All works © Debra Kaufman.
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  • Delicate Thefts
    • The Winter We Moved from West Second to North Fourth

      Snow frothed, kept falling.
      A six-block move
      from our neat framed house
      with its porch swing, elm tree, pansies,
      to this rough-scrabble duplex,
      the tired eyes of our neighbors’
      darkened windows.

      My sister raced me
      down the slick, cracked sidewalk
      while uncles hoisted beds, dressers,
      the old piano,
      aunts put dishes away,
      our mother clutched a coffee mug.
      No one said your dad.

      Steeped in Grimm, I knew words
      like hunger, abandoned,
      I half-believed
      he would come for us,
      we’d live in the new
      split-level she dreamed about.

      Against my heart
      the locket I stole from a friend.
      I’d torn out her picture.
      I liked it empty,
      a chilly reminder
      of what gets taken,
      what remains.

      How Dreamy They Are, and Beautiful

      These teenagers crossing the street.
      It is June, school is out,
      and if they have a destination
      they do not hurry to it.
      One boy drapes his arm
      over his girl’s slim neck.
      She bears the weight lightly.
      Another boy and a girl swing
      their hands, a small hammock.
      A third boy, tossing a ball
      from one hand to the other,
      orbits around them.
      They move as in a bubble,
      creating their own climate,
      oblivious to the mimosa’s pink tutus.
      How can I help but follow
      the planet of their heavenly bodies,
      the breeze of their easiness,
      the music of their murmurings?

      This Delicate Theft

      Fresh from the Colombian School of Seven Chimes
      (where, for her final, she swiped items
      from a jacket rigged with tiny bells),
      she appraises the party of conventioneers,
      homing in on the harried, the lonely, the dim,
      the one who’s had a few too many.

      She gets her mark

      and like a salsa dancer she presses
      his wrist, cross-body leads him,
      steps, swirls into the arc.
      They’re shoulder to shoulder,
      her face lit innocence,
      shadowed eyes downcast.

      She touches his elbow,

      speaks low so he’ll lean in to her perfume.
      Slipping her other hand into his breast pocket,
      she bypasses his heart,
      smiles her almost loving smile,
      then melts into the murmuring.
      So bittersweet, this parting—

  • The Next Moment
    • The Rushing Way I Went

      As if each day were the same river
               with variations—
      one day tires, shingles,
               a doll bobbing past,
      the next, a heron, hunched
               and studious on the bank.
      I’d wake up, put in (yes,
               I had then delusions of steering),
      and set in motion this sequence:
               make coffee, feed the kids,
      get them to school on time,
               on to my job, the turnpike commute,
      yada yada yada.
               Evenings, upwind, rewind.
      Where were you?
               In those short remaining hours,
      your inevitable flights
               took away the best parts of us.
      All so long ago.
               Now I wash dishes
      to the tunes of smoky angels
               and doves calling from the deep
      down of their soft, gray breasts.

      We're Never Ready

      Here we gather,
      motley, at the wake.

      This one hasn’t had her roots
      touched up. That one’s stuffed

      into his best suit coat.
      One has black grease under his fingernails.

      Another teeters on too-high heels
      saying Jesus, Jesus—

      half-prayer, half-curse.
      We gather brassy,

      shabby, befuddled,
      to witness this body—

      yellow rose on blue lapel,
      fresh haircut, no necktie—

      his body without his laugh,
      his breath, the pain.

      Autumnal Equinox

      Sugar maples blaze at sunset;
      leaves swoop and skirt
      the chilling wind like chimney swifts.

      A boy leaps into leaves,
      calls to a neighbor’s Irish red,
      as light falls, a cat’s white shadow,

      on his grandmother’s lap.
      Her hands rest there,
      her grandmother’s hands,

      the same boniness of wrist and knuckle,
      dry fingers nearly flammable in the smoky air.
      She smells ripe pears

      and feels her body drawn
      toward the darkness that rolls in
      earlier each day.

      Heat and light retreat,
      and evening covers everything
      except the boy, whose hair shines

      silky silver light
      as he tosses armfuls of color
      upward, like sparks.

  • A Certain Light
    • Poison

      Name your poison, he said.
      The bottle glinted in his hand.
      He squinted past me at my sister Lee
      brushing her heavy hair.
      She was 14 maybe and secretly smoking.
      I was practiced at going unnoticed.
      We each took a Coke and thanked him,
      her best friend's father--a man, they said,
      who ate supper in his underwear,
      who told his wife in front of everyone
      to shut the hell up.
      His daughter came downstairs.
      She called him Daddy.
      He gave her money,
      then drove us to the opening
      of A Hard Day's Night.
      I didn't like his Jade East-whiskey smell
      or the way he tried to joke,
      eyeing my sister in the rearview.
      In the ladies room,
      in the three-way mirror,
      we looked at ourselves from different angles.
      See how many of me there are!
      Lee laughed in a shrill way
      and did a little shimmy.
      This marked the beginning
      of the time she became unhappy
      and with narrowed eyes and a cruel pen
      I observed her every move.

      French I

      Ou est la bibliotheque? Voila la bibliotheque.
      Quel temps fait-il? Il fait froid aujourd'jui.

      I chanted French phrases in bed like prayers,

      pleased with the way the language shaped
      my mouth, ma bouche: lips puckered for tu
      as if playing the flute, then softened like a kiss for je.

      English words sounded like hammering on wood,
      but translated en francais they lilted and fell
      like music or small birds.

      Fermez la porte means shut the door.
      petit dejeuner is breakfast,
      de tout mon coeur, with all my heart.

      Et alors...Jean-Pierre lifted my hair,
      murmured into my neck, "You're too good."
      And for the rest of that year I didn't know where

      the library was or whether the temperature
      was froid ou chaud. As the class recited
      je vais, tu vas, il va..., I could see myself

      in a silk slip on a picnic, tipsy with champagne,
      kissing, we'd be kissing the way the French do.
      What I longed for then was beyond

      language as I knew it, it was pure image,
      or impure, mon Dieu! and my future?
      My future was present, present perfect.

      The Roy Rogers Show

      Dale was casual with a spatula,
      but when there was trouble
      she'd tear off her apron
      and ride flat out.
      She'd get down in the dirt
      and fight the bad woman fair.
      She and Roy sipped coffee afterwards,
      waving away the sheriff's thanks.

      At the end they sang
      Happy trails to you until we meet again,
      sang it so sad, but smiling, as if
      they knew you were trapped in black and white
      with your parents who ate in gritty silence
      and returned to their separate rooms.

      They looked past your bitten nails,
      didn't mind that you couldn't finish a sentence,
      understood why you pinched your brother so hard.
      They looked deep into you
      and saw that white coal,
      the small glow of you you knew was good.

      They'd come back every Saturday
      so you had to keep believing
      in their faces, honest as the desert sky;
      you'd have to remember
      how their voices singing
      braided together like good, strong rope.

  • Still Life Burning
    • Mina Speaks

             Others' small dramas surround me like so much damp air. As mail mistress I'd read between lines, but I kept my observations to myself. No one knew about my engagement until my mother broke it off. She made me take the train home, my heart beating dull, dull, as the train clattered past the stiff, somber rows of fall corn. I never saw him again, Stephen, who had lovely manners and played the violin.

             I had to quit my job to tend Mother. I bore that woman in silence fifty-three years, listened to her complain of arthritis, rubbed her shoulders when she nagged me. I developed a technique, a way of absenting myself, while keeping to the routines of Mother's tea at ten, lunch at noon, sewing at three, and so on.

             When she died I didn't celebrate. Or cry. The house so quiet I heard the icebox click on. Outside the cicadas shimmied like taffeta. That night I went to bed as usual. The man in the curtains was there in my room. When he speaks he sounds just like Father--that tall and shadowy. What sin this time? I wondered. I considered Mary: she stayed somehow virginal and forgave as much as Jesus. More--Mary had to forgive her son for turning away from her, for having choices, for thinking a pallet in the sand would do for a home. Jesus knew a mother's love is tough and gnarled, ingrown and unyielding like old grapevines.

             That long July night I told the spirit in the curtains, I am giving you up and my rosaries. And you must take Mary, too.

      Dialogue Concerning a Blue Convertible

      What night?
               The night the moon fell

      I don't know what
               Blue convertible

      You must have dreamt it
               You wore a white scarf

      Well I might have
               It trailed behind you

      Years ago that
               Whose voice was it

      You would have been just
               Who was that man Ma

      I wasn't even
               Peepers singing a cold pond

      My early twenties
               Something sank there

      But you were sleeping
               Air so sullen

      Do you remember
               A field of larkspur

      You couldn't have been more
               Where was Daddy

      than three years old then
               Who was that man

      He was somebody
               Pulled dimes from my hair

      I met him somewhere
               I wasn't laughing

      A smooth dancer
               He undid your

      It must have been when
               He ignored me,

      The man could whistle
               He undid your

      like Mel Torme any tune
               I wasn't sleeping

      That was long ago
               Why did you bring me

      I repented
               You looked so different

      I smoked Camels
               Deep red lipstick

      "Mack the Knife" kept
               The scarf fluttered

      Repented all that
               around your shoulders

      Why stir up old
               Did you tell Daddy

      What good does it do
               You forgot me

      You want to punish
               You repented

      Yes yes long ago
               You turned into

      I couldn't help it
               The clouds thinned and

      Some things are better
               floated up like

      left alone
               scarves let loose

      So why mention
               in high wind

      So why ask me
               I had to remember

      You're not going
               I can't help it

      to write about me
               Yes I'm going to

      Well try to show some
               The whippoorwill kept

      There are the fine points
               Don't give me whitened

      All I mean is
               I see it all now

      a good writer
               I could forgive you

      always shows her
               You were gorgeous

               and I thought then

      a bit of sympathy
               almost free

  • Family of Strangers
    • No Jazz in the Cornfields

      Mama's brother couldn't stand it
      that the Germans who laid out this land

      liked clear views and direct routes.
      He despaired that the trunk room

      revealed no mysteries; not a drop
      of gypsy blood could be traced.

      At age seventeen he headed
      for the black Atlantic,

      where egrets cry like saxophones,
      sand resettles in silence,

      and the ocean flows in arpeggiated chords.
      Music is transmutation, man,
      he wrote.

      Grandma said he'd always been an odd bird.
      He came home between love affairs,

      looking, Mama said, like a refugee,
      desperate and thin. Into how many lives

      of how many women did he drift?
      He brought back espresso, croissants, cognac,

      records by Paul and Carlay Bley.
      He even wore a black beret!

      He laughed at my engagement
      to Jimmy Schumann, said he thought

      I had more sense than that.
      The night before he left

      the sky swarmed violet, violent;
      he watched me hurry in the cows

      before it hailed. The sky enacts
      the only drama here,
      he said.

      He took the 8:12 from Chicago to Manhattan,
      whistled, I remember, as he packed his bags.

      Love and Tornadoes

      By the time I meet up with Michael Lee
      I've read Madame Bovary three times,
      know passion is the only way

      to leave behind
      the endless rows of corn,
      monotonous as gossips.

      Mike smokes Camels
      in a sullen Brando style.
      He's heading for Chicago

      as soon as his mother dies;
      his Mustang's tuned, running smooth.
      The wind rushes at us,

      lifting dust on Angus Lane;
      lightning shocks the chartreuse sky.
      Still the cicadas sustain their drone.

      Mike says he likes the smell
      of wet-hay nights, my hair,
      this dizzying whiskey that we sip.

      Clouds churn in the distance;
      the corn rustles its silks.
      Mike rustles mine,

      and in our unbridled frenzy
      I am as sultry and guilty
      as Emma Bovary.

      We drive back the long way,
      languid and liquorish;
      the air has stilled itself

      to a warning calm.
      As we lean against each other
      in my parents' open porch,

      the winds catch up to us!
      The elm loses its last good branch
      and stands now armless and sick

      as justice. A window bangs
      above our heads; the screen door chatters.
      Now here comes my father,

      in all his stentorian glory,
      to flood our clouded souls
      with his heavy, searching light.

      Today my Body is Mine

      As it was at age thirteen
      so lean I was almost airborne
      wheat stalks chafed my legs
      crows scattered up
      from the chaff
      that moment I now call zen
      was then just me
      blending into wheat
      into wind
      the ragged wing of crow

  • Moon Mirror Whiskey Wind
    • A Marriage

      In his stories
      he was always
      the hero; she
      the damsel in hers.
      This is how families
      are born. And endure.

      The hard d's of Dad
      with its short a so brassy,
              the soft yum of Mom,
              her scent of cinnamon.

      He said buckshot, slipknot,
      topnotch, crackpot.
              Steam, gleam, beam, redeem
              the words she prayed.

      Mow the lawn
              floating swan
      cut your nails
              wedding veil
      scrub that makeup off

      His crewcut, her creamy hands,
      his steely eyes; her mind
      drifting away to some airy
      kind of heaven where
      she glided beside Jesus
      and above them sang thrushes,
      where she was no one's wife
      or mother, where she was prized
      (o rosary, poetry, reverie!)
      for her pure soul self.

      To a Barbie

      She dresses you in evening gowns,
      pushes shoes onto your
      achingly arched feet,
      bends you at the waist,
      and forces you into Ken's car,
      Ken's boat, Ken always
      whisking you away.
      She moves your arms:
      wave hello; better wear your windbreaker.
      How tiring to have a pink
      smile painted on
      over a smear of white teeth,
      your eyes, the blue of a chlorine pool,
      always open.
      Would you be happier alone
      in the kitchen with your miniature
      stove and tiny, unbreakable cups?
      Mmm, this coffee sure tastes good,
      she says for you, then strips
      you again, rakes the comb
      through your coarse, bleached hair,
      then drops you in hot sand
      under a killer sun;
      grit gets in your cracks
      while she eats an ice cream cone.
      Naked, you wait--pert, expectant--
      fated never to be loved for yourself,
      but only as the plaything
      of this moody little girl
      now coming at you
      with scissors in her hand.

      Destiny and Johnny

      She was a reader
      of fashion magazines.
      He was a leader
      of reckless young men.
      Impossible her name
      should be Destiny.
      He'd be called Johnny,
      forever. Her mother said,
      marry, him, why not,
      a wedding, a home, sure, that's life.

      Her father said neither
      one thing nor another.
      She draped herself
      in layers of scarves,
      followed the make-up tips of stars.
      The mirror, her friend, winked:
      one day you could be one of them.
      Johnny wanted only her body,
      which she gave as a blessing,
      saving her true self for the future,
      which stretched beyond this hick state
      of corn and beans, corn and beans
      and the smell of shit and terror and rage
      that blew in from the hog farms
      south of town. To board a bus
      and head--where?
      All she needed was a godmother
      who'd say, First thing, kid,
      go, and go now;
      second, know it will be hard;
      third, I have a friend in the city
      who can help you.