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Poet Special: Works by Pamela Johnson Parker (August 2017 / 17.7)

Pamela Johnson Parker

ONE WORD: Murder

The crows plot revenge: prepare; they’ll whisper
        your fate in the rustlings of their onyx
                wings; in the verdigris and bruise-blue oil
        slick luster of their feathers you can read
what gemstones bring: traveling mercies from

malachite (mal as bad in French) and from
        amethyst (ame as soul in French, that sing
                 song soul), antitoxin, antivenom…..
        Crows seek out their enemies but not you—
you’ve offered up your eyes which they took and

took and returned to you as shiny beads.
        You’re reminded how crows like to barter,
                 and you will haggle till the bitter end
        in crow-caw and count them: Here are four and
twenty in a cross-stitch sampler, there are

twelve x-marks-the-spot crosses, a dozen
        kisses or signatures, an algebra
                of flight….You can’t outwit a crow but you
        prefer them over any other jet
black bird—not cluster of redwings’ blood

bloom epaulets, not poxy plagues of grackles,
        nor inkspill of starlings blotting the sky,
                not even the collective unkindness
        of ravens; you await each dawn this back
yard augury, this contentious coven.

~

ONE WORD: Iron

Seven years later,
               before an open window,
                               I stand here ironing

my favorite white
               blouse with its embroidery
                              of swallows swooping

among lilies; once
               you said God and some genius
                               must surely have come

up with clothing
               for just this reason, to leave
                              a little something

on until I can
               take it off
….Ellipses of
                              freckles dotted your

back, that blouse in the
               light dotted my clavicles….
                              There are some secrets

I’ve never told, there are
               things that should stay (like that blouse)
                              safe between a wife

and her husband, and
               yet….and yet today I found
                              crushed in a closet

these swallows, these white
               lilies, fine cambric crumpled
                              into ten thousand

wrinkles, where against
               your black cashmere coat it was
                              pressed, as once it had

pressed against my breasts,
               as often in sleep they had
               pressed against your back.

(after Andrew Wyeth’s painting, Wind from the Sea)

~

ONE WORD: Oven

Gingerbread and scones and roast goose dripping grease
               and Hansel and Gretel but most of all the witch

Seedcakes and casseroles and thick braids of challah
               and also at Auschwitz my great-aunt Hana

~

ONE WORD: Unanswered

derives from the words against affirmation those are its
               roots its origins and I think about all the emails you
never answered and all the phone calls you never answered
               and the letters that still come for you they fall through

the mail slot and there your name is at my feet someone calls
               and I don’t answer and I think of how sometimes the cat
would listen as I played the answering machine over and over
               just to hear your voice honey don’t be mad but I stopped at

the greenhouse again I still hear it sometimes in my head
               and that cat still runs downstairs whenever he hears
footsteps on the porch thinking it might be you and sometimes
               just for a moment I think it might be you too for years

now I’ve looked at the stars or a full moon and wondered when
               I’ll get back to my old self or whatever you’d call
a self other times I notice that except for the cat and the ficus
               tree there are weeks I don’t touch anything living at all

~

ONE WORD: Bed

Goosefeather pillows
        And duvet be damned. And that
Quilt of my great-aunt’s
Dresses, each flour-sack
        Cotton or calico worn
Thread by thread to bare
Kapok over my
        Shoulders (oil-slicked to rainbow,
For what exactly?
—No one touches me,
        Not even when they touch me)—
Burn it, too. And burn
Me, though cremation
        Won’t warm me; even calcite
Constellations of
My bones won’t be
        White enough, bright enough. And
Exactly how far
Away is the light
        Of the star where you promised
You’d wait? Sheet lightning
Is false light. I quake
        In its silence, its sizzle,
The sheets wind round me.

* * *

Author’s commentary: The reason that I both adore and agonize over poetry is found in its root, poiesis, to shape. In a poem there are endless opportunities for such shaping: sculpting air into music (to accrete/add to); carving stanza from—or perhaps into—white space, to winnow, to inscribe; to deploy word, line, stanza into a collage of pleasing patterns, to arrange and rearrange.

Over the last few years, my life has undergone a sea change, with arrangements and rearrangements of its own. I have a crazy commute between the university where I work days and the hospital where I work nights. I don’t have many opportunities to write. The conundrum that I face each day is how do I remain a maker of things when I have less than 30 minutes a day at my own desk? An answer came from thinking about poiesis. This year, I’ve shaped my writing process, much as I might shape a stanza, by using prompts. The website oneword.com provides a prompt every day—one word, 60 seconds to write. Even with my overbooked schedule, I have time for that. I’ll always find a sentence, a phrase, a narrative thread to save; often an accretion of these vignettes will lead to a poem. Here are five of them.

Pamela Johnson Parker is the author of a collection of poetry, Cleave, which won the Trio Award from Trio House Press. Her flash fiction, poems, and lyric essays have appeared in journals such as Iron Horse Literary Review, New Madrid, American Poetry Journal, diode, Anti-, Poets and Artists, Gamut, Spaces, and Muscadine Lines: A Journal of the South. Parker’s work has also been featured in the anthologies Language Lessons: Volume 1, Poets on Painting, The Rivers Anthology, and Best New Poets 2011, judged by D.A. Powell. She is also the author of two chapbooks, Other Four-Letter Words (Finishing Line Press, 2009); and A Walk through the Memory Palace (Phoenicia Press, 2009, which Qaartsiluni Chapbook Prize. Parker received her MFA from Murray State University, where she taught humanities, creative writing, contemporary poetry, and forms of fiction before transferring to the Department of Art & Design. She serves as the prose editor of the literary magazine, Alligator Juniper.


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