p o e m s

m a r y -  s h e r m a n  w i l l i s 


We come to the end of an early dinner
with friends, fueled with excellent St. Emilion
(the host’s pride, more in the cellar)
and the hostess’s steak Dijon.
Our children, fed, are some rooms away, playing.
Reassured, our hostess produces a joint,
surprising us all, even the host.

But we waste no time in lighting up.
Ah, that old weedy taste, the punch in the lungs,
held — and laughingly coughed out.
The ritual circles the table and its silky patina,
the heavy silver, the crystal’s pleasant “ching.”
Ten years it’s been since we’ve had this kind of self-reunion
with what was, before then, routine,

mundane communion, ceremony of nothing vested:
our bodies — playgrounds in which we tested
anything, so long as it was together; our language —
OK, somewhat impoverished (oh wow! far out!) — and yet,
what innuendoes! Our sanity — lucky to have survived
the mind-bashing thrill of self-debility,
as our friends in rehab remind us.

Since when did we become so straight?
I don’t remember a decision to get clean
except by process of elimination — even caffeine’s
too radical (decaf Darjeeling ... please!).
We hoard what wits we’ve left for fin-de-siècle
America, the ascetic plod up a crumbling hill;
no time to squander getting wrecked.

But now, here, oh my head swims,
unmoored, notional, useless as fins
in ether. Brr — adrenaline fizzes in my veins,
a glacier under the skin that makes me shiver.
Then there’s the furtive way we’re whispering,
giggling, glancing towards the door as if — get this —
we were afraid of being caught.

And we’re supposed to be the grown-ups, right?
(another thing I keep forgetting)
So I’m up and off to check on the kids, reverting,
when in doubt, to “mother” — in doubt because,
en route I wonder, will my face appear as skewed
to them as our parents’ faces did to us
in those suspended moments of the cocktail hour?

The children, when I find them, are in a trance
of play, synchronous, oddly silent, and oblivious
of me. Entranced myself, I watch them
in a game of Pizza Parlor: one,
the owner on the phone, another, the baker
pats a disk of dough to twirl, a third,
the customer who instructs the waiter —

all as solemn and important as any adult enterprise.
Sobered, I leave to tell my husband:
when the children finish playing
let’s go home.



Dead-line. n (1864) 1: a line drawn within or around
a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot.
Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1986)


And so I went A.W.O.L., escapee, adrift,
conned by cloud-pull over another hill,
or by some misapprehended need, lifted
out of myself. Flight’s a swift thrill;
pursuit, then discovery, proved to be more sordid.
Returned to service, caught and brig-bound —
I dig in and sound out: did I want freedom or did
apprehension matter more? See the cell, the brown
walls, a hard chair, the small tent of blue sky
and not far beyond that, the fixed place,
the invisible perimeter of my life, past which I
cannot go: the deadline toward which I race.
It is my line of force. Without it I am lost,
my strength dispersed; but I keep in mind the cost.



In Germany the word was pudelhund,
water splasher, duck-fetcher; in France,
            chien canard,

red ribbon tied to its sickle tail to show
its progress as it swam through marshy water,
            braveheart at work

in silted reedbeds for the booted master.
But hausfrauen and bonnes femmes disliked its curly
            fur, grown long

to felted cords, which tracked the house with mud.
Men left their boots outside and shaved its feet
            — like pantaloons —

and to improve its vision shaved its face,
and shaved their own, revealing their soft cheeks.
            They pruned their fruit,

began to clip their hedges, and in their fever,
cut away the poodle’s heavy hair,
            streamlined the dog

for swimming, left a vest of fur around
the chest and ribs, docked the tail, topped it
            with a pompon,

a topknot on its head, the ears grown long:
etymon of the Lion Clip, no regal

no, this ruffle-throated, pink-ringletted mincer
in silk culottes begged for petits-fours,
            as principal pet

and circus animal of bourgeois and aristocrat,
and looked, in a Sporting Clip, like two men
            in a dog suit,

or like a flouncing woman — on show, both sexes
wear a bow, placed behind the ear
            or on the rump.

So vain! Why not? sleeve-dog to Louis Seize,
etched by Dürer, painted by Goya, beloved
            by the noble Goethe.

No other dog was ever made so much a darling,
this panting canine topiary: a subject
            and an object of art.



There’s nothing personal
in the callous regard that the cat
gives to the luckless rodent

she carries into the front hall.
A house mouse like all the others,
she finds them in the barn,

under the planks of the floor
(mice that live in the house
elude her, vanishing

mysteriously into empty walls).
Here is her controlled study
of the Elemental Mouse, mouse reduced

to a jot, a shift of motion from here
to here — all it requires to seize the eye.
Or mouse: the noise — just perceptible scritch

of teeth, the twiggy patter of its paws.
Or the whiff of mouse, which leads
to a taste for mouse.

Its flared ears, delicate
as apple blossoms, its jet bead eye, bouquet
of agitated whiskers around

its conic snout, its tail like silken cord —
mean nothing to this cat; palpitating
flank, white underbelly — nothing at all.

Holding it in the front of her mouth
like a kitten, she drops it and gazes
absently aside, as if forgetful.

It staggers away, groggy with shock,
and comprehends: this is not an escape.
This moment is life, which equals hope.

The cat, though, sees a circle,
herself at the center.
Inside the radius is the mouse’s life.

Outside, she must pounce.
And she will bandy and dandle it, egged
on by its impassive squeaks,

until, silent and abandoned,
its smell, mortal as opened earth,
fills the throat like soggy cotton.

Susceptible to beauty
and pity, I could have saved it,
but for what?

I might have huddled it
in a tea towel (mice bite!) away
to the wild woods, where, crouched

under whispering leaves,
starving and cold, it would wait, dreaming
of the distant house, where it belongs.



We’ve come to see the shooting

comets and crossettes, the silver magnesium
stars winking in the sky, the filaments of light


 snaking upward to the sour half-moon,

like serpents shifting in veils of smoke, the fountains,
gerbs, and tourbillions that mimic water,


the streamers bursting into arcing sparks,

making bouquets: chrysanthemums, peonies,
and fiery roses — all to the sounds of war:


gun chatter and the deep percussive coughs

of siatenes thumping in the solar plexus,
the sky-cracking mines and star shells bursting


like exploding suns, their banshee-wailing tail-ends

spinning out to nothing. We repress
a reflexive wince, but babies cry openly,


as on the ground the Pentecostal fires

smoke and reek of brimstone: cloven
tongues of yellow, green, and crimson.


And then it ends: The scintillant canvas, its many

upon many prickings of light, fugal
and overlaid, is suddenly spent,


a memory of a memory. All is well, all is well.

We leave like ghosts in the fumy night.
The words remain: firework, flower, dynamite.



Coming down the steps as I go up,
the man is rushing, awkward
with his umbrella and his briefcase ...
Coming down the steps, his face
is flushed, he’s breathing fast,
he meets my eyes, but his attention’s elsewhere ...
Coming down the steps he says, breathless,
“Have you seen a small child? Blond hair?
A coat?" He gestures at his coat ...
Coming down the steps, he says,
"Have you seen a blond child?”
I say, “Is it a boy? A girl?” ...
Coming down the steps, he says, “What?”
I say, “The gender. What is the gender?”
“He’s a boy. His name is Alex” ...
Coming down the steps, he says,
“We were leaving school. He got away
from me. We live over there. He’s five”...
Coming down the steps, passing me
he says, “I’ll go this way. He might
be looking for me on the way home” ...
Coming down the steps, over his shoulder
he says, “If you see him, please
tell him to wait for me right here” ...
“I will,” I say. All night I hear him calling.



©copyright Mary-Sherman Willis, 2002.


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