I. MASSACHUSETTSBoston Ancestors
I hear them behind me
crossing Persian rugs on heel-less shoes,
drinking Dubonnet, eating nuts
(from the pantry the smell of stew),
talking about naval battles
and varsity crew,
their voices raspy with cigars
in underheated rooms.
Someone sewed their eyes shut
with needlepoint thread
and when they speak
they make up for it
in booming tones.
It is somewhere
out of them
alive or dead
I have sprung.
Yet not a person there seems to recognize
Not one. Bulbs
Even in the dead of winter
he is talking about bulbs.
Walking after dinner with my father.
There is snow, moonlight everywhere.
Cold. The loop is short.
We pass where he planted a hill
in the fall.
Above us stars
in the dark seed sky.
Their scattered pattern is something
we might discuss—
something he knows
from navigating boats.
I look up. It's like breathing ice.
My father's attention, though,
is on the knotty
wooden claws he's pressed in.
He knows where they are
below a packed layer of earth,
then all that snow above.
The tree shadows crisscross
and humps push up more sparkling white
and all he can think of,
walking with his daughter,
Daffodils? I ask.
Yes, he says, this father of seven.
I planted them in clusters. Family DogYou
left, not I.
One by one there were less of you.
Less bicycles tipping off stands.
Less leftovers I'd get of stew.
Less and less shouts and then fewer hands
To pull back my ears or smooth my head,
Or strangle my throat till my tongue went dry.
Some of you changed tastes, slept with cats instead.
Each, apart, you told me you loved me: a lie.
You each went, snapping your suitcase shut.
I loped after each car. Barking at the end
Of our drive. I could only stray so far. What
I was attached to in you would not stretch or bend.
When the last who sucked his bottle lying on my fleecy side
Left, I ambled off to where dogs bereft go
Down by the railroad tracks, and died. New England Rock
I could never travel so far
or stay so long in the desert
or stand under veils and veils of
rain that it could change
where I began.
My life rose up this way:
a round hill studded with rocks,
a winter sea not freezing for rocking
at a rocky shore, cellars with rocks
pushing up through the floor.
I tried to get away.
I flew across the world
into a man's fig mouth. I circled
mangrove roots like a whirling drain.
I swam deranged in cocoa river mud
and huddled against palm trees waving.
The ballast in my pocket kept throwing
It was meant to steady, but it kept all of us off balance, the
stones we carried.
It looked like slapstick. We tried to laugh it off.
The pratfalls of a drunk.
Or we had another drink
to keep it light.
Would that it were easy not to feel
in this land mined with headstones.
Would that we wouldn't turn so cold
overlooking soaked grey fields
or slapping the rope up on the bow.
You see it in people's mouths,
the granite tightening of their souls.
I move close to another for some heat
and the warmest thing I feel is doubt.
I dive into a pile of leaves
and hit the ground hard.
Would that these rocks lodged here
so fixed and stern
would give me something fixed and firm
as belief. The Cliff Crawlers
I have to crawl up.
It is a rock-scramble crawl.
Bitten pen in my teeth.
They say it's easier if you're small,
tearing at roots till they're ragged as curtain pulls.
I slide back when I hear men
rearing motorboats out on the lumpy bay,
their engines revving out of the water, backing up,
throwing out all that man spray.
I have tried obeying and not obeying laws
and neither has taught me how to climb.
Neither and both are guidelines.
Neither and both will ever fit.
I push words around; the clouds
won't remember it.
Their shadow spreads over other cliffs
and I see someone else on a climb.
She makes it look easy, far away.
Does she claw as I claw? Is this even worthwhile
to do? It's always more full of doubt
when the climber is you.
I wouldn't mind letting go
of this hold
and standing up to see
the islands on the other side
where other women tuck and fold.
But I can only go so fast. In fact,
I'm very slow. I want things to last
longer than they do, and other slower ones
to be over soon.
I wanted a life beside him,
he handed me my coat.
Somewhere is a man who doesn't
miss me and somewhere rain
and somewhere a change waiting to sprain my life
My hands fumble.
Clumps break into dust.
Look at the puffs of brown sailing off
like cannon shot, spreading like rust
in the sky.
The earth tilts up, pressing its belly to me.
I rub its dirty kisses from my mouth,
then kiss it again firmly.
II. LONG ISLANDThere's a man I've thought of many hours . . .
full-hearted Returning Monday Morning from a
Weekend on the North Fork
No night of love. In the morning a soft bandaged knock
on the guest-room door. Dreams socked in country
quiet. Radiator banging like an oil rig. A white ocean
filling the window on the bathroom floor.
I rise somehow. Rise out of no one's padded arms.
Spit toothpaste in a cold sink. This weekend we
raked leaves. Lay in front of the fireplace.
Had a lot to drink.
Bags in the hall in the dark. Forgetting bags.
Bags in the car. The one who drives is the one
Lights on at the Corner Box. Coffee.
The newspaper I bought. Orange leaves
on wet grey ground.
6:45. The bus door creaks. Luggage door lifts.
"Where are you getting off?" with aluminum doors
folding down and back, then the quiet interior seats.
Selection of heads, Monday morning full. Nearly
toppling over when the bus starts to move.
I could eat tin, I'm so hungry and light.
Could eat these words I write.
Sunday night reading in the bathtub sideways.
Kawubata Oe's son born with an open lesion
in his brain. Later he composed music.
I sit down beside a woman in a turquoise
uniform reading Patricia Cornwell. She has
left the window seat free.
There are many ways to live—empty, full.
The dark tar at the end of the road is still
wet from the rainy night. The sun will not
appear today, seems like.Do you love that, too?
he said, lying
on his back. Outside it was another
country. June. Dress in disarray.
Nothing to be done. Nothing
I can do.
Black nets of kudzu lie thrown over
the roadside growth. Jutting up like
collapsed roofs. In a car an intimacy develops
, he said.
How easy it was for him to slip off my
The seams on the highway thwang
beneath us like a bass.Will you undress me?
he said. For a change
A house at the edge of a tipped field sits alone
in the fall morning with no one in sight under
a bright warning sky.
The sky like white marble shoulders.Will you undress for me?
he said. I
held my breath. Desire breathing.
He said, Silence is just as good.
The woman collecting tickets knows many
of the passengers. "What's she majoring in?"
she says. A scarf is tied over her turtleneck.
"You spending Thanksgiving at home?"
Will you have dinner with me tonight?
he whispered in that other land during a
cold rain. Like winter in summer. Rain
hammering on the car.
Touching. To get close, then to break apart.
This weekend lots of touching in the kitchen.
Then breaking apart when someone comes in.
Lots of kitchen touching all over the world.
Hot cider and rum. Leftover pie. Snapping
sticks on the lawn. Smooth stones in cold
sand. Being on a quest. Were you then?
My turn now?
A baby in the backseat half crying.
Wishing I were a wife. Wishing I were his wife.
Not that, though. Ever.
Not hardly likely. A bug smacks the windshield.
The way he threw me down.
Traffic. The bus suddenly slows. A passenger
returning from the bathroom staggers.
In that movie we watched, There is only now,
said the dying man.
The buildings of Queens rise in the sky: a
thousand windows. Below, on the road, white
cars glide by my resting hand.
The city noise closer like a furnace blowing,
cars leaping over the rumbling streets. I'll
see a hundred faces before I open my door.
The heart disappearing, like a road
drying. The Man in the Green Box
Last night he did not join me
where I waited in my bed,
but slept in a green box
close by my side, raised up,
A hand showed from a narrow slot;
the fingers short and strange
were none that I could recognize.
One knuckle had been bent, or cut.
I watched it rearrange itself
before my eyes, to grow
into the long thin shape
of hands that I well know.
I looked inside and saw
his body there, a shell.
So, tell me, I said when he woke,
why sleep away from me?
I was in shock, he said,
after my accident. You see,
I needed no distraction
if I was to get my rest,
but here–he stood–allow me . . .
And his arm with its strong breast
went round me, holding on.
We walked along a hall.
The corridor was tipped.
My face began to shake.
Don't cry, he said. I'm at your side.
I know, I said, and pressed his chest
and felt the beating thump inside.
I said, My fear
is just the slanting of this ship.
For all night long I'd thought
this man who held me up
Excerpted from Poems 4 A.M. by Susan Minot. Copyright © 2002 by Susan Minot. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.