The Fight

Down in the shoebox

it’s summer. The bonsai trees

are arranged at random, their stubs

stuck with hot glue. I’ve cut the cardboard

windows open with an exact-o knife

to let the light in, a quick

spritz of Febreeze showering

down on us. At our corkscrew

table, you are dense

like a bear, the chair underneath you tilted

and stained a tinted pink

from popsicles. I raise your

clay elbow and close your fist

around a Blue Moon, the foam I make

overflow with cotton. I leave my wiry

back to you, chopping bits of real orange

slices at the counter, the knife

just an extension of my arm.

Is that our apartment? you say

as I swing around

to find you, leaning

against the doorway. You kneel

next to me, eyes

aligning with our bedroom window.

It’s not, I say, believing it.

Profile: Emily Rose Cole, Poet

Emily Cole is this year’s winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize in Poetry. She was kind enough to sit down with us and answer a few questions about her process, plans, and love of poetry and music.


Congratulations on winning the Sandy Crimmins National Prize in Poetry for your poem, Self-Portrait as Rapunzel. Can you tell me about what inspired you to write this poem?

Thank you! “Self-Portrait as Rapunzel” is, in many ways, a family poem, so it’s mostly inspired by my relationship with my mother, and, of course, from the fairytale itself. However, one of the poem’s most direct influences is the book The Unexplained Fevers, by the wonderful Jeannine Hall Gailey. The book features a lot of Rapunzel poems and I was reading it just before I drafted my own Rapunzel poem. My poem is not a direct response to any of Gailey’s, but there’s definitely a visible influence.


I thoroughly enjoyed the language of Self Portrait as Rapunzel. I found it playful, yet challenging, and enjoyably metaphorical, but without sacrifice to narrative. When you write, do you tend to focus on any one particular aspect over another? Whether it is tempo, sound, story, structure, etc.?

Absolutely. Before I was a poet, I was (and am still) a musician, so the music of language is always the first thing I focus on when I’m writing. One of my favorite things about poetry is the way poets pay such careful attention to sound in their language. Sound is always one of my first considerations. Narrative though – that’s harder for me. Much of my work has to go through a lot of drafts before I can tease out a consistent narrative. Fortunately, Rapunzel lent itself very well to narrative, since the poem is partially modeled on the fairytale.


When did you first discover your passion for poetry?

This is a hard question to answer! I’ve loved reading poetry since I was a small child and I’ve been writing it for as long as I can remember. I was always writing poetry during free writing time in elementary school, and all my study halls in high school were more devoted to sonnets than to textbooks. I didn’t really become serious about writing poetry until my last year of college though, and now that I’m in an MFA program, I can’t imagine doing anything else.


If you could control the affect that your work has in the reader, what affect would that be?

I’m a firm believer in the power of art – any kind of art – and its ability to inspire empathy in its readers (or viewers, or listeners). I think that poetry, given its compressed nature and attention to beautiful language, is perfect for showing us reflections of ourselves and helping us empathize with one another. So that’s what I’m going for when I write: I want to inspire empathy, or, at least, powerful emotion. Ideally, that emotion will lead readers to produce some art of their own.


As both a poet and a songwriter, how do your approaches differ in respect to each medium?

I adore both mediums, and they definitely inform one another – my musical knowledge helps me with sound and rhythm and narrative tension in my poems, and my background in rhyme and meter are invaluable in my songwriting. However, I think of these two mediums as very distinct from one another. I like to think of poetry as something closer to a two-dimensional medium and music as more three-dimensional.

In poetry, I’m concerned with sound and line breaks and the way it looks on the page, but all I have to worry about is words. In songwriting, though, I have to think about lyrics, melody, layering and arranging the other instruments… It’s a very different thought process. I think that, in general, lyrics are easier for me to write because I usually build them around a backbone of melody and I don’t have to worry so much about the individual sound structure, since the music and phrasing is generally more important. That’s the wonderful thing about songwriting – poetry is pretty static unless you change the words, but music can be rephrased and reshaped; it’s different every time.


What are your plans after completing your MFA at the University of Southern Illinois?

My long-term goal is to become a creative writing teacher. This year, I have the privilege of teaching one section of Introduction to Creative Writing and I absolutely love it. First though, I need to work on my poetry thesis. I’ll be entering the final year of my MFA next fall, which means I’ll need to produce a book-length thesis. I haven’t quite decided on the exact shape of the book yet, but it’s likely that “Self-Portrait as Rapunzel” will be included!

Breaking Bad Online Habits with…Online Writing Classes

In a desperate attempt to break my writer’s block (most notably my inability to sustain anything without getting sucked into the wormhole of the Internet, Googling phrases like “medieval brassieres” and “who is Demi Moore dating now?”), I signed up for an online writing class.  I was skeptical at first–thinking that it would be some kind of scam or that the writers would be fixated on vampire fiction, but happily, the experience has been extremely positive. The class meets online once a week for ten weeks and costs $450. The one hour chats are focused on a particular reading and on questions of craft. Students chime in with their thoughts via electronic group texts. I thought the conversation would be awkward or unwieldy, but the classes are small (only ten students), and we have a teacher who leads the discussion, and comes to each session with specific questions meant to focus us on reading like a writer. If you happen to miss the class, the instructor also posts a transcript of the whole thing in our electronic classroom.

Additionally, every Saturday, we have a two page writing assignment due, focused on a reading of fiction or poetry (Jane Smiley, Alice McDermott, Mark Halliday to name a few). Since we are all working on the same exercise and read each other’s work, there’s the added bonus of getting to see how other writers approach the shared challenge. For example, this week’s task was to model two pages of writing on Tony Hoagland’s poems “Benevolence” and “Mistaken Identity.” Both poems tackle the idea of writing about someone significant in your life who has transformed into something else. In “Benevolence” the narrator’s alcoholic father has turned into a dog drooling for a whiskey ice cube and “Mistaken Identity” has a stay-at-home mom turned into a biker lesbian. Our assignment then was to do the same–think of someone of significance in your life who has returned in another guise. The range of approaches is great–a bad boss returning as a donkey, a nun morphing into a male prison guard, a blind date bearing an eerie resemblance to the narrator’s dead tabby (that was mine).

We are also asked to comment on at least three of our classmates assignments; just as you would in a live workshop, but more manageable, because the assignments are short (never longer than two pages) and you only technically have to do three peer reviews (or more if you’re an overachiever like some people I could name). The teacher gives feedback on all of the pieces, so you are guaranteed feedback from her, along with at least two or three of the other students. As in real workshops, the student feedback varies–some are praise-filled and offer little to improve, and others pinpoint places where the writing could use work.

Lastly, the quality of the writing from the other students in this beginning craft class is uniformly good (no one, so far, has ended with “it was all a dream…” or made any of the other fledgling mistakes you might see from new writers. This might be because they are individuals who are paying to take the class for no credit; not bored undergrads wanting an “A,” or dabblers with a passing interest in creative writing. Most, I believe, would consider themselves serious writers who want to get all they can from the class and clearly spend time on the assignments, pay attention during the chats, and offer concrete feedback to others. The teacher is also good–she always has an agenda for the chats and her exercises are thoughtful and challenging.

Two downsides exist. One is that because of the truncated length of the weekly assignments, it’s difficult to work on a full length short story. For poets, this may not be a problem–two pages seems manageable for a poem, less so for a short story unless you’re focused solely on micro fiction.  However, if your goal is to get writing, you will emerge from the class with nine beginnings–nine opportunities to start on something new. The other downside is that there’s no guarantee that it will crack your writer’s block. You still have to maintain Nora Robert’s number one rule of writing (“ass in chair”) and since the class is for no credit, and there are no consequences for not doing the assignments, you could easily slip by without doing the work. This, thankfully, has not been the case for me. I am writing. I don’t know if what I end up with will turn into longer pieces, but the weekly deadlines have pushed me out of my Google funk and focused on the page.

Without His Fingers

The day was hot and humid, typical of a Philly summer. Bernie and John couldn’t wait for their ocean swim. They always took a dip before a concert, no matter what the weather. It was their ritual, a way to release tension and diffuse the jitters that accompanied a performance.  But with sweat already clinging to their shirts, they were even more eager than usual.

The concert would be held at the Metropolitan Opera House or perhaps the Academy of Music on Broad and Locust at 8 p.m. that evening.  So it must have been around noon, after a morning practice, when they felt as ready as they’d ever be, that they hopped a bus for Atlantic City, arriving an hour or two later.

I can see them during the ride, jibing each other, laughing, joking. And I hear Bernie asking John to pinch him, still in disbelief that he was a violinist in The Philadelphia Orchestra. Perhaps that night, Leopold Stokowski was conducting, the innovator who encouraged “free bowing” and was helping to create a unique, Philadelphia sound. The New York Times had just praised the Orchestra as possessing “uncommon excellence,” and Stokowski had no small part in its evolution. Would the program include Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor? I like to think so, like to believe that Bernie was anticipating playing one of his favorite pieces, the last great work of the Romantic composer, with its immediate entrance of the soloist, who, if Bernie worked hard enough, he would surely one day be.

In Atlantic City, the sand must have felt good under their feet. Soon, hard shoes and stiff tuxes would bind them, but now they were as free as their bows, imbibing the sea air, running toward the waves, admiring the female bathers. It was 1923, early in the decade, and they, too, were in their early twenties, embodiments of the period’s youthful exuberance. They dove into the surf, perhaps hearing in the rush of water the concerto’s frenetic, final coda.

After an hour or so, Bernie swam back to shore. Time to go. Their towels were where they left them, in a heap. In the water, he and John had drifted apart, one doing a fast crawl, the other lazily floating. Bernie must have been drying himself off, looking casually to the placid blue surface for his friend. There had been a light current, a bit of an undertow, but nothing out of the ordinary. He spotted a curly blond head that he at first thought was John, but no. He glanced toward the dressing stalls, their established meeting place, but John wasn’t there either. Bernie returned to the water’s edge, getting his feet and then legs wet again. With his hand blocking the sun, he gazed more carefully now, out, far out, and up and down the coast. And then, the first inkling that something was wrong. His stomach must have tightened, his breathing grown rapid. Time passed, and then the real panic set in.  Rushing to a lifeguard. Shouting down the beach, questioning everyone he saw. Thirty minutes, sixty. Longer.

That night, the string section was surely a little off. Someone had to fill in for the missing player, and if Bernie played at all, it must have been out of key. The search continued for weeks, but John was never found, drowning listed as the official cause of death. Soon thereafter, one of Bernie’s fingers began to ache.

Bernie, Bernard Greenberg, was my great uncle, and before I tell the rest of that story, here are a few things you might want to know: Bernie grew up lower-middle class in the Logan area of Philadelphia, the second child of four in a secular Jewish family. His parents owned two delicatessens in Strawberry Mansion. He was a happy, loving kid, known for being a prankster, often dangerously so. Once, pretending he was Zorro, he carved a Z into my aunt’s arm with a pocketknife, and that was tame in comparison to some of his other antics. My grandmother Rosella, married to Oscar Kahn, brother of noted architect Louis, was his sister. The family was close and Bernie, despite his mischievous nature, was a favored member. He was handsome and athletic, known for his nasty English, both on a ball and in speech. And then, of course, there was the music, the combination of passion and talent, charged with that ineffable something that separated him from the crowd. His pranks were infamous, but everyone knew that his violin would make him famous.

His left ring finger was the first to suffer. Why that one, I don’t know, maybe because Bernie never had the chance to marry, even though, before he got sick, he had a girl in mind. Soon all of his fingers turned cold, went white, then blue. For a while he could play through the soreness, but soon the pain became unbearable. One, then another and another, until he was forced to quit the orchestra and seek medical help.

The family thought his symptoms were related to the shock of losing his friend. And maybe in part they were. But on what I can only envision as a gray winter’s day, with snow beginning to fall, Bernie was diagnosed with Beurger’s disease, a circulatory disorder where the body essentially attacks its own blood vessels. All organs can be involved but the limbs and digits are especially affected. Pathologist and namesake, Leo Beurger, first identified the disease in 1908, and Bernie was one of the first patients to undergo Beurger’s trial and error treatments at Mt. Sinai hospital in New York.

I could describe in graphic detail his twenty-two years in and out of hospitals, the freezing and boiling baths, the nerve surgeries, the eventual amputations. I could tell you of the constant agony, of pain so excruciating that my uncle became addicted to morphine. And I could, and should, tell you that cigarette smoking was related to the disease, and that, despite being told that he would lose his toes as well as his fingers if he didn’t quit, Bernie continued to smoke. That was before the tobacco industry even knew enough to lie about how addictive their products were. I could tell you about this nightmare. Yes, I could tell about when the music stopped. But I’d rather tell you about when it began again, when spring finally returned.

By the time I came into consciousness, the disease had burned itself out.  I wasn’t there when Bernie swore there were bats flying in his hospital room or when he stood over my parent’s bed, begging my father, a physician, for a fix. By my time, Bernie was in his forties, living with my great-grandmother in L.A. He had gone cold turkey off all drugs and was a frequent visitor in our home. The only remnants of his illness were his constantly perspiring forehead, and of course, the mangled stubs where his shapely, violinist fingers used to be. I grew up with those stubs and thought nothing of them. It took others’ reactions to make me understand that they could be disturbing. Nor did it strike me odd at all when, after taking a year of piano lessons with a mediocre instructor, Bernie became my teacher.

I don’t recall how the deal was struck, but I’ll never forget those sessions. I was young, only nine when they started and seventeen at the end. Bernie was patient, but also demanding. He wouldn’t tolerate a sluggish trill, too heavy of a pedal. Every note was to be defined, every passage a delicate balance of restraint and force. Often, it was too much for me. Sometimes I’d run out the room, screaming and crying.  I’d tell him I hated him. But there were other times, when we were in a groove, when his stubs would sway over me like a conductor’s baton, and the music came to life. All those scales, those repetitions until I thought I’d go mad, suddenly paid off, and my hands flew over the keyboard, smooth and clear. At those moments, I cared for nothing else. My mother might call us to dinner, and I’d shoo her away. We were in a world of our own, one that, without his fingers, my uncle had made possible.

Soon, word spread. “Ona’s pretty good at the piano. Who’s her teacher?” “Bernie, her Uncle Bernie.”

 “But he doesn’t have…”

That must have often been the reaction. But it didn’t prevent anyone from pursuing him as a teacher. First to sign up was a friend of mine down the street, and then another around the corner. As his fingers had once fallen, one by one, his list of students, for violin as well as piano, grew, until he had more than he could handle. It was the autumn of his life, but he was in high demand.

Now he was Bernard Green, music teacher. He’d dropped the “berg” to make his Jewish identity less certain, although the Yiddish obscenities that peppered his talk were a bit of a giveaway. He lived, as did we, in an area where vague and sometimes overt anti-Semitic sentiment was common. The change was purely a business decision, and it may have contributed to him getting his foot (minus his toes) in the door. He frightened some initially, more with his expectations than his deformity, but everyone recognized his gift. He breathed music, and the air entered our lungs, traveled to our brains, and sent a special message to our fingers.

A few other things about Bernie:

He had a cockatoo that stood on his head and ordered him, by name, to wake up.

He was an animal whisperer before the term was known.

His room was crowded with National Geographics and smelled like Old Spice.

He repeatedly dropped cigarette ashes into our Steinway.

He feared my Beatlemania.

He pretended to hate my mother’s meatloaf.

He drank up my father’s scotch.

He could have done stand-up comedy.

It is lately, as I approach the age when he died, that I think not only about what Bernie might have been, but what he was. To say that he overcame adversity is an understatement. Like many artists, he created beauty out of anguish. But also, in his quiet way, he transformed lives. When children asked him in horror what had happened to him, he would say that he didn’t listen to his mother when she told him not to play in the street. When adults stared, he smiled back. Without his fingers, he touched everyone he met. Still, I like to think of him that summer day back in ‘23, before the drowning, with John alive, and all possibility before him, running toward the waves, with his hands outstretched, reaching for the horizon.

Ona Russell is an educator, mediator and widely published writer whose story, “The (O)ther Kahn,”  was published in Philadelphia Stories and included in the first Best of Philadelphia Stories anthology.  She has just completed her third historical mystery, which will be out next year.

St. Andrew of Amalfi

           Andrew cracked his butter knife through the shrimp’s pink shell. Droplets of olive oil flung across the table. One landed on Gillian’s cyan blouse. She had called the color cyan and had bought it for the honeymoon because she still tried to impress him.

            “This is silk,” she said. “Can you ask the waiter for club soda?”

            “We’re in Italy, bella. Try to speak-a Italian.” Andrew waved his pinched fingers in that Roman way. The stain began to set.

            The waiter appeared carrying a beaten brass pot adorned with an acorn-nubbed lid. When he lifted it, a smell of stewed thyme and roasted garlic wafted through the restaurant. Fish bits, half-shelled clams, and fatty prawns lay drowned in the boiling stock.

            Andrew had read an article, “Amalfi’s Festival of the Holy Skull” on The New York Times travel site. Twice a year, St. Andrew’s head was revealed to tourists and worshippers. He had emailed Gillian a link with the subject, “How amazing would this be?”

            “The soda,” Gillian said.

            “Scusi,” Andrew said. “Bigoni bikini acqua di club.

            “Bikini?” The waiter turned. “Bikini are for the butts.”

            Gillian pointed to the glass on the table. She had wanted to honeymoon in Hawaii, the Big Island, where people spoke English and it was all-inclusive.

            “Ah, si, si, bella donna della mare.” The waiter fluttered off.

“This language is too poetic. Just because every word ends in a vowel, doesn’t change the words’ meaning. A melody is only half a song’s harmony. The Anglo-Saxon’s were right to chop down the falso romance,” Gillian said. She dipped her napkin into the still water and dabbed the spot.

“There you go,” Andrew said.

            The article also mentioned La Trattoria di Gemma. It was nestled in a sea cliff above St. Andrew’s Cathedral.  Diners could see the tiered, colored homes of Amalfi dripping down to the ocean below. There were yachts bobbing in the distance, their lights illuminated hoops of water. Everything seemed contained in a large dome. That morning, they had gone to the cathedral to witness the unveiling. Sixty steps led up to the black and white striped cathedral. The inside was plainer than most Italian churches, more Moorish than Renaissance the tour guide had told them. In the crypt, an ancient nun pulled a maroon, velvet curtain revealing a white coral altar and a head incased in glass. When it was revealed, the nun prostrated and wailed, repeating, mio santo, mio santo

            Andrew scooped a clam from underneath the broth. “Maybe l’ll move here and become a fish monger. You can learn to really cook.”

            “I make us meals all the time at home.” Gillian rubbed, hoping to erase the stain, but she only spread the oil. “Do you see the waiter? It must be club.”

            “You’re the one who said you wanted to study different cuisines.”

            “I don’t think I could eat a fish if I saw its eyes.”

            “I’m not Catholic anymore,” Andrew said, “but when I saw people praying to St. Andrew’s head, I felt like my name meant something.”

            When Gillian first saw the head, she so badly wanted to sob like the sister so Andrew would see she understood the depth of it all. But it reminded her of a swollen Yukon gold potato. It had no distinguishing facial features — no sockets, no nose, no lips or chin. It looked weathered, eroded to a mummified ball. She imagined children tossing it back and forth.

            Abandoning the napkin, Gillian folded her blouse at the stain’s center and scrubbed the wet silk together.

            “It was a holy mind, preserved for centuries so people could worship it. And that altar. A sculptor spent twenty years carving it out of white coral to enshrine my saint’s head.” Andrew flayed the fish. “Taste? I should buy you a cookbook,” he said.

            “I think I could cook this food. It’s about having the right kitchen.”

            “They say the batter makes the bat.” He ate a whole scallop.

            “It set.”

            “Saint Andrew demanded to be crucified on a saltire cross because he thought himself unworthy to die in the same position as Jesus.” The pot had become a cemetery of fish exoskeletons. “Americans don’t see life as one big symbol.”

            Gillian did. She had said yes when Andrew asked her to marry him because he wore a fitted jacket — a symbol for intelligence. She had loved laborers, mostly.

            “I could become a coral carver,” he said it as if it were a revelation.

            “What are you talking about?” she said.

            “Life and what I want from it.”

            “I think you should say we now.”

“You don’t want to cook, Gill, that’s fine, we’ll find you a new hobby.”

            “That’s not the point, and I think you know it.”

            “What’s the point?”

            “You’re attached to nothing.” The stain had become a splotch that covered her right breast.

            “Dolce?” The waiter said.

            “Two tiramisus,” Andrew said.

            “Just one,” Gillian said, “and the soda.”

            The waiter snapped once and left.

            Quickly, he returned with a goblet of tiramisu. Andrew shaved the side of his fork through the layers of sponge cake soaked in espresso. His mouthful had a glob of the whipped mascarpone topped with bits of chocolate. He ate it and moaned and Gillian wondered if Andrew closed his eyes right then, could he tell her the original color of her blouse.


            It may have been the way he said it or that he said it before bothering to completely swallow, as if he knew before the tiramisu even arrived that he’d make sure she understood not ordering one was a mistake, but at that moment Gillian imagined leaping into the sea and swimming towards a twinkling yacht.

            Instead, she picked up her fork and stabbed his desert. She closed her lips around it and bit hard into the metal prongs.

            “Far too sweet,” she said, and the waiter reappeared with a cup of club soda.

In the Land of the Schustermans

“Let’s never keep secrets,” Annie’s future mother in law whispers to her at the bottom of the stairs in their house in Wynnewood,  two hours before Annie’s wedding to her only son Jack. Annie has not been able to eat in two days, her stomach all nervous energy. The first time was nothing like this; she names this nausea love.


“Good.”  Raquel tips her water glass. Her mother-in-law swears by drinking eight glasses a day, a habit Annie has promised herself to pick up. That and never eating before noon. “To total honesty.”

Everything about her mother-in-law to be is dramatic, thrilling and  exciting. Bright crimson lips, swipes of bronzer on her cheekbones and fingers ringed with diamonds. Annie has always been a sharp, fast learner, and from the moment she met her, she knew Raquel had things to teach her. She was a woman worth paying attention to.

Reaching across the space between them, Raquel grabs both of Annie’s hands. Her rings bite into Annie’s palms. “We are going to be such good friends.”

Annie nods. No one in her family spoke such truths out loud; it was all she could do not to cry in gratitude. There was so much Raquel had to teach her – things about entertaining, decorating, and the finer arts. The woman had been a violin player in her youth and had perfect pitch. She owned a sophistication that her mother did not know.

“I know,” Annie tells her. They remained like that for a minute, neither speaking until Annie breaks the silence.

“Better get dressed,” she says.

“Yes,” Raquel agrees. She drops her hands. “You go.”

“Did she trap you again?”

Annie’s older sister Lily stands at the bedroom door where the bridesmaids and bride are changing for the ceremony. Instead of her usual artsy black turtleneck, black jumper and  black tights, Lily is dressed in a fitted yet flimsy violet dress that Jack’s mother had selected especially for the bridesmaids from Neiman Marcus.

It  cost three times more than Annie’s own dress, which she had bought back in Iowa City, where she had finished graduate school  only two months before. Jack’s mother had given her inexpensive wedding dress a certain glance, but unlike Annie’s mother, who was hurt Annie had not waited until she came back East to pick a dress with her, Raquel had held her tongue.

What both mothers had been most concerned with was whether Annie planned to wear white, given the fact that this is Annie’s second time around.

“It’s 2001 for Christ’s sake,” Lily told Annie. “You can wear any goddamn thing you like.”

But Annie, who so wants to please Raquel and her own mother, wonders if she made a mistake.

In the bedroom, Annie settles on an overstuffed chair and takes up the gin and tonic Jack’s best man had left for her on an ornate carved side-table. The cocktail is  much too strong; the gin burns the back of her throat but she drinks it anyway.  One of the things that has her on edge is the house itself: Jack’s childhood home is a virtual museum, filled with Chinese vases and fat ivory Buddha’s; an entire art deco Parisian opera stage set has been plastered to the dining room walls.

Though Annie has been here several overnight trips with Jack before the wedding she cannot get comfortable here – she worries she might break something or that someone will quiz her about what she is staring at. Plus, it’s difficult to keep focused: everywhere she looks, something else threatens to pull her attention in another direction. And yet she wants to learn about everything, from the miniature pieces of cloisonné to the huge  messy abstract oil paintings along the living room walls. Happily, she envisions the years that such study will take, glamorous Raquel patiently taking her through piece-by-piece, provenance through provenance, until she knew them all.

“Oy,” her own mother rules during her one visit to the house for a dinner before the wedding. “Completely overdone.”

In the car on the way home, her mother started up on how Mrs. Schusterman was a climber, how she made too much fuss over a dinner, how all of those teacups and miniatures were a sign of insecurity. Annie and her mother had a long history of such post-mortems, starting when she was a small child after dinners with their extended family, but this time, when her mother started in on Raquel’s raucous lipstick and ostentatious namedropping, Annie said, “Enough.”

And to her surprise, her mother shut up. At once.

She knew her mother was sulking because of how Raquel had taken over the wedding after it became clear that her own parents couldn’t afford to throw a second one. More than once during her weekly phone calls to her parents from Iowa, her mother suggested that if she and her father couldn’t throw the kind of  wedding Raquel wants, then Annie and Jack should elope. Annie knows that this is simply hurt talking and that her mother thinks she has changed, that she has crossed over to the land of the Schustermans’.

Annie draws another  long sip of the drink. She knows she should not be drinking, not on an empty stomach, not on such an important day, but her nerves demand calm.

Her sister buttons the tiny silk covered buttons at the back of her wedding dress, then wraps a towel around Annie’s shoulders. Annie sits to let Lily paint her with lipstick and blusher and to curl her hair, but though she tries to enjoy her unusual ministrations, Raquel’s words flutter back to her like a gilded dream – secrets and honesty.

“Lily,” she asks. “Did you ever want a different life?”

In the mirror Lily’s face is flushed. Five years older and a therapist, she has a husband named Del who may be running around, a dog that has a brain tumor, and not much good advice. But whom else can Annie consult? Certainly not their mother, who in addition to her troubles with Raquel and her furnishings nursed a vague hope that Annie might return to her first husband, Max.

 “Max was a rock,” her mother said, a description that Annie found perfectly apt and that explained more than her  mother knew.

“How can I answer that?” Lily asks now.

          A burst of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons sounds outside; the procession will soon begin. Below the bedroom windows guests mingle; it is a picture perfect sunny August  afternoon. From the kitchen there is a clash of utensils and a call for additional wine. It was Raquel who insisted on cocktails before the ceremony; Jewish people did not do such things, according to her mother.

Dressed, topped with a flounced hat swept in chiffon net, her hair in slightly uneven curls, flanked by ornate vases and a unicorn tapestry, Annie feels as though she is caught in a diorama in the Museum of Natural  History—the bride in her natural habitat.  In the full-length mirror she admires herself; maybe, she thinks, she belongs here, after all.

“You’re in love,” Lily says. “You aren’t thinking straight.”

The room smells of  gin and sizzling hair. Lily leans towards her ear, and Annie is swept by a clear sense of dread, that her sister might be about to confess that she has finally decided to leave her own husband, that her dog has died, but instead Lily simply asks, with only a tinge of bitterness. “Isn’t love enough?”

          Downstairs in the marble hallway, ushers and bridesmaids are lining up, readying for the procession to Rabbi Silver, the least religious rabbi that Jack could find on the Main Line. Though everyone in the family was born Jewish, Raquel and his father had raised Jack as an agnostic, and Jack, to please his mother, had tried  to find a rabbi who might be similarly ambivalent about  God. Annie – who insisted on having a Chuppa and breaking a  drinking glass at the end of the ceremony to please her parents – told him he was on a fool’s quest, but at last he had dug up Silver from the an back page advertisement in the phone book, an itinerant rabbi with sparse facial hair and ruddy cheeks.

“Gambler’s choice,” Silver had answered to Jack’s questions about his involvement with the Almighty. He was hired.

          Among the questions that Raquel had put to Annie during their little time together had concerned her religious upbringing. And though Annie had not exactly lied to her, she had abbreviated the impact of her Modern Orthodox Sunday school education and her extent of identification. It wasn’t that she was ashamed of her religion; in point of fact she had never thought about it or questioned it; it simply was a much a part of her as her freckles or her long fingers.

She had left out certain details – how she had been president of the B’nai Brith girls, how she had been the fastest Hebrew reader in her Sunday school class. She didn’t exactly lie, but she had a sense that if she had told the truth, Raquel might have liked her less. She tried not to think about her omissions too much, just as she tried not to think about what her father might think of Jack’s anti-religious quest.

          From the top of the stairs, Annie watches people mill back and forth.  Lily and their cousin Debbie have linked arms and are giggling about something that she can’t hear. Like her religious training, Annie knows that half of the people out on the lawn have no idea that she was  married before: Raquel insisted that the past was the past. Her mother didn’t disagree: once, early on, she had introduced Jack as Max to her next door neighbor, much to the woman’s confusion. She had met Max before.

“Not everyone needs to know everything,” her mother said.

Nausea filled her throat; she swallowed hard. She concentrated on Jack – his face, his fingers, his hands. Everything about him surprised her: she had never expected to drop into love. In Iowa for two years to get her MFA degree, she had promised Max that she would return home. But even as she promised it, she slipped her wedding ring off her finger as she talked to Jack. A professor of English literature, he’s quiet and deep. He’s hard to reach, something she likes about him. After Max, a glad-handing real estate lawyer who adored her in ways that made her want to escape,  the fact that Jack can go off to his office and stay in there all day with his books and papers and  without needing her makes her inexplicably happy. She knows it’s not to everyone’s taste – her mother has already complained that he’s self-absorbed  – but it’s that very absorption, that secret life, that Annie finds so intriguing.

That and the way he reaches for her in bed with a fierce, sharp urgency.

She wishes he were beside her, that he could tell her not to worry, that everything will be fine. But at the moment, Jack has been banished with orders not to set eyes on the bride until she walks down the aisle, in this case the winding private driveway that leads to and from the house that has been transformed with festoons of streamers and huge buckets of roses and baby’s breath.

When they first left Iowa and drove up the drive to his family home to celebrate their engagement, she thought Jack had made a wrong turn. Not once in the six months that they had shared a crowded box like house in Iowa City had he mentioned his families’ wealth. Or that his mother was on the West Oak Lane Orchestra committee and the board of the Wynnewood Historical Society. Or, that his family did things like dress for dinner every night.  From the first night, seated across from Raquel, in a turquoise shirt and heavy jade jewelry, talking about Mozart, she felt her loyalty to her own family slipping away. She fought against it, but how could she not help but come under the Schusterman’s spell, at least for a little bit? They were so welcoming; so nice. At that first dinner, after dessert, Raquel had taken her aside and handed her a Tiffany box, her first. Inside lay a diamond watch.

 “Welcome,” she said, “To our family.”

Such a thing had never happened before in her life. Her parents didn’t believe in gifts exactly and  dinners were often eaten before the large TV in the den. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with it: she had fond memories of dipping defrosted French fries through ketchup and watching The Simpsons or Friends as a family. But she also liked how careless the Schusterman’s were – how alive and impromptu. They didn’t have a T.V. They took ski trips at the drop of a hat; they were regulars at concerts at the Academy of Music. Raquel served food that Annie had only read about in magazines and books —  whole artichokes, boiled lobsters, and raw oysters. Of course, when her mother asked her what they were like, she played all of this down. She didn’t mention the watch or the box from Tiffany or the treyf.


Beatrice, the anorexic-looking wedding planner dressed in a  clingy purple dress that coordinates perfectly with the bridesmaids’ color scheme, trips down the hall as if she might levitate. “Are we ready to rock and roll?”

Raquel, Jack and Jack’s father are out of view in the front of the line. One by one they line up – first the two pink-cheeked flower girls who will scatter rose petals and pieces of chopped confetti, nieces of a friend of Raquel’s, then the bridesmaids and their escorts, then Lily, as matron of honor, and Jack’s best man. Her mother wears a dark navy dress that is not in the color scheme – a clear protest against Raquel who asked her to ‘lean toward pales.’   Her father looks only slightly uncomfortable in his rented tux. He had shyly asked to deliver a religious blessing before they ate, but Annie, alarmed, said it might not be appropriate.

Staring at the top of his yarmulke from the top of the stairs, she has a sudden desire to run to him, to apologize. But for what? The blessing would not fit in here; she was right.

On the lawn, the string quartet begins. The sound of the wedding march wafts over the afternoon lawn.

“And we’re off!” Beatrice all but yells.

Upturned faces greet her as she passes by,  some familiar but most not, her oversized hat obscuring her view. Part of the issue of the wedding was that Raquel wanted to invite all of her friends, who are of a considerable number. When the guests list surpassed eighty-five, her parents gave her the news that they simply couldn’t be involved financially. Raquel was gracious and – even Annie has to admit – a little victorious.

When her father leaves her before Jack, he places a gentle kiss on her cheek and then, together, she and Jack stand before the accommodating rabbi, who smiles at them with a buoyant joy. The lawn is a splendid green, the sky a shimmering blue.  The rabbi clears his throat and they are off, the familiar words fluttering by her. By the power vested in me…If anyone should object…Jack reads her vows so sweet she feels she is on the verge of tears, happy and relieved that at last the day has come. They are rounding the home stretch, the exchange of rings, the kiss, when she becomes aware of a shuffling behind her, a whispering, then, a kind of strangled cry.

At first, Annie thinks it is a feral neighborhood cat, or a hungry baby bird. They are out in nature, after all. But as she listens to the rabbi talk about love without once mentioning God, the noise rises, a rush from the diaphragm that is definitively human. Tears at a wedding are to be anticipated, expected even, but this is a banshee call, “Oh!” the voice wails. To her horror, the noise grows louder. “Why oh why?”

The rabbi lifts his eyebrows to ask if he should pause, but firmly, Annie shakes her head, no.  A second shriek cuts through the air but the rabbi – clearly a pro – keeps on, and smoothly they move through the ceremony: the exchange of rings, the kiss, the breaking of the glass. Only when Jack lifts his foot, ready to crash it down does she cast a single glance at her mother, hair askew, eyes bloodshot, standing and screaming to the sky.

“Mazel tov,” says the Rabbi loudly.  “Good luck.”

“Annie,” her mother cries.

Around her mother, people are on their feet, clapping for the happy couple. Annie’s nausea has reached its peak: at once she wants to comfort her mother and tell her to go to hell. What would she say? Could she tell her that she isn’t losing a daughter but gaining a son? The words sound hollow to even her ears.

In the end, she does nothing. Instead, she takes her new husband’s hand  and hurries back down the aisle towards her new mother and father-in-law, who, dry-eyed and smiling, stand waiting to take her into their fold.

“Well done,” Raquel whispers into her ear.

At the party afterwards, no one mentions her mother’s break down. Raquel, resplendent in a tulle one shouldered gown,  stands beside Annie on the receiving line, accepting congratulations as though nothing untoward has occurred.  Annie refuses to meet her mother’s eyes. Annie is into her third gin and tonic; Jack clutches her waist and wears a blissed out smile. After the receiving line is through, Raquel grabs Annie’s elbow and moves her from table to table to be introduced to her mother-in-law’s tennis partners and committee cohorts. The small area on the right is Annie’s family and friends; women in dresses that probably cost a year of Annie’s adjunct salary dwarf them.

Raquel is laughing at something a woman with red hair and diamond earrings has said. Her head is  thrown back exposing her throat.  This is what Annie knows – that two weeks ago, Raquel had called her mother. She told her that Annie was not the sort of person she thought her son Jack would ever marry. That he had dated a manager of the San Francisco Opera company; an anchorwoman out of Chicago.  And here was Annie – an unemployed little Jewish girl, a divorced writing graduate student without a serious job.

“Whom he loves,” her mother had told Raquel, furious, before hanging up the phone.

Under the huge tent, on the parquet floor, Annie’s name is being called for the first wedding dance. At once, Jack appears beside her and takes her into his arms.

“Nothing matters,” he tells her. He strokes her shoulder blades. “I love you,” he says.

She has not told Jack about the call. She has not told anyone. Why her mother thought she needed to know, she was not sure at the time but now she knows: it was her last hope of holding on.

Out of the corner of her eye, Annie sees Raquel watching  as they circle the parquet dance floor. Behind her,  her own mother sits at the front table, her expression  unreadable. Annie knows she needs to do something to fix everything, but what can she possibly do or say?

There is a tap on her shoulder, and her father appears.

“Can I cut in?” he asks.

Jack steps back and she leans into her father’s hold. She sets her cheek on his scratchy suit jacket and for a second, wishes she were still a little girl.

“Are you happy, Annie?” he asks.

It seems the most difficult question she has ever heard. There is so much she wants to ask him, but instead she says, “Yes. ”

Her father thinks for a second.

“Good,” he decides.

“And you?”

Her father –who is a surprisingly good dancer – leads her in a careful foxtrot across the floor. He doesn’t answer her question, only gives off his familiar smells of aftershave and menthol cigarettes. He has worked all of his life in a hardware store. barely making a living.  How all of this looks to him – this  mansion, Raquel’s diamonds, and her mother’s anguish – she has no idea.  The thought that she had upstairs in the bedroom, that she somehow belonged here with the Schusterman’s, now fills her with sadness, a sadness so deep that she doesn’t know if it has a bottom. But her father is right to remind her of happiness: this is, after all, her wedding day.

In a few moments, Raquel will capture her again. She will pose for pictures with both families and cut the ornate wedding cake. She will watch her parents stand at the end of the driveway, waving a timid goodbye. She will spend the night in a hotel room with Jack, making love and opening fancy envelopes filled with cash.

And then, with any luck at all, she and Jack will be finished with honesty and driving away as far as the car can go.

In the Trenches of the Cimarron Canyon

When La Llorona met Billy the Kid in the trenches of the Cimarron canyon, the world was black with smokestacks, burning as buildings became tumbleweeds. The scars of the trees were brighter than the mountains, now rounded hills of charcoal and we were all mountain men, bleary-eyed and mad with thirst.

From the gorge, under great gray palisade cliffs we see the flames light the sky and it makes us wild like the men who first laid their hands on fire, who burned off their fingerprints so that we cannot find them beyond bones and needles and old spearheads stuck into the ground like pennies in a gutter.

Billy raises his six-shooter, left handed, crooked smile, unburied. His famous laugh breaks the wailing woman’s cry and she stops, and listens to his voice rattle like a baby snake.

            ‘We’re all made of wild things.

            We’re made of touch, of caress,

            And of the way your eyes flutter over me.’

She doesn’t know whether to rip him open with her desperation, or to meld hers with his somehow in the midst of the burning world.

How I want to be there, in that ocean when Noah’s ark rocked away in the darkness. The world underneath new–in that ancient tumbler of boulders—and I’d be as smooth and slick as a sugared strawberry.

Finally she says:

            ‘There’s no space here, in this air, in the remaking, for old, sharpness.

            The love here moves us. Makes us. Wild to understand.’

And I think here, in the gorge, under walls of these stone giants, I’ve found the kind of twister that slung Slue-foot Sue into oblivion. I wonder–I’ve forgotten–if she wore her wedding dress? Her veil twisted and gauzy with creek water. As she rode, wielded, conquered, crashed that mammoth catfish into the howling moon.

            I wonder if the twister made her–

            made her hot– like the desert sea of sand and rattlers.

            made her cool down in the night– like a bride uncovered.

            made her mad– like the catfish who could live out of water:

            alive like an inside out stallion. It’s inside a flurry of flesh and fur and a

    dazzling mane that set free would have colored the wind on the plains.

On the day when the giants froze into mountains, staring at each other across the Cimarron river, the moon wolves yelped and withered into coy-otes: howl-less and brown like dirt. And our legends met our ghosts with pistolas and lagrimas.

On the days of our births we breath the dust of memories

And it scours our flesh, smooths our skin, fills up our lungs.

And God says at each beginning and beginning again that it is good.

He said we are perfect.

And so we breathe now. As we breathe again. And we continue our remaking.

But the earth is cracked like a battleground.

Like footsteps. Like a mine of years and stones:

Rough and brilliant.

Sharp and smooth.

Grim Story

For one whole decade I was a giant:
my tunic smelled of rotten milk and frying meat;
my knuckles cracked all on their own;
and I had enormous, tired, watery eyes.

Yet the children’s faces lit up at mine;
I was good—when I ate them,
I spit them up again, nom, nom, nom.
Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.

Once upon a time I was a lover too,
cavorting among the fairies, queens,
all of us in rolled-up denims,
balling, in so many ways,  and illegal.

Now, I am shrinking—my son’s hair overtakes me,
standing up like a chariot horse’s mane—
and I am dragged behind him into battle,
my hands bleed and the wind singes my jowls.

In the Wellspring, a cop half my age
shoots the breeze with me, then leaves,
saying Have a nice day, ma’am.
What business have I, being a ma’am?

I very-almost parked in handicapped
but my hybrid wagon, blue fish that carries me

hither and yon, swam in the large spot,
and I thought better of it.

The scabrous odors of war are thick upon me,
I want a ticket out. But I’m so tiny now,

I slip through all the rails,
like jacks through my once-gigantic hands.

Nothing but Villas in Tuscany

when he comes home
steer heavenward
like a movie about flying into the sun


airlift cattle to a terrace with orange trees
I’m the last thing he wants
nothing to see from here but villas in Tuscany


computer his raw pet
bone bad
spinning silk in his lap


sky stops giving out lilac trump cards
I retreat to the windowsill
enough small cows there to flatten a city



For R

When I am dead, I will still be your lamb, still listening for your bleating.

In your bed, when you are jolted awake by the usual neighbors, police cars,

I will finally move toward you, undefended, I will be headlights in the dark.

By your bed, I will be the green light, always on, faxing from your faulty heart.

In the morning, I will be the car that drives you to the creek, the bench,

where you watch walkers, not lambs, move across a steel bridge, sturdy.

If you are holding a book, and you will be, it will be The Sparrow.

I will be the alien I refused to read about in life.  I couldn’t give you that.

Instead, I wanted to move back, into black and white, the pewter pitcher,

a pigeon  on the  bowler hat.

I promise you, I will be the other, the one you long to talk to.