Poetry: Selections from Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
Philemon and Baucis
Milkweed twirled around us like sprites in feathery tutus.
Gently squeezed, snapdragons opened their mouths
like baby birds for worms, or when, decades before,
we tickled the cheeks of our infants so they’d root for my nipple.
Standing beneath the embrace of a willow,
I told you the myth of Philemon and Baucis, the old couple
who, gracious to gods disguised as beggars,
were granted their wish—to die at the same moment
and be turned into trees.
You in your straw hat, me in my long, floral dress
and parasol must have looked like a Victorian couple.
A woman asked to take our picture.
That was before your left hand began to tremor,
your face began to stiffen. “Smile,” I’d beg.
Looking at that photo on your wall
in the nursing home where you’re bedridden,
I feel you walking next to me
with your long strides, your wide smile.
You lead me past jewelweed, rhododendron,
the perfect geometry of mountain laurel.
My mother found it roadside,
hauled it into our black Mercury,
got my father to help her lift it
up the steps of the old mansion
carved into apartments where we lived
on the third floor and carry it
to the toy room, where my older sisters
slept in twin beds.
Mother sanded the desk and lacquered it red.
Mornings, I’d climb out of the crib
I was too big for in the corner
of my parents’ room, sit at that desk,
my slippered feet still not touching the floor.
Our feet had to be slippered. My father
believed the dead could come up,
grab your bare feet, and drag you
down to Gehenna.
At that desk, I’d draw a sideways princess,
one lidless blue eye staring straight at me.
As my tongue slid over my smiling lips,
I knew her eye wasn’t the einhoreh, the evil
eye that my father warded off by spitting
three times, ptui, ptui, ptui.
“You still live in the dark ages,” Mother cried to Father.
“I only want to keep you safe,” he hollered.
The desk reminds me of the years
when Mother was sober,
before valium and Dewar’s,
when she found that abandoned
desk, brought it home, sanded it,
and lacquered it red.
By the Sea
I was born by the sea, twin suns
blaring against my closed lids as I floated
in the amniotic sac of the ocean.
I was born with the haunting lullabies
of gulls, their swooping. I was born fully formed
from a seashell, my hair rippling past my shoulders.
I was born to speak the stories
of my grandmother, carrying her candlesticks
and feather bed, leading her six surviving
children through the Black Forest.
I was born smelling the stench of smoke
from her burning village.
I was born to leave their ink prints on the world.
Ruby, in the girls’ room at P.S. 215, we showed
each other the stinging stripes on our arms, thighs,
even our butts, delivered by our fathers’ leather belts.
Ruby, I keep you close though you voted
red. I remember how years as a single mom
in the city shaped you. When your subway stalled
between stations, pre-cell phones, you couldn’t
call daycare to tell them you’d be late to pick
up your little son, who would wait and wait,
and, stomach roiling, knew the scolding you’d get
from the director when you got there, which
made you bitter that you had to work
while you imagined lolling welfare mothers
going for manicures with their public assistance
checks that you thought the Dems gave out
unchecked. Because twice you were mugged
at gunpoint, had to hand over your cash
and driver’s license, when Giuliani became
mayor and crushed crime by any means,
then said the election was stolen, you believed him.
Ruby, I won’t let go of you, though each time you
spit out, “You liberals!” I feel the lash.
On the second-story porch of a peeling summer mansion
carved into apartments where they lived year-round,
three sisters in age-order wear makeshift plastic capes,
heads bent as they fine-comb nits out of each other’s parted hair.
The mother stands behind the oldest girl,
searching her thick curls for the nearly invisible
tiny claws that grip each strand
and for the eggs that stick.
In her concentration, the oldest sister hasn’t a thought
of murdering the middle one, the beauty of the family
as she’s called by everyone in their beachside town.
The middle sister, the beauty, hasn’t a thought
of murdering her little sister for being born
and taking her place as the youngest.
The youngest picks at the stiff hair
of her Toni doll just to fit in.
The mother, dunking the fine-combs
into a jar of alcohol to drown the nits,
hasn’t a thought of how sick
she is of raising three kids
with a husband who smashes his fist
on the kitchen table, making the dishes
jump, and thinks money can only be spent
for escaping the country,
and being displaced as the beauty
of the family by her middle girl.
While killing nits near the soughing sea,
for once, we are one.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in many literary magazines such as After the Pause, BoomerLitMag, Brief Wilderness, Brushfire, The Courtship of Winds, Figure 1, La Presa, The Midwest Quarterly, Mudfish, Mudlark, Neologism Poetry Journal, Packingtown Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Westview, The Iowa Review, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Stone Path Review, Frontier Poetry, Santa Fe Literary Review, Stand, Carbon Culture Review, Cider Press Review, Cutbank Literary Journal, Doubly Mad, Edison Literary Review, Evening Street Review, Euphony Journal, Inkwell Magazine, Amarillo Bay, Bayou Magazine, Poet Lore, Crack the Spine, Compass Rose, and others.