Cathy Smith Bowers: New Poems
When I was first getting to know the work of Cathy Smith Bowers, I started, just because I happened to discover a copy in a bookstore, with Traveling in Time of Danger (Iris Press, 1999), her second collection. And, as I often do with new books, I opened it to the approximate middle, and, there, on page 29, came to "L'Art Brut," which found its occasion, as the poem gradually reveals, in a visit to her brother during an illness that would prove, as nearby poems make explicit, ultimately fatal for him. She finds him in his back yard, "making, of all things,/ Candles."
His terrace is pocked with holes
Across which the rays of the yellow pencils
Dangle from their centers makeshift wicks.
All day he has been pouring wax, reds
And blues and greens, the salvaged
Stuff of wings now hardening in each sandy
Grave. I sit on the steps and watch ...
Wait a second, I thought, that "salvaged stuff of wings ..." Where does that ... oh, of course, wings, made with wax, Icarus, Daedalus, the fall ...Wow. How beautifully deft. There are many other such lovely moments in the poems in that collection, where the elegant tapestry of her blank verse suddenly effloresces, light shining from the very fibers of her language, conjuring up by quick allusion larger dimensions, and the worlds of analogy within which the poems move.
In this selection, she explores some of the same landscape of loss that the poems in Traveling traversed - and versed - before it. Whatever the formal ground, she brings rich intelligence and real fire and grace to her work.
Some bio: her poems have appeared widely in publications such as The Atlantic Monthly, The Georgia Review, Poetry, The Southern Review, and The Kenyon Review.
She is a winner of The General Electric Award for Younger Writers, recipient of a South Carolina Poetry Fellowship, and winner of The South Carolina Arts Commission Fiction Project. She served for many years as poet-in-residence at Queens University of Charlotte where she received the 2002 JB Fuqua Distinguished Educator Award. She now teaches in the Queens low-residency MFA In Creative Writing Program.
She's the author of three collections of poetry: The Love That Ended Yesterday in Texas, (Texas Tech University Press, 1992); the aforementioned Traveling in Time of Danger; and A Book of Minutes (Iris Press, 2004). Her craft essay "A Moment of Intensity" is featured in the 2007 edition of Poet's Market.
It's a pleasure to present her poems to any eyes that might here find them.
All Adverbs, Adjectives Too
Odd thing, I thought,
for a teenager to say shedespised. The hair-do
of the girl at the tablenext to us I might have
understood. Or the jock
who yesterday between
biology class and history
took back his ring. But why
this sudden announcement
at the height of our weekly
outing over burgers and shakes?
I was not her blood,
but that oddest of creatures,
soft surrogate body designated
step, the woman loyalty to her
mother required that she
hate. How else, in her logic,
to remind me of that? I whoworshiped at The Church of God
of Rhetoric, lone walker through
the valley of the shadow ofwords. I watched her face drain
pale, the laughter fade, fat heart
of a strawberry stopped midairbetween her fingertips and tongue.
And then that cruel pronouncement,
adamant declaration spewed my wayin the midst of our frivolity, sending
me once again to my proper place.
No sooner had she spoken than the lightreturned, the strawberry resuming its
journey through her penitent lips.
I held a second longerthe feigned hurt across my face,
vowed never to let her know
I despise them too.
Where’s My Frog?
We worshiped her, Mrs. King,
who was ours for only half the day
that year. Sixth grade, our sights
on junior high and all those kids
from the good side of the tracks
she gave her mornings to
before driving to our dingy
neighborhood for history
and language arts. We
would have done anything
for her, as if having only half
rendered her more valuable,
the way we cherished our always
absent fathers, our mothers dull
in their faded aprons and always
tired, the most wretched
of commodities, being wholly
ours. One day she motioned me
to her desk, Lavon Deese, too,
a girl from up the street who’d
failed two grades, anathema
to all the other teachers whose
lessons she’d slumbered through.
The class was reading to themselves,
heads bent quiet above the hard
and colored history of our state.
We trembled on our way, the wood
beneath our soles creaking with every
step that delivered us to the vase
she’d lifted from her desk, huge globe
filled fresh each Monday with peonies
and mums, blossoms of magnolia
that rotted through the week
as the tests and essays grew,
an ominous Mt. Sinai next to them.
We couldn’t believe she’d chosen us,
to deliver safely down the hall into
the girls’ rest room that vase like
the holy-grail we’d learned about
at Saturday matinée, the sole purpose
of our common life now realized. In
the restroom the sun poured through
like the light in the painting my mother
had got with green stamps, Jesus offering
up his thorn-encrusted heart, the eyes
you could not escape no matter where
you sat. Into the rusty can we flung
the browning petals, their stems now limp,
leaves curled and brittling like the husks
of cicadas that signaled summer’s end, then
into the nearest stall to flush beyond oblivion
the swampy dregs. When we eased into her
hands the empty vase, scrubbed and polished
to an astral sheen, our one breath stopped,
hungry for the smallest wafer of her
gratitude, stunned at what we got instead--
the slitted eye, stuck frown of her face
peering deep inside, those three bleak
words: Where’s my frog? Our knees went
soft, the folds of our single brain calling back
the mysterious ker-plunk we’d heard
at the bottom of the commode
just as I pressed the lever.
The rest of that whole year we suffered
her disdain, we who had killed
her beloved pet, the one she brought
with her each Monday to bask
in the still primordial waters
of that week’s blooms. Dark Lethe
my dreams would conjure, childhood’s
defining act I would bear into the purgatory
of junior high Lavon decided to forgo,
then high-school and on to college,
to the man I would finally marry,
who years later beneath the whirring
fan of an antique shop, would lift from its shelf
a small glass orb, the likes of which I’d never seen,
its surface a conglomeration of tiny holes,
and Look, he would say, as he handed it to
me…a frog. I haven’t seen one in years.
I don’t know what happened to Lavon.
Each morning in my mailbox
or tucked into a quiet cove
of my front porch, another
burden of solace
reminding me again
my husband is dead.
Last week, an oval cardboard box
decoupaged in stars, inside, its nested
offering—a cache of still-warm eggs
gleaned from my neighbor’s henhouse.
Yesterday, a Peruvian prayer shawl,
the warp and weft of its holy weave
climbing, like girders of a bridge,
its sturdy warmth.
And today this handmade flute,
turned and hollowed and carved
by Laughing Crow, enigmatic
shaman of some distant plain.
See its little row of holes
lined up like perfect planets,
as if having not yet learned
the universe had collapsed.
See my lips pressed to the tiny
breathless gape of its own mouth.
As if my lungs could conjure anything.
As if it were the one needing to be saved.
Several of these poems appeared in the April, 2007, issue of Rapid River. All are © Cathy Smith Bowers.
Update: Formatting improved, if not totally fixed.