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.
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.
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.