Joy, a Sideways Glance
—rituals done sideways, slew-eyed, perched at
the flank of death but not, oh not, sucked in—
my tiny nephew crows,
clutching to his chest a vaunted treasure:
not the puce fire-truck just delivered
but the two cardboard chocks
that clasped its front wheels in the box.
(Upside down, spine splayed, honey-stuck)
my niece, even tinier, ‘reads’ pages
of the bible that burrowed up somehow
from the cluttered house—Dad a Catholic
dog-paddling in worried lapse and Mom cheerfully
unanchored, her slow Cheshire grin
passed down to her two so now three
languid grins trail from room to room.
Outside, on a patch of winter furze,
my sister watches an earthworm curl
(estivation revealed, satisfying
she counts in her head all the hidden
scaled and furred things waiting),
and notes the red-bud budded early,
frozen, fooled yearly as it is by an errant
day of heat; but she knows the die-back won’t kill it.
At five, when ice paints the door,
another sister sows corn across the snow
for the deer who wait far back on the lot,
prinking forward through the garden cairned with
(now-buried) skateboards, battle soldiers, whirligigs
from the stopped childhood of her drowned son—
bread is bloomed up, punched down in the kitchen—
she barbecues on the icicle grille,
fat steaks spraying grease and blood mist
hot into the louring gray air.
Hooded Lapp girls, quivering, blue-lipped,
my brother’s two gather wet wood (for a fantasy furnace),
stumbling gamely through the yard’s cold slush.
Weeks back, they perched in the parish graveyard
where their mother’s ashes lie and told ghost tales
to giddy visitors filing through for histories
of the county’s illustrious dead. She (not remarked),
when told she’d die, dived into a Spring ditch
as we trudged, slow constitutional, and popped up
not spored with grief but with arms pollened, filled
with butter-‘n’-eggs she’d spied gold in the rich weeds.
Her husband my brother built a house
measured eighth-inch by eighth-inch,
set his wife dark (her pre-Raphaelite hair)
and his two dark-eyed daughters in it;
then built conveyances: birch-bark canoes
with no taint of modern tool,
and a sailboat, caught once in irons,
he towed with a rope in his teeth.
Though death leaks into his caulking,
he repeats, still repeats, rites with plane and adze
and sharp sideways looks at the burgeoning, severe
beauty of his girls.
The other brother and I (whose sole rite
seems to be to try to snatch the scrap from the firepit,
the flayed, discarded sacrifice,
to try to gnaw on that),
root frantically through spilled minutes
as if ransacking a medicine chest
where the cure-it, the hot-water bottle, the comfort
just won’t be discovered,
and fear most that our mother is dying
of a failing unhinging the cells of each system,
thickening her blood to ambergris; yet
inside such measured, orderly, forced
killing, she’s still buoyed by incontinent swell:
Her youngest daughter, at night, grinning,
waits in the dark of her compact pretty
house edged in by foreclosure
for her husband to swing home, tired,
and be toppled at the door by a rearing, roaring
-ing she-ghost in a green sheet
who knocks him on his rear
and collapses, chortling, Yuckyuckyuckyuck!
on top of him. My mother loves that story.
Mary Elizabeth Parker of Greensboro, North Carolina, won the 2013 Princemere Poetry Prize for her poem "Joy, a Sideways Glance." She has been awarded $300.
Runners-up are Gene Fendt of Evergreen Park, Illinois, for his poem "The Lyric Frame of Sorrow," and Cate Styer of Palo Alto, California, for her poem "A Marriage.”