Aliki Barnstone is a poet, translator, critic, and editor. She is the author of seven books of poems, most recently, Bright Body (White Pine, 2011) and Dear God Dear, Dr. Heartbreak: New and Selected Poems (Sheep Meadow, 2009), and the translator of The Collected Poems of C.P. Cavafy: A New Translation (W.W. Norton, 2006). In 2013, Carnegie Mellon University Press will reissue her book, Madly in Love, as a Carnegie-Mellon Classic Contemporary. She is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Missouri, Columbia, where she serves as Series Editor of the Cliff Becker Book Prize in Translation.
For Abigail Stone, for Ruth Stone (1915-2011)
She liked to sit in the peacock chair, her wicker throne, Go play! said your mother, my godmother wished for with a dandelion puff. When she spoke, a peacock showed off, opened the hundred eyes of his plumage, turning slowly all-seeing in the orchard, eyes of foliage domes, eyes of delfiniums and tall hollyhocks, we pray—guard and look over us who stitch together with blades of grass, lilac leaf shirts and lily dresses arrayed for the little people when they come caroling and raise up their acorn bowls— Heigh, ho, nobody home. Our inside was our outside—ceiling beams, the twisted apple limbs slanting into wallpaper that didn’t cover only garlanded the invisible panel between this world and the next, the cursive tangle of raspberry branches spelling our names, the red heart-shaped fruit dotting our i’s, the wild tea roses climbing the sky, sometimes dropping petals on the folk’s tiny table— Meat nor drink nor money have I none— or sometimes into their birch bark canoes we set afloat on the brook— petals the color of our skin, as yet unscarred, petals the pages for blood sisters to write their vows upon. Promise not to forget, we’d whisper as we swept pine needle brooms across the boulder, our palace floor. We’ll keep our dream house so clean and polish the glass so clear when we’re crowned with feathery white hair we’ll walk through the walls built brick by brick by the years— Still I will be merry, very merry. Now we’re told she’s buried in the orchard, though her laughter rises louder than the brook rushing over the rocks. See her pointing to our lost calico cat, see her, over there, camophlaged by black eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace? She covers my left ear with her hand, saying shut out the voices telling you I’m gone.
–for Cliff Becker
Some say the pronoun is abused above all in addresses to the dead. That would be you, dear friend. But if I don’t talk to you, I pretend some golden bangles aslant on a stranger’s wrist don’t have me admiring your daughter’s drawing, pulled from your breast pocket, a pencil sketch of a dinosaur, a tractate in French carefully printed below, her young hand still unused to writing, though too soon she’d be reciting “Nothing Gold Can Stay” at your memorial. She loves gold—you doted on her so. Some say too much. Too much, too soon your heart let you down, down to the floor, mid-sentence as you spoke with your girl. I wonder what you said. I don’t expect your answer. On second thought she recited “Reasons for Moving” in your memory. The gold poem fit the jewelry you delighted to give her. You see why I need to keep talking to you? If I keep your name lodged always in my throat, ready for you to hear, you’ll be bold and tell me a raunchy joke and laugh at your badness. If I’ve forgotten the punch line, it doesn’t matter. I’m doubled over— oh, Cliff, oh, you, oh, Cliff.