Poet Gary J. Whitehead

Photo by Sarah Ratner

Making Love in the Kitchen

 

 

We do it with knives in hand,

blue tongues licking the bottoms of pots,

steam fogging the windows from hearts

of artichokes being strained.

 

Hearts are made to be carved

out, cooked soft, slathered with butter,

fork-stabbed and lifted to another’s

open mouth. We say we are starved,

 

as though we were doing this alone,

lonely as an onion in its skin,

say we are starving when what we mean

is that we want to postpone

 

the inevitable, which is inedible,

however we dice

it, and so we make—as it consumes us—

this love we call a meal.

Published in The New Yorker, Mar. 10, 2014

Music from a Farther Room

 

 

The flute, the sackbut, the dulcimer

in the rooms of the dying. The harp,

the cornet, the psaltery. The look

 

of the eyes’ last seeing when the ears

hear their final note or chord. The flats

some know as sharps. A bee batting a screen.

 

Thales of Crete appeased the wrath

of Apollo with paeans to end a plague,

and in all of Sparta’s rooms,

 

close with death, that conclusive music.

But meadowlarks, too. Finches. Thrushes

in the distant woods. Birds which are

 

themselves flutes, sackbuts, dulcimers

dressed in feathers. Up in Amherst

Emily’s last breath of the bobolink’s

 

virtuosic bubbling. A mother’s cooing,

half weeping, half exalted send-off

heard beyond a locked door. Anywhere

 

and often. In Pittsburgh the shrill whistle

of the steel mill; how many have ridden

that held note into infinity? In Treblinka

 

the shrill whistling trains, the chuff,

the cough, the high-note wail.

On the Oregon Trail the pioneer’s wheel.

 

The ship’s whistle for the immigrant

whose filmed eyes never did see Ellis Island.

The fading brain takes what it’s offered.

 

My mother’s mother, no instrument

but the clock ticking, the ice clinking

its melt in a bedside tumbler.

 

O, don’t we each have our deaths set

to music? Natural or manmade. The tabla,

the tabor, the steam calliope.

 

Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” playing

tinny through headphones stuck

in someone else’s busy ears. C# minor.

 

What do we hear there at the edge,

the threshold, the dark verge,

when sense, no more than a warm room,

 

echoes emptily? How must the bedside

cello sound, how the car horn, how

the human voice hushing us at the last.

 

If not so much the tension of the song

resolved, at least let it be the force

of the crossing when the humming ceases.

Published in The Massachusetts Review, Volume 57, Number 4, 2016

Winner of the 2017 Anne Halley Prize, "awarded annually for the best poem to appear in the preceding year."

Lot’s Wife

Sometime soon after the embers cooled,

after dust clouds settled, after the last strings

of smoke, hoisted by desert breezes, cleared the air,

 

they must have come, people of those three cities

remaining, to pick among the charred bones,

the rubble of what was once temple and house,

 

stable and brothel; to kick at stones; to tug

at handles of buckets, blades of shovels and spades.

Later, raising ash plumes in the scorched plain,

 

cloths at their mouths and noses, eyes burning,

neither fearful nor repentant but full of wonder,

full of the scavenger’s overabundant hope,

 

they would have found her—even as now

some men encounter the woman of their dreams

(beauty of the movie screen, princess they capture

 

with a camera’s flash, girl whose finger brushes theirs

when she takes their card at the market register)—

found her, that is, not as the person she was

 

but as whom they needed her to be, and, man or woman,

each of them would have wanted a piece of her.

Standing in that wasted landscape,

 

she must have seemed a statue erected there

as a tribute to human frailty, white, crystallized,

her head turned back as if in longing to be the girl

 

she had been in the city she had known.

And they must have stood there, as we do,

a bit awestruck, taking her in for a time,

 

and then, with chisel and knife, spike and buckle,

chipped at her violently and stuffed their leathern

pouches full of her common salt, salt with which

 

to season for a while their meat, their daily bread.

 

Published in The New Yorker, Jan. 2, 2012

 

Returning to Iowa

 

 

Above the just cut field

martins darted through the dusty air,

diminishing astonishingly

the swarms of gnats and moths

orbiting the great round bales,

which sat in their warm compactness

like cakes on racks.

Shadows grinned on the unsunned sides,

and I remember us happy

in a Midwestern way, stretched out

and drowsy, a stop on a trip

to Amana, your hand warm and wet in mine.

A kestrel hovered above the ditch.

A mile off, a pickup made a gray wake

along a gravel road.

A cow crested a hill

and paused to contemplate us.

Some things are not countable in their grace,

so we pine for them,

we remember them with kindness,

we return them to the mouth

to chew them a second time.

Published in Shenandoah, Volume 64, Number 2, 2015

Wild Columbine

 

 

Some bells ring of their own accord.

Some need the boy who pulls the rope

and is lifted off his feet on the upswing.

The pigeons scatter from the tower’s

shaken air. Their paratrooper feathers

storm the shaft of light. By what 

miracle does he recall, years later, 

such ascension, the last time he loved

a church, was lifted, literally, by song? 

These wild columbines are bells

that will never be rung

save by hummingbirds and bees,

drunk on their nectar,

having no knowledge of their reviled name.

Will we ever love that word again?

The heart claps at the sound of it,

but no sound comes, only the flowers

swinging on their stems to lift me,

feet planted like those of the hangman

who watches the hanged man kick the air.

Published in Ploughshares, Spring, 2017

Pretend It Was Just the Wind

 

 

Water crept into our furnished home,

the one in the flood zone but zoned

anyway, and anyway our home,

 

though we spent so little time there.

And now that we’ve moved on,

I think of the outlets sparking out

 

and my guitar rising against the wall

until it fell and became a boat 

that drifted from room to room, 

 

knocking into legs of tables and chairs.

I think of the books the water took

from the shelves and opened

 

at its leisure as it snaked and rose,

the rain still rapping at the roof

and at the swollen windows.

 

And of all the items of our life—

our braided rugs, the dog’s bed

and bowls, the sofa with its pillows,

 

the lamps, the photos, the figurines—

all of them out of their element and into another,

which held them and rocked them gently.

Published in The New Yorker, Jan. 7, 2019

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© 2019 by Gary J. Whitehead