The poems of Leslie McGrath: 'an oral historian of the alienated'

When she was a college student, Leslie McGrath, a poet who lives in Essex, majored in Spanish and psychology and immersed herself in literature from Mexico, Spain, Central and South America, reading everything from Don Quixote to contemporary poems in Spanish. She wrote poems in Spanish, not seriously writing poetry in English until her 40s.

Critic Grace Cavalieri has called McGrath “an oral historian of the alienated.” Many of McGrath’s poems are set in Connecticut and are often concerned with the lives of women and the dignity of the mentally ill. She also writes about the pleasures of good food. She is the author of three full-length poetry collections: “Feminists Are Passing From Our Lives,” (2018), “Out from the Pleiades: A Picaresque” novella in verse (2014) and “Opulent Hunger, Opulent Rage” (2009). She is the winner of the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry and the Gretchen Warren award from the New England Poetry Club. She is series editor of The Tenth Gate, a poetry imprint of The Word Works Press.

McGrath was born in Connecticut and has lived here all her life. She teaches creative writing at Central Connecticut State University and says she is “proud to be of Connecticut and so lucky to teach the young adults who are its future… Some students come to my classes with an interest in poetry; others are there just to fulfill a credit for their degree. But every semester I watch as a few students who have never thought of themselves as particularly sensitive or creative realize that they have a hidden affinity for poem writing and poetic thinking. It’s a kind of superpower. And I know that once they realize they have this, they will have its comfort for the rest of their lives. They’ll know where to look for words of wisdom when they’re confused and words of comfort when they’re down."

Ginny Lowe Connors, former poet laureate of West Hartford

Her Dementia

I walk the earth I have forgotten

I speak a language lost to me.

This wind is cello, this woman cotton.

I walk the earth and have forgotten

which memory’s mine and which is not

and who was she I used to be.

I walk the earth. I have forgotten.

I speak a language. I’m lost to me.

Resound

The flower of a weed is a flower

An arm in a cast, an arm

A person in prison, a person

Harm done unawares is still harm.

Some things we hear once and remember

Only some things forgotten are gone

A refrain is music worth repeating

The echo of song is song.

Rest in Warning

In the dark before morning lay the living in their beds

and lay we the dead in ours. Each earth-lidded terminus

not a chamber of rest, but a listening ear to the past.

The dead are with you, difficult as this is to believe.

We know how quickly you turn from mourning

back to the distractions you stretch from hour to hour.

You buy green mangoes from the street vendor

and pink tulips from the corner bodega. Finally alone

in your apartment, the bolt slid against strangers,

you collapse in exhaustion. No news, you vow

no devices all the long weekend. The cat nuzzles

your tulips and pushes the vase off the kitchen table.

You can’t get her off the furniture. Here in the yard

at the edge of the Old Town, there’s no keeping

the living out. You are our news, constant and uninvited,

opening the iron gate to stroll among our rows.

You place pebbles atop granite markers, whisper our names

as though we can no longer speak. We speak

in the dark before morning when the vandals come

tagging hate and toppling headstones. They give us voice.

Each thud’s a certain warning that the past is never gone.

As long as the beaver slaps her tail on the pond’s surface,

as long as the rabbit stomps his hind leg, listen.

This sound is the only sound we make.

Baby Hippos, the Rain & Other People’s Pain

There are worse ways to waste time

than watching YouTube videos of baby hippos

cavorting like fey gray beach balls

in huge water-filled tanks. Thanks to

recent improvements in underwater

photography we can see the hippo clearly above

and below the waterline. We see through rain

even though the brain knows each drop distorts

the light. It pieces the image together

into something close enough to real

that we recognize it. The pain of others

works this way too. Even when torqueing

beneath the surface of their skin, it comes

as near to our own pain as hippos do to happiness.

Read: More poetry from Connecticut's poets »

Gift

If he could speak and hadn’t lost the strength to raise his hand above his heart

or turn to greet her as she rushed in, tossing her red scarf over the chair,

he’d thank her for providing him what he most missed: her commonplace art—

the arcs her fingers traced as she held his head and washed his hair.

Gifted

She made not a sound

though they broke her clavicle

and folded her lengthwise to complete the birth.

After the doctor named her

syndrome, he asked her parents about their long-

range plans and passed her

to them as though she were already dead.

No, not dead:

instead, the third side of the family triangle.

Delicate and downy-headed

even when her breasts bloomed dutifully a handspan

above the diaper

that took two to change, she was a stranger to words

though her mouth

knew a smile as though she had invented it.

Hot Chocolate

A bride and a groom and all their white attendants

are posing on a boardwalk full of people dressed for winter

walking slowly through the afternoon’s lengthening shadows,

leaning on the intricate wrought iron fence, looking out over

the Saint Lawrence as the tankers haul fuel to Québec.

The groom is a captain in the Royal Canadian Navy, the bride

is underdressed. A gust from the river billows her lace overskirt,

toppling the flower girl who’d been swinging

her calla lilies like a censer. The photographer leaps,

leads the girl out of frame, crouches again. We cannot hear

what he says to the couple, as the wind has turned

and a piano tuner’s stutter-step peppers the air.

It’s almost fog, the way the notes wrap around them.

Now the groom steps in front of his beloved, takes

her reddened ears in his hands, blowing gently over her face.

Just like this, a man blows the froth across the surface

of a cup of hot chocolate before he begins to drink.

A Winter Impulse

Two waxwings at the suet cake.

One pecks, the other picks what falls. It takes

a winter impulse: work together to get through.

What if it had been that way with you?

The House Plant

Long ago, soon after you lost your first tooth,

we watched your father re-pot his spider plant

in the garden shed. Propping the door open

with a sack of potting mix, he bent down

and gathered the leaves in a kind of loose ponytail,

shaking until the pot let go the tangled roots.

With one hand I’ve held your hair like this

and cupped your clammy forehead with the other

to comfort you a little as you vomited.

He must have done these things too, through

stomach bugs and flu, experiments with booze

(and more I won’t go into) in your furious adolescence.

He sliced open the bag of soil, half-filling

two terra cotta pots, then eased the roots apart

as I would a knot caught in your My Little Pony comb,

dunked them in a bucket of fertilized water

(he always had a gift for strong beginnings)

then tucked the soil around them like goodnight.

All the incantations at the altar come down to this:

Do for each other. And I suppose we did, through you.

Can a child feel wholly cherished by one parent at a time?

The clump I took in the divorce now crowds a window,

its pot white-furred with lime and cracks resembling hieroglyphs

in a language none of us can decipher.

One bump with the vacuum, one infelicitous turn

toward the winter sun and the pot would fall to pieces.

This the last shared thing — aside from you, our daughter.

The Rhythm of Predation is a Sine Wave

Between predator and prey it winds

like a whip-crack in slow motion.

The time has come to praise the prey

who fill the guts of the never-satisfied

for whom winning is all, and nothing.

Praise the squeak and the telling tremble.

Praise their begging and their shame.

Praise their jugular fullness, the sweet red pulse

the ever-open spigot of their submission.

Let go the lamentations. Let go the pity.

All hail the awkward and the addlebrained

the boneheaded, the broken-down, the bonkers.

All hail the cracked and the cuckoo

the lame, the lunatic, and the losers.

Here’s to the nutjobs, the outcasts

the peculiar and the unhinged.

For them, the wedgie and the booby prize

the tar, the feathers and the narrow rail.

History is written on the vellum of their bellies.

Work for CT Poets’ Corner is selected by invitation. Poems copyright Leslie McGrath. Work for CT Poets Corner — a monthly feature highlighting the poetry of Connecticut authors — is selected by invitation.

Copyright © 2018, CT Now
29°