6.12 / October 2011

Origins of Winter

We Meet

I am the honey-limbed girl dropping wet petals
along the path, careless with beauty in the way
of the young; suggestive. Before dusk settles

in the cleft of distant hills, I weigh
my options: return home before dark,
or watch slow clouds like servants lay

a ruby into the arms of trees, a spark
reddening sweetly in its slip of sky.
Waiting until the sun completes its arc,

earth shivering beneath me, I feel shy-
alone but for the murmur of crickets who note the air
cooling, whispers of a stream, the sigh

of leaves still lost in gossip, Who’s there?
Who’s there? That pretty thing?
Fireflies dart
around my ankles, brash, trying to nibble where

no man has yet. And ripping earth apart,
you emerge, root-gnarled, all mineral and sweat.
Your horse snorts as you present a heart…

or pomegranate dripping from your hand of jet,
skull burning through your translucent face.
I cringe, aware the offer is a threat.

Careful, I lift my cheek for your embrace,
inhale your scent of calcium and ash.
The cut fruit stains my arm as we retrace

your route on our descent through that new gash
of rocky clay. Down. Down. The underworld.
You raise a casual arm to show your cache

of shimmering jewels, colors ruddy, swirled
against the cavern walls by flickering light
from high torches. A tablecloth’s unfurled

across a marble slab. I have no appetite,
but food appears: cheese, Muscat grapes, a knife.
Elsewhere, my mother will not sleep tonight,

but you are saying, Join me, lovely, join me, wife,
words that sting like hail or poison nettles,
your touch like nothing felt in all my life.


Here it was always dark,
so it grew darker above ground.
My mother bit her fingernails and frowned,
letting the scenery turn stark.

Her lovely features blurred.
When asked to describe in one word

my feelings for this place,
I answered, “Neutral,” but longed for blues and greens. Your face
stayed quiet as an underground pool,
and you nodded, passing me a plate.

The rule
about eating had been made clear, so the weight

of fruit rested in my palm till I declined. Overhead,
people scurried like miners, like moles.
You looked at me and pointed to your bed.
Blind fish plunging, I learned how naked skin consoles

the lonely, hidden soul you don’t believe in. My bellyache
had grown ragged, wanting-something like love
but merely hunger so large that I mistake
you now for all I’ve lost, all I’ve been dreaming of.


Old spit-up that collects inside
a rock, cold tears a mountain cried,
the river’s teeth, the sapling’s heel,
a soup-the poor man’s cunning meal,
hard trinkets that the body forms
in the gallbladder, an August storm’s
contrary burst of biting ice.
We were together only twice

before I felt within my bones
that as the ancient hillside groans
raw-open to its granite king,
your kiss spoke of another thing:
plum underworld interiors,
the ceilings closing in with quartz.

Portrait: A Version of Our Mortal Life

When you whisper, Hell yeah! We’re gone!,
I rehitch the fallen strap of a dress
my mother doesn’t know I own,
the cheap one that reveals me when I jump into your car.
We drive to a honky-tonk off Highway 74
and scuff soles through the parking lot,
stirring up gravel. We befriend a one-armed man
named Herb, passing him beer bottles
he opens with his teeth. I blow blue-gray
wreathes of smoke around our heads, and you
stub out your cigarette against the tender part
of your wrist. We kiss like lampreys
while Herb, hooting, takes swigs and tosses
empties aside, chats up the aspiring model/actress
late to work at the bar inside. Licking her thumb,
she draws a heart in the air around us, fakes a pout
when you won’t kiss her, then scampers off.
When the moon’s fuzzed by clouds, Herb flicks
his ash, clears his throat, and says, You better take
your sugar somewhere now
, nodding at us.
And somewhere is a patch of pasture grass,
or the last good backseat, make-out parking spot
by the railroad tracks. We move, choreographed:
worn jeans, short dress, ripped t-shirt, weather
crackling into summer storm. Rain-soaked,
our shirts meld to the surface of our chests,
we press each other in a grocery-romance-novel way.
You adore me best, and I, you; our love
rendering any threat of other love impossible
there in the bright, bad now of lightning
unseaming our lonely spread of sky,
uprooting the cobalt hill, undoing me and you.

The Seeds

We’d thrashed and wept in tangled sheets
enough by then to have a ritual:
you’d stroke my head and offer me
something bright, glistening-a plum
or pear steeped in sunlight from the groves
where now my mother’s mourning causes leaves
to wither. I’d cup the gift
like a green world, breathing in its skin.
But I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t taste
that world again without dying.
So instead I’d cling to you and ask
you to make me less lonesome.
Until one day you said, I like some flesh
on a woman. You’ve become a wraith
And I smirked, Good, then I’ll fit in.
You didn’t laugh but turned away-
always some business as lord of this place.
Yes, we were well-kept by your milk-eyed loyals:
there were fêtes and mummers and
dance recitals, always the limber dead
performing for our pleasure.
And time has rolled over and over
until my decision and its why have spread
so far apart that I cannot recall
the importance of my hunger anymore,
so shivering, near-bald, my jaw downed,
stomach shrunken hard as a peach stone,
I see glowing a halved pomegranate:
thick, tough skin, innards like red sequins.
I stroke it like a blind woman. Plucking
six seeds, I let them burst between
my teeth. My tongue’s still quivering
when you walk in and laugh, drink deeply
the tart bloodstain of my mouth-drink me
like a man who’s waited and grown thirsty.

Portrait: Our Life on the Evening News

It’s always my old school photo they show:
blonde pigtails, toothy grin-what, twelve years old?
Fifteen? Last seen picking flowers…
at the mall…waiting for the school bus.

The sketched face of a man pops up,
eyes charcoaled in, jackal lines around his mouth,
a nightmare-composite. Watch how my mother
pleads in front of microphones for any tip or clue,
for the safe return of her child. Her voice is mild
with Ativan and breaks between words. The man
behind her stirs, my father, looking shamed
and puzzled (the tabloids soon will speculate
why he’s not quite sad enough.) But already
I’m forgetting them-her hands, his oxford shirt,
the big clock in my classroom, my school photo,
how the photographer pulled down the blue background
and said, “You got a lotta boyfriends, sweetie, don’tcha?
Now smile! Hold it!”, the white curtains in my bedroom,
and even you, sir, even you, your paper mask and dark eyes
hovering above me now as I lie sleeping. And this new place.
My absence is voracious, swallowing everything.

First Thaw

The world when I returned was caulked with ice-
a happening for which we had no word-
so now I tasted branches, the precise
mold of every twig a language that I heard
with my cold tongue and understood at last.
My mother, holy with suffering, asked if I
must lick everything. Six months had passed
and, now a guest, I blanched-we’d turned shy
and formal together. It will melt soon
now you’re back
, she said, and then the black
plate of the lake cracked as if the moon
were a hot coal. And I saw how a long-felt lack
is each thing’s ghostly imprint-how ice burns,
and beauty, lost, more fervently returns.

Joanna Pearson’s poems have appeared in Best New Poets 2010, Blackbird, Gulf Coast, Linebreak, The New Criterion, River Styx, Tar River Poetry, and elsewhere. Her first young adult novel, The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills, was published this month.
6.12 / October 2011