Visit John at: http://www.lightning-and-ashes.blogspot.com
Hear Garrison Keillor read one of John's poems on The Writer's Almanac: http://www.writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2007/12/28
What the War Taught Her
My mother learned that sex is bad,
Men are worthless, it is always cold
And there is never enough to eat.
She learned that if you are stupid
With your hands you will not survive
The winter even if you survive the fall.
She learned that only the young survive
The camps. The old are left in piles
Like worthless paper, and babies
Are scarce like chickens and bread.
She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.
She learned that you don't pray
Your enemies will not torment you.
You only pray that they will not kill you.
My Mother's Optimism
When she was seventy-eight years old
And the angel of death called to her
and told her the vaginal bleeding
that had been starting and stopping
like a crazy menopausal period
was ovarian cancer, she said to him,
“Listen Doctor, I don’t have to tell you
your job. If it’s cancer it’s cancer.
If you got to cut it out, you got to.”
After surgery, in the convalescent home
Among the old men crying for their mothers,
And the silent roommates waiting for death
she called me over to see her wound,
stapled and stitched, fourteen raw inches
from below her breasts to below her navel.
And when I said, “Mom, I don’t want to see it,”
She said, “Johnny, don't be such a baby.”
Six months later, at the end of her chemo,
my mother knows why the old men cry.
A few wiry strands of hair on head,
Her hands so weak she couldn’t hold a cup,
Her legs swollen and blotched with blue lesions,
She says, “I’ll get better. After his chemo,
Pauline’s second husband had ten more years.
He was playing golf and breaking down doors
When he died of a heart attack at ninety.”
Then my mom’s eyes lock on mine, and she says,
“You know, optimism is a crazy man’s mother.”
And she laughs.
Here is one of my poems, written about my grandmother, also a woman of grit.
I WAS ITA
During one of the thunderstorms
that I loved for as long as I can remember,
I scratched my name with a hairpin
on the knotty pine of the outhouse:
I was comely in my bare feet
and always had long, brown hair,
pinned up like a decent girl should
except at night.
At age thirteen I married
the General. I let my hair
fall down around my trunk,
and limbs held mine and I was scared.
Then the babies came fast and hard,
and the labor pains just seemed
to pick up about where they left off.
My body would pitch and heave again,
and my forehead, damp as a cloud
would furrow and I’d push. And after
I emptied my contents, I’d clean up
the mess, and go outside among
the bluebells to plant another row
of spring peas.
After the namesakes were used up,
I just started thinking up rhymes.
I gave birth to...
John and Paul and Arnett and Garnett,
Virginia and Itilia Rose,
Velma and Wilma and Zelma,
Tommy and Dicky, and Jimmy,
Ronny and Cynthia, Glenn,
and General Junior, and Les.
Then, only in the night could I
stand alone among the hollyhocks
and stare at the moon,
waxing and waning, as I walked
to my own privy, where the wood
seats with rows of small holes , made smooth
by the General’s hands, were radiant
with the work of children’s bottoms.
And on some summer evenings
I’d remove those pins that hurt my head,
and lay them in a pile on that
smooth commode, and step outside,
silently, mud and plantain between my toes,
and stand in the rain.
When all of those children left home, Ita bought herself a little Corvair, and told my grandpa that he could have his turn babysitting their last daughter, who was disabled. She'd jump in that car every single day and go fishing by herself, always catching quite a haul. My grandfather nicknamed her, "ItaGo."
My grandmother died at age 86, phone in hand, mid-sentence, while watching her "stories" on television. In the photo below she was 85, and was scolding me, "Cody Su, (Susannah), don't you take that picture!" My friend Timmy had the photo enlarged to poster size for me, and it has a place of honor in my living room. I think I see a bit of resemblance...
Ita and Me