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Joan Mazza

My Father Shows Me How To Say No

In a shallow drawer, as if on a grid: paper clips,

rubber bands, mechanical pencils, a cylinder of lead,

folded papers, plate blocks of new stamps.

Mother says, “Don’t touch anything. He’ll know

if you move one pencil.” At dinner’s end

he pushes his plate to one side for us

to clean up after him. That sweltering summer

my mother’s dying— the first time I see him

wash dishes. He says No to an air conditioner.

Before I was twelve, my mother showed me

how to iron his boxers and sort his socks,

rolled into balled pairs for his nightstand drawer.

During the day, he goes out in a suit to look for work,

but frequents girlie movies on 42nd Street. We live

from layoff to layoff. Of his silence,

my mother observes, “Still waters run deep.” Tight

and compact body, his solar plexus a knot. “Feel this.”

I don’t want to touch it. No.


Joan Mazza worked as a microbiologist and psychotherapist, and taught workshops on understanding dreams and nightmares. She is the author of six psychology books, including Dreaming Your Real Self (Penguin/Putnam). Her poetry has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, Adanna Literary Journal, Poet Lore, and The Nation. She lives in rural central Virginia where she writes every day.


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