for Billy Collins
Whatever actually happened at Yang-ping’s house
during that winter, there were seasons before and after
in which nothing happened. Rowboat’s skiffled along
rain-washed river bottoms, rocky but not impassable.
There wasn’t always a drunken moon or salty stars
in a black bowl of sky. A heron followed the boat
seeking clues about the lady in the wide-brimmed hat,
a blue ribbon trailing the wind like its mate’s feathers.
The tail of Scorpio slashed the wild sky. The woman
blinded by icy stars, could have been mistaken for a wizened
Chinaman, thousands of years old. The silent river spilled
no secrets about temptation or regret. The woman who navigated
these waters held a compass that could turn her boat around,
change to any direction. She planted her long legs solidly
on its wooden floor, a book open and faced down
beside her written by a man who’d traveled similar waters.
Many winters before, too many to record in a hand-painted chart,
a Chinaman paddled a river, his oars dripping stars.
Me, as Another Country
Were my body another country, I wish
I’d be France, cloying dark-chocolate dirtying
the cup, my hair fanned out to a parasol drawing
the salty seas of magic, Brittany or Reims
with its smiling angels, pillars of legs and rosy
stained glass eyes. My skin would be marbleized
fruit in a courtyard in Champagne and me emptied
entirely of chattering desire, rained-on slick
and urgent as an alley fills up with geraniums
in window boxes. How peppery-wild the air
as I decay in the yeasty breeze of baguettes rising
off the window-ledges, how sleek and sinewy I am
as I exist only for the purpose of language and holy smells.
Barges shuffle along like old men, meandering
these crooked elbows, no point of destination,
no solution in the grit of lapping canal-water,
how cleansing to be logy-busy, grenouille
or libellule, how freeing I have become, how pure.
April in Moscow
after Billy Collins
A letter never sent is a kind of purgatory. -Chekhov
After Helsinki, the colors of Moscow entranced me, all those
shades of blood, so I spent morning after morning walking
or taking the metro, popping out of the ground, like a Warhol
Locust. Turning my face to the sun, I’d breathe in Red Square,
while I worked myself up to a steaming bowl of borscht.
I wished I had been a healthy beet instead of a caramelized
onion, clearly different than my bustling camerados.
I walked along whistling “America” or chanting a song of myself;
everyone smoked here, even five year old boys. I’d pass
waitresses flexing their tired calves after a shift, rings of smoke
rising off them like birthday candles. I’d pass bankers and
civil servants, uncomfortable in their ill-fitting suits. They
would have left their cubbies in a hurry, beds messy, a fly swatter
at the ready in a burst of sudden self-loathing. Sometimes,
I would pass an unsent letter by Chekhov, awkward in his papery skin,
clearly aiming for a mail slot. Once, I saw a gaunt smoker,
unsure, perhaps shy: he disappeared down a side street where
I heard keening. Another joined him and they fought in the alley.
Whoever had done them wrong was still waiting for an answer,
Distraught and tortured, they would never satisfy with a reply.
In all my travels, in all my years of departures or arrivals,
sad faces at railroad stations, nothing had prepared me for this.
I had denied all my life what I secretly knew inside, somewhere
someone was waiting for one of these smokey eyed dreamers
to show up, to appear out of the blue swinging a picnic basket
of answers to thoughts reluctantly silenced. I sit with a bowl
of tasteless roots, a few bitter potatoes, before I make my way
to a yeasty café with strong coffee. Which is why, the postman
through the window will see me as he knocks at the neighbor’s door,
pursing beet-stained lips, murmuring gibberish to an empty envelope.
Dinner With the Ghost of Rilke
Come here, to the candlelight.
I’m not afraid to look on the dead.
I was confused by snakes looping
around your neck, the little girl voice that you had
to swallow in order to please your mother. I told you
as you twirled a red flag to draw away the slathering
wolves that you would never disappoint me.
The crumbling bridge where we said our goodbyes
all those years ago must even now contain
the echoes of our voices sleeping in its seams.
How many inexhaustible nights did I stay awake
to answer your letters? You asked me to steal something
risky, something I couldn’t take back across the street.
Greedy for praise I filled my pockets with
sugar. Outside the café the night becomes a snow globe.
Held in your gaze, winter takes me back.
Playing Billiards, London, 1980
We should have spent the night together. I kept filling
the jukebox with 10p pieces, your magic coins. Mick crooned
wantonness, his lips fuller than the moon, but I paid it
no mind. And it was one of those nights when we all waited
for something to happen. Balls bounced off the cue. The boys
beat me with every round, I finally gave up. My poems listened
for something real from me, not a stage or a description
of barns peeling red loss. I am telling it to you straight as I shoot
the ball into the corner pocket. You were miles away listening,
the whole world there for you right then, and me in the peripheral,
not so much. It started snowing. In the city, grey flakes fell
but not for you where you were. You were hurrying to catch
your life up with mine, the snow-white words tumbling
and dissolving before they hit the ground, waiting to be said.
The day before, I forage in the
woods to make a wreath.
The time of year to gather and pray.
I am putting my life into a circle.
I twist wire and cut boughs,
Baby’s breath and pink ribbons—
I put away my old grief, my tired complaints.
I have put you there too, old loves—
Acorns for your eyes, blue jay feathers
for your eyes—I am putting my best
black Spanish hat there, my fastest
bicycle from a favorite Christmas.
I am putting my worn shoes there–
Cobblestones from Prague alleys,
Street lamps from Paris. I am pouring
a glass of autumn cider and cutting up
shrimp toast to add to the wreath. I am
picking daffodils and catching lake turtles—
The sun in my face, I am putting it all
there, around the edges.
When stars fall—
I catch one, I run out of wishes before stars—
But the one that falls into my hands,
like the baseball that never did in school,
I put that on the wreath, too.
It shines brightest, it lets me work
through the night, it illuminates your faces
while each of you sleep and I sing your names
into the fragrant morning
Laurie Byro’s poems have been published widely in university press, often in the Paterson Literary Review, Chronogram and Grasslimb. Her work can be googled on-line and in the Guardian Unlimited workshop. She was thrice nominated for “The Pushcart Prize” and has won or placed in 43 IBPC competitions. Laurie was named “Poet of the Decade” by the IBPC competition for her 2000-2010 work. Toi Derricotte awarded her 2nd place for “The Lost Daughter” 2012 Poem of the Year. Her work was recently published in St. Peter’s B-List. Her children’s poem "A Captain's Cat" appeared in a textbook "Measuring up to the Illinois Learning Standards" and has now been set to music by Walter Hilse. Laurie’s “Circle of Voices” poetry discussion is currently at the West Milford Township where she is Poet in Residence.