Virginia Smith


[mauve, yellow]

      a cento after Larry Levis


She complains to her three distinct, personal gods:
          eyes, lips, dreams. No one. The sky and the road.

To be whole, and lonely again, the tongue tries to
          go back down the throat, wallpapered with cries

of birds: astonished whites and reds. And when
           it seems possible to disappear into someone,

absence takes the shape of beaten snow,
          sleep without laughter, vines twisted into

different kinds of silence -- gray, vagrant,
           the color of cold sky, wind the size of a wrist.

A body wants to be held and held and
           what can you do about that? One day she will

fall through herself like an anvil, a girl's comb,
          a feather, into a world where even words grow

thin and transparent, like pale wings of ants
           that fly out of the oldest houses. Slowly

she will become a light summer dress,
           a random mauve or yellow that celebrates

nothing except mauve or yellow, as if no one
           is ever at home inside a name -- without a name

the body can be anyone's, a small bitter seed
           of tongue, a world uninhabited, without visitors,

beams and window glass letting go of themselves.





[sparks of a lantern from a river boat]

      Corpses of the slain lay entwined,
      Unburied, uncovered, scattered far and wide,

      Envious that I alone could go home --
      “How can you bear to leave us behind?”
                                        - Ts-ai Yen (c. A.D. 200)

Here, at the edge of sky, white
          bones cover the plain. Lying

in the open, they won't be buried --
           crows may have them.

Yellow weeds grow on the old
          city wall below unbroken clouds,

a barrier piling cliffs upon crags
           where blues darken and sink away.

Between earth and sky, a gull alone.
           In courtyards overrun with thorns

and brambles, a wilderness moon
           floods garden nooks, plum flowers

all fallen and gone, red
           petals rising from purple stems.

Moon thins, and magpies cease to fly --
           a dog barks amid the sound of water.

I look out on a great river.
           I rinse my mouth and wash my feet,

sparks of a lantern from a river boat
          the only light. Beneath the steps,

clustered sedge glitters with dew --
          I am home, and close the gate.



My daughter is afraid of ghosts
          I can't see. Show me, I say --

she points to the foot of stairs
          where a small girl appears,

wet, edging round the room
          until I cross over and lift her up,

soaking the front of my blouse.
          She is thirsty so I give her

water to drink that streams
          through sheer skin and gathers

in pools as I carry her to the door.
           What she wants is to go back

to the sea, so I take her out
          in cold rain to the river, step in,

and release her. For a moment
           I imagine light tugs at my ankles,

myself afraid, before
          fingers loosen and wash away.

In the house it is quiet, then a thud
          from upstairs, a scraping step.

What's that, I ask -- my daughter
          answers, now comes the mom.

***Section i. of "[sparks of a lantern from a river boat]" is a cento using lines from various translated Chinese poems as they appear in Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry, Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1975. The epigraph is also a cento using lines from various translated poems of Ts-ai Yen (c. AD 200,) as they appear in Sunflower Splendor.




[red wanders to red]

      a cento after Paul Celan


Red wanders to red, like poppies and
          memory. It steps toward me on steady feet,

gives me a veil. “Take this for dreaming,”
          says its stitchery. More than the dove,

more than the mulberry, Autumn nibbles its leaf
           from my hand, wearing rings that are rusting.

What's dead put its arms around you, too--
          hushed tongues that don't split off No from Yes,

so that a mouth might thirst for this, later--
           voices veined with night, vibrating consonants,

ropes we hang the bell on. Unseen cathedrals,
          rivers unheard, clocks deep in us are all hands,

like russet thorntrees in blossom,
           in gorselight--hands we try teaching to sleep.

Muteness is roomy, a house that ticks toward us,
          a green silence, a sepal. I lie beside you, empty,

audible, our conversation daygray.
          There is earth inside words that bloom red--

like slender dog roses they break loose,
           they float. We speak with blinded mouths,

seagreen needles stitching the split. I leaf
          you open, uncurling each word from snow.







In the wilds there is a dead doe;
           in white rushes it is wrapped.

Mornings we gather rushes to thatch,
          evenings we braid them into ropes.

In the wilds lies a dead deer,
           wrapped and bound with white rushes.

I linger, twining cassia sprigs into a knot
          and binding ivy vines neatly into a sheaf.

Crows slowly unravel her eyelashes and pupils,
          her face becomes wings.

In the wilds there is a dead doe;
           the rushes and reeds grow dark.


In your room is an unanswered note;
          in plain linen words it is wrapped.

Mornings we gather phrases to share,
           evenings we braid them into ropes.

In your room a note lifts and falls,
           wrapped and bound with plain words.

I linger, twining loss into lines
          and binding grief neatly into a sheaf.

Silence slowly unravels my mouth and tongue,
           my voice wings into empty white.

In your room is an unanswered note;
          words blur and grow still in the dark.



***Section i. of "[morendo]" is a cento using lines from various translated Chinese poems as they appear in Sunflower Splendor, and from poems by Larry Levis.


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