365 Degrees

Tom Johnson
Poetry Editor


To Feel the Eggshell

The first time my heart was broken
Mama handed me a dustpan and a broom.
Then she told me this story:

      My great-aunt Ophelia had two children.
One day the little ones followed a cloud
of lavender butterflies into the woods,
enticed by the wind-chime flutter of wings.

      By suppertime they hadn't come home.
Ophelia called and called. But no answer,
only the silence of early lightning bugs, glowing
green-gold in the branches of the pear trees.

      Late that evening, she and Uncle Benny
finally found their babies, arms and legs akimbo
like sleeping rag dolls, face down
in a patch of deadly nightshade —
their mouths full of blackish berries,
their fingers grubby with purple juice.

      And burdened by the weight of her name,
what could Ophelia do but go crazy?
Benny caught her wandering their garden
in her pink flannel gown, clutching a turnip,
mumbling Italian sonnets to the arch-angel Gabriel.

      He hated to do it, but Uncle Benny
sent her to the state sanitarium.
He cried when the doctors took her away,
sprinkled his overalls with her lemon verbena,
wore her aprons while he plowed.

      The doctors put Ophelia to work washing dishes,
great stacks of heavy green-rimmed plates.
She scrubbed for four weeks straight,
night and day, chanting strange prayers:

      "Dear God, thank you
for the blue delphinium,
the long-handled rake.
It's good to feel the eggshell
crack against the bowl.
Bless the mole and the weevil.
Let us have fennel-seed cake for dinner.
The world is weary with the smell of mothballs."

      The doctors took her for a hopeless case.
Told Benny breaking the spell of a mother's grief
was more difficult than catching moonlight in a jelly jar.

      But one morning, the kitchen sweet
with the scent of mock orange,
Ophelia stared hard out the open window
and told the nurse standing guard:
"I'm tired of washing dishes.
If you let me go home,
I promise I won't be crazy."

      Ophelia had another baby,
a little girl born with puckered fingers.
She named her Belladonna.
Rocked her to sleep every night humming
"Claire de Lune."

Ars Poetica

Sunporch-blue summer,
105° ,
a yellow dress
slung across the back of a chair.
She sleeps
in panties and bra;
the ceiling fan clicks
a small litany of wind,
moves the chimes —
a silver sound she hears
as dreams of water.
She is waiting for a lover,
the man who will bring
a bouquet of gladiola
and his mother s ring.
He is late, as usual.
When he arrives,
he finds her
on a chintz sofa handpainted
with lemon-colored roses.
Her skin a fever, he draws his finger
down each vertebra, but still
she does not wake.
He scatters the gladiola petals,
then departs
without the requisite kiss —
learning none of her secrets,
but happy
in a way he cannot name.

To the Boy in the Navy Peacoat
on the 3rd Floor of the University Library

Hey you with the x-ray vision,
boy with neon-blue eyes,
did you notice anything unusual under my sweater,
once you'd stripped me down to my panties and bra?
Did you see how patches of my skin glisten with scales,
shimmer like sequins on Nina Simone's gown?
Yeah, well, I moonlight as a mermaid
singing the blues five fathoms deep,
swimming the reef with a couple of dusky damselfish
and one mean son-of-a-bitch nassau grouper.
And you better believe I can take you down,
but you just might get lost in the rare rose coral,
the brittle passages of fire — millepora complanata,
porites furcata, madracis mirbilis, acropora palmata

I'm into the spell of words,
equally adept with magic on land or at sea,
but all those sailors drowned because they wanted to.
I have no power over fate.
So, hey, think twice before you begin this fairytale
about what it means
to find your dream girl.

Postcards from Weldon Kees

Argentina's not as full of Nazis
as you'd think.

Dark women sit on white balconies
brushing their hair —
exquisite black orchids in moonlight.

No one would ever dream to die
for poetry.

Desire is stupid,
but I've forgotten why.

Two hours on the beach
doused in coconut oil,
sipping a Long Island tea,
I watched a sailboat
make its way to the horizon,
propelled by the invisible.

Walking in the hills,
I came upon the ruin of a church,
small turquoise birds
perched on crumbling ochre walls.

I thought of God's logic —
how he made me in his image.

All I did was close my eyes,
stick a pin in a map,
and this is how it ended.

Melissa Morphew, a native of Tennessee who is currently living in Bishopville and teaching at Morris College in Sumter, was the first Ph.D. graduate of the University of Georgia to do a dissertation in creative writing. Widely published in national magazines, she has received the Randall Jarrell International Poetry Prize, and won the Hackney Award four times.

© Copyright by POINT, 1996
Last modified 11/26/96