soft mask :: mary karr

On the ultrasound screen my child curled
in his own fluid orbit, less real
than any high-school-textbook tadpole
used to symbolize birth, till the nurse
placed a white arrow on his heart flicker:
a quick needle of light. Tonight his face

blooms in my window before trees
stripped bare, a moon hung full and red.
That soft mask, not yet hardened into autumn wind,
would hold a thumbprint if I touched him. I hesitate
to touch him. He’s not yet felt the burden
of hand, nor tasted air, nor toddled
toward some bladelike gaze. He is all sweetness,
mouth smudged against the clear silk
that envelops him, webbed hands that reach
and retreat as a cat tests water.

Or like Narcissus, or the great wondering
madonnas, or any beast lost in another, the demon
who kneels to feed at some lily throat.
His pulse first matching then at odds with mine,
that small arrow seeming to tremble
as if striking something true.

county fair :: mary karr

On the mudroad of plodding American bodies,
         my son wove like an antelope from stall
to stall and want to want. I no’ed it all: the wind-up
         killer robot and winged alien; knives
hierarchical in a glass case; the blow-up vinyl wolf
         bobbing from a pilgrim’s staff.
Lured as I was by the bar-b-que’s black smoke,
         I got in line. A hog carcass,
blistered pink on a spit, made its agonized slow roll,
         a metaphor, I thought, for anyone
ahead of me—the pasty-faced and broad. I half-longed
         for the titanium blade I’d just seen
curved like a falcon’s claw. Some truth wanted cutting
         in my neighbors’ impermanent flesh.
Or so my poisoned soul announced, as if scorn
         for the body politic
weren’t some outward form of inner scorn,
         as if I were fit judge.
Lucky my son found the bumper cars. Once I’d hoped
         only to stand tall enough
to drive my own. Now when the master switch got thrown
         and sparks skittered overhead
in a lightning web, I felt like Frankenstein or some
         newly powered monster.
Plus the floor was glossy as ice. Even rammed head-on,
         the rubber bumper bounced you off unhurt
and into other folks who didn’t mind the jolt, whose faces
         all broke smiles, in fact,
till the perfect figure-eight I’d started out to execute
         became itself an interruption. One face
after another wheeled shining at me from the dark,
         each bearing the weight of a whole self.
What pure vessels we are, I thought, once our skulls
         shut up their nasty talk.
We drove home past corn at full tassel, colossal silos,
         a windmill sentinel. Summer was starting.
My son’s body slumped like a grain sack against mine.
         My chest was all thunder.
On the purple sky in rear view, fireworks unpacked—silver
         chrysanthemum, another in fuchsia,
then plum. Each staccato boom shook the night. My son
         jerked in his sleep. I prayed hard to keep
the frail peace we hurtled through, to want no more
         than what we had. The road
rushed under us. Our lush planet heaved toward day.
         Inside my hand’s flesh,
anybody’s skeleton gripped the wheel.

carnegie hall rush seats :: mary karr

Whatever else the orchestra says,
the cello insists, You’re dying.
It speaks from the core

of the tree’s hacked-out heart,
shaped and smoothed like a woman.
Be glad you are not hard wood

yourself and can hear it.
Every day the cello is taken
into someone’s arms, taken between

spread legs and lured into
its shivering. The arm saws and
saws and all the sacred cries of saints

and demons issue from the carved cleft holes.
Like all of us, it aches, sending up moans
from the pit we balance on the edge of.

a perfect mess :: mary karr

I read somewhere
that if pedestrians didn’t break traffic laws to cross
Times Square whenever and by whatever means possible,
     the whole city
would stop, it would stop.
Cars would back up to Rhode Island,
an epic gridlock not even a cat
could thread through. It’s not law but the sprawl
of our separate wills that keeps us all flowing. Today I loved
the unprecedented gall
of the piano movers, shoving a roped-up baby grand
up Ninth Avenue before a thunderstorm.
They were a grim and hefty pair, cynical
as any day laborers. They knew what was coming,
the instrument white lacquered, the sky bulging black
as a bad water balloon and in one pinprick instant
it burst. A downpour like a fire hose.
For a few heartbeats, the whole city stalled,
paused, a heart thump, then it all went staccato.
And it was my pleasure to witness a not
insignificant miracle: in one instant every black
umbrella in Hell’s Kitchen opened on cue, everyone
still moving. It was a scene from an unwritten opera,
the sails of some vast armada.
And four old ladies interrupted their own slow progress
to accompany the piano movers.
each holding what might have once been
lace parasols over the grunting men. I passed next
the crowd of pastel ballerinas huddled
under the corner awning,
in line for an open call — stork-limbed, ankles
zigzagged with ribbon, a few passing a lit cigarette
around. The city feeds on beauty, starves
for it, breeds it. Coming home after midnight,
to my deserted block with its famously high
subway-rat count, I heard a tenor exhale pure
longing down the brick canyons, the steaming moon
opened its mouth to drink from on high …