Noe Valley Voice May 2001

Three Poems by Thea Sullivan

Sound of Winter

Sky comes down like a fist.
Girl in a plaid private-school skirt
curls in a pile of books,
waiting, as windows fill with dark.

She wakes to a knob turning.
Her mother, jaw clenched, eyes wild,
throws down boxes of frozen food.
The father flips switches
until the house blazes.
Makes himself a drink.
Don't you have
a desk in your room?

One day she won't eat.
Her jeans grow loose, just graze
her skin. It is a kind of ecstasy,
sharp hipbones rising, nothing
to touch her, nothing to need.

TV voices through walls,
whip of newspaper pages,
ice cubes clinking.
A whole house raging with silence.

A Father Under Water

All day I watched you,
a man I'd known only in motion,
stopped at the kitchen table
in blanched April light
staring out the window
as if under water.

Were you studying
the rough black branches
crossed against the sky?
Or imagining, as I was,
her body, this moment
under a surgical glare:
yellow breast flesh scooped away,
chest wall smooth as a watermelon husk,
red and shining?

You didn't say, just floated there
as if cut loose from gravity,
your list of chores in front of you
without a mark on it.
Looking down at your hands
like tools you'd forgotten how to use.

Elegy for My Mother's Breasts

I sing them because you could not mourn.
Once they were pink and newly rising
under Catholic school blouses and arms tightly crossed.

In the dark of the driveway, the window filled
with your mother's sharp silhouette,
you jerked them back from snaking hands.

Young husband on your honeymoon, restless in his suit
sent you back to the room to change, your black dress
all too open to the cool of your skin.

And the obstetrician in '62, who spit breast-feeding
from his mouth like rotten food--
so you let your milk dry up.

My own flat as a field, I watched you step from the bath,
wreathed in steam
their roundness resting on your freckled chest,
nipples the color of coffee with cream.

The night before, did you linger in front of the mirror?
Did you hold them in your hands, memorize their weight?
Or simply welcome the taking away
of fear in the shape of a crab, spreading as you slept?

Surgery on my birthday is how you said you knew you'd live.
Though the tumor was only in one, they took them both
like you wanted, saving the skin
to sew over saline sacs.

Afterwards, wrapped and pale as a sausage,
gripping the button that blessed you with numbness
you joked: now yours would be firmer than mine.
And you would never have to speak of what was lost.

At least they gave you a way to forget.
Not like your mother, left with one half
of one breast, as if this were some kind of solace.

Last week, a doctor reading my chart, a chatty, grandfather-type,
asked had I thought about it--
at some point you'd have to ask yourself,
do I lop them off and save myself the worry?

His hands up in mock decision, smiling.
He says it twice. Lop them off.
No. For all the time allowed
make of this body a monument
to what is taken, to what is given away.

Thea Sullivan's poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including Calyx, Barrow Street, and Haight Ashbury Literary Review, as well as the anthology Knowing Stones: Poems of Exotic Places. She lives in Cole Valley and has taught creative writing in San Francisco since 1995.