Fire steals from slow decay the frame Of one who wished for us to claim This small relief:
The words are said, the ashes flown. What’s left? A weight, a shard of bone Still sharp as grief.
J.D. Smith writes: “This poem came about in response to the death of a very beloved and quirky dog. Though she was already 10, she was a small dog and could have been expected to live longer. Her ashes, and those of her littermate, were interred with those of my parents.”
J.D. Smith has published six books of poetry, most recently the light verse collection Catalogs for Food Lovers, and he has received a Fellowship in Poetry from the United States National Endowment for the Arts. This poem is from The Killing Tree (Finishing Line Press, 2016). Smith’s first fiction collection, Transit, was published in December 2022. His other books include the essay collection Dowsing and Science. Smith works in Washington, DC, where he lives with his wife Paula Van Lare and their rescue animals. Twitter: @Smitroverse
Amidst a sere Midwestern winter night December 1917, she’s born, A staunch Germanic woman’s child. Bedight In dearth and loss, she learns too young to mourn A mother’s death. She knows a woman must Prepare the meals, evoke good cheer, and thrust Her bitter tears inside where no one sees. She weds a Coast Guard vet and oversees His household — bears three girls, subsists on grace. And steadfast ‘til succumbing to disease, Upon her own, she wears her mother’s face.
Unwanted infant hurtles toward the light In 1944, her mam too worn And poor to greet her daughter with delight. The wealthy gent who claims the babe has sworn To sate her whims, exchange her doubts for trust. But Virgin-named, she’s Snake incarnate, trussed In greed. She flaunts her swindling expertise, Yet knows that costly baubles won’t unfreeze Her heart, or fill an absent mother’s space. And void, despite full coffers overseas, Upon her own, she wears her mother’s face.
She’s born in 1945, clasped tight Within her mother’s arms. And ne’er forlorn, This nurtured daughter dreams she’ll wed a knight Who’ll grant her nuptial bliss, and — fast foresworn To loyalty — a doe-eyed child who’ll just Love her. When falseness renders faith to dust And pregnant prayers produce no guarantees, She nonetheless adheres to memories Of Mother’s happy tales. She weighs her case, Then smiling, phones adoption agencies. Upon her own, she wears her mother’s face.
From birth, a target of her small town’s spite, She sprints through cornfields, fleeing bullies’ scorn, Hurled stones, and taunts of “freak”! Wisconsinite In ragtag 1980s garb, she’s borne Her share of tyranny. Her heart’s robust Enough to weather gibes, but grief’s the gust She can’t withstand. At forty-one, she frees Herself and downs the sleeping pills that squeeze Her breath away. Her mother deems her base Look odd, but with some rouge — an eyebrow tweeze — Upon her own, she wears her mother’s face.
Abandoned infant left upon a white Korean orphanage’s stoop, she’s shorn Of roots upon her trans-Pacific flight To Heartland serendipity. She’s torn Between identities, but must adjust: Refute all claims of foreignness. Nonplussed, Her heart aligns to these: Wisconsin cheese And apple pie. She’d always deemed “Chinese” A slight, but now she sees each buried trace Of her within her children’s eyes. And pleased, Upon her own, she wears her mother’s face.
A steadfast matron, serpent quick to tease, She’s part Korean, one-eighth Japanese, Idealist, rebel geek without a place — My post-millennial, she’s all of these. Upon her own, she wears her mother’s face.
Mindy Watson writes: “I’m probably most proud of this chant royal titled ‘Her Mother’s Face’ that narratively links the most influential women in my life, ultimately culminating in my daughter’s overall connection to her (mostly unknown) maternal lineage. It was an unconventional topic for me (as my go-to inspirations are normally bugs, science, mythology, etc. and I’ve a hard-wired aversion to delving into my lost cultural roots—Midwestern U.S. white Protestant upbringing and all that), but it just intuitively sprang from the 11-line stanza/repeated refrain/converging envoi-type structure. Humorously, the poem’s impetus was a poet e-friend of mine mentioning that this form (I’d never heard of) was the most difficult he’d ever tried and hadn’t ever conquered—so of course I took that as a dare/challenge, lol… but I ended up unexpectedly enjoying the composition process (and reminiscing about a few souls lost too soon. Also I disagree with my friend—I personally think pantoums are among the most vexing forms…”
Mindy Watson is a formal verse poet and federal writer who holds an MA in Nonfiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her poetry has appeared in venues including Snakeskin, Think Journal, the Poetry Porch (where ‘Her Mother’s Face’ was first published, April 2018), Orchards Poetry Journal, Better Than Starbucks, Eastern Structures, the Quarterday Review, and Star*Line. She’s also appeared in Sampson Low’s Potcake Poets: Form in Formless Times chapbook series and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s 2019 Dwarf Stars Anthology. You may read her work at: https://mindywatson.wixsite.com/poetryprosesite.
Easy enough, the people in the park, A subway addict, or some screaming child: Knock off five lines from some chance-heard remark, A tic observed, or mood or clothes gone wild.
A longer piece for loves, coworkers, friends, People you’ve bonded with, played some life game; Can’t be so flip – unless the portrait bends, Fictionalizing thoughts in formal frame.
And closer to you than your own bed mate Is, tougher yet, perspective and full view Of parents, more than threaded through your fate, They’re warp and weft, the loom, the weavers too.
So, last of all, the golden trophy shelf: That great and grand grotesquery, yourself.
… which is merely to say that writing about people has difficulties that increase as the subjects are closer to you. Technically, a Shakespearean sonnet (iambic pentameter, rhyming ABAB CDCD EFEF GG), though without a volta, that delightful twist that reverses the mood or imagery or argument. Oh well.
On the funeral road, five miles beyond the farm it looms still, like a silo, then diminishes as you get close. Your sound won’t raise alarm out here. There’s none but you. The wishes of no one left alive will keep you out, or let you in. The door is probably locked anyway, closed upon itself, redoubt for certainties. Surrounding it the block foundations — reservoirs of ice and weed — still cluster, like white holes around the heart. You will not try the door — where it might lead, you cannot say. The dead have done their part, for here you are among them once again, between the legacies of grief — the snow, the boxes of white quiet, the leaving, then the watching it loom larger as you go.
Brian Gavin writes: “I like this piece because the church-image haunted (or taunted!) me for several years before I got around to giving it some context in a poem. When it finally came to the page it felt like I had paid off a debt — like I had finally given the image a chance to tell its story. The fact that this story turned out to be no story at all — just a bunch of hints and implications — seemed to fit the image.“
They trust us, and they shouldn’t: butterflies and earnestly pursuing preschoolers careen among us, prone to accidents, disasters in the making. Both of them
incapable of short-cuts, see-sawing oblivious among the negligent, convinced that we know best, who disregard how short their legs and lives are.
Some of them (the lucky and unswatted) mobilize their stubby forces to stay out of reach,
But most of them launch headlong, more afraid of being left behind or swallowed, than
of damaged wings and feelings, wedged against rude curb-stops or cupped hands –
Kathryn Jacobs writes: “I am choosing The Innocent because it reminds me of what I’ve lost: of my son Raymond in particular (though he is not in the poem overtly). Ray died at 18. I am sending a photo of Ray with his twin: it’s a photo that reminds me of more Innocent days.”