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Cora Fry's Pillow Book

Cora Fry's Pillow Book

by Rosellen Brown


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Through the persona of Cora Fry, a wife and mother living in a small New Hampshire town, Rosellen Brown explores the ambivalent ties of love, loyalty, marriage, and family in a series of related poems. This volume includes the entire text of Cora Fry (1977), a kind of dramatic monologue, written in spare, simple lines, which describes the young woman's daily life and troubled marriage. A sequel of newer poems, Cora Fry's Pillow Book (1994), confronts the challenges that come with a woman's growth toward middle age, reflecting an older Cora's place in her family, community, and the larger world.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374524432
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 01/31/1996
Edition description: REPRINT
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.44(d)

About the Author

Rosellen Brown is the author of the novels Before and After, The Autobiography of My Mother, Tender Mercies, Civil Wars, and Half a Heart; the collection of stories Street Games; and the collections of poetry Some Deaths in the Delta, Cora Fry, and Cora Fry's Pillow Book. She lives in Chicago.

Read an Excerpt

Cora Fry's Pillow Book

By Rosellen Brown

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1994 Rosellen Brown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8413-7



    I want to understand light-years.
    I live in Oxford, New Hampshire.
    When, then, will the light get to me?

    The year I die
    there'll be no snow.

    Look, Nan, the
    first shy snow

    half falling.
    Like moths I

    shook out once
    from a coat:

    they fell down
    slowly, so

    slowly, and
    some woke up

    halfway out
    into the air.

    The rest fell
    to the floor

    still folded.

    Nan, do you think moths dream?

    All the men
    are on the plows.
    It's snowing up-
    side down now.

    My father
    runs this show.
    Here he comes, slow,
    riding high,
    a roar, a
    yellow eye
    in the ice-fog.

    Some men hate him
    good. But his
    follow in his
    slippery footsteps
    casting salt,
    snow on snow,



    "Fry," I said
    when he touched me on
    my breast. "Do you think
    of women,
    other women, when
    you're touching me there?"

    In the dark
    I could feel him blink —
    kiss like I give Nan
    on the cheek.
    "Sometimes," he said, "sort
    of to crank
    it up." He half-shrugged
    but couldn't move much.
    "Don't worry,"
    and put his mouth there.
    "No one you know."


    I thought I'd
    try it too. I made
    a dozen
    faces come bend down
    to kiss me,
    all neighbors and Frank
    from work — but
    scared, I turned my head
    so hard Fry
    said "Hey kid,
    should I go brush my teeth
    again?" I
    gave my mouth to him
    and saw black.
    It takes something I don't have
    and don't want. So it's Fry now

    I go on Sunday
    for some mystery.
    But Reverend Merman
    takes my hand and milks
    it like an udder.
    I blame myself but
    at the door he dries
    me out until I
    crack. Gossip seeps in,
    face powder, after-
    shave, sermon on hope,
    oh Merman, mermaid,
    I give a dollar
    (what with inflation
    that saves half a soul)
    and the hymn. Jesus
    himself could sit down
    beside me here and
    find me out to lunch:

    Chicken. Rice. Green peas.

    One bad winter
    my father poached
    a deer and I died

    thousands of hard
    separate deaths
    waiting for the

    sheriff to come.
    The blue light swung
    across my wall

    one snowbound night.
    I stopped breathing.
    I woke up Sam.

    But it was just
    the deputy,
    fat Lloyd the tease,

    coming to get
    Daddy, his plow
    and all, to pull

    some foreign car
    out of his field.
    "Some kid got throwed

    clear in a bank,
    but he hit hard."
    I clamored till

    I got to come,
    in Dad's army
    blanket, shivering.

    The boy was still
    lying in blue
    shadows, his arms

    out like a snow
    angel. He woke
    after a while,

    blood in his mouth,
    swearing he had
    only one beer.

    The sheriff laughed
    and winked at us.
    Lloyd muttered "Bull ?"

    Quarter to four
    on a moony
    night in late March

    I swallowed hard
    and the deer went down.

    I saw Chickering Webb today.
    He put his whole hand on my thigh
    once in the high school library.
    I kept smiling and took it off.
    That was the day before he went
    crazy, and holed up in a house
    with Judy Carney. Poor Miss Sleigh,
    it was her house they chose to have
    their orgy in. They defamed all
    her father's books (Earl Sleigh the judge),
    they gummed the walls with Crisco and
    they gashed the sheets and cracked her bed.
    Nobody ever said Judy
    went crazy too. She wouldn't press
    charges or tell us anything.

    Chip thinks people stop
    when he can't see them.

    The summer people
    load their cars and go
    out of Oxford's sight,
    far out of mind — though
    every December
    the Johns send a card
    crammed with skyscrapers
    and lit store windows
    to whet my envy.
    This year a tiny
    car dragged a huge tree
    through downtown traffic.

    It's a game we play,
    postmark to postmark.
    Fist raised against fist.
    For Oxford this year,
    I sent a single star.

    When the snow
    got up to the window frame,
    grainy as
    sugar, each crystal a face
    in a crowd
    and the crowd silent for death,

    do you know,
    I wanted a field pale green
    with sheep sorrel —
    warm and sour,
    those light clover heads shaking,
    "Everything's shaggy, newborn. Lie down here
    and eat me!"

    What are friends for, my mother asks.
    A duty undone, visit missed,
    casserole unbaked for sick Jane.
    Someone has just made her bitter.

    Nothing. They are for nothing, friends,
    I think. All they do in the end —
    they touch you. They fill you like music.

    The moonless night
    the ice hill
    the snow without shadows

    are mine because
    I need them.
    I drive down the long slope

    in first, waiting
    to lose hold
    and slip to the bottom.

    They'll find the car
    and my shadow for shame.

    But it all holds:
    luck, gears — sand
    to the stop sign.
    Bless the sweet town grit!

    Joe Fox
    sent his kids away
    to school.
    I think
    if they'd been some way
    special —
    too smart
    or sick or dumb ?
    To me,

    Joe said,
    they're special: they're mine.
    Then what
    the hell
    does that make mine, asked
    Makes 'em
    yours, I guess, said Joe.

    Sam beat
    the buttons off Tom's coat
    for that,
    and I
    loved Meg so much I
    stuck my
    tongue out
    at her for a month.
    Cut her,

    Cut her,
    Father taunted,
    see if
    she bleeds
    red or white or
    don't you think it's
    blue now?

    I go to work because it pays.
    I go to work to get away.
    I go to work to change my face.
    I go to work to wash my hands
    and wear a wig to save my head.
    (I leave mine home.)
    I go to work to be unknown
    and in the kitchen sweating rain
    I put a heavy tray down full

    and watch the new man watching me.
    What messages between his eyes
    and mine there's room for here. ? He's thin
    as someone's undernourished son.
    If I go ask for some glasses,
    depending on my voice and where
    my shoulders are, compared to his,
    I could make room on his pillow
    for my head, with or without wig.
    I move my tray the other way.

    Felice moves then, smiling her gap-
    tooth grin. Her thighs, I think, open
    and close, mouth breathing mostly in,
    chattering at men endlessly,
    wanting to be shut, not sweetly.

    Felice has stopped two babies quick.
    Times she thought they were taking care.
    "Don't trust them, Core, with a blind nun.
    They could care less. No matter how
    they watch your ass, it's yours to watch."

    The salesmen's convention
    means ass cooked to order,
    complained about, drinks spilled,
    can't I sit on their lap,
    see what they've got for me,
    "a very special tip."

    I put tapioca
    and coffee down, smiling,
    smiling as if I'm deaf
    until I hear this one
    shark-shouldered manager
    lean to his friend and say
    "That Billie Holiday,
    before she got big-league,
    some café in Harlem,
    brought change between her lips.
    And I don't mean her mouth,
    pal, I don't mean her mouth."

    I slam his second cup
    of coffee, not well aimed —
    I'd love to singe his lap
    so he'll see purple pain
    next time he gets it up
    for waitress, wife, or whore.
    It splashes on his cuff.
    I'll live without his tip.

    Nan curled in my lap.
    Look at the picture: spaghetti legs!
    I think I was happiest right then,
    when she pulled my breasts
    right inside out, like party favors ?

    * * *

    "That's what they're for, Nan,"
    I tell her when Chip pats them gently.
    When she needs to know
    I'll warn her men only think they own
    your breasts. When Fry bends
    to them, sometimes it feels like Nanny
    or Chip, and I cry.
    "Did I hurt you, hon?" he'll say. I swear
    they let down milk for him.

    The flowers won't grow
    in the north window.

    Grandmother Rule
    I know went mad.
    She starved to bone
    and broke herself.

    Mother says all
    the women in
    the family do,
    this way or that,

    which leaves some room
    for Nan and me.
    When it comes time
    to read her will

    we'll pick our pain
    slowly and well:
    the family jewel.

    The closets are going to explode.
    The table is going to collapse.
    The sink is sinking.
    The door just slams and slams.
    The baby's crying, where's his sister?
    Don't jump on me, my bones are empty.
    My joints are being washed and ironed.
    I'm getting an extra hour of sleep.
    Before there is no more to heal up,
    I'm taking the cure: I pass. I pass.

    Fry says a word
    in my poor ear
    I could do with-
    out. In the dark
    all of me frowns.
    He'll be sorry
    when he gets there.

    Reverend Merman
    tried to convince us
    only the seasons
    are real. They prevail,
    is how he said it.
    And, friends, they triumph.

    They do. But meanwhile —
    what a bother — here
    we are. Here I am.
    Rain's in the bucket,
    cow's in the pea patch,
    the pigs want dinner
    and so do the kids.

    I think I'll tell them
    when winter prevails
    on them, they won't be
    hungry anymore:

    they'll be snowchildren
    in the great triumph
    of time over tooth
    and nail. I'll tell them,
    Go melt on God's fool.

    I watch my cousin Valerie
    who lives at the top of Brick Hill,
    riding Sim's arm, smiling, smiling.
    She's young, it's enough just to find
    some dark place to lie down with him,
    no steering wheel, no mosquitoes,
    and know that everybody knows.
    She listens to him talk football.
    She prods him and laughs a little.

    Doesn't she know the end's written?
    When he sees her lie in the light,
    finds one hair under her nipple,
    she's got her Tupperware together,
    he puts his ear to her swollen
    belly for the first child only.
    He says she was a good listener,
    he watches the ball come toward him
    out of the snow of the TV,
    he catches it. Now it's the ball
    of his gut, tight with fries and beer.

    After her third the doctor winks:
    "I took that husband-stitch for you,
    dear." He thinks that's what holds husbands,
    the tuck he takes in the yard goods.
    He's a husband, doesn't he know
    they want to graze in new meadow?
    What holds them is what lets them go.

    The diving crew
    is under ice.
    My father says
    muffled goodbyes,
    walks to the hole
    and disappears.

    We stand knotted
    in a corner
    of the wind-wall,
    away from the
    mother whose child
    stiffens far down
    in a stone shroud.

    We don't know her,
    this visitor
    who brought her son
    for evergreens
    and frozen ponds,
    a white Christmas
    up in Oxford.

    We only hear
    her voice rising
    to beat against
    the wind's sharp wall.

    Bubbles rise. My
    silver father
    stands dripping ice.
    Shaking he spits
    the child out whole,
    and then he cries.

    That table:
    white oblong
    chipped and clean.
    Hit it right
    with a spoon,
    it rang out
    loud for you.

    Our kitchen's
    all in it.
    The baking —
    the bread pail
    hitched on tight,
    screwed with that
    big silver
    me cranking
    our breakfast
    for the week.
    The turkey
    set on its
    buttered rear
    like a dog

    met with an
    The berries
    giving up
    their hard stems.
    My homework
    Mama cleaned
    all around
    with her rag.

    Her housedress —
    pink and green.
    Bobby sox;
    Mother in
    red loafers;
    me with my
    winking dimes.

    hides under
    the blue rim
    out of sight
    like chewed gum.
    Was it mine,
    that childhood?
    Sweet and soft. ?
    Now see me
    saving it,
    even when
    it gets too
    hard to chew.

    Did you know during
    the Second World War

    they turned the lights out
    "in the country" too,

    and listened for planes
    roaring in German?

    Even New Hampshire
    had targets, though God

    only knows which hill
    we thought they wanted.

    I was a child called
    Cora Pearl Hubberd

    you could hear crying
    all over town,

    shamelessly. I thought
    I was about to

    die. Nothing fancy:
    just die in the dark
    of war, of missing
    my father.

    * * *

    My cousin Norb died in a tree
    by sniper fire in Anzio.
    I always pictured a monkey
    and in my head changed the subject,
    that was so disrespectful.

    All I remembered of Norbert
    from Keene, smart enough for glasses,
    was how he peed in the bushes
    visiting us when he was twelve.
    How when he pulled his zipper up
    he said, "Don't look at me like that.
    Sometimes a man has got no choice."

    I was staring hard at his face
    that was very blond and pink veined
    to keep from watching how his hands
    tugged and propped up and then tucked back
    the intricate thing he carried
    sheathed, the way my brother hid his.

    Worse than the monkey, when I heard
    he died I saw his silver arc
    that spattered on the day lilies
    saying NORBERT WAS HERE and gone.

    All the places
    I've never been

    Greenwich Village
    Daytona Beach

    I don't really
    want to go there

    but just to see
    how people look

    with thousands of
    grandmothers from

    foreign countries
    (none in English)

    Would the difference
    (Mother says yes)
    make me nervous?

    My father
    says choice rots
    the bones like
    candy rots
    the teeth.

    I have a neighbor
    who is always deep
    in a book or two.

    High tides of clutter
    rise in her kitchen.

    Which last longer, words,
    words in her bent head,
    or the clean spaces

    between one perfect
    dusting and the next?

    Up to East
    Oxford, the distant cousins

    of rich men
    live scratching in their good names

    right on the
    blacktop shoulder where all the

    action is.

    Their trailers rust. Their old cars

    stand grazing
    like horses put to pasture.

    Chip runs like a squirrel
    his cowlick his tail

    * * *

    And Nan is old
    enough to smile
    like a daughter-
    in-arms. Secret.
    No teeth showing.

    * * *

    They do gnaw me
    Their voices grind
    fine, my
    thumbs, my liver.

    I can't
    be a weapon,
    it would
    be too easy
    to pinch, to kill,
    to say
    some word they won't

    And if I died
    would they
    remember me

    Fry's hands have life lines
    traced black to the bone.
    He rests them against
    my weak-white shoulder
    and I shouldn't wilt.

    Fry who walks through worlds
    I can barely see,
    fixing things that have
    no voices: Brakes.
    They're the animals
    he feeds tenderly
    or gives a light shove
    to ease their movement.

    On the bureau now
    our old healed clock glows
    under its warm skin.

    You can do
    anything alone
    anything but
    laugh out loud

    We watch them hoist a streetlamp
    over the bridge at the brook.
    The stiff crane squeaks and lunges.

    Why do we need a night light?
    The dark outside my bedroom
    is the safest dark there is:
    sweet-smelling, familiar.
    Glow worms wink up from the road
    after rain. The moon comes back
    and it shines like melting ice.

    Now I study hard shadows
    that were never there before.
    I wait for someone to bolt
    out of the light toward my door.

    Coming home late from work,
    I stopped the car one long thirsty minute
    on the hilltop near my father's meadow.

    Something plunged and tossed in the center
    like a show animal in a lit ring.

    He threw his head, he shook it free of air,
    his legs flung whichway. There were the antlers,
    a forest of spring twigs that rose and dived,
    dancing. Singing, for all I knew, glassed in.

    I rolled my window down
    knowing I'd lose him, and I did: he ducked
    into nowhere. But I had that one glimpse,

    didn't I, of the animal deep in
    the animal? Of his freedom flaring

    only a quick blink of light? I think spring
    must be a crazy water animals drink.

    I used to
    play here but
    the field was
    so much bigger


Excerpted from Cora Fry's Pillow Book by Rosellen Brown. Copyright © 1994 Rosellen Brown. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Cora Fry,
Cora Fry's Pillow Book,
Also by Rosellen Brown,

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