Turning Point

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Site design: Skeleton

Sample Poems by Sue Ellen Thompson


A Photograph of My Daughter at 9

She's sitting in a dining room chair.
Light through the blinds has tightened
its straps across her narrow body
and a blow dryer has transformed
her wispy hair into a child-sized helmet.
Her legs are crossed and shackled
to each other at the ankle, and she grips
the chair arms with the wild-eyed stare
of one who is about to undertake a journey
full of risk and turbulence instead of a simple meal.

A Name

I had the book of names, the Jennifers and Emilys,
but knew she would be none of these.

The names my friends were hoarding
for their daughters-Meghan, Courtney,

Ashley, Sage-seemed out of date
and somehow inappropriate.

How could I know my child would be
something I'd not yet heard of, never seen?


Not Speaking

In 1970, for almost a year, I stopped speaking
to my mother. All she could see
were the children I'd bear, their hair
rusted Brillo, their skin the color
her fingers had turned when she minwaxed
the dining room table. I had been dating this man
for only three months and she was convinced I'd end up
living with him in a dingy Brooklyn apartment.
Standing there, in the phone booth I shared
with a dorm full of women, its close-fitting air
of Kotex and socks, listening to her
as she pleaded and wept, I knew that this
was our last conversation, that she had said all
she could think of to say and that nothing
she'd say now could sway me.

Forty years later, my mother is gone,
and I have a daughter who isn't at all
what I thought I'd received when the nurse
handed me my package. But when
she bites off her words to me,
I will not go to that place where I sent
my own mother-where she didn't know
what was happening, that it had already happened
without her and could not be undone.

July 17

On a wooden chaise by the water's edge
I dozed and read, dozed and read,
forgetting that my mother was dead,
that my daughter had decided she was a man,
and that I was living apart from my husband.
I was reading a book I'd already read,
which made it easier to put aside,
which made it easier to close my eyes
and dismiss my own misfortunes.

The wind lifted the heads of grasses
bowed by the heat, like forgotten wishes
revived by memory, then left them listless
again. I did the same: One
by one, I summoned my obsessions,
then waved them off. A restless
bee nursed on the clover beneath my feet,
but I let this sweetness elude me.
For hours that seamless afternoon

I drifted, so far from familiar shores,
it was as if I'd fallen overboard
and no one noticed. My reward
was respite from both fear and dread
but also from joy. It was a kind of death,
this sleep: I was a chord
struck once, dissipating in the summer air.
I awoke to my neighbor, in her yard somewhere,
calling, "Shadow! Shadow!" Nothing more.


At the Kitchen Window

Ignoring the tattoos, the piercings, the triangle of hair
shaved off geometrically above each ear,
the elastic waistband of men's underwear
visible above her belt (which cut across her rear

the way my mother's tape measure did
when I was her age and took my measurements),
my father always welcomed visits
from my daughter, which were more frequent

than her visits home. She'd sit with him on the porch
in the evenings, praising his tomatoes, asking questions
about what it was like to be a pilot or a prisoner of war.
He never said anything to anyone

indicating he was bothered by the way she looked-
except that morning when he stood
at the kitchen window, watching as she took
aim, pitching windfall apples into the woods

that fringed his vast, well-cared-for yard,
and said, "If I didn't know differently,
I'd think she was a boy." I poured
some coffee I didn't want or need

into a mug as slowly as I could
and then some milk, and stirred.
I waited for that thought, and the mood
it cast over me, to settle without a word.