Madison, Wisconsin

31 May 2008

Five Poems

New Year's Eve, 1965
Saturday Night Bath and Her Longing for Stars  

About Susan Elbe



New Year's Eve, 1965

Syrena's banquet hall on Archer Avenue, snow
skirling at the curb outside. White tablecloths
stained with whiskey rings and too much laughter
full of dumplings fried in butter, tobacco,
unhooked lust. My blind date, Vietnam Marine,
buzz-cut and cold fear like the throaty wind
blowing up our party dresses, door thrown open,
banging closed, a glimpse of glitter in the sky.
The other girls dream gauzy veils. I'm the hiccup
in their deepest breath. At midnight, cardboard
horns and kisses all around, but my purse snapped
shut. I never wanted to be saved that way.



Saturday Night Bath and Her Longing for Stars

We lived on top of each other, at the bottom of
a brick-walled well, winter, gossip, rage
rushing in the air shaft. Upstairs, mirrors cracked,
doors slammed, and that percussion sank. Then
the brushed music of forgiveness descending
on the slow snow that fell and fell, down and down.
Scrubbed and flushed in the heat of so much body
and buzz, no one to comb my tangles, I lay back
in the soap-scummed hive of water, and sang
at the top of my lungs. Echo climbed the rungs
of that narrow dark, up and up to the bleached
floating sky. You could lean out but still never see.




You could hear birds squawking through the open
windows, frantic calls for flight or love or rain.
We waded through the playground, an ankle-deep
and dusty lake of pebbles that could skin bare
knees and raddle palms of hands. I was never
in harm's way yet everything destroyed me.
My skinny legs and sturdy shoes, how the sun
reflecting off my glasses made tongues burn.
There are songs to ruin you with their ringing
flat-line, sirens that unzip the sleeping dark,
caged birds, bellies full of it, tearing feathers out,
tilting to a cut of sky, wild blue they scream for.




You think "earth" but I am river-fed,
a lake silted and flayed
by the moon,

its tin-bitter light smearing me blue
with the junk of metaphor.
Blinkered and blinking

on the ceiling of night, I'm an electric
angel, wrangling to break
through the swink and the sin.

You think "sheaves" but I am thistle,
my hair a dry lightning,
my feet planted deep.

I carry longing in a sling, the child
old enough to walk but won't.
It stoops my shoulders.

You think "shy" but I am harsh,
a wicked wind rattling
windows, howling

through the strange houses I dream
each night, everything lost
inside mutable mirrors.

You think "mercurial" but I am the steel
winter light that sticks
in your throat. I am orphan

and old country, fiddle-fish and wolf.
I am salt in the wound
that keeps opening.




In the jackhammered heat of summer, electric
as the storm-snarled air, we curled our baby-doll
lips around the smooth green rims of cola bottles,
practicing before we slow-danced in the murky
corners of cool basements where we tangled
with sharp-shouldered boys, exchanging licorice
and tobacco kisses, dime-store lipstick smearing
as we let go the street-chipped oars of childhood
and drifted out into the dark, a hurricane hum
in our blood, clouds already crowding us, pushing
our unsteady boats deeper, into an eyewall wind
we never saw coming, its wail mistaken for music.



Susan Elbe is the author of two poetry collections, Eden in the Rearview Mirror (Word Press) and Light Made from Nothing (Parallel Press). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals, including Ascent, Blackbird, Calyx, MARGIE, North American Review, and Smartish Pace. She is the recipient of the 2006 Lorine Niedecker Award, the Calyx Lois Cranston Memorial Poetry Prize, a Rowland Foundation Fellowship to Vermont Studio Center, and the 7th Annual Oneiros Press Broadside Award. The poems that appear here are from Her Winter House, Again, a manuscript in-progress. Visit her at