Five poems by Kathleen S. Burgess

 

Upstairs

On a bicycle, she’s standing to pedal uphill.
She’ll have to pedal the bike nearly as hard
to go back down. Once a gift, it’s old now.

She longs for responsive. A frame aluminum-
light, thin racing tires, high saddle, cables,
derailleurs, brake levers, 10 speeds or more.

But because it’s out of reach, she sweats
in the cool weather, tops the hill, pants
three flights to a new girlfriend’s walk-up.

As they chat, she peels off her sweater—
bulky gray knit with a loose, rolled collar.
In the ‘60s, young women wear no bras.

She’s bare from bluejeans up as they drink
cups of herbal tea. Honey incenses the air
when a brother and his friends clatter in.

Who’s most shocked is a toss-up. The men
gape at two breasts that stare back at them.
There are nervous introductions, small talk.

One woman says, My eyes. Look at my eyes
when you speak, then indicates by gesture,
Up here. And laughs as though a woman

half naked is nothing new. If faces redden,
no one notices. Young men open the ‘fridge
and then back away. They’ll remember this.

 

Birding in Ohio

Absence, or erasure, which is the diction
of the endangered, the unsteady flights
against a jet stream toward extinction?

Bobwhite? A girl’s answer, a question
for a question, that burns with the shard
of memory. The loss a phantom pain.

Grown old, still she listens every year
for echoes through meadow and tree,
down Appalachian foothills, silvery runs.

By a trail once railroad, now macadam,
almost level, almost straight, an early
wet on Queen Anne’s lace and beebalm

magnifies the small. Red trumpet vine,
Virginia creeper braid into the canopy.
Stay off my land, the poison ivies warn.

A dozen goldfinches, two cardinals flame
above the path. No mockingbirds, no bees
no bluebirds. Only robins’ warbled claims.

She’s blind to the mohawk-tufted crowns,
speckled ocarina shapes hidden on the lea.
Bobwhites! Again before they’re gone.

 

To write a poem I could memorize

ars poetica for Rose M. Smith

would require uncommon simplicity,
obvious patterns, fleshed metaphor,
an animal—say, a giraffe—grazing
grasslands reclaimed from strip mines.

What’s forced beneath those mines,
near The Wilds of Cumberland, Ohio,
harvests tremors foreboding and real,
yet the language used to hide that truth

is about believing and turning a blind eye.
The giraffe is an example of an herbivore,
the addled guide tells an open-air safari bus
of tourists. Or an herbivore is an example 

of a giraffe. Thirteen lines in, I’m losing
the gist of the exercise in the drift of
giraffes crossing the dirt road before us.
And I begin to see predators stalk

through summer grass and scrub trees,
the land aflame in wind-poor heat,
elemental need. Something, maybe a cheetah,
quickens a life to terror. To bleed.

It’s one life to feed the other.

 

Dawn of Goodbyes

Mine? A gift from my neighbor Windy, a model
with the Ford Agency, until a semi turned, crushed
it in the curb lane where she waited for the light.

What did she come away with? Five surgeries.
A necklace of scars and a Buick Riviera. Time
to think about a new job. The salvage Corvair?

A hole opens in the floorboard, and I see the road.
The spray off the highway drenches my left leg.
Driving to work at the motel, in the Corvair, I

feel lucky to be 19 and the night-shift manager
handing out towels, lightbulbs, toothpaste, soap,
directions, the usual two-stroke conversations.

In the morning, maids clean and air the rooms.
Strip beds. Scrub, vacuum. Call in to the desk.
Hot breakfast from six, a picture postcard view.

On break I walk outside through rows of cars.
Notice the patrons’ license plates. I’ve parked
between Vermont and California. Saved wages

every month. Maybe I’ll cross America. Maybe
take a tour overseas. Can I manage it, the travel?
It’s a question for a lost-and-found Magic 8 Ball.

Reply hazy. Try again. Hazy, like my windshield,
slow wipers, no defrost. On a third cup of coffee,
I decide to see the world. Even hitchhike to Peru?

Signs point to yes.

 

Crosstown

No buses fume by, so I swing my thumb north,
a magnetic needle, Connecticut to Cathedral.
I’m not worried because it’s common in 1970.
In D.C. traffic I’ve learned more drivers stop
when I wear tie-dye. I’ve learned to deflect
the fantasies by getting to know the drivers:
The business men. A pimp. The Venezuelan
banker who would fly me to Caracas, a hotel
on the beach, while he meets with the IMF.
Three smoking Indians offer a BIA post.
I answer, Save it for an Indian woman.

These propositions aren’t for me. I’m leaving
my job to travel south with Ted. Some days
someone passes a hand-rolled joint. Take
today: dark, curly hair under a Donegal cap,
about thirty, with a beard. His blue eyes
spark like a fuse. He’s so Irish I can’t help
but match his brogue with my simulation.
I’m at least a quarter Irish, and the accent
is close enough, ‘cause Donny accepts that
we’re Irish comrades. Two miles to go, and
firing over politics, he invites me for a pint

with friends who’ve escaped from Ireland.
Jail. The Troubles. Troubles? Tell me more.
A shadow crosses his face to a total eclipse.
Fizzling, he demands, What’s yer religion?
I’ve a dark side, too, and snap, Methodist.
What’s tha’? Air ye Protestant ‘r‘ Cath’lic?
Stuck for once, I stammer, Uh, uh Protestant.
Get out, ye faithless skirt! Donny brakes hard,
reaches over me, explodes the door. I’m out,
dodging traffic. He’s off. Indignant smoke.
Faithless is it?! Skirt?! Next ride, better story.

 
Kathleen S. Burgess, poet, editor, retired music teacher, union officer, statistical typist, server, solderer, videographer, and hitchhiker through North, Central, and South America, has poetry appearing in North American Review, The Examined Life, Evening Street Review, Malpaís Review, Turtle Island Quarterly, Mudfish, Atticus Review, r.kv.r.y, and other journals and anthologies. Her chapbook, Shaping What Was Left,and the anthology she edited, Reeds and Rushes—Pitch, Buzz, and Hum, are Pudding House publications. Hitchhiking through Ruins and The Wonder Cupboard are forthcoming. She and husband Jack live in Chillicothe, Ohio.

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