Variations on a Theme
In the perches like the balconies in Verona
one student says I am now a shifting painting
and names me daily: Woman Drinking Coffee,
Woman in a Red Sweater, Woman Teaching in Her Dreams,
Woman Losing Things (she’s already thinking this way
before having read much, and she notices every detail
in my canvas, how the candle burning on the shelf
has a fake wick so I won’t accidentally burn the house down
as I’m more and more prone to forgetting and lost
in the flicker that is like the swimming of the sea monkey
I longed for as a child, suggesting it is the smallest particle
that survives). She asks me where I’ve been.
What can I remember? What were my favorite records?
She sometimes plays old standards as we blink in
or out, like B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone,”
which she says is her parents’ break-up song. We just listen
for a moment, like to a jukebox after finding a dull quarter
in walks in the factory parking lots, meant for someone’s coffee,
a phone call home. She becomes the Girl Born Too Late
and as her hair lights up, Girl in the Lamplight Mistaken
for the Sun. She begins to read today’s prompt: “Is it Good
or Bad to Be a Rebel?” She answers, “It depends
on whom it will hurt.” The others raise their hands
and begin to wave like polishing glass, drifting off to sea.
They confuse you with Lucy:
one lost body part for another, but yours
were breasts, not eyes. Your story outlined
in red pen in the Little Pictorial Book of the Saints
by a Cecilia, in 1914. This book the center
of a young life. The image of Sicily,
a raft in water, a grandfather’s voyage,
words underlined: chaste, promise,
preservation. We find ourselves in what is
missing. In the early whispers, the hair
on our body rises like grass in the wind.
The reward, what we believe.
A volcano hushed above your youth.
You look noble on the medallions
that swing in the souvenir shops
where the young girls run their hands
across them like across an iron grate.
The Crying Never Stops at the Academy
Appositives, dangling participles, preposition,
so many agreements.
She has been studying for hours now.
This is what Sister has been teaching for 50 years,
for three generations
and two in her own family.
Now she is pouring over Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.
Only so much you have for the keeping.
This will be on the test.
At home more
books pressed open like birds in flight
conjure up the sudden onset of ravens
flying into the windows.
Her mother makes cutout silhouettes
like paper dolls to adhere to the glass
to keep the birds from hitting the windows,
but they only make the blue house more tragic.
It is better to just drown them all out?
She is thinking.
We gotta get out of here. Always here.
Who will tell her, this is the escape?
Thankfully, you can stream the world
in your ears, let it pass like blood
in a donation, the red flush
like the hibiscus tea her mother
settles her with, pours in the bath,
carries around for emergencies.
Heaven has found itself. An older woman
has given birth to a younger one. A younger
woman, to an older one. A star
is dying: I am not. The seal harbors
an avalanche. Everything in quotes.
It’s “New Year’s.” Time for the “faux fur”
and “ablation.” No one can rescue us,
but the psyche. Someone always lurking,
like a distant train. The children delight
in onomatopoeia. A favorite caesura
in the metonymy. My mother said I must
continue to look for her in others. You must
leave a country to find it. Once you
return, you will inhabit it like a tourist.
Follow your North Star,
holding a leaf cut from a child’s drawing
and the strawberry jelly beans until they melt
into your white gloves in the shape of their intention,
forgiving yourself when your mother can’t:
her grudge, your freedom
in the summer of long goodbyes
where your hair grows as long as a veil
over a grandmother’s countenance
as you learn to gut a river fish,
tearing at it like into an envelope
housing a love letter to yourself.
Nicole Greaves teaches English in Philadelphia. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. Her poetry has appeared in numerous literary reviews and been acknowledged by several prizes. In 2003, she was the poet laureate of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania and was nominated for Best on the Net by Radar Magazine in 2015. Nicole is partly of Panamanian and Sicilian descent and much of her work explores themes around acculturation, gender roles, and class.