Priscilla Wear Ellsworth, who lives in Salisbury, grew up on a farm outside Philadelphia. After receiving an M.A. in art history from Columbia University, she married, raised two children and taught poetry workshops in New York City public schools. A long-time member of Amnesty International, working for the release of prisoners of conscience around the world, she is the author of three poetry collections: “Fire Inside the Fur,” “When Enormous Questions Rock the World,” and most recently, “Rutted Field of the Heart,” from which the poems below have been selected. Her poems have twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and have appeared in various journals including Cape Rock, Connecticut River Review, Whetstone, and Nimrod.
-- Connecticut Poet Laureate Rennie McQuilkin
Ice fangs loosen and drip,
gutters drool like dogs
who smell their kibble.
Such is the appetite for spring
my husband and I race outside,
push our hands into dirt.
We dig, turn the soil,
chat like noisy brooks
until warm and sticky
we strip off
Suddenly it’s here again,
bare-breasted and strutting
our garden, desire
amazing us – like an ordinary robin
having tickled forth from the earth
the fattest worm.
WHEN PEONIES BLOOM
“It’s like first love,” he shouts,
racing an armful of soft pink blossoms
into the house.
As if a summer of first kisses
was spilling from these petals,
and he, eighteen again, giddy
with the smell of perfume.
He has fertilized the soil,
hooped the stems.
In the mud-room he whistles and hums
as he arranges bunch after bunch
“Come look,” he says,
placing a full vase for me
on the kitchen table:
This time next year
these hardy plants will
unfurl their ruffled skirts,
into our house.
His voice, his whole being
alive and sensual
as the blossoms themselves
reaches out and out.
AFTER THE DIAGNOSIS
This much is sure:
you are here,
waking beside me,
dressing quietly in your slippers and robe,
as the falling snow is dressing
the trees and bushes.
You are here, and gone
from our room now,
as you are every morning,
making coffee in the kitchen,
letting the dogs out for their morning run.
In a few months trees will bud,
birds will sing at our window,
another season will come.
Like the snow on the branches
you might not be here.
But this much is sure:
you are here now,
your hands bringing me enormous joy
in a small mug of green tea.
DAYS OF GRACE
His sudden illness whirled in on us
like a white storm, wiping away
the small hurts in our long marriage.
I stopped nagging him about his weight,
he no longer chided me
about my being a health nut.
As if love’s knuckled fist had slipped
into a white glove, for five months
hardly a cross word passed between us.
What if we had lived like this all our days?
If we had known long ago
the exact night he would die,
would it have changed
how we planned our trips, spoke to each other,
made cups of tea, made love?
I have spent the night with his body.
I have blessed it with kisses, and given thanks.
Outside, a white van pulls up,
a man opens the back doors,
pulls out a gurney.
So this is it.
I run my fingers over his cold cheeks,
his forehead, his nose, his ears.
I praise his body with my tears.
The coroner tells me it is best
if I step out of the room.
My hands and lips, warm with life,
touch him for the last time.
Good-bye dear man I have loved,
who showed me how to live,
and how to die.
Good-bye to your fine tight curls,
your brow wrinkled with thought.
Good-bye to your cornflower blue eyes,
your big and patient heart,
your smile, your long aristocratic feet.
Rising from a dream, sorrow
shuffles to the kitchen, wearing
my husband’s plum colored robe.
Half awake, we talk with an intimacy
as if we have known each other
a long time.
I report who called in the night,
complain about the sink not working.
When I get up to put on a kettle,
sorrow watches, advising me
to go slowly – it’s important,
sorrow says, not to rush,
to take all the time you need,
to feel what you feel.
I pull down a bone-white tea pot
from the shelf.
I rub its neck,
its round hard belly.
Let me in, let me in,
if only for a few hours.
I have news from your brothers and sisters,
to warm you, a knapsack filled with raisins
and honey, pine twigs for the fire.
If you wish I could put up a pot
of your favorite Hu-kwa tea.
Can you hear me rapping,
shaking the window?
When you held my face in your hands for the last time,
your tears and kisses were like water to me.
Darling, don’t send me away tonight.
The road through the deep snow was long.
The first warm April day
the earth softens, begins to open.
Flowerbeds barren all winter
suddenly pulse with color.
Yellow wood poppies
stick their heads out of dirt
and fat stalks of blood root.
I kneel in the garden,
half-heartedly turning the soil,
careful not to disturb
new shoots of bleeding heart.
Robins looking for worms
resume their annual
stop-start dance on the lawn.
Two squirrels chasing each other
around a tree, leap
from branch to branch.
A cardinal whistles
My husband belongs here. . .I see him
eagerly wheeling cartloads of mulch,
baggy jeans, straw hat on his head. . .
I hoop the peonies, stake the lilies,
do tasks he used to do, the reality
of his absence digging deeper
and deeper in.
I put down my tools.
No ordinary gold band for me.
I had to have that shimmering ring
in Van Cleef & Arpels on Fifth, the ring
with the enameled blue dome,
sparkling with diamond lights.
I wasn’t going to be marked,
grounded like other women.
This was the Sixties, and I wanted
a ring that would float me
to the Mediterranean night sky,
and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
So my husband-to-be bought it,
slipped it on my finger,
the ring blessed by the minister.
This ring, sometimes forgotten
on a sill or a bureau,
has always returned
to summon the words
we spoke long ago
in a small church by the sea.
Dearest beloved, now that we have kept
our vows, through joy and sickness,
and death has come,
does us part,
more than ever I cherish
this globed ring.
I wear it on my finger
to hold you close.
This starry dome, the token of freedom
under which we sailed,
has become my anchor.
To the bobolinks nesting in the hayfield,
to the monarchs feeding on milkweed,
to the timothy and clover,
the sedge grass and pond water,
I give these ashes.
To the bittern hiding in the cattails,
the beaver asleep in his lodge,
to the light, cloud, hawk,
moving through air,
I give these ashes.
To our sons, daughters, grandchildren
who will inherit this farm,
to those who have died
and those yet to be born,
I open my hand, release these ashes.
He slips in with the light
between my sleep and waking,
tiptoes around the room
as if looking for something,
a pair of glasses, a walking stick.
Coming close to my bed, he leans
his face close to mine,
as if to tell me something.
Is it a kiss he wants? Or a book on Emerson
hidden under the pillow?
Like the light he moves in silence.
The moment he died, I was dozing.
His dying woke me, I rushed to his side.
I kissed his lips, rubbed his feet.
my husband comes like a whisper, and leaves
no footprint on the rug.
A cool summer morning, a low
vaporous cloud hovering
over our pond.
I stand on the bank looking for you
taking your daily swim,
our black lab paddling fast behind.
Today no dog splashes,
no man naked but for a straw hat
breast-strokes his way to the other side.
You are not here, and yet
your absence is itself a presence.
I call out your name,
throw off my towel, jump in.
Two seasons have passed
since you’ve been gone.
Still I rush to you to complain
the sink is clogged,
share with you the good news
of our son’s job.
Why should death come between us?
This evening, walking the hayfield
you and I often circled,
your clipped, gravelly voice emerges
from a chorus of crickets and frogs.
I have heard your voice many times,
but this evening it is a gift
I unwrap slowly.
THROUGH A WINDOW
I watched as the coroner wheeled your body away.
With my own hands I scattered your ashes.
And yet this morning in the kitchen,
peeling the skin off a peach,
I saw you through a window.
You were in the garden,
tamping in plugs of rosemary and thyme.
I called your name, Whitney, and you turned,
started to walk towards . . .
Just then a neighbor’s dog barked,
I don’t know who dressed you
in your baggy jeans,
led you into the garden.
I do know you exist.
I saw you through a window.
Poems copyright © 2018 by Priscilla Wear Ellsworth. CT Poet Laureate Rennie McQuilkin selects work for CT Poets Corner by invitation.