Jennifer K. Sweeney's second poetry collection, How to Live on Bread and Music , received the 2009 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of America Poets and the Perugia Press Prize. Her first book, Salt Memory , won the 2006 Main Street Rag Poetry Award . Her poems have been translated into Turkish and published widely in literary journals including American Poetry Review, Poetry Daily and the 2009 Pushcart Prize anthology. After living in San Francisco for twelve years, she currently lives and teaches in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with her husband, poet Chad Sweeney and their son, Liam.
I AM MYSELF THREE SELVES AT LEAST
I am, myself, three selves at least,
the one who sweeps the brittle
bees, who saves the broken plates
and bowls, who counts to ten,
who tends the shoals,
who steeps the morning's Assam leaves
and when day is wrung
tightens clock springs.
And yes, the one who sat through youth
quiet as a tea stain, whose hand
whose party dresses soaked with rain,
who dug up bones
of snakes and mice
and stashed them inside baby jars—
who did not eat,
but did not starve.
And the self who twists the fallen
dogwood sticks into her hair,
who knows the trick of grief
is there is nothing such as sin
and neither good to part
the air, whom autumn claims
skin by skin.
In the scoliosis clinic, I waited in a room of skeletons
while men reshaped the architecture of my sister,
spongy discs stacked in their S-curves
like haunted seahorses, undulant when I shifted
a protuberance side to side in my thumb
and forefinger and the reticulated whip
rippled to the tailbone.
From the cold gleam of chrome rooms,
girls who were apprenticing to be women
emerged with fallen eyes, torsos fitted
in white plastic bodices like armor.
Cage around cage around echo chamber of heart,
tapered fingers at the hips,
sharp rise of iliac points
directing their sway toward revolving doors.
I stared at the skeletons, at the girls,
at the scooped moon of the pelvis into which
the thighbones fasten like sanded doorknobs.
At 22, I accepted a job teaching junior high.
Not far enough away from the hollow years
of my own shifting body, the seventh and eighth-grade girls,
slight and doe-sprung, drifted down wide industrial
hallways, bones jutting sideways from their skin.
One girl chose my second story classroom
from where we'd see her fall past the window,
gathered below for the after-school meeting.
She pulled back my chair, tucked her backpack
neatly under my metal desk,
opened the window and let go.
Below, a flash of brown hair, slim form like a sail,
then an anchor, heavy in the grass.
Her silhouette shuddered as we ran.
Don't move! we shouted, but she was already
standing up, walking away into dusk,
not a bone out of place, walking
like a girl who's thrown her body
to the wolves and comes back whole.
The desert is a woman with no ideas—
an unfurrowed plain,
a sanded-down noon.
It's where I go when the briar rose
has swallowed the fence
and it's thickening toward the door.
Oh life with your falling open,
April is eating itself alive
and I can hear the splitting of the dahlias
when I sleep.
A ghost wind stirs in the canyon walls.
The stone in me rests.
As night dims the sky, the broken
on the wings of a flock
and they carry it away.
BENEATH ICE DUNES
In memory of Charles Darling
Spring comes early and stays
long enough for the plum blossoms
to believe it.
Not a gradual blooming but
dotting cement and grass the same.
Is it too much to ask that it not leave?
Fragrance, the belled
sunlight, your remission.
When I was eighteen I stood
beneath plum, cherry
waiting for a foreign wind
to blow a confetti of departure
this is happiness I have felt it.
A door closes and the cold
returns, asking more of the world
than the world can give.
I think of chanterelles calcified
beneath snow-capped headlands,
bearded irises waiting
under lids of ice,
in tree hollows.
Once you wrote to me in a poem:
If I died like that beneath ice dunes or anywhere
away from home, would my soul know where to go?
The plum tree shivers in the frost,
slender branches sprouting
in spite of silence.
Copyright © 2009 by Jennifer K. Sweeney. Reprinted from How to Live on Bread and Music, with the permission of Perugia Press, Florence, Massachusetts.