Poems from the Published Works of Gail Peck
after Ernst Barlach, relief,
Hamburg Memorial, 1931
A woman in profile looking
not at us but to the future,
her daughter’s head against
her breast. Their dresses
press together, and they wear
no shoes. There is nowhere to go.
What she sees now
isn’t the hunger of the first war,
women in line for bread while
husbands, fathers fight in the trenches.
She sees bombs that will fall
on Hamburg. Streets and canals
on fire, people who’ve fallen asleep
from the fumes, others stumbling
over charred corpses, and there’s
that boy in the distance behind
his mother whose clothes
have caught fire. He’s smothering
the flames with his hands.
Fountain with Six Children
after Robert Capa, photograph,
Ghostly, these marble children
on a pedestal, holding hands,
circling an alligator whose jaws
I can’t see. They must have
been singing a song when bombs
fell. Stairways leading nowhere
in the background. How
did this fountain remain intact,
this large funny frog
with eyes atop its head
looking straight at me,
other frogs spaced
an equal distance apart?
If I knew Russian I would sing,
and these children would kick
up their heels and dance.
There’s only a trickle of water left,
so the frogs can’t jump
in, and nowhere for my
wishful coin to sink. A woman
sits on a park bench facing
the fountain. She wears a scarf
in the August heat, and is waiting
for her barefooted daughter,
the one dancing in the swirling skirt.
Persimmon Tree, 2009
Russian Beggarwoman II
after Ernst Barlach, bronze sculpture
She sits with one arm extended, hand cupped
for whatever might be placed there.
Her covered head rests on her skirt.
She curves into beauty not defined by her face
we can’t see—graceful fingers that in a different life
might play the piano, flute. She is the essence
of silence, but must have sat on a busy street,
brown shoes and black passing by.
Did she get used to being ignored?
During the hours rung by bells
did she think of a child to feed? I, too,
might have spurned this woman in the flesh,
forgetting my grandmother who once knocked
on doors in the countryside where she lived—
houses left unpainted with wood stacked on porches—
asking for food not for herself but my mother
whose boots were held together with safety pins.
Someone filled a shoebox full, enough
for them both, and they sat on the cold ground
and divided the bread, the meat, the sweetness of cake.
Nightfall in the Camp
A blessing and a curse
for those who slept so close
together because of space
and warmth. Forbidden to huddle near
the one inadequate stove.
But the cold was easy compared
to dreams where there’s only present,
and food abundant—look at the table
set with candles, fine silver holding
sweetmeats, cakes. Oh, dreams
were the worst is what they said,
the constant talk of food—
a rat in the stomach gnawing,
a rat that can’t escape. Bring day
and labor, slip into those too big
shoes stuffed with paper. Take your bowl
you don’t lose sight of—no spoon—
to stand in line. The dreams that made you whole
vanish with falling snow that covers
earth, and somewhere beyond
the roofs of houses where children slowly wake.
Postcard of Provence
after van Gogh, 1888
The farmhouse and the fields are the same shade
of wheat, yet the door and windows of the house
are blue. Red flowers grow along a brick wall
that curves away from the stark white pathway,
and to the left a lone figure with his back to us.
My friend who’s lost her husband sent this card,
and wrote in handwriting smaller than van Gogh’s,
How sad I am. We cannot know this man’s life,
what he’s walking toward or away from, his occupation,
only that a ghostly sky meets a field of lavender,
that one tree has bloomed purple behind haystacks.
He could be a widower, carrying his loneliness
with every step, no one to hear I’m home, vases empty,
and work still to be done—threshing of wheat,
shaking the olive trees until they let go their bitter fruit.
(semi-finalsit for the
Pablo Neruda Prize)
Water Lilies, 1907 (unfinished)
To have your subject
to return to again and again.
Why this one
when you destroyed many.
This was before the pond flooded,
plants ripped loose.
Those willows draping
their reflection over water
purple and blue—they
are not here,
not one blossom, nothing
yet in bloom, but something
worth saving so that we
might see stirrings of
desire in the barest season.
after Monet, 1918-1919
Whatever your sorrow is
is yours alone.
Tall lithe figure
swaying darkness, what
have the years
silver among green leaves
trailing the bank.
You can’t turn away.
You stand rooted
in faith that rain
will come, wash
away debris, that the sun
will glint through
what wind hasn’t
severed. Part of me
longs to enter
lie beneath your shade,
but the ground
is damp and grass
won’t grow there.
View from my window—
my black-shuttered house.
Still Life with Bottles
for my husband
after Monet, 1859
Come sit, share the bread with me, spread it with butter, there on the pewter dish. Pour the wine—we won’t need the carafe of water, but maybe later the apricot brandy the sun is hitting now, spreading its shadow across the table. Bring cheese, and there are apples in the kitchen in a basket. Red wine is your favorite, earthy tannins that preserve. I want to tell you of the new sadness, how the heart can fold like a flower at sunset. You, who’ve lived with me so long, having studied my face, desired good things for me—lift the bottle and pour, then my lips will taste like yours. Don’t worry about the white cloth if anything spills, it will wash. This knife isn’t sharp, just tear the baguette—bread made to last only a day. Now I can tell you, while all is quiet, the walls surrounding us, making us close in this small space.