Issue > Poetry
Grace Schulman

Grace Schulman

Grace Schulman's seventh collection of poems, Without a Claim, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013. Editor of The The Poems of Marianne Moore (Viking, 2003), she is Distinguished Professor of English at Baruch College, CUNY. Schuman is former director of the Poetry Center, 92nd Street Y, 1974-1984; and former poetry editor of The Nation, 1971-2006. Her poems, essays, and translations have appeared widely in journals here and abroad.


Rat Poison, nailed to a black-locust tree,
emerald leaves, honey-yellow blooms.

Touching bark, turning to read, No littering,
No loitering,
I hear chillier warnings,

Don't stay at the ball or you'll lose your prince.
Look back and lose your love to the underworld.

Don't look back, not even to see
if you've watered the roses, locked the door,

or you'll turn to salt, and worse, you will be nameless
like one we know only as Lot's wife.  

And I believe them. Black-locusts burn in sunlight,
the fountain surges new, its rainbow shines

expectant, like the surge of faces. Look
and don't look back, not at the kids we were,

you and I, sliding in rain. Not at the park's
beginnings, a potter's field, nor at the elm

that was a gallows. Look instead
at the woman leaning against the straggly tree

slim in a t-shirt, playing slow tempo blues
on a tenor sax. Now you step gingerly,

taking the high risk of this morning,
one hand on your cane, the other open

to catch honey-yellow falling
as our shadows fall on a narrow path,

bounded by poisoned grass, and yet
our boundless road up from the underworld.

Walking To Elijah

She loomed before me like a prophecy,
wearing a black robe that swept the sand
and a dangling Crucifix. I stared until

her eyes beamed under a birdlike crest.
She had observed me through the chapel window,
carrying poppies, a worn map, and a note

with ink-blurred numbers, home of my hosts
for Sabbath dinner, 17 Elijah.
The sun went down, squeezed like a fat stewed peach

too bulky for its jar. It would soon be dark.
Her coarse sleeve grazed my arm as she held torn paper.
"I don't know the address, but we'll walk together.

It's good gymnastics." Gliding in black folds
(I thought she'd fly) she waved the scrap
at a man sipping tea. "There's no such place,"

he barked. "Yes, there must be, she's lost her way,"
my black angel insisted, and he joined us.
Lost. Yesterday a bomb had exploded here

in reprise for arrests. Shops closed. And now
the Sabbath, day of rest, its supplications
for peace unheeded. Soon our group was growing

into a procession. Asked for Elijah Street,
passersby shrugged and fell in. One lean man
offered advice in Serbian; at the next corner,

a woman stood sobbing, until, curious,
she breathed deep and kept pace. People followed me —
or was I following them? Where were we headed?

We passed a mosque, a church in ruins, a cloister.
Hats were skullcaps, knitted cartwheels, scarves,
a fez, over faces with family features.

Inside a basement window, men at prayer
gazed upward: a black condor? No, the nun.
She hovered, then made for another house

and rang a doorbell, the diners sitting down
to Sabbath wine. Still, no one knew Elijah.
It was late before I reached my friends,

and I don't remember anything else that evening
except a black gown, hats, opinions crackling
in a fire of languages that halted prayers.

At The House Of Jackson Pollock

A woman kneels on grass, blue-green at sunset,
squeezing a basting tube under a hose,
and fire leaps out, the red-orange paint

he dripped on canvas tacked to floorboards.
She is the keeper of his rainbow enamels,
guardian of knives and twigs, washer of bowls

for mixing seashells, sand, and broken glass.
Before he scattered colors to the floor,
he raged at killers in Spain, and painted fires

healing and deadly, hidden in bronze and yellow.
Outside his house, an egret stalks the shallows,
oaks go about their business, stirring in wind,

a postman caries mail to a lost "resident,"
unaware the rooms crackle with fire.
I want to write my last will by this bay:

Let the curator of my life pour my images
out of a basting tube under a hose,
hang them, backed in wood, at eye level,

and restore my pallet of liquid paints
that I may kindle lightning bugs and luminous
plankton on sand arching to the stars.


Raise a torch to flicker on cave walls
and see the horses caught in flight, sleek manes
rising like smoke rings in clear air.
Some dark force lured a nomad  
to crawl into a cave with a homemade lamp,

his palette, colors of earth, fire, ash,
charcoal from burned pine and bloodred ochre
he'd blow through a reed. He scraped the paint
and rub out lines until the last horse reared
and the dream took form: imperious stag,

rhino, bison, auroch, stories on walls.
What drew him there? Not hunger but the hunger,
when winter threatened, nightfall terrified,
the clan slaughtered, to see in blackness
a golden plain. Some say the cave was an altar,

the beasts sacred, but I think the task
was to get it right, the horse's leap,
the faun's terror, the lion's charge, knowing
that in a life of change those animals
would stay. They have. The ibex glowers.

Horses still snuffle the cave walls,
jaws open in surprise, eyes wide in wonder.
That's where it began, and why I slog
through rank black soil to find radiant images
with horses in high winds to guide my hand.

At The Physical Therapist's

You strain for balance on a fat blue globe
hoping to walk steadily again,

to stand up for the Hallelujah chorus,
kick up autumn leaves, scuff sand, trek anywhere.

I'm told to lurk behind the rubbery planet
crouched to spring if you should quiver and fall.               

Pleats of your shirt deepen as you sway
and right yourself again, your shoulders tense,

and you bitch and curse at someone (fate?
the wounding angel?), mourn your lost strides,

squirm in forced stillness. I think of risk,
your risk, and mine as I write this now,

treading a circus wire strung between landings.
eyes fixed on the line ahead, without a pole.


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