i say patron saint of the gap in my mother’s front teeth

From the dirt beneath a grandmother’s nails to a certain slant of light, Jess Rizkallah so gorgeously captures the tangible and intangible aspects of our lives that anchor and protect us.

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“when they ask who i pray to”

i say patron saint of the gap in my mother’s front teeth

i say patron saint of the long-last gap in my teeth, who took it back
but left me with a whistle. a reminder of the resemblance
i let myself forget.

i say patron saint of my grandfather’s forehead,
who whispers about the heart on fire
under formaldehyde & earth.

patron saint of my sister’s bitten nails that never catch dirt when she lays
flowers at the base of a stone that took five months to arrive because
no one else came around.

saint of the lemon tree his father put there
saint of the ripest tomatoes
saint of the shrapneled kitchen tile their baby feet slapped
saint of the blue peaks by the ocean where we began
saint of the way we say what again
and again as plea, as demand.

i know there are saints of light not written about.
saints of walking sticks falling against floors not holy.
the saint of the self as god when god has done enough
to be reshelved and left dusty

when they ask me, i say patron saint of teta’s hands.
small hands that beaded and embroidered
and kneaded and carried and learned the alphabet.
a for apple. b for box. c for candle.
d for dog. d for death. d for dirt
under the nails. a hard day’s work a        picture frame
and his cold wedding band.       this is how we compete
with the silence that wants to take us.

from the magic my body becomes

And for the first time I tell you everything

I had the pleasure of seeing the delightful and incredibly talented Tracy K. Smith (1972-) read and discuss her work a few months ago–this piece is from her second book, Duende. Check out her poem I posted in 2012 from her Pulitzer Prize winning book, Life on Mars.

“Interrogative”

1. Falmouth, Massachusetts, 1972

Oak table, knotted legs, the chirp
And scrape of tines to mouth.
Four children, four engines
Of want. That music.

What did your hand mean to smooth
Across the casket of your belly?
What echoed there, if not me—tiny body
Afloat, akimbo, awake or at rest?

Every night you fed the others
Bread leavened with the grains
Of your own want. How
Could you stand me near you,

In you, jump and kick tricking
The heart, when what you prayed for
Was my father’s shadow, your name
In his dangerous script, an envelope

Smelling of gun-powder, bay rum,
Someone to wrestle, sing to, question,
Climb?

2. Interstate 101 South, California, 1981

Remember the radio, the Coca-Cola sign
Phosphorescent to the left, bridge
After bridge, as though our lives were
Engineered simply to go? And so we went

Into those few quiet hours
Alone together in the dark, my arm
On the rest beside yours, our lights
Pricking at fog, tugging us patiently

Forward like a needle through gauze.
Night held us like a house.
Sometimes an old song
Would fill the car like a ghost.

3. Leroy, Alabama, 2005

There’s still a pond behind your mother’s old house,
Still a stable with horses, a tractor rusted and stuck
Like a trophy in mud. And the red house you might
Have thrown stones at still stands on stilts up the dirt road.

A girl from the next town over rides in to lend us
Her colt, cries when one of us kicks it with spurs.
Her father wants to buy her a trailer, let her try her luck
In the shows. They stay for dinner under the tent

Your brother put up for the Fourth. Firebugs flare
And vanish. I am trying to let go of something.
My heart cluttered with names that mean nothing.
Our racket races out to the darkest part of the night.

The woods catch it and send it back.

4. But let’s say you’re alive again—

Your hands are long and tell your age.
You hold them there, twirling a bent straw,
And my reflection watches, hollow-faced,
Not trying to hide. The waiters make it seem

Like Cairo. Back and forth shouting
That sharp language. And for the first time
I tell you everything. No shame
In my secrets, shoddy as laundry.

I have praised your God
For the blessing of the body, snuck
From pleasure to pleasure, lying for it,
Holding it like a coin or a key in my fist.

I know now you’ve known all along.

I won’t change. I want to give
Everything away. To wander forever.
Here is a pot of tea. Let’s share it
Slowly, like sisters.

till it started to taste of something new and strange and far away

I find this Mark Irwin poem quite peculiar and yet so lovely and unexpected.

“A vanilla cake,”

with vanilla frosting, he’d made himself, he took
to his mother who lived alone on the mountain, where he walked
up the snowy steps under the masked pines. “Happy Birthday,” he said,
as crouched, she walked and set it on the empty table surrounded
by chairs and dozens of photographs. Where are they? she wondered,
making coffee, lighting a candle as her son made a fire, his hair the color of ice,
she thought as they both sat down, the cake between them, into which
they buried their hands, touching. “It’s still warm,” she said. “Yes,” he said,
as the wax dripped from the tall candle, and they talked. “How are things
in the valley?” she asked. “Still green,” he said, “Good, good,” she said,
as they began to feed each other with their fingers, closing their eyes,
making wishes as the stars blazed through the big window, snow blowing
from the eaves as they ate, telling of the past, then moments of the present–
the weather and the heart–continuing to eat bigger handfuls, their faces white,
       smeared, till
it started to taste of something new and strange and far away.