The Dance of Death in La Ferté Loupiere

There is what I love in this church – the
plainness of stone as if it had been scrubbed
and scoured, as if it were cleaner.
The floor like a floor of bone, washed by death.
I want this argument to be human;
I want to explain why each time
I feel as if I might stagger, even as I blame
God, for not existing, or for existing
in such forms. Against the mud wall, the
painting uncovered during the Great War.
The plaque dates it from the 11th
century, the figures pellucid, each outlined
in a wavering line of black, slightly flat, yet
dreadfully precise. A parade: fat woman with
a loaf of bread, fringed boy holding
his falcon. And the boy wants a kiss
on his cheek. The woman wants sugar.
And the exchequer in blue velvet wishes
to disarticulate his neighbor. And the painter,
brush held at his lips. There is a grief at
the heart of this – like the frozen song of the
mockingbird at 3:00 a.m. Death is the only
happy one, gliding past on tightly-shod feet,
his baize cloak. He can touch any one
of them right through, visions of what sweets
they might possess
. And he is why each
time I step back out blinded into the square,
with its one pizza parlor, its promise of
ice cream, the world turns beneath me
and I sit down, holding myself as if by the hands.
Only this
sun on stone, musty smell of the
pines and the raspberries growing like secrets
on the high canes in the churchyard.


Poem for Thule

If I call you calamity I keep circling this
same field where you are not. And yet perhaps
that is where the damage opens, as the wound
opens to whatever is inside it. Pus and blood,
the leaking out, which could be in some world –
if not this one – a trope for belonging. You
will guess what I am trying to do: find a way to
rename you I can believe in, so I am not merely here,
scrabbling amid stones. This weekend, I planted
all for myself a garden, spread the manure on the
seedlings, that smell – rich and almost unpleasant
of used life. I thought every one would die, but
they did not, even though for a whole week I neglected
to water them. If I neglect you this way what does
it mean that you keep returning? I have given up the
notion of recompense – stranded in how to live
between. Yet like a vapor or mist I still rename
you for myself the beautiful thing, invent a
location where you hold me as a magnet
pins pure north – tundra where the icy forms
linger – pristine, unchanging, the remnants of
every explorer, their packaged meals and sextants,
scrawled journals of what they missed, even
the apple core, emerging from the ice as if new-
minted, smelling of orchards.



The game we played, moving from tenement to
drug deal. From the film by Goddard
where the dismal project buildings at the
edge of Paris are refigured as galaxies,
the rusty Saab a rocket ship. A character’s
breathless voice-over of traversing
supernovas, penetrating deep into the un-
charted regions, ringed planets, a sweep of
bald meteors, continents of galactic dust.
Purple twilight of November, the city
about to assume its diamond coldness –
halogen street lights and steam
from manholes. We never knew
what the men on the stoop were thinking.
The one from the building next door who
fiddled with his knife – spinning it
on its point, or using it to carve a mango
to fleshy ribbon. His buddies with their
earnest performance of “The Waterfall of Cards,”
games of dice and three card monte, the girls
who moved through as if underwater. Call
our lives a drowning – hands lifted as if
to pull in or ward off. We walked
Amsterdam to Columbus and back,
a chemical warmth, a sudden lapse into liquid
space. Who can say how far we were
going? Yards, light years, such a falling
and falling inside. Revelation – the grille
of the bagel bakery at 5:00 am, the women
with their white headscarves, loading
the heavy trays on the silver carts,
wheat smell and sesame seed between
our teeth. You never even wanted to eat,
but the bread in their hands, blooming from the
solar glare of ovens, coins passed through the
bullet-proof windows, and behind the street,
stirring like a river in snow-melt season – humped
shapes, roar of cars, men as seasons walking.
Our own tiny planet – rooms that smelled of
smoke or perfume, and the sheets
smoother than we could have pictured as
we let each day fade to oblivion.


How to be From Michigan

You never forget how to be from Michigan
with Minnesota next door mysterious as a blue
bench filled with acorn and birdseed. You
never forget how to drive a stickshift, the
mystery of muscle memory, or how to ache
at the sound of that one name, that one shape
in the air. You never forget the map in your
head – the one that leads you back to black-
oil lake, chicken-fenced warehouse, to the
taut lives you glimpsed riding the bus to work
that year of epic hope and black-oil despair.
You never forget how to bone a trout and
to fry it in the black iron skillet until it is crisp
on the outside, lake-tender within. Or the
word Michigan itself as it takes shape in
your mouth, the lake bone, the notched twig,
the rift you hold – that close-mouth secret.




[Sheila Black is the author of two poetry collections, House of Bone and Love/Iraq, (both CW Press). She recently co-edited with poets Jennifer Bartlett and Mike Northen Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (Cinco Puntos Press), named a Notable Book for 2012 by the American Library Association (ALA). A third collection Wen Kroy is forthcoming from Dream Horse Press. She received a 2012 Witter Bynner Fellowship in Poetry from the Library of Congress, selected by recent US Poet Laureate Philip Levine.]

Copyright © 2012 by Sheila Black, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.