The farm wife hoists the family flag

Eve got off the bus in tears the day her third grade teacher
scolded her for using a hankie. “It’s not sanitary,” she said.
Miss Pauley had no notion of what a handkerchief means to us:
reusable tissue, wash cloth, gripper of lids, wiper of smudgy
glasses, emergency bandage, keepsake we carry to the grave.
Peekaboo with a hankie triggered Eve’s first laugh, and later she
sat through sermons watching Grandma Yoder fold a flat square
into a butterfly or mouse. Now Eve does that for her sister
and knots Ruth’s Sunday pennies in a corner like a hobo’s sack.
She irons and stacks all the hankies in our drawers
and brings a bandanna drenched with cold water to her dad
who ties it round his neck. Last Christmas she gave me
a set of four lacy kerchiefs embroidered by her own hand,
each with my initials and a leaf or flower to signify the season.
Straight from a city college, Miss Pauley could only count
the virtues of a Kleenex. “Like a lot of things, hankies
grow softer as they age,” I said, using one to wipe Eve’s tears.

Tell me tell me tell me

I board the airplane to see my parents. They live far away and long ago
And some years into the future; you never met such wry time machines
In your life. Sometimes they will be about to pass the marmalade when
Suddenly it is late 1941 and they are in college and kissing on the train;
But then as you slather your toast it is 1967 and a war wants to eat their
Son or 2012 and they are at that son’s wake or 1929 and a father comes
Home without his job, or it is a week ago, and do you think that Federer
Is the finest tennis player ever, or Laver, or Don Budge? It happens that
Fast. It’s unnerving and glorious and confusing and perfect and I would
Sit with them every afternoon, if I could, and say tell me tell me tell me,
Tell me every moment of your whole lives, don’t leave me here without
Your grace and humor and the extraordinary gleaming jar of marmalade
From which come all your stories. Next year in Ireland . . . says my mother,
And my dad grins, and I want to kneel and beg the Lord for this moment
Again and again always, the inarguable yes of their bodies, the resonance
Of their endurance, the hunch and hollow of their shoulders, the reverent
Geography of their faces, the lean song of my father’s hands on the table.

Three poems

Naomi in famine
Ruth 1:1–2

First portions to my husband, then the boys.
I eat what’s left behind, grow willowy, more
like a girl than I ever was.

My clothes curtain, I think of cutting
the excess to sell, for what? There’s nothing
left in this town, we are the only harvest
to ripen white in the wind.

My husband says sometimes God allows
pain to cause us to move. I pack
our things.

The last cow to calf was three springs past,
and now I boil its bones to make broth.

Naomi’s sojourn
Ruth 1:1

The grain fled from our hands.
Harvest brought no yield.
Each day turned to us—empty faces,
empty faces, and our sons’ mouths
gaped wider. My fat of childbirth
negotiated to rib, our children’s bellies
bloat. I cut the oil by half and by half
til we are eating water, some dirt.
Hunger becomes the greater God;
it gnaws us like a bone. We leave
our home.

Ruth’s vow

What they say of you, they say of me, the girls
you were a girl with, the men you did not choose,
I will not choose. I will carry what you carry,
like a child, on my hip that has never born
a child, heavy as a child who will not follow
your voice. Your home built of sorrow will be
my sorrow, the wasp pressed against the inside
of the pane, my pane, the slackening of your skin,
loosened skin around the eyes, will be my loosening,
your hair gone colorless will be my own
lack of color. Your cup of bitter waters is my cup
of bitter waters and together we will drink it,
until the bowl has gone dry as a skull.

Full Worm Moon

Sap Moon, Crust Moon, Crow Moon—
by any of its names, this moon
announces, in all its fullness, worms
stirring in earth’s softening center;
sap thawing in the maples;
snow dissolving by day, crisping by night;
& calls of crows converting from haunting ballads
to heralding hymns. A robin reappears,
throwing off the pine cloak it hid behind
all winter like a god hard to find, hard to hear,
maybe hard of hearing in the ruckus
wind made as it bayed across the plains
& yowled in the valleys, hard to see in ice
suffocating once-tasseled fields, pinecone & bayberry,
numbing perhaps even wings,
rendering the soft touch this moon offers
almost senseless.
                                   Welcome, worms,
twisting & teeming with prophecy,
welcome, crows & robins, plucking
these crawlers from grass now breathing green,
welcome, syrup, born again, pushing through the spout,
welcome, waxing light & waning dark,
welcome one, welcome all, no matter your longing
for answered prayer, come, sun yourself
beneath the low Lenten Moon.

The king of love my shepherd is

For Margaret More Roper (1505–1544)

Meg went to the Tower,
somehow passed the halberds
of the Yeomen of the Guard
to embrace once more the father
whose hair shirt she washed,
whose “wholesome counsel
and virtuous example” she received,
whose mind and person she loved.

Not Holbein’s Chancellor
but an El Greco saint,
he was led out
carrying his red cross,
emaciated and ready.
He reminded the axe man
his neck was short,
asked him not to miss.
Then put that noble neck
in the arc of the block,
and the great, wedge axe
lopped off his blessed head.
Faithless Henry had it put
on a pike on London Bridge,
a horrible deterrent to
heroic silence.

At what cost and courage
Margaret rescued it,
carried it home to Canterbury,
buried it by St. Dunstan’s Church.
How often did she gaze from home
across to the church yard, longing
for the King whose name is love,
Whom she, and we, still await?