Wednesday Sep 20

Slachman Virginia Slachman, former poetry editor of Aspen Anthology and Associate Director of The Aspen Writers conference, is the author of two collections of poetry. Also the recipient of the Elliston Prize in Poetry, an Ohio Individual Artists prize, Slachman publishes in magazines such as Salmagundi and River Styx. She currently serves as associate professor of English at Principia College, where she teaches literature as well as beginning and advanced courses in creative writing.
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An Old  Photo of My Father
 
 
I’d rather not look
at you, it’s not my habit
to make up stories
about the dead. But I know you
 
were there, not that day necessarily,
but then—at that particular time
and place. The caddies are thin
 
with the Depression. No food, clothes
no work. What abounded
was poverty—
 
your brother gone, mother dead. Your father
called you Nukham due to affection
 
for his wife—she had
called you that. You, he bid
jump off the porch into his arms and then
at the last second, moved
saying “Don’t trust anyone.”
 
What you ate
was dust. Dust to dust—you and the rest
of those boys in the photo, every day
down on the dirt
 
of the golf course—no money
to water. Grown men beat you
for that meager job, paid a nickel
a round. Nukham! Maybe you hear
 
her calling you out the back screen
door I can hear slam shut.
In that photo the book fell open to
 
at the museum—I’d rather not look
at you. Is it you? Behind that tall
 
sad, thin boy with cap askew, peering
out a century ago? At me standing where
 
you might have been standing
at that exact moment? Is it
you? Can you hear me, Nukham?
 
 

Dog Park with a Nun Down on Her Knees
 
 
That’s me over there with the book of poetry
at the dog park. Lily, the glistening chocolate lab
 
I rescued, sniffs around a little, glances my way with her
pale eyes, red around the rims all summer, itchy,
 
full of what my mother called “sleepers” she’d
clean out of my eyes each morning as I do
 
for Lily, murmuring to her in consoling tones
since she’s scared of the world. When I got
 
her, she didn’t know what grass was having been
a breeding dog, kept in a cage. That was her job.
 
Everything made her tremble. Not just her haunches,
her whole body shook. I flip my book open to the poem
 
I’d saved for here, one about being sent away as a
child and longing for mother. I didn’t long
 
for my mother, she was always right in front of me.
Starkly there sometimes. Now Lily trots towards
 
me and I see another dog has come to the park—
dangerous Lily thinks, so she moves closer
 
but never close enough for me to touch her, stuck there
between me and the unknown. The world is dangerous
 
but we can’t stand there struck as if from metal.
 
This is what I want to tell her and the girl
in the poem who can’t seem to move past the gates
 
of the convent or find her way home so she comes
to a new world. She could be my twin or at least a simpatico
 
friend. Like Lily. For me it was St. Justin
the Martyr I couldn’t get away from as a child. If you
 
see a painting of him, you’d think what a God-awful
soul that one is, his face screwed in a perpetual grimace
 
he’d surely not want to turn God’s way. But he was
a pagan boy turned Christian turned philosopher and
 
I can see where that would tend to twist you up having
tried it myself. In the poem the girl has to wash herself
 
without looking and chafe the convent floor with a drunk
nun. That was her job. St. Justin’s bones allegedly (that’s how

they put it) are housed at Sacrofano, a name I love,
near Rome. The town sounds to me like a blend of the sacred
 
and the profane, and I want to tell that little girl to get off
her knees and go to Rome where she might find St. Justin
 
of the Martyr’s bones whispering his proof that God
exists. Maybe she could understand having spent so much
 
time suffering on her knees. I need someone to help,
 
like her, like the rest of us, and proof, but I could
never listen long enough to keep track of what St. Justin
 
the Martyr was saying—it was all Greek, God’s little
Joke on me, and on Lily, who is now watching
 
as the young woman throws a Frisbee for her dog. But Lily
has her eye on the wrong thing—the dog not the Frisbee,
 
in fact I don’t even know if she sees the Frisbee, it’s like
God to her, invisible. Invisible to the drunken nun too
 
and my mother who was also drunk most of the time, but
drug me to St. Justin of the Martyr church just the same, week
 
in and week out like I drag Lily to the dog park, hoping
I guess, that one day, she’ll understand that life is worth the risk.
 
It’s a new world I want to tell her which is what I’ve learned
from this poem. A new world— one it’s our job to enter,
trembling and red around the eyes, making it up as we go.
 
 

When I Think of Those Sundays
 
 
The lone photo of us on that wrought iron park bench.
Low light, cold as those days could be—coats
zipped and buttoned. My dad bends over me, wool hat
pinched in front, pushed back, black wavy hair framing his face.
And arching over him: a Dogwood sending out early white blooms,
little stars in the night.
 
My father loved the zoo, or loved watching
me love it. We’d walk its pathways, hand in hand.
The World’s Fair aviary, a black iron cage, rose so high I thought
all the birds in the world could fit under its dome.
Pink flamingos in the summer, deep blue-green mallards.
 
I’d ride my father’s shoulders, then Gurnsey the elephant,
if we found her in her cage reeking of stale hay, urine, and mold,
chained to the floor behind steel bars. The keeper’s hooked prod
made her kneel. I’d climb up past her black eye, sit behind her ears,
nearly touching the roof. She’d shift from foot to foot
and I’d wave down at my father.
 
They sent her away after she went mad. The little prarie dogs too,
and the flamingoes. Phil the Gorilla—dead now half a century.
And the red boulders painted to look like they came from the other side of the world.
 
All those early, promising blooms.
 

 
Progress
 
 
Miss Tillie Ashley won the half-mile boat-rowing race
in 1894. The same year they built what she called
that monster toboggan slide so, months away, even
girls could hurtle onto ice
 
wire-brushed for their skating pleasure. All that summer,
girls rowed about Miss Tillie’s lake indolently beneath parasols—
well-brought up Victorians, properly scanning the perimeter
for husbands. Not Miss Tillie, who worked up
 
a glow of perspiration the paper noted, stroking herself on
to victory as wheelmen passed
on silent steeds—miracles of wire tires
and handlebars, erect in studied nonchalance, not
 
noticing her. They noticed women in long white dresses
wilting on the lawn, rackets raised demurely as if  to strike
an alluring pose, eyes downcast, who could stop the wheels
 
of progress. Waists cinched, flower-
hatted hour glasses who disdained
 
Miss Tillie. Miles away, in the brick and baking city streets, children
sickened and died. Not having a nickel for the streetcar, they missed
 
Miss Tillie’s lunge and heave, her precise and practiced
pull. They missed all the mischief on the lawn, their absence
 
not noted, nor their
habitual, invisible oppression.
 
 

St. Genevieve and the Snake
 
 
He built our house on high ground so spring rains
washed down the street from side to side, a snake
 
searching for its hole. Avoiding us, water would fill other
basements—the bad boy’s parents’ two houses up
 
as they sat in the square light of their tv as if it was a window
on a world where Jews hadn’t yet died. My father
 
made a glittery, limestone box for mother’s flowers, filled it
with black dirt, a yew, King Alfred daffodils that stood
 
like suns of another world come spring. By night she clawed
his face until it bled. Spring the apple trees bloomed white, fall
 
the three blue spruce by the curb put out the tiniest red
berries. Nights my father was away on business I slept
 
in his place, scratched my mother’s back till she drifted
off. I didn’t dare leave. If she were here now, I’d take
 
her elbow and steer her away from the war to a place
where there are no dying boys or bottles of gin
 
or vodka  or shampoo, which she drank when my
father dismantled the car and phone so she couldn’t buy
 
any more. In the summer, my best love
 
was the big black snake I used to see in the country
at our cabin in St. Genevieve named after the little virgin
 
who turned back Attila the Hun from murdering
the people of Paris. She fasted and prayed and that
 
was enough. My snake was thick as my wrist,
sunned himself on the  rock overhang to my cave
 
where I’d send up a small prayer for my grandfather’s
twin who was killed along with his family because
 
he was a Jew. The heat bore down on my snake and me,
and the trees were listless and still. Saint Genevieve
 
died in 512, but who can remember back that far
to the good deeds she did, a saint of great austerity
 
and good works. I suppose those live on like
my mother in the war behind German lines fighting
 
for the lives of all the boys who died or didn’t
die and wanted to go back to help save my grand-
 
father’s twin brother and the rest of my family. Genevieve
wore a shawl on her head and my mother wore a white
 
nurse’s hat and never cried. In the woods the mica
glittered like the limestone my father used
 
for my mother’s beautiful flowers. That’s how I’d find my
cave, follow the mica glinting in sunlight. She died
 
one spring, alone at night in a far land, far
from me. I’d watched a black and white war movie
 
with her where the nurses wore white hats
that looked like two great wings of a miraculous
 
bird that might lift us all. When I think back
that’s all I can see—those white wings and my mother
 
weeping. St. Genevieve is the saint of disasters,
fever, plague. In paintings, she has a long nose and serious
 
expression, and her prayers secured the release of many
prisoners. She was chaste and devout. My father only had
 
a few friends as a child because he was a Jew and some boys
up the street couldn’t play with him. He brought my mother boxes
 
of shoes from work. She was lucky being so small her feet
were the size of samples. I wondered how small St. Genevieve’s
 
feet were and if she cared about shoes. She may have secretly
loved snakes as I did. My mother was  small and her limestone
 
garden might be a symbol for the resurrection if only I’d
prayed enough. I think that’s why my father planted those
 
huge yellow flowers— to remind his love of his love
and that she could beat him every night if she needed to
 
but his devotion would always rise on the sure stalk
of his broken heart, glittering, gold, relentless and pure.