Ann E. Michael
The brick school was an edifice, a word I liked, had looked up in Webster’s—ten wide steps to double doors in front. I had to use the Girls’ Entrance every morning, but at recess, teacher took my class outside through the Boys’ Entrance onto the south play yard. I peeked past the lavatory doors, saw urinals, saw walls painted the same grey and stalls the same beige as the girls’ bathroom on the other side. Sometimes children snickered as we filed out.
We played handball, dodgeball. I lingered under the Norway maple that anchored the dirt alley beyond the chainlink fence. I didn’t want to jump rope or hopscotch; I wanted to play marbles, though not for keeps. Boys, I learned, would play for keeps and gamble on the dirt circle, put what might be precious inside it, make their squarings, and shoot. I found a blue-striped cat’s-eye in the maple’s roots and slid it in my pocket, for keeps.
If they’d have let me, I’d have worn trousers and kneeled on pavement, if someone would just relax the rules. I could play that way, reach for a milky or a solid, risk my cache for something shimmery, iridescent. Something my small hand could hide and hold. Something earned, through skill, an aim that would be my own. But girls had to wear skirts. Asphalt dimpled our bare legs and bits of gravel tailings clung to our skins and my teacher said,
Get up, girls don’t sit in the dirt.
The corn’s grown thigh high,
yellow rape-fields have begun
the turn to seed heads and
acres of soybeans flower while
factory towns churn toward
eventual decay, but we are young
and traveling through Ohio as,
I suppose, our ancestors did
with less speed and more
struggle when this land was
mostly forest and small farms.
We do not even think of them,
the inconvenienced people whose
DNA we carry; no, we count cows,
silos, cemeteries, license plates,
bicker about snack food,
listen half-dozing to the
liquid pulse of gasoline filling
the tank as our dad unfolds
his wallet. The gas station smell
rises from hot concrete, clings
to our hair and skin for miles.
We sleep beside the highway
and wake in darkness with
the word oxen repeating itself
endlessly, a churning axle
like the drone of 18-wheelers
until we settle our restless small bodies—
we who once were settlers and who
do not understand our past.
When He Thinks He Is Dying,
My Father Asks Me to Write Him a Poem
Snow highlights the darkness,
closes down sound until street plows
grind and shimmy, widening
the drift-shuttered roads.
My father has asked me for a poem
and all I can think of is Frost,
suitable to the season, a bad pun.
When words refuse to coalesce,
that is the poem of splintering ice,
of gravel and sand on macadam
skittering in patternless sprays.
The poem of what can’t be said,
rivers of fire and ice, a horse’s flanks
steaming, air freezing your nostrils shut
while you try to recite the knitted
scarf of your childhood, the swash
and gouge that skate-blades
sketched on the pond, how the tracks
glistened once, at sunset—the poem
of watching the sun bead itself
into red-orange glass at the edge
of a well-loved landscape.
What poem can I give you, who
coaxed me into the poem of my life?
The poem of hold me, the poem
of let go, the whole poem of giving,
given what we may know.
The Gone Familiars
In winter, the old cat
loses the battle with his kidneys
and your dog, stalwart companion
of fourteen years, suffers a seizure
and never wakes up—
you stand at your father’s graveside
after the pastor has said the words
about ashes and dust.
The shovel, which should feel
familiar in your grip, chafes
at you despite the gloves
you wear, becomes in your hands
a language you cannot translate
and do not even want
Ann E. Michael’s second full-length poetry collection, The Red Queen Hypothesis, was the winner of the 2022 Highland Park Poetry Prize and is slated for publication in 2023. She is the author of a previous book, Water-Rites, and seven chapbooks. She lives in eastern Pennsylvania and blogs on poetry, gardens, and speculative philosophical musings at www.annemichael.blog.
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