Today is National Poem in Your Pocket Day. I love that this is a thing now. I love poems, all manner of them, short, long, rhyming, oblique. Each poem is a wrapped piece of candy I can never get enough of. The idea of NPIYPD is that you carry a poem in your pocket to share with others. I didn’t leave my house today, so I’ll use this post as my pocket.
A Poem in Every Pocket
Imagine a plaza
where some people sit on squat pedestals,
and some people are
but all are carrying this secret:
that their pockets are filled
with poems only they
know all the words to.
— Mary Pierce
That is my little poem. It is also my wish. If you have a poem you are carrying around today I’d love it if you would share it with me.
I start things, I don’t always finish them. At least in a timely manner. I have a lot of drafts in my WordPress folder. The way I work is, I get an idea, usually a sentence or a title, or I look at one of my photos and it spurs something. But, the two things — a few words and an image — always go together in my mind. That’s how I roll. Often I get several sentences down, maybe even a paragraph or two, before I leave it. That way I have something to pick up on when I come back.
You can imagine my confusion when I opened this draft and found the title with this particular photo and nothing else. Not one word. What does Vicodin have to do with a placid scene of two guys fishing from kayaks in a cove on Cape Cod? What WAS I thinking when I dropped this here? Anyone?
And before you ask, no I wasn’t on Vicodin when I began the piece. That was the point of the title. I do remember that. Because I had tried to have a prescription for it filled, along with an antibiotic after a grueling oral surgery last October. And an older woman who reminded me of my high school Math teacher, Mrs. Burns (a woman so terrifying that the French teacher across the hall once put a sign on his door that read: First Aid for Lethal Burns) looked at my prescriptions and then told me all the reasons why the Vicodin scrip couldn’t be filled. Something to do with changes in dosage — of the acetaminophen, not even the narcotic part of it — and my oral surgeon should have known that. No, I couldn’t just have his office call it in because it was a Class 3 drug, I would have to go back to the office, a 70-minute roundtrip drive away, and have the doctor write a new prescription. And my mouth was swollen and starting to hurt, and I was thinking, to hell with the Vicodin. Which completely makes sense now that I’ve explained it to you doesn’t it?
Except for the photograph.
Your guess is as good as mine. I welcome your suggestions.
A stupid place to put it, she says, winding into another rant
about a ceiling fan at the wrong end of the room.
She sits and twists the ring on her finger,
and wonders why she is here.
Because she used to have a house.
Now she has too much furniture,
and a life packed in cardboard boxes,
honey-combed walls wilted by
the heat of how many summers?
Moments flicker and play out
in silent testimony to what came before
this place, this stupid place.
At the window, a curtain lifts like an apparition
in a breeze too flabby to last.
She turns her head and waits for
the next riffle of wind,
for the days that gather and roll
like dust bunnies beneath her bed,
while she sits and twists the ring on her finger
and her mind meanders in a space
too narrow for contentment,
a labyrinth of thoughts
that twists and turns upon itself
crossing the same trail, the same words,
A stupid place to put it, she says. I don’t know why I’m here.
~~ Mary Pierce, 1995
The woman in the photo is my grandmother, Pearl Crawford Pierce. She was seventy when the photo was taken, her hair color still hers and not from a box. She cut her hair herself. My grandfather had been dead for more than twenty years by then. In those years, she had learned to drive a car and shop for herself, two things that my grandfather had always done. She also got a job at the local paper mill, worked for a while, retired, and found a sense of satisfaction selling Avon products because it got her out of her house. She had style and a snazzy Mustang by then.
A few years after this photo was taken she was mugged on her own front porch. She stopped selling Avon and was reluctant to go outside. A couple of years after that, in one of the infrequent times she did leave her house, her car skidded on an icy road and she hit a bank. The kind you keep your money in. She broke her jaw and her hip and cracked some ribs. Eventually, she healed. Physically.
By the time I wrote the poem, she had given up her house to a daughter and moved to a small one-bedroom apartment in a subsidized development. Her short-term memory had moved somewhere else. It clearly was no longer residing with her. I wrote the poem after a visit. That year I made many visits, driving from my home in Rhode Island to her stupid place in northern New York with a six-year-old in tow, trying desperately to find a way to keep her in her apartment and out of a nursing home. Physically, in spite of her run-in with the bank, she was strong and relatively healthy, the one glitch being that she had developed high enough blood pressure to necessitate her taking daily medication. Which, of course, she could never remember to do.
Twenty years and five months after the photo was taken Gram died in a nursing home after she fell out of bed in the middle of the night. Had she known what was happening, she would have laughed at what a ridiculous way to go that was. A few years before that, on one of my visits, she asked me to take her to the area she had been born. We ended up at the cemetery where her parents and her baby brother, Rosco were all buried. It was one of those lovely large cemeteries with mature trees and undulating hills, a place with a good view, she said. We didn’t make it to the Crawford family plot because in our traipsing about, she lost her balance on the spongy ground and rolled down a hill before I could grab her. When I caught up to her, she was unhurt and doubled over in laughter. “Well, if I died here, at least I wouldn’t have far to go,” she managed to choke out. And we both laughed like hell because the whole thing was hilarious, and what else was there to do? Life is hard. Sometimes, we end up in a stupid place.
I chart my grandmother’s journey in words and pictures because that is the best way I know to remember who she was. To me, at any rate. Others may remember someone else. Despite the poem, despite the place she ultimately found herself in, it wasn’t the whole story. I knew her as a woman of passion, of strength and the courage to guide me past a bear. (Yes, a real bear. A story for another time.) But, she was also something more. Scroll back up to that photo and you’ll see what I mean. It’s there in her eyes. Those are the eyes of someone who has always known how to dream. An asset, because dreams will get you where you need to go.
The thing I am about to tell you might have happened once upon a time. It could have been last week. It makes no difference, the truth is truth no matter when it happens.
In the place where my mother used to live, there were three tongues, each in a different mouth, and of all the tongues that resided in this particular place, these three were the most slithering and maleficent. Not one, but three serpents in the Garden of Eden.
The first tongue belonged to a woman named Helen. Helen was a person who lived on a high moral ground in a great house she richly deserved. She lived alone. Her husband had been a fisherman who fell (some thought dove) from his boat one stormy afternoon and was never seen again. There were three daughters, but each had left to marry, one after the other and all of them lived very far away.
The second tongue belonged to a woman who never married, never gave birth, never so much as cared for a cat because she simply did not have time. Her job, she believed, was to mind the lives of others, and she did so with a ferocity few could circumvent. Her name was Agnes.
The last tongue belonged to a man named Thomas. He also lived alone, unable ever to settle on a wife. Though there were many fine women in the area, none had ever quite suited him. His standards were much too high. Eventually, no one tried anymore to leap the hurdles he had set.
Communities generally have a way of getting along. They mind their own business, or they help when they are able. They offer comfort as needed, a joke, a helping hand, or even silent company when silence is the only thing that will do. In the place where my mother lived all of these things were true. It was also true that there was often anger and resentment that when allowed to fester would erupt in a cataclysm of bitter words and flying fists. Sometimes people broke the law. When that happened there was a price they would have to pay.
What is the price to pay for unrelenting meanness?
In this case, that price began to be tallied up with a wish made by a child. A young boy who delivered eggs to the owners of those sharp tongues. One day, after enduring yet another round of, you clumsy dolt, mind those eggs, and, took you long enough you lazy baboon, and, don’t look at me like that, you rude brat, the boy returned home and wrote: I wish THEY would disappear on a piece of paper. His mother found the paper and asked him what he meant. When he told her she did not scold him. Later, she told her husband what the boy had wished. The next day he told a co-worker about it. The co-worker nodded.
“Yes,” said the co-worker, a man who lived across the street from Helen and had gone to school with Agnes and Thomas. “That is a good wish.”
The co-worker told his wife about the boy’s wish. Three afternoons each week, the man’s wife scrubbed Helen’s kitchen and bathrooms, dusted furniture, and washed windows all while listening to Helen rant. You can’t clean spit, my kitchen is too filthy to use, and if I didn’t follow you around the house, you’d probably rob me blind. I only keep you on because that’s the kind of person I am. Too nice for my own good.
The co-worker’s wife made a wish, too.
When Agnes railed at the woman who cut her hair, I should sue you for incompetence you imbecile, the hairdresser made a wish.
Thomas screamed at a teacher and her fifth-grade class for raking and pulling up weeds in the lot next to his house. You and your brats are getting dirt in my yard. I should have you fired, you’re too stupid to be in charge of kids. Later that day the teacher and her students each went home and made a wish.
For weeks, people wished and wished. Almost always the same wish. I wish THEY would disappear. Except for one. Feeling ashamed of making such a dire wish and being caught out, the little boy who delivered eggs had amended his wish. I wish THEY couldn’t speak he wrote instead. He kept wishing it every day.
Somewhere all those wishes were being tallied. And when there were at last enough of them, something happened.
One morning the sun rose high in the sky over the river that ran through that place. People went about their business not noticing at first, how much lighter the air felt, how warm and inviting the sun was. People smiled and said hello to one another and it wasn’t until a few hours later that they realized the lightness came from the fact that no one had heard the three awful tongues. The bravest in the place went to check. First to Helen’s house. Then to Agnes’s. Finally Thomas’s. No one was there. In fact, it looked as though no one had lived for a very long time at any of those three homes.
But, where three people had vanished from their homes, it also happened that at a lonely spot along the river there suddenly appeared three magnificent trees in a cluster, heads bowed, whispering together as if trying to make sense of how they came to be there.
Let this be fair warning to you: Do not use words to inflict pain. There is no reward waiting — in this world or others — for sharp tongues and wicked minds.
This is not a lesson easily learned.
On the other hand, the trees would be lovely for a long time to come. The town set out picnic tables by the river so that people could sit and watch the water and time drift leisurely past. And where the only sound they heard (besides their own voices) came from the gentle rustle of leaves above them.
n.b. The photo is a picture of the trees along the St. Lawerence River in Akwesasne where my mother lives. This is the view from her window. I’ve had this photo and the idea that these trees were gossiping mulling around in my brain for awhile. A long time ago my mother told me a story from when she was a little girl living at Akwesasne, about an old woman who was thought to be able to transmute herself at will into a pig. That’s where the idea of transmutation came from. And these days there seem to be so many people speaking such unkind words, I thought a cautionary tale was in order.