Poems

I wrote poems for years without calling them that, without seeing myself as a poet. I stuffed them into drawers. Left them in computer folders. Nobody knew. I hardly knew myself. They didn't matter. Then I wrote some words as a gift to the people of Star Island NH, the temporary community of UUs (Unitarian-Universalists) with whom my sons and I spent a week every summer. I posted those words on a bulletin board there. Back in NYC I got a package in the mail. Someone had spent hours making an art piece from my words. "Unsaid on Star Island" meant enough to him to do that. Interesting. I still stuffed my scribblings in drawers. Years of working on the Hedgebrook board to foster women writers' voices finally got to me in 2003. I was about to be 70 and no one had heard my voice. I could hear my NY editor T George Harris saying, "Oh just bareass it, Medlock." Knowing I had to take my shot, I created Bareass Press and Pagemakered a book of 70 poems, calling it Arias, Riffs & Whispers, Words Written for Voices. (Still not "poems," you see that?) My 70th birthday celebration was a coming out party – five great actors reading from the book – it was terrifying to go bareass, letting people into that so private world. And it was wonderful. There are words here from Arias, and there will be more as I add them from time to time, with images that would have been too expensive on paper. There are others that are "unpublished," but I've stopped stuffing new pieces in drawers – I'm putting them here. And they are poems. I am a poet. Now that feels really bareass.

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MANDELA ›

  • In his eighth decade he stands here free,
  • emerged from the caged years, from
  • the unintended monastery where reckless
  • fire became the molten gold radiating now
  • in his gaze, his voice, in the hand
  • that holds Graca’s as he turns to
  • leave the room, still guarded by
  • blond Afrikaaners, surrounding
  • him, glaring menace at the eager
  • crowd, pressing against us to
  • clear his way to wherever he wishes
  • to be. A searing flash from a
  • contraband camera and the white
  • phalanx springs closer to him, arms
  • raised—to protect. “No flash! No flash!”
  • they shout. “It hurts his eyes.”
  • They are gone.
  • Mandela, his love,
  • his white guards
  • and any certainty
  • we may have had
  • that time brings
  • only loss.
  • Photo taken by the author. Without flash.
  • (On one page)
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Miss Ena Wertheimer's Fan ›

  • Ena's burgundy velvet, her sister's white satin
  • welcome the touch. You can see the pulse in
  • their young round arms, shoulders, necks,
  • feel the press of Betty’s wrist at Ena’s waist.
  • One, two, twenty certain strokes and the fan
  • is in Ena’s hand, ready to conceal a foolish whisper.
  • “Mr. Sargent is so handsome.
  • Do you think he’ll stay for dinner?”
  • .
  • The speed in those strokes,
  • the rush to leave, to get on with real work.
  • “Things that matter await my hand—
  • soldiers, Bedouins,
  • brooks, hillsides in Spain,
  • authors, Presidents, Christs ...
  • gourds.
  • .
  • Here are your daughters, Asher.
  • Where is my bank draft and my cab?”
  • (On one page)

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UNSAID ON STAR ISLAND ›

  • Don't go. Don't take away the lights.
  • I wanted to say...
  • the words are locked in here.
  • I have no voice for them.
  • But I have hand, paper, pen.
  • And what I wanted to tell you is
  • my son is asleep in his room,
  • breathing quietly, singed pink and gold by the sun.
  • smudged with dirt, worn still
  • by the speed of his day on Star.
  • A simple thing, a child asleep.
  • But another reality is close now too.
  • An instant changed, a moment turned,
  • and I would be having to tell you
  • that he was out there with the Beebe children,
  • in the sheltering hollow
  • where their parents put them so long ago.
  • I knew that could be
  • when you walked your lanterns around him,
  • warming the hard glare of the surgery,
  • floating him in this powerful sea of light.
  • I let him go then.
  • He was free to leave on that good tide
  • or to stay.
  • This afternoon he asked me how old he had to get
  • to be a Pelican.
  • I sit here now in your steady glow,
  • loving the strength of these thick, plain walls,
  • smelling the sea, hearing crickets, gulls, wind,
  • and an old man saying that his mother brought him
  • to this island when he was a little boy.
  • that she is always here for him.
  • My son may say such words in this room,
  • in another century
  • because he is not out there in the hollow tonight,
  • not with those eternal children below the rose brambles
  • under the sharp stars.
  • Listen.
  • I want you to know.
  • My son is asleep in his room.
  • (On one page)

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FIGURE AND GROUND ›

  • Each pane of the old window
  • framed a different crag of the range.
  • On the days when she was there to see them
  • she knew he was somewhere on one or another,
  • too far to see or hear, yet she saw
  • his scarlet parka marking his location
  • sharply against the snow,
  • saw him kicking spiked boot toes into a wall of ice,
  • saw his long legs pistoning him over a crevasse,
  • heard him jangling his gear and tackle, laughing.
  • The mountains were magnificent, jagged,
  • torn from the earth too recently for softness –
  • an ungloved hand passed over them would be cut,
  • no matter how gentle its intent.
  • The Sound lay broad and still
  • below the upthrust range, distancing its dangers
  • from where she stood, her brushes
  • smoothly revealing on gessoed paper
  • the perfection of water without menace,
  • tempering, balancing the peaks where he went,
  • an ice axe in each fist.
  • An eagle swept across the panes, taut wings wide,
  • storming the black-green firs that sentineled the house,
  • landing fast, claws first, on a high branch
  • next to a white-crowned head already there, just visible.
  • He walked across the garden, smiling,
  • a coiled hose over one bare, tanned shoulder.
  • (On one page)
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THE MEANEST MAN IN HORSE CREEK VALLEY ›

  • “If I was that ugly, I’d at least stay home with it.”
  • The child laughs, thinking it’s a joke, but he is glaring
  • at the women passing the porch where the old man
  • and his Yankee granddaughter rock.
  • “The Levelheads, I call em,” he says loudly,
  • so the women have to hear. “Look at em.
  • Heads don’t go up and down when they walk.”
  • They look the same to her as the other mill women,
  • gaunt, withered, pale, but their gliding walk
  • seems to her beautiful.
  • Walking toward the company store to buy Moonpies,
  • one spotted hand holds a cane, the other hers.
  • “Mind you don’t fall. That curb is high.”
  • The cane raises up, comes sharply down
  • on the shoulder of a black man
  • who jumps into the street.
  • Eating the sweets on the bank of Horse Creek
  • the old man deigns to explain.
  • “Nigras don’t belong on the sidewalk
  • when a white man’s passing.”
  • He pumps the well handle and she drinks icy
  • artesian water from the hanging tin cup.
  • When the cross burns on Cemetery Hill,
  • he brings her into the sandy yard to see.
  • She thinks it is a church thing.
  • There’s a photo in the album of this man, young.
  • You can see the old man coming
  • in the raised chin, in the sneer of disdain.
  • Beside him is a beautiful girl
  • who is not the grandmother she knows.
  • This is her father’s mother,
  • dead delivering a daughter,
  • the daughter taken by the Moonpie rocker
  • to his childless brother’s door,
  • never to nod or smile as he passed her,
  • growing up in this tiny town
  • where everyone knew he had given her away.
  • She was erased from his life, as was her sister
  • when she ran from the shell-shocked husband
  • who was beating her,
  • driven to the train by a gardener.
  • “She run off with a nigra,” the lintheads say
  • and her grandfather held as how
  • he’d had just one child
  • and one treasured grandchild,
  • blue-eyed and fair,
  • a small person who begins to understand
  • that he is dangerous, Moonpies notwithstanding.
  • (On one page)
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R&R ›

  • Frantic laughter drowns out fire fights
  • last week next week an hour away by PanAm.
  • Tinny band nasal Suzie Wong attempting
  • Jumpin' Jack Flash. Failing.
  • Hands slide into side slits in red cheong sams
  • knock back mai tais and straight shots
  • pound tables to give the band the beat.
  • It's a gas gas gas. Don't you get it?
  • It's a gas gas gas.
  • "The Incredible Orsinis" take the floor
  • tall graying man in a satin shirt
  • arms raised to bring on with a flourish
  • "Madame Orsini," a wren of a woman
  • walking uncertainly on a medicine ball,
  • eyebrows arches of apprehension
  • smile an entreaty that goes unseen
  • as the off-duty combatants turn to
  • the Suzies and the drinks – bored.
  • Monsieur Orsini juggles three pins
  • drops two. This is just a drag drag drag.
  • Madame Orsini may cry at any moment
  • but toddles on, mate pointing out
  • her wobbly progress as though she were Pavlova,
  • retrieving the juggling pins each time
  • they escape from his incompetent hands.
  • There has to be a story.
  • Refuseniks, that's it, they have walked to Vladivostok,
  • stowed away, gotten only this close, so far, to Israel,
  • where they will once again be – epidemiologists.
  • No papers, no money, no local credentials,
  • they humiliate themselves for their supper in a
  • Hong Kong dive full of stoned Americans
  • trying to forget that Charlie is waiting,
  • silent, deadly, patient, never breaking
  • for Rest and Recreation.
  • "The Pitiful Orsinis" at last are taking their bows.
  • I stand and applaud, the sound of one fool clapping.
  • My tablemates shrug, grin, stand, clap, cheer.
  • It's a good game. I throw wadded American dollars at
  • "the Puzzled Orsinis." Bills fly from clumsy hands
  • all around the floor. Young voices yell
  • You're a gas gas gas!
  • "The Incredulous Orsinis" – whoever they may be –
  • embrace, weeping, and exit left,
  • with air fare to Tel Aviv.
  • (On one page)
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SWEETPEAS & V-MAILS ›

  • Everyday she writes another one,
  • the flimsy little sheet that folds
  • into itself to make an envelope.
  • What can she find to say when
  • she just wrote to him yesterday?
  • She writes the address that doesn't
  • mean anything, doesn't say where he is
  • ComDesWesPacFor FPO SF Calif
  • then puts one sweetpea on the paper
  • and folds it into an envelope. She grows
  • the sweetpeas under the window,
  • at the edge of the victory garden.
  • Everything grows here, all year,
  • so there's always a sweetpea for the mail.
  • The girl wonders if they still smell sweet
  • when they get to ComDesWesPacFor.
  • (On one page)
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TONANTZIN ›

  • All right that's enough.
  • Over four centuries of this nonsense
  • is quite quite enough.
  • The black Madonna. Her picture on
  • Cuauhtlatohuc's robe.
  • Roses in December. Castilian roses.
  • Mary, Queen of the Americas. Mary.
  • Listen and listen closely.
  • My name is Tonantzin, mother of all the Aztecs.
  • That was and is my holy place, the high ground
  • where I was worshiped for a thousand years,
  • the ritual place where Moctezuma
  • received Cortez into our ancient world,
  • before the betrayals began.
  • I gave you life, I will see you into earth
  • when you die and I am not black, I am golden.
  • I am not some wispy Florentine girl
  • posing in pretty robes for a Raphael to paint.
  • I have bones, substance, the presence of command,
  • and I wear the clothes of my people, my arms bare
  • in the heat, crowblack hair gleaming in the sun.
  • I do not look down daintily but straight
  • into your wavering eyes, seeing you
  • for all you are and are not.
  • Unlike this Mary girl,
  • I am not easy to live with.
  • I do stand on the moon, I do radiate light –
  • even fools get some things right.
  • And I take some satisfaction in the spread
  • of this frail usurper, this Madonna of Guadalupe,
  • as her sweet image appears around the world.
  • They could not have taken away my people
  • without her but in truth,
  • I have the people still, and more.
  • You know, you know, that this Mary thing
  • stands for me, however palely, that she is me,
  • Tonantzin, that she is Isis, Astarte, Freya and Sekhmet,
  • all of us who have been banned from your world
  • by the priesthoods of the timid.
  • You put this Mary on your dashboards
  • and on your refrigerators because your fears
  • allow us only insipid form.
  • Still we reign in your lives, creating it all,
  • behind this silly girl.
  • Mauhcatlayecoantin. No mauhcatlayecoantin.
  • Fools. My fools.

    (On one page)

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TWO COFFINS 1968 ›

  • Just days ago the calloused feet,
  • unlike the hands, free of tubes,
  • moved weakly to the echoes
  • of a schottische playing across time.
  • Tonight generations circle the open casket,
  • the lipsticked face letting them know
  • they are no longer orbiting Mama.
  • She has left me a chocolate pot
  • and a pattern I will not use
  • for a life of laundry and devotion
  • though I will try, and fail, to
  • duplicate her cauliflower crisps.
  • "This is what happens to old people"
  • says her eldest great grandchild,
  • my sanguine son, all of nine.
  • And he is right. A good woman
  • has left the world, much in years,
  • descendants, memories.
  • Leaving the viewing room, a door
  • opens on another death, the kind
  • that does not happen to old people.
  • Winter-coated, a man and woman
  • arch over a flag-draped closed coffin,
  • their heads almost touching,
  • damp grief conjoining over whatever
  • may be left of a young Marine.
  • Semper fi say the gladiolas that will,
  • in hours, die as Mama has,
  • in the proper course of things.
  • There is nothing proper
  • in these parents' weighted bodies,
  • nor in the hidden remains of their son's,
  • bagged home from a jungle
  • to be buried in the snow
  • he made forts of, not so long ago,
  • perhaps when he was nine.
  • They hold themselves up
  • by the casket handles,
  • smooth the stars and stripes,
  • as if they were his wounds,
  • or the fevers the mother cooled
  • when he had the measles, the mumps,
  • the charlie horses the father rubbed
  • with liniment after football practice.
  • Their hands entwine urgently
  • as they may have done when
  • they made this boy, reaching now
  • for a way to deal with his obliteration.
  • I grip my son's mitten tightly,
  • hoping he has not seen this other death,
  • the one that is unacceptable,
  • the one that shatters the heart.
  • (On one page)
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SPACE/TIME NON-CONTINUUM ›

  • This cannot be Dunkirk.
  • Dunkirk is where stukas strafe
  • the beach and water as Tommies
  • wade out to the trawlors and yawls
  • that have come cross channel to take them home.
  • There cannot be changing cabanas
  • and soft drink vendors at Dunkirk.
  • Arbeit macht frei is still above the gate
  • as we are urged onward not by SS officers
  • or sondercommandos – by tour guides.
  • We are actually free to turn and stroll away
  • back to room service and down comforters
  • and to our tickets home. In this time
  • a trip to this place does not end in an oven.
  • Reach through the decades. Pull them into now.
  • Here Reggie, have a beach towel and a citron pressé.
  • Samuel, Rachel, walk away from this place where
  • you did not die. Live to meet your grandchildren.
  • The Management apologizes for the mistake.
  • You were not supposed to be in this water,
  • on this ground, in those most regrettable moments.
  • We hope there are no hard feelings and look forward
  • to doing business with you at your earliest convenience.