Read an Excerpt
Not Many Love Poems
By Linda Chase
Carcanet Press LtdCopyright © 2011 Linda Chase
All rights reserved.
In the 40s we swam
like fish in the water-turtle lake.
In the 50s we went
together on trains along the Hudson.
In the 60s we battled
waves in a storm on Lake George.
In the 70s I threw you
an apple from an upstairs window.
In the 80s I buried
you, just the once
though it feels
like a daily occurrence –
long glides, sculling.
One Summer Night
We were fourteen and thought that cigarettes
were sophisticated, cool as it gets.
Fireflies were flickering on and off
that night we sat outside and smoked. Your cough,
a punctuation in the heavy heat –
we heard a car, then voices from the street
and finally nothing made a sound except
the intermittent cricket chirps that kept
the night from drifting toward oblivion.
You took my hand, a simple act of union.
Nothing happened next. Our holding hands
was not the start of more elaborate plans.
It was the only thing we wanted then,
connecting worlds of women and of men.
Will you write to me
as if your life depended on it? Your death too?
Don't censor, don't delete, don't think things through;
just let rip straight from your gut, naturally.
A poor writer might tell little white lies
to save embarrassment, or else his ass,
his dignity, his fear, sometimes, his pride.
But I'm not having it! Open your eyes,
heart, don't watch what you say, be crude, be crass;
a true writer is one who never lied.
The Word for It
Nothing separates her from him
or from the warm corduroy of his trousers,
the even warp and weft of his oxford shirt
with its tiny mother-of-pearl buttons keeping
what might fly away, down. Nothing.
He, in those grownup clothes,
joins the softness of her in hers,
her layers of nylon, cotton and tweed,
her lipstick and perfume, still tentative,
as their wrinkling shirts untuck.
Even thoughts of words are stripped.
Here, open mouthed, stunned by where
his fingers have been drawn –
under and inside and inside again
to that place which had been hers, nameless,
that alarmingly secret source
now is blasted open by him
and she has no idea about anything
which could be said in any words she knows
or in any words she used to know.
He wants her to know the word for it
but all she wants to do is hide her shotgun face
in the crook of his arm forever.
Be Home by Midnight
We had started unbuttoning on the sofa
and my hand was nearing your zip
when a sound from upstairs gathered
and rolled down on us, halting us
in the tiny present of only ourselves.
This other presence throbbed with
shallow waves of sorrow, saying
this does not belong to you alone.
Sighs roamed through the house
like heartless jewel thieves in the dark
prising out our private new discoveries.
The Christmas tree lights were still lit
and a scribbled note on the table read,
Please turn lights off when you come in.
He turns my hand in his hand
as if to catch the light,
separating my fingers
to see my rings, one by one.
Questions and answers follow –
country, stones, when, from whom
and then my other hand
because this ritual has been
going on for fifty years
and there are no surprises,
as he counts the parts of me
and the decorations I choose.
But today I wear a bracelet,
he has never seen before,
knowing that it's to his taste,
that it will spark new attention
beyond his routine inspection.
Between the larger stones,
lodge dashes of orange abalone,
keeping spaces in between
irregular chunks of turquoise.
He fingers them around my wrist
and I'm a girl again, fluttering
through her jewellery and her life.
Once, driving up a mountain in Corsica,
you talked about storms in Colorado
which turned the trees to ice.
Then wind would make the branches craze
like crystal chandeliers chiming through the night.
You were a kid in your bed, listening.
Tonight, I want you to tell me that story again
although I know every word by heart.
Longing for cold has swamped me
like a huge coat, dragged on the ground.
It's not my coat, my love, and yet
I want each seam – each buttonhole,
the buttons themselves. I want that song
the ice trees sang in the night to a boy.
She had no map, no snakebite kit,
only the name of the mountain
where he would be looking out
from the top for smoke or smouldering.
It was rattlesnake country, bone dry
and hot and his bed was a narrow bunk
jammed beside the Fire Service radio.
His water had been carried up by mule.
I'm not going to ask you, he whispered
that night as he drew her in close
and the length of their bodies kindled
in bursts before their mouths caught.
Airstream Bubble Trailer
Somehow a double bed
fits across one end
where in day time, a table might be
with two benches facing
and a centre slot for legs.
This is a tin can miracle
of convertible space –
have what you need
and have it when you need it.
Airstream stands on its head for you.
But the table is never up
since the bed is needed day and night
and these two can eat and read and write
on their laps, sidestepping necessity
to convert to daytime mode.
Look! She has enough room
to dance in just her jeans.
The radio plays. He watches,
curled up on the bed with a book.
He reaches out his hand
and scoops her breast as it floats
for a second into his space.
Darwin would be proud of me,
I can adapt, I will survive, she thinks,
whirling toward the dance's end.
Her arms are high, her body spins,
her breasts rise up through centrifugal force.
She keeps on going faster
and then before she knows it,
she's flung herself beside him on the bed.
'Read to me,' she says, eyes closed,
and he begins, 'I saw the best
minds of my generation ...'
The Tao tells me to go on loving you
Still, those long yellow legal pads let
philosophy tuck itself in beside love.
I see your letter every day on my desk,
face up, with the Tao telling me, telling you.
Your blue ballpoint pen dents the paper yet
and I remember those big banjo hands
guiding chisels through wood, gripping a shovel
to kill a rattlesnake when you had no choice.
You told me you designed a course around
the books we read, lazy afternoons in the trailer –
Miller, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs,
their words filling our time between fucks.
And then they filled your students' time and yours
and mine again beyond the days of sex,
the living years, then dying time that even so
lets a yellow letter lie here still.
From our room
five floors up, he swings
over the courtyard,
hinged by one hand
and one foot,
buff naked, out
into the night rain.
His red hair
proving its natural
truth at crevices
and folds, head hair
lank with rain, drips
on his shoulders.
his arms, higher,
locks his knees,
swings out again,
perfect with Leonardic
In the circle,
he was anchored.
In the square,
there was no
I decided would
be like this,
only each time,
one floor up.
He was the real
which I measured
breadth and depth
of love and rooms.
Let's talk about death, she said.
And he began with an oak tree, a glade
a blackbird and rain
then he nodded to her
and she began with ribbons on lapels
scissors and Hebrew prayers
then she nodded to him
and he went on with winter
leaves decaying, breath and emptiness
and he nodded to her
and she went on wanting to tear
her clothing to shreds
then she nodded to him
and he went on staring through branches
trying to count the few leaves left
then he nodded to her
and she went on with the fear of
unravelling threads, looser and looser
and she nodded to him
and he went on standing in the doorway
with the mourner's book in his hand
and he nodded to her
and she went on with her ripped blouse
hanging from her shoulders, shaking
and he went on with his bare hands open –
as she fell against him he held her up.
Let's talk about death
and he closed his mouth and arms
and shoulders around her, refusing.
He called my name, so I guess I knew him.
I knelt down on the pavement, looked straight
across into his eyes, his unkempt face,
smelled the alcohol, and yes, he looked familiar.
I touched the sleeve of his army coat lightly
as I spoke. He didn't resist my questions.
Yes, he'd been drinking, but just to kick
the ass of boredom. I can see that, I said.
But was he getting enough food? Enough sleep?
Were doorways really warm enough at night?
My eyes watered in the cold and a tear
swelled onto my cheek, then spilled.
His hand moved instinctively, like a lover's
to catch the tear on the curve of his index finger.
Nearly at its destination, he pulled back
the hand and dropped his eyes to the ground.
How could we have forgotten
what the two of us were doing here?
He holds the name
of his wife like a hand grenade,
ready to lob at his lover's feet
whenever she goes too far.
'Susan and I,' he says,
'went shopping and Susan bought ...'
His lover covers her ears,
and sticks out her tongue.
She is at risk,
he is at risk,
so is what's her name.
That night, using his key,
entering on tiptoe, moving
closer and closer to the bed,
peering over them,
he couldn't imagine who
that strange man was.
Even so, he left
the rolled-up gift behind.
A Navajo rug
for his faithless lover,
the tree of life
cut down in front of him.
Oh, giver of gifts, long dead,
is it too late to say
she too didn't know who
that strange man was –
the one she'd wandered after
in the dark, afraid
she might lose you, her love,
her life, along the way.
She moves his book from table to desk to chair
to bed, hoping it will become part of her
just by picking it up, then letting it lie close.
She wants his sentences and photographs
to swim in her head, course through her blood,
then trickle into her dreams and conversation
painlessly, comfortably, enjoyably
as if reading were indeed a leisure activity,
for holidays while sunbathing on the beach.
She wants to read his new book more than any book.
She knows what he went through to write it,
what his subjects sacrificed to let him in.
Pages 40 and 41 are a double-spread photograph
and she stays with this image, relieved, relaxed,
her eyes free to roam without diminishing results.
She sees a room, stark with three red sofas,
almost tasteful cushions, white walls, and a man
with self-inflicted tattoos on his hands.
It's a place where no one lives, nothing is owned.
From reading a bit, she knows the man's name and why
he's alone in the great sadness of this refuge room.
This book isn't long. It's only 128 pages.
She flicks them, stopping and starting, back to front
letting the text pass and the red sofas ease her.
'My wife left me,'
said the man who never loved his wife
and was glad she'd gone. He was
delighted that her face would never be
on the pillow beside him again,
that his parents-in-law would
no longer be related to him.
He liked the loose, untidy feel
of the house, the fridge, his drawers,
the garage and the lawn.
He had stopped being a keeper
of wife, house, appearances,
but he didn't like the sentence,
'My wife left me.'
This part, she said, is yours,
this part is mine.
But he reached across her,
lifted it all at once
without regard for subdivision.
Stop, she cried, but it was too late.
Already he was backing
through the door with arms full.
He just couldn't face
where he was going with it.
Old Jewish Men
One's in Camden, playing to a lucky few
one's in my iPhone, singing the darkness down
one's on my pull-down train-table explaining work
one's on the Stockport platform waiting to take me home –
these touch-stones, these heart keys,
these love looseners, these joy snares,
these home holders, these bread bringers
these grief-laden-history packhorses of
loss, of sorrow-swells and blind suffering –
they just tag along with me in recognition –
my senior railcard, my plug-in headphones,
my against the odds willingness to believe,
so I stick with them, they stick with me.
Was it the horizontal light, the warmth
or how low the sun was in the sky,
that so unsettled the ducks yesterday?
The river kept on going to Liverpool
all afternoon and the ducks
pulled upstream just to stay put.
I wished you could have seen
the reddening leaves, the bright berries
splattered against the Wedgwood sky,
glints of blue, green and silver,
then tail feathers suddenly upended
as the Mersey dragged itself through.
Autumn was begging a debt from summer
in a kind of devil's payoff. Something
sacred surely must have been lost
in the river's surly rush, and then found
again in that great relief of light.
This, all of it, is what you missed.
At Arm's Length
Not on the tip of her nose
to spite her face,
not on her stuck-out neck
or knowing for sure
like the back of her hand,
her inner eye, her sixth sense
her elbow from her knee,
a certain feeling in her bones
the arm and a leg of loss
a belly laugh of gain
her Adam's apple stuck,
a wishbone wedged.
She grabbed her own blue
breasts in the dark
of her own nipples.
Injecting radioactive dye to find the sentinel lymph node
She had turned blue in parts
visible and invisible, internal and external
immediate and time lagged
to surprise her in the future.
Red would have been useless,
fading to pink around her nipples,
her blood becoming paler day by day,
her lips losing what redness there was.
Yellow fades on contact with the flesh
trailing traits of two-day bruises
more like shadows than like pigment,
tinges dying slowly without the sun.
It had to be blue, truest blue,
so she resigned herself to let her body
stain its every process in the hope
of outwitting it, getting there first.
How to Make Breasts Disappear
Be eleven in the summer
wearing boy's trunks.
Then swim carefree as a fish.
Are these breasts?
At twelve, try a training bra
to flatten these brash interlopers.
Nip them in the bud.
Are these breasts?
Cover them with your hands
to hide them from your lover.
Be coy as armour.
Are these breasts?
Harden, as if kapok filled,
leaking, throbbing, on day three
after your baby is born.
Are these breasts?
Lie on your back
with your hands behind your head.
Only gentle mounds remain.
Are these breasts?
There are other ways
to make breasts disappear,
but for these, you must give up
your body entirely.
Ticks and Kisses
Up to one in ten women over fifty
might be writing a confessional poem
about one of her breasts right now,
though some of these women
might choose to write about something else.
Prostate cancer for example, or husbands.
Others might never write a poem
about anything, leaving space for
some women to write about both breasts.
'Amputation' is not a good subject
for poetry. That's what most people think
who were surveyed at a seaside resort last week.
It had the smallest number of ticks beside it
though the survey manager was not surprised.
Enhancements always beat reductions.
Love got more. Substantially more.
Breasts got more still, inside bathing suits.
Fewer when they had escaped their cups.
The place on the chest where a breast
once was is not a topic which attracted
any ticks at all. Nor kisses, nor caresses.
Excerpted from Not Many Love Poems by Linda Chase. Copyright © 2011 Linda Chase. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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