EXPANSIVE POETRY ONLINE
A Journal of Contemporary Arts 

 

 

POEMS

by

Carolyn Raphael

____________

DINNER WITH EMPRESS LIVIA

Livia Drusilla (later Julia Augusta - 58BCE to 29CE) was the third wife of Emperor Augustus. Her Prima Porta Villa's beautiful dining room frescoes were moved to Rome's Palazzo Massimo al Terme (Roman National Museum) in 1998. Today, one can sit surrounded by garden scenes of flowers and fruit trees filled with doves and partridges. And dream...

Cornelius to Lucius, Greetings

I must describe my dinner with our Empress.
Her sprawling, lavish villa outshines praise.
One marvel is the summer dining room:
partially underground, the perfect place
to flee the ravages of Roman heat.
High up, small windows let in just enough light.

On all four walls the artist painted frescoes
that imitate surroundings of this villa.
Cerulian blue and beryl green assuage
the troubled soul and captivate the eye.
Sixty-nine kinds of birds, I'm told, including
partridges, thrushes, magpies, warblers, jays.
most feasting on the bounty of the fruit trees.
A nightingale warbles in a golden cage.

The foreground shows the cultivated garden,
contained by a lattice fence and low stone wall.
Beyond, a wild grove boasts oak and laurel;
the date palms mix with cypress, spruce and pines,
with fruiting quince and pomegranate trees.
Viburnums grow with poppies and acanthus.
All seasons merge; all bloom concurrently—
harmonious as Rome's Augustan Age.

As we reclined on couches piled with cushions,
the servants filled the tables with camel heels,
flamingo's tongues. And then there were the dormice:
first dipped in honey, rolled in poppy seeds.
Exotic dishes I had never seen.
(The silver wine cups featured Dionysus.)
Though we began at five, the courses flowed
as constant as the Tiber through the night.

For entertainment, female slaves, who danced
to melodies of lyres, flutes, and harps.
The acrobats and mimes astonished all.
At last it was my turn to play a part
when I was asked to read my poetry.
I saw the empress smile as I took my bow.

Take care so that you are well, my friend,
Cornelius

         -Carolyn Raphael

Note: Cura ut valeas (Take care so that you are well)
         was a common closing to Latin letters


.
WAITING FOR THE OPEN AIR IN A TIME OF COVID

O welche Lust, in freier Luft
Den Atem leicht zu heben!

Oh what joy, in the open air
Freely to breathe again!

—The Prisoners' Chorus from Beethoven's Opera Fidelio

Let out from cells as sunless as the grave,
political prisoners shuffle toward the light.
Brief respite, but the famished souls behave
like wingless birds still contemplating flight.

The beauty of the music underscores
the fragile gift of freedom. (I always cry.)
One voice sings hope and faith in God, ignores
the fact that they are watched with ear and eye.

Though self-imposed, our prison has its bars—
if only made of linen or of lace—
on windows that divide us from the stars
and frame a grandchild's disappointed face.

As hostages to loneliness, we need
to hear the harmony of being freed.

 

____________________________

 

 

A CALENDAR OF TREES

    1. American Holly

The whole tree shakes, alive with gorging,
as catbirds seize the ripe red berries.
It lasts for hours, each December.
I gaze through my window—entranced, unnerved
by this hibernal sacrifice.
A final shudder, berries are gone,
and stillness returns to spiny leaves
that yield, with evergreen grit, to winter.

    2. Japanese Maple

All winter, leafless branches bend
like dancers arcing to the floor;
their weeping only makes me smile.
Buds swell, then leaflets rise in spring,
slowly unfurl their lacy leaves
until they form a crimson dome.
I look down from an upstairs window
to see the tree nymph wake and stretch.

    3. White Pine

Nature’s Christmas tree off-season
is out of place in this stifling air.
An outsized guest in my small back yard—
the British kings used them for masts.
When needles yellow then turn to brown
and fall each fall, I think it’s dying;
but it’s only pruning the old and weak,
making way for the newly green.

    4. American Sweetgum

Each fall I curse this lofty tree
as I turn my ankle on the seed pods.
Fierce as a medieval mace,
big as golfballs and prickly sharp
until leaf blowers blast them away.
But then the leaves—five-pointed stars—
turn yellow, purple, red against
an azure sky, and I forgive.

THE WHOLE TRUTH
      “truth consists in some form of correspondence
        between belief and fact.”
                  -Bertrand Russell, “Truth and Falsehood”
                    in Problems of Philosophy

Since when is wish as gold as fact?
Conviction true if never tried?
Opinion sound if never backed
by data that are verified?

WALTZING WITH WENDY

On October 18, 2014, two renowned New York City Ballet dancers, Jacques d’Amboise and Wendy Whelan, briefly waltzed together on the stage after her farewell performance. (She had lived with his family when a student at the School of American Ballet.)

A slow run to meet him, a loving embrace.
He gives her a rose then they walk to the place
where flowers are piled in tribute. (His gait
is measured and cautious—we worry and wait.)
The applause turns to shouts as she donates his rose.
Another embrace—he whispers—she knows.
They waltz—here’s the infinite grace I recall
from the king of the leap and the lift (and so tall).
He changes direction—crescendo of cheers.
He twirls her, a last hug, and we are in tears.


 

____________________________

 

 

AN UNRECORDED LIFE

We breathe in smoke when Pepys describes the fire
of London, wince when Plath bites Hughes’s cheek
at their intense encounter. As sirens shriek
to celebrate the dying of the war,
Virginia Woolf’s transcription draws us there.
The journal is a compass that can take
coordinates of any day’s location,
then point the poet to a vein of ore.

But my days lodge on unmarked streets, at home
to travelers in my work. The ordered saving
of every hour’s chatter, doubt, and crumb
would stamp the faded silk that memories weave.
Though heresy, I find there is no room
to chronicle a life too busy living.

     Iambs & Trochees, fall/winter 2006

THE BATTERED WIFE

At least my hair will hide the purple bruise
below my ear. I'm best in winter, time
for turtlenecks, long-sleeves, and woolen scarves.
I'll say I tripped on the hallway rug again;
another bathtub accident won't do.
Did Johnny hear me scream when the dishes crashed?
Is Katie in the closet with her bear?
We'll go to Helen’s house; she understands.
He used to be so gentle, almost boyish,
stroking my hair, calling me little girl.
The children came, and I kept gaining weight
(mustn't forget the vitamins and toys).
Mom says that marriage is a bramble bush
with berries for the picking (learn to live
with scratches)
. These are more than scratches—still,
the fruit is irresistible (and sweet).
I’ll stay at Helen’s while we all calm down.
Then he’ll call, crying, promise me the world,
but I'll be firm—hold off for one more day.
It will be different this time. I feel sure.


CAT-TALE

Crouched beneath an orange moon,
a cat—unclean and thin—
was rescued by a gentle girl,
who gladly took her in.

The savior was Melissa Kay,
in need of an ally
to listen to her discontents
and give a soft reply.

Melissa urged the cat to mew
with milk and cans of tuna;
she even sent a feline prayer
up to the goddess Luna.

The goddess granted her request,
and when the new moon rose,
the cat awakened from her nap,
striking a haughty pose.

Catbird, she said, catwalk, catarrh,
catnip, and catalog.

Melissa seized her new smartphone
to post this on her blog.

Catcall, the orator declaimed,
cat house and caterwaul.
That's quite enough,
Melissa said;
there’s a shelter at the mall.

Next time you're walking past the stores,
for exercise or shopping,
beware of any cat you see—
and don't consider stopping.

 

A NOTE FROM MRS B,
MY SON'S FIRST-GRADE TEACHER
 

              Daniel had a bad day today.
              He couldn’t stay seated
              or keep his hands to himself.

I know your many students clamor for
your eyes, your ears, your time (in short supply),
but did you ask our son what troubled him,
what goaded him to lose his self control?


              When I told him I would have to write to you,
              he told me that he hoped I would hurt myself.


I wish that you had chosen to call or write
to us directly, not to tell our son
that you would have to write to us. He must
have felt attacked and used his weapon: words.

I was bewildered by your stationery
that shows a smiling teacher holding a big
red apple! And printed in boldface on the top:
An apple from your teacher.

I’ll call the office so that we can meet.
We’ll bring our listening ears—but not an apple.

____________________________

 

THE PERFECT GENTLEMAN*

In 1515, Raphael finished an oil portrait of Count Baldassare Castiglione,
the author of
The Courtier (1528), when Castiglione was 37.
Among Raphael’s most famous portraits, it hangs in the Louvre
.

How every inch the courtier is this count,
Who wrote the book on protocol. His clothes
And poised demeanor are impeccable:
Black doublet wrapped in fine gray fur, the bloused,
White pleated shirt beneath. And on his head,
Which to his shame was bald, good taste confirmed:
Black turban topped by a grand black notched beret.
A courtier to nobles first, he rose
To be ambassador to Rome, unmatched
As tightrope walker of diplomacy.
And yet the viewer cannot help but note
A weary melancholy in his eyes.
Perhaps because the painter was his friend,
The count allowed a glint of truth to show—
The cost of knowing, after twenty years
Of service, what a courtier must do.

        *portrait at Louvre Web site; hit back arrow on browser to return

 

 

 

TELLING THE GRANDKIDS ABOUT WORLD WAR II*

                 For my grandsons and granddaughter
 

There was a war—no, not with action heroes
like Captain America but real ones, men
who had a single superpower: courage.
Grandpa Larry was three when war was declared.
His father was too old to be a soldier,
but he grew a Victory Garden in his yard—
tomatoes, strawberries, string beans, cucumbers, squash—
his family ate the vegetables he grew
so most of the canned ones could be sent to soldiers.
When 20 million people planted gardens,
on rooftops and in empty lots, it helped
to keep us fed, and we were helping too.
 

The rationing of food began when I
was one-year-old in 1942.
This meant that everyone in a family
received a ration book with colored stamps
to buy a certain amount of food each week.
(There were three of us before my sister was born.)
Come look inside this woven pouch. These are
our ration books from 1943.
One says: If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT.
My mother signs her age as 27,
My father, 35, and I am 2.
My ration book says Occupation: child.
 

These blue stamps were for vegetables, soup, and fruit,
(frozen, canned, or dried) and baby food.
Each person was allowed 48 points
a week: canned pears cost 21 points, canned corn,
14, but soup cost only 6. My mother
had to choose wisely. The red stamps are almost gone;
they were for meat and butter, fats and oils.
People recycled fats, rubber, and steel
but also paper and cans, as we do now.
Speaking of now, as you eat your Cheerios,
tonight when you are hungry after dinner
before you go to bed, think of the days
when your great-grandmother counted points and planned
meals carefully to make sure that the food

would last her little family for the week.
I heard we always had enough to eat.

 

       *from Grandma Poems—Not Too Sweet
         Kelsay Books, 2017

 

 

 

HUMMING*

When I pick him up at nursery school,
near the geraniums,
he sees my face through the open door
and hums.

When he attacks my apple cake,
then licks up all the crumbs
from the plate and then the tabletop,
he hums.

When his jigsaw puzzle’s almost done,
and the final piece succumbs,
his eyes ignite, his smile spreads wide,
and he hums.

What is this sound that captivates,
this pleasure note that comes
from deep inside a happy heart
and hums, and hums, and hums?
 

 

       *from Grandma Poems—Not Too Sweet
         Kelsay Books, 2017

 

 

 

 

THE TOOTH FAIRY

Our big boy’s lost a tooth, the family sings.
At night, he buries it beneath his pillow.
He sleeps and wakes, trying to peek at wings,
then finds, at morning sun, a dollar bill.

I, too, have lost a tooth, but no one sings.
I’ll need an implant or a bridge. My pillow
declines the ivory bribe—no fairy brings
me cash to help me pay the dentist’s bill.

 

       *from Grandma Poems—Not Too Sweet
         Kelsay Books, 2017



A
t the Retreat

I sleep in a nun’s bed—reflection begins.
I gaze at the Bible, the sunlight, the sea;
then I put on my makeup and ponder my sins.

First, Gluttony leads me to gorge on Rice Thins,
which I eat without guilt since they’re now gluten-free.
I sleep in a nun’s bed—reflection begins.

An arrow from Eros (I yield as he grins),
but Sloth neuters Lust; I am saved temporarily.
Still, I put on my makeup and ponder my sins.

When Envy and Greed vie, I hear violins
that solemnly practice my soul’s threnody.
I sleep in a nun’s bed—reflection begins.

Engaged in a battle where nobody wins—
I rail against Wrath (to a modest degree)
while putting on makeup, pondering sins.

I stare in the mirror at Lucifer’s twins:
the dragon of Pride and his servant called Vanity.
I sleep in a nun’s bed—reflection begins
as I pile on makeup and ponder my sins.

 

Thank You for Coming*

Please say your name—I have been ill;
the thunderclouds are with me still.
But now that you are here, I thrive,
a gracious gift to be alive.
I vowed to conquer, and I will.

You bring me warm regards from Bill—
I can’t recall …I feel a chill….
Yet I’m determined to survive.
Please say your name.

Reposing in my chair I fill
my hours with reveries until
the happy moment you arrive,
and then I manage to revive.
Who is this handing me a pill?
Please say your name.

* originally published in Blue Unicorn, 2016;
also appeared in Dancing with Bare Feet, White Violet, 2016

Translation of this poem into Italian will appear in Journal of Italian Translation
later this year. Luigi Bonaffini is the editor, and Michael Palma is an associate editor.

 

Traveling While Old*

Where are the days of serendipity,
when plans were flexible, and so were we?
When one of us could climb up Giotto’s Tower—
when both, like Holland’s tulips, were in flower.
Now all is measured by our drops and pills
(for wayward heartbeats and digestive ills).
We know the nearest hospital address
and where to go in case of tooth distress.
We locate bathrooms in hotel or bar,
park benches when our destination’s far.
Our hearing is good except for when it’s not;
we can’t remember what we just forgot.
We smile at each new day and hope that chance will
(we have insurance if we need to cancel).

 

 

Before You Leave*

 

Before you leave for baseball, soccer, girls—

may I interest you in armor at the Met?

(May I run fingers through your wayward curls

before you leave for baseball, soccer, girls?)

 

And how about Rossini, whose Barber whirls

as fast as hockey players near the net?

Before you leave for baseball, soccer, girls—

may I interest you in armor at the Met?

 

                

*Originally appeared in First Literary Review: East, and in the collection Grandma Poems--Not Too Sweet

    Kelsay Books, 2017

 

            

 

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