Three Poems ~ Elizabeth Poliner

Hill Cemetery

The day after the funeral, we drive to the grave, and my mother goes alone to that patch of fresh dirt the size of her husband’s coffin. In it she plants five cut roses then steps back to look, then moves closer to read the marker left by the funeral home. She’s usually elegantly dressed, but today it’s sneakers without socks and a bulky coat she’s just thrown on. Who cares? To see her there, talking to no one, patting and patting the most important mound of dirt she’s ever known, is to witness that divide—invincible—between the living and the dead.  


When she returns, because she’s curious, we drive around the cemetery—Hill, as it’s named, simply and aptly enough. She asks, did she pick the right site? Early November, a long rain just clearing, and the sun breaks through, lighting the trees. Bits of gold and orange linger in the oaks, but mostly the fall is gone. We drive on wet leaves. The road winds up, and soon we see well into the Connecticut River Valley below. Late afternoon, and the light does that thing that only late afternoon light does. Oh, wow, we say, wow, then sit in silence. Finally, she adds, yes, yes, meaning she’s picked right. 


Middletown’s Jewish cemetery a mile away doesn’t compare to Hill. Right? For one thing, she notes, the land is flat and square, unlike that interesting, lopsided summit we just left.  For another, my father’s family is here, that first husband she’d prefer, when the time comes, eternal distance from. But look, I say, pointing at my great-grandparents’ graves, Abraham and Goldie, then my grandparents’, Israel and Gertrude, my uncles’, Harry, George, and Morris, so many, I say, look. Yes, look, she sighs, then softens as we pass Sophie’s, that kind great-aunt who married poorly and never bore a child, and when I bend for a rock to place atop Sophie’s grave my mother asks me to find her one too.


Three years earlier, and my father tells me he’s relieved: the synagogue has made an exception. His second wife, Catholic, can be buried beside him at the Jewish cemetery.  Already they’ve bought the plot. He’s smiling widely, sure now of the comfort of his final sleep. Hey, he cheerily asks me, want your stone here too?


Still at the Jewish cemetery, my mother and I find the gravestones hand-designed by so-and-so’s famous artist brother. On his father’s, shaped like a child’s toy boat, the artist-son has etched his father’s last words, a whole sea of them. Scratch my back, we read, among other banalities, and my mother asks, What if I put that stuff on Sam’s grave?I need the toilet’. ‘I’m tired.’  Can you imagine? But in fact at the end my stepfather said amazing things like, Why am I in prison? and, Let me out of here—things he didn’t even know he said, the illness was that bad.


But I want to be with Mom! I almost blurted to my father that day three years back.  Coincidentally, just the day before my mother announced she’d bought a plot for her and Sam at Hill Cemetery. And friends, too, had purchased plots, she explained, rattling off the couples then asking, excitedly, Want to see? Oh, I thought. I know this enthusiasm, the same as before every dinner party. She’s thinking: endless dinner party. That’s what death means to my mother. And despite her zeal, the way she couldn’t help but veer toward the cemetery entrance, I said, No. No. I don’t want to see


One would think those estranged two—my mother, my father—had a plan, the way three years ago they’d bought plots at the same time and then eagerly, even triumphantly, announced them. Today, days after the funeral, it’s me driving again into Hill Cemetery, my mother beside me, peering out the window, searching for that new mound. The car idles as I watch her rush, kneel, stare into the ground. Stare. I turn to a flurry of leaves, twigs, names, dates, and soon she’s back, speaking unusually gently, as if still to her husband, a man sort of asleep, sort of distant, sort of—this will take time—gone. When she says Ready, I nod, say nothing back. My stone: here or there or someplace untouched by my parents’ old war, I wonder, as we drive over fallen leaves, we two not yet ready to fall, though getting closer, not yet ready to leave, though leaving.

Women in their Forties

How they scared me, these students
in my writing class, not old,
not weathered or mellowed by age,
but not young either, with crow’s feet
and graying curls, their voices strong
and venturous, their lives done

with the work of pleasing men,
with childbirth, marriage, divorce,
the three strikes swung and over with,
and me—just thirty then—still eager
to get at bat. How they scared me
with their blazers and settled careers,

the huge upheaval of schedules
to tease an evening free, the way
this new endeavor, this beginners’ class,
was to them as straightforward
as parking the car. Get to it,
is what they wanted, these women

in their forties who had exactly no time
for introductions, no need
for loosening up exercises, their earrings
impatiently shaking, their hair cropped
or sensibly tucked back, their eyes sharp
as pointed pencils, their necks bent

over their blank pages, which, upon arrival,
they were already ready to fill,
oh, so much more so than the others ones,
the nice ones, so much nicer, it seemed to me,
than these women in their forties
with so very much to say.

Room of Our Own

The chicken coop behind our house
may have smelled rotten,
but its roof, gently sloped,
offered enticing, easy access,
and the holes on it didn’t scare us—
they were a hole family,
keeping each other company
in that lone distant corner.
I’m not sure who said it first,
me, my sister, or our friends
Susan and Gail, but the thought
was instant, unanimous
among us four. We could save it. 
We could paint that roof blue!
We pooled our resources—seven dollars,
few cents—and like saints
didn’t think of lunch
while running to the paint store.
Questions about square footage,
oil or water base, soared
like punted footballs
from the salesman’s mouth.
We dodged them and held steadfast. 
“Sir, don’t you have any blue?”
Sprawled on the roof, we smeared
our can’s contents—awfully thick—
as far as it would go. In the end
the small patch didn’t even have
straight edges. Back home
Mom caught us blue-handed.                                                                                     
She understood about the roof,
a room of sorts, a place to talk,
make our own. “But girls!”
she wailed, fearing the oil base
a permanent condition. With turpentine
the paint thinned, disappeared. 
But our inclination for such rooms, 
such roofs, remained
permanent, unconditioned.