Judy Brackett ~ Poems

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

Stupa-dot­ted hill­sides,
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

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.


Soccer Dog

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,
black-and-white dog,
black-and-white ball.
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.