How to Mourn Your Violent Father
Recall sitting on his lap in the chair with the ball-and-claw feet,
you leaning against the barrel of his chest,
him calling you “Pushkela,” from pushka, the tin charity box
you put coins into for the poor, or him running ahead,
pulling you and your two older sisters on a sled,
his boots chuffing the snow, his scarf flapping, his breath making smoke,
your father squatting on the dance floor, his arms crossed, his hands on his elbows,
kicking out his feet, one then the other as he did the kazatsky.
Hear the clapping relatives who encircled him shout,
“Herman, Herman, Herman,”
as he sprang, swirling like a Russian Sufi.
When your sizzled nerve endings recall his fist slamming the dinner table,
making the dishes jump, or his fingers digging into your shoulders
as he shook you as if you were a rag doll, your teeth sinking into your tongue,
or him conking you with a White Rock seltzer bottle
because you startled him while you dashed to get the ringing phone,
his blow that left you with ringing ears,
let the morning fog roll in as it had from the heaving ocean
up the block from your childhood home,
now a ghost town you are loathe to visit.
The Rocks You Lifted
You lifted them with creaking knees
and breath huffs, with knob-knuckled hands
and arthritic fingers to make space
for your butterfly garden, the cords of
your neck and arms bulging bluely
through your tanned, wrinkly skin,
sweat dew-dropping your wild eyebrows, the rocks
you lifted with your shoulders
that slanted like a hanger awry in a closet.
You showed me the host plants—
milkweed, silk bursting from its pods,
the daintiness of Queen Anne’s lace,
and the bright nectar flowers—asters, salvia,
dandelion, fleabane, goldenrod, each name
a raspy prayer.
You, bending to scoop out earth
to make small mud puddles for thirsty
butterflies. You, setting out cut-up pieces of oranges
and watermelon for them. You,
tender of bees, monarchs and cabbage whites,
are now beneath the earth,
your name, George Arcos, etched in stone.
A cartoon moon rises over the cityscape.
Zoom into that spare apartment, a utility sink against the wall.
Aproned Alice plunging it. Enter Trixie.
The women sit at the round table with the crisscross tablecloth,
Trixie leaning toward Alice, her hands like bursts of butterflies
drawing Alice toward the nectar of a TV Ed bought her,
something Alice and Ralph have never owned.
Pretty Alice coos when Ralph, her husband, comes home.
Running her hands over his sloping shoulders, she asks,
“Are you comfy, sweetie poo?”
Offers him supper, takes off his shoes.
His snarl of suspicion, thinking Alice’s mother has come for a visit.
“Where is she?” he bellows.
Alice confesses about the TV. He refuses.
“Why do you have to be so cheap?” she says.
He paces, thumping his chest like a caged baboon.
He shakes his fist at her upturned chin.
“Do you want to go to the moon, Alice?”
HIS money spent at the pool hall, bowling, lodge dues,
HIS money, while Alice stays home, day, night, in the apartment
with bars on the windows.
In the ’50s, we laughed at this.
The Work of the Dead
The dead must lie, sleep-like,
in a casket lined with satin,
wear the dress or suit they wore
to their last funeral or wedding,
but sans corsage or boutonniere.
Their lungs must turn to stone.
They must welcome the dark
when the lid comes down
and not be queasy
when lowered into the ground
and hear the pebbly earth
showered with each shovelful.
Some say the dead will rise up
like diaphanous clones,
white and loosely woven
as the robe of Jesus or cheesecloth.
Their ears will fill with harp song.
The dead, eulogists say, can do no wrong.
(Andy Warhol, 1962)
Open the can with care or the jagged lid will slice your wrist
and you’re off to the emergency room for the third time this month
with a dish towel wrapped around the oozing wound.
No one will believe you aren’t a suicide. After they stitch you,
you’re forced to speak to a psychiatrist.
“You are a Campbell’s soup psycho,” he says, his breath
smelling of Cream of Asparagus soup.
Here’s the scoop on Campbell’s soup. Don’t heat it up.
Just stick your spoon in. Watch how it stands like a flagpole
in the thick soup. But in the bouillon (a fancy-schmancy name for broth),
the spoon will list toward the rim.
Your kitchen shelves are like the wall of Warhol at the MOMA.
Rows of soup after soup.
The delight of their names on your tongue—
Chicken Gumbo, Minestrone, Onion,
names like the flowers in a Shakespearean garden—
primrose, columbine, and thyme.
How eye-catching, the penmanship of the Campbell’s script
nestled in the curve of the red band—the can, red and white, could use some blue.
Campbell’s is as American as Camden, New Jersey.
Unlike Esperanto, the promised universal language that never took off,
Campbell’s is known everywhere.
Campbell’s is as user-friendly as Salaam and Shalom in Palestine and Jerusalem.
Some folks are enamored with Warhol’s Marilyn, but I,
I am the Campbell’s soup psycho.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster, 2004), was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. She has published essays in NYT (Lives) and Newsweek. Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in many literary magazines.