Sandra Kohler’s third collection of poems, Improbable Music (Word Press) will appear in May 2011. Earlier collections are The Country of Women (Calyx, 1995) and The Ceremonies of Longing (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003). Her poems have appeared in journals over the past 35 years. Born in New York City in 1940, Kohler attended public schools there, Mount Holyoke College (A.B., 1961) and Bryn Mawr College (A.M., 1966 and Ph.D., 1971). She’s taught literature and writing in venues ranging from elementary school to university. A resident of Pennsylvania for most of her adult life, she’s recently moved to Boston.
For Bernice, Irene and Regina
For years I’ve listened to the three of you
reminisce, daughters of a mother who hung
green shades on the windows, not starched
white lace, never baked any of you a birthday
cake, let one of you (you argue about who)
go to school wearing mismatched socks. She
was the mother-in-law I loved for not caring
who had telephoned who last, for her lifelong
passion for “her flowers,” for her detachment
from her children’s lives, her distant tender
attachment to my son, her youngest grandchild.
You were the women whose womanhood
frightened me, brilliant practitioners of its arts.
Your spotless windows opened into a life I
couldn’t maintain: the curtains washed and
starched and ironed to a perfection nothing in
me could reach. I didn’t understand how you
were driven by memory: the childhood houses
of your friends, islands of order and decorum
home didn’t offer, led each of you to a vow,
the veil of a sisterhood your mother flouted
innocently; for your children, you would be
the mother your childhoods longed for.
You invented your roles from a model
of how not to play them; I had no model.
Motherless at ten, I didn’t possess the image
memory creates: my sister owned that mother,
staked an absolute claim to her, greedy as any
prospector. She owned womanhood, the art
and nature of it; I was dispossessed, twice
orphaned, once by nature and again by the art
of a sister who fashioned the past, memory,
the real, into a fabrication of her own. And
yet, like her, like you, I have created an idol,
sacred figure, each of us still in thrall to a
presence we invented, absence we mourn.
This Spring Insistent
Yesterday sleet, raw wind,
today balm. There will be
I am keeping distant from
my garden, from mourning
the tiny blue scylla, all the little
crocuses blooming for weeks,
snowdrops, violet anemone.
I’d forgotten how many
giant crocus I planted:
clumps of white, purple.
Now daffodils shooting
up, budding, this spring
insistent as change
in my life.
Half of April
gone. My last season
in this garden slips
away, down a slope, a hill,
mountainside. The daffodils
are blooming my heart out.
Hellebore, scylla, anemone,
crocus, snowdrops, hyacinths
flowered already or in bloom
now. So green, so pink,
more beautiful than any
spring I remember.
Along the house
the bank’s covered with
creeping phlox: lilac, pink,
coral waves of it.
The scarlet tulips
I didn’t want have spread
through every bed, thrusting
up buds, pursed like tight
red lips. In the crescent
bed, they’re outlined
in blue by grape
On the red dogwood, white
blossoms are opening, inching
wider day by day. The lilac’s full
of buds. Great clumps of scarlet
tulips through all the beds.
Who will care for this garden
when we’ve left? Anyone?
I tell a friend it’s all right,
there are abandoned gardens
everywhere, gone to weed,
it doesn’t matter,
I did it for its
Whatever I say,
in the garden hurts me.
The wide white blooms
of the red dogwood fully
open now, the blue of grape
hyacinth consorts with
scarlet tulips. Even the sky
this morning – a white
blank pure expanse,
despite sun, despite
depths, despite shades
and ripples, density
and thinning, – even
the sky this morning
Walking with Dolores
In Memoriam, Dolores Z. – “Sis”
Walking the river road this morning
the air October not May, glassy wind,
shards of sun, shadow – but carried
on the spurts of wind, the fragrance
of locust blossom. The bird on the
road, rigid, tiny black feet clawing
at sky, as if it had been blown out
of the air – what emblem is this?
I think of my friend who is dying
– dying more certainly, quickly than
we all are – of her telling me how as
a child she loved winter and summer,
absolute seasons, their consistent
weather assuring pleasures: skating,
frozen ponds, snowy hills in winter,
in summer the river, swimming.
She hated spring and fall’s fickle
weather, mercurial, restless
as a child with nothing to do.
Is the world a child wants, needs,
always more black and white than
the real? This spring morning,
whether the weather’s October
or May, I imagine her waking,
glad for the ambiguous day.
Sis had surgery yesterday for her cancer.
We’re told it went well. Gray fog at the river
today, nothing exists beyond the trees along
the bank. Where shall I put chrysanthemums
if I divide them – the rosy ones that sprawled
while we were away, too big for their space?
I cut them back, but I should uproot them,
divide, replant. As Sis’ husband Dave tells
us what he calls “good news,” I glance into
his eyes: black, their light extinguished –
a darkness that belies his words.
Out of the hospital, Sis wants to start
morning walks again; Dave worries that
she shouldn’t be alone. I offer to go with her
so Dave and my husband can keep playing
tennis mornings. We meet at the courts,
take off through Sunbury, where she was
born, grew up, lives still. This morning
we explored the island in the Susquehanna
between Sunbury and Norry: old houses,
neat or ramshackle, river views, but with
risk, a cost. There was an amusement park
here – every spring just after it opened for
the season, the river rose, flooded – it went
bankrupt. For years, there was a small
airport on the island: Sis remembers riding
her father’s shoulders, watching Piper cubs
take off into a sky like today’s pale blue,
skidding to land on the tarred runways.
Her childhood seems a gentler world.
Was it vulnerable as the amusement park,
I wonder, staring at broken branches,
a storm’s detritus fallen like leaves
into today’s mud-swollen river.
This morning walking past an empty lot
where the grass is blue and gold with violets,
dandelion, “I don’t care what people say,”
Sis says, “that’s beautiful.” The beauty of
weeds. A few blocks later, she tells me about
the gladioli her father grew. In this zone
they’re not hardy, have to be taken up
before first frost. He’d plant hundreds of
corms, an array of colors; built a chest for
their winter storage, drawers for each variety.
One year he was away when frost was due –
he travelled for work – and her oldest brother
was told to get them in. He dug up the bulbs,
tossed them into the drawers – no way of
telling which was which. Her father tore
the chest out, burned it, corms and all.
Sis doesn’t say whether he started over
and I forget to ask. What she remembers
is his rage. The only girl of seven children,
she and her mother spent every summer
growing vegetables, canning. She’s never
had, never wanted a garden since.
Sis calls: bad news. Last week’s cat scan
showed more “spots”in her abdomen,
she’s having three more weeks of chemo,
another scan, if there’s no improvement,
another drug. I start wondering who would
ready her body for burial, her undertaker
husband, her undertaker son? Would it
be comfort for either, or pure ordeal; for
which of them would it be worse? My grim
imaginings are like the undertaker’s art:
ways of disguising death’s face.
Out to dinner with Sis and Dave, the talk’s
mellow, sad: our coming move, regret at not
having gotten to know each other sooner.
They tell us about their surprise wedding.
Dave offered to drive Sis’ family to Biloxi,
to the Army camp where her brother was
posted, for his wedding – her father’d been
called away at the last minute. In Texas
the motel owner decided they were in love
– they’d been dating for three months –
urged a double wedding; they did it.
Sis’ father and Dave’s widowed mother
were furious. A few months later, Dave
forgot Sis’ birthday; she was so mad she
threw a stack of birthday cards at him,
walked out. On the street, she bumped
into Dave’s mother, told her about it.
When she got home, his mother was
on the phone, berating his treatment
of her new favorite. We drink more
wine than usual, linger over dessert,
Yesterday morning, halfway through
our usual walk, Sis turns dizzy, reaches
for the hedge alongside the path. I’m
afraid she’s going to faint, she doesn’t
want to stop. When we get back to
the courts, she goes straight to her van,
bursts into tears, “I don’t want it to
be like this.” She’s apologizing to me,
for my distress. “I don’t want them
to go through this”– her family.
Woken in the night by rain –
no thunder or lightning, downpour
straight and heavy as molten ore, I
think Sis’ reactions to her illness
are incomprehensible unless you
understand her faith. And I don’t.
Is that true, or is it temperament
not belief? I don’t know her
private fears. I lie awake until
the rain lightens, listening.
Sis was dizzy again after we walked
today, told me she got sick before chemo
last session, her blood count’s haywire,
things are going wrong. When we get
home, I tell my husband I think she’s
just going to collapse one day, the end
come quickly. I’m sure this is what
she’d choose. Is my projection
intuition or a wish for her,
“We deal with this by praying,”
says the friend who’s supposedly
closer to her than I am when we
talk about Sis’ cancer. I wonder
if it’s a way of not feeling,
keeping pain at bay. I can’t
know that. I don’t deal with
anything by prayer, unless
these words I spew