What a waste when you were young not loving
but obsessing over imaginary, unavailable.
Not for you, the prelude of hands
brushing against each other passing sugar.
Nor chapter one, the unbuttoning,
shirts like spilled cream on the worn floor;
chapters two through five,
a fight, a change of scenery, a feast,
the cleanup left for morning
as the lovers retreat to the nest
at the top of the stairs
the summer they live in the old sea house.
Roommates fail to see the charm
in lobster shells and half-eaten chocolates,
soiled napkins like wilted peonies and the faint
sound of laughter leaking through the ceiling.
Not yours, the final chapter where the hero
bicycles through the winter landscape,
ash and bone, bare trees, a lone figure
on a path through the woods.
Your heart was a tin cup
rattling its single coin like a beggar
on the corner as the lovers passed,
one’s hand tucked in the other’s back pocket.
You could almost see under their shirts
the muscle of the heart swelling like dough
in the moist dark and pushing against
the cloth of its container

Women with Men

Walking one evening
with my husband in the park,
we hear moaning from the bathroom—
a girl on her knees
clutching the toilet,
a guy fucking her from behind.
Should we call the police?
Or yell to see if she needs help?
According to my husband
they’re just kids too drunk
to care about the public
setting of their sex.
True, we didn’t see her struggle.
Do nothing, keep walking,
the cinderblocks darkening behind us.
A dozen years ago,
but I think of her sometimes.
Girl on her knees,
now nearing thirty,
does she remember
that night, or is it lost
in a blur of bad
or semi-bad, or only messy
attempts at love?
Maybe she was dragged
from the path
and what looked like lack
of struggle was betrayal,
her voice on mute and her body,
what could she do but abandon it?
My own voice
buried like a small animal
under a tree another animal
digs up and devours.

Not the Wolf but the Dog

Not the zebra but the horse;
not buffalo but cows,
maybe camels,
who traded the wild for the stable,
a stall lined in straw,
the house with wee gables and eaves,
their name over the door—
Biscuit, Coco. Snowball, Ranger.
Traded the hunt for the daily bowl and dish,
predators for owners, collar and leash;
agreed to be a tool—plow or cart
or confidant—to breed in captivity.

So when the man in the elevator
at the Venetian holding his cardboard
tray of coffees and muffins
heading back to his room
says to no one in particular,
but most likely to the other man,
the three of us strangers,
I better get something in return for this,
he means fetching breakfast
so his wife can sleep,
I better get something for all of this,
gesturing with his head,
meaning the hotel, the dinners and shows,
I think about women
who prowl the midnight streets
in their staggering heels,
breasts like missiles
because they’d rather be feral than kept.
And about men who gave up
wilding to name their offspring,
their known code continuing on forever.

I’m carrying my own tray
of coffees and muffins,
will soon press the card against the lock,
open the room, rip off my clothes,
throw back the three hundred
thread-count sheets, waking
my husband. He’s met someone new
and now wants both
of his lives at once.
He can sleep later. These untamed
weeks, we’re savaging,
flesh against flesh, ravishing
our marriage.

But soon the holidays will be over
and we’ll fly home, his Christmas gifts,
back when he thought he knew
what he wanted,
waiting to be put away,
the meat injector—
what brine does to the bird—
downloadable e-book included,
and the wooden mallet ice crusher
with its own canvas bag
for making Moscow Mules
in their frosted copper mugs.

The dog chose what the wolf
refused and became Pekinese,
French Bull, but still needs
to be trained to heel and sit
with a steady payment of treats,
and still, sometimes, runs
when the door’s left open and needs
to be shouted at to come home.

Sex Ed

Popular in part for the pharmacy,
his after-school job,
John initiated our Friday nights
with handfuls of lifted pills.
I remember the ketamine cough,
nasty side effect of a blurry high.
Remember one summer, sleeping
all night in the hammock, the profundity
of trees, their undersides
like garments twisted inside out.

When Robin bet me John wouldn’t kiss her,
this was years before we knew he was gay,
I bet he would, the power
of beauty is absolute it seemed
to me back then. She climbed
onto his lap, he was watching the game,
the den, dark, was filled with boys,
parted his lips with her tongue.
When he opened his mouth for more,
complicated host of reasons, she flounced off,
came back to the kitchen where I’d been waiting.
You won.

I remember a survey of sexual experience
girls circulated in junior high:
Have you ever let a boy
eat you out? I was shocked
at the grammar, who can’t
manage take you out to eat

Did John make it through
the plague years? Or has he
long since been memorialized
by friends we never knew?
West Hollywood chapel, a handful
of rainbows in a dish by the door.

The owner of the pharmacy
was a member of our temple.
Of course we never told.
We took what was offered,
went where it took us.

John is dead. I imagine this
then imagine he survived,
who disappeared from our lives, left us
to the long story of the body,
our blank sheets
puckery as water under wind.

The Conductor

There’s no mention, of course, in the program
that the conductor has Parkinson’s.
He enters the stage, stands for a moment
facing the audience,
his hands by his sides, tapping air.
Then he holds them together, an act of gratitude
—we are gathered, we can do this—
and of firmness, each hand forcing
the other to be still.
His expression, darkly bemused,
the good news/bad news:
I’ve lived long enough to lose so much.
Or maybe he’s staving off our sympathy,
don’t clap because of this.
Then he turns his back to us, begins his work.
Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony.
No baton, and from behind
his body is jerky as a boy’s,
jumpy with excitement.
His hands shake when they scoop
the sections of the orchestra,
as though pulling a weighted net
from the sea. Still, I wonder if this work
is easier than taking on the ordinary
objects of a day—
buttons, keys, and pens.
I am an old man
he must think when he looks
in the mirror,
briefly naked before trading
the bathrobe for the tie and tails.
And when he turns to us again
after the last movement, he looks both
old and young, his face washed
of the expression in the program photograph,
clearly taken years before,
one eyebrow slightly raised,
his smile more satisfied than happy.
Now he shows us his innocence,
if innocence is what the face
unconstructed can be called.
What else can he do,
while his fingers tap their useless code,
while the audience, in rows, rises from their seats,
still clapping, what can he do
but show us who he is,
a man standing too close to the edge,
edge no one can call him back from.

“The Conductor” by Jacqueline Berger, from “The Gift That Arrives Broken”.
© Autumn House Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)