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Carolyn Hembree

from "For Today"

I linger beside a shrimp plant    [image and word bract]

at the sash window of one violin house

It is the hour of the metronome

It is the hour of tuning and scales and études

the hour of songs to hum on my way home

I remember the rolling violin solo when we were sick

I remember my dad’s violin in its case I cannot bring myself to open

—One chord and I am watering the shrimp plant!—

I think fretting—of the instrument, of a baby being walked the length

                                    of a porch next door (burp cloth over shoulder)

                                                                             of balustrades, of me

Why fret?

Last week, V said she was “curious” about dying

Curious comes from “careful”

                                                                                              chemo port

                                                                              below her collarbone

                                                                                             I never look

                                                                                        below her chin

—Listen! Ten bell tower strikes!—
    my hour-long meander now two hours
—Listen! Invisible fountains overflow!—
—Listen! Bees of the invisible gather honey from the visible!—
—Look! How sidewalk gardens blaze!—

I check my pocket for pencils, pens—none, damn!

           [envy cloud-gazing

           poets who forgot paper

           read their inky hands]

Instead, I speak names

I cannot write

          “hydrangea”               “gladiola”           “gardenia”

          “dwarf palmetto”       “spider lily”        “black gamecock iris”

          “red cypress”              “lantana”            “honeysuckle”

          “rosemary”                 “camellia”          “resurrection fern”

I step over an ancient love message in concrete

    Are they still together?

    Do they walk by and remember writing in wet concrete?

I turn onto my street

where sidewalk ruptures at the house of infinite windchimes

                  mural on the side (willow-pond-pelican-peacock)

                                                              their version of home

Next door, the house of erotic cries—even now, billowing curtains

                                                                              heaves and grunts

    What they must have dreamed last night, dream every night!

    If they sleep!

I pass the fire hydrant eternally gushing

I go around a fence-visit, any day, laundry blowing on the line

Up ahead, a torso out a dormer window smoking (I miss smoking)

I stick my hand through a gate for the shaggy head

    (warm from sun, lifeblood)

My living hand under my father’s invisible hand

    (I miss our dogs)

Drooping quadrupedal fans hung from a haint-blue porch ceiling turn

Uncut grasses wag as if in answer

I speak more names

I cannot write

         world’s largest “elephant ears”       “wisteria”

         “yucca” with a twisted trunk           “foxtail”

         “mayhaw”                                        “swamp mallow”

         “ginger”                                           “crape myrtles”

                                                                  (smooth crotches, panicles

                                                                                             in breeze)

               “rosemary” for remembrance grabbing my hem

               “moss” draping a “live oak”                  I feel like moss, wanting

               to touch everything, at once                        sky, tree, water, even

                                                                                      dangle a pendant of

                                                                                             myself to touch

                                                                                                           a street


Here, I come to a bush I cannot name, common bush anyone would 

know, I knew today

I call out for the name

I call on poets, those namers

Inger! Rainer! I call

The poets answer with a cento

                             “an accumulated weekday of Angelic orders”

                             “Every single angel is terrible. Still, though, alas!”

                             “seclusion and angels exist”

                             “But who’d claim from that / to exist?”

                             “the cloak of namelessness exists”

                             “Isn’t it your dream / to be invisible someday?”

                             “think like a cloud”

                             “Don’t think I’m wooing you!”

                             “think like / a bird building nests”

                             “of every leaf (like the smile of a wind):—oh, why”

                             “alphabets exist”

The word cento means “to plant slips of trees”

The poets and I, we wait

                      yet the name for the bush will not grow

                                                                   lines planted on air

                                                                   (though our version exists)

I call on angels

My ancestors answer from the unnamed bush

                                                    short-seasoned, flimsy

                                                                                       gushing bush

                                                                           gushing and burning

                                                                           gushing and burning

                                                                                 at once not burnt

“Daughter,” they say

I say, Tell me what to do

Tell me to take off my sandals

Tell me how to bring you back to this land of milk and honey

Tell me not to look back or you will fall away

Tell me not to look back or I will turn to salt

“Daughter, the bush is not burning”

But I hear flames lapping the leaves

“Daughter, we are not burning”

But I feel blossoms stoked by inner flames, an inscape blooming

“Daughter, you are burning”

                                                          A white pigeon with inky wings

                                               Plucks straw from my sun hat

                              A twig falls at my feet

                     Look again—no twig, but a worm diverting my step!

Worm trying to get back in the earth

Worm a few ants crawl—

          Oh, to eat dirt with a dirt-packed mouth and breathe through

                                                                                            my skin!

I spit on the dirt, dig a hole, drop the worm in     “Good luck, friend!”

                                         Say a secret into a hole in the ground

                                         Proselytize to the dirt

                                         Proselytize to the worlds below

                                                                                  (we’re sinking)

                                                                               (two inches a year)


Whose secrets does the sinking earth contain?

Whose steps do I retrace today?

Who will retrace mine tomorrow?

The following concern “For Today”:

The poem references Susanna Nied’s translation of Christensen’s alphabet; Robert Bly’s, J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender’s, A. Poulin, Jr.’s, David Young’s, and my dad’s translations of Rilke’s Duino Elegies.


Hembree_Carolyn_author_pic color.jpg

Carolyn Hembree's third poetry collection, For Today, was published by LSU Press as part of the Barataria Poetry series, edited by Ava Leavell Haymon. Carolyn is also the author of Skinny and Rigging a Chevy into a Time Machine and Other Ways to Escape a Plague, winner of the Trio Award and the Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award. She received an ATLAS grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents and has also received grants and fellowships from PEN, the Louisiana Division of the Arts, and the Southern Arts Federation to support her poetry. She is a professor in the MFA program at the University of New Orleans and serves as the poetry editor of Bayou Magazine.

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