Poems - Bio - Prose
For weeks I didn't water Mother's fern
that paled beneath the eaves . Among the wilting
fronds two doves
sat still in solid watch,
ceramic thieves, eyes round and dark and stern.
One day the male was gone, the mother
beside two downy young, necks thin with spring.
I ached at their beginning, fed from her mouth,
watched for flight. I didn't see their wings--
one day the nest was empty, just in time
to drench the fern and coax
it back to life.
All this coming and going such a fragile rhythm:
water and sun, withhold and give, nurse and free
My mother in a darkened room had packed for flight.
Her face like polished marble, set past sight.
Sometimes there isn't
a solid rhyme
or reason why a man says no--
or a woman--and when Clyde Miller saw the men in suits
rolls of maps in their hands and trouble
he asked them what the hell
they wanted on his land, and one said, "Marry
cattle and oil and your son will marry
rich," and that's about
all the rhyming,
greasy truth they had and he said, "Why the hell
would I do that?" He chewed his mouth,
this type, this pitch. Man said, "We'll make no trouble
for you," but he had sweat rings on his
Clyde sipped yellow coffee and thought it suitable
more to ask the cows if they could marry
the trappings and machinery, noise and trouble,
to the quiet of birth,
the peaceful rhythm
of long Texas afternoons, shimmer of heat, no
sound but cropping grass and lazy flies, no hellish
rigs that suck the country's health.
If cows could voice a claim, could
bring a suit
against the creaking monsters, skeletal and no
friend to life in natural terms, they'd marry
oil to cattle, but reason to rhyme
and live the tested ways, not buy a heap of trouble.
Clyde Miller'd always thought the trouble
with stiff-collared men was they didn't get it: hell
is what you do today, not some rhyme
of frogs and princes better suited
for some pigtailed girl who dreams she'll
in glass slippers, wash sweet smells of work from her nose--
the dust that blows uncluttered through the sage (no
other smell like it), a man's sweat, the trouble
young'uns tumbling in the door. Let her marry
the silent stretch of Texas nights, rout heaven from the hell
work. "Don't suit,"
he said, and turned away in his own drawling rhythm.
The screen door slapped hell no against those suits,
that trouble, and dust rose biting from back
dusk air, and dissolved in the rhythm of a cooper's hawk, circling high.
We Will Have Ghosts
________________________________________________________________________________________Poems - Bio - Prose
published We Will Have Ghosts, a chapbook, in 2012. In Baltimore for a year's residence, she shares her observations
on the city and its people on her website in Fell Street Footnotes. She has recently completed her first novel, The Architecture of Retreat, a story about Abbey Livingstone, a landscape architect whose interest
in labyrinths and retreats mirrors her labyrinthine past and her challenge to emerge from its shadows.
-from The Architecture of Retreat
Nelson County, Kentucky
From the pergola at her home near
Bardstown, Kentucky. Abbey listened for the bells from St. Benny’s right on the accustomed hour, heard a muffled call
to terce, third prayer of the day, 9:00 a.m. She twirled her pencil, pressed on with the redesign of a landscape
plan for the Robbins’ estate just outside Lexington. The wind whipped the corners of the draft sheet. She reached
absently for a couple of the rocks she kept in a bowl to anchor her work.
The couple she had been
designing a landscape for would be returning from Europe any day now, and if the e-mails they had bombarded the firm with
were any indication, Marlene Robbins had lost her mind. She and Phil had bought reproductions of Roman garden statues, and
now Marlene wanted an allée, à la Versailles, defining the three sides of the land behind the house, so that
guests could enjoy grandeur while they sunned by the pool. A perfectly bucolic meadow stretching to the river had given way
to this extravaganza of château and be-fountained esplanade.
The firm Abbey worked for was
in in a stew. The entire back elevation of the house had to be redesigned to accommodate the couple’s new Baroque
vision—indeed rebuilt, since the house’s shell was already coming to completion. Thank goodness she was working
from home and could avoid the atmospheric contagion of an office in turmoil. She did better in silence, managing only her
own reactions to crisis.
Eight years earlier, Abbey had forged a consultancy with Conlan Associates,
Architects, despite her misgivings about the firm’s president, Frank Conlan. Conlan had been the only studio in central
Kentucky who had been interested in hiring her, with her scant experience in landscape design, a degree she’d earned
in her thirties. With two children to support, she’d been desperate for work. She had branded herself a sell-out for
working for Frank Conlan, but the bitterness she’d hung onto for years had subsided and then dissolved over time. She
liked the interesting designs Conlan brought to fruition, and she had grown with the challenges he gave her. At last an
exclusive arrangement had been formalized, and, although she could take on a smattering of independent projects, Conlan
was the only architectural firm she worked with. Her actual contact with the president had proved minimal and all business.
He was not discourteous. In fact, he showed her a great deal of professional respect, but if he seemed to study her sometimes,
if he seemed to look at her intently and a second longer than normal on occasion, he essentially remained distant. She wasn’t
sorry. Specs usually came from him through junior associates. Meetings were focused and tight. An ugly old history hung
in the air, but she mostly shrugged it away. Work. The only remedy.
For now, she set aside the real
crisis in her life, the one a phone call had announced around this time yesterday, for this professional inconvenience.
The last person Abbey had expected when she answered her mobile was her second husband’s second former wife. Etienne
Sévier was dead, the woman said. Already Abbey doubted this hysterical, garbled news about a man she had learned
never to trust. It’s likely she’d been right to doubt.
For now, she was concentrating
on figuring out how to incorporate an outdoor “creative” play area, just out of sight. The conundrum of the moment:
creative for the children, or creative in order to keep the area hidden? Might she satisfy both?
work had drawn the Robbins’ attention initially because of the small, inviting spaces she had designed for two city
parks, a large industrial complex, and a number of churches in Central Kentucky. Her perception of the paradox of cities
and work spaces built for humans yet dehumanized, and churches that housed the many but neglected space for the individual
led her to a consuming interest for what she came to call “retreat design.” She liked to imagine people being
led, in spite of their busy and purposeful selves, along a path that quieted their minds, then gave them a small opening
where they might sit or walk, where their unconscious might allow rest or even lead them to ideas they could use to solve
the issues of their day.
A way in that offered a new way to go gradually out became
her prevailing goal.
St. Benny’s lessons had ingrained themselves deeply on her contemplative
life but also as an ideal for how to live in the world. Retreat. Everyone needs a retreat of some sort. If I find subtle
ways to impose that notion, won’t it make a difference in lives carried out in so much noise?
The Robbins had liked the idea of pathways, benches, and fountains that would surprise their guests, and Abbey had
enjoyed creating a pleasing plan using aspects of their beautiful property to gaze at from the house and to enjoy up close.
She had retained the wooded feel with pebble paths, tree-seats, a mossy picnic bower, a little children’s playground
with a goldfish pond, and a stone love seat at the end of a hidden stretch of lawn. Beyond, as one exited the pathways,
appeared a view beyond compare of valley and river below the bluff. She fell in love with the property and the plan, certainly
grander than anything she would likely own, but alive in her idea of the marriage of earth and home.
She stood, straightened her jeans, and walked slowly along the covered walk that extended her simple
house on her own land. The house and garden sat on the wooded hill above her childhood farm and home, now occupied by another
family. Beyond, her view stretched to rolling hills, now a pointillism of greening, and to dots of houses and curves of
roads appearing, then sliding away. Here, she could think, finger over ideas and concerns, find a circle of peace. The pavement
under the pergola was slate, the columns, sturdy square-cut cedar posts. Above, openings vied with cross-vine and honeysuckle
so that light dappled the walk, sometimes more, sometimes less.
She started each day with this walk,
sometimes returned to it, like this afternoon, when redbuds showered their blossoms on young grass and dogwood buds strained
toward birth. On the terraced level below, she had devised a labyrinth, a sand path delineated with inlaid stones from the
river. Just another form of hopscotch, she thought with amusement, recalling her daughters’ childhood name
for all the labyrinths they had visited and walked on their expeditions. But the labyrinth meant much more, of course. It
literally grounded her, and in its center she found her own center. She found comfort in the order she had built at last.
The girls both lived in Lexington, Claire with her young family and Gen with her husband and her work as a family lawyer.
The phone rang. She’d forgotten, again, to silence it, Now every time her cell phone
broke the silence with its cheerful little jazz riff, she lurched with dread. She shook her head, got her mind into gear
for speaking French. That will be Hugo with arrival information.
that ring had interrupted her muttering following the Robbins’ call explaining their new vision. “Give me just
one small break,” she’d whispered as she’d picked up the phone. When she thought about it later, over
and over again, everything moved in her memory like a movie sequence: she’d turned her chair, picked up a pen and notepad,
A wailing on the line had stunned her. The sound of weeping, then the wet voice Abbey
half-recognized. “Ab…Abbey,” her name garbled with tears. “Ten’s dead!” Her mind
had raced to identify the voice, one she hadn’t heard often, but one she certainly knew. After a few moments, she
had it: Judith, Ten’s second wife.
Abbey had been thrown back into Etienne Sévier’s
life after his divorce from Judith. He’d called out of the blue and asked if he could come to her house to talk. He
needed a favor only she could provide. He had wanted Abbey to be contacted in case of an accident, or worse, and
for her to inform his sister, Hélène, in Paris. Judith didn’t speak French and had never met Ten’s
family. He had returned to Paris every year or so, but Judith never accompanied him. She was terrified of flying.
Abbey had agreed to his odd request, so many years after their stormy parting. But time tends to erase unpleasant memories
and saves the bright ones, and she’d felt half-nostalgic about reconnecting with his sister and the nephew, André,
who’d spent two summers with them. But not like this, not this kind of connection.
now, Judith,” Abbey had pleaded. She could hear her own voice, like an echo. It didn’t sound like her voice.
It floated underwater, and everything blurred before her eyes—the garden, the house, the valley below, where she and
Ten had lived. Beautiful and compelling Ten. Impossible Ten.
Finally, Abbey had
gathered herself. “Listen. I need to understand you, Judith. What happened?”
goddam shot himself. That’s what they think. Those guns. He’s dead, Abbey. I know he’s dead, even if they
can’t find him.”
“Judith, stop,” Abbey said. “What? This makes no sense.
Who told you this?”
“One of those guys he hung out with called me. They worked on their
cars and so on. Friends of Ed Hollimon.” She choked up again and seemed unable to go on.
urged her to continue. “Who’s Ed Hollimon?”
“He’s the one who owns the
house where Ten lived.”
“So that’s who called you?”
“No, no. Bruce…Bruce Mason. He’s the one. He told me Ed invited Ten to hunt turkeys with his usual group.
It was the first time he’d done that, since Ten really wasn’t a hunter. He just liked guns. You know how he
was.” She wept again. Abbey paced. She waited. This is like water-drip torture.
last, Judith got hold of herself again.
“The man said they’d gone out to somebody’s
farm up north of here.” By here, Abbey figured, she meant Lexington. “Bruce said Ten went somewhere
off by himself, down a fence line out of sight, and then, maybe twenty minutes later, he and the others heard a shot from
Judith stopped again, as though that were all.
Is that all?”
“It’s just that…” The woman paused, firmed her voice,
and forged on. “Bruce went down there to see if Ten had gotten a turkey, and Ten’s guns and hunting vest were
there, and there was blood on the ground and everything, but Ten wasn’t there. I know he shot himself. I just know
Abbey couldn’t speak. No body? None of it made any sense.
“Judith, how can you be so sure he killed himself if there’s no body. That doesn’t add up, does it?”
“Bruce found a note in his vest pocket. It said It’s enough. I’m gone. Then
there was a quote in it. I didn’t quite get it. I just think he was lonely.”
images raced through her mind—all the guns he’d collected, the gun shows he used to go to, buying more guns than
anyone could ever use. All those times he talked about suicide. A bullet in the mouth, the cleanest end, he’d
called it. “I hated those guns,” she thought, but found she’d said it out loud. Judith heard her.
“Me, too,” Judith said. “We used to fight about them all the time. I didn’t want those guns around
my little boy, but Ten took him out and taught him how to shoot. It’s one reason…”
“No need to go there, Judith,” Abbey said. Judith had left Ten and married a race-horse owner in Versailles
a month later. It was evident there was more than one reason their marriage came to end.
Judith she’d call her after she’d spoken with Bruce Mason and, if possible, Hollimon. She was going to have
to call Ten’s family in Paris. She’d made a promise, but she’d never predicted anything like this.
Ten had swept Judith off her feet when she was barely thirty, with a young son. Abbey knew what it
was like to be enticed by a Frenchman’s accent and a showy savoir-faire. She also understood Judith’s desire
for a father for her child. Ten had been too old for Judith and had been too…well, everything Abbey knew he’d
been, knew firsthand. That marriage had seen far more tumult than the one Abbey had suffered with him, but it seemed to have
been simpler, just straightforward fighting between two volatile people, according to Abbey’s daughters who had gladly
accepted the couple’s invitations to dinner during their college years. On these outings, Claire and Gen would intervene
and cajole them to peace or make fun of them until they stopped. It hadn’t been a good match, to put it mildly.
Abbey started to tell herself that theirs hadn’t been a good match, either, but she wasn’t
so sure of that. She’d been in love with him, or…he’d insisted that they were in love, and he’d
been attentive and romantic and, she supposed, convincing. Maybe she could have done more back then to fix what had been
wrong once they were married. She should have had the character to take a stand against his tyrannical—not too strong
He’d been more like an actor than a real person. Ten had posed. Ten
acted as if he possessed inside knowledge that made him an expert in every corner of life, as if being European, especially
French, gave him insight and wisdom unattainable in young, crass America. How to cook, how to drive a car, how to dress—what
didn’t Ten know? He had an opinion on everything, often glaringly wrong, but he’d dismiss her arguments with
a flourish of hand and a crude suggestion and leave the room. Friends appeared to enjoy the energy he brought to dinner
parties, but she remembered their raised eyebrows, too, their minds factoring away his grandstanding.
Okay. He’d been smart and charming and wickedly handsome--and spoiled and self-serving. Often, he’d
been dear to her, telling her that she was his “great romance,” the one they wrote books and plays about. Never
mind that those “great romances” were mostly tragedies.
With the girls, he could be
funny and spontaneous and attentive. They still remembered the silly French songs and tongue-twisters he taught them, and
she hadn’t forgotten that he’d paid for Claire’s piano lessons and Gen’s art camp. On the other hand,
they hadn’t quite filed away his unreasonable outbursts and punishments over small infractions. It had taken years
for Abbey to realize how her efforts to keep peace in the household had whittled away her energy. Over time, her daughters
edged further and further away from him, never knowing which Ten would show up.
too, that he’d been frightened in his “borrowed country.” Abbey remembered how much she had felt the need
to establish a firm identity when she lived in France. One wants people to know one has a past, a full life history somewhere,
an arsenal of culture. That’s one reason she’d stayed with him so long, always excusing him. What had kept him
here? Her, for one. Then Judith. And pride.
She couldn’t help but think that she could have
done more in the past few months, as well. She’d sensed that he’d been at loose ends. After he had made that
contact with her after eleven years, he began to phone her every few weeks. He bragged to her about the married woman he
was having an affair with. Carol. A woman with three small children.
“You should let that
go,” Abbey had urged Ten, but he’d seemed obnoxiously cavalier about her. Later, however, he told Abbey that
the affair had ended, and he’d seemed sincerely sad to lose her.
Eventually, Abbey had gone
out to dinner with him one night, and it had been pleasant to talk with him and to hear about his relatives, his trips to
Paris. He’d been so fond of his nephew, the lovely André who had visited them, and his godson, Hugo, whom Abbey
hadn’t met. Ten had been proud of both boys. He’d loved indulging them, giving them lavish gifts and, undoubtedly,
his brand of wisdom as though they were his own sons—Hugo, especially, after Hugo’s father died.
She had scolded herself, once home, once the recollections had faded. He’d kissed her cheek, had put his arm on her
shoulder when he’d brought her home. She’d shivered perceptibly, and he’d laughed, misinterpreting her
reaction. Then he’d called, and when he asked her out again, she refused. She couldn’t think of anything less
appropriate, she’d told him, than starting up again. This time his laughter had carried a tinge of bitterness.
Then he’d called just three weeks ago and left a message on her machine, but she hadn’t
called back. His voice had sounded flat, maybe sad. But she’d figured she couldn’t be the one to take care of
him. He had his friends. He had his family in France. He had a new job he’d said he liked. He would be okay.
And maybe he was, she thought. If he shot himself, what happened to his body? Where the heck was he? The questions
roiled and tumbled and found no sustainable purchase. Either way, she still had phone calls to make.
What, Abbey wondered, have I gotten myself into?
Poems - Bio - Prose