top of page

Susan Aizenberg


I have a disease called autobiographobia. – Chekhov

for Dave Jauss

I am the orphan wrenched, like a slight arm

from its socket, from my life of privilege.

I am the rough girl with a tall beehive

and white lips, beloved of Teddy boys,

feral on rooftops rife with new mysteries

of cigarettes and sex. I have walked

shivering strands of metal thousands of feet

above the pavement, thrilling the open-

mouthed crowds below, their heads tilted like birds

waiting to be fed the food of my death,

and I am the way my lover still trembled,

thirty years later, remembering

how those wires sang. I am the last woman

hanged in England for killing a careless,

beautiful boy I could not stop wanting,

and I am his mother and the crayoned

scrawl of the Death Row note she refuses

to read. I am the fugitive rebel

underground in plain sight and the blind whine

of her husband’s suburban mower.

I’m the sweet wind that luffs their sheets waving

hi on the line, the slow roll across gravel

of the agents’ tires when they come for her.

I’m the story they will want her to tell.

Hunter Moon

This morning my love called me

out onto our sunlit balcony

to see a fawn, the quick spindles

of its new legs as it wove

a narrow path through the Bradford

pears, its fine head lowered

to graze the shimmering grass

and then lifted to follow the sound

of our voices. And though

I felt the sun on my face and my

own hand warm on a mug

of sweetened coffee, I ruined

the moment, thinking of hunters

with their rifles raised—I don’t

understand how they can do that, I said.

Some nights my love has called

me out to watch clear skies speckled

with far-flung stars, to see full moons

so bright they lit up our darkened

living-room, cast white or gold

squares of light on our floor—

Strawberry Moon, Hunter Moon, Buck—

and I’ve thought about how we were

seeing the past, and how I’ll never

understand about the time it takes

the light to reach us. Once we watched

a lunar eclipse, the legerdemain

of the moon’s slow erasure, its slow

return. In the sleepless hushed hour

of the wolf, together we’ve stood

tracking the red lights flashing,

like giant fireflies above the live oaks,

of the air ambulance heading

for Children’s Hospital, and because

we are, the two of us, who we are,

I felt sad, thinking of the damaged

and sick children it carried, and my love

felt glad, thinking of their rescue.

Sympathetic Magic

It is not me myself I want to forgive

but the girl I was who strode//up…

Grace Schulman, “The Last Crossing”

Not to the ramp of a great ship,

but out of the ordinary

office of two divorce

lawyers and onto the leaf-

strewn autumn sidewalk,

morning sun from a child’s

drawing smiling on her, she thought,

as only someone so young

can think, crisp winds cheerfully

blowing apart the raked-leaf

pyramids as if, it seemed,

the whole world—or at least

this quiet Connecticut town—

were celebrating with her.

She almost skipped past the quiet

brownstones, which seemed

to her happy, their windows

flung open to the clean

fall air, everything animated,

all of it designed to match—

like in a scene from some movie—

a musical!—if only she dared

sing—the way her heart felt free.

And when she pulled the ring

so easily from her left hand, she

wasn’t thinking of those sympathetic

narratives on the cave walls

at Altamira she’d read about,

the fallen mastodons pierced

with arrows painted in berry juice,

a form of prayer for a good hunt

and to reassure the animal

of the hunters’ mercy. And when

she dropped that ring into the sewer,

she stopped to listen to the ssssh,

ssssh of the water beneath

the street, and the joy she felt

made her want to run, and she was

not thinking of the magic of objects

of Greek and Egyptian poppets,

nor of the thick bearskins some tribes

laid on the bellies of their infant

sons to make them strong men,

or of the witches who knew

the thing could hurt the man. She didn’t

mean to hurt the young husband

who had done her no harm,

except to be the man she hadn’t

wanted to see he was, did not mean

to toss him away, though what

she did mean is lost now to the past,

the ringlong since washed out

into the Hudson, and then to sea.

For Ruth Ellis, Last Woman Hanged in England

after watching Dance with a Stranger

Your story is sordid, but still I can’t stop

returning to it, to you trying so hard

to be like Marilyn Monroe with your red lips

and bleached hair, your skintight sweaters

and those fifties cat’s eye glasses

you would not often wear— men don’t make passes…

one of those lessons you’d learned early

and too well. I watch again this film,

reread the clippings and biographies.

I’m more faithful than any of your lovers.

And how melodramatic it all seems—

the fading bar girl with a past, the pills

and booze, the men, the children

you couldn’t care for. The spoiled

young heir who liked to race expensive

cars and had a taste for slumming.

The way you’d let him take you anywhere

he wanted—in the filthy toilet,

standing up behind the bar after closing,

in his car, the alley—how you liked that,

the way it made you feel desperately wanted,

dangerous, a femme fatale from the cinema.

How shut out in the cold London night,

watching his party behind yellow-lit windows,

the laughter loud enough for you to hear

on the street, you beat on the locked door,

shrieking until the cops arrived and gently

pulled you away. And that sad note you sent

his mother from your death row cell,

a crude apology scrawled in crayon. I see you

as clearly as if I stood there, shivering

with you in the dark outside the cheerful pub,

waiting for him with the cold gun

in your small hand, wearing your glasses

this time, not wanting to miss. Not weeping

as you stood over him, shooting again

and again. I can feel the relief flooding you

with such warmth it made you sleepy,

and you could finally rest.

At the Chicago Art Institute

Past the flushed cheeks and hair ribbons

of the Renoir. Past the Seurat,

a clutch of small children cross-legged

on the rug before it, mid-tour,

the smiling doyen. What is a study?

Why are there so many naked people?

Past the Rembrandts and the two small

van Goghs I’ve never seen before—

La Berceuse, a woman rocking a cradle,

The Poet’s Garden, for Gauguin—

Past the Picassos, I come alone upon Suffering.

Brancusi, 1907 reads the small gold plate.

Lit from above and below, the bronze

glows. It’s a child, metal warmed

to the slender neck, the fragile wings

of his missing arms, the delicate mouth.

The child’s eyes are shut, as if he’s feverish,

the rims of his earlobes tender as flesh.

What moment’s captured here? I think

of my friend, grown son sick

and without insurance, unable to work

or afford the medicine he needs.

I remember my own children’s limp bodies,

how the heat of flu seemed to steam

off their skin when I touched my cheek

to theirs. Was this bronze child cared for,

eased into a cool bath by his mother?

Was he starving? Trapped in war?

Brancusi sculpted three of these,

the plaque informs, each head inclined,

like this one, as if the child were held

in deep sleep, metal made to seem supple

as skin glimmering beneath gallery lights.

I move as close as I can without touching,

incline my own head—who holds him?

Was his mother desperate for money,

offering up her boy’s suffering for art?

Was he simply sleeping? No, say the tender

blades of his back, the arch of his slight

neck, the hairless, vulnerable skull.


Susan Aizenberg’s newest collection, A Walk with Frank O’Hara and Other Poems, is forthcoming in 2024 in University of New Mexico Press’s Mary Burritt Christiansen Poetry Series. She’s also the author of Quiet City (BkMk) and Muse (SIUP). Her awards include the VCU/Levis Reading Prize and the Nebraska Book Award for Poetry. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals and anthologies, including Blackbird, On the Seawall, Plume, Nine Mile, North American Review, and Prairie Schooner.


bottom of page