Norah Pollard spent her childhood in Pawtucket, R.I., and now lives in Stratford, where she began to write poetry in her mid-40s. She received the Academy of American Poets Prize from the University of Bridgeport and for several years she edited The Connecticut River Review.
She has read widely from her four poetry collections at such venues as the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival at Hill-Stead Museum, Yale and Brown universities, the Rhode Island School of Design, and the Arts Café Mystic. Her readings have received much acclaim, as have Garrison Keillor's renditions of her poems on The Writer's Almanac. She is currently working on a fifth book of poems.
— CT Poet Laureate Rennie McQuilkin
My grandchild Sophie is five.
She goes to Sunday school.
This Easter day, the egg hunt over,
the great ham about to be served,
she takes me aside and, all wide-eyed,
tells me how Jesus was tortured,
the thorns, the spear, etc., then murdered
on a cross while his mother watched.
I am appalled. How can you do this
to a child?
Cultures are so strange. Our fairy tales
of evil queens, Bluebeards, abandoning
parents, nasty stepsisters, frightful giants
and bloodthirsty wolves—aren't these
stories enough to prepare them for this life
without such horror as the nails,
His bloody death?
I can see she wants to tell me more.
"And then what happened?" I ask.
She's loud with indignation,
one hand on her hip.
"They put him under a rock!"
I see the glee in her eyes. This
is better than the Brothers Grimm,
"And then what happened?" I ask,
not knowing what else to say.
"And…and…," she stammers, can barely
contain her excitement, "they went there
to get him out and he was gone!"
"Gone?" I say.
Sophie spreads her arms wide.
"He was gone!" Her excitement
makes her tremble, turns her pink.
"What happened?" again.
But the end of the story has escaped her.
Her fingers fidget, her eyes turn to the ceiling.
She winces with distress. But then,
from all the world's tales—fairy, folk, and fable—
the obvious ending comes to her.
"He tricked them!" she shouts with joy.
And all is magic, all is strange,
all is mystery, and all ends happily.
For now…that she is five.
Self Portrait, Revised
I never thought of us as poor.
A child accepts conditions as they are.
But I was ever drawn to beauty,
and when old enough to make some
babysitting money, I'd hightail it—
like a gambler addicted to the game—
to the corner five-and-dime to spend it.
I'd bring home brass bracelets with glass stones,
a dancing ballerina figurine, a little clock
that sang bird songs on the hour.
My mother, struggling to feed us, would snap,
"Who do you think you are?" and slam the pots and pans.
Once I bought a bracelet from my high school friend.
From its links dangled a charm, a real Morgan silver dollar.
Since I only paid a dollar for this silver-dollared bracelet,
you could think of it as free. But my mother, uncharmed
and peeved, fumed and flung her accusation,
"Pretty good to yourself!"
The world offers its treasures to me and I buy them.
But a thing is never as lovely as just before I buy it for myself.
Guilt comes with every pretty package, along with
"Who do you think you are?"
Today at the consignment store I bought a Japanese
silk caftan, the deepest blue, its sleeves and hem shot
with tinsel gold. I brought it home. And with it
trailed the old darkness.
But something happened tonight when I held
that silk close to my body.
Maybe it was the moonlight pawing under the drapes.
Maybe it was that glass of cabernet. Maybe it was
the scent of perfume still lingering on the silk.
But when I slipped the caftan on and heard the usual
"Who do you think you are?" I stood in all that
blue and sang, if a little tipsy, loud and strong:
I think I am the Maharani of Killarney.
I think I am the Queen of Jellybeans.
I think I am the teacher's pet, head honcho,
top brass, superstar, the mikado.
I think I am the very real McCoy.
I think, maybe...perhaps…it's possible…
I might have been my mother's pride and joy.
At St. Leo's school it was
catechism, boredom and the rod.
The nuns were startlingly unbeautiful.
I was homely myself.
Please, make me pretty! I would pray.
I suffered from my homeliness.
That's how I could understand, at seven,
the suffering of the saints.
My teacher, young Sister Mary Joseph,
was the one pretty nun. Thin, pale, ethereal,
she floated down polished aisles
in her long black veil
like the state of grace itself.
She was the soul of kindness.
Each day she grew more pale, more kind.
One winter morning, after second bell,
Father Boylan came to tell us God had
taken Sister Mary Joseph in the night.
It happened during Evensong, he said,
when she was whispering the Confiteor.
I understood why God would pick
the kind one, the good one, the pretty one.
God is a discriminating God.
The next day, we were ushered into the convent
parlor where we could see Sister Mary Joseph
one last time. Lightly she lay in her coffin.
Fat candles five feet tall burned at each casket corner.
There were no flowers.
The whole second grade knelt around her, stunned
and silent (except for Theresa Bonaventia,
who cried and cried and had to be removed).
I knelt as close as I could get to Sister's face,
that pretty, pretty face now paler still.
I looked and looked. I took in every detail—
the tiny wisp of light brown hair that escaped her serre-tête,
her translucent hands wound about with beads,
her lashless lids, her lips the faintest violet.
Her cheeks had a powdery sheen like a butterfly's wing.
She was so very pretty.
I studied Sister Mary Joseph.
I studied death.
I studied the candles' steady golden flame.
I thought of the grave—
that cold, aspergious place of blackest black,
forever bedeviled by microbial beings, moles,
I thought how pretty doesn't mean anything at all.
To My Son
Two things eat at my heart.
I used to tuck you in every night—it was a joy for both of us—
the giggling, the cuddling. But when you were six,
a friend (a professional, a social worker, brisk and sure)
raised her eyebrow at my telling of the hugs, and said,
"He is too old for this."
How do you know how to raise a child, to love a child?
She was the authority. The psychology was in
the books. And I was a young and fearful mother,
weak in my own intuitions. After your bath
that night, I told you there'd be no more tucking in.
You were too old for that, I said.
You wept hard.
I wept outside the bedroom door.
And when you were ten, you discovered the áo dài
a man I'd loved had sent me from Viet Nam.
The tunic was a pigeon-blood red,
the color of rare rubies, embroidered
all over with black flames, black threads
outlining a gold phoenix on the back.
The long pants were of heavy black silk.
You carried them down the attic ladder
and, clearly in love, begged to keep
the silks that shined so darkly
from another world.
"But why do you want them?" I asked.
Fatherless, no man to follow, and frail as a girl,
your love for the silk disturbed me.
And too, the áo dài was so beautiful,
preserved those many years.
I could not see it ruined by a child's play.
I said No.
You cried, please and please.
You smoothed and smoothed the satin.
You held it to your cheek and
you rubbed it on your upper lip.
But I took the satin from you
and folded it and said No again
and climbed the ladder to the attic
to lay it back in its black lacquered box
where it rots today.
Now you are a man, forgive me, son.
Forgive me these base sins against love.
You, on your way to school, your books flung
in the bushes, stand as you have stood every morning
for a week—though in different places—on the tracks
running from Providence through Pawtucket to Worcester,
waiting for the P&W, sensing its coming before you can
see it, the ties under your sneakers beginning so slightly
to shudder, the steel rails' vibrations coming in little
shock waves, the weeds between the ties turning to their
long trembling. The sun glazes three sides of bits of
black coal to silver, and you watch as the 7:35 a mile away
explodes around the bend, headlight shining brighter than
the morning, whistle blasting the sleep from the homes
on each wrong side of the tracks, the engineer seeing again
the apparition he's been seeing for a week—a too-thin boy,
arms by his side, chin up, a wraith with palomino hair.
The engineer leans way out, waving one arm and pulling
on the screaming whistle, and the engineer himself screaming,
a half mile, a quarter, a fifth, until you and he can now
see one another's eyes, the engineer still trying to brake,
the wheels screeching, the couplings crashing, sparks,
steam, and the massive black hog moaning with effort,
and you still standing there waiting, relaxed looking
but fright and ecstasy washing around in your guts.
The fender comes into focus, the great headlight
beaming down, the heavy groan of the brakes, the red-faced
engineer screaming unheard, swearing, praying, his words
swallowed by the wheels. And two seconds before your death
you step off into the sloping gravel and grasses and roll away
from the sucking wall of wind, feeling the ground trembling
like a girl under your body, the cool of it, the linger
of the train's whistle like a thin violin note coming from a far hill,
fading. Then that long silence after the train passes, where
you lie in the grass beside the tracks, feeling the rush
ebb from your body as the grasses calm, and your breath calms,
and a small white butterfly flies in quavery loops
over the jimson weed.
CT Poet Laureate Rennie McQuilkin selects work for CT Poets Corner by invitation. Poems copyright © 2017 by Norah Pollard.
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