Granddaughter Poems
by John Allman

Sisters Sestina

Somehow you have come from a timeless cloud
of being; your names bright particles, each
traveling incarnate through the proffered door
of parents’ love, into your mother’s arms,
the pain of arrival now her outcry
of delight, your clenched eyes hardly seeing

more than bright motions, the edge of seeing
a blurred antithesis of void and cloud.
I know this from afar, in the outcry
of years and years, though I can’t name you each
mystery that I have gathered in my arms
like moss or weed. The oak outside the door

cracks decayed branches, wind comes through a door
like protest: you are new and small, seeing
little of the dark you shared, your raised arms
and eyes not so unalike as to cloud
sisterhood, each yourself alone, yet each
curled hair and frown the ancestral outcry

of someone gone before—a great aunt’s cry
pressing from within, somewhere a blue door
opening on the Aegean, father’s each
move like his father’s at the nets. Seeing
is what you do so well, Katherine, where cloud
parts just now, revealing a nurse’s arm

slipping you wide-eyed into mother’s arms,
and Viktoria clings, her grip an outcry
demanding you stay near, released from cloud
and silence. She will always find a door
to open, where you, Katherine, are seeing
doors in cloud, a kind of flying, where each

minute wings away from the ground that each
life makes for itself. Take in your arms
each other’s need, or lift yourselves, seeing
the wild nighthawk soar; down here the outcry
of spirit and crow, stark at body’s door.
We are the stuff of creatures and part cloud,

though you’ll be seeing ways to ignore each
darkening cloud; all arms and outcry, you’ll be
clomping in mother’s shoes outside my door.

Coloring Book

How do you stay within the lines? I mean,
here’s Dora the Explorer, a world traveler,
with her monkey friend Boots, both of them
walking on the heads of crocodiles or swinging
on vines over the Amazon, that crazy fox Swiper

masked and grinning. But some red in the trees
that bear fruit, green where Boots swings from
branch to branch, honoring the lines dividing
shore from river, humming bird from flower,
smile from song, always music between such big

pages, as you turn from the tropics to the mountains,
Boots’s boots hesitating between pink and mauve,
sister trying to hurry you up, before the next blank
page stares you in the face, the world drains into
the silence where everyone starts from scratch.


I’m put in the naughty corner again,
shaking a leg, whistling, making woo-woo
sounds like a little engine off its tracks.
Will I never behave? Katherine tells me
this party is only for girls, so I
tie a kerchief around my head and her
sister says, “I’m confused!” But I get thrown
out anyway and sent to the next room.
I’m tuning in rap music on the clock
radio, and Viktoria barges in,
hands on hips, shaking her finger, “I told
you, no music!” But she can’t stop me from
dancing. She’s laughing so hard she falls
on the floor and Katherine rushes in with

her gloved hand over her head, “No talking!”
Now we’re all dancing and the sun so low
in the sky is winking through a reddish
glow that must be from Katherine’s last
scraped elbow, not to mention Viktoria’s
bruised knee, her stuffed sinuses, my own
spinal ache. We’re jumping on the carpet
that has never endured such late-summer lack
of seriousness, we’ve forgotten we lost power
last night to a storm and missed those Noggin
TV shows where backyard penguin and bear
and moose play in a forest, on a mountain not
there—one of us in the naughty corner blow-
ing at candlelight as the earth turns round.

Saved Again

Here’s Batgirl, my masked granddaughter,
cape flying behind her like a piece of old
sheet, her sister with Supergirl’s pink S
on a pink sweatshirt right behind her,
brandishing a pirate's sword, shouting
“Arrrgh!” I’m about to be saved from
the bad guys, yet I seem happy enough
on the kitchen stool—sipping tea, the local
paper open to another traffic death, North
Korea stoking its reactor, a drone bomber
just missing Bin Laden again. But Batgirl

takes me by the hand to the safety of the
bedroom, Supergirl slashing the air. I’m
lying down, the world’s evil caught in the
hemlock branches scraping the window,
where the girls are suddenly pointing at
goldfinches feeding on the sock filled with
thistle seed. I’m told to stay put, keep my
head low, because bad guys never sleep—
or dream—though I’m already dozing off
to the sound of heroes rushing back home
for a little lunch.


Yuck! Viktoria pokes it with a stick, careful
to avoid hurting it, as she has been taught,
and it is forming itself into a circle of

moist rubbery intestine, which is mostly
what it is, blind and brainless, old as the
dinosaurs but not nearly so extinct, ingesting,

defecating, turning over the soil every 20
years, unaware of its sister and brother brittle
worm, shipworm, flatworm, hookworm,

segmented or spiny headed, tongue worm,
phallus worm, all these wriggling chapters
in the great text that Viktoria is reading, lifting

it on her stick, each half of it hanging symmetrically
as she lowers it into the loose dirt where her outcry
father has been planting white rhododendrons

Filthy, dirty her sister says. They watch it wriggle
and disappear. They’re brushing debris off their
clothes, wiping a kind of dust from their hands,

as if the never-ending worm that sometimes must
be moved by forces other than itself is here today
a brief visitor, lifting its head (if it has a head), prowling

the light before it finds the dark again—and again.

Born in 1935, and initially raised in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City, John Allman, author of eight book-length collections of poetry, two chapbooks, and a volume of short stories, was a high-school drop-out who earned his diploma in night school while working as a lab tech for Pepsi-Cola. Eventually turning away from science for the humanities, and knocking about in many jobs, he earned degrees in English Literature and Creative Writing from Hunter College and Syracuse University (where he worked with Delmore Schwartz and Philip Booth), while becoming more and more involved in writing poetry.

At the age of 44, after some years of having his work appear in journals, Allman published his first book, Walking Four Ways in the Wind (1979), with Princeton University Press in its Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. His most recent poetry collections are Loew’s Triboro (2004), Lowcountry (2007), both from New Directions, and Algorithms, prose poems (2012) from Quale Press. His Inhabited World: New & Selected Poems 1970-1995 (1995) was published by the Wallace Stevens Society Press. His ninth and latest book, Deep Breath: New & Selected Poems 2004—2017, will be published in 2021 by MadHat Press.

Allman’s work has appeared in most of the major American journals, from The American Poetry Review to The Yale Review. Allman has received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Pushcart Prize in Poetry, and the Helen Bullis Prize from the original Poetry Northwest. He earned his living teaching college English and retired from that in 1997, to have more time for writing. He lives in Katonah, NY, with his wife, Eileen, a Shakespeare and Jacobean Drama scholar and writer. They spend their winters on Hilton Head Island, SC.

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