Poetry: Sandi Leibowitz

Sandi Leibowitz
This Book

This is the slim volume of poems
I bought as my mother lay dying,
kept for the quiet of the night
when I returned to the home-not-my-home,
her empty condo.
During the long lonely hours of hospital waiting
I consumed novel after novel;
in spite of the day’s interruptions
I pulled myself along the threads of stories
the way I pulled her life along
the threads of my questions, hovering, 
feeding, nursing, worrying.
But the poems I saved for later,
when it would be 
just me and the crickets and the palm fronds
hush-hushing each other 
and the poems mumbling their incantations
in the non-fluorescent night.  

This is the book I didn’t get to finish
before she died,
reaching her own final page.
I left it behind—near-virgin-new,
spine unbent, pages clean and waiting,
stored in my mother’s bedside table
with the new socks and underwear
I’d bought when she worsened
and I realized I wouldn’t be going home
at the end of that first weekend.
I flew back to New York for the funeral.
She wanted to be buried next to Dad.
On the plane I finished another novel but

this is the book that sat in the drawer
and waited for my return to Florida
so I could empty the condo,
clean and paint, sell the car.
When I was done with that,  
I would finally close the chapter on
my years-long hate-affair with 
that humid alien state. 

This is the book I read in the afternoons
as a break,
my daily treat with my iced coffee.
I sat in the ugly screened-in porch
at the ugly plastic table 
with its sad plastic swan
discolored from years of sun
and its sad plastic cornucopia of grapes,
looking out from time to time
onto the ugly lawn, backed by another ugly condo,
pretending it was something prettier,
a river view maybe, or a beach with a breeze.
Outside the cleaning women chatted 
as they mopped the roofed corridors 
to laundry room and mailboxes
and the mockingbird’s music soothed.

The same bird’s nightlong drills
poked at my sleep like
the 24-hour auto-body shop back home.
How could one bird keep so busy,
stay awake so long?
Yet it seemed the same bird,
same tunes.
When they became too mocking
I’d rise up and dole myself
a poem or two only,
savored like the last chocolates
in a Valentine’s Day box,
not wanting to use up this book
before my Florida time came to an end.  

That last night, after I’d packed
the final carton for the cleaning woman’s 
family in Haiti
and double-checked my plane reservation,
I arrived at the last page.
Closed the book.
***
 

Flowers

My friend insists I am no daffodil.
They’re too simple, she claims,
though I find them elegant.
Ah, well, there you have it.

A lily, then, she asks?
I argue no, I lack such
seeming-sacred gracefulness,
could never hold my head so high.

No sensual orchid, either. 
I’ve never lived enclosed within 
the safe embrace of glass.

Despite my buxomness,
Rose never would suggest roses,
those showoffs, those paragons.

How about a poppy?

Common, sure, I think, 
but girlish ruffles 
hide their dark hearts.

I’ve seen them bejeweling 
France’s grassy fields
like ruby ankle-bracelets on waitresses
and on the isle of Delos peeking 
from beneath the robes of Isis
as if to prove the grey stone lived,
the goddess winking red.

Maybe in me there lurks 
a burst of scarlet, perhaps beyond 
my black heart’s disappointments
some goddess stirs.
***

 
River Buddha

At Socrates Sculpture Park, my favorite work 
floated in the East River shallows,
plastic inflatable Buddha on a plastic lotus-raft,
a pool toy daring to declare itself art.

Viewed through him, the harsh edges 
of Manhattan’s steely skyline softened,
the way the sea rounds shards into beach glass. 
He was transparent—like truth, I guess, 
or openness to the universe,
or some other metaphor that might otherwise irk me
but it worked.

When sunset’s gold and purple entered him,
his expression admitted no emotion,
neither disappointment nor ecstasy,
like my childhood’s inflatable clown
that withstood every battering
with his own red Buddha-smile.
How very Zen of him to follow 
the gentle hither-and-yonnings of the river,
and let the light do its own thing
as he did his.
He was enlightenment.

For weeks the image of the floating Buddha,
the way he didn’t push back 
against the water’s urgency,
created in me a small pool of peace.
I imagined him drifting into night,
on through mornings, 
unchanged by the wheel’s turnings.    

Then the hurricane hit.
Even now I wonder what wild tides he rides,
or on what far sandbar he lies beached,
serene smile deflated,
limp victim of time and the world
just like all the rest of us.
***


Funerary Relief of Hadirat Katthina
After the Work of the Same Name, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

With a sneer, you draw your veil 
across your breast, as if we aren’t good enough
to venture any closer.
No scent of Palymyra’s spices
wafts from you. You are only stone, 
not the image of any particular woman 
who once wore flesh,
the sum of your patrician silks and weighty earrings.

Maybe, though, the artist never met you
and you were indeed a kindly soul,
a poet, devoted mother, intellectual,
thrower of extravagant parties, passionate wife,
leader of a revolution, inspired cook.
The inscription reads: “Hadirat Katthina, 
daughter of Sha’ad, alas!”
so someone mourned your passing.

Or perhaps it’s you, then, who cries “alas,”
you draw yourself
inwards and away from us because 
we can only ever know your rank and name,
but never you, 
your curling hair unruly in humidity,
your husky voice and generous laugh,
the way your face lit up
when sunlight crossed the room
or your lover wakened you at night,
your worries and your aspirations,
your fears of dying far too young,
of lying in a tomb, alone,
forgotten.
What if I won’t even have a name
to wrap myself in?
******

Sandi Leibowitz, author of THE BONE-COLLECTOR, EURYDICE SINGS, and the recently-published GHOST-LIGHT, a quarantine journal in verse, lives in New York City with two ghost-dogs and the occasional dragon. She writes mostly speculative fiction and poetry, which has garnered second- and third-place Dwarf Stars, as well as nominations for the Elgin, Rhysling, Pushcart Prize, and Best of the Net awards. Her work appears in Trouvaille Review, Alien Buddha Press Gets Rejected, Verse-Virtual, Newtown Literary, Frost Meadow Review, Corvid Queen, Uncanny, Liminality, and other magazines and anthologies.

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