Two Poems by John Smith
Some nights Elizabeth lay in bed
staring longingly through a skylight
in her blue ceiling, pretending
she was riding on a glass-bottom boat,
stars swimming past like slow fish.
Others, she aimed her flashlight at the glass,
blinked it off and on, and imagined
she was holed-up in a lighthouse
signaling stars sailing by
to rescue her from home.
Cowbells and books,
cast iron irons, skeleton keys
and torchiere glass shades
all shelved inside her grandparents’ house.
Flat on its back out back
with only T H E R carved in it
rests half a granite tombstone
under a crab apple tree.
A green lichen-crusted arbor
leans over a garden
given up to weeds.
Beyond the barbed fence,
a dandelion field glows so bright yellow
it looks like the sun just landed.
Elizabeth sat on a chair
painted like a whirlpool
facing the window to write.
To her left, fish circled
below the surface
framed on the wall.
The black Underwood typewriter
settled on the table in front of her
was as heavy as an anchor.
Through cotton curtain mesh
she studied shades of moss
on the blacksmith shop’s
thatched roof, jutting above
a hedge of purple lilacs next door,
and listened for the clanging.
Laced light casts a fishnet shadow
on a white bay of paper
and keys to the alphabet.
She waited for it to catch
the first word,
then all of them thereafter.
Elizabeth Bishop House, Nova Scotia
One day I will be nothing but what I’ve left behind:
a roomful of poetry books boxed for yard sale or
library donation, including a signed copy of Guide
to the Underworld by Gunnar Ekelof and a limited,
cloth-bound edition of The Naming of the Beasts
by Gerry Stern that I stole from Somerset Count
College. A striped coffee mug of my mother’s.
Her father’s Captain badge from the Newark Fire
Department. My father’s painting of the Great Swamp.
Birthday cards from daughters. A dusty shoe box
of home videos I never converted to digital.
A handful of poems for my wife. Our blue heron.
A Swiss Army knife, the Tinker. My last will
and testament split and spent; the house, paid for
and painted three times over, on the market
immediately following my funeral. My garden,
grass-seeded over. That same photograph of me
leaning on the shovel between tomatoes and basil
framed and hanging on a wall or kneeling on a dresser
in my daughters’ homes. My stuffed hot peppers!
Old Facebook posts. Instagram shots. Involuntary Paintings.
The patchwork quilt of stories that my children tell
about me, worn thin until, within three generations,
I will be a chiseled name and two dates on stone,
a twig on a family tree. Nothing left of me
but a genetic trait: a great-granddaughter’s allergy to cats
or her brother’s nail-biting habit. I understand the terms
of the lease. I am not looking to live forever, but to pass on
a bit more than just DNA. To be recycled, if you will,
transplanted, or grafted. I want my eyes to open the blinds
for someone on a seaside sunrise or their hand-shaped
landscape of a loved one’s face. I’d have my hands play tag
and catch fireflies, again. For my skin to dress a burn victim
is all the afterlife I could ask for. It beats being ashes dumped
in the Great Swamp or scattered off the coast of Point
Pleasant. Who knows, one spring my lungs might fill
with lilac while a lover waits outside in the dark
for a bedroom light to blink twice; or my son sees my face
on a clean-shaven man with a full head of blonde hair
reading a book on a passing subway car.
I like to imagine a pregnant woman in a city park
fending off two bullies with her umbrella
who threatened to beat a boy sitting on a bench
for painting his fingernails red, the blood pumping
through her righteous veins by my second-hand heart,
a vital part of me given to live and let live again.
About the Author:
John Smith’s poetry has appeared in journals such as SmartishPace, The Literary Review, and Spillway. His work has been set to music by composer, Tina Davidson, and commissioned by New Jersey Audubon. His book of poetry is titled Even That Indigo. John lives in Frenchtown, NJ with his wife, the calligrapher and henna artist, Catherine Lent.
Image: Kobayashi Kiyochika, Fireflies at Ochanomizu, c. 1880 (detail)