Judith Skillman’s work has appeared in Shenandoah, Poetry, Zyzzyva, FIELD, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. Awards include an Eric Mathieu King Fund grant from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of poems on Kafka’s life and work, Kafka’s Shadows, is forthcoming from Deerbrook Editions in February 2017.
Proof of Pain
They asked for a passport, an ID to go
along with the slow change of my person.
They wondered why, and some proposed
in the fashion of thought how and where
the accident flowered in nerve and vein,
when it happened, how many teeth were lost
to the deep reaches of sleep. I procured
a memory, a medic, a house—anchors
rusted, coated with barnacles, isopods,
lichens and lice. My lips moved with words
as inside a shell, creature flesh gone. Was it
the train that leapt the tracks, the girl swept
under a truck at nine on her new pink Schwinn?
Was it the tetanus shot, given so many times?
Today As Always
The spider climbs its thread,
wind and sun come and go
in the plat named Garden
of Eden—an acre of clay,
dirt and stones. I take up
space in the same Russian
doll, her wooden shells ranging
from infant to grandmother,
wearing the flat lace apron.
The place between dream
and nightmare grinds as I try
to remember who I am
to many people—the daughter,
son, husband, and my own
mother who walks not with a cane
but by wobbling back and forth
between two peg legs.
Afternoon will come,
and with it tea and scones,
a reprieve from crowded
nerves. Perhaps my sacrum
will relax into an infinity sign.
Today as always I find my way
into the airlock between
these six figurines
that hold me to my age.
Perhaps surly resignation
will wax towards acceptance
beneath the red-lipped crone
who presents her squat icon,
who dotes and holds
all the night stars
blotted out by ultramarine sky.
As after a celebration
where a geriatric procession passes by
the old taking on their tongues the unleavened
wafer and believing as it melts
crumb by crumb it is flesh
As after an anniversary
when one stands in the sumptuous sun
As in a play
where a small girl's forgotten her lines
can't move her tongue
or wag her hips
As in a laundry that won't come clean
stains of blood and rust
strands of fur caught in a lint filter
a strain of music wobbling through one's head
As if the song that will save us
was Mr. Sandman
or Blue Moon
As another face goes by deeply lined
the teeth gone
the mouth working the wafer
the gold cup waiting off to one side
a woman wiping its lip with a towel
As she wipes she rotates the cup
of blood shed for a diabetic man
alone in a room full of needles
blood beading on a teenager's hand
and seeping from an abrasion into the rug
As if it were a patch of pink new skin
ultraviolet light will find
this morning at 8:30 am
after the family has stumbled from their beds
a bunch of ragamuffins
and the oldest son has boycotted the celebration
and the middle son has quit smoking
and the three grown daughters have gained weight and birthed nine children
As if they remembered nothing
of the past except this man and woman
standing at the altar a second time
this married couple changed beyond recognition by the years
As it has been and will be forever amen
The men will bet this evening
behind the coal miner’s restaurant
with their green dollars.
Two birds—one squat and lithe, the second large and square.
The manager of alley entertainments is dirty with sweat.
His men sway and swear.
Women on these farms rise before dawn.
Windows sparkle from inside with humidity, flesh,
lamps, and frying eggs. Bacon comes straight from heaven
to grease the talk of weather.
Another goat’s born in the barn—no need to rotate it
in the womb. The first one’s shoulder lodged,
leg stuck in a flamingo pose. Apart from the in-fighting
things turn out. Daughters never lecture their mothers,
and sons sweeten with age.
When they leave,
no other country adopts
the boy to kill him with its war.