The man who had a perfect lawn
forced his three kids to toil outside
till every dandelion was gone.
His wife, gentle and put-upon,
dusted the trophies of his pride
(for tennis, not his perfect lawn).
His son, advancing like a pawn
to keep his father satisfied,
chose, when his girl and job were gone,
to hit a bridge (or gun) head-on.
The neighbors whispered “suicide”
while walking past that perfect lawn.
The youngest, timid and withdrawn,
lived with her parents till she died
of cancer, but the oldest, gone
for decades, had skipped town one dawn.
When she died too, her parents lied
that she was fine. Their perfect lawn
remains. But all the kids are gone.
Susan McLean writes: “From the ages of six to sixteen, I lived on a suburban cul-de-sac, a more elegant term for a dead end. The neighbors I knew best, whose three children were around the same ages as the oldest three children in my family, came to symbolize for me the dark side of suburbia, the disturbing realities that lie behind the manicured exteriors and are never spoken of. Not until the father of that family died did we learn, from his obituary, that his oldest daughter, the one who was my age, had died several years earlier, of undisclosed causes. The mother, who played bridge weekly with my mother, had always said when asked about that daughter that she was ‘fine’.
I chose to tell this story in a variant on a villanelle in which only the last words of the repeating lines reappear: ‘perfect lawn’ and ‘gone’. That loosening of the form allowed more narrative to fill the lines, but the tolling repetitions of those words encapsulate, for me, the irony and tragedy of keeping up appearances in suburbia. The villanelle itself can be a straitjacket of a form, and the short tetrameter lines tighten it further, till it feels as though there is no way out.”
Susan McLean has two books of poetry, The Best Disguise and The Whetstone Misses the Knife, and one book of translations of Martial, Selected Epigrams. Her poems have appeared in Light, Lighten Up Online, Measure, Able Muse, and elsewhere. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa.
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