Literary Yard

Search for meaning

‘Mr. Mendenhall’s Question’ and other poems

By: Judith Ferster

Mr. Mendenhall’s Question

On the train from New Haven to Northampton,

my high school friend met the president of my college,

who promptly invited us to his grand presidential house

for a butler-served dinner, my first.

When he heard that I was taking biology,

President Mendenhall asked me why vegetables

grown in night soil don’t make people sick.

He used the quaint old term for the contents of chamber pots.

Did the butler overhear our talk about excrement

over dinner in the grand house?

He must have been used to the no-nonsense Mr. Mendenhall.

I said I didn’t know,

but I’ve been thinking about his question

ever since, bothering biologists

about the way plants take up water

and nutrients, filtering out cholera bacteria

and E. coli, too big to infect plants,

evolved without the keys to unlock us, and are stopped

from making peppers and tomatoes

toxic. Clean lettuce rises out of muck

like the Buddha’s lotus, pure and equally edible.

I wonder if Mr. Mendenhall kept wondering, too.


Mother, drifting anchor, I didn’t follow you into
daily beatings, someone forcing you to the roof.
I thought you would be relieved if I said “probably not,
this place would be shut down if they did that
to you,” but you just mourned that I didn’t believe
anything you said. It made you mad, didn’t disrupt
your search for me in case I’d been kidnapped
or drowned. My happy contradiction of your
imagined disaster gave way to humdrum dinner.
Mother, since you have been gone so long,
Why do I miss you now?


Steady state for as long as you can manage
or long slow slide
gathering new diseases
and minor torments as you go.

Maybe you will be Opal Lee, at 89
walking toward a Juneteenth holiday
all the way to 94 into the White House
for the signing ceremony.

Or maybe you will be Linda Ronstadt,
whose strong agile voice failed her
before she failed.
Parkinson’s is no good,
it’s no good, it’s no good, baby,
it’s no good–no need to say it again.

One engineer who expected to teach us
right plastic recycling protocol
for years got hijacked by ALS.
People laugh at his slow speech not sped up
by any ice bucket challenge.

My mother walked to her death bed
demented but fit until falling apart.

What is lying in wait for you
becomes you. With luck you will learn
to accept what’s given, surprise or no,
and have enough self left to let go.

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