Two Poems

When She Gave Me the Book of Difficult Words

I began to make up my own:
one for a stone the size of a fist,
one for the stickiness of plucked figs
when they are almost but not quite ripe.
I thought of the tip of a mermaid’s tongue,
the sound a painting teacher’s eyes
make when they say You’re not welcome.
First cry of  a swimming child
when her hands slip off a unicorn float.
Last hoot of a little Greek owl
before dawn summons small goats.
Even how she’d wrapped the book in ribbons
and paper that shimmered with foxes.
How could I have known my son would say
goodbye to her so simply, clearly,
his life taking on new syllables
he’s still trying to pronounce.

How to Lose Your Perfect Child

Dress them in purple shorts at the beach.
Wear purple yourself—but a different shade
so no one will know you are ripe plums
attached to the same leafy branch.
Hold their hand to make a show
of parental love, nurturing love—then
let them wander away and further
than any love would find safe.
Pretend you are too busy to notice,
lighting a cigarette, scratching a bite,
rubbing lotion on your own pale legs
as the sun burns hot and higher.
After fifteen minutes begin to call
their name as though you are worried—
but not too loud, not loud at all,
so you won’t disturb the sharp-teethed creatures
swimming beautifully close to shore.

Katharyn Howd Machan, author of 39 collections of poetry (most recently A Slow Bottle of Wine, winner of the 2019 Jessie Bryce Niles Chapbook Competition) has lived in Ithaca, New York, since 1975 and has taught Writing at Ithaca College since 1977. After many years of coordinating the Ithaca Community Poets and directing the national Feminist Women’s Writing Workshops, Inc., she was selected to be Tompkins County’s first poet laureate. Her poems have appeared in numerous magazines, anthologies, textbooks, and stage productions, and she has edited three thematic anthologies, most recently a tribute collection celebrating the inspiration of Adrienne Rich.