KAREN MANDELL has been published in various literary journals, including Mellen Anthology of Contemporary Poets, Fulcrum Annual, Lilith, Hogtown Creek Review, Small Spiral Notebook Print Anthology, Seldom Nocturne, Slow Trains, Taint, Off Course, Poetism, Poems Niederngasse, Spire, Comstock Review. She has received three awards: first place from the American Poetry Society/Oil of Olay contest in 2004, second place winner of the Muriel Craft Bailey award, and the Charlotte Newberger award from Lilith Magazine.
Karen has taught literature at Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis and at Mount Ida College in Newton, MA, and for several years, taught English at Framingham High School in Massachusetts. She has also taught literature at various senior centers in the Boston area.
Mara Rucki’s Spleen, 1949
You can’t blame her for being spleenish;
Anyone would be fretful and worried
In that bare room, lit by a sputtering candle
That casts sharp shadows against the walls,
Her face. There’s no comfort here—
The empty glass hasn’t provided any.
The table is all sharp angles, like her elbows,
Shoulders, thighs, knees. No curve to
Fingers, back of hand. The candle bracket
Leaves right-angled shadows on the green
Plaster. All lines here point to a dead end.
And yet. She’s young. Her head rests
On her left arm, pillowed by the fabric
Of her sweater. She’s not down
And entirely out. She could still
Put up a fight if she had to.
It would be better to have a loaf
On the table, a slice of cheese.
It’s after the War and no one
Has settled into peace yet.
Three, four years ago she might’ve
Been in hiding. Even now,
We don’t see a window
Looking out towards freedom.
Maybe tomorrow some spark
Will kick in, like a furnace,
To warm her thoughts, her spirits.
Maybe her friends will scoop her up,
Maybe she’ll find someone to love
If her beloved is lost. Maybe tonight
She’ll lie down, wrap herself
In her capable if boney arms
Pick Me Up
I’m reading in the front room
I’m reading on the porch.
When it gets too dark to see the words
I bring out daddy’s torch.
Susie plays with Richie,
My mother scrubs the floor.
If I don’t get some new books,
I’ll walk right out the door.
Some I’d read forever,
If I could have my way.
I slip tight right inside them
and stay tucked in all day.
When a book is finished,
I give a little kiss
To the last page and the cover.
My deep love works like this.
I take the Illinois Central
Ride up to the end of the line.
Put my book across my lap
And then I feel just fine.
I look inside some windows
Of houses pressed along the tracks.
Can’t make out much like that
And so I turn my back.
Curtains cover windows,
People hide inside.
You’ll never know their stories
By taking some train ride.
Stories have the answers,
The answers that I need.
But maybe it’s the questions
That twirl me when I read.
It’s not a big house, but we have
A lot of doors, a bushel and a peck
Of doors, a bundle of doors,
And when they’re all open,
the four winds blow through,
North, east, west, south, coming
In as crosswinds and cross purposes.
The grandkids and dog tumble out
On one side and fall back in at another.
Even the doors have doors, cracks
Or gaps that encourage bugs and leaf
Shreds and fluff from the cottonwood.
We’re told at the Passover Seder
To open our doors to all who are hungry,
And the Prophet Elijah visits
Even if we don’t see him. This spring,
The invitation got extended to mice,
Who are also hungry and, like Elijah,
Unseen. How far do we extend our hands?
To the beasts of the field as well
As our own kind? To a starving horse
But not a hungry mouse? Saints
Might feed them all. Today on the radio
The medical ethicist encouraged
Engineering infertile mosquitoes
To breed with the rest. Mosquitoes
Are of no use—they just make us sick.
No use to us, but in the grand plan…
If there is one. The doors are closed
Now, it’s dusk, the sky blanched
Like raw silk. Beyond me
Who should stay and who should go.
The Story Lady Reads to Us
Story hour and early spring,
Union of bunnies and monarchs,
Snail, baby owl, smell of warm earth.
All things new and freshly hatched.
Comfort, gentle exploration,
No one missing too long or damaged.
A lot was lost on the kids, words
Unknown, small bodies too far from
Pictures, unstoppable need to
Wander, take a toy from someone’s
Hand. I, though, into my second
Half century, relished the stories,
Earth stopped, reclocked, where all were well
fed, ushered to bed, billowing
blameless clouds over their heads and
no driven winds or tormented
seas or forlorn people desperate
to be free. Rocking rhythm, not
too much, soothing tale, gentle touch.
Lock and Key
On New Year’s Day she walked
To the drug store and bought a diary,
Baby blue with a tiny lock and key.
She wrote that she liked Lanny but
Susan Mermalstein liked him too.
She wrote that Larry Tannebaum
Pushed girls down and then asked
If they were bleeding. A mean boy.
She wondered how he got that way.
She didn’t write that she was deadly
Afraid of germs and had to wash her
Hands over and over and couldn’t
Really smile any more. She had no words
For the things that made her ache.
Some questions wouldn’t push up
To the surface of her skin.
She didn’t write when she begged
Her mother for more clothes like
Janice Schecterman and her mother gripped
Her wrist and it bled and she thought
She would die from tetanus and later
From rabies which she read about
in the World Book when the dog across the street
Pulled at her socks with his yellow teeth.
She could describe
These things in her diary but they scared her.
She didn’t want to hover over them
Like the bees on the lilacs. It was better
To pull away. Two years later
She heard the evening shows stream
Up the ducts from the rec room
To her bedroom until the news at ten
And she was still up. She wrote a poem,
Thirteen is standing with reluctant feet
Where the brook and river meet.
Two easy lines, but then she had filched them
From a book. The rest of the poem
She wrote herself, Trying to understand
The world ahead without getting out of bed…
And more. Her teachers liked it but
It didn’t answer any questions.
What were the things that mattered
When grandma and her friends sat
On the bench in their black dresses
And sturdy tie shoes, their voices
Ceaseless, urgent in the other language.
What argument with her sister
Was her mother replaying when
She came home from visiting,
Lips in a line, eyes darting
like minnows at the shoreline,
whose movements defied explanation.
What were her father’s thoughts
At the sewing machine, his foot pressing
Then stopping the pedal, going
Only so far reliving his memories
of the family he lost.
None of them would tell, so it was up to
Me to put down my version,
My guess at the stories they weren’t telling.
She went to two parties that summer
At the Lake, the first a birthday
Where they served only vanilla ice cream.
She asked if there was chocolate,
Was told no. First she was disappointed,
She thought rightly so, then realized
She hadn’t used her manners. Not that
There were many in her bag of tricks,
An expression her aunt, also at the Lake,
Liked to use, along with you’re full of
Vim and vigor. She’d tried it once, saying
You’re full of vim and vinegar. They laughed,
Saying you’ve got it wrong. She now realized
You weren’t supposed to ask for something
That wasn’t on the table. So many rules
For getting by. You had to remember
Just which ones to bring out each time.
Even then you couldn’t count on having friends.
Her classmates in Chicago hated her
No matter what. Her mother had no neighbor
Friends either. Just old Mrs. Wolfson next door.
One lady had even shouted out as she
And her mother walked by: Your daughter’s
Full of baloney. Her mother kept on,
Holding her hand and didn’t shout something
Back. They didn’t talk about it later.
That’s why she loved Union Pier,
Where people would invite you to parties.
Last week was the wedding and she caught
The bouquet, three daisies and Queen Anne’s lace,
meaning next week she’d be the bride.
She ran home to tell her mother,
Pleasure and happiness lifting off her
Like sunrise mist on Lake Michigan.
There could still be trouble in paradise,
As her father said, though he’d be talking
About people he knew. Sure enough, next day
The beach was closed, a frail high fence
Set up on the shore, the posted sign
Saying No Swimming Undertow.
The adults stood around and she heard
A woman say someone was caught…
They put up their striped aluminum chairs
Anyway, but people scarcely smiled.
She knew immediately what undertow meant.
She picked up her book and fell into the story,
Though undertow pulsed with every wave and page.
While she was making castles
Her mother said they’d be going home
In two days. She poured sand
On her head, its coarseness coursing down
Her red hair. Her mother was horrified.
Was that what she wanted, or was it being
At one with nature, inalienable from earth
Air fierce waves spitting fire.
Boarding the 78 Bus to Kedzie
She took the crosstown bus,
East on Montrose Avenue, to dance class.
When she got on, she asked the driver
To call her stop. It was only six streets
To Kedzie, but she didn’t entirel
Trust herself. Every time she said
Please call Kedzie and he always did.
If she could, she sat behind the driver.
Then it was like being in the back
Of the Chevy with her father, her mother
Next to him, and Richie and Susie
Squished next to her. She could rea
Until she got carsick or put her hand
Out the window, touching the wind
That played with her hair, roughing it up
So it felt like brittle twigs or make scary
Ghost noises in Susie’s ear, soft enough
That her mother didn’t hear. The next time
She took the bus, the girl across the aisle,
Also in dance class, said you don’t have
To always tell him to call Kedzie. You’re
Old enough to know where to get off.
She felt bad knowing she was babyish,
Though she’d turned nine that fall.
The girl had hard eyes and thin black flats.
She looked at her own saddle shoes,
Freshly polished by her mother the night before.
She got up before her stop, swaying
In the aisle, and held the metal railing
By the steps. She wanted to let go
And test her balance. She couldn’t.
Next time, next time she would.
Without the wind
It would be up to us
To carry pollen to the flowers and trees.
The bees couldn’t do it all
By themselves and they’d show us
How to weave pollen baskets
Around our legs like they have,
How to feed children so they’d all
Grow up to be strong as Queen bees
But hopefully not as bossy.
We’d have to learn how to center
Ourselves, not relying on being
Grounded. We’d play basketball
By tossing the ball up through
The basket and not down into.
We’d put stones in our leg baskets
If we cared to walk on tightly
Packed grass. We’d use our arms
To steer through the atmosphere—
And call it skying.
Without the stars—
The sun—we’d have to wish
On raindrops or dust motes.
No Scorpion, no Bull, no Ram,
No Crab, no Fish, no Scorpion.
We’d read our future not in stars
But maybe in puddles or bones.
Without the moon,
the passage of days
Would lose their structure.
No full moon or new, no Blue
Or Harvest. No moonshine or moonlight
or moonbeam or being over the moon.
Who would I reach out to
When the sky is dim
And I still haven’t learned
How to center
And the night
Like us, the sun shed garments
Assuring us it was spring,
But the wind blew, growling like
A trapped lone grey wolf.
Befriending Miss Lichterman
Every supper, Rose dosed your meal
With salt and pepper, white or black,
Depending if it was tomato sauce
(which you couldn’t tolerate—too
red, too piercing, too puckery)
or chicken soup, which required
the more pungent white. She didn’t
like black specks in yellow broth.
For some dishes she added paprika,
Mild, mostly tasteless, but elevating
Those dishes to company level.
Rose invited Miss Lichterman to lunch
And transformed the dining room
To a parlor out of your Blue
And Green Fairy Books. Devilled
Eggs sprinkled with paprika
Like the red pollen from pear trees
You’d seen in Michigan. Warm
Dinner rolls, a pitcher of sparkling
Punch, pinwheel cookies, custard
With whipped cream, white luncheon
Napkins precisely folded
Next to the china plates with peonies.
So much later, when your brother donated
Those dishes and silver-plate and crystal
Because Rose wouldn’t need them
At Knollwood House, she said,
You know when your second grade
Teacher came to lunch. Remember
She wore blue tights?
Bringing Up Baby
I want the grandkids to look
Into an adult’s eyes
When they say hello
Her level gaze
Although I read it takes
Three seconds for someone
To meet another’s eyes.
Maybe I’m expecting too much.
You’re asking for more than I can deliver.
Also I read monkeys don’t follow eyes
But the direction of someone’s head.
Headstrong, headlong, heady smell of spring
Gaze into someone’s eyes
Look into someone’s eyes.
Gaze, gauge, gazelle, gauze
And ask How Do You Do
One misty moistly morning.
The Year 5775
We leave our homes
With baubles (to pay off
Guards), extra matzah if there’s no
The most beautiful girl in school
Lived across the street. Not prom queen
Beautiful with uptick nose and bouncy
Yellow hair. Risen from the sea beautiful
Like a twelve-year-old shadow
cousin of Aphrodite. Symmetrical face,
(unlike my own, with its crooked smile),
hazel eyes, unplumped
Perfect lips. When she asked me
What to expect at a Bar Mitzvah
(our male friends now becoming men)
I told her that soon she’d know more than me.
Because I couldn’t be jealous of her.
I figured you could envy someone a step
Above you, but not someone
Infinitely beyond. Not an Exalted One.
Junior high was all about grades.
She came to my house to practice
A French horn sonata for the school concert.
I was her piano accompanist.
I would have been arrow-bearer,
Taster, handmaiden. I’d stand
to the right and behind her,
fitting an arrow onto her bowstring,
watching the path of her shot,
the arch of her brow.
Come Spring I’ll…
Yesterday I saw the crocuses in the front patch,
Heads bent to the ground, still unfurled.
They’ll furl, fling themselves during the next days,
Their little kingdom come. Fred said he saw
Some poking out in the back. I didn’t kneel down,
Exclaiming, proclaiming the season. I let them be.
I let myself be, a bit longer. There’s a lot to gear up for.
Fixing up the raised bed (ameliorating the soil,
As the article in the Globe said, by adding peat and
Vermiculite and compost). Driving out to the nursery,
Adopting plants and making them thrive. Mixing
Sand and seeds for easier sprinkling (a tip gleaned
From the Internet.) Raking out the beds, filling
The planters, feeling the tilt towards the sun,
Keeping my balance. And that’s only on the outside.
Inside, my blood warms up like milk in a saucepan,
My cells slough off winter. My neck thaws and I claw
Off scarves, sweaters, wool socks. Quite a to do.
Then the will-be-leaves come, the lime green haze
Up high, the tops of the old maples and elms.
I’ll be needing a lie down. I hate it
But winter does offer a cozy rest spot. In retrospect.
I marinate in the past months, but just for a minute
Because the warming earth
and my blood
Are just at the simmer.
It happened all at once:
Your father getting lost
On the Dan Rayan expressway
With seven lanes of traffic
In each direction. Gone too far,
he looked for the next exit,
missed it kept going and you panicked,
thunderstruck, shot through
with adrenalin and you couldn’t
get a breath and what if
you couldn’t breathe and all you had
were streaming lanes of cars
and no one could help you
and you were all alone (you father
now passing into insignificance)
no friendly face calming smile.
That was it then. At the blink
Of a turn signal, you’d shifted lanes
To the other side, your father
Having ferried you across
The River Styx to the underworld.
And there you stayed, taking in
Air until it caught in your chest
Whenever a car you were in
turned onto a highway
And sometimes you couldn’t
And you became light-headed
And your fingers tingled and you
Couldn’t talk to whoever was with you.
Over time you waited it out, five minutes,
Ten and you were relieved joyful even
When it passed and you could resume
Being you. Sometime later you drove
On a highway yourself and the ghost
Of your feeling floated up, a pale
Simulacrum of the original, and faded
Away because you could escape, eventually
Here and Now
Before home computers you had Magic Slate,
a sheet of cardboard smeared with black wax,
a gray liftable film over it, and a plastic stylus.
You’d make your drawing, lift the film
Like a band aid pulled off skin, the drawing
Erased, and start again. After a while,
The film became bumpy and crumply
From the stylus, and you’d need a new one.
This was a toy you didn’t get tired of,
Unlike the doll whose eye rolled back
In her head and wouldn’t come down again
Or the clay that resembled dried mud
In the Chicago alley. Eventually, you and the other two
Were piled into the stroller and pushed
To Irving Avenue, where your mother wheeled you
Into the fish store with the rotten lake smell,
the hardware store where she bought a pull chain
with a plastic stoplight bobble on the end
for the overhead light in the closet, and—if
she had time and all three kids were good—
the dime store where you begged for a new
Magic Slate. You got to hold it in the paper bag,
Your sister assigned to the wrapped fish.
A short stop for milk and bananas
And you were at it again, draw, lift up
And thereby erase, sitting on the floor
in the front room on the beige rug
that came with the apartment.
You never thought about what family put the rug
Down and lived there before or, when you moved at ten,
Who was coming in. You never asked to see
the apartment in another neighborhood
where your mother lived at your age. There was only
you and those with you and now and the air
you parted when you walked into the next moment.
The piano’s a cluttered affair,
Littered with yard sale and consignment finds,
Hand drums, African shakers, a doll from e-Bay,
Another from a Paris second-hand shop,
A faded Pinocchio from Normandy, a photo
Of my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah sixty years ago,
two flameless candles. The candles bother me.
I don’t like their back story,
their provenance. The yoga teacher
walked into class one day and pulled a candle
from her gym bag. There’s an odor in here,
she said, and sniffed her candle. It had a tiny bulb
in the center instead of a wick. I leaned close to smell,
got nothing. Maybe I wasn’t sensitive enough.
I waited for her to put the back of her hand
Against her forehead and whisper,
I’ve got a case of the vapors. Me, I was
A Midwest girl weaned on prairie winds.
I bought some flameless candles so I could
Gather in energy hold it release it
Like her. Silly stuff, but I’m not immune
To it. I’ll take everything off the piano,
Shake out and fold up the frayed silk shawl
draped across, and let nothing be enough.
Our apartment building stood at the corner
Of two streets, Drake and Monticello.
A few years later I had a social studies teacher,
Mrs. Drake, and even later learned that Francis Drake
Was a British Pirate Knight. Plus Monticello
Was President Jefferson’s home. So many things
Dates names dripped down on me like the rain
that kept me inside during the brutal Chicago springs.
When the days were nice enough, I went outside
To my playground, the side of our brick building,
The color of gravel and bruised sidewalks.
I tossed a pink rubber ball against the bricks,
Which were smooth enough not to give my throw
A crazy spin. I caught the ball most of the time.
Later the caterpillars came out and I put them
On my bare arms and admired their strange beauty,
Their knobs and fuzz and segments and wild colors.
I placed them on the building—they held on—
And watched them bunch up, stretch out,
Moveable art on the dispirited brick.
I don’t remember putting them back
On the leaves of the elm trees lining the sidewalk.
It didn’t occur to me that they had to eat.
I was a girl and they were caterpillars
And we were outside where the sun
Wove over and behind the clouds.
We flew to Florida for my mother’s unveiling,
Eight months after her death. We knew nobody
In Florida except Uncle Wally who didn’t come
To the ceremony at the cemetery. He said
He had a condo association meeting. Nothing
Wrapped him to us anymore. It was just
The three kids and spouses. Our father
Had been waiting here for years. It’s about time,
I heard him say. Let’s all go to Sally’s!
Would that be stranger—eating at a restaurant
Last open forty years ago—than standing in
The grass with your parents beneath your feet?
I fingered the slashed black ribbon the rabbi had pinned
To my shirt. The rabbi said prayers, we mumbled
Responses, a hawk overhead wheeled in the damp
Muted sky and took off. Rose, I thought, that’s Rose.
I elbowed my sister and pointed up. She looked
At me, annoyed. The hawk flew back
With a bigger bird and watched as the rabbi
Pulled off the cloth covering the monument.
Now it was obvious—Rose and Martin watching
Their children, as always proud, holding back, unsure.
They stayed until the rabbi finished, then flew off
While we left behind fumbled
for purses, glasses, phones, scarves.
A wooden fence now separates my backyard from my neighbor’s.
It wasn’t always there; before, our yards were touching,
Intimate. I put up trees, Scotch pine, Norway spruce,
Concolor fir. Then they asked if we’d mind a fence.
How could I say no? They didn’t have to ask.
Maybe Frost was right—Fences make good neighbors.
No gate—no invitation to go back and forth,
Trading baked goods or gossip or advice.
I heard their son thumping his basketball
But didn’t see his shots or his black hair
Ruffled by the breeze. Then they put up trees,
Three Alaskan Weeping cedars, youngsters,
Only three inches above the fence, peering
Into our backyard with its sometimes empty
Bird feeder and sometimes unwatered pots.
I stepped up and did the things that should be done.
The cedars grew wildly—their shaggy limbs
drooping over the fence, like neighbors
with arms crossed, feet planted, telling
a long, involved story you needed to hear.
There was talk of hedgehogs chomping
cherry tomatoes during that drought,
Of the striped cat tickling their shallow
Roots this past spring, of the shy yellow finch
Who wouldn’t leave their branches.
Plant more bee balm and butterfly bush
They urged when the wind whipped up.
And separate the hostas. I nodded
To reassure them and picked up
My shovel and put on garden gloves.
Waiting for Light
I lie on my right side,
Facing the east window,
Waiting for dawn, for light,
Remembering the saying I heard
Decades ago, Today is the First Day
Of the Rest of Your Life.
I was a kid and I liked things
Bright and shiny. Still do.
This day won’t be bright and shiny.
Clouds hang low, and the sky’s the color
Of bruised metal. The sun,
Low on the horizon, is no stronger
Than the wavering beam of a flashlight.
Now it starts, a splattering of rain
Mixed with snow, then only snow,
Insistent, persistent. If snowflakes
Are so light, I wonder,
Why do they come down
With such energy. Life force energy.
Can I concoct a saying for today?
Open wide to life force energy.
Will that do? It’s enough for me.
I’m enough. I prop myself up,
Inhale, exhale, the business
Of everyday, and look outside,
Seeing what’s different.