I remember just the assumption
we might any night die going home:
late night A train from the party
where we drank one glass too many of red wine,
our silver shoes with the court-curved
heels too hard to run in,
and we accepted this,
so every delight had an edge
of poison, almond-bitter, as if we had
been raised on peaches plumped
full of cyanide at the heart. Our fairytale
selves ever able to picture
the spot of blood that would not wash clean.
I knew Lynn’s friend Marion, who
disappeared in ‘87 only to be found
ten years later in the tunnels out by
Marcy Avenue. I am often amazed
how we painted our faces, combined
our chiffons and Converses, draped
ourselves in faux diamonds and marched
out. One time, a woman attacked me
with a board punched full of nails.
Later on the street she could not remember
who I was and greeted me like a friend.
Over the years, we waved and hollered
at each other across 107th Street. I never felt
bad about it – you could see in her body
what she had lived through, and, despite
her threats, she left me my bank card,
took only the cash. The other danger felt
distinct, and everywhere, like air. One 5:00 am
on Ludlow Street, a man grabbed me
from behind and only because I screamed so
loud the women working night-shift at the bakery
next door came out and pulled me in.
Today, it is my daughter who calls me from
Colorado Springs. She is in her car,
having been surrounded, pulled at and hit,
as she tried to walk into Planned Parenthood
for her annual pap smear, the same clinic where
six years ago a gunman killed two, wounded nine,
and still the men, their minion women, cluster
outside to harass the women who enter.
As my daughter speaks, willing herself
to breathe, I think of the young girls like her,
who walk into that building every day.
A Whale-Like Singing
I will always live with the blue body,
blue baby who could barely breathe and I
bury him inside me, especially when I
sit across from my son in a restaurant
or diner – the kind of half-way point where
we tend to meet now that he has his own
newly adult life, and I find myself under
my breath chanting live, breathe, live
as if were I to stop the plane of his life
would spiral down into a plume of smoke,
as if only my attention keeps it in air.
The name for this is PTSD and no wonder
my son pulls away, eyes me with alarm,
the fear that rises from my palms,
and I want to say “It’s okay, it’s okay,
I screamed, and you began to breathe
though it took three exchange transfusions,
you came alive just as I always knew
you would.” But that isn’t the truer story.
The truer story as I remember was just
the being there. I had to buy shoes in
the hospital gift shop and all they had were
size six men’s vinyl slippers, and they let
me sleep in the spare beds – an hour
here, an hour there — while I waited to see
what would happen: my blue child in
his blue incubator – my shoes squeaking
as I walked the late-night hospital halls
and that one time I went running into
the NICU, chasing a humming sound,
and it was him—he was like a whale, they
said, sounding so he would not be alone,
and I stared through the glass at his mouth
moving out and in.
When my daughter calls me weeping
because her boss will not forgive
her absence because of her child’s sudden
ear infection, I flash back to the mom’s group
I used to meet in Hendrick’s Park and
how Vicki and I used to feel such rage
at the incoherent language the other mothers
used, which felt diminished, or maybe
dishonest, but really was just like the language
we didn’t know anymore how to use for
what we were – all in the blur of a birth-room,
blood and salt, we’d turned lumbering.
vulnerable, and derided. We could feel
invisibility rising from us as dew transpires
from a flower in the cold spring mornings.
We never knew it would be so much like a war
or the enemy would be across from us at
the breakfast table, now heavy with sighs
over whatever it was we hadn’t done right,
which was mysterious and oracular and
appeared to change every time. As if we had
boarded a train up a mountain to a well-known
holy site said to fill each visitor with a blessed
sense of belonging only to find ourselves
facing a crevasse, clutching a too-thin rail
with frozen fingers. Nor could we walk away,
bound by love for our children, which would
not be enough to save us from the prisons
within prisons the construction of motherhood
meant for our lives. “To be a mother is not
the same as being a father.” I did not know
what these words actually meant then or maybe
I did – the way Vicki and I squirmed and
couldn’t look the other mothers in the eyes,
sneaking off to smoke forbidden cigarettes
and watch the smoke disappear in increments,
a tiny particle at a time.
Self as Last Call
To be like the swallows, building
nests of mud under the eaves of sagging houses.
To lay three eggs, hatch three chicks,
and watch one of them fail to thrive each time.
To be destined to fly further than a lifetime,
across a continent, three oceans, until you cannot
even picture the place you started from.
To walk in snow until it makes you feel
warmer, and you lie down to make an angel
the way you did at six, a little paralyzed
by the too-vivid image of a body pressed
into the earth, hands raised as if fighting against
or straining toward.
Sheila Black is the author most recently of a chapbook All the Sleep in the World (Alabrava Press, 2021) Her fifth collection, Radium Dream is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry Ireland. Poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, Kenyon Review Online, Blackbird, The Birmingham Review, the New York Times, and elsewhere. She works for AWP and lives in San Antonio, Texas. She is a co-founder of Zoeglossia, a non-profit to build community for poets with disabilities.