Three Poems by Aileen Bassis

Excerpts and Additions to A Plantation Owner’s Diary

I. February 1709
      I rose at 5 o’clock this morning and read a chapter in Hebrew
      and 200 verses in Homer’s Odyssey.

He ate battered eggs and pork,
beef hash and buttered bread,

drank French wine and apple cider,
played dice and cards and walked about his land

but didn’t give a name to the negro woman
who ran away three times:

One time, she left her hoe lying in a field.
One time she ran with a bit fixed between her lips.

He put her in a shack, tied her hands and feet.
She escaped when it was dark.

Some said she was free up north in Canada.
Others said she wandered, dying in the swamp-lands

among cypress trees and button willows
and vines of bittersweet.

II. October 1711

About 4 we dined. My man’s horse was lame.
A stop along a journey,
a traveler’s inn,
a narrow room lit
by a tallow candle—fleshy scent,
Footsteps above, below,
a whinny from the stable,
—door creaks.

At night I asked a negro girl to kiss me.
Soft He calls—grabs Her hand,
grass-stuffed mattress rustles, ropes sag.
Her eyes flicker a yellowing light.
Down She bends to press her plum lips
to bristles—tasting wine, tasting meat.

A vein along Her neck tightens
like a rein threaded through a ring
and She swallows as if Her mouth
held a stone digging along Her tongue.

Their shadow stretches up
the patterned wall, a shape
monstrous as a minotaur
with a great and nodding head
and blind-eyed tiny flowers flicker
in the candle’s flame: some blue
some red, some pinker than a tongue
that darts between His teeth.

III. May 1712

My wife caused several of the people whipped
for their laziness…I ate some boiled beef.

Cat-o-nine Tails:
            Nine Knotted Leather Lashes
                 Oak Handle,
                       Oiled
                           Smooth

Visitation

Among spent tulips and empty coffee cups,
a pigeon lands.
He coos.

One bead of eye stares back at me,
glimmering like a dropped coin.
His beak opens.
I almost think he’s about to speak.

 

I remember reading a line from Rilke with you,
Perhaps the same bird echoed through both of us
yesterday, separate, in the evening.

You made grilled cheese sandwiches.
We paged through your book
of Italian paintings and marveled
at worshippers and saints.
Their graceful hands and humble feet.

 

You’ve been gone for many years.
Who else thinks of your cheekbone’s thrust
beside your brown-blond hair
your eyes like fractured marbles.
Were they hazel or streaky green?

I remember the faint brush of corduroy,
and a moment when sun lit
the bristly edges of your hair
into a halo.

The last time we spoke, your voice
had a stranger’s sound
as if you already were in a distant place
that I couldn’t travel to.

 

If only you could come back,
feathered, proud in purple-gray.

You could tell me of roosting in treetops,
of puddles’ shivering caress,
of your dominion over sparrows
and disdain for heavy creatures
who can’t lift wings and fly.

But light as floating pollen,
hollow as a bird-bone.
once more you slip away. 

In Casaprota

Look darling, crocuses are blooming
at our feet with petals open like hands waiting
to receive our gifts and it’s as if Autumn
has taken a few days off
to ride away on the back of a Vespa,

arms clasped round a man smelling
of hair gel, starch and lust.
O the sun is glaring
brighter than a taste of limoncello.
I hear someone calling, Bella, Bella Signora,

from the crowd at Bar Micarelli but I can’t see
who it is. Wind blurs my eyes and I grip your arm.
But no, we’ve been misled—Autumn’s back,
her skirt askew, winking a lace slip. Thirsty dear?
Want a spritz? Aperol or Campari?

WhatsApp is vibrating my phone back to life
with jpgs of toddlers smearing strawberries
across their cheeks. It’s a sign to drink
Campari. The glass’ red glow is an omen
that only birds can read and I’ll depart cawing

ciao, to everyone as we drive clapping
cobblestones and Peroni cans. And just when
I think, this trip is over, a cat will meow,
Aspetta un momento, with a mouth open
as a seashell and a nose that’s crocus pink.

Aileen Bassis is a New York visual artist working in book arts, printmaking, photography and installation. Her use of text in art led her to explore another creative life as a poet. She was awarded an artist residency in poetry to the Atlantic Center for the Arts. Her poems have appeared in B o d y Literature, Spillway, Grey Sparrow Journal, Canary, Stone Canoe, The Pinch Journal, Two Hawks Quarterly and Leveler Poetry.

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