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Prairie Schooner 80.3 (2006) 77-84

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Mirror, Mirror, and: Sweeping Up, and: Envy, and: Covenant, and: Private Lives, and: The Gift, and: Trespass

Mirror, Mirror

The body I strip in the bedroom mirror
is my mother's body,
the one I found so hopeless
(she could read it in my face)
when I was fifteen.

True, the breasts are better,
the gloating nipples still rosy and erect,
but the stomach's the same tired pudding,
and those spider veins on the thigh.

Stand up straight. Tie your hair back.
Don't give me that look.
She was fifty, undressing; I was trying on
her satin, chiffon, gold lamé
America. That was the year
I was a bookish girl from Russia
who refused to wear lipstick. [End Page 77]

Things are easier between us lately.
She's not so carping. Is even willing to listen.
One would almost think death
has mellowed her.

On my dresser, a photo of her at eighty,
tilting her head, leaning forward
– the better to see my life?
Her assessor's eye is shrewd but genial.
She has something crucial to tell me
but she's taking
her own sweet time.

Sweeping Up

The war is over, mama, and the field
lies in a litter of aftermath –
teacup and tablecloth,
Nitrostat, lipstick, the new Danielle Steele,
your misspelled DO NOT RESOSITATE,
the ordinary disorder.
I am your custodian,
I am left to sweep up the leavings.

I have given the sofa away, but the dishes
are still in the basement, the rosebud dishes
I'll never use. Your letters are fading
in the interrogative light of day,
a harsh light that bleaches like peroxide. [End Page 78]

Tell me, mama: that amber ring
you bestowed with such munificence
– did you know it was glass?
What if we'd talked about the life after
tea – and – mandelbroyt,
where would that have taken us?
Did you ever find out if I was your child?

Your floral nightgown,
the one you hemmed in a hurry
with crooked stitches –
it fits, mama; I'm wearing it.
I keep choosing to wear it.

Tell me, mama,
what have you taken with you
that I might have used? Whatever it is,
I keep looking.
The way a broom reaches sideways under a sofa
drags out the dusty small change.


And then Naomi died and became
available to us.

"But did she know?"
We sit in a circle and take
her life in our hands. The silky
feel of her secrets: "She wanted
a child, she even – ." [End Page 79]

"Damned if I don't fight," she swore
on the clanking machine of a bed.
That oath had to
hack its way out of her throat
but I envied
the way she said it.

She wanted to run downstairs,
pare an apple, dip her spoon in the sauce.
She wanted to wipe her own ass
and tie her shoelaces.
And I, of sound body and greedy heart –
I envied the way she said it.

"Rub my shoulders with cologne?"
She pointed at the ancient bottle of Jean Naté,
citron yellow
beside the purple asters,
a little still life on the bedside table.

I swabbed her with long sweet lemon strokes,
a ritual washing of the body
this side of death.
When I finished, she looked almost happy.
She had only a few wishes left by then,
each one smaller than the last. [End Page 80]


What we are given is too hot to touch.
Live coal, glowing from the altar.

I take it
in the tongs of language
so it won't burn.
It does burn. I reach for it
anyway. But
slowly. Slowly.

The poem is a miracle
of perversity. It knows before I do
how words give
even as they take away.
How they slake
and inflame. How they salt
every morsel they save.

I leave a place at the table
for the prophet
who pressed that burning coal
to my lips.

Private Lives

I know a man who...


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pp. 77-84
Launched on MUSE
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