Five Poems by Marilyn L. Taylor (with closing comments about her internal process)
The Blue Water Buffalo
One in 250 Cambodians, or 40,000 people,
have lost a limb to a landmine.
—Newsfront, U.N. Development Programme Communications Office
On both sides of the screaming highway, the world
is made of emerald silk—sumptuous bolts of it,
stitched by threads of water into cushions
that shimmer and float on the Mekong's munificent glut.
In between them plods the ancient buffalo—dark blue
in the steamy distance, and legless
where the surface of the ditch dissects
the body from its waterlogged supports below
or it might be a woman, up to her thighs
in the lukewarm ooze, bending at the waist
with the plain grace of habit, delving for weeds
in water that receives her wrist and forearm
as she feels for the alien stalk, the foreign blade
beneath that greenest of green coverlets
where brittle pods in their corroding skins
now shift, waiting to salt the fields with horror.
(Taylor: “This poem was inspired by a visit to Cambodia in '01, where I was struck by the view from the bus window (the bus was taking us to Angkar Wat). The landscape looked so lush & green, so rich with life, that it was jarring to think of death, of what may have been lurking just inches below the surface of those rice fields. I really did see what I thought was a woman in the distance, which, as we approached, turned out to be a water buffalo.”)
Maybe things are better than we imagine
if a rubber inner-tube still can send us
drifting down a sinuous, tree-draped river
like the Wisconsin—
far removed from spores of touristococcus.
As we bob half-in and half-out of water
with our legs like tentacles, dangling limply
under the surface
we are like invertebrate creatures, floating
on a cosmic droplet—a caravan of
giant-sized amoebas, without a clear-cut
sense of direction.
It’s as if we’ve started evolving backwards:
mammal, reptile, polliwog, protozoon—
toward that dark primordial soup we seem so
eager to get to.
Funny, how warm water will whisper secrets
in its native language to every cell— yet
we, the aggregation, have just begun to
fathom the gestures.
(Taylor: “The metrical form—the ‘saphhic stanza’—is notoriously difficult; lots of major poets get it wrong. I used a meditative subject, and got it right! The meter of each stanza goes like this:
1st 3 lines: trochee, trochee, dactyl, trochee, trochee
4th line: dactyl, trochee.
It's a damn tour de force, if I do say so myself [she suggested modestly].”)
On Learning, Late in Life, that Your Mother Was a Jew
Methuselah something. Somethingsomething Ezekiel.
So that explains it, you say to yourself.
And for one split second, you confront
the mirror like a Gestapo operative—
narrow-eyed, looking for the telltale hint,
the giveaway (jawline, profile, eyebrow)—
something visible that could account
for this, the veritable key
to your life story and its denouement.
It seems the script that you were handed
long ago, with all its blue-eyed implications,
can now be seen as something less than candid—
a laundry list of whoppers and omissions.
It’s time for something else to float
back in from theology’s deep end: the strains,
perhaps, of A-don o-lam, drowning out
the peals of Jesus the Conqueror Reigns,
inundating the lily and the rose,
stifling the saints (whose dogged piety
never did come close, God knows,
to causing many ripples of anxiety)
and you’re waiting for the revelation
on its way this minute, probably—
the grand prelude to your divine conversion,
backlit with ritual and pageantry.
But nothing happens. Not a thing. No song,
no shofar, no compelling Shabbat call
to prayer— no signal that your heart belongs
to David rather than your old familiar, Paul.
Where does a faithless virgin go from here,
after being compromised by two
competing testimonies to thin air—
when both of them are absolutely true?
(Taylor: “This poem is pretty autobiographical. My gentile father married my mother, who had been divorced, in a time when divorce was a terrible sin. But he did so on the condition that she give up her Jewishness, her Jewish family, and her Jewish identity—and to ‘hide it from the kids,’ as the old song goes. The rest is history. [Although the facts didn't occur to me all at once, as the poem suggests. It dawned on me gradually.].”)
Should’ve Been a Cowgirl
If I can promise you a frosty draft
of Bud Lite when we get there, can we go
to Nashville? Kansas City? Branson, Mo?
I’m craving country music—a whole raft
of anthems from the boys who do it best,
star-twangled-banners from the girls who strayed
and lied, and loved, and finally got laid
by some hot cowpoke in a leather vest.
Been thinking, off and on, of Toby Keith,
the way his fingers pluck that blue guitar;
I dream up porno movies (he’s the star)
on how those fingers feel from underneath—
but never mind; it’s high time we departed.
Get in the car. Shut up. Don’t get me started.
(Taylor: “Made this poem up out of thin air. I'm starting to like country music, and this was just fun to do, especially as a sonnet.”)
Reading the Obituaries
Now the Barbaras have begun to die,
trailing their older sisters to the grave,
the Helens, Margies, Nans—who said goodbye
just days ago, it seems, taking their leave
a step or two behind the hooded girls
who bloomed and withered with the century—
the Dorotheas, Eleanors and Pearls
now swaying on the edge of memory.
Soon, soon, the scythe will sweep for Jeanne
and Angela, Patricia and Diane—
pause, and return for Karen and Christine
while Susan spends a sleepless night again.
Ah, Debra, how can you be growing old?
Jennifer, Michelle, your hands are cold.
(Taylor: “Just as the poem states overtly, readers of the obituaries can often tell pretty much when a person was born by the name he or she bears. Elmer and Bertha did not die young. Courtney and Dylan probably did.”)