My Mother’s Song & Dance
The photo, creased & torn, faded, tells the story
of my mother who sits on the porch steps,
one of the babies on her lap.
She’s wearing red wedge sandals, a flowery cotton
house dress & an apron (she never wore pants).
Behind her, a corn broom leans against the railing.
She’s laughing or maybe singing, one hand raised
as if to say, Hello, here I am, Verna, & here’s my daughter.
My mother liked cowboy music & a nice waltz.
I wonder if her singing voice was like mine: earnest,
not pretty, not tuneful, but happy sometimes.
Her music was the hustle & bustle of children.
I’ll never sing the saddest songs she lived.
When she was young, she went dancing
with her friend Edith at the Grange Hall,
making up fancy steps that everyone copied,
she trying to avoid, trying to catch, the glance
of Edith’s tall, black-haired brother.
She must have felt a light-heartedness
I can only imagine, apprehension, too, & frisson
of fear. She often said, I’d rather dance than eat.
Now she stands, swings the baby to her hip,
picks up the broom & goes inside to try to sweep
clean the darkest corners of the house.
I never heard her sing,
I never saw her dance.
Not the End of the World
The earth is not flat
No ends, no endings,
no true edges
on this bumpy sphere
No falling over the rim
into some borderless void
Walk toward the plains horizon
as it slides ever far away
Sail toward that dark stripe between sea
and sky and watch the stripe roll on before you
The lilac buds florets while yesterday’s
blossoms turn brown
The turtle lays eggs
and trundles away from her young
The far side of summer
yellows in the dog-days air
The far reach of winter brings
crocus, daffodil, snowdrop anemone
When is the moment between
falcon’s rise and fiery buckle
Where is the pause
between growth and death
Don’t we begin to die
at the wet threshold of our lives
Wade your way toward love
forever after or toward the end
of what should have been love
and you’ll only find yourself alone
back where you began
On the Silk Road
August, 1998, late afternoon
Xia He, Gansu Province, the Tibetan Plateau, China
crumbling, centuries-old monasteries,
small whitewashed houses,
beautiful ruddy-cheeked children,
and a gaggle of coral-robed lamas and monks
from all over China…
At the side of the road, kneeling
women sidle along field rows,
soles of their feet black, leathery.
As we wander down the market lane,
there’s much smiling, nodding, gesturing.
The muggy air smells of dirt, of smog
and smoke, of sweet strange blossoms.
We marvel at pyramids of ears of corn
and luscious-looking watermelons but
know better than to eat these DDT-ed foods.
We pause to watch the dentist pull two teeth
from the bloody mouth of a stoic young man.
Piled around him on dirty rags are pliers,
picks, scissors, string, heaps of teeth.
In the next space, a man sleeps atop
a four-foot-high hill of carpets. A woman
(wife? sister? mother?) rushes over and slaps
him awake as we study a rug hanging
over a chair. The knife maker in his Mao cap,
eyes squinting, hunches over his grinder,
sparks flying. A skinny dog rests its head
on an anvil. At the far end of town, six girls
spread armloads of grain on the road, beat it
with sticks, step back as a cart passes over,
and bend down to gather seeds. We discuss
the mystery of discarded shoes, dozens,
maybe hundreds—cheap plastic or rubber,
black, mostly just the soles—that litter
walkways, ditches, paths to the stupas.
The stream flowing through town is clotted
with garbage—rusty tin cans, more shoes,
plastic bags floating like soapsuds.
This evening, the stream banks are dotted
with monks, bare feet, shaved heads—
scores of monks, a maroon garden of them,
playing flutes, long-barreled horns, a few violins.
A man drives past on a rattletrap tractor, chased
by a barrel-size pig that seems bent on collision.
The driver stands, throws his hands to the heavens,
shouts, then sings—part warning, part prayer.
The pig scrambles away. A moment of silence—
then peals of laughter, and the monks pick up
the tune, filling the twilight with music.
The sea at sunset on Poipu Beach gives up salty warmth,
smooth glass and coral shards, seashells cradling songs
from distant shores, and a fish skeleton, perhaps
a triggerfish, its gold scales and humuhumu-long-name
still tumbling in the foam. Sea cucumbers pass
from one bronze boy’s hand to another’s;
glossy black chickens burble and peck at the sand;
a green sea turtle pulls herself onto the spit,
head nodding, eyes squinting at camera
flashes. A little girl sits a couple of yards away,
watching, motionless, arms hugging legs,
chin resting on knees, barely breathing.
And spent waves, firelit by the dying sun,
lap up our footprints, our castles.
Breezy, misty air, soggy field,
whoops and wild kicks,
runny noses, running red-cheeked
children, 5- and 6‑year-olds
oblivious of wet grass or runny noses.
Aussie pup on the sidelines breaks
from her halter, tears into the game
and everything stops
for an instant.
There’s a bubble of quiet—
coaches holler, kids giggle,
hop up, chase and spin,
pup yips and runs,
forth and back and forth again,
Pup cuts into a jumble of skinny legs,
noses the ball, heads it into the net,
and trots off the field.
Anarchy, joy, hullabaloo!
Later that night, under
the black-and-white sky, a woman walks
through the park, wondering
at the lightness in the air, whiffs of laughter
and yips, and her old golden dog
sprints onto the field and rolls in the grass.
The Speed of Firelight
When the girl asks “When is Papa coming home?”
they’re sitting in the glider, watching
the lively night—the orangey, smoke-shrouded
crescent moon, the lightning bolts that threaten
to set more Jeffreys and lodgepoles and aspens
ablaze. No deer tonight, no foxes, no owl’s
lonesome call. Thunder rolls around them, quieting
even the crickets. The girl counts elephants
after each jaggedy flash. She is not afraid.
The woman pulls her closer and begins
in her wistful, storytelling voice—
“Maybe some blue-moon time. Or maybe
when the cows come home, swinging
their ropy tails behind them, or
maybe on the Twelfth of Never, or
maybe when Methuselah celebrates
his nine hundred seventieth birthday—
no cake, no candles for that old man. No, I’m
guessing your papa will show up some indigo
night. No fires, no lightning, just roll in
at the speed of firelight.”
The girl tastes smoke, rubs her eyes. “Methuselah,”
she says, and counts more elephants. She asks again,
“When is Papa coming home?” The woman sighs
and says, “Oh, not tonight, Missy. Go call in the dogs,
and let’s have blackberries and a nice bath.”
Judy Brackett was born in Nebraska, moved to California as a child, and has lived in a small town in the California foothills of the northern Sierra Nevada for many years. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in California Fire & Water, Epoch, The Maine Review, Commonweal, Midwest Review, Catamaran, The Midwest Quarterly, Subtropics, Cultural Weekly, Crab Orchard Review, The Inflectionist Review, and elsewhere. She has taught creative writing and English literature and composition at Sierra College. She is a member of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Her poetry chapbook, Flat Water: Nebraska Poems, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2019.