My mother named me before she knew
me, before my father came
to make me. Even Adam, the great namer,
saw the beasts before he burdened them with names.
I’ve pounded and scraped the cell of my name.
Once, for many years, I kept it
pared down like a fingernail –
the single crescent syllable –
the indivisible atom –
the unshakeable Kate.
Sometimes I dashed back to the given, Katherine,
like a child to its mother’s skirts, to sign
a document, to feel full-grown. My mother
went along as I tampered with the name she chose.
Some days now, I need more. I tell new manicurists,
tire technicians, barkeeps in other countries
I am Sophia or Helen or Rose,
that my mother named me Genevive or Julia.
My own name is still a lie
I tell, the same as these.
Had I slipped into the menagerie
in Eden, between tiger and nightingale,
near the end of the line,
what would Adam call me?
Perhaps names need time
to finally fit the thing they mean,
a house we have to learn to live in and then,
find ourselves referring to as home.
My mother named me when I was the sound
wind made in her youth, the flicker of love
before she fell into it, before there were
words for its warmth. Someday, when I am old,
I think I will hear her calling my name in the wind
and I will finally say yes,
that is me,
I am coming.
The Good News
Today, 350,000 babies will be born.
Yesterday, they were all on their way,
almost with us, not here yet,
but today, they will arrive. All of them,
three hundred and fifty thousand of them
in a single revolution of the earth.
Alone and in pairs, screaming and silent,
headfirst and feetfirst, they are coming,
another dozen every second, no matter how
many forests we bulldoze or bullets we fire.
They arrive and arrive like a laugh
we can’t stifle even at funerals or faculty meetings,
a cup fuller each time we come for a drink.
No matter how many barrels of oil
we pump from the desert or dump in the ocean,
how many units of blood we transfuse into soldiers,
they arrive and arrive, the good news
we can’t wait to tell our buddies, the dog’s tail
thumping the carpet at five o’clock, fish
and loaves multiplying in the hands of Christ, unstoppable
even after we push back from the table, full to bursting.
And these are just humans.
What glut of joy to count, as well,
the millions of featherless birds bucking
shells, minnows clumsy in cold currents,
downy puppies with flat noses, or the lowly billion
tomatoes taking seed, acorns gaining purchase,
moss doubling on hundred-year-old trees
and the just-as-likely infants on triple-distant moons
orbiting planets we haven’t named.
But our home, today, before you fall asleep,
will be 350,000 babies richer, 700,000 lungs louder,
fanned by billions of eyelashes. And if you’re low,
if you’ve watched too much news or fallen
out of love or lost your keys or your faith,
or if all of the sunsets begin to look alike,
just picture them all, 350,000 babies, together at once,
a city’s worth of them in a row or a circle or wrapped
in an acres-wide blanket, an army of innocence yawning
their first breaths over the globe, and the promise
that it will all happen again, just like this, just as imperfectly,
no matter what,
I pump my breasts
in a campus supply closet. Exposed
pipes rattle in one corner, envelopes
and letterhead, erasers, grime
from the air vent blanketing
the overstuffed cubicle.
Next to the hard chair and the stand
holding condiments and off-brand hand sanitizer
(squeezed in to meet
is a shelf of dated textbooks bound
for recycling. Sometimes
to forget I am vacuuming out my son’s
first food in a windowless hole,
I read: the milk infused with apples
when I read Frost, salt
for Hemingway. Today,
I am low. Like the Bible opening
to the page you need, I found Knight
dried out and smoking poems in his single cell –
Bukowski, boxer, scribbling
in the cage of hourly hotels
between jobs and prostitutes. I don't
want to think how they’ll taint my milk,
but I cling to their clawing up beauty
in the grotesque, paint peeling
to reveal some single, lonesome truth.
I write this poem with three-days-dirty hair
boxing through the seventh month
of dusty heartache, joy like waves
that thrill, but level castles, of iron pills
and metered sleep in caves of blankets,
afternoons, no Lexapro, no booze
so the milk stays clean. The poem
creeps up to knock a knuckle
on the bars. The poem knows hunger,
knows there’s someone waiting, desperate
to be fed. The poem rushes forth,
and would not exist, like so many others,
without a hell for its return address.
Pearl River, Louisiana, 1859
The truth was, the body was alone.
Liza’s torn loins, raw cried-out lips,
swollen eyes were altogether separate
from the soul. Her soul was three days
in its grave with her newborn son, decaying.
Her body, alone, endured, cleaved to life:
the last doomed oak leaf in the fall.
She was sold in a rush while her milk
still flowed, knocked around in a hard wagon
two nights, her dress soaked with cold,
stinking milk and afterbirth. The body was a fool,
wouldn’t hear from the heart that the boy was dead.
It made the dead boy’s milk hard-headedly.
She’d been bought by a farmer – tobacco thick
in the air, locked in his room – whose wife bled to death
bearing a son. This boy’s body was the color
of peach skin, a little yellowed, eyes still closed.
His mother would have called him beautiful.
Liza couldn’t look straight at him, motherless
and simple as he was. He only had to smell her
to open his thin red lips and nurse, desperation
dulling in his throat. It had the nerve to be April,
Liza thought, feeding him in the gray shade
of a new morning. Spider lilies, violets, separate from her,
from the boy, bloomed in the yard. The earth
spoke its mother tongue, easy and familiar with itself,
not slowing for a body who had lost the language.
The boy opened his eyes. Trembling, Liza shifted,
held his skull, looked at him straight on, felt what God must feel
when he tires of us – the thread-thin membrane
of our lives always almost over. Her body, alone,
drew up some final, weary tenderness, held on
to this boy, alone, and let him have her.
Charleston, South Carolina, 1864
Lenore had learned to sew skin before dresses,
dress combat wounds in scanty light, lit fires with bark
and sheet music. Her first blood had pooled
in her homespun dress, camouflaged
with the blood of others. After disease or grief
or their gentle natures did the other women in,
Lenore and a slave girl, Josephine, begged
and learned by heart the body’s fields and rows,
its floodplains, forests, streams, and even
how to set a bone, pull a tooth. They gave the men,
too tired to protest their youth, homemade whiskey
before they cut away ruined skin.
They held their dinner down, breathed through
their mouths, sat vigil and sang Josephine’s work songs.
Girls were good for work like this,
she thought, as Josephine slept briefly in her arms.
The sun rose on some thousandth day of war,
and she, who’d never seen a baby born, had seen
the other way life goes, the slow or sudden flicker
of the end. The girls would wash each other’s faces
in the night, sleep together, quietly agreed
that any good soft secret left unbloodied
ought to be consumed. Girls were good for love
like this, sequestered from the bullet wounds
of war. They smoked tobacco with the soldiers
who could breathe, shared their food, held hands
over the dying and heard their prayers, a woman’s work.
Tehran, Iran, 1941
In his youth, the boy had left his mother’s house
early in the morning, tied on his apron,
and spent days infusing whipped cream with roses
to garnish the Persian Love cakes, triple-sifting chickpea flour
for cookies in the window case. He lived a life
of honey, of nectar, of the sweetest milk until
the English came from below and the Russians
came from above and the war laced its taste
through them all. Then, his mother died,
the country curled in on itself in war,
and he left her house early in the morning,
tied on his apron, and made piles of plain loaves
to hand out to the starving.
Day they came and night they came. Time
was measured in morning lines and evening lines.
The mind can preserve the smell of rose-laced cream
for such a little time before it goes, and is replaced
with gunpowder, dust like flour, blood like cream.
For himself, he forgot it all (the recipes, sweetness)
the winter night he saw the huddled mother
nursing her baby against the bakery’s front steps
long after the crowds had gone. He took her
the last half roll of bread, his own mother’s ghost
urging him out into the frozen wind.
When he came to her, though, he saw that she had died.
But still, as the snow fell, her child nursed desperately,
determined that this last sweet thing would last the night.
Missoula, Montana, 1950
Dot pushed her cart, laden with Lux Flakes
on sale and the Ritz Crackers her husband liked
crumbled on his casseroles. Her son giggled,
hid in the cart, trying to disappear beneath the boxes.
A familiar fog curtained her thoughts, his laughter
lovely but muted, as if an aisle removed.
She shook loose, straightened her dress, pushed
the boy and his boxes past the cake flour
and frozen TV dinners to the back wall stacked
with little jars of baby food. Her husband Jim
liked to say, “Look at the boy, meat on his bones!”
and delighted in feeding him spoonfuls of greens
while they watched Popeye on the television set
on weekends. She found herself trying to muster
a smile at the thought when another cart
stopped short on the same row. “Oh,”
said June Polcek. “Hello, Dot.” Dot’s mouth
went dry. Panic flicked through her gut
as if she’d come shopping naked. Her hands
flew to her collar, confirmed its presence.
“Hello, June,” she replied, dropping the Gerbers jars
into the basket and reaching out a gloved hand to shake.
June reached over her pregnant belly and took it.
They could have been strangers, acquaintances from church,
Dot thought, if other shoppers saw them. But Dot read
an old familiar flicker in June’s eyes. Frozen
there, fingers fixed in June’s, Dot did not fight
the memory of another time, both their palms calloused
from mill work they’d taken on while their husbands
were at war. June’s hand was like a baby’s now,
uncertain, underused. “How far along?” she asked,
hushing her guilt and relief at not knowing sooner,
not talking babies, calling, lending clothes.
June smiled, still holding her hand. “Just another month.”
She placed Dot’s hand on her belly without asking,
drawing her whole body forward. Their eyes locked.
Dot’s son fidgeted in the cart, restless. Dot felt the shock
of her own coming tears as she stood, flanked by bright cereal boxes,
pulverized, jarred food, fluorescent lights, body trapped
in starched clothes, touching the woman she had touched
so often once, the woman she had whispered to, woken nightly,
the radio mumbling its bad news in the next room.
Shreveport, Louisiana, 1986
The woman’s gangling teenaged sons had been sent
to stay with friends, husband to hunt deer. Dreamily,
she wiped counters, and all at once, the ladies came.
Marabella and Dancia and their Great Aunt Mae,
the women she had loved as girls and their daughters
and mothers and sisters until the woman’s Baptist
kitchen was pregnant with Catholics and a twenty-pound goose.
At thirty-six, there were no guarantees for babies,
and less than none for girls. But Aunt Mae, all knuckles
and cataracts, knew recipes for everything – even, she said,
girlchildren late in life. All day, the bird roasted
and the women basted, said rosaries, chopped garlic
and laughed at jokes in bad taste. They painted nails
and laid healing hands on the woman’s belly,
spoke to Mother Mary and their ancestors and
the ghosts of women who had lived there before.
Sun dripped out of the windows, candles came,
sistersongs and red wine saved for desperate days.
They ate the sacrificial meat, loved each other, said farewell.
They’d find out soon: Aunt Mae’s magic took.
A spell-born daughter quickened, made her way.