‘Lullaby to a Fawn’ and other poems
By: Claudia Kessel
Lullaby to a Fawn
We found you curled beneath the windowpane
in the corner, between the brick and bush.
Warm and not yet stiff, limp with dream and wet
density of an August afternoon.
Mute and motherless, your body was
a self-embracing spiral, a withdrawal
from the clawed savageness of the living.
Into the bag, I gathered your speckled
fur, infant’s rounded muzzle, lanky limbs.
Although I felt strong, brave of heart, I wept
as I carried you down the slick ravine
and shoveled late into the humid dusk.
By the end, when I stank of rot and sweat
the moon had revealed herself to the sky
resonating a strange, silver halo.
She purified us with silk and silence:
our mother of stone, our angel of ice.
Now in winter’s stark stillness, moon murmurs
to you in your cradle of soil and leaf.
Each black night, as you are swallowed further
into Earth, she caresses you with her
frosted beams – comforts us, mother and child,
laden with memories of each other.
The Farm: Slivers of Memory
Salamanders in Silos
Summer afternoons, my cousins and I played in the loft of the old barn, leaping from bale to bale, avoiding the holes where our legs could fall through and the wooden beams where pigeons left white tar droppings, always ending up in the abandoned silo—voices echoing off the tall, concrete cylinder, we poked around the pungent dankness to find the rotting carcass of a sparrow, turning over slimy stones in search of the cool, black skin of salamanders.
We would gather them— fallen from the short, misshapen trees near the house, shriveled pink and green in our palms, and collect them in the scooped cloth of our shirts, running back and forth with the hard, sugared jewels to the paddock where the horses knickered in anticipation—their velvet, whiskered muzzles sniffing our nervous fingers.
Hay Baling Day
Always a crowd— grownups and children trailed by a herd of dogs, muscular teenage boys from the neighbor’s farm, sweat dampening the backs of shirts, twine cutting into our fingers as we grabbed the bales regurgitated from the rattling machine, one after the other, and our regret in forgetting to wear long pants as the dry grass rectangles scraped our thighs red and swollen, and my father, flushed in his drenched wife-beater, anxiously checked the sky for dark clouds.
Near the road, the hill dipped abruptly into a basin, and among the wind-blown grasses lived an oak tree, larger than God, older than life, and from one of his broad, cragged limbs swung a tire on a rope that rocked us for years and years, that twirled generations of children, as we pushed each other through August breezes and sudden rainstorms and shimmering days where dragonflies vibrated in the sun’s breath, until the day it bent and hollowed, and men came with their trucks and ropes, and it all ended with the screaming of saws.
Wild Black Raspberries
With the fervor of missionaries, we hunted the hidden bits of barbarian sweetness, scouring the line of trees near the beehives that bordered the alfalfa field, arms slathered with mosquito repellent, gauging how deeply to press our bodies into the thorny tangle, reaching for the farthest plump droplets of deep purple, which slipped easily between the crevices of our fingers, stained our palms, and ended their short lives on our holy tongues.
Built at the turn of the century, the handsome square of orange brick presided over the barn and fields, with white-trimmed windows stretching from ceiling to floor, peering at the road that had transformed from dirt to gravel to asphalt, where tires had replaced wagon wheels, its porch cracked and sagging, the grimy carpet muddied by farmers’ boots and stinking with the urine of generations of cats, as the screen door frame trembled with each careless bang—endless summer lingered there, in rooms where the incessant spinning of fans made no difference.
We could hardly wait for the weak, pink light of daybreak on those bitter winter mornings, despite the carnivorous cold that devoured ungloved hands, before wrapping ourselves like mummies in scarves and snow pants, lugging our plastic sleds up the steep hill, careening feet first and later head first into the snow bank, sliding again and again, the ecstatic surge of fear, the mute euphoria of newly-fallen snow that absorbed our shrieks, snow layered over the world like thick, egg-beaten meringue, our limbs weighed down in a new-found gravity, as we explored the novel white moonscape like curious astronauts, until someone lost a boot, or our red cabbage leaf ears pulsed with pain, or when the snow found our most vulnerable parts—wrists, ankles, necks—and then inside, the ritual of peeling off socks and gloves, and the impatient waiting as our damp garments dried on the radiator.
Country Road Cemetery
Down the road lined with queen anne’s lace, marsh marigold, and chicory’s indigo flares, we wandered in our bored summer evenings past the tight rows of corn and tilting mailboxes to the hidden cemetery, under the shade of cedars whose roots skewed the gravestones, and we traced names on granite, searching for Civil War veterans with their aluminum stars, seeking the faded ones with the oldest dates, the dead children, the graves of forgotten farmers’ wives long abandoned of plastic flowers, and lingered on the name of the elderly woman, Violet Cooper, who died in our farmhouse and whose ghost we knew haunted us.
Sometimes I would picnic alone under the shade of the slim-trunked honey locusts whose leaflets chopped the light into tender bits and quivered in the syrupy afternoon breeze, sun cutting through their crevices like the warmth of a fire though a crocheted blanket, I lay close to where the fawns hid in their trampled grass beds—a place where death was not a demon, but an arboreal mother enfolding us in her pleated blanket.
I Have Loved You
I have loved you for generations
my tears, rivulets
carving your body’s mountains
water seeping in slick caverns
hollow inside, like the space
encapsulating your heart
that my fingers have ached to cradle
before their deaths
My love knew no infancy
it preceded my birth, drenched and shivering
more ancient than stone
its blood the sleek stream
that caresses rock, that drowns wood
ageless as the claws of fire
it churns me, swirls me like the sea
sets me adrift in vast waters
of endless, sinking dusk
What will I be left with at the end of life?
A child, a few poems, memory of song
and this love
that has chiseled me, sculpted me
passed through me
haunted me like rain
We are built for love
what hidden architect
molded the clay of our hearts
most coast on the surface
settle in and are satisfied, or perpetually not
why are we the victims
of the aching, of the scarring
of the relentless, brutal tenderness?
it courses through air, through stone and sand
eluding form or name
makes sky and soil yearn for each other
with wet embrace
attacks the body as a malignancy
multiplying in bone and blood
in mind’s liquid clouds
soaks into my bark, pools in my throat
it swallows rivers, ingests mountains
traces the ore of my body
gives birth to seeds of rain
its wind clutching the spirit of my hands
my form is porous, absorbing images
of your face, echoes of your voice
my skin is a blanket of longing
welcoming your touch
souls linked with sinews of desire
useless we are, except for loving
our mouths hollow
receptacles of reverberation
eternally reflecting the beloved
this ardor, careless, indifferent to our wishes—
does it know whom it haunts
in whose home it lodges
whom it stretches with thirst
creases with hunger
in whose reluctant body it journeys?
It leaves no trace.
You will find no scar on my corpse
to mark its home, or its exit.
My veins will show no sign of its viscous pulsing.
Through my limbs it roamed like water,
a flock of birds—restless, skittish.
As a river, searching and unsatisfied.
Tormented and lamenting, like the seas.
Into my cavities it burrowed,
lying dormant until adolescence.
My form will be left without indentation –
you will not see where it gnawed me
for decades. The flesh looks whole.
When young, it sliced me raw.
I bled pulp and seeds of sorrow.
Later, I was left with the dull ache of lilacs.
At my funeral, you will kneel perfunctorily
paying respects to my withered body,
that it was a battlefield of passion
an arena of lust, of carnage
a cage of craving
a vessel of fire
a locus of ecstasy.