WHEN WORDS GO ON VACATION
This whole year you type words
wearing three-piece suits,
$100 words disgusted
by poems, hang-gliding, messages in bottles
that know to march in line, in paragraphs
and fill-up white paper
until their numbers reach 1000.
They never pretend to be anything they are not.
The objects at their beck and call
become just like them and never dream
the desk lamp as a pink flamingo,
the sharpened pencil as a dart
hurling to a bull’s-eye.
But now they are on vacation,
taking a breather from breeding
in the collar of your starched button-down
and inside your silver cuff links
to invade the front of your rumpled orange t-shirt
with their new motto:
Every galosh is a glass slipper waiting to samba.
This poem was first published in In The Margins Of The World, Plain View Press. The last line can be found on Max trains and busses in Portland and Salem.
Night comes on and the nurses
offer up a pill
while the stars in the sky
burn like neon jacks.
My students who attended the Postgraduate
Center for Mental Health were living
in childhood bedrooms, group homes,
having earned their degrees
from Creedmore, Pilgrim State,
the Bronx V.A. and Bellevue,
which also offered respite to Norman Mailer and
Delmore Schwartz. Mailer stabbed his wife,
Schwartz attacked Hilton Kramer.
After extolling the virtues
of Hitler’s Final Solution and begging
a stewardess who popped pretzels
into his mouth to run off with him,
Robert Lowell “got away for the holidays,”
as Jackie Kennedy chose to believe.
My students never to be illustrious, were writing:
”I hate my finger. It is bent and ugly..”
“Is madness madness,” “... with you, neither female,
neither male, simply both....”
“... But one day I was going and I met myself coming,
so I killed myself...,”
I feared I would end up like Ann Sexton,
a patient in the same mental hospital
where she had taught a poetry seminar
to “Mayflower screwballs,”
with names like Higginson, Bowditch and Lowell,
her teacher, and Plath’s at B.U.
while I at my worst, neither manic nor suicidal,
but feeling like a ping pong table net
my parents volleyed insults over,
seeing spots before my eyes,
no ophthalmologist could diagnose,
I remained the teacher
sitting on the same folding chair every week,
taking a long drink
from a styrofoam cup of poetry’s cool water.
Although, sometimes I saw myself
across the room,
my chair against the wall, hunched over,
smoking a cigarette down to the butt.
SUMMER OF THE SECRET BALLOT
Phnom Penh, Cambodia 1992
We are constructing a house of registration cards
that will withstand the wolf of tyranny.
In these light-filled rooms
you can choose who will speak for you,
and not be bribed with rice,
or have your daughter threatened.
We do not want to know
what is happening in Bosnia —
men forced to castrate their friends and
drill holes in other men’s chests,
children impaled on spikes,
young women gang raped,
impregnated by the seed of the enemy.
We are replacing horror with registration sites.
If your grandmother was born in Cambodia,
you can sit with democracy on an old school bench
and wait to have your photo I.D. taken
in front of a white sheet
with liberty stitched into the fabric.
You can feel equality in the sticky gel
that will develop your picture,
and justice in your thumb
made ready to press its glorious print
into the thick paper of your own,
soon to be plastic-coated card of hope.
Previously published in “Omega” and Storytelling in Cambodia, Calyx Books
Willa Schneberg’s second collection of Poetry, In The Margins Of The World, was awarded the 2002 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. From 1992-1993, she worked with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, setting up registration sites, and as a Medical Liaison Officer. Her most recent poetry collection is entitled Storytelling in Cambodia.
This October she will be a fellow at the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, NM and will read at the Montana Festival of the Book.
Schneberg will also be reading at the Moonstruck poetry series on Sunday, November 30. Moonstruck Chocolate Café, 45 South State Street in downtown Lake Oswego, OR. Contact 503-697-7097 for details.
OUT OF BOUNDS, The Vanity Bench
Alone in the house — five or six years old. Mind restless, hands, idle.
Books still unknown to me, and toys scarce in our impoverished, Great
Depression home. Tempted, I sneak into my parents’ bedroom, snoop through
my mother’s vanity drawers — hankies and hosiery, mystery underclothes,
ugly garters hanging from them. A jewelry box holds pretty, glittery things
to adorn an ear, a neck, a dress. A pearl bracelet, three lustrous strands
that hang, reflected in the mirror, huge on my small wrist.
But here, what’s this!? A small glass dish holds a silver razor blade,
single-edged — for my mother’s corns. I often watched her, bending low
over her foot on the vanity bench, carefully working those slivery shavings. Always fascinated, I’m aware that the razor is sharp, can draw blood.
A padded seat, upholstered in rich, thick, brocade — an elegant,
shimmering, floral pattern of muted blues and greens.
Curious, cautious — I grip the razor. On my knees, I venture
a tiny slit across the brilliant threads, rewarded in an instant with
an elfin explosion of fibers within the heavy fabric. The cut a palpable
plip! beneath the blade, a zzing I can almost hear, beneath my ribs —
strangely satisfying. Excited, delighted, I do it again — and yet
again, oblivious of the destruction I pursue.
In the dark, dismal Depression, nice things were few, but treasured.
Too young was I, when my afternoon’s innocent diversion was discovered,
to comprehend her angry scolding, her tearful tantrum, the irreparable
depths of my thoughtless, terrible transgression. Over time, that once-lovely
cloth deteriorated into fuzzy wisps — its life destroyed, damaged proof
of this bewildered child’s sins. Years to replace, to repair — to bring
enlightenment to this lonely, exploring little soul.
— Pru McDonald, 11/19/07
Pick of the litter, they said — meaning we had first choice
in selecting a puppy for our family. Mostly for me, since my family
was almost grown. While the children briefly had two cats,
littermates, I’d never had a pet to call my own. Oh, a duck, once,
for four years, but that didn’t count. I loved the silly thing,
but curling up with a duck is not really possible.
My mom had said no to the mess and inconvenience.
With all else in her life, I understood, but still I yearned for
a dog — that was when I was young. Now, though, I had mixed
feelings about the huge commitment of time and energy.
Life was pretty crammed, but we closed our eyes,
crossed our fingers, and took the plunge.
The catch: our busy friends, anxious to place this litter,
left on vacation before the puppies were weaned. An awful
thing for all of us left behind. Finally past the trauma, Maggie
became a real plus, cute as could be! A 7/8 beagle —
a wee bit longer and taller than a full beagle, and named
for the Margaritas we enjoyed with our friends.
Thanks to Maggie, our backyard got a much-needed fence;
nosy neighbors could no longer snoop. Thanks to her, camping trips
were much more fun — our frequent hikes greatly enhanced
by her enthusiasm. Her upright tail, curled at the tip, was a white
perky flag that comically revealed her hidden presence, her sly tricks.
On evening treks, bats derailed her — her pitiful whimpers
muffled inside my jacket along a stretch of lake trail.
At the coast, thanks to her, we saw the look of supreme joy
as we watched her leap and bound on the sand, rocketing around
in wild, exhilarated circles, chasing sandpipers and seagulls,
interrupting her ecstasy to run back and thank us. Almost 16 years
of rewarding us with laughs, love and loyalty — to the very end,
she pranced through life with a saucy little step —
—Pru McDonald, 9/25/06
Pru McDonald is a lifelong graphic artist in illustration and design, writer, and 20+ year contractor for The Oregonian. She’s still working and learning at 70+, writing essays, her memoir, and tons of poetry.