excerpts – Her Side of It

Marilyn Bushman Carlton

So She Wouldn’t Fail

So she wouldn’t fail at something big,
she kept busy doing average things,

things she wasn’t ashamed to talk about,
exactly, things she could always say
were temporary, and just until she found
what it was she was really meant to do, or be.

Even the most desirable calling
had its drawbacks, and what if
once she’d made it there, she didn’t like it
after all, and there was no escape.

She could see herself shut inside
an office, skin wrung out and gray,
feet itching inside three-inch heels.

Or traveling from one town to the next
selling something that at first felt fabulous
and then inconsequential.

She placed her belief in things
that could be inventoried: dishes, round-trip tickets,
brand-name blouses she’d find on sale.

Had she been a reader, she’d have liked fiction.

Her comforts required good taste,
but how exotic can exotic taste on a kitchen plate?

That was what she wanted—
to count on things that kept her busy
and beyond harm’s way.

Most of her big dreams had been interrupted
or ended badly. Others simply passed her by.

But dreams kept pressing, and at their best
would feature her dexterous hands,
her brain with all its songs,
her kind compromising heart.

It was hard to live like this, she thought.
If only dreams had timers telling when
or could be scanned to expose the flaws—

some signal,
like a purple handkerchief in a breast pocket
or an emissary waving a white placard,
her name blocked boldly in.

after Stephen Dunn


You say you’d put your body
between mine and a smoking train,
carry me from a sheer cliff,
grab a wrench, or nothing,
and confront the noise in my basement.

But would you, My Sweet,
like Pierre de Châtelard,
write poems for your lady, be cinched
into clothes with collars big as carriage wheels?

Would you put on a tutu over snug short pants,
crowd your toes into pointy blue shoes,
flourish a garter below your left knee?

Would you enter my castle,
a plume in your velvet hat, pivot and bow,
spill your verse at my feet, if that’s what it took?

Would you sweep me up,
charm me all night with a fine galliard?

Storm my chamber in secret, My Pulse,
patiently hide until I arrived?

If late, and in no mood to be wooed,
I called for my guards
and they shipped you to dungeons up north,
would you still love me then?

Would your last words,
just moments before your head is cut clean,
be as gracious, as poetic,
as those of the Frenchman Pierre:

Adieu, the most beautiful
and cruel princess in the world?

Iguaçu Falls with Brazilian Nuns

Heaven bless the nine nuns,
their smiles popping from cinched

black habits. Bless their tidy
white lives, their jubilant faces

bobbing like holiday balls
on invisible strings.

Bless him who led the two of us
into their group—a duo

famous for efficiency,
known to havefunquick,

then pull our careless postures

on to the next splashing site.
Bless the nuns’ first recess

in ten cloistered years,
the dark choking walls

of their contemplative order.
Bless their unsealed minds,

their lolling brown hems.
Praise each savored step.

When anyone comes
to something this clean,

when she snaps the atmosphere
with this much happiness,

she’s caught me raw.

The Girls’ Game

The fathers think of soccer
as the usual battlefield.

They expect to see warriors
where little girls are.

From beside the sweet crushed grass
by the equator of the field—

where they see their own daughters
hesitate, lend a hand
to another who is down

and hear, Oh, sorry! No, you go ahead,
rise like doves from the din of the game—

they holler,
Get it! Get the ball! Stick with it!
The daughters hear them, of course,

but from inside themselves come
their mothers’ cotton voices
and they can’t make their own tongues stop.

Nobody speaks of disappointment
as the morning dew darkens the surfaces
of everyone’s shoes,

as the fading fathers
hunker under sweatshirt hoods

and talk of the next game
as though they still have a chance.

Prayer for a Grandchild
—for Holden at two

Let bells come
from porches and throats
of brown cows

and whistles be
handmade from weeds.
Let shock be

from stands of mint
in a ditch and pansies
bearded with ice.

Let him find
four-leaf clovers,
his name in a pond

of soup. Breathe leaves,
eat snow, harvest
“cheesies,” hear

ducks on the roof.
Give him knowledge
of horses, calluses,

women in aprons,
the smack of a ball
in a pasture, yarn,

copper dirt.
Let him hear
music alone,

plain words.

Let Little Girls Sing

“How far that little candle throws
his beams! So shines a good deed
in a naughty world.” —Portia, The Merchant of Venice

Let little birds do what they do.
Let the rain of little girls’ voices

flood alleys and cracks.
Let their elfish tunes—

their excited diminutive chatter,
like tiny bursts of confetti—flutter.

Let, oh let,
their two-and-a-half-year-old voices

purr. And isn’t this the way
their stray pale hairs would sound
if hairs could sing?

Granddaughters chirp on the go—
circling snow
princesses, blossoms popping,

confectioners’ teaspoons

Once in Italy,
in a clearing in the Dolomites,
their grandfather and I came upon the tiniest chapel.
Amelia and Elly could be the choir,

dressed to soft bare feet
in white …

Love in Those Days

In those days no one anxiously
looked for love.
There was no ticking clock,
no talk of settling.
Because we were young

and not scientific,
we fell for black hair,
the brave one in class, the one
with arms dangling just so at the dance.

We had all the time in the world,
and the world had time for us,
giving us lazy years
to change our minds

without having to divide our stuff
or consider custody

I learned things about you
you couldn’t have told me
by listening to your report in history
on Dag Hammerskjöld,
seeing you lose an election.

In those days love was a verb,
a trickle of water,
an accumulation of inexpert stitches.

We didn’t have issues
or hidden pasts. Love happened
in folded notes on lined paper,
in J. C. Penney school clothes,

while we carried books,
mine stacked on either hip,
yours clutched in a palm and swinging.