Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Leavetaking / July 4

By Barbara Sweeney

There is too much light in this room.
It is too bright to see anything
but the dark table.
You come in through the door
as if hundreds of years
would make no difference.

          Picture of author and friends
          in the sand box up their eyes in pies
          huddled under doll carriages
          for shelter against warriors who are
          (really) boys with stitches in their heads
          and mothers arranging

I saved everything to show you.
I kept the blood in jars.

          Picture of magic happening to the author
          at the hands of anarchists, atheists:
          new light on literature, certain
          knowledge of explosives, knives
          and the twilight color of
          hands and teeth and mouths.

The house was green with red chairs and a blue car in the driveway.
Days were filled with artichokes and plums; nights held
wooden matches up to wicks.
Then somehow, I lost you
like laundry on the road
strewn off to the side
with dead animals, hub caps
all the usual things.

          You began believing public clocks.
          I began taking advice from the dead.

Picture of author
in the bath
unmatched by normal contours.
No one is waiting
for her hair to dry
(choir of angels)
          This summer night all wet with honey and tears.
          This night all alive with gunpowder.

Appeared in The Malahat Review;
Number 52, October 1979

To The Man in the Other Car

By Barbara Sweeney

Beside us the ocean
moves into place
beneath us the road
spins out a glass story.
Storms of light fight
between your lane
and my lane
I turn when
you turn
the sun in all our mirrors
multiplies by fives.
With twin force we
swallow a bump
curve out necks to the left
mouth the same tune.
O to be in perfect time
with a perfect stranger.

It is an unchristened intimacy
(I do not look at your face.)
It is an unbearable coupling broken by
my foot going down hard to the floor.
I move ahead of you and
head on into new air
as I go.

Appeared in The Washout Review;
Vol. 1/No. 4, Summer, 1976

For We Are All Madwomen

By Barbara Sweeney

For we are all madwomen
in torn voile dresses
carrying groceries
screaming at butchers
impatient, decisive
on fire with love —
springing from beds in the morning
jumping from windows in the afternoon
tossing from side to side
those menacing glances of ours.

For we are all madwomen
laughing at parties
showing our underwear to the men
and laughing some more.
We own silver forks engraved
with the names of dead aunts;
all codes, passwords and signals
belong to us.
We are the sails, and of course,
the wind behind the sails.

For we are all madwomen
stooping, hunting, faceless
like nuns in a convent garden
proud of our children, dangerous, cast aside
tired of the same old stuff –
waiting for the chance to change the world
back into a melon
where the cities would be seeds
held together by something sweet in the dark.

Appeared in Tthe Malahat Review
Number 52, October, 1979

White Clouds

By Barbara Sweeney

The good thing about clouds is that
you always know where to look.

You are eating lunch outside with your brother
and you are both little enough
to have your own small table and chairs.
Feet touch the ground.
Sun-milk slants at you from inside the glass.
You are both quietly eating sandwiches on white bread.
You look down at the hair on your arms
rising with small bumps, “It’s too cold
to eat outside.”  You look out
at the overgrown yard
that clear green color
you will see later in dreams.
You look up to the sky.
White clouds.

White clouds are made
from the stories and secrets of other
wet neighborhoods.
They never really looked like palaces,
or anything else but clouds
and the same ones who bored you
with that face on the moon,
the same ones who settled for
lesser gods in the
night sky –have herded up
and coded these clouds by
color and density,
given them names with no power
and small captions about storms.

You thought none of these things
until much later.  It’s too cold
to eat outside, and you’ve discovered
your own secret breath on the window
in the shape of a ruined cloud
walking beside a king.

Appeared in The Washout Review;
Vol. 1/No.4, Summer, 1976

The Fan

By Barbara Sweeney

Grating cucumbers into an icy bowl,
I notice the blades of the fan
spinning black with soot
and long, sticky sweeps of dust.

It is hot here.
Our air is measured in particles.
The Windmere table fan has never spun
as long as it has this summer,
which has worn out its welcome
and simmered long into October.
The fan whirls black
with what we must be breathing.

The cucumbers drain
while I clean the blackened blades,
remembering how I used to sit with my face
in front of my parent’s Toastmaster floor fan.
If you spoke or sang into the fan
it made a sound like frenzied gargling
that you could alter by pitch,
low, or high,
until you arrived at a kind of strangled scream
and someone from another room would shout, “Stop that,
and get away from that fan!”

I reassemble the Windmere,
place the setting on “high”.
With my back to the hot kitchen
and my face up close to the hum,
I consider how the cool promise of a regular life
has blown right past me.
From behind their grid of safety,
the clean spinning blades are mercifully quiet
as they circulate this imperfect air.


By Barbara Sweeney

Odd, dark things remind me of you.
The tips of trees thinned out
against  an early winter sky,
“Goodbye to This Island,”
sung in Hawaiian,
the smell of incense burning
in the echoey recesses of a church.

You raised me to believe that the dead
I ask as your only daughter.
Come back and tell me –
Did you secretly baptize my children?
Is there such thing as an island paradise?
Which path should I take through these trees?

Appeared in Yankee Magazine;
January, 1998


By Barbara Sweeney

I release myself
to the woman in white.
The table beneath me, warm,
my skin from the hot springs pool,
warm, and now Shim’s hands
insistent in their own heat.
We do not speak,
only nod and bow,
as she bends to loosen
the cold, knotted cord of my spine.
I breathe to the heels of her palms.

Afterward, I return to the pools
and the other women.
We steam in silence like pale,
exotic plums, sweat
slipping from our skins,
appetites forgotten, save one,
and I say the name that makes me forget –


By Barbara Sweeney

We have the only room with a bath.
There is a wooden toilet seat
and white legs on the tub
wash bowl  mahogany dresser
four poster bed.
I take pictures of you asleep
I take pictures of the view
I read in the tub
I hear the voices of those who
slept here before us
(you said we were the best)
I worry about people peeking in
through the glass at the top of the door
(how can you sleep at a time like this?)
I think about hallways,
sleeping outdoors, pianos,
your father.
I think of you as a small boy
breaking your toys.

I pummel the sheets looking
for messages to god.
I print out one of my own on your face.
You waken, your eyes say, “Fair” and “Cloudy”.
Then we bow to each other noiselessly
because hope is such a quiet thing.

The histories of worlds
ripen in rooms
with the taking off of watches
and the untying of shoes.
And, always, there is a woman who
stares out a window
past a shoulder, up to a ceiling
and becomes a breakfast
and becomes a hat
and loses her place
and taps out a message
with her hair.

Appeared in Yankee Magazine;
March, 1976

Naming a Hurricane

By Barbara Sweeney

Daughter of storms,
caught between latitudes,
the weather of your adolescence
gales from the calm,
clear center of childhood,
rains down on our middle age,
electrifying the air.

For years, hurricanes were named
solely after women.  Names
that meant wreckage,
downed power lines, roads
strewn with trees.
Storms howled through the alphabet:
Alice, Betty, Camille, Donna,
Ellen, Francis, Gladys,

Lauren.  Nothing prepares us
for these high winds.
We face your sightless strength
without power of our own.
We look backwards, searching
for mistakes.
We look forward.  Nothing
but nature’s long perspective,
careless, fearless,
bowing to no god.

Laura Bradbury’s Bones

By Barbara Sweeney

It was easy for me to imagine
your mother assembling your pitiful details:
D.O.B., last-seen-wearing, date and place
of abduction, the picture of your round face
that would never age
past three-and-a-half.
You were the same age then as my daughter,
the same thick blonde hair
cropped like a bowl.  My daughter, who now does three-place multiplication
and sings the lead in the sixth grade play.

Salty, sickening, a kinship of fear
forms around every woman who thinks she protects
her own children by searching for ones
who are lost.
I kept up my vigil.
watched for you in passing cars,
in crowds at the circus.
I followed the screams of children in closed up vans
to make sure they weren’t yours.

You turned up -
not as a twelve-year-old
on the brink of the sixth grade,
but as a small, perfect skull
not far from the desert restroom
where your brother probably said,
“Wait here.”

And like opening a child’s lunch box
at the end of the day,
your mother turns at last to find
the hard parts uneaten.
The thermos
dry as a bone.