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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
Eight Poems
by Catherine Parke
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Poem in an Emergency
Write this poem before you need it.
Tuck it in your pocket, fold it in your wallet,
slip it into your shoe. Keep it where
you can grab it quickly when the woman
who looks like a street-person version
of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard
walks out the front door of her crumbling beige stucco house,
flats of soda cans blocking the front steps,
furniture piled unevenly against dusty windows,
and turns toward you.
You're only looking for real estate,
and this house isn't even for sale.
But apparently another reason has brought you here.
As this tall ghost begins circling the loggia
your eyes follow her spectral drapery,
unrecognizable as clothing that once fit a different body.
If you don't know now, you will never know
that you have been cast as Hamlet,
here at this suburban Elsinore to speak with a spirit
who will not speak unless spoken to.

My Mother's Mirror

The voice on the other end of the line
begins speaking without so much as a hello.
"I look terrible," she says, "just terrible."
If I had good sense, I'd hang up now, 
but instead I say, "Who is this?"
"Your mother, who else? Come pick me up
in half an hour and we'll go shopping."
An hour later we're standing in front of a three-panelled mirror,
looking at the six of us. (We've been here many times before).
"I look Godawful and feel Godawful, too."
My mother sure knows how to up the ante.
I know I should say, "Mother, I love you.
It doesn't matter how you look.
And anyway, you look just fine.
Remember how my friends always used to say
I had the prettiest mother?"
But instead I start giving advice on make-up
and how she should think about losing a few pounds,
and maybe, while she's at it, start seeing a therapist
or join a group for women who despise themselves
or at least try St. John's Wort for a month or two.
I never do it right.
Finally my mother turns away from our reflections.
"I'm hungry," she says. "Let's have lunch."
She's finished berating herself, at least for today,
and seems to feel a lot better. She looks better, too.
She always does.
As we prepare to leave our mirrored home away from home,
I take one last look at my three selves.
"Goddess, Princess, Beauty Queen," I call back,
blowing a kiss, "see you soon."

The Muse Chooses
Only the bored, the seriously serious,
the otherwise engaged,
those who believe most things
better left unsaid,
only those who, in other words,
don't expect a call from her,
may get one.
She is immune to promises of sex, money,
cooing praise, even offers of one's soul.
Like a thief in the night she comes,
but in reverse,
leaving treasure you have not asked for,
work you have no time for,
and humility you'd rather pass on to someone else.

Our Daughter is Asked Out for the First Time

"Where are you two going?" her father asks.
"Nowhere," she replies. "We can't drive.
We don't have any money."
"What does it mean then--being 'asked out'?" he says.
"Nothing really," she replies with no particular inflection.
At eleven, she doesn't seem especially to want money and a car
or even, it seems, a boyfriend.
Yet we know, her father and I,
and she, too, more or less, that this going out
or not going out, as the case may be,
having no money, no car, or having them
are all connected up with promises, kept or broken,
and with those strangers called boy friends, girl friends, best friends
who pass through our house,
some of whom we like, some of whom we can't abide,
some of whom may become members of our family.
So much for life as it's done on this planet,
not the only way, but the only way we know.

Our Son Watches the Movie of Noel Coward's Private Lives (1932)
He's not quite three, and I don't think Noel Coward
had him in mind for an audience. But our son is rivetted.
He laughs, then gets very serious ("She's sad," he says,
as Amanda's crocodile tears overflow), then slaps his thighs,
throws back his head and hoots to the ceiling as the lovers
punch, kick, bite, fall into doors, knock over chairs, and finally
short out a table-lamp with their crashing fall.
No one ever enjoyed Amanda and Elyot--kissing, hitting, screaming,
being nasty, sweet, witty, silly--more than this toddler.
As we watch him watching their crazy love,
we feel the nervous idea rising that this movie's not good for him,
that it might even give him some bad ideas about grownups and love,
and say responsibly, "Time for bed, James."
He shoots back, "No, I want to see it,"
in a voice confident beyond his years.
So the three of us watch to The End.
"That's a choo-choo train!" he says gleefully,
as the lovers embrace in a pullman car, while the image fades.
Then our son, without a word from us, slips down off the sofa
and walks toward the stairs.
Cheap China

If I were writing one of those books on helpful household hints,
you know, the kind with a thousand and one ways for us women
to clean, repair and generally shape up the universe
without poisoning ourselves,
item #1 would be: "Buy a sixty-piece twelve-place setting of cheap china
and instead of beating up on yourself,
take one piece every day and smash the heck out of it.
On a bad day take two."

Magician's Assistant

Tonight was my night to read my poems.
Everyone was coming to hear me,
me, me, me, me.
But my husband got caught in traffic and
couldn't make it home.
So at the last minute there was no choice
but to plunk my three-year-old in the car-seat
and drive off to the reading like a banshee.
When I slam on the brakes at the first red light,
I take this opportunity to explain things to James:
"Son, I have something important to tell you,
so please listen to your mother."
He looks up from his graham crackers and juice.
"Let me explain life from a parent's perspective.
You see, this is my evening, mine. Do you understand?
Your daddy was late, and that's why we're going together
to this place where I will read my poems.
So you have to be very good and very quiet and help your mommy.
Do you understand?"
He nods, returning to his sippy cup and crackers.
I do not feel reassured, though I am proud of myself
for remembering the snack.
An angry horn wakes me to the green light
and we're back on our way.
When we arrive at the lecture hall, everyone is already there,
talking, having a great time. They don't need me, I think.
But as James and I walk to the front row, people watch us sweetly.
My son's dark waterfall of curls, his smile like a crescent moon,
and his strong little body, good enough to eat,
draw ahs from everyone.
Even I, in my sad little ego prison, cannot escape his romance.
As I am being introduced, I whisper to James,
"Mommy is going right up there." I point to the podium.
"You stay in your seat and watch me.
It won't take long."
He shakes his head no--twice.
He means business.
"Mommy monkey stay with baby monkey," he adds.
When I stand up, he stands up.
We both go to the podium.
"This is my son, James," I say dismissively,
touching his head.
As I read, he circles me in perfect silence.
On the fifth round, he picks up the microphone cord,
binds my ankles, unbinds them, binds them again.
He does this three or four times, then puts down the cord silently.
He moves stage right, just to the edge of my peripheral vision,
then back again to me.
I've come to the poem about his sister Ann
going out on her first date.
When I say Ann's name, he looks up,
smiles, stands still, and listens.
I had planned to read a poem about him next,
but somehow I can't.
It seems predatory and indiscreet when the real person is there.
The poem I choose to read instead doesn't interest him.
He moves out of sight behind me, and since I cannot see him,
I count on the audience to register alarm if my son needs help.
We're all in this together now.
"Let me conclude," I say, "with a poem dedicated to our friends
whose child has been diagnosed with autism."
I begin to read "Max and his Real Wolf Suit."
By the time I say the last word in the title,
I feel sorrow and fear barricading my throat like a roadblock.
I have read this poem many times before,
but never felt like this.
I wonder if I can continue.
It must be done, I think, and can be done
if only James will come back into view.
I feel his hand on my left foot, his arm embracing my leg,
and the softest whisper saying, "Mommy monkey, baby monkey,"
which no one hears but us.
We finish our reading and sit down.

Past Lives
Suppose I did know for certain that my young son
was once the brother who, tempted and fatigued
by my beauty, strangled me,
that my most devoted teacher was once
the dark-suited citizen, zealous husband and father,
protector of good women, who pressed me up against
the damp alley wall and slit my throat,
and that all my lovers to date in this lifetime
have killed me once or twice before--
poured vengeful poison in the porches of my ears,
while I slept beside them,
testified against me at witch hunts and inquisitions
to save their skins or take revenge
against my being, shall we say, difficult--
what use would all this knowledge be?
you should stay away from men.
Ah, but what about women? I reply,
the ones who betrayed me as adulteress, madwoman,
offense to decent folk, or worse yet,
the perfect stranger who stole my jewels
but not before drowning me slowly,
dunking my head in cold cress-filled waters time after time
until I grew weary of terror and let myself die.
The only solution seems to be to end things
now for myself, to take charge once and for all
before one of these old acquaintances spots me again,
feels that old urge rising, and kills me one more time.


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