Poems by Debora Greger. Her poems have been published in numerous journals, including The New Yorker, Antaeus, and the American Poetry Review.
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By Debora Greger
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Rolling pants' legs, bundling skirts,
they have come down the shore with gunny sacks,
bird cages, dresses knotted together —
tonight not the moon but a run of smelt
silvers the shallows, night water's deep opacity.
Gray gone black, the wet sand chills, floor-hard
as long as, like those boys, 1 don't stand still.
Coaching and taunting, a chorus of spring frogs,
they leap the fish. Even the woman I've seen
walking daily in the village is here, the one
with her arm in a sling and a three-legged dog.
Her slowed passage rippling the crowd,
she's the domestic tamely obscured
by the raucous dark. Down from this inlet,
a basket of lights lists where the family living
on the grounded freighter finishes another
tilted day. Finally, I think, that canted home
would seem no longer maddening or novel
but cramped like any other. Out in its vast
and watery front yard, below the level of all this,
a cold current tunnels unremittingly north.
Think of the swimming
that does for flight in dreams — feet
dragging through leaves, you watch
yourself climb through a stagy light,
like this afternoon's, doubly lit
by lamps and weaker sun. How can you
not believe the merely visible?
A boy struggles into costume
over a harness that's half the magic
of theatrical flying. Like humans,
ducks are slipping on the river,
feet out from under them
across the ice. Tossed from a window,
the carrier pigeon charts a course
as long as the night stays clear,
leaving me, armchaired, to imagine
a message worth wingbeats per mile
as ground traversed brings closer
nothing but dawn. The chair's
upholstered wings shelter, stiffly;
maybe the painter was right about
a floating world: chair not resting on
but hovering just above the floor,
everyday wings keeping us
from collisions that are touch
without will. I wanted to be a book —
pages riffling with pinions,
coverts, underwings, primary
and secondary feathers of flight,
its wings falling open in your hands.
Book of Hours
Economically, she gathers her hair in one hand,
and bends to drink at the fountain.
You can see down her shirt.
If this were the beginning of a story,
you'd think so she is that kind of woman —
a dancer in street dress who can't
cover practiced grace. You might
not be right, just a man who wants
to sleep with some idea or who's read
that Chekhov described a character in The Seagull
simply as wearing checked trousers.
As in the Limbourgs' miniature of October,
a gesture illumines or betrays. Everything
has a little shadow: plowman and beast,
scarecrow, magpies, man sowing,
and footprints of that man. At the river
boats are buoyed by their reflections;
a washerwoman's image bends back so accurately
it's an abstract of the momentary. Silhouette
in the solid light, you're a man like others,
observing a breast's disembodied curve
against cloth as if later the violence
of looking, like so many buttons,
can be romantically ripped undone.
Dream Lecture, June
Today we discuss what the thunder
said to Mr. Eliot. What do I mean
by "we" that doesn't include you?
Take condensation, the very air rising
to answer rhetorical questions
on loftier planes. So in his vault
under the street, through glass
embedded in the walk, a man could sense
the light go under, the rushed rain
of footsteps give way to a condescending
like footnotes, first syllables suggesting
common knowledge the rest pointedly deny.
Even as you mark off another minute,
eighteen hundred thunderstorms forego
polite discourse. "Close," we term such air.
A second, and a hundred lightning bolts
split charred sentences. This
is what we mean by "discuss," not
your family of arguments but
the clash of charged ions rumbling
as I tear my notes. You don't believe me.
Lightning's jags cut the easiest swath
to earth. But trace them back
up the whole sky I wave before you,
chambermaid in a sanatorium beating a rug,
or patient playing maid, mad at the doctor
who accused him of being God,
playing bank clerk at his window,
pinstripes of rain streaking his pajamas
where his reflection straightens
its waistcoat. Banknotes rip
like bedlinen in the tide of wind.
Down stone stairs tumbles the realm's coinage
heavy with heads. What you hear is the kiss
of tires to wet street, easing away,
chalk taunting blackboard with erase, erase.
I'm no sidewalk preacher diagramming
states of grace before the audience
that weather's captured in a doorway
melts off, though the clock
would have it thus. Next week —
why, flying upwards toward the sun,
Sex and Herodotus
Say the Persians were right they saw
no abduction, such women going
willingly or not at all; still, it comes
to provinces plundered for metals
to be coined in a conqueror's likeness —
the etched profile that he, for all
his lording it still mortal, couldn't capture.
Flung, the bronze mirror arced
a dark moon down. Vain as a slavegirl
plumped on the greed that is survival,
a son inherited a war. The historian lied,
as he had learned, about the boundary
blurred between want and need.
To torch crops, not houses, or
the other way around, is to go down
as one who, against a blood sky,
prefigured statues twice his height
shouldering the blaze of memory
against unblistered blue. Barrows
of facts no longer useful were trundled
to the site of the Acropolis and dumped,
more fill on the loll of marble heads,
the chiseled limbs askew. Striking
knucklebones, the ivory dice of famine,
the spade rings, dully. The window
of the Parthenon Restaurant reflects
on temples of bank and burger joint
through which honey's preserved light
drips from racked sweets
where they've been sliced and smears
the knife cutting across a man's stony hand
where it pushes at the small
of a woman's back to hustle her inside.
Praised be the hatching heat
the beautiful boulders under the bridge
the shit of children with its green flies
a sea boiling and no end to it
— ODYSSEUS ELYTIS
Love's anger drives you to speech, to curse
the two-lane road twisting its curves
so tightly you have to slow, taunted
by the stream it parallels. Braiding
like conversation, the creek veneers the digs
of patience hollowing a tumble of rocks,
leaving even in dry season polysyllables,
so many synonyms for pure force,
passion's simplifications. Water insinuates;
banks erode until pines lean a roof
over streambed and then bridge it in collapse.
You curse that, too, and closeness,
molecules' reckless cascade; and perseverance,
mountain ferried grain by grain
to a distant delta where a farmer skims
blood-brown pine needles off an irrigation ditch.
Up here, in boulder's lee, a water strider
darts toward no safety, no scratch
in the surface's well-argued tension.
You curse the swim of oak leaves, light rafts
quickly swamped. And, crumpled into the slope,
a car body violently, pastorally rusting
into some animal's shelter, then alluvium.
Blue as the scattering of particles
that is night sky or deep water,
the whale fins the museum's aquarial light.
Over footstool-sized vertebrae,
engraved whalers crest pink waves,
dwarfed by the hundred pleats
of a throat. Here on sea floor,
its land-bound ancestors rear,
imagined from a few fossils
down to tear ducts their descendants
have no use for. Human skeleton,
whale effigy — with them the Nootka
induce the dead to call it back to shore,
where insupportable cause collapses
under air's clear burden of proof.
Huge lungs flutter shut
in the carnivorous air — oil enough
to burn the tribe's long nights.
Men swarm the beach like sand fleas,
closer to sand than to the enormity
before them, beginning its rot.
Queen of a Small Country
FOR MY MOTHER
Even driven horizontal by seething wind,
perpendicular to all notions of gravity,
snow keeps its furious silence
until streets are raged into stillness.
What can we speak of civilly
in the air drowning our footsteps?
Family of imbalances — is love uncalled for
squandered or to be returned? Do we turn
more direct, efficient as a fish-cleaner's knife
sliding along bones? On the river a single
ice-fisherman hugs himself in vigil:
under crust that, unprotesting, bears us
courses something like a submerged anger,
surviving this season one air pocket to the next.
Nights that summer of swing shift,
sycamores gloved street lights,
spectral as fingers held over a flashlight,
skin infused red around twigs of bone —
inside the body more opaque than night where,
however cloaked, some presence could always
be discerned — just a black dog
sniffing garbage cans. Arms night-pale
in the available light, breath tearing
in exuberant rags, I pedaled
past moth-swarmed porch lights, televisions'
ghostly gleam, houses vigilant in repose
where a motherly sentry on a prickly couch
drowsed. Or a wife lay alert
for a husband's slackened breathing
that would give her back to herself
a moment before sleep took her as well.
None of these lives was mine.
Things we don't have names for acquire them, like couplings, hardware's "male" and "female" parts, those metaphors part precise, part lewd, that leave us with the consolation of naming — my mother winding home by threads of memorized street names, from those of dead army engineers to those of trees which in that town were mostly memory, too.
A noon whistle rips air to dust,
its motes and beams giving substance
to acute winter light as that mud vessel,
the body, does. How little resemblance
our bodies bear our selves —
Pavlova insisting photos of herself
be retouched, the feet narrowed
to the lithographed points of Taglioni.
Something in me you term beautiful
that, lacking your definition,
I can't see. At the limit
of sighted thought, longing's embodied
by images as much as by lovers.
Queen of a small country unplundered
by school's geography lessons,
she inherited a land like the town
I grew in, plantain and clover
plaited into crowns the short season
before they dried, as if the present
were already being told in another person,
first in the simple past tense, as now,
and soon in the perfect. Like a body
of water, a swirled & floats between us.
Excerpted from And by Debora Greger. Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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