Remembering to Breathe
Poems by Helen Wickes

Sunday Obits | ER Blues | November’ Blade
Sunday Farm Days | A Ma’s Opinion
The Slow Unwind | Running for Cover
Where’d the Days Go To | Another War, Again

Sunday Obits

Forty souls today
I look at each of you
From Bartholdi, through Matthews
To Zischla. I greet you
Look into your eyes
As you all gaze back at us
Oh, you with the red bow tie
And you with your good pearls
The yellow cat held up, the fine
Leather jacket, a raised martini
All that colors and flavors our days
After a long illness, we know
What that means, don’t we
You and you, some so young
And then you, that place
Behind you, lush and green
I know that place, our beloved
Botanical Garden. Dear forty
People, I see you, I name you
Won’t be that long, I’ll be
Joining you, but now
Time to close the paper, 
Remembering to breathe

ER Blues

Someone’s been shot, someone’s OD’d
That guy fell, that dame, her heart
Oooh, that guy tried to bring in his guns
Police in front of Room 14, Room 23

We’re waiting for your test, for a room
Waiting room stuffed with all of us scared
Lonely, angry, helpless souls, all waiting
For a nurse to call a name, a doc to appear 

Walking out for water, grabbing glimpses
Of the vast, mysterious life here, a long day
Your wheelchair squeaks, your phone bleeps
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, was it

Obviously, it was, we hadn’t read the signs
Watched the stars, turned the right card over
Here we are, all day, and I’ll drive you home
Tonight, and we’ll still be the lucky ones. 

November’s Blade

November frost, the cornfields cut back
Brilliant necks of pheasants flash ruby, emerald

Smoke from chimneys, cattle calling, 
Guys in trucks racing home for warmth and food

Land spreads out, meadow to thicket, field to copse
That corner lot, you can scramble to find it

Tiny graveyard, overrun with brambles and ivy
Burial ground of local Black people, a hundred years ago

Shaded, hallowed spot. In my childhood Main Street
Had white businesses here, Blacks over there

No one crossed the street to say hello, buy a paper
Get a haircut here, or pants hemmed there 

Italians and Puerto Ricans, tired from working
The mushroom houses, shuffled between two worlds

November chill, it sharpens memory, a quick, thin blade
Peeling oblivion’s skin, the forgotten rising to light.

Sunday Farm Days

He’d drive to town, bring home donuts
And two dailies, for him The Inquirer
Mobsters gunned down, molls hauled off
Blood in the streets, silver bullet casings
The photos made you hear it all, while Ma
Held our local; the lightning strike, barn fire
Rabid dog, guy gored by a bull, tractor wreck
Small stuff compared to Dad’’s big-city rag
But between them the muttered asides about 
Ike, or her guy, Stevenson; the bomb; Russia;
The Mob, they agreed on the screwed up
Wannabes sent down to work our local
Mushroom houses, shoulder deep
In real poop, real stink, before hauled back
To Philly or Jersey from our county 
The Mushroom Capital of the World
I listened, scarfed donuts; they were so
happy those hours, those days. 

A Ma’s Opinion

And how they salt the days
Horizontal stripes make you look fat

Why does dad have nightmares
You need to go braid your hair

Why’s he yell about Mussolini
Wear a pink dress, you can’t wear jeans

Why do those people only shop 
on the west side of Main Street

Start the percolator, mind your brother
God, you’re pale, smear on baby oil

Where’s Korea, what’s a bomb shelter
Shake hands, look her in the eye

If you don’t make friends you’ll be
Lonely forever, so learn to play tennis

Where’s forever, how can I get there
But Ma, I still miss you, every day. 

The Slow Unwind

Derby day, I had flown in from away and we two
Watched on the kitchen tv, after Ma stomped off,

Saying mind him till I’m home, first hint I got
And then the chestnut colt crossed the finish line

As I noted his shoulder set, hip angle, reminding
Me of another big red colt we’d known.

He grunted, not pro or con, not the old days
Declamation, explanation, stories, laughter,

Just a who gives a shit grunt, and I got the whiff
Him losing that mind, and was ignorant.

What happens, losing a mind, as if it goes elsewhere,
Hides out, gone awol, borrowed, run away, but no,

That diminution starting up, slow then faster,
Unraveling his keen, sharp brain, as we 

Watched, helpless, inside, outside, his rage, ours,
And years later, pawing through memories, 

Eager to be lit up again by that bright, gone glow.

Running for Cover

We’re hiking Coyote Canyon,
an offshoot trail, high and higher,
so tranquil, the purple lupine
blazing, the scarlet chuparosa,
when they come over us, again,
our boys in the military jets
practicing again, as they do,
always needing a desert to strafe,
flying low and so loud, probably
pleased to watch us ducking, 
cowering, hands over ears, as
any incidental civs will do.
Then they’re gone, our war boys,
over the San Felipe Mountains,
back to base, and we’re here, 
not in Ukraine or Gaza, just here,
trying to exhale, to reel some quiet
from the sky, scoop it from 
the still echoing canyons. 

Where’d the Days Go To

Sound of the raucous mountain jay,
and sapphire wing tints jagged 
through red fir and lodgepole,
as every day the wind came up,
scent of those trees, soothing 
and dispersing our fears 
of who’s sicker, who’s dying, 
for hours at a time.

We’ll not hike up again to Granite Lake,
where, younger, oblivious of our 
still good fortune, we huddled
against boulders, the granite alive
with chrystaline glints and heft,
you handing me cracker, cheese, apricot,
sunlight bouncing off cold wataer,
dark pools in the shade, 
we had a life, we have had lives. 

Another War, Again

One leans across, questioning how can you
Think that, another says how could they do
this thing, that act, yet another sits back
Listening, herding random thoughts
Tonal shifts, voices at table, this quiet room
in a café, everyone stirring bad coffee, immersed
In the ongoing war, then this new one
Voices arguing, asking who’s reading what
Someone’s waiting for eggs, another for bacon
Everyone calibrating loss from far away
War time, always and everlasting, old people
Sip bad coffee, flooded with images
This world we never grasped, slipping
Further away. The scone is stale, the sun
Too hot, we can’t name this shifting language
Grey bird on the magnolia, and above
The loud jets fly way too low, and outside
Sirens slice through the morning. This life.

Helen Wickes has had four books of her poetry published: Moon Over Zabriskie (Glass Lyre Press, 2014), Dowser’s Apprentice (Glass Lyre Press, 2014), and In Search of Landscape (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2007). She lives in Oakland, California, and worked for many years as a psychotherapist. She received an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars in 2002. Her poems published by online journals can be read at her author’s page, and additional poems can be read and heard online at From The Fishouse. Helen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Agni, Amethyst Arsenic, Apricity Magazine, Atlanta Review, Boulevard, Carousel Magazine, Catamaran Literary Reader, Clare, Confrontation, Delmarva Review, Euphony Journal, Ghost Town, Massachusetts Review, New English Review, The Offbeat, Passager, Pirene’s Fountain, Slag Review, Sagarana, Schuylkill Valley Journal of the Arts, Evening Street Review, Origins Journal, SLANT, Summerset Review, Soundings East, South Dakota Review, Spillway, Spoon River Poetry Review, TriQuarterly, Westview, Willow Review, Zone 3, and ZYZZYVA, among many others.

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