Let Me Burn
It’s always winter
in Northwest Pennsylvania,
snuggled up to the tendered fire,
where I lay with Mr. Rochester,
locking Bertha’s attic door,
Elizabeth rebuking Mr. Darcy,
and in one weekend,
which gets lengthened
by another snow day—
all of War and Peace.
From time to time, my father rises
from bills and tennis matches,
rolls up the sleeves
of his starched Oxford,
pokes the coals as if
to brand the moment—
then adds a log or two.
Do you have enough light?
The only movements, my eyes
tracing each sentence,
my thumb and two fingers
unbuttoning each page. My cheeks
turn scarlet from the heat
of yearning to feel
a fraction as much.
I press my long-legged bones
closer to the cooler davenport,
away from the oak-driven flames—
a part of me not caring if I burn to ash
with those long luxurious lives
I whisk away spent angels
of the Christmas cactus—
adrift on a coffee table.
Jack, I hear Mother demand
of her disappointing husband,
wet a paper towel, clean it up.
These crimson snowflakes are hardly a mess,
but I’m my mother’s daughter.
Languid red petals
pause, filling my palm.
All the things I should have done
pour through my sieve
Good Girl, Lying Girl
My father, ripping off his belt.
Slammed doors, Mother’s tears and shushes.
Why do I want to be like my big brothers,
hoarding secrets I am not supposed to know?
(Locked wards in Rochester. Old trucks
used for target practice. Bankruptcies and probations.
Crystal meth and marijuana).
I answer when I am spoken to,
genuflect when told.
I have many things to say,
but I don’t say them.
If only they were good,
I wouldn’t have so much to prove.
I could make the whole world mad,
inching my way toward badness.
I bring the Morton salt container to the table
and plop it by the gushing centerpiece.
I must do something that will stick.
I pour salt from its spout
into one hand, take a pinch,
then throw it over my left shoulder,
to blind the devil
and please Mother.
My Never Ending Katzenjammer
It has been a while since I felt the dull hammer
at my temples, that woozy walk
to the bathroom, head in hands over the bowl
as I spit out the night.
Not even today can I admit
debauchery, or one too many,
as I will my morning
to catch in its groove and stop skipping,
the way we’d set our drinks
down and extract ourselves
from a lover’s open mouth
to lift the needle head
and plunk it back down
so someone could continue skating on some river.
No, nothing so simple
is this bad feeling that haunts my years
like a cat’s cry or cavitied tooth,
a brother who died but I still can’t get rid of,
who crept in through our shared door
past all those moons
and offered me prizes for a while,
who taught me
to hate trinkets and knocking,
a knob turning,
the feel of wrong and right
crawling into bed beside me. So far,
night spasms always
complicate the light.
Brothers die. No one gets caught.
So little revealed in a single lifetime as one long hangover
turns 60. The toilet flushes.
It flushes again.
I strain to read Mother’s phantom annotations:
douce—sweetly, Rit. (for ritard?).
How can anything so brooding
be played sweetly?
My fingers swell and burn,
trying to capture the spirit of her piano lessons
before the Second War—all major greens and golds
and minor bronzes. I recall her later years,
of early Baroque, trading percussion
for pluck, Beethoven for Rameau,
letting go of the Romantics’
violets and reds and oranges.
Her fading pencil reminds,
Cresc., grad.ped. accelerando, circling notes
to emphasize the right ones,
Ppp., shh, diminuendo,
until the return of forte’s crimson—
then, no notes barred.
cascade across the keys.
Her handwriting nearly breathes.
Poor Scriabin, dying
so young, hearing colors,
mistaking himself for God.
Audition coloree, the French call it,
joining sight and sound.
Mother, what in you
was lost so long ago?—diluted by
a palette of martinis,
and a bad heart, fading intentions
on a worn page, suggesting I
damper the last passage,
trading places with you.
I grew up with pianos and harpsichords, and my father’s books of Romantic poetry, and horses. Although I studied piano at Cornell, I stopped playing when I realized I wasn’t cut out to be a professional musician. I had the sensibility but not the skill for it.
It’s funny that I’ve never been able to complete a manuscript of poems without music in it somewhere.
After a thirty-year hiatus, I returned to the piano with a sort of naïve enthusiasm, with nothing to prove and no ambition. I had recently inherited my mother’s Bechstein grand and would sit for hours at the piano and learn pieces slowly without worrying about judgement from the outside world.
I started putting together video poems—my poems against a backdrop of my piano music. The Scriabin poem featured in Parhelion was crafted at a time when music was consuming me, and “Blue Etude” exists as a video poem as well, with Scriabin’s Etude in C# minor, as the backdrop. It was a piece that my mother once played, back when memory meant learning something by heart.
Julia Wendell’s sixth poetry collection, “The Art of Falling,” will be published by FutureCycle Press in 2022. Her poems have appeared widely in magazines such as American Poetry Review, The Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, and Nimrod; and most recently upcoming in Storied, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, Cimarron Review, The American Journal of Poetry, and Matter Monthly. She is Founding Editor of Galileo Press. She lives in Aiken, South Carolina, where she rides horses when she isn’t writing poems, and is a three-day event rider.