Poetry by Gary Leising from The Alp at the End of My Street
When you’re dirty, it will rain,
the water any temperature you like.
At first light, the rooster tells the truth:
his calling advises the sun.
In your small home
(once home to the three bears)
you’ll find a family of foxes.
They’ll forage the woods for food,
and drop what they find in your picnic basket.
You’ll spend days lying in flowerbeds,
only your face poking through the pansies’ thick blanket.
You wait for butterflies to land on your tongue.
Their flavors, matched to wing-colors,
delight you so. Until one day
you swallow a solid black one.
Its taste—licorice and blood—
makes you realize, finally, you’re alone.
I’m thankful that my mother is my mother
and my mother wasn’t Mary Toft, Englishwoman,
who in 1726 gave birth to seventeen rabbits.
I would hate being one of eighteen children,
the only human one, dragging a dustpan around,
sweeping up droppings from every corner of the house,
dropping out of school for a coal mine job
to keep the siblings in lettuce. And, Lord,
in years there’s three or four of them—
the neglected ones—who take to incest,
squirt out litter after litter, while Mary,
Mother Mary, has the King’s personal physician
shoving a speculum in her, checking
her womb in London. She left me down south,
big brother wiping coal dust from my face,
awake all night chasing off the wolves.
Once I fell asleep and two became canine-snacks
and a neighbor cooked a third in ale.
It’s a terrible life, but it’s not mine,
thanks to my mother not being Mary Toft.
Though if she had been, at least I’d be British,
maybe studying at Oxford or Cambridge,
where a school maid brings me shaving water,
makes my bed, and presses my cotton shirt
My First Word
Written in a book, my mother
kept it with a lock of hair
and inky footprint. The whorls
and curves of that small mark
are like caves now,
their swirls a journey to some past,
an unknown earth,
some mazy haze where, far off,
water drips into a pool.
Pale algae fuzzes its surface.
The lock of hair is tied with yarn
faded to whiteness, its starting color
now absent as the letters of my word
(my mother wrote in pencil),
my length and weight at birth,
or the date of my first tooth:
all faded in time, erased—
that tooth pushed out by others,
my measurements grown to today’s size,
my first word replaced by these,
what I put down here, more words
waiting to vanish, replaced
by the word I say next,
each word leading to one exhaled,
desperate from my deathbed.
Because my freshman-year roommate had no values,
because he stole my money, because he slept
with a different girl each weekend, because I hated
my young scholar’s life held against his carpe diem
drunk on Thursday-afternoon freedom, because I was
pro-life, I took the condoms he kept in a bowl
and drew the thinnest sewing needle I could find
through the center of each semi-rigid package. A tiny smell,
the whiff of antiseptic wipe torn open before a nurse
gives you a shot, hung over the bowl as I refilled it,
I thought of the tiny void, an army charging for it,
the British at Harfleur, diving man-by-man through
a hole of jagged stones: Gloucester and Clarence;
King Harry with a sword held high; red-faced Bardolph,
yet to be hanged; Pistol carrying a rusty, infectious dagger;
and the boys behind, one-by-one, baggage on their backs,
naïve boys bearing all of this world they’ll ever know.
The Living Nativity Takes a Break
Someone comes to feed and water the cows.
Joseph and the shepherds head out back
to split a pack of Camels.
Mary hides her chewed-away fingernails in her sleeves
and thinks about her bills.
Neither young nor pure,
she hands the baby to its mother to feed.
The woman puts her nipple in the baby's mouth,
and doesn't think that this infant
is not a king,
will not perform miracles,
will never feel iron nails in her wrists or ankles,
and will never leave an imprint of her face
on the handkerchief of a merciful woman
who steps out of the crowd.
The Sugar Mouse
The bag, a pound of sugar, all gone
to a mouse, a pest who turned it
to droppings speckling the shelf.
“If it jumps out, I’ll scream,” she said.
A tiny room to her, the pantry made a world
of places for a mouse to hide.
It could be behind those cans, in that box.
She set out traps. They went unsprung.
Her oldest son, the one who trapped mice
or killed the yard’s black snakes,
was a month into his tour,
and she could only say, “He’s there,
that country,” pointing at the globe.
Cities small as the specks of mouse shit
she thought might make her sick
dotted Iraq’s small, tan mass.
The mouse was a machine, divinely planned,
its bowels worked neat as a theorem,
sugar and something equals something else.
She started scrubbing shelves.
She figured equations, the factors in her life:
the creator of the mouse made her.
And she cleaned and cleaned,
then would buy more sugar.
Springtime crows swarm my neighbor’s yard,
pile themselves in one spot near the barrel
his old dog lives in. My wife and I wondered
all winter how much longer the limping mutt
would last. We have our answer, I say,
as two crows break from the pile, pull
between them something string-like, long, fleshy,
and dripping blood. That dog was nothing
but mean, and wouldn’t you be, tied up
to a barrel, left outside all year, fed scraps.
I feel bad for the dog’s life, not its death,
she says as the old man runs outside,
waving a rake, swatting crows and crying,
Go to hell. Hell. The dog steps from its barrel,
bloody-mouthed. The last crow leaves.
The old man kneels by the fleshy pile,
picks up a child’s scarlet hat.
Walking to Church on Shiloh Street, Early Sunday Morning
Between two parked cars, a dead possum,
on its back, with babies scrabbling at its belly,
some pressing forepaws against teats, squeezing
for what milk there might be.
You walked on, I squeezed one unguarded nipple:
milk spurted. Two lapped drops
from the cold skin, another sucked the nipple
and my finger. A dog would probably get them
by nightfall. I squeezed again, the nipple
a little pink Alp, sucked to a point
by these, old enough to have open eyes,
hair, the exact arrow look of a possum,
but—one clung to my withdrawing hand—
thankfully not the teeth. This mother’s body
was a dying earth of its own. Its hairless tail
a wisp of atmosphere, penumbra,
corona, whatever stays visible
as a planet falls in on itself, decaying,
swallowing its falling, smaller moons,
their tails faint streaks of light in some skies.