By Karen Holmberg
When the East is gold leaf beaten so thin
the sky’s pale violet shows through, I go
to my garden to check the progress
of its labors. The peony’s fist
has widened its fissure in earth.
I stoop to assist, unkinking
its wrist, unfolding the wad of maroon tissues
snipped with half-moons, triangles, and blades.
Partly in pity, in part for relief,
the world gave me
two daughters to distract me from
my own death dread, that I might relax my hold
on her, the way you give a baby
the transparent nipple, the vinyl infant
to mother. When the nurse handed me
my first, I kissed the lip curled
in a sob of dismay, already possessed.
Then I rolled back the sleeve of her gown
and saw fingers wizened from being
too long in the bag of waters,
unfurled the fist to find
a shredded blister in her palm, slits
in the whitened, drowned skin revealing
tissues so thin they took their color
from blood, the palm lines
a crimson M as if gouged with a stick.
I was in that maternity ward, able to believe
the distance of her death, that I could keep
for life what had entered the world
through my body’s gates. That it would never be
my temple and cheek grinding the sand,
my teeth bared in agony near the small hand,
the palm still enfolding loosely
the stripped twig, the skin of the fingers livid, abraded,
taken to great age in a single day
by the mother who gives to us, and gives to us,
then wrenches away what we love
in her vast wave.
Karen Holmberg’s first book, “The Perseids,” won the Vassar Miller Prize and was published by the University of North Texas Press; her second book, “Axis Mundi,” won the John Ciardi Prize and was published by BkMk Press earlier this year. She is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Oregon State University.