These three poems by Jennifer Pons wrestle with places once lived in the external, internal, and the imagination. The landscape shifts, as do the questions around woman-identity, mother-identity, and the search for truth in one woman’s story. Within the seeking is hunger for reconciliation despite those positions that can’t save or sustain…
by: Jennifer Pons
I First Knew Mother
when she stacked roller skates on the cement porch
and drew strange smiles over her mouth,
blotting lips with reddish-orange rouge, a bit like Cher—
the linger of cigarettes on her fingers
dark hair so smooth and woven
with turquoise flecks: a movie star mane—
hair like a wild river, unsafe for swimming
but beckoning beautiful.
Less is sometimes less, even in houses with many children
and straight hair, wavy hair, hair singed at the scalp—
many children floating in corners, their hair and turquoise stuffed into pillowcases.
Less is sometimes a hidden girl beneath a sewing machine table,
tucked between boxes of barkcloth and curtain sheers
her frizzy mane resting on the iron grate pedal
that would lull lull lull to sleep, the rhythm
of needle and thread-dreams, sewing together all the parts,
all the patterns — quilting collective floating pieces
so that when mother talked in her many voices on a summer night,
the fireflies watching through the window,
her hands opening in a red-orange rage and flashing out into the weight
of many children, when she talked — my skull would not move.
I figured life was less about love and family
and more about pincushions with no pins.
Life was about trying to bloom in a house where mirrors
would not reflect smiles, where chrysanthemums
would not float off of the wallpaper—
haven’t you ever wanted to float off of the wallpaper?
Life was less about the time it took for the clematis to climb up the garage siding,
more about bones piled in corners, about ash scattered on mantles.
And when the teacups spilled over with seeds and matches,
making it ever so difficult to craft a party with dolls and lullabies,
this is when life was also a secret to keep.
I had no dolls, only skates and scissors,
the kind with a blunt tip and a safety catch.
I spent hours fashioning paper hearts, smeared with ash,
outlined with a bluish-green crayon,
the petals from the yard spilling from my pockets—
crushed honeysuckle blooms spilling from my hair—
some black ants, some dollar bills, enough to buy cigarettes
and share with the baseball player down the street
who would sit on the cement curb and rest his head on the elm tree.
He knew all my secrets.
He taught me to whip a fast ball from left field and hit home plate.
He taught me to jump chain link fences through neighbor’s yards,
to rummage the magazines stacked in alleys, finding the naked ladies
with their smooth skin and painted rouge lips that reminded me of dolls.
He taught me how to pop a wheelie with a banana seat Schwinn,
get married under an apple tree
and to whistle as a call for help.
I could hit home plate throwing the ball from left field.
I could hit home plate throwing the ball from left field.
The baseball player knew about the Indian Princess with turquoise hair—
he knew that someday I would run for water, fast like a bullet, fast like Wonder Woman,
fast like a thunderbolt colliding with an Amtrak train,
never stopping to sip from teacups, never stopping to smooth
my hair, smeared with ash and desire and fireflies.
And though I never smoked, I glued petals over my eyes, taped a blue-green crayon
underneath my blouse, over my heart to protect my very life—
waiting waiting waiting
for the woman I called mother to die. To die in myself, too.
Some poems are written once the dead can not hear.
Some bones are meant to be swept among the hostas and violets.
I just wanted to watch swallows circle her head and therefore her thoughts.
Maybe more swallows could find their way onto her neck
and kiss her tenderly such that she would be whole, like a paper heart—
Maybe a baseball could fit, for the first time ever in the world,
into the beak of a swallow…somehow defying less.
More like a mother. Like a mother with a golden lasso…
more like a woman filled with wonder– more like a savior
and less like a crow picking at debris from wallpaper—
eyes, hair, bones, flesh, pins, seeds, honeysuckle blooms—
more like the world could have been for all the children with different hair.
In 1981, the old elm tree in front of my house, cicada husks still clinging,
was felled by the changing direction of wind and moon.
The tree came down onto the house in one loud— crash.
It cracked the porch, split open the roof– and stars sprayed over the street
This is when life was also a story to speak. This is when I knew
everything had to do with the stars. This is when
mining for turquoise and mothers became my life.
Locusts and Wild Honey
That year……..they covered everything.
They became the world we learned in one summer.
Their sounds filled our dreams with pervasive clicks
and a hummmmm.
A melody of earth, wind and sky—
the only force that could have erased the locusts
was fire and fire was only inside the house.
Fire was all things inside—
roaming clouds of beating wings
erased the day and the night.
It all became like gray
When it was time for the bees to swarm lilacs and weigela
the locusts didn’t leave even fragrant branches.
They swarmed to eat. They ate to breed.
Our heads buzzed. The sound overtook our dreams.
The men talked about spraying into the hatch
but the women said they weren’t real locusts.
They called them a false coming.
The bees came to open everything
and were lost in thick insect swirls.
To devour without distinction is how things moved then
less like dance……………………more like war.
Bees sense the slightest gesture
about the flowers and the people
about birds and small creatures.
The honey went missing in those long months.
These were wild times for the women…………and the men.
Children ran through the street with sticky fingers
crunching the cement with their feet making the kill a game.
They stuck to the screens in the Chicago heat.
The locusts hummed in our hearts.
I begged them………….disappear from my window.
Disappear from my trees and roof.
Then one night, they swarmed…………late in the dark
locusts burrowed into my belly
they swept me off my feet.
In the end, we drank it all from the cup,
even the wings suspended in the sweet sludge.
They said it was impossible to be stung
if one held the hive back, still
the wings gathered on my tongue,
just little dark slivers and a stinger
lodged in my cheek as if honey
filling my mouth wasn’t enough.
It was impossible to stop the drowning.
Everywhere the ooze, so the walls cracked;
honey seeped through as if a glue to hold and repair
what holy men failed to stick together
with alters and crosses. Then the blessed water
was sprinkled, dampening all the bees in the pews
as if this could fix the separated bodies.
How can a woman pray away the swarms?
Even to fasten back the wings, won’t save the hive.
Some wings stuck to the walls.
Some clung to the corpus for the sake of union.
Then the sticky rain dripped from the ceiling
in what might be called confession,
if only for the fact that someone
had kept the secrets hidden
and the bees from talking.
Were men simply to believe what I say,
all bees would rise to heaven.
Jennifer Pons studied her MFA at the University of Arizona. Her poems have appeared previously in Whale Road Review, EKSTASIS Magazine and are forthcoming in CutBank Literary Magazine where she was also named a finalist in the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry. She is a high school literature and writing teacher in Portland, Oregon.