I met you in New York City. You came up an escalator
from somewhere below. You led me down a street
that narrowed to an alley, became a walled stone stairway
down to a shore. You walked before me, turning just enough
to keep me coming. I thought the piles of bright debris
we threaded were garbage. Refuse, I whispered to myself.
I didn't breathe, then breathed. First I noticed
there was no odor. Then I looked and it was all
jumbled carnations, gladiolas, lilies, apples,
nectarines, bananas in long tropical bunches. Some
of the peaches were bright canned slices. I laughed.
Was it always abundance and I was blind? Was it refuse
and you changed that? Had I refused and you changed me?
I woke. I looked around me. I looked again.
The night you lay dying,
there was a space around the house
into which nothing untoward could come,
in which nothing but your dying could take place.
It was a hole in the field,
like the hush into which a child is born. As if
at all times, or whenever necessary,
shafts of quiet pierce the world – we don’t know
the ways of the soul.
But we know how artists make a map
of somewhere foreign, then telescope one spot forward,
to show details. You lay on the bed,
breathing hard. A lens of lamplight. Your husband
on one side of you, I on the other. We told small, round stories,
beads on a string we passed over you. As if
that were our job, while yours was counting
out your breaths to the last.
When I left, I took the waiting
with me. But it wasn’t waiting; there was no time in it.
I woke before dawn, with these words,
“Why do you seek the dead among the living?” The call came,
like news of someone arrived safely in another country.
I am always surprised that the word threshold
hinges on just one h. Each time, I write one for thresh
and one for hold.
The Dream of Our Undoing
“The newsreel of our life, I’ll play it in reverse.”
— Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
So we’ll go back, take the tumors down a cell at a time,
send all those crazy refugees back to their country of origin,
the one the doctors can’t find. Of course, the children
will have to shrink, from adolescence through childhood to
infancy, the fetus tapering into grains of desire. They
might not choose to be born to you again. And you and he,
once undone, may not find each other again, for the crystalline
structure of one mineral somewhere in the heart of the
country would shift, and the new world might place you too
far apart. And didn’t he always say all reality was—all
we were—just chemicals that would one day unbind? At the last,
you would both disperse, cells loose in the universe,
forgetting your tendency to exist. Then your bones would never
lean to each other. And think of all you would have to unsay,
echoes recalled from galaxies, lowering the temperature of the
system. Think of undoing the touch—all that pulling apart.
And I, colder and easier, would not know you, would never
tell of you, tearing and sweet, like the world.
Seine Backwater at Giverny in a Mist, 1897
In the room, through the window,
March light, a lake, slate mountains
join the composition. Some pigment
from the third day of the world thins
or thickens here.
And I think any record of a lucky life
must be full of wanting
to cry out “Come see this”
(five swans, the moon framed
lifting) and the heart alters—
how else to say it?
And though I did my part, mostly
it was Claude Monet—moving
over the waters in his studio boat,
eyes clouding, brush
so intent on leafing
that no black, with all its history,
What Isn’t Mine
Near a house in the canyon
where the meadow dips
and open-range cattle
loiter on the road,
a sign insists
COWS NOT MINE.
We used to laugh
and start to name other things
not ours: the rock,
the bighorn sheep, the pines,
You are not mine,
though I bend my life
to you. Our daughters
are not mine, not ours,
not owned. The days I love
aren’t mine, though
if I get inside one, I stay.
Not mine the mountains
that shore my seeing,
their snow, the clouds
they catch and release.
When I was younger, drinking sky
without aftertaste, I thought,
“all of it—mine,”
and it was. All
my “borrowed view,”
the Japanese might say
in a language
with so many words
for beauty—one that’s full
The sleek wet head of a dog bobbing—no—
pulsing forward, wake not smooth
as a muskrat’s V, the dog
not quite dolphin except in glee,
draws me to water. The world has
so many seams—this dog slips me
back to ideas about rapture
and longing—no—not ideas, but skin
and sun and buoyancy, smell of water,
algae, trace of oil, fish. Where are the borders
I count on between this day and another
dog, swimming for a stick thrown into the lake,
simplified head just above the surface,
ears plastered back as if gills.
Four children laughing
call the collie “Ralph, Ralph Beauregard,
Ralph Beauregard Bugleboy,” but he will not stop
leaping into Cayuga Lake. Stick into water,
dog swimming, stick again, dog again, stick, dog,
throw and fetch in exuberant cahoots, just as
one day plots with another, now-me
with then-me keen for a stick
she—no—I want to throw, and a dog
to carry it back like news, to a shore
where he begs to go again. The heft of it,
stick or childhood, the retrieval. The sheen
and effort—no—all sheen. Wet stick
that has never broken—soaked, arcing
into the air, who’s going, who’s
going into the buoyant day?
“Around the Block of the World” and “Samovar” co-won the Campbell Corner Poetry Prize.
“Retriever” was published in Southern Poetry Review and selected for its 50th year anthology, Don’t Leave Hungry.
From Swans What Shores? . . .
“These poems are
like feathers for a wing, for two wings, for the body of a swan as she
settles toward water after flight above creation, above a prehistoric horse
and Dvorak’s New World Symphony, dawn, more than one hospital, a burned
teakettle, cider...In this fine new book, Veronica Patterson continually
lifts up her swan in the arc of flight so that the poems keep echoing a
language that struggles to speak of death, of love, of the two together, and
of words themselves striving toward an utterance that may carry the music of
a swan song yet which arises in this very life touched by joy and
playfulness and wonder."
—Mary Crow, poet laureate
of Colorado and author of I Have Tasted the Apple.
My Edward Hopper Eye, My
I walk the streets at night
shutting first one eye, then the other.
The left eye is Hopper, its
too clear for comfort, the hard lines
of a town you’re stuck in, always
August, noon or midnight.
The right eye haloes each
Threads of light dissolve each tree into
the next in Paris, spring,
In Monet’s garden of
I sleep three nights, then someone delivers
a newspaper. In the damp green air
events rub off on my hands.
In every storm
one eye watches bare light
shock the land, split a tree;
the other sees each gutter
alive with wings and the rain rinsing.
And so the eyes argue:
one strips, one clothes. One cauterizes,
one salves. And I