Picture My Father As A Young Man:
Handsome, no failed marriages beneath his belt. In the summer,
he rides a bicycle from Zanesville, Ohio to a farm in Pennsylvania
and the wheels churn like windmills against the sky. Towns slip
in and out of focus in a kaleidoscope of unchained cloud.
At night, he dreams he rides alongside Mary Pickford
and F. Scott and asks, How far to Wyeth’s house?
When my father tells me this story, he swears the next day
he found himself lost in Chadds Ford, paintbrushes for hands.
Decades later, in the National Gallery, my father and I stand
in a room full of windows that are not windows—Wyeth’s
figureless portraits, exits painted on canvas. My father
buys a print of Wind from the Sea and my sister frowns.
She asks why he would buy a painting without people in it.
He doesn’t answer but holds it close, and on the Metro home
he sits alone, takes a window seat. In another life, my father
might tell me how Wyeth reaches through the frame
to hold his body up while he stares through windows
instead of killing himself. In that life, a braver version of myself
might tell my father the sadness he has passed to his daughters
pools dark in our bellies and threatens to bury us in the yard.
After the Shootings in Santa Barbara
I keep looking behind myself
in the airport bar. I drink alone,
shirt buttoned to my neck
so I won’t have to tell anyone no.
Men say I should be softer, more ghosting,
a raindrop rivered in window-glass—
They want me to open my body up
to prying hands and say thank you
as they reach inside.
Where the river crooks
like an elbow, water calms.
A water skipper’s walk is holy, her
thin legs straddling air over the surface
as if she is perched on an unseen saddle,
poised at the place where ripple begins.
Through the reeds, a crane wears
my fish-hooked neck, lowering her face
to look behind herself before drinking.
From inside the house, through pupil-dark shutters agape as his mouth, our father sees my
youngest sister on the roof. She poses with the weather vane. At its apex, an iron cow
jumps over a crescent moon still damp with monsoon haze. The rain is near, so the Bull City
air lifts summer dirt from the ground as easily as blowing an eyelash off the tip of a finger.
Like an egret, my sister hooks one foot below the cow-belly and raises the other, demi
pointe, to support the full weight of her body stretching toward the sky. Beneath her pose,
concrete steps lead to the cellar. She crooks her neck to stare at our father through a
feathering of curls: unspoken challenge. Thunder claps. Her arms pinwheel and the sky
December arrives like a boot at the door and brings with it a familiar cold. I hike the Eno
with my father until we reach a swimming hole where the water has started to lick rime
into the riverbank. There, a star-bellied weaver fights to gain traction on the ice.
We watch the spider struggle until, in pity, my father uses a fallen leaf to scoop her up
and place her in front of her web. She hesitates, legs clicking against legs, then scuttles
down the bank and back to where she began. My father reaches for another leaf—
guides the spider back to her web before we go. On the walk home, everything sounds
like someone is holding my head underwater and I feel chicken-wrung,
more naked than the trees.
Spring: my middle sister makes gnocchi for our father’s birthday. Long fingers coil flour,
potato, yolk to make the dough. When he gets home, she will be the one to tell him
our youngest sister is on the roof again. He’ll fold himself as small as he can be and crawl
through the window to hold her, let her drum pearl-knuckled fists against his chest
until the storm inside her calms. He’ll gather her body, light as a paper crane, and carry her
inside to bed. After, downstairs at the table, I’ll hand him a glass of wine
the color of the blood we share and when he drinks it, for a moment, I will feel like I am
looking in a mirror. We, the quieter sisters,
reach for his hands.
My mother’s city sprawls like thunder
beneath the smog-pinked sky:
a ruddy hand, palm to God, fingers radiating
out to unclaimed desert in every direction.
I count my stepfather’s pills for the week
to give my mother a break. I take coffee
from the cupboard and drink out of a mug
with her name etched in the clay.
This house is not mine anymore.
It makes my body feel small, until there is
nothing left of me here but a picture
in the hall from my childhood:
my younger self, peeking from behind
my mother’s legs on her wedding day
to smile at her new husband, one palm
on her knee, one palm reaching for his face.
To keep busy while they sleep, I clean
all traces of myself from the kitchen.
The cat wails. I take out the trash, inhale
damp clay through a nose like my father’s.
Fingers flush Navajo blue, swollen
as the Colorado between monsoons.
Near the gate, a grackle taps at the place
where sidewalk slopes into red earth.
When her beak lodges, caught below
the concrete lip, she uses her claws
to pull it free in a scrubbing
of feathers and blood.
In the morning,
I’ll sleep on the plane back to Maryland.
My partner will ask how my mother is doing,
which isn’t well, which is a story
we are trying not to tell, and I’ll think about
a dream I sometimes I have, where I take off
my hands and bury them in my mother’s backyard—
some gruesome evidence of my homecoming
as keloidal bumps in the clay.
To the Stargazer, as She Dresses for Bed—
You tell me again, to explain why you cover your body up:
For years, you’ve lifted your eyes to the same cosmic blueprint your father
could see above his post in Sarajevo, looking for evidence to reject
the parts of you that whisper, You are flesh. You are ruined. You are full
of light that will someday go dark. This is the animal you can’t escape:
When you were sixteen, your father returned from Bosnia wrecked
by guilt over his absence. The day you argued and he hurled himself
into your truck-bed as you tried to leave, kicking the back window
into your shoulders, you told him you wished he were still overseas.
You didn’t stay to hear his reply. You ran to your bedroom and hid
until it was dark enough to see the constellation of your birth. Cancer,
the crab, watched your father sweeping up the glass you left behind.
As she watched you too,
you dressed for bed, separating your skin from starlight. You pulled
your nightshirt over your head and there, where the light couldn’t reach,
you heard a low hum, like white noise slicked at the edges of a still
unfolding universe shaped by everything humans have sent away.
The stars that form Cancer’s claws were the dimmest pinpricks
of failing light, ready to flicker out one by one.
Reflected in night sky, your question:
what does being human sound like?
When you woke, the truck was waiting in the driveway and your father
was at the sink, throwing open the curtains on the kitchen window.
Cooking Goat Curry in Silver Spring, Maryland
It all sounds like the beginning of a joke
with an uncomfortable punchline: two white lesbians
try to braise a goat shoulder.
We’ve made a game out of cooking foreign cuisines
together. How typical, that you think braising
a goat is exotic, our neighbors observe rightly.
We gather cumin, turmeric, and coriander
with small hands. Rub fingers below heavy bone,
work yogurt into the caustic joint, the swarthy muscle.
It cost us nothing, a gift from an enthusiastic butcher.
We don’t shoot the shit, as unfamiliar meat
thaws and the cat yowls beneath the table.
Instead, we drink wine while the flesh softens
and wonder: was this goat grass-fed? Castrated?
Are we enlightened, in our knowing the body’s history?
Ruth Elizabeth Morris is an M.F.A candidate and English lecturer at the University of Maryland. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in [PANK], Cargoes, and the Album. She is currently the Assistant Editor for apt. literary journal.