waitress poems

Tuesday, June 28, 2005


photograph by rehuxley via Flickr

All summer you have been
pulling in and out
of your nearby driveway,
your flat green car
burrowing in my dreams
like a slug.

You are tall and ordinary
unpacking groceries
from the trunk,
then producing the key
to your dark apartment
while I turned sixty
behind curtains.

All summer I have been
swallowing tea biscuits,
cupcakes, easy listening tunes
on the AM dial and
watching you, my nearest neighbor,
always driving away.

Did I ever tell you
about my husband?
I ask one morning
after you pull out with
a blond woman in your car.

He died in a high hospital room
looking out on the highway
where at night the cars
glow like moving stars.

Did I tell you how he
gave out watching them,
waiting for a crash,
an engine fire--something
to justify his burning?

All summer I have been
watching you, waiting for
the hottest night of the year
when you will open
all your doors and windows,
and I will catch
the strange rays of your TV
rising from the screen and
moving through the space between us
like cars, like meteors,
the mosaic of a common light.

(I wrote this poem on my 27th birthday; apparently I was feeling old.)

first appeared in Tendril
reprinted in the anthology, Yearbook of American Poetry

Thursday, June 23, 2005


As children, my sister and I watched our grandfather
grow senile. He would sniff the air
and ask if something was burning.
Our mother slapped us for laughing and said
he often remembered the factory fire
he'd witnessed at sixteen when he was
the youngest shoecoutter in the city.
I can still smell that flesh, that cooked meat,
he'd say, as we grimaced and pedalled away on our bikes.
After a while, he began to wake at night
thinking he heard those trapped workers,
but it always turned out to be a late driver,
tires moaning as the car turned a corner,
or a howling dog left out for the night.

None of us imagined my sister, the family beauty,
the one with the bright red laugh,
would be pulled into breakdown after breakdown
as an adult. No one predicted
she, too would sniff the air, conflagrations
more terrible than our grandfather's memories
searing the edges of her sleep.
Things seem okay for a year or two,
then she'll call, three thousand miles away,
the factory workers terror as it became clear
they would not escape the fire
cutting through the lines.

Each time it happens, I weep and shake
as if it were the first, but I'm never sure
if I cry for her, or just for the
ordinary days of our childhood, the sweaty closeness
of living in one city, in one house, that our family
has lost. As she stutters into the phone, I cry
for the day my mother gave me a perm
and I watched my sister's face like a mirror
as the curlers came out,
and for Sundays when all seven of us
climbed into the old Pontiac
and went for a ride. If things had gone well
for my father at work that week,
he would turn up the radio on the way home
and we'd all sing as loud as we could
while the orange sun spread out along the highway
like a distant and always benevolent fire.

first appeared in The American Poetry Review

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


Eighteen years in the same house
and I still drink my coffee
thick with cream
from the same blue cup;
my slippers scuff across the floor
as I migrate, cup in hand,
toward my morning desk.
I peer into the computer
as if it were a mirror or
the night sky or
a lake where someone
I loved very much
was drowned.

I say the drowning victim
wasn't me. I drink
my coffee thick with cream
from the same blue cup;
my slippers scuff across the floor
as I migrate, cup in hand
toward my morning desk.

Later the postman will come
with the daily mail: Michael.
Eighteen years ago, he was tall and blond.
Now he walks across
a field of buried pets
who played at guarding our lives
to reach the mailbox. His shoulders
slope and his eyes are pale when he
drops another day into the box.
More news of our extinction.

(A brand new poem. Yay!)

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


Freshman year, you stood before the class
in a sky colored dress and sang out
the 22 parts of the skull without trepidation:
occipital, parietal, temporal, spenoid...

Smooth as a game show host,
you tilted your chin bravely and announced
the dangling man with rousing alliterative zeal:
mandibles, maxillars, malars, mastoids...

You ran your hands over long bones and short,
carressed secret hollows, poked at porous arcs;
slenderness you courted with abandon, rejoicing
at the pointy hip, swell of ribs beneath your shirt.

What were those strange and foreign names
to you anyway? Radius, ulna, carpus, metacarpus...
As remote as cities you would never see,
black and white photographs of orphans
on streets littered with despair. Only when

your friends began to die did angularity
begin to signal dread: Beautiful Karen,
the first girl in your class to grow breasts--she
painted butterflies on her scalp when the cranium

revealed its terrifying nuance. And then Richard,
a man so ordinary you were sure
that even death would take no notice of him.
Embracing in his airless room that last time,

all the sing-song lessons leaped to life:
Illium, ischium, scapula, sternum...
That was when you began to fear
the proximity of bones, the clavicle sharpening

itself above your heart, knobby patella gleaming
beneath jeans. What could you do but
arm yourself with flesh, swallowing milk and olive oil
as you resorted to the oldest trick

of the species? And to flinch in silence
as the bones were addressed out loud
by girls in sky blue dresses, too young to fear
the cold litany that belies frail identity:

Tibia, fibula, femur, metatarsus...


Photograph by Gustavo G.

first appeared in The Ontario Review

Sunday, June 19, 2005


It’s two in the morning and after a twelve hour day,
James and I are washing dishes in the hotel kitchen,
the place so still that the clanging of the old machine becomes
percussive, vaguely uncertain, like the pulse
that underlies everything. For a long time we float in its echo.
Then the old bluesman, who’s supported a killer music habit
by washing dishes for nineteen years
sets a glass rack on its side and takes a seat.
You won’t believe where I was a minute ago,
he says. And though I’m too tired to ask,
I know he’s going to tell me anyway.
Alabama, he says. Alabama 1981. I resist a little longer,
then pull up my own rack, light a forbidden smoke:
Okay, so take me to Alabama.
Like all the dishwasher’s stories, this one begins with the moral.
Setting and character will come later,
but the first thing James wants me to know
is that some of the most talented people on earth
spend their whole lives playing dives--
nothing more than shacks--
giving it away without ambition or desire.
These people hear music in their sleep;
they dine on it, breathe it into every heart they enter.
Take the band I heard that night in ‘81. Some nothing town
in the middle of Alabama, thirty or forty people
crammed into one of those shacks,
and these guys gave up the real thing.

James says, temporarily forgetting the racks of dirty dishes
that surround us, the fatigue that beckons like deep water.
Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night,
or stop dead in this place, and I’m there in that shack--
a gin and tonic in my hand,
the light gone wavy with smoke and sound,
and that music--more real than anything I ever heard--
still snaking through my veins.


Friday, June 17, 2005


You bought them the first week
after the divorce. Standing in line
at a now defunct department store,
you took a lesson in scaling back--
a cheap coffee pot in one hand,
twin sheets nesting
in the crook of an arm. Strange
how you remember it all so clearly--
those first nights lying on blue stripes
with your books scattered across the bed;
a sharp corner of Mme. Bovary
waking you with a jab to the ribs...
Now, nearly twenty years later,
you pull the blue striped sheets
from the back of a closet and use them
to haul leaves into the woods;
the polychrome colors of a new autumn
mix with old stains: blood,
a starry splotch of paint that brightened
a succession of rented lives. Of course,
there were lovers, too--
mostly forgettable--but one caught forever
in stripes of sunlit blue and white.
Now his memory mixes with the smell of earth,
with leaves so bright with death
you stand breathless in the woods
and watch them fall.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005


What remains in the memory
of the survivors
are not the bodies--
twenty-four of them
stacked like hewn oak.
What lingers is not
the sweet night air that revealed
its power to dupe and betray,
in one treacherous turn.
No, what the survivors
lived to remember most clearly
was a silver platform shoe--
heartbreaking and meretricious,
cheap and strangely immortal
abandoned only feet from the exit.
In and out of the dreams
of twenty-five years
that flash of silver has appeared--
the unforgettable moment
when a girl was forced to shed
name and expectation
as she faced the startling night:
unshod, unadorned,
forever unknown.

Sunday, June 12, 2005


Until recently, I never understood your friend Bob,
a bright enough guy, but chronically unemployed,
living with his mother at forty-two.
I never understood that somewhere
in the center of their sagging duplex--
beneath stacks of unread magazines, heaped laundry--
behind the dazed eyes of the actors who keep Bob company
on a black and white Zenith in the basement,
lost in the monologues he holds in the dark,
long rants about cosmology, fly fishing, faith,
the father who died of black lung
twenty-five ago still lingers:

In this room, Bob still hears the wind that
slashed through the house one November day.
It was the only time any one could remember
the old man losing his temper--
four kids streaking through the house,
and him exhausted on the couch, sputtering curses
no one thought he knew.

Here beneath the rack of guns with which
he taught his sons to kill only what they could use,
the cough began slowly, insidiously, until
it filled the house, spilling into past and future
with its implacable demand.

Somewhere in the center of this house--
in the cloudy basement where Bob blinks at the women
on MTV, dazzled by the whir and flash
of distant laughter, or in an attic
so cluttered with the litter of ancient preoccupations
it will never be sorted out,
a patient man still struggles for breath
the way he did on their final hunting trip.
Forced to stay behind in camp,
he let his son track the last deer.

Somewhere in the center of an ordinary house
where nothing seems to change,
the quiet of a day in the woods
continues to transfigure your friend Bob:
the shadows, the river, the perfect stillness
of the deer he killed that day--
and his father’s weak smile
when he dragged it back to camp.
It was not the last smile,
nor the last startled deer that Bob
would strap to the roof of his rusted Ford--
just the only one that matters.

Friday, June 10, 2005


She remembers that he drank only the blackest beer
and tipped with abandon; she could still pick out
the bomber jacket he found at the dump
and wore for a season, or his Volkswagen bug--
bee yellow, its trunk secured with a piece of rope.

In nineteen years she has never quite freed herself
from the vulnerability at the nape of his neck
after a haircut, or the drowsy afternoons
in a Guatemalan hammock that hung inside his house.
Though lost in the many moves that followed,
she remembers the books he lent her--Bellow and Kafka--
his reckless underlinings and exclamation points
more vivid to her than symbol or plot.

In dreams, she occasionally runs into
the string of wild roommates
who traipsed through his rented farmhouse
that year: the pacifist who tried to seduce her
while he was away, a graceful skier jailed
for writing bad checks--all look remarkably well.

Sometimes she wonders if he has forgotten
the snow that year, or the way
everything between them was defined
by glacial temperatures--
heat blowing on their faces in the car
when they sat in his driveway till morning,
a frost that penetrated his bedroom window
the first time she wrote her name there.

One morning toward the end of winter
he pointed to a notebook that sat on his desk.
The night before he had been up till three writing.
About her. Too shy or too perversely wise (which was it?)
she never asked to read his words.
Instead, while silence grew as deep as snow,
she let the hour pass, the season end,
the lease to the farmhouse expire.

Nineteen winters, and that unforgettable cold,
a drift of pristine snow, have followed her,
but the notebook remains as it was
on his long abandoned desk:
unopened, unread, the story
of a life she never dared to claim.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005


I wanted to make a life of strong poems,
a play that was my own.
But lifting my pen I find
my father writes with my left hand,
my mother with my right.
Always it is the same story--
Father nodding off in the armchair,
his disappointments falling into my poems
like glass,
and Mother knitting the same afghan,
the same sweater for thirty years
while we shiver in the next room.
It is the same for me.
When winter comes, I zip my oldest son
into a deep blue snowsuit and open
the storm door for him.
Disappearing like a stain on snow,
he heads for the icy hill where
sleds shriek downward with such speed
that the trees blur, the sky rocks overhead,
and for a moment he flies free
of my cautious voice,
the nest of worry and love
that waits for him at the bottom.

first appeared in Poet Lore

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


That was what we called you behind your back
when you huddled in the corner with a smoke
muttering about treacheries on the job,
ancient perfidies we would never understand.
At the end of a shift, we rushed home to families, lovers,
or the benevolence of a chosen solitude
while you walked six miles to the vacant lot
where a pack of feral strays waited for the scraps
you tossed into twilight. You hoarded your story
like the last match in a black tunnel. All we knew
was that you had left husband and children
20 years earlier--for fated love it was presumed--
though no one knew you well enough to ask.
In the end, it didn’t matter: you were alone in a rented room,
cancer insolently devouring your flame.
Still you remained proud--allowing no visitors
into your barren quarters, spurning our offers of help,
those bland ambiguous kindnesses.The last time I saw you,
you sat on the stairs in a dreary hallway
the planes of your face sharpened by thinning light,
as you guarded the door to your room,
your story, your vagrant heart to the end.

first appeared in Tar River Poetry

Monday, June 06, 2005


Entering the dining room,
she is already set apart.
Because she is alone, a nun
lost inside the habit of another age.
Because she carries a book of poems
for company--Czeslaw Milosz this time, the earthy scents of Poland and Berkeley
already on her fingers.

Because she longs for God above all else,
for a love that orders the universe, that makes
the broccoli green, the wine clear, her heart full:
she further estranges herself by stopping
to pray
right here among the clinking glasses,
the voices, doors opened and closed
to keep out the wind.

Because she knows that none of this is hers:
not the poems, not the brightness
of the dining room,
or the almost Biblical nourishment,
the waiter sets before her--
a piece of fish, wine, a hard bread,
cold greens in vinegar--
No, not even the loneliness that drives her
to this noisy place is hers;
or the wind that sweeps in,
finding her at a table near the door--
Because of all this, she
folds her hands the way they taught her as a child
and begs her simple food:
gratitude, mercy, a knowledge
of the secrets her God so resolutely keeps.

Friday, June 03, 2005


Today, on my way home from the bank,
I stopped at Craigville beach
where my dog scatters the gulls
like so much ash as she races
across sand streaked with snow.
Tugged along the coast,
I walked with purpose
and a kind of greed--as if
toward some point on the horizon where
the alternating raptures and
rapacious despairs
that drive and torment my days
would finally cease.
This is the beach where the young
gather in summer,
and a thousand inadequate
radios flood the coast
with the music and curse,
the brilliance and ruin
that is desire.
But it is all emptiness
now, reduced to elemental
blue and white.
Ignoring the cold at my cheek,
the insistent demands
that waited for me elsewhere,
I walked until my limbs ached and
my eyes began to sting.
Someday, this flash of gulls
we’re following
will be erased; and with them,
History, that russet tide
of selfishness and grace.
Someday the line
between blue and white
will erode
and there will be no one left
to stand on this promontory
and weep for the little
we have learned,
or the vastness of all
we still don’t understand.

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