Conversations During Sleep

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She lifts the white, lace nightgown

Over her head, waits for hot

Water to flow into the basin.

The billowing curtain sheer, tulip appliquéd,

Rises with the breeze, revealing

The dogwood's veil of ivory blossoms,

Each with its nubby green core,

Soft-claw edges dipped in mauve.

She washes her face, slides

The washcloth along her armpits,

Between her legs, rinses.

A rush-hour traffic report—

Stalled tractor trailer, half-mile backup—

Radios faintly from the bedroom

Across the yard. She brushes her teeth,

Inserts a contact lens, blinks,

Readies the next one, when an arm

Encircles her waist, a scratchy

Face rests in the curve

At the base of her neck.

Cut off by the mirror, her index

Finger holds out the clear,

Waiting lens to the light

Like a sacrifice. A tiny, malleable cup,

It adheres, balances, preens.

It knows it's been cleansed,

That after its nightly soak—eight

Free-floating hours lazing in saline,

On wave after wave of dreams—

It offers, with transparent

Pleasure, the power to see.




In two of your poems you called that central

Passage of womanhood a wound,

Instead of a curtain guarding a silken

Trail of sighs. How many men,

Upon regarding such beauty, helplessly

Touching it, recklessly needing

To enter its warmth again and again,

Have assumed it embodies their own ache

Of absence, the personal

Gash that has punished their lives.

So endowed of anatomy, any woman

Who has been loved

Knows that her tenderest blush

Of tissue is a luxe burden of have.

Although it bleeds, this is only to cleanse,

To prepare yet another nesting for love.

It is not a wound, friend.

It is a home for you.

It is a way into the world.




When I held smooth the satin to zip

Up your wedding dress, frosted with flounces

And pearl-beaded filigree, a rococo

Confection more sugary than the cake,

And watched as you swiveled slowly to face

Me—all floaty notes, pure flute—so still

As I situated the baby's breath and the veil,

How could I have told you, knowing

You'd learn it soon enough, my perfect doll,

How fuzzy the world is, how the clearest

Picture, frill-tipped gladioli in primary

Colors, can dissolve into darkness, how

The eye can fool you, presenting a straight

Or diagonal path when the earth is curved.

 

"It can be corrected," I tell you, a half-truth,

When you call me to say you can no longer

Focus, nothing is sharp. And I can hear

How the light is bent in your voice, the shadows

Behind what you say, while in my mind's

Eye you stare at me blinking, a week old,

The day you were placed in my arms,

Able to distinguish little but two black

Moons, my eyes dancing in the fog.

That this was the most exquisite

Instance of my childhood never changes.

Nor does the decade between us

Or the way you looked up at my face

After racing out the front door

To greet me eight years later, almost

Toppling me over, ringing my waist.

Two sisters, so nearsighted

That upon my return to you, before

I resumed my groping tromp

Through the world, you held me like a reference

Point, a place you will always find,

The sheen of your eyes announcing

My bearings as much as your clear

Shout of my name, as your words: "You're here."




The cool juice drips loose on our fingers.

At breakfast in the garden, as the sweet breath

Of orange blossoms mingles with the waft

Of wild creamy tea roses, nodding their silky

Heads at us in approval, and the green baby lemons,

Hanging from the tree like gumdrops, rustle against

Their lax shelter of leaves, I notice those

Hairs on your chest that have suddenly turned silver.

Winking, you slide your orange wedge entirely

Into your mouth, then flash me a fiery orange-peel smile.

 

Fast on the freeway, outside the groves, we passed

A bumpety flatbed truck that owned the road

With its cargo—three car lengths of oranges,

Looking so puckish, so ready to tumble, we couldn't

Stop smiling at them, thousands of flaming suns.

Hours later, from our private perch overlooking

The Palisades, with the warmth of your arm

Around me and the sun settling its vast silver quilt

On the ocean's skin, you tell me that, although

You have turned thirty-nine, you still feel young.

We have only a short ride on that truck, my love,

A bouncy ride on the truck. Feeding each other, we

Build up the blood and its vessels, sweeten the earth.




Henri Rousseau, 1897

In the heat of her dream, she hears

The iron kettle boiling, its scuttle and hum

As hurried as hoofbeats across a plain.

She drops in two guinea hens. Dancing

In a ring round her skirts, the children

Cheer, "Auntie, the English song!" Lifting

Her lute, she sings of the cat and the fiddle,

The cow jumping over the moon. How the little

Ones hoot when the dish runs away

With the spoon. Ah, spoon—an uncloaked

Lute, it waits to be strummed. The temptation

Of spoon. The temptation of London, of Paris,

Of bumping along in the carriage with M. Philippe

In his top hat and greatcoat to visit

The peacocks, turquoise and gold and green, each

Roaming the Bois de Boulogne with one hundred eyes.

 

She sleeps in the desert, under a smiling full moon

That shines in the teal night. Quiet behind her,

A lion stands, tail erect, having sniffed

At her onyx flesh, at the ribbony stripes

His color blindness darkens on her muslin dress,

All rainbow hues. She is lost in a dream,

Always happiest out of doors, without shoes.




I was led to the trees, as if someone with muscle

In her walk had pushed me. Heading

To the leaves—regal, molten with their final

Chance to breathe, Indian summer—I stopped

By the crowd shouting at the blue police barricade,

Mile 25. This was the moment, one of 26,000

Runners, you presented yourself, dazed and red-faced,

Soldiering on. Although I was too astonished

To speak, your name issued from me, the same way

A cut bleeds, the eyes allow us to see.

"Keep going!" I shouted, again without forethought.

Slowly, your mouth fashioned my name, then

You continued, working to control your body,

Pushing on through a life out of control.

 

"I can't sit still," were your words, so urgent,

Serving as much as a plea and apology as a goodbye.

Yet it is the way we would sit together

For which I remember you. We would talk only briefly

Or not talk, leaning against each other while the light

Turned to darkness over the Hudson, until we were sitting

In darkness, and one of us, without any active thought,

Might quietly speak, or rise to turn on a light,

Or move closer to the other, as if the darkness

Itself had spoken and thought were held away

Like an outsider, standing outside a barrier,

And we were not going anywhere. We were inside.




June in San Juan, '53, the hum

Of the air conditioner. You shyly emerge

From the bathroom wearing your blue

Negligee. His watch sits on the nightstand.

He still wears his trousers. He steps

Toward you, tells you, "You are beautiful."

Your throat swells. This is finally

Yours. You press your full weight

Against him. Neither of you speak.

 

Years pass, seven. Closed in the dark

Of a white room, you collapse

In the hole of his silent chest,

Into a sunken pillow of ribs,

Wailing at the plastic tubes secured

To all his entrances and exits, at the doctor

Gripping your shoulder with his antiseptic

Hand, at the nurses bristling back and forth

Outside the door in cushioned shoes,

 

So far away from the briny

Bath of the ocean air, wet sand,

From a strapless dress, a gardenia corsage,

Champagne, pretending about your age,

From a week lying sunburnt

On the fresh bleached sheets

Of a hotel bed, your face

To the face of the man beside you,

Believing love was the greatest power.




I sharpen more and more to your

Likeness every year, your mirror

In height, autonomous

Flying cloud of hair,

In torso, curve of the leg,

In high-arched, prim, meticulous

Feet. I watch my aging face,

In a speeding time lapse,

Become yours. Notice the eyes,

Their heavy inherited sadness,

The inertia that sags the cheeks,

The sense of limits that sets

The grooves along the mouth.

Grip my hand.

Let me show you the way

To revolt against what

We are born to,

To bash through the walls,

To burn a warning torch

In the darkness,

To leave home.




Rockefeller Center

On the underground shopping concourse, possessed

By a sense of mission, dashing along, I had passed

That cool swath of mirrored wall hundreds of times,

Ignoring my image, a blurred flutter of wings,

On the periphery. But today my reflection halted.

The permanent wall gave way, to reveal

A cramped room lush with lacy, white wire sculptures

Looming eight feet each, a thicket of halos and wings

Piled in tiers to the ceiling, chins tipped up

And arms uplifted, awaiting their moment, their golden

Holiday place amid the spangled lights and mist of snowflakes

Dusting the garden, waiting, as if for the first time, to be seen.

 

I stood transfixed, having learned where the angels live,

Hidden sentinels carrying on their quiet business

Based behind mirrors. They're there every morning,

Peering out from the medicine cabinet, as we drag a razor

Against our face or, so skilled at defining, we flick

A mascara wand and glide on lipstick. Framed in the foyer,

The youngest among them pressing their noses to the glass,

They send forth a sunbath of approval, regarding us

At full length. We see them most clearly in the eyes

Of loved ones. But any shiny surface will do.

A spoon, a metallic button, a puddle, will laud your own

Particular beauty. Listen. You can hear the brass trumpets.




The little one listens but never reveals

What she knows. By day she controls the light

That filters across the roofs, through

Trees, on furrows of plaintive faces.

She wakes up alone and unlocks

Cabinets of light, allots the portions

Strictly, patiently hears requests

For additional rays. What a job.

She has to be careful. Not long ago,

In a moment of passion, she almost

Gave away the whole reserve. Phones

Incessantly ring. Amazing, someone

Thanks her for light. She has to hang up.

Her cheeks are ballooning, deflating,

As if she were some nervous fish.

She scoots in the broom closet, fits

On the funnel. Her face is beaming.

She targets the freshly erupting supply

Into a spare metal cashbox, hides it

Under newspapers in her desk.

No one has noticed. Flushed,

She sorts through the mail,

Coos a wilted sigh. So many tasks,

Yet the barest assistance.

When she leaves, later, again,

She will dot the night, star by star.



All poems Michele Wolf
. All rights reserved.