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Tundra Heart

by Cassandra Robison


Acknowledgements: Erie, published in Imprints (Spring 2009). Permission to reprint granted. Cover Art: Don’t Fence Me In by Sarah Jo Lawrence. Reprinted by permission of the artist.

Cassandra Robison Cassandra Robison’s poems have been published or are forthcoming in various print and online literary magazines, including Avocet: A Journal of Nature Poetry, Clapboard House, The Centrifugal Eye, The Cortland Review, The Tonopah Review, and Sunspinner, among others. Her poem “No Small Deaths” received a Pushcart nomination. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in English and Higher Education. Dr. Robison taught for a decade at a Florida college where she was faculty advisor for the award-winning student literary and fine arts magazine, Imprints. Born 1949 in upstate New York from Swedish immigrant ancestry, she has lived in Florida for fifteen years. Her work reflects both locales. Leaving the Pony, her first chapbook, was published in August 2009 by Finishing Line Press. Three poems are included in the August 2009 anthology Double Lives, Reinvention, & Those We Leave Behind (Wising Up Press) and four are forthcoming in an anthology entitled Magical Kites.


Table of contents TUNDRA ................................................................................................................................................ 1 ATOLL....................................................................................................................................................... 2 ADULTERY ............................................................................................................................................... 3 THREE MEN IN A TRUCK ...................................................................................................................... 4 RIDING LESSONS .................................................................................................................................. 5 GRIT .......................................................................................................................................................... 6 ONE MORE DREAM OF HORSES ......................................................................................................... 7 ERASURE ................................................................................................................................................ 8 TRANSPLANTED .................................................................................................................................... 9 MAROONED IN OLMSTEAD FALLS ................................................................................................... 10 GUNHILD ................................................................................................................................................ 11 GLADYS ................................................................................................................................................. 12 A HAUNTING ......................................................................................................................................... 13 CHOPIN CALLS UP................................................................................................................................ 14 KARL .................................................................................................................................................... 15 SKATER ................................................................................................................................................. 17 LONG BEFORE MY FATHER LEFT...................................................................................................... 18 ELEGY..................................................................................................................................................... 19 MARTA ROSENQVIST ......................................................................................................................... 20 BEAT ....................................................................................................................................................... 21 IMAGERY AT DUSK .............................................................................................................................. 22 BASK ...................................................................................................................................................... 23 FLIGHT.................................................................................................................................................... 24 ERIE ........................................................................................................................................................ 26 SHINE ..................................................................................................................................................... 27


Tundra My friend’s body closes in on itself, freezing the limbs, like swimming through molasses, my father said. In many ways, my friend resembles my dead father—a younger brother well loved by sisters, a man eager to please, happiest surrounded by others, both humbled to spend their last years within a tundra self. Meanwhile he spends whole days tending his garden. Irises do not mind the twitching fingers; the Tiger Lilies he salvages to place in pots do not shirk from his trembling touch. This is the task at hand; the only life there is. Bees buzz around him, drawn to the sweet disease. He is lost inside the moment. His hands, ungloved, love dirt, his knees bent, he blesses the bulb gifts he salvages for us to plant, years after he is gone.

4/2/2013

1


Atoll You remember your mother’s voice soft and low, sandpaper, alto, whispery when she sang Poor Butterfly, Always, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, songs that made you sad even when you were small, long before her mind cracked. You remember the woman she was dressed in her white gloves, her fur hat, her high heels clicking down the hall of your elementary school—presentiment perhaps. Her wild moods sweeping away your shore, beaches strewn with debris, and always the scanning of the horizon with wary eyes, yours for your own reasons, hers for hers. Still you imagine one day she may return—the one you remember, the one who stroked your hair—maybe call from 40 years away, her old self still— hello? hello? But that is foolish wont, dumb as the small blond girl who waits there on the atoll of your heart.

4/2/2013

2


Adultery On the last day she is a child in Ashtabula, a June day, home from the beach, her blond hair slung back in a ponytail, a blue striped towel over her sun burnt shoulder, she finds her father in the kitchen alone—a place he has rarely been in his fine suits and polished shoes— slicing raw carrots, the shavings strewn in the sink. Where’s mother? she asks. He does notlook at her or at anything, but narrows his blue eyes, cold fluorescent light. She treads barefoot down the hall, the house grows thick, the walls lean in; she loses her breath. Some sound escapes though not quite human from the bed where her mother lies, fetal curled. Years pass. Her mother’s staggered knees never find gravity again. The father remains braced against the sink, the girl still stands stuck in the doorway, caught between worlds, on the last day she is a child in Ashtabula, the last time she can find her way home.

4/2/2013

3


Three Men in a Truck drive by, too slowly. I’m amidst the summer field of hay, my white Jeep parked by the roadside, its back hatch window open. At first they don’t see the dog, the brindle Rottweiler mix, whose nose is on the ground sniffing for vermin, and all three stare at me; their beat up truck already slow, slows more. A primal fear coats my throat with metal. I stand my ground, keep my back straight. I neither turn away nor stare back. Counter intuitively I tell myself I’m silly, surely they’re just farm workers. They mean no harm. As soon as they pass, I head towards my Jeep, refusing to look over my shoulder where I’m sure that truck has turned around and is snaking back, for what? my Jeep? for me? I’m not running. I’m keeping my cool, the dog still off leash, when I hear the sputter of muffler, the smut rising visibly, there they are: leering at me without compunction now. And then they see the dog, 120 pounds loping to my side; all three share a glance. That’s it. They drive off, without another look. I’m still 10 feet from safety when I say aloud: you bastards. And as I do I’m thinking of my colleague, shot by her husband next to the police station, their grandchild there in the front seat. My own first husband shoving me to the floor when I was five months pregnant, his face twisted. I hear his hoarse threats 30 years past. If I had daughters I would tell them, Listen: Women are always ten feet from the truck. Get a big dog.

4/2/2013

4


Riding Lessons for Walter Prue, 3rd Cavalry, WWI

At 5, she learned to ride on a pied half draft horse, 17 hands high, by her great uncle. Sepia footage shows the child posting rhythmically to an extended trot: up and up and up and up and up— military, musical, the hoofbeats slapping the paddock dirt. The child’s hands six inches over the pommel of the ancient McClellan saddle, her back poised and leaning forward into balance, an equine arabesque. She had good hands, he said, her feet were quiet in the stirrups. The equitation lessons served her all her life—a good seat, a mastery of beasts.

4/2/2013

5


Grit With the arrogance of youth, I told the vet no, don’t put the horse down. I would not let go the halter rope of my first horse; instead I led the great roan hour by hour , stumbling in his pain, belly blown up fat and rock hard, hour after hour. Finally, he staggered, heaving 1200 pounds against an oak, and for a minute hung suspended. Then he dropped to his knees as if in slow motion, fatally surprised, and beached onto his side, one brown eye wild, he flung that great skull and knocked me senseless, an anvil to the brain. Then it was done: both of us stunned and still but for the hoarse doom of blowing out his life into the dirt.

4/2/2013

6


One More Dream of Horses I. The moment when the colt drops and the rest of the field gallops past there on the dusty track the crowd sees only the prostrate horse, the magical veterinary ambulance, the inevitable white sheet, as the rest of the colts cross the finish line. Death’s like that, a crack in the world, an instant when the sheath rips and freefall, the soul drops. I imagine how the horses feel just before: blood throbbing, held taut by the hot press of others. That’s the way to go: a headlong rush. II. I was a gambler once, I was, fearless, running to beat hell. But the time comes when you can’t take one more colt tumbling into darkness; I’m a dreamer now, only a dreamer of horses: their great hearts like engines, their brown eyes peripheral, flickering. My hand reaches out flat palmed to their velvet mouths.

4/2/2013

7


Erasure Her life erases line by line, as age defeats memory. Poem by poem, whole stanzas disappear; could this be the fierce woman who made floors shake? whose rows of marigolds dared never bend? She sighs. We sigh. The page grows blank.

4/2/2013

8


Transplanted I. In spring, she planted bulbs of Dutch Iris that looked like child’s fists in neat rows within the red brick planters against her white house. By June, the Iris would rise like purple soldiers tall and straight; not a leaf amiss so unlike me, a niece whose feet were clumsy and too loud, whose presence called up that long sniff and tightened face. Still, one day she gave me a book, confessing a love of poetry. It was the only grace between them all those years. II. In the graveyard on the hillside by the lake, shadowed beneath the nail needled pines and black larch, she lies beside her parents, dying with them, having crossed an ocean and been transplanted here, she must have been unwilling to let them emigrate without her, finally. No one seems to recall her love of Dutch purple Iris but the niece she never liked. I plant them one morning in April, 20 years beyond and well into my own necessary gardening.

4/2/2013

9


Marooned in Olmstead Falls In a white squall, she left him standing there on a February day raw and white, fear rising off him like smoke. She took the kids and the dog, hid their clothes beneath the Army blanket her father brought back from World War II. For five hours, she drove both hands on the wheel, focusing hard on a circle of clear windshield that looked like road, through heavy snow, in a hurricane of cold; the bald tires on the old red Ford never swerved; it was a goddam miracle. At Ripley, the brakes failed—frozen—so she coasted into the station, and bought two gallons of gas, just enough to make it over the slick snowridge on the Plank Road to the lake; later she swore they slid from Dewitville to Fluvanna. She never looked back. But struck through the heart without even his own meanness to save him— he stood mooted to the spot all these years.

4/2/2013

10


Gunhild Swedish émigré, 1927

The air smells of lilac; it is mid May and they are blooming next to the horse chestnut tree in the front yard that slopes down to the lake, three black stemmed sturdy trees: their arms a profusion of color: white, purple, and a shade she calls “French Blue.” A necklace of red tulips strung around the white house from bulbs dug up each fall and stored all winter in cold cellar boxes. In the east corner’s shadows Lily of the Valley spring up next to wild ferns along the damp flagstones, hang their shy white bells amidst wet leaves. On this sea of flowers she has sailed home for 50 years, not one so petal fragile as she, each one another perfect ache, her own heart buried in a cellar box below her collarbones, red and longing.

4/2/2013

11


Gladys Swedes are closed-mouthed by nature, anyway, so the red haired great aunt’s story came forth in anecdotes and parables, over the years from our father—who loved to tell stories—and his sisters who did not. Their lipsticked mouths pursed like petals in rain, their high cheeked fair faces impermeable. Still my sister and I parsed out some truths: Gladys wore short skirts and beaded cloches famous in the day and shocking for this upstate small town. She smoked cigarettes through perfumed haze and pulled her stockings on one by one up the long curve of each leg (this from my father’s boyhood account); it was whispered she ran with a wild crowd, including Lucille Ball,and some slick Italians who were connected down in Brooklyn Square. One of three perfect Nordic daughters she never moved away from home. At 30, she bled out of this world, weary perhaps of her own indiscretions, played out, who knows? Her parents were dead within two years. We peer at her grave marker now from 80 years beyond: Gladys, daughter of immigrants, mythic Gladys, whose smoke seeps through the fog of time.

4/2/2013

12


A Haunting He lit a Camel even before his feet touched the floor, every morning for 40 years, despite the digitalis under the tongue twice a day. So when his car idled too long in the driveway that exhaust spewed smoke signals into that queer March dawn, it was no surprise she found him splayed across the steering wheel, already gone. At the funeral, she sat like a schoolgirl slapped by a nun, lips pursed, muted. Pale hands manicured, folded in her lap. The years clicked by. She learned to drive at 62, then let that blue Ford die right there in the garage.

4/2/2013

13


Chopin Calls Up the way my mother would quiet herself on the piano bench, a meditation of bones settling into silence as if music required ritual to be tempted into her long fingered hands. For a five minute etude, she would dive down into chords, plummeted into sound, the minor chords conjuring up some grief she had not borne. A foreboding, I see that now. But this was a lifetime ago. When the song was done with her she’d rise, fold the sheet music, slip it inside the bench and return to the daily business of mothering and huswifery— the yellow clamor its own symphony.

4/2/2013

14


Karl Chautauqua Lake 1960

50 years back in summers, I imagine the morning lake lapping against the shore a steel blue cat, each lick audible and rhythmic. He has made pancakes—eggy, flat, each filled with a different jam, two with only sugar powder fine as talc. He has left his glasses atop the desk and stands loose limbed in worn flannel pajamas and grey robe; His pale eyes look startled, his red hair sticks up, a rooster comb. His wife admonishes. The light streaks through the kitchen window. Ja, he nods, a sound so tender only grandchildren hear it.

4/2/2013

15


Drought for BW

For weeks, it has been dry in Florida. The parchment earth sighs; today, the air is ripe—and downdrafts swell the porch curtains like muslin dresses billowing. And today I talk with an old friend, my own curtains open wide, heart full of rain.

4/2/2013

16


Skater He was, for the most part, a stranger, a shadowy animus skirting the edges of dreams and my unconscious only to proffer up a line or two that seemed much. I do not recall him asking me a question, his first only a few months from the end, when stuck in the glue of disease, he asked, “What happened to that first husband of yours?” I fumbled an answer; he grew impatient: “What about the other one?”Two questions in 50 years, and why those two? I smile think of it. But the truth is my father skated in and out of my life, waving from the other side of the pond, like someone you might recognize from town, someone friendly.

4/2/2013

17


Long Before My Father Left two men moved into a clearing amidst black branched trees where the field is full of snow, and even in the silence of 35 millimeter with its sepia hush, their boots crunch with each step. They sit on a fat, fallen tree, propping guns – a rifle and a shotgun— butt first in earth, aimed at the sky; the men smoke unfiltered Pall Malls, tendrils wafting like thought. The grandfather’s face below his plaid cap smiles but the son in law leans into the distance, fierce eyes narrowed. Even a stranger—surely a daughter— could see the first is a man who has made peace with his life; the other will soon be gone.

4/2/2013

18


Elegy On the striped brocade sofa in the black and white photo, I sit on his lap. He is smiling, dressed in a light suit and tie, his hair still boyish at 30. He holds my right hand in his and waves with his left. I remember trying to match his long strides —he was always in a hurry. Once he left me beside a creek for hours with fishermen he did not know; I fussed with dandelions’ yellow scented faces on the damp bank until he returned. I never told my mother. I’d wave him off when he was a salesman, always smiling as he stepped with celebrity onto the gut drop ladders of Martin 404’s at the county airport, flying off like Errol Flynn, my swashbuckler father. He said to me If my plane goes down, you are not to cry for me. I’ll be waving and smiling all the way down. Years beyond he lay in the white wreckage of illness, and, dutiful daughter, I obeyed.

4/2/2013

19


Marta Rosenqvist Finnish émigré, 1895 - 1985

In 1918, to save his boy from war, my father in law bought land and built a farm, 20 miles from nowhere and one mile from Bear Lake, Pennsylvania. In a white flurry of change, we made our way over the dark hills and icy roads, three small girls in tow. We had 70 acres of snow until April. I would rise before dawn, prepare the meal for my Ben and his two hands, fed them supper and dinner too. In ’21, my Raymond was born right on the kitchen table, all his life Ben would joke, We found Raymond in that apple tree in the east orchard. My girls swirled round in their handmade dresses, always laughing. We ate what we grew, drank what we milked. But by 1923, we had enough: Ben sour on killing. Sometimes I think of it and wonder how a little Finnish girl like me ended up there in the wilderness of upstate New York. Still, I’m looking back at summers when the corn rose tall as Ben, and swayed back and forth, a kind of dance while the wind ruffled my curtains. At 94, now I smell the wood smoke of memory and imagine Ben striding from the damp barn leading that steel gray Percheron he loved so well. I’m running out to pat that horse ready to step right on through to heaven.

4/2/2013

20


Beat Who knows why she imagined life was work, and all else folly? Clicking to her own metronome, she performed her days: etude, etude, sonata. Ever in motion in her Spartan white shirts conducting mop and broom. I could say she liked labor because she preferred not to think; that might be true. Listen: I know this. She liked the sweet hum of laundry, the percussion of silverware neatly put away, the cool hush of orchestrated shelves.

4/2/2013

21


Imagery at Dusk for D.C.

The roseate sky at dusk, a lone alabaster egret on black stilts at the water’s edge, an old woman in gingham, kneeling amidst overgrown pachysandra, fistfuls of moss in her gloved hands waving like wild hair. Neil Young on the FM station like Saskatchewan wind moaning over the plains in winter: If the good times are all gone, I’m bound for movin on… And just for a moment, the simplest things— cloud shapes across sky—seem a marvel, I find flight of another, more sustaining kind.

4/2/2013

22


Bask It took me 50 years to find these mornings but now I’m luxuried in their breeze on a sunporch amidst two worlds – the one paused magically and its shadowed twin playing on the porch floor, swaying side to side. Still as sphinxes the cats and I bask.

4/2/2013

23


Flight A shudder of warblers settles upon the tree, feathers its branches. disappears into green; they call out to one another in their passion. A gust of wind, a sigh, sends them off flying shards of stained glass tossed into sky, sun on their wings, they fade as one into morning light— like the moment of death when the soul shoots free.

4/2/2013

24


Kite The cattle egrets become one white kite soaring 1000 feet above the snow forest of childhood, swinging as one this way and that, in great arcs, each of the birds a mirror of light as it leans into the wind then changes direction —far below some old roost holds the taut string.

4/2/2013

25


Erie Sometimes when the wind blows just so on a late morning in spring, it calls up a summer cottage on Lake Erie’s shore near Portland on Route 5, off a dirt road that wound behind the long grape fields with their gnarled limbs coveting wire; miles and miles of plumb straight rows far as a child’s eye could see. The walk from cabin to lake a quarter mile of forest: giant trees whose limbs swayed in elegant dance, whose rustling leaves seemed orchestrated whooshing, a lullaby, or a chorus in high air. There is a place right there on the edge of the world: quiet children hear it and never return: they become fey arbors swooning forever, sad and beautiful.

4/2/2013

26


Shine I. When you were small, my boys, the clickety clack of living made such noise, our need became the locomotive pulling us over the rails, our lives spilled out as the years swept by. Did I, did I hold your hands as the towns rushed past? Clasp you to me with all my might? II. Boys, if you live long enough, memory becomes filigree. These long mornings of age, reprieves. So I wish you days like these: a chunk of blue sky, a pane on which your whole life reflects, and whispered in the wind chime, bathed in light, I will be the jangle in your breeze.

4/2/2013

27


Tundra Heart