Mudlark Poster No. 157 (2018)

Pamela L. Sumners
Algebra of the Ordinary

Skipping Rocks | Chain of Rocks
Betty Friedan Takes a Second Job
Red Shift | Algebra of the Ordinary
Charity, True Christian Charity

Skipping Rocks

On Easter, after all the dyed eggs had dried for your hunt
and the Easter Bunny had come with his loot to sweeten
your breakfast as the stone still blocked our Arimethean door,
you put on your Oxford cloth and blazer for the service
of the high-church Episcopalians my people called gutter
Catholics just like they called the Unitarians atheists
in search of the remote possibility that there is a god.

You took communion with the flippant contempt of a
boy throwing stubbed cigarette butts in the offering plate.

The church is convenient for neighborhood Christianity,
being just around the block so we don’t have far to walk
in dress shoes and we don’t stain our fancy jackets with
too much sweat toward piety. After church you said,
I like Christmas better; no one dies in that story, and
went back home, to this place where I knew that
happiness unhappened, knowing, like I know the Easter
ending, that I bought this house, out of pity, from a woman
who inherited four nieces to stack in these dark corners
after a no-good brother-in-law beat her sister to death.

We see alcoves here we don’t visit, phantoms that life
never did inhabit, trashy recesses that won’t stay clean.

For this, out of pity, I paid full price. Bored, oppressed
by the weight of air in this house, as sturdy and remorseless
as its age in unloving hands, we left for the park and
I taught you to skip rocks, thinking how our house
skips nothing, leaving ripples all the same. Your image
in the water wavered, I heard the glide and plunk of rocks,
a perceptual entropy, the price of living here, of all places,
ringing the registers of what will be memory, cashing us out
to our last blasphemous tithe, stone by stone.

Chain of Rocks

I will arise now and take myself to the Chain-of-Rocks Bridge,
hyphenated in my head, split by a chain gang down the middle
and parted on its side like J. Edgar Hoover because order just
matters here, and on chains of rocks we may be set free by the
pecking birds at our livers, and maybe, finally, this last thing will
make one last swooping pass, and the hawks come here to nest
and to fatten. And I will think of the TappanZee Bridge, which I
think I never saw but read of in some sad poem of childhood
partings and I will put my car in neutral, the neutral nothing of
all my life dragging me here and remind myself to tell Proust
when I see him that remembrances of things past is just a trifle
redundant, and I will tell him that one book alone was enough
to tell us what Faulkner said, that the past is not Fitzgerald’s
prologue; it’s not even past—and why did it take more than
one magnum opus to tell you that? And I will be one last child
of the 1960s who stayed awake to see the man on the moon and
not just the man in the moon, a child who learned to live with
the sonic booms of progress, that toxic generational bloom
eating the last tablescraps and then one day in September, no
planes in the sky, and the silence resounding like doom, a
timpanic strain of victories not distant and no, Miz Emily, not
clear, sounding, sounding on the agonized ear, the tinkling
cymbal of a silent war, the “Mission Accomplished” of have no
fear, that hyperbolic acid of words, carbolic little tear. You took
everything, in your age just ten or fifteen years older than mine,
and left me here with eidetic memory for the clacking of trains,
the small acrid blossoms of asphalt opening after a rain, a dull buzz
pollinating the senses of chains of rocks, bridges, runways of was, was.

Betty Friedan Takes a Second Job

There are no porches here so the moms sit on stoops
basking in the Uranian bliss of maternity,
blowing kisses to passels of after-school brats.
There’s always one, though, strutting like an imam
on hopscotched-chalked sidewalks, stalking errant
children who are not even hers, picking up
Jolly Rancher wrappers like a prison crewman.
She’s got a mechanical arm like those cranes
plucking charms or plush toys at the grocer’s door
to tempt the undiscerning eyes and greedy reflexes
of little sprites who, like crows, claw at shiny things.
With it she rends the air in shows of opprobrium,
finger-raking a rebuke screeching like every squeal
of every blackboard even though there are no teachable
moments in a kid’s unreachable leisure. There she is,
cumulonimbus of authoritarian purpose,
and just like those sentinels they escaped at half past three,
she’s turning over their little taxes thrown on sidewalk temples
to giddy joy, the tithe they pay for unshushed giggles.

The schoolchild’s algorithms of the everyday, the accessible
semiotics of now make you a walking anachronism in the rain
yanking drooling Cerberus by his chain, splashing galoshes
at your idiosyncratic boss metaphorically spying on your downtime,
as grateful as they are for this short afternoon’s freedom.
You watch the fecund Horace thundering and rumbling her chorus.
Conundrum, you think, a fancy word for making choices
launching a hundred hypocrisies to land us on this block for cocktail
conversation. They’re called attractive, and a nuisance, for a reason,
just as your keeping of accounts for Scrooge and Marley, LLC,
is called evil, and necessary. There are reasons we’ve learned,
since our school days, that the children still trip on, skipping rope.

Red Shift

If I could find a way to lie to you,
to shape my hands to scoop up such
bright and innumerable lies
as I would invent for you, I would.
In truth, I still recall you indifferently
snatching your body back into the black hole
it always was. You’ve owed me diffidence,
to be once more a kaleidoscope
of darkness, no more than a spent halo
in the tossed wasteland of space.
Even then I had forgotten that once
I saw you cradling in those arms
All that dignifies the night:
Glimmering origami of stars.

Caroline, there was a time
when I could trace my disembodiment
on your face, in your blazing
nebulous eyes, Prussian blue as cyanide.
Must we all then weep, and you
with both eyes open now? Did I forget?
If I have forgotten you better then
to be swallowed by alienation,
captive in some yawning crater
on a cold moon spun off its axis.
Better to be radio silence, just dead air.

I have unremembered you easily as life
forsakes its seed, its poor ghost driven
far beyond the idle martyrdom
of this kingdom. Am I then a lie?
Can I call you a lie, when in all
that is beautiful to me your face
interposes, in a glimpse I sense
as an imprinted perfume long diffused?
When in my heart still I hear
the trapped fluttering of a solitary
bird veering away like the desolate
lost lie of a prayer?

Will there be a time when fingering
my pockets for existential dimes
that I might find a yellowed movie ticket
and something in me will snap
like the thin crossed skeletons
of twigs you stacked to build a fire?
You gave no quarter to winter.
You asked me to bring you a log,
and all voices besides yours that instant
have long since dwindled to silence
like the heartbeat of a stillborn.

I was afraid of you, I confess it now.
Your touch set me trembling between flesh
and hell’s precipice. I thought I saw
in one swift terrible burst
the horrible push from the womb
and the hand on the hearse, and
tumbling, saw your life flashing
like a pulsar before my eyes.
“You won’t write about this, will you?”
you breathed to me; I breathed back “No.””
Then I wrote: Rosemary is for remembrance.

Are you a shadow lengthened by silence?
In old photos you stand just to my side,
posture casting blushes of shade.
But look! Those eyes in the dusk,
the great liquid blue eyes, peer out
all penumbra, insinuation.
They are hooded with uncertainties,
spinning off from me even in still life,
azimuth, parallax, gone.
Gone in the moment of apprehension
Gone in the moment of catch a falling
star, never to be pocketed. Spent.
But Caroline, you have something of mine
shut up like Mary in the tower.

I have forgotten what I cannot spin without.
It must be the music of all stars.
I hold your picture to the light
to grasp the last shadow-ash
in your teeming expectant eyes.
The umbral shadow on your cheeks,
Caroline, is the first vague sign
of the certain change, our apostron.
But in those blueshifting orbs
lies the locked treasure that is yours,
Caroline, and that is mine.

I was false to call you beautiful.
If you are beautiful, Keats was mad.
Let him string gossamer filaments
star to star and be a glad fool,
keeping stupid company with me.
No, you cannot be beautiful.
Fortuitous is a better word, better
because you always have an umbrella
whether hurricane or meteor shower.
You are beautiful chiefly because
you have the sense to come in from the rain.
But all this is long forgotten now.

Funny thing, the courage lying takes.
The liar is brave enough to separate
from his heart’s desire his schemes
to secure it, fondling stratagem
as much as object. Lying,
a lawyer’s habit, is second nature,
and deft lying, the craft of winning.
A lie I could have told you but did not:
I swear I saw you once spinning
through the fire-ringed firmament.

Poems are lies. You knew this, too—
Words in high heels, chaste seductions,
the pathos, librations. You resisted.
Still there was a time—this thing is true—
that I was an orchard in winter
glazed and bowed down with ice,
quivering, wanting a cover from you.
And here, quasar, flare star,
you dominate the infinite space
of memory. Stars are what they are.
My perch, a less lofty one. Here sings
one lost bird on a frozen branch
chattering from the bare-treed highlands,
awed by your ferocious light.
Oh Love, only truth, only Universe
I bless, I know, I hold, forgive
All strutting words, and forget, forget.

Algebra of the Ordinary

Once you’ve been broken in by the giddyup of love
It’s all: get up, fool, because the coffee sure is.
Your last breathy kiss could be a trip over the snow
boots your child strung last night on stair rails
like Christmas lights. These scraped, pissed up,
dog-bitten, flaking, splintered petty inclines,
this downward climb toward the chirpy-cheery
chime of your microwave marking annunciation
of frozen hash-browned breakfast potato patties,
the advent of caffeinated daily holy water today
discordant, like the disordered anticontextual
boots dangling from stairs, tripping you unawares
in this, your itinerant kingdom of chaotic prayer—
All this, you say, is most assuredly not yours, this
domestic embalming, entombment and mommification.

Giddyup, the fog-breathing carousel horse of Monday
is waiting, Tennessee-walking, stomping, champing
to go. Get up. Get up. There are boots to fit, coffee
to sip, lullabies to put away in the bedside cupboard
of black and bay, dapple and gray, paint, and all the
pretty horses—and who taught you that song anyway
because surely it was not your mother, who never
memorized children’s rhymes or doggerel.
Your child, that shiny thing the Fates paused to drop
in your wake-up cup, was left on the revolving doorstep
of this most ordinary day, kicking the stairs sock-footed
in a heavy tread that demands boots, each kick a pang
that ages these creaking steps, settles and unsettles this
old house, rampaging against the ramparts of your sleep.

Charity, True Christian Charity

We took in two old dogs after our pitbull died.
We took them in old because their daddy had died.
The 10-year-old hound put his heart and his head
in my hands, flagged me with a paw, and cried, cried.
He knew he was here because his daddy had died.

His sister’s more game, gets in a bow-legged stance
to play dance, prances up when her name’s said.
Your been-here-first dog, though, she snubs her bowl,
and your calls to her fall about as leavened as lead.
She stakes out the pit’s forlorn space on the bed.

You remember, strangely, that once a step-cousin
got taken in when her daddy died and even your new
stepmother said they were trash, always rushing
state lines for debts, and your own schizo mother
said: Driftwood and beggars. They spread like rash.

Your mother, in a rare paroxysm of lucidity,
had just enough left of cultural or moral acuity
to tell you that “good people” don’t call their sisters’
kids trash. She told you without ambiguity
she’ll do it to you, just wait and see. Oh yessiree, mister.

I snubbed the not-my-real cousin of whispers
who took up a tight maternal pity spot I never got
even to visit, the one my shunned mother called a bitch,
that one who treated me with the silence of Vespers
when I was all of six. Cousin got the bed. I got a cot.

She said to me, I hope one day your daddy dies
and you have nowhere to go. At 40, I stood at his grave
and thought, right back to you. Now you know.
“Promised he’d never leave me.” She grabbed me and cried.
Fitting for her, the last thing he did was, he lied.

To back-clap myself, one time I did this one small thing
that a physician or Carrie Nation or your garden-variety
policeman would have forbidden: a park-bench drunk,
same age as my dad was then, begged for money or whiskey.
It was snowing, I had piety to share, and he was thirsty.

Pamela L. Sumners is a civil rights/constitutional lawyer from Alabama with a particular concentration on the speech and religion clauses of the First Amendment. These cases have provided her the opportunity to glare across courtrooms at Alabama governors, Bill Pryor, Jay Sekulow, and Roy Moore. Her first love, however, is poetry. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Bacopa, California Quarterly, New Verse News, Snakeskin, Streetlight, Loch Raven, and Blue Unicorn. She lives in St. Louis with her wife, teenage son, a Plotthound pup, a hound, and a Cattle Dog mix.

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