by Dorianne Laux
They brushed a quarter with glue
and glitter, slipped in on bare
feet, and without waking me
painted rows of delicate gold
footprints on my sheets with a love
so quiet, I still can’t hear it.
My mother must have been
a beauty then, sitting
at the kitchen table with him,
a warm breeze lifting her
embroidered curtains, waiting
for me to fall asleep.
It’s harder to believe
the years that followed, the palms
curled into fists, a floor
of broken dishes, her chainsmoking
through long silences, him
punching holes in his walls.
I can still remember her print
dresses, his checkered Taxi, the day
I found her in the closet
with a paring knife, the night
he kicked my sister in the ribs.
He lives alone in Oregon now, dying
of a rare bone disease.
His face stippled gray, his ankles
clotted beneath wool socks.
She’s a nurse on the graveyard shift,
Comes home mornings and calls me,
Drinks her dark beer and goes to bed.
And I still wonder how they did it, slipped
that quarter under my pillow, made those
Whenever I visit her, I ask again.
“I don’t know,” she says, rocking, closing
her eyes. “We were as surprised as you.”
From Awake, Carnegie Mellon.
What the writer says about the poem: This is an early poem from my first book, so there’s much I don’t remember, but I do remember thinking it was a poem I shouldn’t write, and if I wrote it, I should never read it, and if I read it, I should at least never publish it, and if I did publish it, I should only publish it in a little magazine no one would ever see, and I should never publish it in a book, if I ever published a book. The poem was first published by Pearl Magazine, out of L.A. which ceased publication in 2014 after a 40 year run. It was later included in my first book, Awake, (BOA Editions, 1990). When it went out of print at BOA it was picked up and reissued by University of Washington Press in 2007. When they went out of business it was chosen to be published again in 2013 as part of the Carnegie Mellon Classic Contemporary Series which keeps book in print in perpetuity. So much for first thoughts.
I’m not sure I’m “glad” I wrote it, but I had to write it, even if I put in a drawer never to be seen again. I’m glad I published it. I do know that it’s touched some people, those I’ve heard from, but that was, truly, an afterthought. I just needed to frame that moment, unearth that insight I came to as I wrote, imagining them in their hopefulness and innocence, their intention to do good, before they harmed anyone. I’m sure I was inspired by Sharon Olds’ “I Go Back to May, 1937.” And I’m sure her books gave me the confidence and courage to publish the poem.