August 2002

Jeanne Murray Walker


Jeanne Murray Walker's work has appeared in a hundred periodicals, including Poetry, The Nation, APR, and Shenandoah. Her most recent book is Gaining Time (Copper Beech Press, 1997). Her work has been honored by many awards, including a Pew Fellowship in the Arts and a NEA Fellowship. She teaches at The University of Delaware and lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two children.

May he go among the imperishable stars,
May he journey in the boat of a million years.

—Blessing for a dead Pharoah

You've taken off again, J.R., this time
steering the boat of your coffin
into the final terror you always wooed,
leaving me to read your obit

and make plans with February,
its snow already gone filthy under the cedar
which I now declare your shrine.

You were no good, our neighbors said,
needing an indigenous criminal. Well,
you did have the mouth to make Marilyn Monroe
blush, with which you kissed me under the old cedar.
You, who taught me to laugh at death while you
gunned the 1952 Chevy. The only one who
would still touch me after my father died.
Who taught me rage is better than fear.

But it wasn't love, was it,
that night you held me in the front seat,
the night you wouldn't let me go,
while I imagined my mother, frantic as scalding soup,
phoning neighbors, sweating—my widowed mother—?

It was kindness that made you keep me
till I could see the ghost of my father
like a bearded cedar walking through the dark.




Even then, I wished I'd had good enough manners
to walk away, but I had to see what happened.
I stayed with the street kids who cheered
as the ants went on publicly
stuffing their voluptuous queen
after the steam shovel slashed off their mound.

When sunlight flayed them to death,
I thought of trying to console us all
by talking about secret chambers, how the ants
might be bending over a plan. But
I know how dangerous hope can be.

Later, when a survivor peeked out,
then tested his eyelash legs, we clapped.
His troops followed, each holding a pack,
scrambling around miniature boulders.
And what if I called it hope or courage,
the way they drove higher, sniffing the air?
Would you believe me?

I am thinking of Douglas,
the Hannibal who for weeks led us girls
through the sweet pass between desire and history
in Mrs. Meeks' Civics class.
Of all fierce things, of my child, waving
as she drives off into Tuesday morning,
of America's perpetual stupid hope, of getting airborne,
of how it's always sunny up there.
How under us, as we glide in, everything's new,
the ground unfurls like a carpet,

the salesman kicking the big roll,
spreading out fields and towns for us to love.



On The Imagination 

The picture postcard goes on being Vermont,
all right, pretending to be Vermont,
where, in the distance, green hills

shelter a miniature barn.
Beside it, two midget Holsteins
splotched like tiny Gateway boxes:

a bad joke I scrawl on the back
to my son, who is away for the summer
at violin camp in Vermont,

in whose empty room I am sitting
as music drains out of the world.
Then it starts up. A few notes.

I know the Tchaikovsky when I hear it.
I know when my son is playing.
I shut my eyes, lean into the music, drift.

That's how these things happen.
I step into the mind of the postcard,
scuff some leaves, smack the bony rump of a cow,

who takes off toward the barn. All afternoon
I stand hatless, listening to him.
I would write that, too, but

suppose, after he reads this card
he laughs and flips it away,
thinking I am always imagining things,

knowing, like the wiseacre he is,
this Vermont is not Vermont at all?



Jeanne Murray Walker: Poetry
Copyright © 2002 The Cortland Review Issue 21The Cortland Review