My copies of “The Divorce of Happy and Ever After,” “What Boys Fear,” “The Truth about Prodigals,” and “Alchemy” are anonymized; but though I could ask for the author’s identity, I’d rather not. Already I know so much. This poet knows time, the gifts it brings and those that it takes; how the love of custodial parents “remembers/to leave a light on”; how boys fear death yet look for it everywhere, wearing a “brave face” and a mask in order to keep its force at bay.
These are poems of plain language and a confident line, poems that are tenderly truthful. How many parents have reached old age only to realize that the grown children who deserted them are the ones they long for most–the prodigals “squandering their good fortunes…what good looks they’d got”? How many adult children have relied on a dead mother’s cookbook so that cooking, “the very first chemistry,” could alchemize memory back to life?
Here we meet e a poet of deceptive artfulness whose music lies in pacing–lines that enjamb, unfold, and surprise. Their interest derives (in part) from the home, from a world where the idea of family is complicated, wounded with love and pain. Their vision is unvarnished: they do not flinch from the daily obligations that race through our heads at night; they know that a boy’s “wary eyes” speak volumes he cannot voice.
Finally, these poems dream of homecomings that will never take place, yet the dreams themselves are hopeful. Perhaps this is because these are poems that radiate acceptance–a deep wisdom that has “everything to do with the senses”: the alchemy of art that ignites when vision and craft combine.
THE DIVORCE OF HAPPY AND EVER AFTER
Remember the windows open on warm
summer days, the whole block hearing
your parents argue, wishing they’d divorce?
You were sure Happy would get you,
life would be good: ice cream for breakfast,
quiet afternoons preening in your bedroom,
the television all to yourself.
But Ever is the parent you live with,
the one with a medieval mindset and custody,
who makes you conjugate verbs,
memorize the multiplication tables,
puts you to sleep tired each night,
your head racing with all the chores
you will have to do the next day,
and then gives you a pretty bracelet
for your birthday, with charms
that say obligation, fidelity, duty,
but you never get to wear it
because there is no time for parties
or the movies or making friends.
Happy, the weekend parent,
lets you tease your hair,
watch questionable movies,
and praises your skill with make-up.
But you only get Happy on weekends
and Ever After, arms crossed, is waiting
when you get home. Sometimes
you consider running away
but where would you go?
Happy sometimes forgets to pick you up
or brings you home a day early,
thinks a slice of pizza is a treat,
tucks you into an unmade bed
and forgets to kiss you goodnight.
Ever After always remembers
to leave a light on in case
of bad dreams, knows how
to light your way in the dark.
WHAT BOYS FEAR
New first graders, my grandson and his friends
are busy becoming men, scaring
themselves in every imaginable way.
He comes home asking about serial killers,
whispering the words as if sharing a secret,
gauging our reaction for any real threat.
He doesn’t want his mother to walk the dog
late at night, afraid Butchy will drag her
off into the woods, lose her in the dark.
He wants to know if earthquakes can strike,
how bad they will be, and what about
waterspouts, though we live far from any ocean.
His voice at these times is neutral, he’s just
making an inquiry and not terrified,
but his wary eyes say otherwise.
He mistakes meanness for strength,
practices on his little sister,
who adores and forgives him.
So when he decides to be the Grim Reaper
for Halloween, I ask him why and he says,
Because he’s scary, with his best brave face.
He wants to put on the mask,
carry the scythe, develop a thick skin
that will carry him through this world,
he believes his life depends on this.
THE TRUTH ABOUT PRODIGALS
Let’s not talk about the ones that got away,
the prodigal son run off with the circus,
the prodigal daughter not far behind,
off squandering their good fortunes,
your patience, love, money, what good
looks they’d got, their health,
the kindness of others.
Should they return, open your arms,
proclaim the miracle.
Let’s talk about the ones who stayed
because you raised them so well:
the bitter son, the defeated daughter,
on whom nothing has been lavished,
not good looks, nor good fortune,
or a kind word, who gave up
families of their own to tend
your house, your needs.
Is it enough to tell them take heart
in having made safe choices, lived life
frugally, taken such small consolation?
So many sad stories,
but in the end the saddest of all,
with your dying breath, all you will
think of are the ones that got away;
and for the stalwart children,
a bitter pill to wonder no matter
how worthwhile their endeavors,
whether you could love them as much.
To conjure my mother I get the milk,
sugar, rice, freshly ground cinnamon,
eggs, and I make her rice pudding.
Her directions, in award-winning
Palmer penmanship, indicate how
much and when, and a post script—
we do not use raisins, no raisins.
This is where she now lives,
in her annotated church cookbook,
generations of women
whose recipes have come together,
overlaid by those of my mother.
Cooking must be the very first
chemistry, when someone thought
to put water with grain,
to sear a piece of meat,
to set a kettle on the fire.
And true alchemy wasn’t turning
base metal to gold but rather
grapes into wine, hops into beer,
love into something to sustain us.
It’s everything to do with the senses,
fragrant cinnamon on my fingertips,
my mother’s capable hands stirring
rice and milk, right here at my stove,
insisting I get it right, then the spoon
raised as she beckons me, taste.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Anne Sandor earned a BA from Vassar College and an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College. She is an Associate Professor of English and Writing Consultancy Coordinator at SUNY Orange in Middletown, NY, where she teaches Contemporary Novel and Creative Writing. After years of working with students on their fiction, she is now taking the time to work on her own stories and poems.