To Maryat, My Aunt
Outrageous, abundant woman,
spirit of fire, spirit of thunder.
You sang fugues to me as a child,
rocked me to sleep with your stories,
made grand entrances and exits
in a black Russian coat,
befriended the egg lady, painted
a black Christ crucifixion for her country church.
Your presents at Christmas were books
or piano music, giftwrapped in old newspaper.
We played for each other on the Steinway
among ballroom ghosts from another era,
sinking and soaring to find that sweet sound.
After your visits, lone beer cans in brown paper bags
lingered deep in the fridge.
With you, I knew I could do anything.
I read your plays about people trying to escape
what they’d built around themselves
and watched you rage at injustice,
transforming the stories of Harlem’s down and out
into powerful street theatre.
But then I visited you in New York,
saw your life, your loneliness,
your struggles to stay healthy.
You told me about your anger
at your mother, your father,
your brothers, how all had failed you,
and among your famous friends—writers,
singers and artists—I had second thoughts.
I retreated to the journal you gave me
while you, whooping like an Amazon,
left New York for West Virginia,
rebuilt a house with your own hands,
started a writing retreat for women,
brought grass-roots theatre into the hollers.
Porch-swing gossiper, fence-post digger,
the summer rain fell softly on your tin roof.
I did not become what you dreamed I would.
I became a professor and a mother
and married a writer. I did not master the piano,
I learned instead how to love.
Now I am grown, I can see
everything is no longer possible.
I see the betrayals you spoke of
and I see yours, too.
We spoke before you died
after keeping our distance for years,
and smiled on each other’s good fortune,
saving talk of disappointment for a night that never came.
Ungentle woman, good neighbor, citizen.
Spirit of earth and hard rain.
This morning I wake and rise to the sun
tumbling over treetops on the opposite shore
when a rustling like a roll of thunder
bursts from the forest beyond the meadow
and a fawn in flight runs toward me
and I smell the grey wolf right behind
and the musky wind reaches me before the sight
of the horizontal torso, impossibly long legs
veering off toward Joe.
I stand with robe open, coffee grounds
still in their basket, too late
to shout a warning.
That night the wolf returns,
its cold blue eyes seeking me out asleep
in a hollow among the dried leaves
and I wake trembling
and feel Joe’s loins along my back side,
and cry out in the dark.
Degrees of smooth
and different kinds
holding fossil parts
a beige one
striped rust on cream.
Into the shallows
The shadows find you
among your sisters and brothers
but in raked sand
my small rock garden
on the hillside.
I listen for hours, hope
to hear you.