Sandra Kohler – Five Poems
September, the autumnal equinox. The backyard
is full of the fragrance of the tree hydrangea, which is
half summer’s pink-white, half autumn’s pink-green.
Friends are planning a solstice party. I want to
give an equinox party, stay up all night, all day.
What gusts, gushes, bursts of wind. The cherry
tree is agitato, the hydrangea allegro. A squirrel runs
along the telephone wires. For a moment, that falling
leaf seems to be a monarch butterfly; I haven’t seen
many of them this summer. My granddaughter’s crying –
having a bad dream? A happy child with bad dreams.
Unhappiness punctuates the life of even a child who’s
happy: frustration, pain, hunger, anger. All of these
along with a joy welling from some inexhaustible
source which life continues to consume. Last night
I dream a list of all the skills one must marshall to bury
the dead. The list’s in front of me, printed on a square
of paper in block letters. The only word I remember
is “liminer.” A liminer: someone who knows how
to negotiate edges, verges, cusps: turning points.
It’s now, in winter, that
the nests of birds are exposed,
visible: black stumps of some
aborted growth studding
the bare branches of winter’s
trees, thick clots perilously
stuck into a web of crossing
limbs they clutch as if in
a child’s drawing, whose
caption would read here,
here is where birds
live in summer, here is
what they built last spring
and left last fall, here
is what they could
come back to in
another spring, if
La luce languisce – the light is fading – the Italian phrase
of the day which I read at dawn describes this evening’s
sky, arrayed like a siren in veils of stratus, blue-pink,
pearl gray, gray-blue, diagonal scarves pulled across it.
If I dream that the dog of my mornings can be walked
without a leash, does it mean I’ve become domesticated
to my new life? The leaves are stirring. I’ve come to live
on a street paved with gold, but its paving lasts only a
season and mixes rotten flesh-colored fruit with its gold
coin, leaves. I’ve lost the gift seeds I meant to scatter
in fall. I am waiting for this to end: this being must
do, its constant stream. Nights, waking, I worry duty’s
old bone. In the elevator where dream has placed me
with a mother and child, I find unexpected openings,
blockages. A door becomes a wall, a wall a door. What
is the door closed to me, what is the door opening?
What will I miss seeing if I don’t turn toward it, how
do I know which way to turn? It is my life’s pattern:
out of control, changeable. All my attempts to shape
it are waste. How to turn waste to ways when everything
weighs? How do I make myself lighter? I repeat myself.
Repetition is sacred. Days recur. What has changed
in my life since yesterday? Everything, nothing.
Dawn at Pleasure Bay: planes
gliding in from the north, against
shades of blue, gray, cream, rose.
Distances marked by small tokens,
towers; a bird, a beacon, a bridge,
the range of trees on a far island.
Winds marshal shapes and weights
of cloud – rays, billows, masses, bars.
At the verge of the beach, two gulls
raise their beaks, ululate.
December’s cold moon, setting,
is ripe October: moon pumpkin,
fat and orange, hung on the skyline
among skyscrapers lit and flickering
in dawn’s electric hour, radiating
emblem of some exotic offering,
logo of a world winter has never
fire burning on.
A woman walking past me at
the beach says “look at it, it’s like
communion” pointing at the full moon
low on the horizon. “It’s like the wafer.”
How the host must loom before her,
some source illuminating it so that it
radiates a power I can’t imagine.
She has transformed this moon
for me; looking at its glow now
become communion, a host’s
freight of promise, meaning
opening to me.
All morning I remember scraps
of dreams, coming first as memory,
then realization, no that didn’t happen,
I must have dreamt it. Absorbing
dreams into memory, experiencing
them in some future as “real,”
we become what we dream.
Driving home last night, it was
the roundabouts that unnerved me,
those almost invisible divergences from
a straight path turned necessary
choices in the road. How shall I
learn to navigate the dark?
I wake wondering about my
mother’s childhood, her relationship
with her parents. Younger, I was afraid
I’d be a mother like her. I was and was
not. In the old photographs I saw
of them, her parents are rigid, faces
tight as a corset, a straining vest.
How orphaned I feel at times.
To see death everywhere is to ignore
life everywhere. To a Buddhist both
are equally unreal, phenomenal.
It’s phenomenal, we exclaim joyfully,
and the Buddha laughs.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
I can never write on the days I have to walk across the square to buy cigarettes.
……………………………………….– Somerset Maugham
Thank you, Ina, for sending me this fine excuse for
the inexhaustible possibilities of laziness,
the unwillingness of body and spirit to write.
The desire for dense bread, the desire for
sleep, the desire for work to be easy – no, hard,
but clear, glassy, transparent, all-revealing.
The work is a series of counterpanes, blankets
you lift, as if looking for the princess’ pea. One
day, it’s a pair of shoes I’ve lost: green suede, but
when I find them, they’re gold; transformed like
the orts I make poems: pleasure, life and death.
If the shoe fits, I’ll get under the covers and
wait to be transformed, hag into queen. I’m wearing
white taffeta, a dress so ugly I put on a teeshirt
to cover it. I will buy black clothes, I will teach
astronomy, I will stop accounting for myself.
Angering my mother, I make rag dolls out of
the family’s secret bones. I am hauling myself from
one floor to another of a huge warehouse full of
shorted-out machinery, in a cage I operate by pulley,
bearing my own weight, the weight of the cage.
It’s hard to do it all in one trip. There is only
one trip to do it in. We wear the chains we forge
in life, Miss Beryl reminds us. Encaged, jewels
in a setting. Onyx, amethyst, chalcedony.
Can a jewel make its cage golden?
I am writing for time, clarity, the lucidity of parsed
moments. I am writing to leave a small fossil that
says I lived pressed into the medium that killed me.
From Sandra Kohler’s The Ceremonies of Longing
Sandra Kohler is a poet and teacher. Her third collection of poems, Improbable Music, (Word Press) appeared in May, 2011. Earlier collections are The Country of Women (Calyx, 1995) and The Ceremonies of Longing, winner of the 2002 Associated Writing Programs Award Series in Poetry (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003). Her poems have appeared in journals, including Tar River Poetry, The New Republic, The Beloit Poetry Journal, Prairie Schooner, and many others over the past 40 years. Born in New York City in 1940, Kohler attended public schools there, Mount Holyoke College (A.B., 1961) and Bryn Mawr College (A.M., 1966 and Ph.D., 1971). She has taught literature and writing in venues ranging from elementary school to university, and still teaches adult education courses. A resident of Pennsylvania for most of her adult life, she moved to Boston in 2006.