SOURCE: Earlier draft won a Poetry Society of America annual award; published in Ann Arbor Review; reprinted in Tightening The Circle Over Eel Country, Acropolis Books, ©1974 Elisavietta Ritchie. Prose version: Flying Time: Stories & Half-Stories, Signal Books, ©1992 & 1996 Elisavietta Ritchie; A Nantucket Anthology, Whitefish Press, 2001.
The Silver Birch press reprinted this in their
(currently online but may be printed in hard-copy edition anon—)
'Sconset Summer [Nantucket]
by Elisavietta Ritchie
Both so red-headed we had to insist
we weren't brother and sister,
that seventh summer when we were chased
from the deck of our Nantucket ship,
splinters from shingles deep in our fingers,
catching our freckles on thorns
when we pitched from the roof
into roses which petalled our heads
while, nets ready, we stalked
the black-and-gold spider.
Then we slid down the bluff to the beach,
struck swiped kitchen matches near eel grass:
does green burn?
All that we asked was one emerald flame.
Yellow and red rippled downwind
like tide in a color film negative
toward tumbledown Squatterstown
dumped under the bluff
south of where we lived and swam.
Our crackling orange tidal wave rushed to engulf
hobos and boogie-men,
ghosts of sea captains,
the woman with twenty-five cats who slept in her stove,
the mermaiden's bones we'd uncovered in June –
We commandoed it back to the top of the bluff,
buried our give-away heads under vines,
heard sirens, peeked out to see
three fire engines wind down steep rutted roads.
Firemen shoveled sand dikes just in time.
We were banned from playing together
eight terrible days of Nothing To Do.
Fog, thick as smoke, kept the bows
of our roofs fast aground,
couldn't wash that charred sand.
How slowly dunes green again
[When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple, Papier Mache Press, Sandra Martz, editor; Belles Lettres; The Problem With Eden; Each In Her Own Way, Elizabeth Claman, editor, Queen of Swords Press, 1994; Elegy For The Other Woman: Selected & New Terribly Female Poems, Signal Books, ©1996 Elisavietta Ritchie; a prose version in Flying Time: Stories and Half-Stories, Signal Books, ©1992 & 1996 Elisavietta Ritchie; Temptations, Lost Tower Books, anthology editor Harry Yang, 2016.]
Clearing the Path
My husband gave up shovelling snow
at forty-five because, he claimed,
that's when heart attacks begin.
Since it snowed regardless I,
mere forty, took the shovel, dug.
Now fifty, still it falls on me
to clean the walk. He's gone on
to warmer climes and younger loves
who will, I guess, keep shovelling for him.
In other seasons here, I sweep
plum petals or magnolia cones
to clear the way for heartier loves.
To Oscar, The Black Snake at my Birthday Party
"A snake disappearing is often more memorable than one completely visible.
Disappearance enlivens, and the vanishing is often the form we embrace."
No, disappearance saddens. You vanished.
No wake, no trace of skin or scale of blade
of grass bent to reveal where you slithered.
All muscle and anthracite gleam in the May
sunshine we sought together, you did not
mind when I lifted you coil by coil,
a rope tarred black for a pirate's yacht.
I let you weave around my neck, then wind
upward into an Athenian wreath for a head
bystanders would call foolhardy, the risk
too great for my bravado.
One child and I wore you as an onyx
choker: guests screamed, edged
toward the grill, into the house –
But I know you. You wintered overhead
in our attic we reach only by a ladder too
steep to scale. You found secret apertures
to steal through these century-old walls,
explore the house we had thought ours,
inspect paintings you left askew or else
shattered in apparent disapproval, then
you hid on the broom closet's shelves
with bug spray, unopened silver polish.
Those of us who know our serpents
admired the sheen of your latest skin,
cut of your jaws, your hat-pin eyes.
I released you in the yard where you
keep down moles, toads, field mice,
and alas, a few baby bluebirds.
Every late spring you turn up, regular
as birthdays. Another due, we wonder
who will attend. Will you, veteran of many
herpetological years in our wild yard?
and spiraling back upon myself, will I?
[The Ledge #29, 2005, their "poem of the month" September-October 2006; The Ledge editor Timothy Monaghan recently nominated it for a 2007 Pushcart Prize; also published in Confrontation I think; and in Awaiting Permission to Land (winner of the Anamnesis Award) Cherry Grove Series, copyright 2006 Elisavietta Ritchie]
These interruptions, I have known:
midnight gunfire, burglars, hurricane,
a lover or the lack, tidal flood,
that sudden rush of blood
and, more frequent now, the pierce of pain—
my malformed bones.
This is just another broken night,
of late more rare
thanks to makeshift peace, and age and locks,
though one nocturnal thief, a rusty fox,
steals indoors to filch the kitten's fare.
Simply: I did not write
all day —
no, many days when barren pages
heap like futile clouds or arctic snows,
and wasted brilliance flows —
snowflakes melting into rain — and I must hide my rage
as unused hours swirl down the drain, away
and gone —
Such nights I wake at four
or barely sleep at all.
Thank God this winter night I hear the calls
of tundra swans camped in the cove, unlock the door
to let in swan cantatas, hungry fox, lover, words, and not too soon, the dawn.
[The Spirit of the Walrus, Bright Hill Press, copyright 2005 Elisavietta Ritchie; Awaiting Permission to Land, Cherry Grove Collections, WordTech Communications, copyright Elisavietta Ritchie March 2006]
The Bumblebee Gamble: after Blaise Pascal
In case God does exist, it's a good bet to live life on earth as if He does,
you can't go wrong—
I head down the pier to check the trap,
a chicken wire cube, thirty inches per side…
Will we have crabs for tonight?
Must release any strayed terrapins
and small flounders which often swim in.
I haul the rope…Something furred—
A mouse under my palm?
No! Help! A huge bumblebee
two inches long, and I'm deadly allergic—
I drop the trap, fling the beast
through briny air into the cove,
retreat toward shore—
Invisible swarms pursue me—
Yet this bumblebee has not stung,
he spared my life, and here I
hurled him to his death.
A matter of his life or mine.
Slow down, bless whatever gods.
But there he is paddling, all six legs frantic
against the tide, aware of his plight
if not musing on mortality,
too breathless to bargain as did one
fabled hooked fish: "Please, if you spare
my life, I'll grant you three wishes."
I grab the long-shafted net, dip it beneath
the bumblebee's wake, scoop skyward,
run the net ashore, and flee.
[Poetry Volume CLXXXIX Number 6 March 2002
and the top one in September Eleven: Maryland Voices 2002]
IN THE MIDST OF THE WORST
Quick deaths of anonymous thousands,
slow dying of five old lovers and friends
gone too far for my help.
I brush one white angora cat
strayed from an inhospitable barn
somewhere up the road,
pick new lettuce, one tiny leaf at a time,
for one lover, still live,
cherish whatever I have.
I eat only the core
of your pear
because we have
only one pear
black oval seeds
whatever is fertile
sweet or hard
[Poetry copyright 1988, Modern Poetry Society; Sound and Sense, 8th Edition, Perrine and Arp, editors, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc. 1991;A Wound-Up Cat and Other Bedtime Stories, Palmerston Press, copyright 1993 Elisavietta Ritchie; The Arc of the Storm, Signal Books, copyright 1998 Elisavietta Ritchie; prose version in Flying Time: Stories & Half-Stories, Signal Books, copyright 1992 & 1996 Elisavietta Ritchie]
I think of folding you
into my life.
Our king sized sheets
like table cloths
for the banquets of giants,
pillow cases, despite so many
washings seams still
holding our dreams.
Towels patterned orange and green,
flowered pink and lavender,
gaudy, bought on sale,
reserved, we said, for the beach,
refusing, even after years,
to bleach into respectability.
So many shirts and skirts and pants
recycling week after week, head over heels
All those wrinkles
to be smoothed, or else
ignored, they're in style.
Myriad uncoupled socks
which went paired into the foam
like those creatures in the ark.
And what's shrunk
is tough to discard
even for Goodwill.
In pockets, surprises:
lost screws clinking on enamel;
paper clips, whatever they held
between shiny jaws, now
dissolved or clogging the drain;
well washed dollars, legal tender
for all debts public and private,
intact despite agitation;
and, gleaming in the maelstrom,
one bright dime,
broken necklace of good gold
you brought from Kuwait,
the strangely tailored shirt
left by a former lover...
If you were to leave me,
if I were to fold
only my own clothes,
the convexes and concaves
of my blouses, panties, stockings, bras
turned upon themselves,
a mountain of unsorted wash
could not fill
the empty side of the bed.
[JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 288, No. 7,
August 21, 2002]
A skiff or whaleboat caught
in a northeaster far out
praying to ride the crests,
not founder in the troughs,
and reach whatever shore--
That's the cyst in shades
of gray on the sonogram
while the device like an MC's mike
skims the dead-calm surface
of the questionable left breast.
Benign, reads the report.
Yet just as meteorologists
with radar screens and satellites,
helmsmen with sextants and charts,
cannot always guess right,
so a shipwrecked skipper
at the lifeboat's oars
must keep rowing, hoping, rowing
toward what might be a port,
or the wind-spun heart of a hurricane.
|[JAMA The Journal of the American Medical Association, February 20, 2002; reprinted in newsletter of the Arthritis and Rheumatism Association summer 2002.)
For John Lawson, MD
My whole life I've tied shoes.
For children, grandfathers, great aunts
complaining of age and lumbago,
unsure of left over right.
Adolescent sons left laces untied,
soles flapping alligator jaws,
tore off their shoes in the front hall,
sailed beyond reach.
My own laces came unmoored
until I learned the sailors' lexicon
of knots: left over right, right
over left, for a trusty square.
What disjointed lives I've tried to retie,
helped a few bind theirs with rhymes.
But granny knots unravel, snarl
like webs of spiders on amphetamines.
Today I cannot reach my feet.
Ornery spine curves like a scythe,
one extra vertebra, mutation shared
with Inuits, clamps on a nerve.
Before your duller drugs untangle my
web of pain, you lean down to tie my black Nikes
so I'll run again like an antique clock that just
needs rewinding and a squirt of oil
to chime on the hour and remind
how our time goes round and round
before it winds down, dissolves
in balls of dust, expires.
Someday when you are old and ache
and cannot bend, I will return,
my hands no longer freckled, scarred
or cramped like blue crab claws
(my natal totem draws me ever seaward),
but supple again, alabaster pale,
bitten nails grown long in the grave
and painted in rainbows.
Then my transparent fingers will retie
your shoes with unforgotten repertoires
of square knots, clove hitches, bowlines,
cat's-paws, fisherman's bends, Gordian knots.
[Oberon 2002; The Spirit of the Walrus, Bright Hill Press, 2005; and in Awaiting Permission to Land (winner of the Anamnesis Award), Cherry Grove Collections, WordTech Communications, copyright 2006 Elisavietta Ritchie]
Chickens Are Not Emotionally Satisfying Pets
As I learned in a lone Malay hamlet,
final year of a marriage, fowl are not
loving, like cats, which he banned,
nor companionable, like the mutt
he got third-hand after I chased out
a midnight burglar while he slept.
Burnished auburn, emerald and gold,
the rooster strutted with audacity, wattles wagged contempt for humankind.
The black hen might have felt
primordial compassion, for
day after day, no matter that
the door was to stay shut,
in she'd slip, rooster in pursuit,
stalk upstairs, leave her gift:
one beige egg, laid on my pillow
or in my bureau drawer
left open by mistake.
Were these fertilized?
Could I have incubated them,
turned foster mother to a flock?
But I recalled an adage,
Don't try to teach
your grandma to suck eggs,
found my darning needle, poked
a hole in the narrow end,
gulped the rich and slimy life inside.
|[in Potomac Review, 2005, and Awaiting Permission to Land (winner of the Anamnesis Award), Cherry Grove Collections, WordTech Communications, copyright 2006 Elisavietta Ritchie]
Snow in Leningrad
Blizzard here in Washington, I'm shoveling snow.
My mind sifts snow in Leningrad, World War Two, the Siege,
as I try to track my Aunt Maria….She steps over snowy ruins
and humans dead of famine, illness, shells. Early dusk and snow
mask the dead, a while. No burials till the hard ground thaws.
She lugs rubble from wrecked buildings to raise new barracks.
Nights, she mans an anti-aircraft gun. One slice of bread a day.
Bombs hit her flat, in Pushkin's former stables, but a captain rescues her:
"Come," he begs, "teach English to our officers: someday they'll need it."
At headquarters she gets a cup of soup with bread, a place to sleep,
safer if not warm but no one is. Medals afterwards. She survives
the war, more blizzards, tribulations from the KGB.
They allow her to teach English, French, and keep her piano.
She moves into three barrack rooms in a village north of Leningrad.
She dares not write, but sends me picture books.
A luminous June, 1986. At last we meet. Eighty-one, half-blind,
she serves me tea and talks of childhood skating on the Neva,
troika rides across St. Petersburg, walks with Akhmatova and Blok,
those nine hundred nights the Germans ringed her wounded town.
Her champion Airedale disappeared in someone's cooking pot.
Now a small white mutt and large gray cat sleep on her feet:
"Trust creatures more than certain humans…"
Neighbors are curious, nervous, may report strangers,
but her friend Ludmilla is faithful, discreet.
December 1991. Ludmilla writes: Maria is in hospital.
Midnights she wakes the ward with lectures on Pushkin,
Dickens, Bach, English grammar, and Voltaire.
My plane from Washington lands a day too late.
By three metros and a bus Ludmilla takes me miles
across the city heaped with dirty snow. Not neighborhoods
for foreigners. We skirt the hospital on snowy paths
toward the morgue. A white-smocked worker chases out
a dappled cat who slips back in, resumes his watch beside the slab
where my chilled aunt lies in state. She wears her blue professor dress,
beret she swore she would wear to the grave...Through falling snow
we escort her to the marble crematorium. Friends flock.
Something like a service. Then the fire—the Church forbids it but
she's seen too many dead awaiting spring. Attendants, thrifty, keep
her clothes. The coffin slides through low brass doors.
We troop to her old flat, repaired, and toast
her soul's lone journey through the snowy skies.
The rest will go beneath a churchyard stone.
Washington, 2002. In this wind swirling white
I seek her still, and still the night is blind. My attempts
to fix her life in words freeze, then melt with flakes of snow.
Yet, as if these were the drifts that cloak
the stone above her distant sack of ash,
I keep on shoveling.
17 September 2004
[JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, 27 July 2005; reprinted in Awaiting Permission to Land, Cherry Grove Series, copyright January 2006 Elisavietta Ritchie]
Strangely, suddenly, beating like surf
that splashes now over bulwark and dock,
shock troops of hurricanes farther south
but on course to crash here.
My heart was always docile, ignored
as it pumped full, ebbed on schedule,
pulse normal, blood salty as sea,
relied on, like seasons and tides.
And all the recurrent seasons of love
which jumpstart body and brain—
What's happening now? I don't know.
Such pounding, invisible crimson surf
all day and all night, a generator gone wild
inside my chest and head. Take care!
This casket of flesh and bones
could shower your green world red.
[Confrontation 2006; also won Poetry Society of Georgia's Gerald Seig Award, 2003; reprinted in Awaiting Permission to Land, Cherry Grove, copyright 2006 Elisavietta Ritchie]
Waiting for a Biopsy Report
To get a crack at immortality:
leave better work. Stop hanging out
the wash…Yet life eclipses literature
though pinning wet clothes
by the inlet, cattail-framed,
on a sun-struck day, forms a haiku.
On the line, a spider spins
her web between the lover's shirt
and a black lace slip: an untold tale.
The three-year-old, pumpkin-haired,
sprints at billowing sheets:
this Don Quixote writes his own book.
A puzzled hummingbird probes
crimson blossoms on the waving blouse—
Merely blood from punctured skin.
Red ink of malignancy?
Best tend to the garden where
summer's last tomatoes hang
blotched by hornworms, bottom rot,
but still good if the bad's cut out,
save what you can.
Quickly plant before first frost
winter spinach, lettuce, chard…
Who will be here to harvest?
Hang the world, over-rife with growth
and love and fear and death. While waiting
for the wash to dry, the phone to ring, write.
[published in Potomac Review 1999; reprinted in Fresh Water: Poems from
Rivers, Lakes, and Streams, editor Jennifer Bosveld, Pudding House Press, 2002.]
A real big mother of a snapper
impervious to poison ivy, briars,
lumbers up the river bank.
Shell slate black, crenellated at the stern,
snake neck, scaly limbs, hook claws,
horny beak to sever fingers or a foot.
A dozen rabbits race about, skitter, bound,
zigzag, scatter among tiger lily clumps.
Still, I bet on her. She heads straight
across the yard, an armored carrier
programmed on a course set fifty years ago
when she was young, this lawn a forest.
She pauses on the grass. Confused?
Was there a house across her path before?
I offer her my pear core, sprint aside.
She studies me: with loathing, mere disdain,
slow-stirred memory of a duel beneath
primordial cycads, or am I the perfect meal?
She's hellbent not on making war or lunch
but to unload her oblong leather eggs
in some cache underground. Now where…
I edge behind, lift her gingerly—
not only dangerous, she stinks—
carry her to an abandoned flower bed.
She takes off, a millstone on the march,
around the yard's perimeter at such a pace,
distracted by the rabbits, I lose track.
She grunts through the herb bed,
crushes dill, churns the earth
between oregano and rosemary.
When I check again, she's covered up
whatever spot she finally chose,
slid down the bank and disappeared.
How did that repellant hulk
entice a mate so tolerant
of her appearance, scent?
Was he drawn by long affection
or, with pure chelonian lust,
snatched the first female to swim past
for lengthy coupling or quick fix?
Love in the muck in the dark
or light of the moon on waves,
to prolong her dynasty engendered
before dinosaurs were born.
Like roaches, snappers may outlive us.
Unsure of their gestation span, I'll watch
the spot, escort phalanxes of hatchlings
to the shore, ward off ospreys, foxes, gulls…
But this very night, raccoons search
among the herbs, leave shards
like broken ping-pong balls.
[published in Potomac Review 1997; reprinted in
The Arc of the Storm, Signal Books, copyright 1998 Elisavietta Ritchie]
For Elizabeth, Toronto Beach
"If you get on top of the hill
you'll never die," says the child
patting sand, damp from a week of rain.
"You have to be able to touch the peak."
Around it she builds a wall too high
for wingless insects to cross,
they keep tumbling back in her moat.
She crowns the crest with a feather.
The sun, hidden by fog curling over the shore,
enfolding wavering figures in scrim,
still pours onto our heads.
Observing death waft in quietly,
harming no one yet, I know: in climbing
this particular alp I'd only smash
the mound to infinite grains of sand,
myself to finite splinters of bone.
When we leave the beach
all that's left are footprints,
finger trails, traces of moat,
rays of recalcitrant light.
[earlier version in Ascent , Spring 1999]
APPEARANCES, PATUXENT RIVER
You'd say, they are real: the child
digging clams in wet sand at low tide,
the boat in the cove,
two canvasbacks overhead.
The man fires from the boat,
ducks fall into their shadows.
The glint of a winch
makes the boat seem substantial
but the sun will climb into a cloud,
the boat spiral in waves and sink.
The child, who dreamed herself
somewhere and someone else,
also may vanish, perhaps in the tide,
or she will go home, where they will dress
the ducks, undress her, and whether
she eats the ducks or the fish eat her,
one or the other disappears.
[Ascent Winter 1999/2000]
Who knows if she's sweet or mean,
that wrinkled woman in shapeless black
stirring soup for the child,
if she was a general's widow, or mistress,
whether she lost her virginity
with tenderness or by force
to a dashing lad in a flowering grove
or a whole platoon in the mud.
Or if the old man nodding over his bowl
was the one or one of the ones,
if he marched on to raze a village
or home to tend his chickens and cows.
Was this house in his family for generations
or just occupied when its owners fled
or died in the yard? The town was destroyed.
What lies under fields beyond?
The child spoons the soup. "But where
did I come from?" "You were a gift of God,"
they respond. "Or, the gods. An elf
found you under a berry bush."
They quiz him on sums and saints,
complain the storm is prying the shutters off,
then, mulling their own recollections
without speaking, finish the soup.
Is he foundling, or grandchild,
of the clan or alien blood?
War weaves shrouds of silence
around corpses and quick alike.
We back away from the window,
refasten the shutter, disappear
into the storm. The fragrance of soup
and blood clings to our clothes.
[Blue Unicorn 2004]
(after an etching by Dürer)
Like St. Jerome, we need to keep
pet lions dozing by our beds, their paws
upon our coverlet while we're asleep.
Affectionate despite the claws
in winter lions make ample comforters
(we lack the monk's thick warming cowl).
They lull us with deep regal purrs
and guard us with their locomotive growl.
Lions were smaller in the time of saints
or in the artist's eye that had not seen
real lions in savannahs, stalking, quaintly
feasting on fresh antelope, bloody, lean.
True, table manners aren't well-bred.
Housebreaking them becomes a chore.
But why stare at a long-dead human head?
You won't find your live lion a bore.
For when we meditate upon a skull
we only learn what's in our own.
We quickly learn what lions mull
while they lick our cheeks: fine bones.
[earlier versions ©1992 The Christian Science Monitor]
TELLING THE RED
I snap the geraniums in 400 ASP black-and-white
since that's in my camera. They catch sun from snow
piled outside. In my bay window they glow
what my mother might call rather a brazen scarlet.
Each single floret is tiny, fragile, but massed
in a greater sum, big as a fist,
they burn my palms with their light.
Even when petals shrivel, officially finished,
that pungent crimson stays bright.
Yet they print mere icicle gray.
One would suppose, seeing this glossy photo,
my geraniums pink, sappy lavender, white.
These leaves velvet green, must explain.
Recalling my mother's distaste
for what is passé, right before I shot
I clipped what foliage yellowed and dried.
My mother, whose birthday should be today,
insisted on positive attitudes. Oh, I can tell they
are red, she would assure me. Color is not
what matters here, but your composition.
Note interplays, variegated light against
curved shapes, indented, the pick-up-stix
grids of spaghetti twigs bearing blossoms or leaves
versus the thick main stems…You've let them grow
leggy, ungainly, dear, do cut them back...By the rotund
weight of the pots, one knows they are rusty brick.
The planes of ceiling and wall are white as the snow
on black branches outside. As for your voids–
I'm all too aware of the voids. And look! She'd point
to what I see only now, in the space of the pane:
Did you know you caught a cardinal in flight?
Male, you can tell by the crest. Very red.