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SHE TOOK OFF HER WINGS AND SHOESpoems
By Suzette Marie Bishop
UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2003 Utah State University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDo Not Drive into Smoke
REACHING FOR YOUR HAIR I lay on my cousin's bed covered by a white cotton bedspread, its skirt filling with the salty wind and the morning light allowed to pass through wearing lace veils. The clock's face is shaped like a boat, and it skims glass waves. My cousin used to pull my hair, taking it deftly in her fist and yanking, the blond lengths a light shut out. One night, she showed me a photograph of her older sister who died before we were born. That summer, I hid deeply among the reeds where no one could find me, their voices pulled into the lengthening shadows. All I could hear were the reeds, whispering strands of hair. Here I am, your sister ghost, geese sifting up toward the sky, their full-throated calls unveiled and carried by glass waves, my hand reaching for your hair. DISRUPTIONS From the back of the school bus Steve threw the box of chocolates so that it landed squarely in Kristin's lap. A perfect aim. When we turned around, he was looking nonchalantly out the window. Kristin began opening the paper bag and exclaiming over the heart-shaped box. Nothing more flew between Kristin and Steve- they went to one movie and that was all. Kristin and I went back to our board games and bicycle rides in the afternoons. Her hair streamed out behind her, and I took it up like a train. I got the chocolates Kristin didn't want, the ones she smashed, their cherry and lemon fillings oozing out. I got the paper shells. I got to throw out the emptying, soaring heart.
ELEGANT SHRIMP IN CHAMPAGNE SAUCE You're sitting outside the French doors. It's night and I'm startled to see you sitting there on a stone bench. I see your profile in the dark. When you want to have friends over, but don't want to spend all day getting ready, this simple but elegant dinner is perfect. Your face is sad; you are like a stone statue outside my lighted house. I think the last place we had our furniture was at the house where you lived as a companion for an elderly woman. We put our things in the garage. We lived among the woman's objects. I keep wondering if our furniture is still there. You left it there. Chill the champagne and fix dessert first. We came back to the house to see if we'd forgotten anything. We left the piano and my dollhouse that time. I'm coming out of a twenty-first-century apartment. There are many apartments like this-low, near the ground, level, with sloping roofs, lanterns set into the stairs. I woke up screaming for sleeping pills when I was sleeping on a cot in our empty kitchen. I was twelve that summer, the stairwells were filling with huge moths. I could hear them flying through the stairwell. While cooking liquid for shrimp is reducing, start grilling the vegetables. The landlady came to talk to you about the back rent. I stayed in the bedroom like you told me to. You and she had coffee and talked quietly. The sheriff came a month later. The next time, there were fists pounding on the heavy door for a while, and they were going to break it down. We had our things put in storage in the night and stayed at a neighbor's. They were very gentle women with large, sad eyes and all starving. They had long, bony arms. They shared their breakfast with us. Reheat shrimp and mushrooms in sauce just before pasta is done. The sky is empty and colorless. There are lawns, but few trees or shrubs. Lanterns set near the ground along drives and sidewalks are the only beautiful things. We stayed for a while at a relative's house. They lived in an arboretum. The bay, exotic birds, and trees surrounded us. I slept on an army cot. Everyone thought I would like sharing my cousin's room, the lace curtains, frilly girl's bedding, shells, earrings, closet full of girl's clothing, dolls, porcelain animals, her white furniture with gold trim "just like" my furniture. When I was in the room by myself, I could almost pretend it was my own room, but when my cousin was there, it became hers again. I spent hours riding my bike along the trails during the warm fall, the trees making a shelter above me with their interwoven boughs. To make dessert, peel four (preferably seedless) oranges, removing as much of the white pith as possible. Slice oranges into "wheels," put them in a shallow serving bowl, and toss with a few tablespoons of Grand Marnier and a teaspoon or so of sugar, if needed. They're great accompanied by really decadent chocolate truffles. We had our things again in our new apartment. But the eviction notices and bill collectors began coming again. The new place we moved to was rundown, and the neighbors kept a wild dog in a cage near their property line to guard it. They never let the dog out. We went over to introduce ourselves when they were having a yard sale. The mother kept her children near her and had a tight, very polite smile. My room was lavender. Sometimes the heat shut off in the middle of the night, and my mother would go outside in the cold in her nightgown to go down to the basement to switch the furnace back on. And my mother heated water on the stove so that I could wash my hair. There were ants in the kitchen cupboards, and they poured out of a box of cereal when I was pouring out a bowl for breakfast. I threw it on the floor and ran to school. Sauté mushrooms in a medium saucepan in hot olive oil over medium-high heat. Cook just long enough to release mushroom juices and let them evaporate. I want to stay in the apartment that's already furnished with white swiss-dotted sheer curtains, afghans, handmade quilts, a brown couch, and bay windows. I don't want to leave these things. As I live there, I become attached to the apartment, its rooms. The houses along my walk to the bank remind me of the neighborhood where I grew up-low, small ranch houses. I realize they had looked much bigger when I was a child. Now, they seem very small, like dollhouses, and the neighborhood is empty. All the girls are in their nightgowns wandering through the woods with candles. The roommate who is incredulous I haven't contributed an equal number of appliances, cookware, and furniture to the apartment. I want to tell her these were all taken from me and give her an inventory of what I used to have. I am floating past neat, suburban houses, small ones with little flowers planted out front. One of these is our old house. The landscape opens up to fields, green fields. Remember the small kerosene lamp made of white porcelain with roses on it, the blue china, painted with people gathering hay at harvest time.
MY DREAM HOUSE You fix something at the stove, the wallpaper peels above the sink, and most of the windowpanes are broken. I've been away awhile, but you aren't surprised to see me as you lead me to my old bedroom. You place a quilt and pillow on the end of the stripped mattress. From the window I see the backyard filled with old cars junked and left to rust. An Oldsmobile lies on its side trenched into the ground. It is a classic with backfins, the one in a photograph of you with dad. You wear red lipstick, and your hair is black. Before the June day ends, we sit on the back stoop and eat chicken you made. At the edge of the yard each tree sharpens and begins to dissolve- you'll be driving through a night without stars.
HOUSE-SITTING I step over the golden retriever lying on the curved staircase. She looks up at me, the golden color faded around her eyes in white rings. Her owner's eyes are the same soft brown. I noticed them as she told me how to use the microwave oven and about taking in the newspapers. Her young eyes are in the photograph on the dresser turned toward her husband's face, in a later photograph she stands next to him looking into the room. And they are in her son and daughter's faces, Alice wearing a black prom dress which makes them deepen into pools. The dining room is taking on an orange glow, and the plants begin to lean toward the last light which pulls them into shadows more encompassing than their clay pots. I avoid shutting out the lights and ascending the stairs, hearing the daughter's many earrings shake on her dresser until I lie in the large, empty bed beneath the down quilt, so light I can hardly feel it, or the animal curled against my spine.
KNOWING OBJECTS WILL OUTLAST THEM It is familiar to her that the sharp scent of the apples she places in a turquoise bowl wavers throughout the house. Incised fish swim around the outside of the bowl. She follows their perpetual circles, remembering the speckled shells lying in the tray nearby, just washed ashore. Pushed out by the cactus plant, the waxy blooms are expected like tiny stillbirths. She stands in the stairwell taken into the ink landscape, the ashes and holly taking into themselves the winter twilight. The ancient stone pipe lies glued together on the shelf. The hands that held it attempted to leave unforgettable strokings along the carved moon and its rays.
MY GOWN IS A MOMENTARY OUTLINE I arrive rain soaked to talk about subletting for the summer. The two women who live here are getting ready for a ball. One woman bends over in her slip as she irons her white lace gown, her cheeks reddening from the steam. The other woman arranges her hair at a mirror. She is cocooned in sky-blue silk. A friend arrives wearing a ruby gown, and we all exclaim over the dress. One woman's face begins to fall. For a summer I will have a fireplace, a dishwasher, a swimming pool. I barely use them. I find myself pulling the draperies apart and standing on the terrace as daily thunderstorms pass. With the first rainfall, steam rises from the burning pavement. My gown is made from the same meeting of cold and heat. My gown spills like rain and is windswept, The color of the leaves turned inside out before the sky cracks open.
DRAGONS I steal orchids during the night, bending to loosen them from their sisters. They are rustling, bleeding a little into my cool palms, a milk-white blood. In the house they are burning the memory of another gathering you closer with poppy and hibiscus. The orchids' scent reaches into my sleep like the wrought-iron tongues of two dragons flanking the suburban gate. I choose the black vase decorated with dragons to surround me like a fiercely carved night.
THE BAT You arrive again with your leathery wings stretched over the first autumn winds, to sleep in my skirts. You watch me out of the corner of your eye and reel toward me, brushing my face without a sound. You fly around the room with your scalloped wings, then cling to the wall upside down. I let you sleep there and fly out the window toward high-pitched sounds like tiny shrieks. You wait for me, folded together, a small shield against lamplight and intimacy.
ONE SUMMER With the laundry machines, we spin and whir through the afternoon small, inessential-braided girls, boys in torn shirts, babies crying. Women smoke as they fold hot clothes, a bone-thin attendant wipes down the machines. I stay until my gaze is pulled from the concrete floor and orange plastic chairs to the heavily vined streets, to the ashes beginning to fill with nightfall. I carry a sack of clothes along the honeysuckle-lined roads empty of young students. I let the rain cool my sweating back and legs. Nothing ever touches me during the days of that summer as I type forms in a basement office, windowless. I spend the summer nights alone. The woman upstairs passes over the floorboards hourly to her crying child. I finish a paper for school on A Midsummer Night's Dream, writing at night beneath the hurricane lamp, serge-blue curtains drawn between me and the awakened cicadas, skunk, possum. A few times a man visits me in the kitchen. I lean back in the rocking chair. One night he leaves then returns an hour later during a fierce thunderstorm knocking out the lights. I let him into the house. I am holding a candle. We make love, and rain-filled air cools our bodies. And he leaves. I wake to find the living room ceiling caved in, the plaster covering everything. I stand among the ghostly shapes of furniture.
EXIT INTERVIEW You haven't liked what you've been doing, have you? I stayed near the corner windows of the office, the cockpit of a plane facing the Blue Ridge. But your employment with us has been mostly a positive experience for you, hasn't it? The last day home from work I see a girl with long black hair, dancing in a field. You really want to be doing something else. I want the dusk light falling in sheets. I want to gather the blue between the stars at the point of turning black. It will all be a distant memory. I shut the car door, putting it between us. He drives off into the distance. You need to be tougher. Have you seen the turtle's shell, cracked and broken? You'll be doing what you want now, so think about that instead. I see the ocean, celadon like his eyes, a horizon line, so many whitecaps. Did they know you'd be leaving so soon? I slipped through their fingers, leaving my skin, the copper scales dried and falling apart in their hands.
MELINDA I don't think there will be another day like that day we drove in your truck to the edge of the Hudson River near a bike path and sat on the hood with a six-pack of beer until the dusk slipped into the river, and tugboats passed us, their lights flashing, reflected on the water. We were just talking about nothing, just quietly watching the river and air. I haven't had that kind of ease with a friend since then. Your sculptures are gone from the apartment, too, a blue-green coffee table with a wooden shoe glued to the top, a note in the drawer scolding me for opening the drawer to look inside, or your matching bookcase with hands poking out of the sides, praying. Your prints making fun of travel posters lined the walls of a coffee shop we went to with another friend. I still have the rock collection you left, a stone tool rubbed to a point and smoothed, fossils of insects, eggs, shells in the other rocks, what nature welded into those rocks. Are you sleeping in the bed with a blue-green canopy, insect netting draped around you, dreaming of uncut stone, wood, waves crashing on the beach outside your room?
HORRORSCOPE Those exacting standards of yours can be ruinous to romance. I loosen the reins until my hand lets go and lies on his quivering neck. I can be thrown anytime, my foot caught in the stirrup. Be patient with him, as he must shed prior entanglements. He's worth the wait! I fish while I wait, letting the fish go after I catch them. A few get tangled in the lines, their gills gasping for water. (Continues...)
Excerpted from SHE TOOK OFF HER WINGS AND SHOES by Suzette Marie Bishop Copyright © 2003 by Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of ContentsCONTENTS Foreword by Alicia Ostriker one Do Not Drive into Smoke Reaching for Your Hair Disruptions Elegant Shrimp in Champagne Sauce My Dream House House-Sitting Knowing Objects Will Outlast Them My Gown is a Momentary Outline Dragons The Bat One Summer Exit Interview Melinda Horrorscope Graveyard Visiting Relatives Mirror and Sword Trick In the Holy Spirit Research Center Least Terns Bloodstone Water Moccasin Anasazi Bowl Do Not Drive into Smoke Wedding Triptych Cool Wagons & Bone Chandeliers Through the Corridor Departing Iceland two As Good There as Here to Burn At the Ramada Inn with Ruth and Esther Emitting a Sound Conversation with Anne Truitt The Conservator Purple Gloxinia Hannah Höch Beneath Eva Hesse's Fiberglass Veil Photograph of Edna St. Vincent Millay Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz The Ghost of Christina Rossetti As Good There as Here to Burn three She Took Off Her Wings and Shoes She Took Off Her Wings and Shoes (a long poem) About the Author The May Swenson Poetry Award
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