Wanda Fries writes, teaches and lives in Somerset, Kentucky, with her husband, Denny, a geoloist and teacher. She has an MFA from Bennington College. Her work has appeared in various journals and magazines.




Autumn Ode

For my mother memory was always hardest in autumn;
the light is bright but hard then; even the stems of hydrangeas
no longer grow toward it. Loss is harder, hard as the slanted light
and the shadows that lengthen like dreams over-arching the house—
Wearing her flannel nightgown, a ghost sits on the front porch
of the house that no longer stands up the hill from the pond—
Perhaps the pond itself is gone, filled in with red clay trucked in
as the land is developed for new houses. Perhaps the trees have been
cut, the birds she watched as she drank her coffee flown away.
My sister has the bird feeder and the wind chimes. We are like that.
We will not say that these artifacts carry the souls of the dead, but
I place the yellow bowl just so on the table; in the summer my sister
cuts roses from the same bush that once grew beside our mother’s porch.
My children come and go and I leave the door unlocked, hoping I will not
frighten them. They know stories of old women who enchant children,
keeping them in cages long past the time when they should have flown away.
It takes courage to have children and keep quiet. They do not know
to protect themselves from shadows. They do not know how to tell time.

I am not ready to sleep in my coffin like a nun, to remind myself that I, too,
am dust and ashes, but there, propped open by the window’s slanted light,
is the book of bliss and losses, the dark words lined up like so many birds—
Look, it seems to say, as it invites me to consider: Here I thought I had only
just started reading. How is it I find myself already so near the end?




Before the First Covenant

The black hour before mourning
A weary wind but no rain
Air in, air out, the dark heart beating

Would lie concealed, unstirred, unnamed
Floating in its empty ark
Adrift in a sea of guilt and shame

And saved for what? For what work
but trying not to remember
from house top and tree fork

sharp cries and the rising water
Noah nailing the windows shut
The doves are not lonely but you are

Bereft of tears, you cradle the empty cup
For safety is not the same as salvation
nor righteousness the same as love




Galveston: Early 1980s

          For my father

Leaned against the fender of your silver Datsun
we ride the ferry across the bay.
Mama sits in the car smoking, not risking
the damp air that washes gray against
the gray sea.  If she lives long enough
she knows something will kill her
but at least with the door locks snapped shut
the car watertight, even if she smothers
her struggle will be private when the boat goes down—

Families belong together at Christmas
and I have traveled by plane from Kentucky
wondering still what you're doing transplanted
to the flat ground of Houston.  Even as a child
I measured despair by loaded pick-up trucks
and U-Haul trailers, hoped  we were moving up
when mostly we were sliding back down—

I conjure metaphors from lit class—whale-road, swan's way
but the ride on this dusty ferry is too much like
a bus trip across town—    What are you looking for
in the distance? Dolphins leaping? A shrimp boat lusty
with singing sailors, trailing gulls behind her
like silver pennants? I wish I could see what you see
not this rusted boat that plods the obscure ocean underneath us
the wake not white-capping like a ship in some grand adventure
but sudsy as if we traveled through a sink full of greasy dishes—
You used to preach that Jesus friend of the poor
took his small portion of loaves and fishes and fed five thousand
but the only fisherman I see looks small from this distance
and keeps throwing the fish back in—

You weren't always good at showing affection—
men weren't of course in your generation—
but your big hand, clumsy with good intentions, falls on my shoulder
awkwardly. Then you lift your index finger
to point out the expensive houses that line the uneven shore—
Mama sits swallowed like Jonah in the belly of the car, claims
to dream in black and white if she even dreams at all
but I have taken your dreams from you as love
you could not show in other ways—

I close my eyes trying to imagine that you are all right here
have learned to merge into the light speed of the traffic on the freeway
that you don't miss the winters in Kentucky
can bear the awful Texas heat— Always you are looking
not at the dreary now, but the promise of tomorrow:
the warm colors of the houses when the sun is shining,
yachts the size of hotels crisscrossing the bay
during the summer season, Rupert Murdoch's ship
floating on the surface of the flat gray sea
like John the Revelator's city on a cloud—

Mama says not to worry, as long as you both have
a roof over your heads, rented or owned
in Texas or Kentucky, I will have a home to come to—
But listening I think, this is my true, best country:
your voice spinning out a filament of words
against the rust and rain—