A bloom of chimney smoke
slides over my body
like a spotlight
where my hips sway
in a tatty gown to the music
parading my head.
I want my mouth to split
the lit space between
the words dance and don’t.
I want to know my mother
before the mishap
of her marriage,
how she walked the field
to school each morning
of her girlhood, wringing
ice from her hair,
her head turned down
and silent as an offering
to wind. I remove God
from my tongue
the way she unhooked
Mary from hers.
I slip out of the dress
she bought me before
it is thrown away. I mimic
her posture, even now,
climbing into morning
her body divorced
from the body it loves.
The blinds were heavy with sunlight
so that when I parted them my eyes shut;
opening again, I saw my mother,
her face swollen from a winter
of raising children alone, the bougainvillea
jittering in her hands. My father stood
in place. He wanted to be free of the house,
its mirrors where each morning my mother
rose. The lawn beneath them was bare,
a horsehair sofa with its upholstery torn.
I almost understood him, speaking not
in words I could hear, but in gestures,
his fingers raised as if to tell us Stop,
Goodbye, while across the street a small boy
scattered bread crumbs for the geese:
orange beaks pecking hunger into the yard.
SELF-PORTRAIT IN CLOSET
I have been hiding in father’s wool,
in the room where his back
would turn on my mother,
buttoning himself into the suit
of the other life he lived.
Hunched in the bathroom mirror,
mango diction of summer
mute behind him, and the snuffed
pastoral in the window:
sedge, collusion of faded wings.
No one could have told my mother
of the woman bending bedside
flowers in Florida, holding
each petal down, then releasing,
then running her hand
through my father’s hair. And now
this winter, stunned into itself,
refuses to leave me alone—
poring over this clutter
I did not want but keep.
BROTHER WITH MUSIC
The garden was slow under clouds
when the men delivered your piano,
muscled into the red living room
we didn’t use for living. It was a gift
from our father, who had already started
to leave, was late to the rest of his life,
though any knowledge of this future
dissolved like the sun lying down
on the keys. You rarely wanted to play
for anyone, so I’d listen to you
from the staircase, staring at the Japanese
landscape print: a farmer kneeling
in the world’s gray marrow.
You gave up after a year. The piano
sat there, shining its hardest shine,
unused, like so many things our father owned.
Sometimes a beetle pricks the acanthus.
Sometimes my mother troubles the garden,
her hands tucked into black gloves
fishing the weeds studded with rain.
This is before bad loam, before
the spring of unspooled anthomania
when my father will leave for the last time
and she'll run out in her nightgown
to strip all the leaves. While she works,
planting, re-planting the scilla, my father
sleeps, close-mouthed on the sofa,
autonomous and remote as an ice cap
the isolate bear tries to cling to.
This is before the sold house. Before
the floe split apart. This is the moment
she sees me in the doorway and says
Come here. Help me hold this down.
MATTHEW GELLMAN’s poems are featured in Poetry Northwest, Narrative, The Common, Ninth Letter, The Missouri Review, Poet Lore, Passages North, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of a Brooklyn Poets fellowship and an Academy of American Poets Prize, and was included in Narrative’s “30 below 30” list in 2018. Matthew has been a finalist for the Missouri Review’s Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize and for Narrative’s Tenth Annual Poetry Contest. He holds an MFA from Columbia University and lives in New York City, where he teaches at Hunter College and the Fashion Institute of Technology.