Issue 14

Poetry: Rachael Mayer

The Good Road

High above the Douro Valley is a road
that for birds is a distant terrace of sunlight
on a mountain covered in bell heather
and gorse—amethyst and gold tapestry lit against
an archetypal sky. It is May and we
are utterly lost. The men we encounter
in the light spring heat along the road,
brandishing gray caps
cannot help us. It is impossible they seem
to say—they are kicking
the dirt around with their heavy shoes
watching the puffs of brown smoke burst
as the sweet air settles loosely around
their ankles. We have no choice but to drive on
and follow the road’s endless tail
as it climbs steeper still
toward heaven perhaps?
I am swallowing hard as thick tears
well up in my eyes, obscuring everything.
All I miss about America right now is the steel
guard rail that would invariably
brace a road like this, a compost of gravel,
soil, matter, chunks of asphalt,
fragments of porcelain
as well as a few flattened wild flowers, probably
purple—the rough cliff beside us
and every curve a passing zone
for trucks? Still, I am as happy
as I can ever recall
when I open my eyes for a split second
and view the Douro River below
that, no other word will do, dazzles
with its streaks of midnight blue, yellow
and shards of silver, flowing
at the speed of inevitability, moving in
and out of focus as my provincial tears
leak out slowly. “Look!” you say,
exuberant and young, “this is why we
came here.” You’re crowing
about the fact that the abyss
that separates us from other worlds
doesn’t alarm you, that
the idea of plummeting
off the cliff
like some huge silent sneeze doesn’t trouble you
nor does the river below
and the part when everything goes black.
Still—it is you behind the wheel
and my life is entwined with yours like bell heather
and gorse, and we are safe.
The feelings are boundless,
the pleasure, the fear, measured against a capacious river
in Northern Portugal
where the grape vines are as old as they are generous.
Maybe it’s not about falling
but the idea of disappearing entirely
like a dream
in another country
where none of the grief
is your own.

Ovulation and Small Towns

If I convince you it is time and we make ourselves
a daughter,
will she grow from flesh dough
into a tall woman? —
Will she feel like me and like my mother, and mother’s mother
slightly smothered by maternal nexus?
Will she feel too often a low
nagging sadness, or live
like my mother, from meal to meal
feeding the blue inscrutable hollow—
and measure in shame
the wide places of her body?
If I convince you it is time and we make ourselves
a son,
will he grow from flesh dough
into a tall man?—
Will he feel like you
with restless brilliance,
and an all too often curmudgeonly
affiliation with the world? —
Will he feel a deep reflexive
sense of not being good enough
and desire, like his father’s father, the safety
of the kitchen table
with its easy square shape, bread
and butter in its coffin?
If I convince you it is time
and we make ourselves a son or daughter
will they know their father’s mother
ran away from home in search of kindness
and found it in their father’s father?
Will they know
their mother’s father shaved
his young raw face
the morning of his mother’s funeral
under the desert sun—
no one came—and spoke to the mound of dirt:
you will never hurt me again.
If I convince you it is time
and you ease your way inside me
and we move and disappear, ignite and reappear
will we make a healthy baby?
On our way home from up-country
every small town was where we lived our entire lives;
we lived in towns named Sussex, Sparta
Cuddebackville, and Hamburg—
we were elated in pretending—
the sky was enormous, all promise
and expectation. Then, because all the small roads
led, like veins, to the super highway
we could see the distant city
gray and shimmering against the bleached
panorama. It was more or less
a descent, lush emerald trees on both sides.
For a second, it seemed the world
would quickly inhale us.


You begin in frenzied coital weather
in November when leaves gather close
in their gusts. The light darkens them and
they move in brave circles.
There is the pale egg
in its corresponding universe,
a little moon descending in its host. I
think about its passage
as I hold mercury under my tongue
forecasting favorable weather for
sperm. You announce your arrival
in a urine stream, in
a vial of blood, everything about you
is liquid. You show yourself
in an ultrasound,
tumbling in your perfect
ocean. The technician is checking off
organs and extremities with the gentle clicks
of a key board. We are breathless,
suspended as she counts one, two, three,
four chambers of your heart. Our untrained eyes
see only grainy shadows
until we notice, clearly,
this one deep eye socket
which we view
with the astonishment
of astronauts looking down at the Earth
from a hushed universe.
You are completely formed.
We leave the doctor’s office
changed in some way, with a videotape of you
in hand, which we hold close, clutch,
this blueprint of your being,
your heart
a tiny beating plum.
Under The East River, the subway
is filled with humans—
is it possible they
too have made this same journey,
from fallopian tube to birth canal? As
your blueprint
signals the very beginning of the world.
And soon
we watch you over and over
in slow motion, in fast forward,
each time you are clearer
as if we have brand new eyes.
Suddenly you somersault:
there are the soles of your feet
pressing against the wet globe,
footprints in ink and sand.
You are emerging.
We cheer your one eye
your soulful feet
your tiny plum.

I Refuse to Let Death Take You

Please come back.
I will make you a chicken pot pie.
It is raining outside. It is cold. Please
come back. I will lead you around the room
and then we will sit for hours
and you will move from chair to chair
as if each were a province–you will fumble
for your passport, your glasses,
all the while in death’s fish eye, in death’s
airlessness, part phantom, part
glioblastoma, even the name
is not from here.
But I will smile at you
and you will return the smile
as you remember everything right now I know you do I can tell.
My face signals ingress
back into your life and all its occasions,
from the new born form you called frog to the adolescent scowl
you called awful, and all the way down the corridor to
my middle aged face
that is bringing you back for a second from the terrible brink.
Don’t fall.
Please come back. I am making you a chicken pot pie.
It is raining outside, I am so worried
about you. Come back. I will lead you around the room
and we can sit for hours, I don’t mind,
and you can move from chair to chair all you like,
as restless as you need to be as death stares, and I will
shoo him or her away with a swat of my hand.
And I will smile at you
and you will return the smile
as if every minute of your life is yours again,
like me on your shoulders, like you in your car
descending that big hill, nearly flying under the blinking light,
that Pavlovian signal of home.
Come back. The pie is in the oven. I made it from scratch.
The whole house smells sweet with starch,
roots, thyme–one deep inhalation and it will cure you—
it will be a few years ago
and you will be able to do the crossword puzzle,
glasses perched on your nose, eyebrows lifted,
no aphasia. Words everywhere, recall
of words, words on the tip of your tongue. And
the frayed dictionary with its broken spine
right there next to you.
Come back and we can discuss your reprieve–
you will be your hardy self, and once again
my father,
and you will age as you should,
old and sweet and musty,
your sweaters still in mothballs.
If you come back
I will change my mind about the abyss,
and I will write an unforgettable after-life to do list
and finalize all the considerable preparations
of being reunited someday in a heaven
of our choosing
on the other side,
just beyond the blooming mountain laurel
where your ashes are scattered,
above the earth
It will be perfectly lovely.

Field Guide

One hundred thousand generations of field mice ago
it was our first summer
in the gray clapboard house.
At first we saw them in our periphery—
speeding along baseboards, and because we were
children they both delighted and terrorized us in equal

measure, like all things that were in a state of tender balance
that summer;
flour and baking powder, salt and pepper, things
that were broken, things repaired,
spoke and wheel, malaise and memory,
love and exhaustion.

One morning in the kitchen there they were,
hours old, born sometime in the timeless part
of night,
in the darkness of the silverware drawer,
a makeshift mouse barn where just
one sliver of light penetrated the cracks in the wood.

We had rushed the drawer
clamoring for spoons,
starving in the perpetual hunger of growth,
as the air hummed slightly,
our heads still warm from traces of wool blankets
with satin trim, and our own young breath—

yet our feet were so cold steam almost rose from them
as mornings then
were so much colder than mornings now, one hundred
thousand mouse generations later.
All the walls in the house were a robin’s egg blue,
except the kitchen

which was a pale yellow, lighter
and softer than but not unlike lemon.
In the drawer they fit together like thumbs
In a tight formation of milkiness and air, risen
like yeast bread.
Even our mother

who was genuinely afraid of them
was rendered speechless,
a natural improbability for her,
and noticed that
upon closer inspection they
had paper cuts for eyes

and small ears like tiny folded napkins
and feet like feet—
and it occurred to her
as this feeling of grace came over her
that this was a sort of miracle.
In the lemony kitchen

each of us, pale and pink—
with hair not unlike the various nests and webs
in the gray house—
stared into the drawer where they lay like spoons
and squirmed slightly, so unfinished without fur.
Our breathing was steady and even, in sync with the unknowable

vibrations all around us, in cadence with the air
threading its way through the dense mountain laurel.
We stood near
our mother, a disheveled goddess
with robin’s egg blue eyes and yellow hair,
and, in this

In the kitchen the curtains
drew breaths
as the day began to ripen.
Outside the twitching of ferns,
under the endless canopy of leaves,

the baritone frogs,
the flattened places
where fauns
had slept.
And field mice. Millions
of field mice.