Poetry | March 01, 2003

Featuring the poems:

  • About the Nurse in Ob-Gyn
  • Updike Arrives in Peoria, the City of Vowels
  • The Alphabet
  • Rome, Winter 1967


About the Nurse in Ob-Gyn

The lobby is packed with expecting

women, fidgeting

husbands who pull toddlers

up onto their laps, while I wait, empty.

When my name is called, she walks

me down the long corridor framed

with pictures of babies’

birthdays, diagrams of each

trimester’s developing, weary photographed

mothers, scrawled notes of thanks

pinned to the walls.


Later, this same woman pumps my arm,

fingers my wrist, asks how old

I am now, as if the question itself will edge

forward the hands of my body’s need.

I swear she mumbles old enough, leaning

all of herself toward me—her child-bearing

hips, her healthy stoic frame,

her earrings that scrape along


her clavicle—across the desk to where

I perch. Before I can answer

she wonders aloud whether I’m going

to fill that prescription again. She doesn’t

know I rehearsed this part

with my dose of morning coffee.

Even thought to pour a shot of whiskey

deep in the cup. Some proof of my resolve.

She doesn’t know something keeps

collapsing. Hasn’t she ever


had nightmares of children

she’s never conceived: hands

scrubbed to bone, reaching

through an incubator’s latex

mouth, past feeding tubes

and pulsing monitors to touch

the one-inch feet, the neonatal

glow? She turns her back


while I slip into the paper gown,

while I guide my feet

into the stirrups, tells me

about those women who leave

mugs on the roofs of their cars

and drive away. Never notice.

Would leave a baby seat too, she says,

facing me with the accusation—

the thousand mistakes I’ve never made.



Updike Arrives in Peoria, the City of Vowels

Just as I’m telling my students how,

in 1939, a speech pathologist in Iowa

trained twenty-two orphans to stutter.

My own mouth cannot utter the words

those children were never untaught.

That our tongues naturally miscalculate

fricatives, or the spaces between,

seems wretched enough, to all of us.


For the luncheon with Updike, I send

that shy boy from my morning class.

Hand over a first edition to have signed

in case, overcome by his own twitching,

he isn’t brave enough to speak.

When he returns what filled his arms,

he sputters out that every wall was a door

in the sterile room where he waited.

He thought Updike would appear

from behind one of them.


I haven’t the heart to tell him

no writer is that kind of magician.

Especially not after this day of talk upturns

Updike’s shirt collar. Creases

his throat. Swallows all those years

of practiced consonants that do not repeat.

But this boy already knows what I cannot

seem to teach, even myself: if behind every door,

in any room, the perfect shape of language

were placed on a shelf just above our heads,

always in reach, how each word would stammer

its way out into the night, weighted and sweet.



The Alphabet

Even that boy knew

what she didn’t: sometimes

we write in the dark, on the loose

leaf flaps of ourselves,

and when the heated shower

sloughs our story off, we have to

start again.


But this is about her—a girl

who cant keep herself

from scribbling, who rids

her apartment and purse of all paper

and, like an addict, lights

every last wood product on fire

in someone else’s backyard

metal drum. Without,


she has no choice and begins

to cover herself with a sort of

watermark pressed into her

body’s parchment. Takes a job

at a library as a shelver,

a mere page, because more

than anything she likes to eye

the stone lions that flank

the entrance steps. There,


the only books she touches

are the ones people check out

or the even lonelier ones that never

check out. When she has no skin

left to write on, she paints

a love story with something

in a water-based can onto

the lions’ bellies. When

rain washes the animals’

tattoos away, I half-pray


she’ll start tearing

onionskin from unread volumes

or scrawling the margins of sacred

first editions, because I wanted her,

like me, to surrender to alphabets.

To languages she didn’t know.

To words she’d never heard. Instead,

she takes a lover—. I have to

put the story down.


Didn’t she see that ink dresses

everything around us-quickly penned

notes on hands or phrases like Forever

Harley across the biker’s chest

or a postcard’s wish I were there

imprinted in memory? How could she not

know that boy I wanted to love

introduced himself, saying I keep words

beneath my clothes?



Rome, Winter 1967

There were secrets to be explained,

some kind of mystery. On the ledge

of their rooftop veranda, my mother

is twenty-five, dressed all in kitten-black

but for the checkered scarf

at her neck, perched-one leg

crossed over the other-at the edge

of everything.


My father never cared about seeing her

in clothes like this or how she looked

so young. But the older men at the bar,

their teeth sometimes missing,

made her feel welcome. Taught her

to drink Frascati in short chubby glasses.

Called her bella. Told my father

she was bambola. He only knew

enough of the language to nod.


She must’ve understood, having spent

those first years learning to be

newlywed alone in this foreign place:

buying pane on the street,

haggling over slightly bruised

produce at the corner ortolano,

saving each last coin to afford

carta da lettere for long notes

home. When I untuck


the yellowing snapshot again,

first discovered and torn

from the pages of her scrapbook

when I was just a girl, I still can’t

get close enough. On the photo’s back,

in the same hand I recognize

from birthday cards, to-do lists,

envelope corners, she scrawled

Anne in knee socks at 25!? Ira wanted

a little leg. After the divorce,

after his funeral, even now, I turn


it over, trying to decipher

what hadn’t translated. My father,

half-blindness hidden behind his thick

frames, the camera’s lens, stands

too far away. Always.


And before she pressed it

between the leaves of another

letter to the States, where she never

once complained, she thinks to notice

the scenery: how nice and green

everything still is, even in December,

disappearing behind her.

If you are a student, faculty member, or staff member at an institution whose library subscribes to Project Muse, you can read this piece and the full archives of the Missouri Review for free. Check this list to see if your library is a Project Muse subscriber.