Happy birthday, Victoria Redel! Celebrate by reading this suite of poems we published in 2019!
In the first weeks
we already knew this was history,
that you’d speak of our nakedness,
the flat grasses we wove & slipped over
each other. First there was wild onion,
the sharp tang of shoot & bulb. Later
came frills of green leaf, stalks, tips too.
Then peaches. Standing together in sunlight,
of course, praise & song. We hardly cared
that you would get so much of it wrong,
that you would always speak of an apple or claim
that one of us was so persuaded by the snake.
Darlings, we imagined you. How over & over
You would break each other & wound this garden.
Only then, still licking the dried peach juice
sticky down our fingers, did we know shame.
After at most a year, maybe two, showing off
how it circled their necks, slid down
& out the bottom of a t-shirt, how they fed
mice-on-ice from an open palm, jaw unhinging
to take it whole, my sons had no time for the snake
when she’d go milky-eyed, slowing until
her dry length coiled into days & days
of such gray stillness I’d knock the glass tank
to make sure she was alive. Then, maybe I’d be
making the bunk bed or folding baseball pants
when the edging began, a restless roughing
against bark chips, circling forward against
every available friction until the split
when I watched her press out of herself,
leaving the long opaque shed. I loved it
every time. I don’t mean the emergence—
though, yes, there was that,
how she’d fold & stretch, glossy & clear-eyed—
No, I loved the papery, scaled ghost I’d lift out
not to commemorate her chance to begin again
but the cold indifference to whom she’d been.
Tonight I do not want your big yellow thumbs up,
your cartoon avatar hula-hooping or stomping in rain boots.
No confetti toss to praise the daily hoopla.
Outside the trouble is real.
There is a plastic sea swath the size of a country
children asleep under scaffolds
every second an acre & a half of forest brought down.
I need your voice fragrant in my ear,
of each word shaped on a folded note.
No custom hieroglyph of yikes & boo.
Each of us considering what it will take.
The animals had no love for us.
We did not lie tenderly with the lion.
Nor for a moment did the crow
believe we had dominion.
& if you had heard that caw & caw
& had seen clouds massing from those steady hooves
you would understand
there was never a fall.
We stood; we ran.
teach me how to begin again. I am clasp,
fist, unfit to unfurl from this tight husk.
I have wintered hard.
Ice sheathed, worried & weighted, a broken stalk.
See, even this, my prayer, a twisted clatter of talk.
Last night in a field I was invited into the easy company of stars.
Still I walked through a darkened city of old argument,
the dense grid of streets, crumbling stoops
& someone at every corner shouting, Cut it out.
Then, this morning, your split parchment &
undressed blue petals.
That brave, shivering & brief opening.
In the last days when he could barely open his eyes he’d look up
from the bed sent by Medicare
or lift his hand & say, That’s me;
thinking he wanted reassurance, we said, Yes, Poppa, you’re right here.
He jabbed his finger toward the television—
clusters of makeshift tents bent under gusting winds,
a woman pressed a child over the rail of a listing boat,
a girl blanketed in her father’s jacket.
& he pointed at young men slouched against stone walls.
No, he said, waving at men browner & blacker than he;
You don’t see me there, he said, you look again.
& today, out of nowhere, more than fifty years
later, I’m wondering was he named Lucky,
our family’s first dog, Lucky, because
he’d been left on our front step or because
our parents saw him as a reminder
of their luck that they actually lived
in a house with front steps when each could
count on one hand the childhood friends
that were not dead? No, let me ask this plainer.
Was our difficult & loyal German
shepherd, Lucky, who roamed the tidy neighborhood
then showed up nightly for his bowl of food,
their penitence for all the others who’d been
starved or gassed or shot & left in dappled woods?
Victoria Redel is the author of three books of poetry and five books of fiction. Her books include Paradise, Before Everything, The Border of Truth, Loverboy, and Swoon. Redel’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and journals including Granta, Harvard Review, The Quarterly, The Literarian, The New York Times, The L.A. Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, Elle, Bomb, and NOON.