Rockaway Beach, 2001
It is early for the beach, but I love the morning air
before it smothers,
when it smells like sheets dried on Mama’s clothesline.
He’s still sleeping across the street
in the sixth floor apartment
and I’m wide awake,
watching cirrostratus spiders
chase the sky.
I cling to this quiet before the crowd comes,
sinking into sand and ocean
at the edge of the world.
The ululating cry of a hungry seagull echoes,
relentless, like the folding waves
that tuck themselves against the Atlantic coast.
The rising sun skips like shale over water
and onto my hand, pausing to admire itself
in the gold band around my finger.
Looking back, the apartment is barely visible,
and I wonder how we managed to get so far apart.
I walk on, following a trail of slivered shells
tossed with a billion crumbled earths.
– Kathryn Cody
We drove to Texas the summer just before I started to wear make-up.
It was an 18-hour drive from Kentucky
on a road dug into the South’s red earth,
littered with dead armadillos.
They’re just like possum, my dad told me.
Polecats, we called them.
I watched the brown spots shrinking through the back window,
counting carcasses to mark time.
It would have been nice if he’d asked me to be his co-pilot,
given me the map so that I could follow along.
He did that once, when we were driving back from Aunt Ethel’s,
and the whole way, we talked about our dream house.
He let me lean forward, between the front seats,
and we planned every inch of that farm.
He was even going to let me have chickens.
On that trip, he didn’t mind that I got bar-b-q chips
all over the backseat of his new Ford Pinto.
In Texas, there were no dream houses—
only burning days of scorpions and storms.
We stayed with Aunt Naomi, Mom’s sister.
He warned me about Uncle Paul’s lesbian sister.
“Don’t go anywhere alone with her.”
And as an afterthought, “Stay away from the Mexicans, too.”
From the back seat, I could see him
staring at the road ahead;
I was subdued by his strange topography,
his face full of wrinkled biases
and notions carved deep.
– Kathryn Cody
I was marked at birth on my left breast
with a curious brown spot,
smeared carefully across soft tissue.
Fingers find it often in the dark,
rubbing over its caked surface
as if the right touch will reveal some
ancient Pangean secret.
I seem to remember standing on the edge of Carolina,
stretching for something thrown
with tectonic force
just out of my reach.
Your hand found me,
searing recognition into flesh
to be born again
when my grip was strong.
— Kathryn Cody
My parents took care of my grandparents for many years. Later, I would also care for my own parents. (You can see an article I wrote for this at http://www.aarp.org/relationships/caregiving/info-02-2011/caregiving_lessons.html )
This poem was based on memories of watching my parents age, as they cared for my mother’s parents. Looking back, I see so much of my mother, in her mother.
Blessings to Caregivers everywhere.
My mother rises early—slower, each year.
The marriage of pain and cold bleaches her limbs;
her hands crackle and twist.
She moves like a sluggish engine,
eases stiff arms into the sleeves of a pink housecoat.
Its soft fleece casts a blurry glow on her face,
tendering the lines that have settled in for winter.
She sits at the kitchen table,
her hands cupped around a mug of coffee.
Before the first sip, the metallic clunk
of my grandmother’s walker comes from the hallway,
a bitter catalyst, forcing my mother to the bedroom to dress—quietly,
so as not to disturb Dad.
Her parents are waiting at the table,
hungry for their oatmeal and toast.
Grandma announces that someone should
clean up the shit Grandpa left on the toilet.
He eats laxatives like candy, afraid to keep anything inside him,
for fear it will fester and somehow keep him out of heaven.
My mother cleans it up every morning,
doesn’t stop until everyone and everything in the house is fed, warm and clean.
My father is still sleeping.
His legs have been bothering him more and more,
the extra work of ordering their medicine,
doctors’ appointments, and meaningless errands put
stress on a heart already tired.
After their breakfast, they’ll shuffle and slide into the living room,
stare at the floor for a while, mumble about their latest hallucinations,
before making their way back to their room to watch golf and basketball,
even though grandpa can’t see well and hears worse,
and my grandmother is still somewhere back on Paw’s creek,
living in another time.
Today she’s 22 and picking beans, she tells them.
She talks about her Poppy all the time,
tells us he’s on his way home.
She watches the door like a schoolgirl
before giving up and staring at the floor again.
Grandpa just holds his Bible, his 97-year-old fingers
rough on the delicate pages.
He can’t see the words but he stares at it,
holds it close and then asks my dad for a gun. He is always afraid.
At night, my mother and father tuck them in,
give them the last round of pills and eye drops,
deliver hot tea and make sure
granny isn’t wearing her clothes to bed again.
She usually does and then sulks when they put a gown on her.
Looking back from the doorway to their bedroom,
mom and dad see them huddling in their bed together,
and quickly turn off the light.
Back down the hall, my mother slips the housecoat back on,
sits with a new cup of coffee and my father at the kitchen table.
It’s dark again, already.
Chimney Rock, November 1998
On the edge of Chimney Rock,
the mountains jut their hard edges into sharp focus,
then fade into plum-colored mounds,
each tucked tightly against the next.
My feet dangle over Red River Gorge,
strain to touch the treetops smeared across each mountain.
Their spindly branches give the surface
a fuzzy glow from this distance.
Beside me a pine tree grows; its roots snake over rock.
Thick, intestine-like tubes hug tightly to the mountain,
plunge into the dirt just above the stone as
serpentine offspring thread their way underground–
form a system of veins and capillaries
which runs throughout this summit.
If I sit here long enough, perhaps the roots will overtake me as well,
permeate my skin, flood my body with water and terra,
punch through skin.
Tree branches bend easily for the wind,
which swoops up from the gorge below,
hitting me with its hollow sound,
as if surprised by me, suddenly in its path.
It would like to sweep me over the edge.
It knows that I do not belong here.
The cold of million-year-old earth has seeped through denim,
and the wind blowing from some hollow below
is restless for my space.
The path going back was once solid asphalt;
its porous surface provides the foothold
that the rain-smoothed ground did not.
Now, the earth pulls away from the asphalt trail,
repelled by the foreignness of it,
leaving deep fissures on either side of the footway
as I walk to my truck and camp below,
somewhere between the wind and the water.
She pushes her diaphragm in and out,
the rise and fall forcing air through her lungs
with rigorous precision.
Muscles burn, unused since college
when weekends were spent astride Puccini.
Her mouth stretches at his command,
a wide oval, to impress him.
Rising up, thick and undisciplined,
her tongue bobs against her soft palette
before she pushes it forward
to stick to dry teeth.
Then, somewhere within her ribcage
builds a slow-blooming madness,
carried to the surface– airborne–
before settling like a glittering refrain
on his face and shoulders.
The studio remains still,
filled only with acoustic echo.
Then his hand slowly moves to his face
to rub her in.
I found them the summer I was eight.
The nest took up the entire space inside the grill.
It was a deep crater–twigs and mud woven into the metal grates.
In the center were two blue eggs.
My mother told me they were robins’ eggs.
For weeks, I kept them over my night-light,
toilet paper tucked around them
wishing warmth from the tiny bulb would seep
through layers of mud and dried grass to those
blue eggs and the robins I knew were inside.
I would have waited all winter
for baby birds to burst from those shells.
Instead, my cousin broke the eggs open
just before Christmas.
Inside, the remains were caked to the sides of the shell,
dark spots of eye and wing
dried to a yellow-brown crust.
The doctor told me my eggs are just as dry,
all the fertile marrow sucked away
with endometriotic precision.
I hold my secret close,
my fingers cupped around my belly.
I press through layers of organ and warm blood,
touch ovaries, retreat.
– Kathryn Cody
The Death of a Queen
I won’t go sit with the dead,
dressed up and watching the box as if it’s something holy.
It’s just a box. Just a body. Just withered flesh and bone.
I won’t sit there, receive hugs from people I rarely see,
accept condolences on a death that was expected.
I won’t sing songs of the great hereafter
that echo in a hollow place inside of me.
My grandmother is dead.
She was almost 90 years old and bore 14 children.
She was a preacher’s wife.
She was also the Queen of the Butterflies.
She used to have a tree in her yard—the butterfly tree.
Every summer, butterflies from all over the holler
found their way to her front yard to that tree.
I remember the tableau of thousands of butterflies
gathered into fluttering petals,
clusters of mystery amongst the branches.
Ensconced with me under the tree
was my granny, her head thrown back,
her body browned and sturdy,
laughing with me, swinging me
out of Hazard, Kentucky and into
the Land of Summer,
where she was more than a wife, mother and grandmother—
she was the Queen of the Butterflies
and I was her princess.
The last time I visited, she had already left her body.
There was no one behind the face that stared at the ground a lot,
no motive behind the hands that shook or often didn’t work at all.
There was no laughter from the mouth she had once spoken from,
only a slack, paralytic grimace that made me look away.
I won’t go watch them tuck her body into the ground,
people who never really saw her crown.
I would rather imagine a royal burial
with songs of the holler,
butterfly pall bearers
and a tomb of blue sky.
– Kathryn Cody
Reva, of Shalott
Aunt Reva’s tower lies to the left of the Atlantic,
a high-rise in far Rockaway– just off the Belt Parkway
to Cross Bay Boulevard and left off the exit ramp.
The high-rise apartments line the boardwalk–
blanched, faceless buildings,
tall, groaning monoliths lurching out toward the beach.
The sand looks dirty and unkempt,
a coarse, thick mixture of grain
and sharp shards of black shell.
Walking down the hall to her 10th floor apartment,
I fade to a dingy yellow to match the walls.
Each doorway I pass is closed and silent.
It takes 20 minutes for her to answer the door.
I don’t know whether she is afraid or just sleeping.
Urging me inside, she shuts the door.
It closes, melts into the wall seamlessly,
her four walls broken now only
by the sliding glass door which leads to the balcony.
The would-be breezes and light
are barred from entry by vertical blinds
flanked on either side by stiff curtains, drawn tightly.
For hours, we sit inside.
She’s angry I’ve come, and afraid that I’ll leave,
embarrassed by her smallness, and defiant of her slowness.
She doesn’t go out anymore, since The Fall.
She’d lain for too many minutes on Riverside Avenue
before help had come.
Her hands and legs having turned traitor,
she curls them now against her,
reigned in tightly to avoid further rebellion.
The stale silence lulls me–a thick, foggy drug.
The door to the balcony
teases her occasionally to its opening,
but the sun is a light in which
she burns too brightly.
She watches from the table,
armed with bagel and lox