Noe Valley Voice July-August 2010

selected fiction and poetry - the noe valley voice summer 2010

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By Jennifer K. Sweeney

How to Make a Game of Waiting

This is a capsized game
and there is no display of aces at the end.
Buy a rare and expensive plant that never blooms.
Rearrange your books by the color of the spines.
Bury all your keys that don't unlock anything.
These are not rules but merely suggestions
of what has worked for others.
For instance, the man who painted landscapes
on his daughter's sheet music.
Put a big rock on your desk.
Do not name the rock.
Take the numbers off the clock and mail them
to your creditors.
Stitch the hours onto a kite.
Every night, ask until you can hear what replies.

Ballad for the Daily Condition

That mostly we do our living in houses,
rooms inside houses within rows of houses
and everyone is a supporting character in the story
of your life and the story is an unevenly written mystery
with unearned existential leanings,
dreams clinging to you until dinnertime
eclipses the afternoon

That you could be in the house and someone
could crawl through the bathroom window
while you're scrubbing pots in the kitchen
and the man who leaves only a footprint on the sink
seems to you afterward not a real man,
your wallet warm against his chest
charged with adrenaline, your name
etching its letters in his mind.

That we hurry the days toward an astral future
when there is nothing left to be done.

That we leave our houses
and rub up in subway turnstiles
where phantom hands slide into pockets deep with regret
and you see yourself in the train window
mirrored by the dark tunnel,
see it as you've never seen it before,
fluorescent and sad, and you wonder
if you've always looked sad on trains.

That people tell you things you can't dismiss—
the woman who said that every emotion
is at least two emotions
like this accidental defeat laced with intrigue
and it seems the train is traveling away from you.

That we leave ourselves in places like you have left
yourself on the other side of the bay
and the passage is emptying you until
your body knows what the sea knows
is just matter mater mother.

That the circuitry of our brains runs amok in the night.
For months now the car crashes and you are pregnant
or you are locked in the library and pregnant
or the man kidnaps you and you tell him you're pregnant,
beg him let you go and he leaves you
at the midnight estuary on the condition
you give him your shoes.
Feeling across the breakers and rocks with cut feet,
your body knows to slip into the shallows
and you ride on the backs of seals
toward the pull of empty ships named after women
and there are everywhere seals,
your soles sting with salt
and you wake with their skin cool on your belly.

That we wake all of us in beds in rooms in houses
to reconstruct the familiar.
The train surfaces to light and everyone sways like kelp.
To cross over is no small thing
but still we do it daily, wordless, with eyes half-shut.

33 Umbrellas

In your sleep
the year advanced.
Perhaps in a Japanese rainstorm

33 umbrellas opened at precisely
the same moment—
a ballooning

then a click—
and you were allowed further.
Go with your blue apples

falling from the night-trees.
Go with your muddled

Carve impossible faces
in the pumpkin.
Scoop a net of seeds—

one for the trouble you've caused,
the rest for the trouble
you wish you caused.

The skeletons wear marigolds
for eyes.
They let you pass,

lantern-hearted, happy.

How to Live on Bread and Music

You need not confront the storm
though it comes with its guillotine
of wind and arrows of ice.
Let it come.
Take the wheat in your sage-rubbed hands
and pull out the dull chords.
Fold in Ravel. Hazelnuts.
Fold in the fury,
quarter notes rising from the grain.
These are your hands weighing the earth,
alchemy of salt and scale,
hum of clove bud.
Into the fire your life goes
to work its slow magic
and the song is the yeast
when the body wants
and it wants    fills    empties
as the day    fills    empties.
Song of milk glass.
Song of chaff.
That the thing delivers itself whole
like a blessing.
Feed the animal those brown fields.
Feed the rest of the body any tune,
any note will do.

Jennifer K. Sweeney's second poetry collection, How to Live on Bread and Music, received the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of America Poets and the 2009 Perugia Press Prize. Her first book, Salt Memory, won the 2006 Main Street Rag Poetry Award. The recipient of a Pushcart Prize, she has published poems in numerous journals, including Southern Review, Hunger Mountain, Crab Orchard, Hayden's Ferry, and Passages North, where she won the 2009 Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize. Sweeney holds an MFA from Vermont College and serves as assistant editor for DMQ Review. After living in San Francisco for 12 years teaching writing and literature at the Adda Clevenger School in Noe Valley, she currently lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with her husband, poet Chad Sweeney, and their newborn son, Liam.

"How to Make a Game of Waiting," "Ballad for the Daily Condition," "33 Umbrellas," and "How to Live on Bread and Music," copyright © 2009 by Jennifer K. Sweeney, are reprinted from How to Live on Bread and Music, with the permission of Perugia Press, Florence, MA (