The night before he left for the nursing home,
my stepfather called to tell me about the burglars
who slipped through his skylight, whisked away
the Portmeirion china, the vacuum cleaner,
and the four-poster bed—removed everything
without disturbing his blankets or his sleep.
Even your mother’s paintings, he said, the one
with the goose, and that Mexican scene, and the still life
with the pomegranate spilling seeds so red
they’d make your tongue curl. He breathed softly
into the phone. Gone, just gone. Then: Well, not gone
completely. My stepfather believed that for every
item taken, the thieves left a replica. The smallest details,
down to the dent on the refrigerator door, had been
reproduced. But don’t tell your sister, he whispered:
She’s a duplicate, too. He would not be convinced
otherwise. And me? I still believed in the magic
potion my mother mixed with paint to give fruit
a lifelike luster, an amber jelly brewed
according to instructions from an out-of-print book
my sister and I rediscovered when we went to empty
our parents’ house. Look, she said, cracking open the spine,
the recipe calls for mastic tears dissolved in turpentine
and simmered with smoked oil and white lead—
so expensive and toxic, and the temperature must be exact.
Who could possibly get it right? I swayed, dizzy
from the memory of steam billowing from an enamel pot,
a stench of burning walnuts, and then, jars crashing
into the garbage bin—the solvent spoiled. We sat
cross-legged beside the packing crates, children again,
as my sister read to me from The Secret Formulas
and Techniques of the Masters, written during World War II
by Jacques Maroger, a reactionary who, she gently explained,
must’ve been insane.
Old Woman with Goose (30 x 24, Oil)
When I was a swirling minnow
my mother filled this canvas
with loam and olives—layer
after layer of brown aromas—
She must’ve felt queasy
perched on her artist stool,
swooping her palette knife
side to side while I swam
inside her. I learned
to walk on land and saw
how she glazed buff over
blue, dusk over amber—
colors stroked on, scraped away—
She couldn’t make paint behave.
She wanted a Rubens scene
like the one that inspired Yeats—
wings, thighs, a shudder
in the loins. But the tossing
truth of me—moving, growing—
seasickness and a smell
of pee and turpentine,
and the strange heart
beating beneath her ribs.
Instead of Leda, she painted
an angry crone—knurled fingers
grasping a blur of white
feathers. I believe she’d like
to wring the bird’s neck.
Those fierce eyes follow me
across the room.
House Beautiful Designer Room #132
You wonder who will fill the Barcelona chairs,
drink from tulip glasses, eat the peaches
in the starburst bowl. A Calder mobile turns,
casting slow shadows on parquet floors.
Tufted cushions hold their breath.
You press a damp finger to the photograph.
Beyond sliding doors, only daffodils,
an improbable sky, a smudge
from your inky hand.
When Kennedy told us what the Russians planned
my mother said we were fortunate
to have a basement, although
she wasn’t sure she could live underground
with my father. Where would he sleep?
The television played old news reels of Hiroshima
and a murder mystery by Alfred Hitchcock,
who was wide and bald like Khrushchev, but
did not threaten to incinerate the planet,
and who spoke with such a soothing British accent.
I drifted into dreams of butterbats,
which were nocturnal butterflies
with radioactive fur.
The sun rose. My mother poured orange juice
to help me grow. Her art students arrived
and propped their easels like teepees
on the patio. She set out cocktail tables
for their paints and brushes. We did not
eat our neighbor’s dog. The sky turned
pale as ash, but hot, and the students perspired
inside their smocks. I carried jugs of water
to the basement. On a cot beneath a cloud
of cigarette smoke, my father snored
as though the world might never end.
From the garden, a student asked,
“How do you make wings?”
Because my father would not allow a dog
my mother bought a parakeet
we called Firebird after the Stra-
vinsky ballet—griffin claws
backward knees butter-colored
zebra wings like a costume by
Marc Chagall—any moment
Firebird might shape-shift into
a sorceress and cast a spell—
Exorcizamus omnis immundus spiritus—
real birds aren’t usually this articu-
late but some nights I could hear
wild ones shriek—rusty hinges—
birds mocking the whip-poor-
wills who called to the loons who
answered the hawks—
and then the moonlight
and the scent of honeysuckle
and whiskey and dangerous dreams
floating on one long eeee-oooow—
smarter than any dog my mother said
and used her grocery money to buy
a parakeet training record—Hel-lo-bay-bee—
Firebird fluffed to twice her size and the record
went on and on—Hel-looo-bay-beeeeeee—her beak—
old-man toenail—opened wide enough to say AKKK
and my father said What do you expect from a feather-brain?—
a translucent eyelid slid sideways shutting like a shower door
and my mother opened the wire cage—eeee-EEEEEEEEE—
a smudge of mustard on the air—the record turning—
Firebird turning and turning—window top to wing chair—
droppings like tear crusts on the walls—an origami bird
in a furious wind—my mother saying baby-baby—my father—
crazy-crazy—the record—bay-beeeee—and the parakeet swirling
yellow circles—Stravinsky voice trying to say beeeeeeee—
In your 394th life, you were a pond. You wanted to be a lake
and cried yourself to the brim, but the sun—
You came back an estuary. Not fresh, not salt.
Not land, not sea. Crabs tunneled through the mushy parts
of you. Always the threat of evaporation.
You dabbled in many incarnations—
Life 1,052, a fall (always falling). Life 6,893, a canal
(it was those locks that did you in).
In life 14,659 you managed to become an ocean.
You curled your lips at the sun and swallowed
Atlantis whole. No one guessed
how you dogged the moon or how you suffered
the sickening swirl of your perpetual motion. Now
you throw yourself up at my shore, thirsty
for answers. Seriously? I think you already know
why you weep, why you bleed, and why, as you drift
to sleep, you hear a steady hiss of steam.
Half-formed words hissed to the surface
and tried to walk on land. Silver-scaled whispers
swished from the kitchen, fizzled
down the hall, and swelled
in my parents’ room. For a sleepy moment
I wondered whether my teacher, Miss Simmons,
had slipped into our home—a mission
to correct my lisp. Repeat after me:
Sun. Sky. Sorrow. But this was summer—
No lessons, no drills, only the hush
of grownups deep in mysterious discussion.
I stretched my ears into points, strained
to hear voices that slithered and hid behind
the summer noises—crickets rubbing thighs,
bullfrogs burping in the grass, cries so shrill
fireflies throbbed. A few stray Ss, snatches
of my name, swirled like candy wrappers
in the current. Miss Simmons always said
I tried too hard. She claimed I had sibilance
already inside me, waiting. Clench your teeth
and blow, she instructed. But as secrets
splashed against my window and seeped
beneath my door, my head felt heavy
and I forgot where to put my tongue.
Flabby-bottomed bottom feeder,
blind slug, taster and teller of lies,
what am I to do with you?
There you loll, pimpled with pleasure,
dreaming of steamy croissants
and buttered kisses, leaving me
to wash the dishes. I feel you curl
in my cheek and lap at my teeth
and I’m reminded of the hermaphroditic
gastropods who slid into
my mother’s garden, shape-shifted
their sexes and ate her hostas.
Meanwhile in the gazebo—
piña coladas and tiramisu,
voices rimmed with lipstick,
Must you slobber on everything?
I’ve been thinking it might be time
for us to go our separate ways,
for you to grow gargoyle wings
and fly off to Taco Bell,
wafting halitosis, trailing crumbs.
But then—what of me? No words,
no wants? A castrato who cannot sing?