Category: Poems

Peter Schireson

Violets

Violets

In the thick 

of our holy quarrel

you leaned in 

to whisper 

the most important thing,

but were silent, 

and I wanted to leave you 

alone

across the table

on your device, 

but I knocked over our old vase 

spilling the violets,

and you looked at me

as if before they fell,

you’d seen them

already fallen.

The Salt

The Salt

I set out to attain nothing more

than myself, and before long, 

had no money 

and only one tooth,

the price I paid

to locate this exotic kingdom,

where mud-caked holy men 

wander barefoot from place 

to arduous place,

where the people need salt, 

find it in the sea, call 

what we call sea, “The Salt,” 

and sing, “Let us walk 

along the shore of The Salt.”

Yes, that will be the title.

Hero Worship

Hero Worship

My big brother Harry was something: Leave the crude undamaged beneath the sea, he said, sold his car, and even refused for a time to ride in cars. (Later, he lived in a car.) Immediately after college, Harry changed his name to Harrison Redwood, moved north, and chained himself to an old growth redwood. There was an article about him in The Seattle Times under the headline “Defender of Trees.” The camera loved him. 

But none of that actually happened. In reality, Harry never finished high school. He died of a rare blood disease when he was eleven. Still, I can remember an earlier time when Harry told Miss Beitler, his fourth grade teacher, (and this part is true) that he used to have another brother named Mr. BlueWhite, who died and was buried upside down under a redwood, his feet sticking up through the grass, one blue shoe, one white. Unfortunately, this is not true either; I am an only child.

At First Blush

At First Blush

At first blush, it appears an unambiguous portrait, the subject a man in meditation— adamantly upright posture, well-cut jacket, background in soft focus. From another angle, one sees a woman with a broad, strong face and red hair. Viewed from a third angle, the subject is a beast, half-covered in sleek fur, half in phosphorescent feathers. Studied from yet a fourth angle, the portrait is of a woman entirely unlike the first—caffeinated, haunted, angular features—the man from the initial view no longer a man but a small boy, three or four years old. From this last angle, the beast appears to be a large black dog, its teeth sunk into one of the boy’s legs, the boy’s face contorted in pain. A remarkable self-portrait. 

Vermeer

Vermeer

When she was getting close 

to the end, we cached the hospice morphine 

in the fridge behind the ricotta cheese,

in case.

We moved her bed into the living room, 

where she could look out onto the Hollywood hills. 

She slept and slept.

Waking, she said she’d dreamed

she was a delirious little bird,

and everything around her—

a fragrant field, a grey branch, a dusty road—understood her. 

Later, she said she’d dreamt 

of rope and wire, of Lvóv in the War, 

of nameless relations hiding 

with other Jews in the sewer, 

shards of skin and glass 

and skeins of hair washing away 

in gutter water.

She said she knew she, too, 

was washing away. 

She laughed a little light laugh,

and I heard a chime at the edge of her laughter 

that puzzled me, until I understood it 

to be her feeling of having only laughter left.

I found a few letters in her closet from her father, 

written in his Yiddish accent— “vel” scrawled for “well,”

history in its plainest, most intimate sense. 

In the old country he’d been well-off, 

which ended with the revolution—

something struck off, something stuck on,

the old secret tales, and blood in the mouth.

Like all children, one accepts 

that animals that die do not come back to life. 

After he came over, he found work as a bookkeeper.

In their day, people here got used to seeing them,

grandmother in her shawl. 

There were many immigrants on the boulevard,

like now, easy to spot, 

their hazy look, like charcoal sketches, 

and their unfortunate choices of colors. 

Poco moto the light scatters.

Outside, Los Angeles shimmers like a piano. 

On the ceiling over her bed, the windowpanes

shape the lunar light into an arrangement of rectangles. 

I ask her if she is afraid, 

She says she sat once in front of the painting 

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher

for an hour. 

Then it no longer troubled her,

her inconsequential life.

Causation

Causation

Acquittal is caused by crime,

tooth decay by Cupid.

Winter causes diligence which causes nuns,

and Popeye is caused by spinach and the ocean.

One leaf causes Fall, 

which causes New England and sin.

Sunset Boulevard causes hitch-hikers

and Cadillac Eldorados, which cause men 

to reach over, causing night sweats.

Insults are cause for accounting,

disasters are cause for Zen masters,

and heartache causes religion, 

which causes heartbreak.

Divorces for cause are caused by marriage,

which causes parenthood,

which, in its turn, causes because I said so. 

Drowning causes confessions,

and the mouth filled with vocabulary causes cowardice.

One whiff causes the buck 

to snort and stomp the ground,

straining to locate you

without regard to beauty.

Date

Date

When she arrived, she did not say 

too much about her journey 

or the mint tea she drank en route.

We did not lament the destruction

of earth or bring up the vegan position

on dandruff.

We watched an old movie 

with women in hats as big

as braising pans. 

and when we’d touched and told

enough, we cut each other’s hair

and burned each other’s baby pictures.

from Sword of Glass

Table for Two

Table for Two

We dreamed of a life of pâté en croute,

always arriving with a fig mostarda,

a life in which a contralto-green cilantro pesto 

could be counted on to refresh the gamey lamb.

Why should the search for perfect cheese puffs be less important 

than the search for pure black or the sound of one hand?

Together, we would change the world 

one warm French potato salad at a time.

Tonight, the truffles ebony, the marrow gleaming, 

her glass eye gazes out across the dining room

from the sepia photo over the bar,

and all these years later, here am I, man

of a certain age, overcome

with nostalgia, near tears, 

my carefully mussed hair 

glistening in the incandescent light.

From Sword of Glass

Notes for Wedding Vows

Notes for Wedding Vows

We’ll watch black and white movies exclusively.

I will not be fat.

There will be acoustic guitar.

It will be feng shui.

I will not smoke indoors.

I promise I’ll stop doing that thing you hate.

Also, the other thing.

Two or three children—you decide—

I’ll read to them about snow, and

when they’re older, I won’t run away.

I’ll make classic mistakes,

but in your final moments, I’ll apologize.

When you’re gone, I promise to be devastated.

I will not feel relieved.

Originally published in The American Journal of Poetry

Self-Portrait with Tree

Self-Portrait with Tree

I want to have you,

I murmur

to the photograph in an airport

of a tree on a ridge,

its frail silver gelatin silhouette

leaning against a bright sky.

The shadow hovering

at the edge of the frame

must be me.

from The Salt