memory :: judith harris

Those years, after dogwoods
and purple phlox
the color of dyed Easter eggs,
the screen door rattling like a nerve …

On the porch, a cardboard box
for the stray cats
who stayed just long enough
to swell and litter.

So simple,
my mother, home
from the stenographer’s pool,
starlings dangling like keys
over the rooftops,

the late hour pulling us in
like a magnet,
the moon baying,
the solitaire train of cards.

Nothing could budge us
from our own little island,
our own little cushions,
where we stayed,
eating tuna sandwiches,

just her and me,
floating on TV laughter,
her hand clasped over mine
like a first date’s.

first snow in schenectady :: judith harris

        — for Claudia Emerson

It held off for months the locals said,
as we start down the historic Inn’s
icy steps, the same steps the bartender told us
George Washington descended
after taking lodging there for a night—as he

sailed up the Hudson, recruiting soldiers,
a signed letter of gratitude now framed,
on a hallway’s floral wallpaper,
the stairs, narrow and arduous, creaking
as arthritic joints, the tinny wings

of mourning doves, audible in the muscled oak.
We climb into the back seat of the taxi,
the cabbie brushing off scabs of ice,
meter ticking, no early breakfasters, no passersby,
the dry cleaners, tattoo parlor, all deserted.

We drive down Main Street,
tires swerving to avert black ice
past the crumbling bricks of the State House,
and the dilapidated railroad tracks.
Shops, foreclosed, a corner bakery, nailed-up.
The obsolete jail and stockade
converted into tourist museums.

Oh world, oh snow, how it pauses here
at the ledge of dawn, listless, in silence,
snowflakes caught in a halo of light’s glare
piling up on dumpsters, a chicken coop,
a white eiderdown coverlet spread out
upon the fields as if trying to warm the frigid cold,

as we sit back, driven blindly into a fugue,
into a sharp curve on the exit ramp, toward the airport
and we can make out albino spider-birches
stretched out for miles,
snow sloping and rising, under deep revision,
white-washing the time-weathered barns
and a graveyard set within a meadow,
once a patriot’s battleground,
snow covering the toppled headstones,
veiled and nameless now,
stony angels flocking to protect the tombs,
untouched, unbidden.

the facts :: judith harris

Whenever my mother got dressed, or undressed,
she would turn her back to me,
arms fumbling behind her to catch the hook,
the loud spank of her nylon straps,
midriff bulge branded in by the ghost of spandex.
When they first removed her breast,
she tried to fill the empty cup with cotton the way
my junior high school friends stuffed falsies
to appear more stacked,
but it didn’t work–she felt–unnatural–
and so they did the reconstruction
by sawing off her other breast.
I never saw them, new or old,
or planted with the silicone jellyfish.
For thirty years, she kept them covered,
even when the nurses lifted her up onto the potty,
or bathed her shingled skin,
but in the darkness of her bedroom,
lit by a nightlight,
I saw her shimmy into
her blue, daffodil nightgown,
quiet as an egg shell,
and then she spun, frank, reborn,
in her wrinkling, baby flesh to meet me
directly with her eyes,
no less than a vision of heaven or hell
taking its secret fire from the stars
too awful, or too beautiful, to be seen.

in your absence :: judith harris

Not yet summer,
but unseasonable heat
pries open the cherry tree.

It stands there stupefied,
in its sham, pink frills,
dense with early blooming.

Then, as afternoon cools
into more furtive winds,
I look up to see
a blizzard of petals
rushing the sky.

It is only April.
I can’t stop my own life
from hurrying by.
The moon, already pacing.

last poem in may :: judith harris

After the late spring storm,
the downed roses lower their faces,
grazing in the wild grass…

Nervous mourning doves circle
the veranda, chitterling birdsongs,
blowing out their white puffs of seed
like ashes from a low fire.

The loam turns black and gold,
and black again. Stones hobble in place.
The bushes gleam vigorously, intact,
like menaced buildings still standing.

For each of us, there is a place we dare not enter
lest we trust the other has been there, too—
the star-shaped flowers splay backwards,
aiming their hoary cacti at the sun.

This is why the dead never come back:
because they want us to believe they are this happy.

end of market day :: judith harris

At five, the market is closing.
Burdock roots, parsley, and rutabagas
are poured back into the trucks.
The antique dealer breaks down his tables.

Light dappled, in winter parkas
shoppers hunt for bargains:
a teapot, or costume jewelry,
a grab bag of rubbishy vegetables for stew.

Now twilight, the farmer’s wife
bundled in her tweed coat and pocket apron
counts out her cash from a metal box,
and nods to her grown-up son

back from a tour in Iraq,
as he waits in the station wagon
with the country music turned way up,
his prosthetic leg gunning the engine.

gathering leaves in grade school :: judith harris

They were smooth ovals,
and some the shade of potatoes —
some had been moth-eaten
or spotted, the maples
were starched, and crackled
like campfire.
We put them under tracing paper
and rubbed our crayons
over them, X-raying
the spread of their bones
and black, veined catacombs.
We colored them green and brown
and orange, and
cut them out along the edges,
labeling them deciduous
or evergreen.
All day, in the stuffy air of the classroom,
with its cockeyed globe,
and nautical maps of ocean floors,
I watched those leaves
lost in their own worlds
flap on the pins of the bulletin boards:
without branches or roots,
or even a sky to hold on to.