Autumn’s Song

Autumn’s Song
by Theodora Goss

You are not alone.

If they could, the oaks would bend down to take your hands,
bowing and saying, Lady, come dance with us.
The elder bushes would offer their berries to hang
from your ears or around your neck.
The wild clematis known as Traveler’s Joy
would give you its star-shaped blossoms for your crown.
And the maples would offer their leaves,
russet and amber and gold,
for your ball gown.

The wild geese flying south would call to you, Lady,
we will tell your sister, Summer, that you are well.
You would reply, Yes, bring her this news —
the world is old, old, yet we have friends.
The squirrels gathering nuts, the garnet hips
of the wild roses, the birches with their white bark.

You would dress yourself in mist and early frost
to tread the autumn dances — the dance of fire
and fallen leaves, the expectation of snow.
And when your sister Winter pays a visit,
You would give her tea in a ceramic cup,
bread and honey on a wooden plate.

You would nod, as women do, and tell each other,
The world is more magical than we know.

You are not alone.

Listen: the pines are whispering their love,
and the sky herself, gray and low, bends down
to kiss you on both cheeks. Daughter, she says,
I am always with you. Listen: my winds are singing
autumn’s song.

The image is Autumn by Elizabeth Sonrel.

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The Sensitive Woman

The Sensitive Woman
by Theodora Goss

There are days on which I am a thunderstorm,
and days on which I am an eggshell. Today,
I am so fragile that if you breathed on me,
I would break apart. The pieces of me would lie
on the kitchen floor, over the hard gray tiles,
my torso in fragments, my heart like a shattered cup,
one eye near the sink, one near the refrigerator,
staring upward, blinking.

There is a story about a woman so sensitive
that she could be bruised by the brush of a swallow’s wing,
that the cold light of the moon would burn her cheek.
There is a story about a woman who wept at the fall
of a rose petal, at the sight of a spider’s web,
at a line from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.”
There is a story about a woman who could not be
consoled when she heard a single measure of Brahms,
or watched the sun setting over Budapest.
Her tears flowed into the Danube.
There are days on which I am all these women.

I would like to write a poem comparing myself
to a thunderstorm raging down the valleys,
battering the rocks, flattening the willow trees.
But today a raindrop could drown me. Today, a breeze
could tear me apart, send ragged bits of me flying
like white tufts of milkweed from the pod.
Hush. Don’t breathe, don’t speak, handle me gently.
Today, a word of yours, no matter how kind,
would be too hard to bear.

(The image is Portrait of Dora Maar with a Crown of Flowers by Pablo Picasso.)

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The Avalanche

The Avalanche
by Theodora Goss

It occurs to me that you resemble
a beautiful avalanche. So far,
you have toppled my pine trees,
buried my villages, brought down
all the telephone wires. You leave
a trail of pristine destruction
wherever you go.

And I can only stand here,
watching white drifts of snow
cover this mountain like the feathers
of an egret perched on its peak,
while a slab of snowpack slides
down the path with a sound like giants
grinding bones between their molars —
waiting, with fear and admiration,
for the moment I too will be buried,
my mouth filled with light,
in a kind of cold radiance.

(The image is Simplon Pass: Avalanche Track by John Singer Sargent.)

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The Crazy Ones

The Crazy Ones
by Theodora Goss

Count me among the crazy ones,
although there are days when I look as sensible
as a pair of shoes: brown oxfords, scuffed
and a little down at the heels. But there are nights
when I have kicked them off and danced
barefoot until dawn, by the ocean,
watching the sun come up. Or worn
silver sandals and given the moon a run for her money.

There are days when I have found myself
in another country altogether, known
where I am because my phone
showed me the time and weather report.
Days when I’ve done what I should have not have,
just for the hell of it — choosing to feel the flames
licking around my ankles over the sanity
of the ordinary.

I have made irrational choices,
but they have been my choices, whether to fall
or fly. It’s just that I keep forgetting to wear
a parachute. This is a metaphor:
count me among the crazy, not stupid.

And the problem is that the sky
keeps calling. I say I’m afraid of heights,
but I’m not afraid of heights. I’m afraid
of the impulse to jump.

Count me among the dreamers
and disasters, although I brush my teeth,
and pay my bills, and make my bed in the morning.
Although I have somehow managed, so far,
not to kick off a pair of appropriate black pumps
and dance at funerals.

(The image is by Wladyslaw Theodor Benda.)

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Restoring Old Paintings

Restoring Old Paintings
by Theodora Goss

The passage of time has faded them:
it has dimmed the Madonna’s shining face
with candle smoke, it has spread a thin layer
of grime over the elegant lady’s white gloves,
smirched her lace. The king’s spaniel is dirty,
as he never was in life.

They are no longer as beautiful
as they once were: the lady’s hair is no longer
a glorious riot of golden threads
woven through with pearls. The spaniel’s fur
is no longer white and brown, just brown,
and the infant Jesus, putting his hand
up to his mother’s cheek, looks as though
he would like to wipe away the smudge
of centuries.

And so the art restorer comes
to lift it all away — the grime, the soot, the dirt,
repair decay, repaint discolorations
where a canvas was exposed to sunlight
or humidity. It takes a particular eye,
an ability to see and sense
what is time, what is the artist,
to restore what was to its (nearly)
original splendor. There is something heroic
in the endeavor, almost godlike.

Imagine: all those centuries
of worship suddenly gone, like candle smoke
floating up into the vault of the cathedral.
The revolutions during which a king’s spaniel
must be hidden in the cellar, behind barrels
of wine, undone. The lady’s age erased,
although the lady herself lies
in a stone coffin, air and bone,
alive now only in effigy.

There is a kind of arrogance
that drives us to deny the past
and process, a denial
of death, even when it is our own,
and inevitable. We like to think
that we too are precious works of art,
that someday a Great Restorer will come
to strip away our old varnish, repair
any rips in our canvas, return
us to what we once were,
bright and fresh
as the artist’s vision.

The image is Madonna and Child by Pompeo Batoni.

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The Falcon

The Falcon
by Theodora Goss

Once, there was a man who was also a falcon.

I do not know
if he had been a falcon in a previous life
or if at night he transformed into a falcon
or if in dreams he flew over pine forests
in falcon form.

All I know
is that when I looked into his eyes
I saw the falcon there:
the curved beak, the wild stare,
long pinions for soaring down the wind
that blows from mountain peaks covered with snow
into the valleys below.
When he turned, it was with a swift,
unexpected grace, like the memory of circling aloft,
and when he spoke I could hear the echo
of a falcon’s keening cries.

What do you say to a falcon man?
You cannot say: I know what you are,
wind-rider, sky-seeker.
I know how quickly you dive,
how abruptly you bank and fall,
winged knife, air-cleaver.
I know how from up there
life looks small, and freedom
is the only essential element.
I know how your presence defines
the firmament: it is all the blue
spaces that are not you.

What would he say? Would he laugh
dismissively, then turn away?
Or fix me with his eyes,
hypnotic, incomprehensible,
as though I were a hare
hiding among the meadow grasses, flicking my ears,
listening for sounds of danger? It would be
an acknowledgment
that I had seen and understood
something fundamental:
what was, if not necessarily
what it meant.

(The image is by Ohara Koson.)

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The Mysterious Miss Tickle

The Mysterious Miss Tickle
by Theodora Goss

Miss Tickle owns a bookshop on the square
called Antique Books and Oddments, where she sells
old maps, and postcards sent from strange hotels,
and photographs of people you don’t know
in black and white, rain-spattered travel guides
to places like Ceylon and Samarkand,
one called Constantinople on Five Pounds
a Day, a Sanskrit-English dictionary,
and all the Nancy Drews, including ones
I’ve never seen in the public library,
like Death by Henbane, where Nancy, George, and Bess
become witches, form a coven, and solve a murder.
I think it’s one of my favorites. After school,
Miss Tickle lets me sit in the battered armchair
in a corner of the shop, beneath The Collected
Poems of Sappho, where I do my homework
or play with her various decks of tarot cards.
She has seven, one for each day of the week.
She’s hopeless at multiplication, but her cat,
Ebenezer, is pretty good, so he helps me out.

I’ve decided that someday I’m going to be like Miss Tickle,
with long black hair all the way down my back,
a cat named after a character from Dickens,
though maybe less talkative than Ebenezer,
who can be annoying, a closetful of skirts
in blue and purple that swirl around my shins,
a coat with the moon and all the constellations
embroidered on its lapels, and sparkly eyeshadow.
Of course my dad, who’s an accountant, wants me
to be an accountant too, but I think I’d rather
be a witch or own a bookshop, and Miss Tickle
says I can do all three if I really want to,
that learning math can help you cast better spells.
Hers, she says, are always a little slipshod.

The people in town think Miss Tickel’s a little strange.
No one else around here goes out to watch the bats
at twilight, or brings home toads in tupperware
to put in their gardens. She doesn’t eat them, whatever
Mr. Nowak, the grocer, says — I think he’s joking.
No one else keeps newts in a tank, just tropical fish.
Other people use aspirin, not a willow tincture.
Still, they mostly accept her. I mean, she pays her taxes
like anyone else. Though the kids at school suspect
that she flies overhead on a broomstick on windy nights,
with her black hair whipping around her. Miss Finch, the librarian,
says she’s seen her almost crash into the steeple
of the Methodist Church. I’m the only one who knows
that she landed badly that night and sprained her ankle.
She told me the broom was in a bad mood, and threw her.

Sure, I have friends my own age to eat lunch with at school,
but Miss Tickle doesn’t seem old, though she isn’t young:
somewhere between twenty and two hundred.
Her idea of dinner is chocolate cake, and for fun
she plays checkers with her shadow, who usually beats her,
or concocts natural remedies out of toadstools
(she insists they’ve never poisoned anyone),
or recites lines from Shakespeare she knows by heart.
Yes, someday I want to be like Miss Tickle, although
my hair isn’t long and black, just red and curly,
unfortunately. But I’m working on changing that.
I figure magic works as well as hair dye.
I’ve asked her to teach me some spells, and I can already
light the tips of my fingers on fire, and wiggle my ears,
and levitate, just a little. But give me time.
She says when I’m old enough, she’ll leave me the bookshop,
then she’ll retire and go where witches go
(I think it’s on the dark side of the moon).

Meanwhile, I’ll curl up here in the battered armchair
with a batch of cookies that are only a little burned,
but they’re chocolate chip, so it doesn’t really matter,
ignoring Ebenezer, and start on a chapter
of the Philosophical Works of someone named Hypatia
of Alexandria, which is more interesting
then you would expect, judging from the cover,
while Miss Tickle rings up a customer, then calls
to the back of the bookshop, “Would you like some tea?
I’ll put the kettle on, my dear, if you’ll join me!”

(The image is by Achille Mauzan.)

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