The Chinless Woman in the Smart Park Booth
Chin collapsed like ripples at the shore, like a shirt
crumpled up at the waist: like this or that:
the driver thus tries to avoid coming terribly alert
from his mindless paying and passing on, who has sat
for hours on a plane and now is loose for home,
dragging his metaphors like tin cans behind.
The proportion that makes for ease, the natural bone
that beauty calls its own—what else can the mind
do with its omission? The mind, we know
from several recent studies, prefers regularity,
likes it so much that a thousand people chose
a face made up of the average of a random sea
of faces as the one they most admire. Now this
transgression, the depth it hints at, the human fabric
broken down! How could one stand to kiss
that smiling vacancy? Once again grief has picked
a place to land, arbitrary, exact, scornful
of averages. The driver, who loves his wife and kids,
imagines the chinless boiling kiss, feels its pull
of absence, all the more for being sweet, rid
of self-consciousness. Something in him feels lost
as a child, his father angry, mother sad and far-
looking. He would like a certainty, not tossed
from one to the other, steering with radar…..
The grandmother collects what she can of the past, stows it
jumbled, in an old bag she hasn’t taken time
to sort. She wanders down streets you don’t know
the names of. Even on the day of your birth, she climbed
through tangles, dutifully walked the dog Samson,
dumb lurch of a retriever, straight into the tiny clout
of two snarling pugs. Samson dragged her along,
terrified and panting, back to the house.
Out there, a truck revved. She and the dog—the worse
for shivers, eye to dilated eye. Across town,
your mother’s hormones were dilating her pelvis bones,
switching the new grandmother’s life into reverse.
As on the elliptical trainer, the brief pause, then,
face forward, she’s running backward toward the unknown.
What steers the second grandchild—thin, small-boned,
blowing the trumpet while life grinds its gears
like a truck? The grandmother doesn’t wish him thrown
to the gods of art that need the shivering, the mere
skin’s quivering molecules. She, too,
wanted nothing more than to be held. Apparently,
she notes, the basic structure is enfolded: a queue
of petals, stamen, trumpeting pistil. One sees
nothing of the soft inside. What lies on the surface
tries to be cold as brass, tries to shut the door
against the other. She hears the clatter of children
against the screen door: She remembers the hard purpose
of their cries: the old lament, “Don’t divorce.”
Now this grandchild’s golden trumpet, the wail again.
Harry Potter grandson, video forever blooming
in your round glasses, how can she find you, how dare
enter? She stands over, the awkward looming
of a grandparent, the useless gesture of ruffling the hair.
No way to revise the past, to travel back through
to your father, how she stroked his hair, small child
kneeling on her bed, sobbing for his father, who used to
lie on the floor and raise him on his feet, fly him, wild
with joy, while she sat knowing what this would come to.
Heart breaking, we call it, more of a steady muffled
truck-sound in the distance—deep bass, a movie sound.
How to comfort you for what you never knew—
how your father flew down into his books, the terrible
dark arts thundering outside the door like snowplows.
The grandmother plays knights with you on a snowed-in
afternoon, looking for you where you might be found,
inside your toys. The knights come apart, fasten
with magnets. You take one knight’s body, surround it
with five heads, thinking up a question. The legs, strewn,
answer that they have given up bringing answers.
One body with silver mail, one with gold, soon
interchanged. You tuck each of their dangerous lances
under the arm of the other, keeping the tips warm.
Love with a safety plan. Your curls fall across
the pieces so you can concentrate, the glitch in your brain
at war against confusing extra sounds. The swarm
of sounds in the grandmother’s head, too—the lost
past. She strains to hear you over the cries of the slain.
The child’s serious brown eyes, full without prejudice.
Eyes like her mother’s: part mirror, part well.
The grandmother makes the long flight, not to be remiss,
to Oregon for three days. Ah, the child can easily tell
the truth of brevity. Here in the minivan’s back seat,
they find objects out the window, beginning with letters
of the alphabet, in order. She keeps on, street after street,
to the tiresome end: good reader; speller, better.
Knows q needs u. Question: What if her parents
had married? A gate left unlatched, an alphabet to range,
to close it. The grandmother and the actual grandfather married.
The grandmother comes along out of guilt, of love, of some sense
of continuity. She brings small gifts, she changes
herself into who she would be, what she would carry.
Piano for rousing both black and white, cup
and stick for drum corps, lap harp for plucking out tones,
xylophone wall at the park for stroking the stones
to life: the song of Casey, wild to make up
something out of nothing, right foot in, right foot
out. Casey, singing in his booster chair, firing
bits of peanut butter sandwich into space. Stay put,
grandmother, a reverberation alongside, conspiring
against the sandwich song! She with her lead
feet sweeps up what has fallen. She is all for the dancing,
if it’s old time rock and roll—its nice four-four
measures. She likes the way they plan ahead,
the way they let the past bounce along, advancing
only inside their exact, though passionate, score.
Is the grandmother’s life generic, after all—the clichés
she’s “spent a lifetime” struggling against? Her worry
over healing, over scars, nothing but the talk-show way
of original sin? Meanwhile, Abby, all flurry
on her pink scooter, drags her pink polka-dotted
rain boot, braking. Half a block behind, the grandmother’s
mortality feels more like a fading, less knotted.
During pledge week, she watches, along with all the other
elders, the aged Motown singers. The theme
is death, start to finish. A lovely arrogance, legs
and arms and scooter, then a decline. It transpires
so quickly, the grandmother gets a little queasy.
She had something to warn about love, hesitates to say,
afraid to disturb the balance the wheels require.
Fleda Brown’s new book is Driving With Dvorak, released in March by the University of Nebraska Press. Her most recent collection of poems, Reunion (University of Wisconsin Press, 2007), won the Felix Pollak Prize. The author of five previous collections of poems, she has won numerous prizes, among them a Pushcart Prize, the Philip Levine Prize, the Great Lakes Colleges New Writer’s Award, and her work has been a finalist for the National Poetry Series. She is professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she taught for 27 years and directed the Poets in the Schools program. She was poet laureate of Delaware from 2001-07. She now lives in Traverse City, Michigan, and is on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program in Tacoma, Wash.
"The grandmother poems began as prose poems and evolved into sonnets. What you have here is part of a slightly longer series—each grandchild has one poem."