spluttering
furnace, the tufts of thorn and thistle populating an unruly realm overrun
with weeds where they would spend their days recalling their vows, striving
to maintain the home they turned into a shrine, grieving for the stern matriarch
who had entombed them in the decrepit house her imperious spirit ruled.
My mother sits beside me on the bench,
attends as at no other time, barely breathes.
I want to play the way she does:
water rushing over boulders, wind sighing among leaves,
dappled light, a forest floor, a single eagle soaring
over peaks, the beating of a mighty heart.
But keys that she makes sing are merely wood,
inert beneath my fingers.
My Mazurka lurches, stumbles,
crippled in my hesitating hands.
C sharp! I flinch. My finger shifts – white to black.
The chord resolves.
My mother practiced every day, half an hour of piano
before breakfast, half an hour before dinner, violin.
She does not insist with me the way her mother did;
my lessons simply stop when I complain.
My mother does not hear my secret music.
I play not printed notes but the beating
of her heart. I sit and sway, my fingers
rushing over boulders just above the keys,
my body sighing among leaves, eyes closed to see
the dappled light, my spirit soaring over mountain peaks.
Alone and silent, I play my mother’s music.
I don't know you as well as I did.
Maybe I don't know you at all.
You floated inside and I didn't know you.
You cried, and I still didn't know you.
When did I know you?
When you played ball?
When I read bedtime stories?
When we held hands crossing the street?
Did I know one day I would turn
and you would be gone?
Do you remember when you left.
I don’t recall saying goodbye.
Sons go away to become men.
The good things all seem to be moments.
The bad things are large and long lasting.
I cried when I realized that I had given
my flaws to that inner city of the self
in the blood of the child.
That April morning - call it Fate, God or Luck -
that he was not where he should have been
so a bullet didn't find him.
It's hard to turn in the direction of the skid
even when you know it's the right thing to do.
The wind rose as marks on a compass,
knots on a rope to measure speed.
A dead reckoning.
The meridian passes through three stages of truth:
ridicule, violent opposition, then acceptance.
I work more hours than my father did,
and I'm older than he ever lived to be.
There is a vertigo of age turning
with ancestors: farmers, hunters, soldiers.
To the oyster, what is the pearl?
No rare and valued thing.
A reminder of pain.
William Edgar Stafford (January 17, 1914 - August 28, 1993) was an American poet and noted pacifist, as well as the father of the poet and essayist Kim Stafford. A long-time resident of Oregon, he and his writings are sometimes identified with the Pacific Northwest.
He received a B.A. from the University of Kansas and his M.A. from the University of Kansas in 1947. In 1948, his master's thesis, the prose memoir Down In My Heart, was published and he moved to Oregon to teach at Lewis and Clark College. In 1954, he received a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa.
He began publishing his poetry only later in life. His first major collection of poetry Traveling Through the Dark was published when he was forty-eight years old. It won the National Book Award the following year in 1963. Despite his late start, he was a frequent contributor to magazines and anthologies and eventually published fifty-seven volumes of poetry. James Dickey called Stafford one of those poets "who pour out rivers of ink, all on good poems."
In 1970, he was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a position that is now known as Poet Laureate.He died in Lake Oswego, Oregon on August 28, 1993, having written a poem that morning containing the line "Be ready for what God sends."