I mean the burns,
the grids scored into my knees
when I was two years old
and fell on the hot radiator.
Scars, believe it or not, migrate;
mine are now four inches
below my knees. Within a year
we had moved out of that house,
not that I remember,
but my Mother and Grandmother do.
They were at work.
Grandfather was babysitting.
I don’t remember him at all
or the pain. (I was two years old.)
Grandmother once said
I was the last straw.
We own a companionable silence,
matching tapestry armchairs
two dogs and innumerable magazine
subscriptions. But today
like Matisse cutting the earlier version
of the Fall of Icarus
out of painted paper during a long war
and longer convalescence
you carve an argument out of a black silence:
three long half-moon words,
a thumbprint word, fist-print word, leaf word,
(the shapes Matisse made into a body).
You lay out narrative elements
cut from a blinding silence:
an eight-pointed star, nine-pointed star,
seven-pointed falling star,
ten-pointed half star,
two nine-pointed spinning stars.
I sit in the opposite chair
as if it would save my life
I hear what your words require.
But I am not flying,
let alone close to the sun,
not dancing near the edge of anything;
I cannot even duck or flit.
All I can do is listen.
What I See
Alexander Calder: Balloons and Curious George
Claude Monet: Waterlily wallpaper, waterlily linoleum, waterlily shampoo
Georgia O’Keefe: Chalk flowers on the sidewalk
Henri Matisse: Scissors, colors I don’t know the name of, happiness
Jackson Pollack: Thirty-one flavors of ice cream, melting
James Abbott McNeill Whistler: My grandmother never wears gray or black
Marc Chagall: Ghosts circling heaven
Marcel Duchamp: Lady falling down stairs
Mary Cassatt: Chatty Cathy; Chatty Cathy Baby, Itty Bitty Chatty Cathy Baby
Norman Rockwell: A big family, not ours
Vincent Van Gogh: Starry starry night and a melody
The library board applied for some federal grant money
to invite the poet laureate from a couple of states west
to headline a Saturday afternoon memorial convocation
in their basement auditorium on Founder’s Day. She
said, by way of introducing her forthcoming book, when
she and her husband make love the dead of a recent
disaster surround them. But if those victims were drawn
through some vortex between worlds to her bedroom
they’d turn their backs on the living. If souls must be here
they do not watch us even accidentally for a moment—
not being subject to the laws of chance. With the kindly
detachment of settlement house angels they overlook
our lives. Our passions don’t bore them exactly;
it’s more they have their own we could never imagine.
You look up and smile every time I walk
in the room whether I’ve been gone ten minutes
to find the book review or two weeks to see
eagles in Alaska with my sister.
Last night we went to the baseball game and
waited for the fireworks afterwards. You told
jokes and I went over the gossip from my office.
The thing I always thought I’d leave you for
happened. Does it mean anything that
I can’t remember how long ago that conversation
took place? I remember the setting exactly,
between your reading chair and the stereo.
I don’t think you’ve played it since although
at Christmas I gave you new recordings of
Don Giovanni and Madama Butterfly.
You don’t seem to think about it at all.
But I’ve always found you unreadable, uncertain
which dress you’ll admire, which movie, whether to marry.
You’ve always said I’m a gambler.
The gambler marries the gamble.
But that’s too simple, doesn’t respect either of us,
the chances we have taken (there are whole
half hours I forget) or the chances we have yet to take.
Jannett Highfill is a poet living in Peoria, Illinois and teaching in the Economics Department at Bradley University. Her poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, Tar River Poetry, The Greensboro Review, RHINO, Fifth Wednesday, and elsewhere. In her spare time she edits the Global Economy Journaland is President of the Missouri Valley Economics Association.
Photo credit: Bradley University photographer Duane Zehr