Ellen McGrath Smith teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and in the Carlow University Madwomen in the Attic program. Her writing has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Los Angeles Review, Quiddity, Cimarron, and other journals, and in several anthologies, including Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Smith has been the recipient of an Orlando Prize, an Academy of American Poets award, a Rainmaker Award from Zone 3 magazine, and a 2007 Individual Artist grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her second chapbook, Scatter, Feed, was published by Seven Kitchens Press in the fall of 2014, and her book, Nobody’s Jackknife, was published in 2015 by the West End Press.
Shaken 9: Is it for fear to wet a widow’s eye. . .?
The shortest answer to the longest riddle is:
Be, as the man said, like a child. What is it
that matters when you read of the latest fears
and terrors, groundswell of fire below the wet
sponge of the snow-smothered earth, a widow
who naps and dreams of pennies on her eyes?
He said I was so childlike, something in my eye
among the wrinkles and the scars reflects what is
around me with the earth’s blue-green wonder. Widowed
by my youth, I hear him but do not believe it,
his dark brown eyes so freshly turned that they are wet
with minerals and promises, reflect my fears
of losing my one adult prerogative: to fear
the open hand of recognition, keep an eye
out for sham and drudgery, to get my feet wet
but pull back in time to where my father’s house is
planted in the ground. From far away, I see it.
It stops the turning world like a stock-still widow
bearing night upon her shoulders, squat-roofed widow
hungry only for the memory of fear.
The riddle has to do with what I left in it
(the house), and if its shadows are mistaken for my eyes,
I need to let the morning glare dissolve what is
my only working sense, now that the others are wet,
dissolve the map to the treasure at the heart, wet
as the eye of Shakespeare’s purely hypothetical widow
whose sorrow is perpetually forestalled, is
the necessary antidote to fire and fear.
The way out is surely the way in, but no eye
remembers any of the movements leading to it.
The child plays with the earth, calls it a yo-yo. It’s
humid — the pond digests and gives off, cools and wets
the generations’ longings. Look me in the eye,
the man pleads, trembling, hand like a widow’s
rags suspended in sepulchral air. What is fear
but the generations’ longings nailed down to what is?
Shaken 48: How careful was I when I took my way
Hands in my pockets, the salt on the streets,
the yellowing aura that means you are here
by my side again, waking me in dread
with no buffer or bounce. It’s been ten years.
Now you’re here and not here, smoke
that webs fingers, threads nostrils, rings mouth
and curls into the sacs of my lungs.
Nearly ten years, my old friend, since I took
my plodding steps out of your cellar, hoping
to never go down there again. Shaft at the center
of the tower of living, slow steady downpour
that batters the flame. I blocked you, I mocked
you, I kept walking faster. Old depression,
you knew you’d overtake me once again.