All Souls’ Day in the Poetry Corner

A few months ago I raved about Volume III of Measure, and I hear that I managed to sell a subscription or two.  The same volume reprinted two great poems from Mary Jo Salter that I put aside for All Souls’ Day:  “A Grandfather Clock,” and “Erasers.”  Enjoy.

A Grandfather Clock
— by Mary Jo Salter

for Harold Leithauser

How long since he had wound it, or how often
he’d come down in the dark to pull the weight
of its three pendants, each a rising sun,
nobody knew.  And now it was too late.
There it accused us, like an upright coffin,
of all the things we’d never thought to ask.
But soon his eldest son rose to his task,
opened the fragile panel like a surgeon,

tender in this invasion, and pulled down
the chains that snagged us — skipping like the sawn,
dry breath drawn after tears.  The incomplete
cadence of a quarter hour — and then
his grandchildren, hearts busy as the snow
closing up the place where he had gone,
and flushed with all they knew and didn’t know,
fleshed out the net hour playing at its feet.

(reprinted from Salter’s Unfinished Painting collection)

Erasers
— by Mary Jo Salters

As punishment, my father said, the nuns
would send him and the others
out to the schoolyard with the day’s erasers.

Punishment?  The pounding symphony
of padded cymbals clapped
together at arm’s length overhead

(a snow of vanished alphabets and numbers
powdering their noses
until they sneezed and laughed out loud at last)

was more than remedy, it was reward
for all the hours they’d sat
without a word (except for passing notes)

and straight (or near enough) in front of starched
black-and-white Sister Martha,
like a conductor raising high her chalk

baton, the only one who got to talk.
Whatever did she teach them?
And what became of all those other boys,

poor sinners, who had made a joyful noise?
My father likes to think,
at seventy-five, not of the white-on-black

chalkboard from whose crumbled negative
those days were never printed,
but of word-clouds where unrecorded voices

gladly forgot themselves.  And that he still
can say so, though all the lessons,
most of the names, and (he doesn’t spell

this out) it must be half the boys themselves,
grew up and dispersed
as soldiers, husbands, fathers, now are dust.

(reprinted from Salter’s Open Shutters collection)

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