Variations on Penelope

Charlotte Pence

                          The immense Penélope of light
                          Weaves a clear night. 
from “Se Ha Puesto el Sol” 
                                                                                      by Federico García Lorca

A poet who has witnessed war,
witnessed how blood dries 
to dusty rust on skin, 
this poet says:
The star wishes to be a moth.
How the space between the wing’s veins
allows light to pass, and at the same time, 
reflects the moonlight. Silver.
And what does the moth wish?
To be the deep shudder
of the wing’s vein
as it tries to rise from a web.
And then, what’s left?
The man who thinks of his son
first before sleep, first after.
This is a light, a love.
No greater, no less
than the stiff, yellowing moth’s wing
in the corner clouded with a cobweb.
The poet bends forward to count
the gnats, knots in a string,
and thinks: How wise we’d all become 
if we loved what could never serve us. 

In one version of the legends,
I wasn’t the faithful wife of Odysseus.
I was like any other woman who
read of Apollo, god of light, chasing Daphne
through the forest near the water.
She blinked, turned into a laurel tree,
ensuring he’d never capture her,
and I thought that’s a myth. Past loves
never make it easy to forget them.
I think of the day by the Tennessee River
sitting on a bench with him, 
who knew better, who studied the blue heron
click up a leg and step. 
Click. And step. 
One step every five minutes.
Water too dark to reflect. 
A swaying of hot green-black glass.
He decided then to kiss me,
as soon as the cloud’s shadow 
passed over the heron, or as soon as
the heron stepped out, click-step, 
from under the cloud. 

Mountain bluebird,
                         box turtles, 
tiger mosquitoes, 
                         smallmouth bass. 
Even if no-one 
                         on the foot path 
or out on a boat 
                         at the hottest time 
                         Ripples the water. 
We go out 
                         to come in again. 
A snout lifts, 
                         nostrils flare
then contract
                         three heavy times.
And the paws 
                         of the coyote 
begin to carry 
                         slunking shoulders,
stiffened tail 
                         down the cliff,
                         Down to the quiet 
where river laps 
                         the high grade
of clay earth. 
                         All bends 
in supplication, 
                         in ease, in rigidity 
as he drinks 
                         the green water.
Droplets spray, 
                         cleave to short, 
white whiskers,
                         the drops clear 
as water in a glass.
                         Clear as a sphere 
of another world 


Caught on a log swelling in the river,
who left behind that red t-shirt 
with crackled white lettering?
Swaying with the waves. A pulse.
And when you stopped on the sidewalk
along Chestnut Street to let go of my hand,
the breeze flickering the sunlight down
between the leaves in pale discs,
then wrapped my arm around yours,
squeezing so tightly you shuddered, 
I understood how you are that pebble
who softens and swirls the creek around you.
But that’s not to say you aren’t also 
that broken piece of mountain
that tumbled down one night 
without witnesses, wedged between
what you were and what you will become.

Arms wrapped around knees, she sits
staring at the dark river, 
imagining all that teems
                    A forest fire
from the next state, its smoke, curls
around her, air a gray veil.
But this gray carries remains
with it: scotch pine, squirrel’s tail,
luster of a dropped camp spoon
from one night ten years ago.
Impermanence: a word felt
before it’s a word she’ll know.

How do I know this man who wears 
                                                    a goose-down coat in 85 degrees, hovering
near the bus stop? He leans sideways 
so as to better rake from his pocket 
lint, salt, dimes, a softened empty pack 
                                                   of matches. He is not only the man who asks
Do you know where I can find a salad bar? 
but he is another man I know,
also without a home, who asks other strangers
a similar question to make him feel like a man
                                                  in suit and tie, rushing to find a restaurant
during his lunch break.
And the woman who sits on the grass
by the river, who unfolds the wax paper
                                                      (into a kite a girl walking by thinks)
from her egg salad sandwich, stares at the ripples
without blinking, takes her bites and chews
without glancing at the sandwich…. She is not 
at this river, but at another one.
And when the boy five centuries ago
sipping honeysuckle sap from up on the ridge 
saw De Soto’s horses explode the shallow part 
                                                      of the Little Tennessee into white spray
and spiraling pings of horseshoes echoing off rock, 
the boy became the white noon sun
                                                      reddening the back of their necks.
Yesterday’s sun, and tomorrow’s. 

I am that unnamed camp near the river—
ground around the fire stamped hard;
                                                   Each low tree limb strung with something: 
Rope, damp shirt, woolen blanket dyed by bloodroot.
                                                   A camp waiting to be emptied
by a quiet decision made in the night.

But what I meant was: when you pressed 
your hand against the small of my back,
                                                   that space reserved for long loves,
guided me as I walked,
your hand was the quiet relief felt upon coming home.
But that is not to say you aren’t also 
                                                   the slow piling of ash that falls
from the pulsing red and white cinder.

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