Beginning with a phrase from Stevens’s letters
After too much midnight, it’s pleasant to hear the milkman—
a pleasure, too, to recall the milk left on the doorstep,
especially in winter, stems of cream thrust past the bottle-
necks capped with gold foil. Before long, though, Mother’s
back from the married widowhood she lived through
in a neighborhood bordering the woods bordering the glen:
valley-glade where kids probed and necked and stripped.
Father’s elsewhere; and was, it must be said, an awfully
handsome man. Ex track star. Might have modeled; wore
black or gray windowpane suits, topped with a fedora
Mother smiled at. Hating her teeth, she never grinned.
There’s her sepia smile from my wall. Nowhere near,
Father sank two holes in one. In one lifetime. Not bad.
Nearly godly-looking, he made it his right to take women.
That’s him stealing up the walk, past midnight, Oxford
lace-ups printing the moonlit snow, pink El Dorado
ticking itself to sleep in the garage, Mother’s Olds beside it
cold. And his scent—Cutty Sark, Kents—slips into bed.
Look, say the neighbor’s windows, she has four children; where’s
the husband? Snow fills his footsteps, whiting out the gossip.
Every few years, the shade of it comes back: the black
our hands got, crushing walnut leaves, deep blue beads,
thousands, in the streambed. No one knew where from.
Once, a neighbor girl, squatting to pee, astonished me
with the brow of stubble above her . . . who knew what,
at ten, to call it? Older kids fingered, sucked, and under
the glen’s oak crowns, I first heard sex misunderstood:
“it’s what whores do for money,” Mark alleged,
his grin wide with misinformation. So “what’s
a whore?” was the question I put to Mother,
not Father, and fetched her scotch. Her story
of the body, indelible as blue dye, left its stain.
The morning I caught Mother showering,
if she saw me, she didn’t scold; but the shame
of her hair I stared at, raw as skin scrubbed
to a blush, still scalds my eyes. Forty years
Father lived to rut. Mother stewed, kept mum
as their plaster statuette, Two Gents, on our hearth—
Dickensian sideburns, spatterdashes, pleats, vests.
Listen, whispers one, while the listener grins.
STEVEN CRAMER is the author of The Eye that Desires to Look Upward (1987), The World Book (1992), Dialogue for the Left and Right Hand (1997), Goodbye to the Orchard (Sarabande, 2004)—Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club and a Massachusetts Honor Book—and Clangings (Sarabande, 2012). His poems and criticism have appeared in AGNI, The Atlantic Monthly, Field, The Kenyon Review, The Nation, The New England Review, The Paris Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. New work has been published or is forthcoming in Barrow Street, Bellevue Literary Review, Carolina Quarterly, Massachusetts Review, New Ohio Review, Plume, Salamander, and Sugar House Review. Recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and two fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, he founded and teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University.