Fall 2008

Table of Contents - Vol. IV, No. 3


Poetry    Translations    Fiction    Essays   

Shelley Puhak


Dearest Ellen

Dr. John H— and his seven-year-old daughter Ellen, died December 1814, buried together

I cannot bring flowers for you
without kneeling before him.
I know you remember only how he followed
you around on your errands (conquering trees,
catching baby rabbits), swallowing
your bare blistered heels in the shadow
of his stride, how he crushed
your thin fingers around the chalk, helping
you trace ELLEN, Ellen, Ellen on the old slate.

And everyone said he was a good man—
only the occasional brandy,
whistling while he polished
the buttery black medical bag
(the clasp like teeth snapping shut).
He cut off men’s feet and legs
to save the rest. He cut babies out
of my friends’ bellies. Grateful,
they were, as I was grateful— he bargained
with death for all of us. Even if it meant
his mouth stretched thin
and he pulled
away from me (spotted, spreading)
to gather you up (smaller, unscathed).

I read through his big book
(with the spine snapped),
his medical journals. I knew enough
to burn sulphur candles once
he took sick. I knew enough
to nail the quarantine sign up.

Don’t you remember I tried to untwine
you two? But you, you clawed
at me— I want Papa. Only Papa—
while he laughed, not in his own voice,
but one almost
threadbare, clasped
you closer, flushing your face with
his furnace of coughs.

And I was the one who found you dozing
in his arms, still clasped against
his rash-red chest, once he
was already gone, the one who
laid you out, splayed the hair
you’d never let
me brush or plait
across the best
in the house.


Miss Perkins’ Resignation Letter

I ask only that the board
consider my actions in sum. Mindful
of my contract, I have avoided ice cream stores,
hair dye, cigarettes, and men.
(When your son, Mr. Abrahms, came by
Sunday afternoons, I turned him away,
even though I couldn’t expect
to make a better match.)

If this esteemed board thinks a letter
of resignation the same tender
as my white handkerchief,
I assure you, gentlemen, I have given
nothing up. Joe Frasier is as old
as my own father, a God-fearing man, married
twenty-odd years and it was his own wife
who met us at the house, wrapped
me in blankets and set me beside their fire
for a stretch. I reckon it was Providence
he found me struggling in that snowdrift, and
as one so blessed, I thank you all in advance
for my full month’s pay
(the entire thirty-five dollars)
and a kind recommendation for my next
employer (which will say only
that after three years of able service,
Miss Perkins has moved back
to Pennsylvania,
to work closer to kin).

Lest you find me forward, let me say,
gentlemen, I feel comfortable addressing you
as such and I expect to remember
for some time all of your kind faces, my
comfortable lodgings, the sour apple
pies your wives would bake for me from time to
time. I also expect to remember
how Sissy sat in the back and just sobbed some
days, or Wilson came in with a black
eye from time to time, and his mama with
one to match. Of course, the law takes no notice,
but even the law has children, and some
of his sons work at the cigar factory,
(which I think you might own, Mr. Jennings).
Just last week, I was asked by a student’s father
to have a look at his factory check,
and being well-schooled in mathematics,
(surely you all recall the test
scores I presented at my interview,)
I couldn’t help but notice the numbers
didn’t tally, not like one might expect
if the men were getting their ten
cents hourly wage. Of course,
gentlemen, a man ill-schooled
might make an entry in the wrong
column and throw the books
out of balance. I would reason with the sheriff
such an entry was a mistake, but I know
what little count reason has
against stronger tongues
(it was your own wife, was
it not, Mr. Jennings?
who called me a strumpet, I think it was.
I’ve washed out the mouths of your own
boys for milder words.)
When you announce Miss Perkins has resigned,
your children, at least, will know the truth.
They have recited this word during
Latin lessons, and know signare means
to make an entry in an account book,
and re, the opposite, so by resigning,
if there is a debt, one makes a mark
under credit, balancing the former mark
and canceling out the claim it represents.

Your humble servant,
Elizabeth A. Perkins, Schoolmistress


My Life with Perseus

In high school, we dated
senior year, slept together twice
in the backseat of his red Miata.

He was crew captain, a B student
with a walk that was a little less
than a
swagger, with two safety colleges
and spring break in Cancun
all lined up.

I was, of course, head cheerleader.
Parents came to sporting events
just to see my ponytail
swish, toffee-colored, torchlit
stained-glass, iridescent as the inside
of a conch shell.

Until a headful of vipers
one homeroom Monday morning.
The other girls clucked
under their breath at the senseless loss,
but what could they do?
My misfortune opened up the prom-date
playing field, and besides,
if they looked me in the eye
to apologize, they ended up struck down
with a bad case of oozing acne.

Then he didn’t want me
sitting at the lunch table anymore,
creeping him out
with my bad hair, my zit-
inducing stare. And gods lined up
to help—lending him a shield,
magic flying shoes,
a nice tux for the prom.


The Lady Laudanum-Drinkers

Along with cocaine toothache
drops, you keep Sydenham's Laudanum
in your arsenal—the sweet sherry masks
the opium’s bite, hastens
the velvet limbless sleep. It stills
the most hysterical heart,
can be spoonfed to cranky babies
until they too grow invisible.

Your laudanum comes from the poppy
with dark purple petals and frilled
edges— papaver somniferum, passage
to the underworld, the poppy created
by the goddess Demeter. After
her daughter’s abduction, she didn’t bathe
or eat, couldn’t sleep. She tucked
inside this flower a thick-tongued
twilight-flavored sap, something to borrow
against on nights when all she saw
were his hands running up and down
Persephone as if she were only a piano.

And Ovid places Persephone picking poppies
just before her yearly descent, not waiting
for the petals to fall and the
seed capsule to protrude, drinking
straight from the stem instead.

Necessity. Same
as when the laudanum runs out— you buy
dried poppy heads and, one by one, pierce
the capsules with sewing needles, drop
them into a glazed crock, set near the stove
so the opium sweats out.

Same as when the X-ray reveals the underworld—
the lower chambers of any laudanum-drinker’s heart,
where blood pools as the valves slow
their flapping, where Persephone must descend
after drinking the poppy’s white milky juice, its raw
opium, early laudanum, already starting to stumble.
If she drinks enough she won’t see him,
in this darkest ocean where nothing grows
when he appears to escort her the rest
of the way. When she feels his hand on her back
she will insist, over the slosh and suction,
no, I want to walk alone, even here.


© Shelley Puhak



Poetry    Translations    Fiction    Essays   

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