Writing and Art from the Middle and Beyond
Susan Whitmore is the author of three volumes of poetry: The
Invisible Woman (Singular Speech Press 1991), The Sacrifices (Mellen Poetry Press 1992) and The Melinda Poems (Pudding House Press 2004). She has degrees from Vassar College (BA) and Emerson College (MFA) and has taught English at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and the University of Missouri – Kansas City. She is the previous Executive Director of The Writers Place/Midwest Center for the Literary Arts and currently is Vice President of Development at First Call in Kansas City.
AWAY IN THE MANGER
Any woman with a seed unexpected inside her
Eventually finds herself in a stable, warmed
By animals keeping no truck with the attitudes
Of men. Faith is kept best at night by pressing
Close to each other. Insight weighs as much as
An unasked-for child given us to hold and carry,
See through to our death. Sacrifice is the boon
Sucked up to, whatever the fear, a last ember
Glowing in the grate with a heart sure enough
To set the whole body blazing again when
Breath rises just right – or wrong.
Every morning and birth is hope's resurrection,
Frost sparkling light on the grass and sunlit
Window, voice rising in a cloud to prove
Inside heat keeps kicking up its perfect spark.
Today, the family's intact; tomorrow, in pieces.
Someone's left, or died – the father, or mother
Who nursed children beyond her own obstacles;
Or it's you who's succumbed to accident, desire,
Or disease. Perhaps today a child is conceived
With no name, born to a new life transforming
What we've come to plan for, wish, expect.
But think of the dumb, sweet animals:
Those who turn their heads to water without
Question. The mule after pulling the plough,
Butting goats come evening, sheep with their teeth
On succulent grass. Think of a calf falling wet
From the heifer who's found a shaded spot
At the field's edge to drop her shining burden,
The heifer bending to clear the small nose and mouth
With her tongue. Think of the dog and cat,
Sworn enemies, sleeping one curled against the other
When the night is cold, and even when it's not.
Do birds think, shall I not, or shall I sing?
Does your heart's cadence choose its beat, silence, beat?
FRAME AND FIGURE
The Nude is held intact by its frame:
Black tree trunk cured beyond existence,
Sap no longer lively, existing now
To embrace a woman's intricate space.
Four limbs stretched to four corners –
Hand and foot and hand and foot –
Body exposed pink and gray, a bit of blue
Around skin's edges where the outer
World kisses the inner membrane,
Angels whispering to ready veins,
Keep on living – even as devils raise hair
Back of neck and scalp, voicing doubt.
She has a home, two children
And work she does to keep things intact –
Food in the mouth, ink in the pen,
Sandalwood incense on the altar.
Each night, four limbs to four corners:
Bare belly exposed to the angels'
Precursor answer to incessant questions
While those devils confound every deed.
Each day, she finds herself on her knees.
Every perfect figure crumbles at death.
Meanwhile: the luminous and spread torso.
A blatant body bounded by frame.
I'm no prophet, but I can tell
When blood falls too quickly,
I can tell when the entrails are tangled
Into unnatural knots on the stone:
Their pattern spells yearning,
That hard gallop toward God
In entirely the wrong direction.
How can I do this without words?
Someone has to mention that
The intestines are the wrong color,
The liver twice the size it should be,
Black blood running northward in a rush
To the brain, instead of gently
In the four directions, from the heart.
I'll admit it. There are times when
I want the one I love to lift me
Like a child from the stone, put the puzzle
Of my guts together and name me whole.
The one I love will love me broken:
I will not wake up one day suddenly one piece,
Having run together like mercury.
It's me splayed wide on the gray stone
Of my life, split from my mouth to my sex—
It's for me alone to look inside and listen.
There's a singing and a crying both
I cannot decipher, a code
Composed in its own language:
Of the body, not of words.
On Highway 435 into Kansas my hands are careful
On the wheel, the muscles of my heart vigilant
Around the veins they squeeze – four chambers of beat
And a whole body to keep going. I'm thinking earth
And country people more intact and at ease than me,
The gentle cheek's acceptance of wind, mind no obstacle
To time or how much time it takes to travel ten miles
Going seventy. Early evening and light is late. I imagine
Heavy cows moaning now for milking, beady-eyed crows
Settling in the poplars, nutty oats poured before horses.
The creak of iron, stable doors bolted against the cold.
The man who proffers oats feels horse body come to rest,
Heat rising with each breath, warmth inside wooden walls.
The woman who wed the man rests her brow against
The carpet of a cow's side, her palms and fingers easing
Steaming milk into a bucket. And I am among the crazies
Going as fast as we can without dying or getting a ticket.
Still, I have my own boon: The magenta sunset spreads
A florid skirt against sky, revealing her secret –
A blood-red opening and fuchsia thighs she dares me kiss.