Kathleen Flenniken is the 2012 – 2014 Poet Laureate of Washington State. Her first book, Famous (U of Nebraska P, 2006), won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and was named a Notable Book by the American Library Association. Her second collection, Plume (U of Washington P, 2012), selected by Linda Bierds for the Pacific Northwest Poetry Series, is a meditation on the Hanford Nuclear Site in Washington State. Flenniken’s awards include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Pushcart Prize. Find her at www.kathleenflenniken.com. Visit The Far Field, an ongoing project to publish Washington State poets online. Photo credit: Rosanne Olson.
All of them are dead now. My father
and mother, bedded together
under their matching stones.
Their married friends, close by.
The crystal and good plates all washed
and put away in other homes,
no party food left over. My job
was to whip the cream for dessert
and ride behind on their fishing weekends
like a seventh wheel,
along with our Airedale who wore
striped socks over his muddy paws
in the house. Spirits accelerated
toward cocktail hour in the red
ranch kitchen where they made
big to-do’s over their drinks—
then feigned concern they might
corrupt me. The men stirred
the air, clustered at the bar, moved
among the women conferring
over the bubbling stew.
My mother, flushed and pretty
as a cornucopia of summer fruit.
That September before college
I joined the happy group
on a fly-fishing river in Montana
and slept on the cottage’s foldout couch.
Late one evening, lights doused,
I was alone with Mother and one
of the men, not quite uncle
not quite friend though I newly
recognized that he was handsome.
I’ve erased whatever he said
that convinced me he’d forgotten
I was there. But there I was, afraid
to breathe, confused to learn
how delicately balanced
these practitioners of marriage must be.
Then they retired to their separate rooms,
though a presence hung in the air
like the perfume of a living thing.
For the others were given an insurmountable lead.
For I watched their strides lengthen and lengthen again.
For their shirts floated up like sails and their hair streamed behind them.
For it was morning but I was already late.
For they never once stumbled in the grass and were born knowing their way.
For that medallion of light slowly pin-wheeled just above the trees.
For as heavy as my limbs became.
For I had never won a race.
And yet I was given these arms and legs.
And yet the air felt finely woven and well-laundered on my skin.
The trees were a Grimm forest, and yet they crowded the path, whispering run.
And yet I could make it at least to the band of light and then to the crest.
And yet my mind argued with my mind to keep going though the other part asked
And yet I pounded ahead in imitation of something strong.
So I made a kind of music of my own intrinsic rhythm.
So I permitted the machinery to whir, roll, rumble, hum, sing as it was designed.
So I lost track of time and whoever was in the lead.
So I no longer watched my feet.
So I forgot my name, its promises, its expectations of failure.
So I pushed everything aside but now, and now was crowded with breeze and a red-wing blackbird’s song.
Then I turned, calling to the runner behind me.
Dance of the Hours
A line of pink velvet girls not even hip high
flit and skip and pirouette on stage;
none of them are mine.
I am free to adore them without prejudice,
or shut my eyes
and listen to music that moves me
beyond the auditorium and down
streets full of children I did not bear,
and men I’ll never have opportunity
to love, their waves of thick hair,
long strides, their watchful eyes
and elegant hands opening doors
to rooms that must wait for another life,
one dark and paneled,
one yellow and brightly paned looking out
on a lake dotted with sails and a garden
lit with flowering species
whose names I’ve never bothered
to learn. My props. My places to balance
My distractions that make time pass.
Even when I’m content to be one person
in the crowded dark,
I am pulled by a hand to rehearse my steps.
Did you want this? Did you want this?
Could you imagine yourself here?
And like the ballerinas
dancing in a ring, I circle and circle
whatever magic is contained
in the nothing at the center.