The House Fell

It was like an earthquake.  That shaking begins, crashing noise you don’t hear 

coming from anywhere, shaking rattles, continues,

               until you cannot think anymore.  It is that kind of shaking

I hear and feel when I see a motorcyclist on a rainy day.

I remember the artist, Michael Fajans, and it is that kind of shaking

I think about when you leave in the morning, and I know

I have not a rational reason to worry but I do worry, will you come home?

It does not make sense, but it is what I think about.

I think about the person who at Michael’s funeral described

               how there was blood coming out of his mouth,

I wondered if the red was a red he would have liked, like the red on his paintings

               the painting at the airport,

I wish I could be his magician and pull him out of a hat, make him whole again

               like Michael painted the magician and his rabbit.

I did not even know Michael. But Bill, you and your paint,

               he was a painter and your friend.

I put tomatoes into the fish stew pot, they gurgle, bubble and mix around

               cilantro, olive oil, wine.  They are my creation, my work of art

                         my wanting to feed you, my wanting to feed myself, mother myself.

 

*********

My mother did not allow me to suckle -

mothers in the 1950’s found suckling old fashioned

like making cake from scratch.  Cake came

from a Betty Crocker box, the kind one egg

was added, and then it became scratch.  She

scratched my scratched hand, and the scab

came off but it was not a scab on my hand as much

as in my ears.  Ringing, ringing, my Mother’s screaming.

I dive into, under, the water hold my breath until

I am forced to re-enter and hear hysteria.

I dive below again hoping it stops, and it never does.

She puts black patent leather shoes on my feet,

white socks with lace and ruffles, turns me around.

I am stiff, like a corpse, quaking.

I do not move until the clash, bang, the symbol

that it is OK to move, before I curtsey.

My cheeks, red from cortisone, steroid puffy,

stiff, and stumbling, petticoats rustling, layers of tulle lined

satin lined, elastic lined under my chin, holding

my hat on through Communion and Blessings.

 

**********

I am holding on.

There is no other sibling. The doctors look at me

               as if that is my fault, it might as well be. 

No other to look after her, whose dreams

               changed and faded a red sky morning

               only to look and tell what the night before might have held. 

Maybe it is I who needs the happy pills, the elixirs

               to cure the quaking inside my stomach each time

I get the phone call to stop, remain. Still I come running

               give her oxygen, count blessings that it is not you,

               dreading the time when it may be you.

I look away every time that needle is inserted into delicate

               freckled, thin skin, watching the blood spurt out,

               up and hating every time someone says

               your mother, she’s so nice, she’s so loving.

               If they only knew that loving was controlling.

I wait, remain controlled, hearing the latest diagnosis.

 

I stand waiting for the dancing to stop.

The great aunts are lined against a wall, linear.

Their hair all the same height, their hands folded

               across their laps, their laps lined flatly,

               tucked in firmly by girdles and corsets.

My mother takes my hand, hurries, jerking, twirling

               me around, and I land on a great aunt’s

               black laced shoe. Petticoats exposed, panties exposed

               showing quality of make, brand.

I have been exposed, branded perfect, each hair in place,

               loving put in place, better than the cousins’ hair in place.

My mother put my hair in place. It is that picture, 

               the one you cannot stand, the one in which we all stand. 

My mother and her sisters, my father, my uncles,

               my grandmother, my grandfather, my cousins

               all six of them, and me, and you say you

               have never seen a group of less happy people,

               and the youngest cousin, he’s squirming.

I can tell even now though it was over 45 years ago,

               squirming afraid of a belted earthquake crack.

I am looking through the crack, the one not in the picture,

               the one between the closed blinds, looking out to white sand,

               ocean, feeling the coming tidal wave crashing.

 

*********

The latest gift of love crashed onto the floor

shattered into thousands of pieces, shattered not

to be glued back.  I have no children to shatter, glue,

only you, Mom, keeping you pieced together, piece by piece

while in my mind I hear silent white space, the notes,

whole notes, resting, at peace.  The fault widens,

closes, changes by the day, was it mine, yours?

Fish stew bubbles boils on the stove, blood like red

stew. I stir it. The clock ticks, its hands against

a smiling elephant, silent, hanging on the plastered wall.

 

Mom looks at me.  I don’t know, just don’t,

just can never understand how you learned to cook. 

Your grandmother did not cook, 

your great-grandmother did not cook,

there were cooks. 

          Dad cooked, I say.  Not well, 

                     she says.  He only thought he could cook. 

Oh, I say.  Maybe then it was out of survival.  

What I don’t say is how my friend who was gay

taught me to cook, cook when we were early in college,

stirring sauces, glazes, glacé fruit, chocolate mousse.

It was a must, my only way, way to make any sense of anything,

a place to hide, be an artist.  Yes, the dirty word artist,

we do survive Mom, we do survive, not holding still.

It was the earthquake that blew my husband

out of his fortress, his studio. I watched him as he flew,

not like Chagall’s angels, violins over villages, but flying into paint, 

plump picture-perfect paint, painting me, painting blue. 

I don’t think he will ever paint you.

Josie Emmons Turner lives in Tacoma, Washington and is Tacoma's former Poet Laureate. She is the editor of the chapbook "Sarasvati Takes Pegasus as Her Mount" and her work has appeared in California Quarterly, Floating Bridge Review, Creative Colloquy, in Tahoma's Shadow and other journals. She teaches poetry and literature to seniors at Clover Park High School and earned her MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.

*This poem first appeared in an incomplete form in Issue IX

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