July 2014 Sestinas
Kathleen McClung is the author of Almost the Rowboat (Finishing Line Press 2013) and her work appears in Mezzo Cammin, Unsplendid, Ekphrasis, The Healing Muse, A Bird Black as the Sun: California Poets on Crows and Ravens, and elsewhere. Winner of the 2012 Rita Dove Poetry Prize, she has been a finalist for the Morton Marr Poetry Prize, the Robert Frost Award, and the 49th Parallel Award for Poetry. She serves as the sonnet sponsor/judge for the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition and teaches at Skyline College and the Writing Salon. She lives in San Francisco.
For time alone to think, she drives Highway 1 south past Half Moon Bay. She seeks the thrift
store in Pescadero, perhaps a glass of wine
in Davenport. She’s parched. She needs the still
spring day flooding through the car window,
the colors of ocean, sky, hills: blue, blue, green.
A tenant, an urban woman craving more green
than what she spies at seven when she wakes: One
slim, timid tree planted by a city worker near her window.
She admires this civic blend of generosity and thrift.
She blesses the roots snaking beneath the sidewalk. Still,
in the evening, as she unties her shoes, pours wine
into a Goodwill goblet, she knows her wine
can never satisfy her thirst for green,
her Safeway cabernet can never still
her yearnings—for what? To feel at one
with nature? With the divine? Thrift
only goes so far, more a keyhole than a window.
She drives the sinuous road then, quiet, her window
pulling surprises inward faithfully, in ways that wine
cannot. A destination as good as any, the thrift
store beside the road sobers her from green
inebriation, slows her imbibing of sky/ocean/hill—one
elixir unbottled, unlimited, swift moving, stone still.
She steps from car to parking lot, stands still
to read the sign scotch-taped to store window:
“Wednesday Special Everything 2-for-1.”
What day is this? She swims in a lapse (as wine
may genially spill), then comes ashore. Ah yes, green
letters on her wristwatch read WED, and her thrift
doubles suddenly. With each tick tick tick, her thrift
expands, balloons. It nearly lifts her off her feet still
bending her left arm! But, no. She’s grounded by the green
grass of Pescadero, the five daffodils beneath the window
of the store, jaunty daredevils teetering, as if tipsy on wine.
She laughs. The breeze dies down. It’s fifteen minutes after one.
Still charmed, she crosses the threshold of the thrift
store. She may choose a green blouse by the window.
Her free one, her gift, may be red, like raspberries, like wine.
Night School Final
You murmur, chew nails, joke, prepare to write in ways unique to each. Semesters end
by rote: I stroll the narrow paths, dusk blurs to night,
I hand you tests like maps, a hush, then pens
begin to dig, carve bark, or sprinkle slow
faint wisps of sentences. Some know, some guess
and I refrain from staring, as I guess
you want trust, not suspicion, as you write.
My gaze brushes each forehead, tender, slow,
almost a mother’s gaze as this term ends,
and change knocks, quiet, urgent, at a door. Open
and go but, first, show mastery tonight.
What must your labor prove to me? Two nights
a week we talk of poems, soliloquies. We guess
together, muse aloud, stake claims. Your pens,
I say, the tools of Donne, of Rich, to write
mind body heart. Two-hour exam at end
may sift who’s read from those who’ve not, but slow
absorbing, deepening require long, slow
inquiry, lasting years beyond this night.
We don’t have years, we’re temporary, end
with stapler, backpacks slung, a wave. You guess
I will be fair with letter grades. You’re right.
Old-school examiner, my aim: sharpen
vision, equip minds for dilemmas pens
have not yet shaped for study, honor slow
approaches (plural)—not texting!—to write
what matters most. You twenty three scatter tonight;
we will not meet again. Oh, sure, when I’m a guest
at bistros, Arcos, Supercuts, our chat will end,
perhaps, this way: I learned a lot. There is no end
for learning, we’ll agree. I glance at pens
and faces now—full concentration, yes—
this room almost a home, almost dear. Slow,
the speed of cypress, chanterelles, this night
of harvesting mindfruit, this fertile rite.
My pen will forage slowly late tonight
among the guesses, fresh and wild, you write,
a tribe of thinkers in a forest without end.
Before I learned to walk, my father started his first State
job. Decent money, elevator, pension plan, an hour
for lunch. He slicked his hair, shined his shoes, knotted four
skinny ties. A saucer of cufflinks. The men in his building
a blur of navy blue in 1961. They would have to wait
a decade til they could let it all hang out, smoke grass,
sport a ponytail, a goatee. I crawled in spring grass
my father mowed on Sundays shirtless, as if to state
I’m free, untethered. Once surefooted, I couldn’t wait
to run, to see and grab it all, hurtle through space hour
after hour, through unlatched gates, doors propped ajar in buildings.
My mother bought a harness, pink, a sort of leash—four
dollars at Woolworth’s—worth every cent, she said, for
peace of mind (hers, not mine). She let me loose in parks, on grass,
beneath oak branches where she could watch me building
speed, scatter disgruntled geese, exult in sprinkler mist. A state
of grace, of bliss? Are they the same? I do know those hot hours
pulsed with something, marking me like new sunburn. No need to wait,
no word for wait. Heat, shade, running—mine, enough. We wait
for so much, don’t we? Liberation. Ecstasy. Those afternoons, four
o’clock, ninety plus, all my exclamations simple in those hours:
no no mom no me look ducks! But I had cool grass
beneath my feet and cloudless sky and arms to flap, to state
my kinship with those skittish birds. What were we building
by that pond, girl off leash and urban geese? And in his building,
AC full blast, was he engrossed, absorbed, or did my father wait
for five p.m., for happy hour peanuts at Frank Fat’s? His state
of mind I only guess at now. He’s gone. Ashes. I like to think at four-
fifteen, he capped a ballpoint, closed his eyes, saw fresh mown grass
delighting his unbridled daughter, cradling her fall. Our
ecstasies do end: we fly with outstretched arms for half an hour
then tumble, skin a knee, release a whimper then a wail building
in intensity. And if we’re lucky, someone runs across the grass,
a mother or a friend, and dabs at wounds with tissues, waits
for wailing to die down. But others falling may snap spines, wail for-
ever, lifetimes, only muffled: bottled, needled altered states.
The little hand is close to five. She named the hour and, tuneless, whistled grass
away from fingers, toes. She harnessed, promised me. Dad’s building
will be cool. We’ll ride the elevator up and down four times. Just wait.