Old Woman by Sandra Kohler ’61

Sandra Kohler’s poetry has been appearing in print for at least 35 years, in publications such as The New Republic, Prairie Schooner, The Gettysburg Review and The Colorado Review. Her most recent book, Improbable Music, was published by Word Tech Communications in 2011. A previous book, The Ceremonies of Longing (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003) won the AWP Award Series in Poetry. In 1985 and 1990, she was the recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship in Poetry awarded by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. In between writing poetry and raising her son, she taught literature and writing everywhere from elementary school to college.


Waking, I hear a bird beating at the window
under the mulberry: black bird, black window,
black tree. It’s grey and thick and breathless,
but dry. I’ll walk, my husband will play tennis.
We will do what we do, enact the day our
calendar disposes. A flash of wings: a blue jay
in the mulberry. These days wings moving
through the garden’s green are usually gold –
gold finch, orioles? My husband walks down
to the garage, carrying the chair he rests in
between sets. We rub and fray a little, we rub
and caress. A dove is cooing somewhere close.
The garden waits. Is it dry enough to weed
the cutting bed? It feels as if summer is over.
It feels as if I am testing a new way of being,
some weight I’m learning to carry, restraints
I am learning to wear. The garments of old
women, the thickness around the waist,
deepening folds of the face, loosening skin.
A different grip on the real, the world, new
expectations. Do I believe a word of this?
A cardinal flies out of the mulberry, across
the roof next door. I imagine and don’t
see his red reflection in the roof pond.


All the unthinkable
will happen:
one night
on the interstate
you will hit a deer
you will lose more
of your thinning
hair you will lose
your looks your
money your memory
you will be old and
ugly and impossible
to look on with desire
you will want to die
or not want to
and die.


The morning’s hazed, glazed, air heavy
with the freight of new weather. The sun
rose red in the gray distance, is gold now,
melting. The hummingbird arrives on
the wire, disappears. Sleep isn’t enough
to restore me. I want to play. Play what?
The piano, the cello, the oboe? I’m afraid
of my life narrowing, of becoming old
woman who wards off change, the new.
Walt’s gone for the papers. The sense
that there’s something we’re both waiting
for. The loneliness of summer is green
and bleak and exhausted, the loneliness
of winter white and sharp and numbing.
The gray sky is suddenly grayer, the light
thinner, dimmer. Why disdain adjectives?
The color of the world is in them. The day
grows older as I write. How can I wear
it like a garment meant for celebration?


At the mall yesterday,
I realize I’m becoming anonymous
to myself: I wear glasses, no makeup,
don’t bother looking in the mirror
at the raincoat I’m trying on.
But we go to bed later, make
love, surprise, unlooked for.
I should be cold and dry, but
Walt’s touch on my breast
sends ripples of pleasure through
my groin, labia, clitoris. Desire
still holds my world together,
diffuse, broader than when my
body was its source and end.


My garden
like a woman
of a certain age,
blowsy, prolix,
Five noisy birds
on the wire just
over the dogwood:
one by one they
fly off, plunge
to the garden
as if falling
into a green

The cardinal’s
high up in the false cypress,
making its way from branch
to branch like a mountain
climber, each spurt of
motion cautious, planned.
A model for my next twenty
years? Years I want of being
able to walk, write, feel and
think hard. In the middle of
the night I wake wanting
the whole story, whether
it will rain before morning,
to see my son’s children have
children, know how it all
comes out, read the cosmos
the way I do a novel or a
single season of
my garden
as it unfolds.


At my birthday lunch with a friend,
we talk about how she’s drawn to
Christianity not Buddhism because
of Incarnation, what it says about
the body. Life’s too short not to
indulge ourselves, we say, ordering
frites with our gyros. We will never do
all we imagine, complete the gestures
we’re moved to by curiosity, ambition,
affection, generous impulse of one kind
or another. Ah mother, you had it wrong:
it’s matter that alters mind. I talk about
taking up the cello, mentoring an orphan,
about mindfulness and the Kantian
imperative; I come home to wash
curtains, cook a pot of soup.
Thinking about my age as I
stir, I’m able for a moment to
believe it’s stupid to mind it.
Growing old is opportunity,
a voice says: make
something of it.

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