Susan Blackwell Ramsey
Watching Sheet Lightning
From The Porch of Ann Paulson’s Cottage
While Aretha Franklin Sings Inside
The sky above the bay flares white, sustains it,
gasps briefly black then goes for bright again,
a mirror held up to the voice behind us.
Feet up, tepid chablis in hand, we let
passion by proxy wash over us, content
to deputize all suffering tonight.
Death, divorce, children, illness playing tag
or moving its toothbrush in, we here relinquish
stewardship to those more articulate.
We are content to let it crash outside
for once, to let this woman wail
our desire for love, for a little respect.
It rumbles as we lumber off to bed.
Rain taps on this uninsulated roof,
sweet layer between us and what’s coming down.
Making fun of your name wouldn’t take much wit, Kalamazoo.
But could a Persian slipper fit Kalamazoo?
This asphalt is the easy, ugly solution,
but warm brick is visible where it has split, Kalamazoo.
After decades of dreaming about tornadoes,
she was unconscious the day one finally hit Kalamazoo.
Why so midwestern-polite, smile of self-deprecation?
Try defining yourself by your opposite, Kalamazoo.
They disbanded the women’s softball team after the war.
She whispered into her catcher’s mitt “Kalamazoo.”
Coyotes have arrived. They approve of this valley.
All night the hills ring with their praise of it – “Kalamazoo!”
When cuckoos and nightingales sing their lists of cities
who have praised them, they will have to omit Kalamazoo.
The Dutch outnumber the Greeks, so downtown is dying.
Sometimes you can be such a shit, Kalamazoo.
The Latvian doctor stoked furnaces his first year here,
but the cold made him homesick when winter bit Kalamazoo.
Picking up the raveled end of your last dirt road,
I wind it into a ball. I begin to knit Kalamazoo.
The rams and the ewes are dozing in the dark.
Tonight we’ll leave the porch light lit, Kalamazoo.
Don’t tell me you haven’t confused them too,
haven’t jerry-rigged some mnemonic trick
so the humped ladybug n will know to scuttle
into the term for bugs, bug coming from
the Middle English word for something scary
while insect comes from Latin, from “cut up”
because of their segmented bodies. English
makes us do this, choose between posh/vulgar
ways to say the same thing (posh does not
come from “port out, starboard home,” no matter
what you’ve heard.) We speak a forked tongue,
beef/cow, pork/pig, mutton/sheep, copulate
or fuck, which doesn’t come from “For Unlawful
Carnal Knowledge.” How can we be whole
when our own tongues turn against us, and yet, like
Ovid’s actual false entomology,
how sweet in the mouth this bastard language,
like a bull carcass generating bees.
Woman in a Red Bodice and Her Child c. 1901
To trivialize greatness, pick some small,
wrong thing to greatly praise.
Extra points for sentimentalizing.
Emily Dickinson in the popular mind?
Center part, white dress, recluse. Check, check, check.
“I like a look of agony” draws a blank.
Florence Nightingale? The Lady with the Lamp,
angel of mercy for the Crimean War?
was a barely adequate practical nurse
but should be patron saint of number crunchers.
Warrior queen of policy wonks, she marshaled
brigades of data like artillery.
And Mary Cassatt? A dismissive painted babies.
As if babies were easy to paint. Look
at old Nativities, each wizened fetus peering
through the puffed lids of an unfledged bird.
Well, not Velazquez. The glowing focus
of his Adoration of the Magi
is a swaddled roll on Mary’s lap.
A brown haired, black-eyed baby boy looks out,
propped upright in her big, strong peasant hands.
He painted a real baby containing God.
But every Cassat baby is divine.
This one peers over Mother’s coral shoulder,
standing on her lap. It’s watching someone
probably doing something ridiculous
to make it hold the pose one second longer. Feel
those legs brace on her thigh, look at the light
reflected from that flesh. She’s strobed the moment
excitement brims, before the bob, the dance.
Susan Blackwell Ramsey is the winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry for 2011 for her manuscript, A Mind Like This. Ramsey received an Irving S. Gilmore Emerging Artist Grant in 2002 for her poetry. When the Athena Book Shop closed in 2006, Ramsey was admitted into Notre Dame’s Creative Writing MFA program and received the program’s William Mitchell Award in 2008. In 2006, she won the Marjorie J. Wilson Award from Margie: The Journal of American Poetry, and David Wagoner chose her “Pickled Heads, St. Petersburg” for the 2009 edition of Best American Poetry. Ramsey teaches spinning, knitting, and creative writing at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts.