Sunday, March 1, 2009

Judith Skillman: Four Poems

The Death of Pan

We were only playing in the pasture,
wearing a patchwork of sun and sky,
ragged with the coming autumn.
That is to say we didn’t mean
to drown out the sound of his flute—
our piper, nor meddle with the conch shell
that caused our fathers to panic.

And his Arcadia—
how we adored her. We made wreaths
of wildflowers, twined tendrils of her hair
around our stubby hands as we brought
her one more gift: a leaf bloodied with color,
a spare sapling, an agate choked in quartz.

Until the river-god,
happy as ever to be plunged in cold,
took him from our arms and flung
his instrument against the rocky shore.
The syrinx shattered into seven reeds or nine,
and we, still infatuated with the echoes
our voices made in that valley, called out
to one another, not so much from loneliness
as the excitement of recitation.

Light breezes
dog us as we go forward in reconnaissance,
teaching one another how to suffer
being schooled by lechers. Our appetite
for the one called Pitys—another nymph
loved by him, who turned into a pine tree
to escape his overtures,
runs nil to none.

* * *

Lemon Balm

The first stem topples
as if in slow motion.
The rest go quickly,
followed by the familiar—
her mother’s dust motes

rising into September air
heady with wax.
Where did it come from,
this need to cut back
and down, to insinuate

orange-handled clippers
gloved with the casual
obstinacy of the guillotine.
And now there is no place
left to look for letters,

for the secret whispers
and shared blood
of women as good as sisters
pledging fidelity
to one another.

She makes her way
through the thicket,
wearing the queasy face
of grand motherhood.
This notion that she

would remain the same person
all her life: snip snip—
even that tractable fact
replaced by the memory
of a memory of a dream.

* * *

A Selfish Death
for Kurt

What you said
about an airplane crash—
I wouldn’t want
to share my death
with hundreds of other
screaming humans….
made me think of death
as something private,
perhaps a gift given
in plain brown wrapping.

The same gift, regifted.
I liked that train
of thought so I followed
it here, to my room
where morning comes
always too soon
and too late,
bringing the headache
that’s won’t quit my temples
even given caffeine
and Tramadol.

Another Pacific front
comes in waves, fat raindrops
blown against south-facing
windows, a carnage
of twigs and green leaves.
I like that so much
is hidden: three s’s
in your name. Scandinavia,
you said. Your signature—
another mystery:
two o’s—large spirals
with space for some kind
of treacherous treble clef
in between.

You’ll take death quietly,
away from traffic,
a cat carrying the bloodied
mouse by the nape, holing up
to test the tortured animal
once more with its claws.

* * *

The Travails

They welcome you in, scarred, scuffed brown as leaves
piling at curb and porch. They have no reason
for being what they are except perhaps in memory
where one looks back and sees the self dressed in a hospital gown,
legs dangling off the flat cot of a bed where the tortures happen
in a deep sleep. They hound you like the seasons, one on the heels of the other…

* * *

~ Judith Skillman’s most recent book is “Heat Lightning, New and Selected Poems 1986 – 2006,” Silverfish Review Press. “The Carnival of All or Nothing” is forthcoming from CervĂ©na Barva Press in March, 2009. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, FIELD, The Southern Review, JAMA, The Iowa Review, The Midwest Quarterly, and numerous other journals and anthologies. She has been a frequent Writer in Residence at Centrum.

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