Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Martha Silano

Martha Silano’s poems cover a broad range of subjects, including space aliens, astrophysics, saints, mothering, and the art of sausage making. Her work has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, as well as on Poetry Daily, and in the Paris Review, North American Review, Kenyon Review Online, and The Best American Poetry 2009. Martha’s books are What the Truth Tastes Like, Blue Positive, and The Little Office of Immaculate Conception, winner of the 2010 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize and  an Academy of American Poets noted book of 2011. She earned degrees from Grinnell College and the University of Washington, and has taught at Northern Michigan University, University of Arkansas, Drexel University, and Bellevue College. When she isn’t writing, Martha enjoys hiking, camping, gardening, swimming, and watching song birds visit her backyard feeder.  Her fourth collection, House of Mystery, will appear from Saturnalia Books in 2014.

These thirteen poems were written during the past fifteen years, a time in which I became a wife, mother (x2), and a college English instructor. Poetry, from the time I was quite young, has been a way to process and assimilate the incongruous, the quirky, and the miraculous. It’s also a great excuse to revel in the malleability, resilience, and playfulness of the English language. I do not have scrapbooks and I can’t sing for the life of me. What I have instead are these linguistic constructions marking my love for not only my own tribe, but the human tribe—its marvelous history of naming, exploring, exclaiming.

The Sausage Parade

When the Roman Empire, like an overcooked
kielbasa, began to shrivel up, Christians made them

illegal. Peperone, Calabrese, Sanguinaccio:
from speakeasy kitchens, butter, lard and onion

hissed. Holsteiner, Genoa, Cervelats:
20 centuries later, the High-Production

Pickle Injector ensures a steady supply.
Presskopf, Figatelli, Jagdwurst:

could it be their names? That each must form
to its casing? Whose nose hasn't longed

for the scent of fennel and pork?
Who can say sausage isn't onomatopoeic?

"Cook them slowly," Dishes of the World
insists. "To keep from bursting, prick."

Robert was my first: red pepper, pimento
pinch. Chorizo de Lomo. Taught me

sizzle, avoidance of smokehouse shrink. Never
would I settle for less. Byron Speer — oatmeal, vinegar,

thyme — loved to go shirtless March to November.
Skin silken gravy, oven-baked. Chuck, a Drisheen —

running ox, tansy-tinged; two parts blood
to one part cream. Helmut, all-hands-in-the-pot

simmering shallots, 6'2," 220; sweetness
soaked (lawyer by day, Braunschweiger

by night); Dylan a Rotwurst, keeping sausage —
sage, chestnut purée, lemon, Muscadet —

would have kept and kept....

The man I love doesn't love my bread-crumb-soaked,
sputtering-pork-and-chipolata past —

salsiccie, budini, zamponi.
But the past is long as Italy's boot.

It is made of leeks, red wine,
crushed garlic, whole peppercorns.

There is plenty of room at the table.

Originally published in What the Truth Tastes Like (Nightshade Press 1999).


In one ear the crunch of kapustain the other the sizzle of bacala.
Through one nostril the deep, dark sting of hot olive oil meeting garlic—

through the other the steam of cheddar cheese suffusing mashed potato peaks.
Some nights our burps told tales of halushki—egg and flour plopped

into swirling water, then fried with buttery cabbage unfurling
past Poland, past Austria-Hungary, all the way back to Mother Russia.

Some nights the basil in pasta siciliana sweetened our breath till dawn—
our sogni dori green fields skirting the Adriatic. Surely some of what they cooked

commingled—garlic-laden kielbasa, galumpki swimming in a thick tomato sauce—
but mostly what sautéed or steamed married only completely in their children,

the four of us who entered their kitchen—little rumbling Etnas, hollow
perogies longing to be filled—who raised our glasses—Salute!

to the bulka and to provolone, to all things schmatzhnee and dolce, who left
each night, a few flecks of pepper, a sprig of parsley, still clinging to our teeth.

Originally published in Blue Positive (Steel Toe Books 2006).

Getting Kicked by a Fetus

Like right before you reach your floor, just
before the door of an elevator opens.
Like the almost imperceptible
springs you waded through
in Iroquois Lake.

Sometimes high and jabby near the ribs;
sometimes low and fizzy like a pie
releasing steam, like beans
on the stovetop—slow

like the shimmer of incoming tide—hot, soft sand
meeting waves, slosh bringing sand crabs
that wriggle invisibly in.

And sometimes a school of herring
pushing through surf,
or a single herring

caught from a pier like a sliver of moon rising in the west;
sometimes a tadpole stuck in a pond growing smaller
and smaller, a puddle of mud, squirmy like worms—
now your left, now your right. Sometimes

neon flickering, like that Texaco sign near Riddle, Oregon—
from a distance it read TACO, but up close
the faintest glow, an occasional E or X,
like an ember re-igniting.

Like seeing your heartbeat through the thinnest part
of your foot, sunken well between ankle and heel,
reminder of a world beneath your skin, world
of which your know little,

and the pond growing smaller and smaller, soon the rolling waves
like the ones you dove into at Bradley Beach, at Barneget,
growing less frequent, your giant ocean
drying up, your little swimmer

sinking, giving way
to the waves
of his birth.

Originally published in Blue Positive (Steel Toe Books 2006).

Forbidden Fruit

was probably an apricot
but is almost always depicted

as shiny and red, the tree
the barren woman’s supposed

to roll around beneath,
wash her hands with its juice.

How like us to choose,
for our eye-opening snack,

the one that hybridizes
with any other Malus, so that

planting a seed from a small and sour
might well yield a large and sweet.

“A good year for apples,
a good year for twins,”

The Dictionary of Superstitions said,
though weren’t we glad when it turned out

not to be true. At the turn of the century,
Tobias Miller brought to Gold Hill, Oregon,

the King, the Northern Spy, the Yellow Transparent,
the Gravenstein, and the Greening,

though we’re not sure what we’re gathering—
stripey reds we peel and core for sauce,

yellows blushing in the summer sun.
When they ate of it, it tasted good,

 twice as good, as say, eternity, 
which could not be folded into cake,

which could not be put up or pressed.

Originally published in Blue Positive (Steel Toe Books 2006).

The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception

is almost always closed. More good news: no place
to kneel, no place to leave off applications,
though also no place for asking how in the world?

Hail, Queen Spermicide Dodger! Hail, Mistress
of the Quicker than Quickie! Hail, nothing close
to a virgin, of the messy-as-all-get-out birth!

Soiled diaper of the morning, shit enshrin’d!
O half-pint half drank, make speed to the help
of humankind. O my quiver, my queen of puppies,

mother of all goats and one purple unicorn. Mistress
of the aphid, who forsakest no one and despiseth no one
(except her brother, mostly when he swipes—except

her brother, when he swipes). Look upon me
with an eye of pity, o gherkin who’ll soon be grown,
for I am the one who washes thine blueberry-stained bibs,

who droppeth to her knees to wipe up the milk
and the meat. Celebrate with devout affection
thy holy and immaculate conception, which by the way

is actually the story of bypassing a dousing
of Non-Oxynol 9. So, hereafter, by the grace
of Him whom thou, liveth and reigneth in perfect

purple and orange plaid skort. Hail, munchkin
most moist! Hail, seven furry caterpillars, the table
scribbled with brown and blue ink. Hail, new word: ant.

O perpetual snot! O paperclip in your mouth! 
O gate you’re stuck behind (with good reason)!
O lost marbles! O pure arc from changing table

to bathtub, fair rainbow of stench. Hail and dwell
in the highest, hail purity, which lasts about two seconds.
My lily among bits of plaster, dying parsley, keeling over

kale, spent tomatoes. Thanks to you, dear bombardier,
I’m the mother of mercy. Thanks to you I give hope
to the guilty. You with your three pink blankets,

 you with your avocado smears, you drooling olives.
Me with my need to straighten, my need for quiet,
right here in this little office, this little

immaculate office, where a healthy glob
of pharmaceutical this-and-that couldn’t stop you.
O rage! O sperm! O last of my healthy eggs!

Here where we cooked you up
like a cherry-almond tart—cinnamon, flour, butter
(1 ¼ cold unsalted sticks). Coarse crumbs worked

to a ball. Let us pray, holy girl, though not
in martyrdom’s palm; let us pray, enthralled.

Originally published in The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception (Saturnalia Books 2010).

What Little Girls Are Made Of

Tapir, pure tapir—all wide,
delicious ass. Herbivorous

to the core, union of fly rod
and shad roe. After hiking all the way up,

then all the way back down Mount Kinabalu.
In the month of pastels, fluorescent pink grass.

As American as a forest fire enveloping
your god-given home on the range.

With wheat berry eyebrows, resides
in the batter of Proust’s madeline.

Also of the sorrowful women of Durer.
Of cantaloupe rind, of gargantuan zucchini.

Of Athena—all brains from the get-go, over-
brimming, teeming, full of knowing

hare-bell from bluebell, every genus
and every species, all brushed up

on conifer know-how, reminding us
spruces have papery cones.

Of granite, with meteor shower
skin, her nose, when it sniffs,

pre- and just- rainfall, her voice
a synthesis of Ginsberg and Plath—

“A Supermarket in London,” amalgam
of nasty boy love and honey,

Lorca chasing her down the aisles hissing
Bees! You must devote yourself to bees!

“Babies in the tomatoes,” yes,
but also of baby tomatoes. Of those believing

the world held up by a turtle. She’s
the Thinker, Ye Olde Tick Tock.

She’s the patch of geraniums
in full throttle, all wrists and sucking fists.

She’s what glows and glows.

Originally published in The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception (Saturnalia Books 2010).

What I Will Tell the Aliens

I will tell them about our clapping,
our odometers, and our skillets. 

I will take them to a place of fierce
lightning, to a place of tombstones

and of gentians, and I will tell them
of geckos, of ecstatic moments,

all about our tchotchkes, our temples,
our granite-countered kitchens.

Give me an alien and I will give it
a story of unfathomable odds,

of erections and looting. Show me
an alien and I will show it the sorrows

of the centuries, all wrapped up
in a kerchief, all wrapped up

in a grandmother’s black wool coat.
Bring me an alien right now,

and I will show it the misery
of stilettos, of pounding out

tortillas and gyros. Please—
send me an alien, and I will give it

a bloody nose, and then I will show it a great
humanitarian gesture, 10,000 tents

when 600,000 are needed. Let me
talk to these aliens about shoe-shiners

and rapture, of holidays and faxes;
let me pray with the aliens for the ice

to stop melting, for the growths to stop
growing, for a gleam to remain on our lips

long after the last greasy French fry is gone.

Originally published in The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception (Saturnalia Books 2010).

Ode to Imagination

and image, Vostok 1 hurling Yuri Gagarin
200 miles above us, what the optic nerve’s

efforant fibers unstitch, then carry its post-
orbit parachuting news to the retina. News

the earth is blue, so we look and when we do
our brain’s not calling up a replica from its cache

of Polaroids stuffed in an attic drawer,
but a brand new view of vortex, tundra, crashed,

of John Glenn’s capsule, with John Glenn inside!
At the point of re-entry, his tin-can home sustaining

quadruple-digit temps. How are you imagining it?
I’m seeing half a dozen loafered, skinny-tied guys

cozied around a computer the size of the Gorge
in George, Glenn, squeezed in, bolted-up, triple-checking

Friendship’s gauges. Fragile, fragile like an eggshell,
a cool, crisp morning in August.  And Glenn,

not much good at like or as, with no small steps
or giant leaps up his space-suited sleeve the sky

in space is very black. This moment of twilight
is very beautiful . . . Okay, so we can’t all be Keats,

and besides, could a scop have stood the stress of a strap
from the retropackage swinging around, fluttering

past the capsule window? Would you’ve preferred
the poet-astronaut spurting metaphors as the smoking

apparatus ignites? Glenn kept his white-knuckled wits,
and the rest is Apollo 11, the ghost drum ungoblined,

the silent victory trumpet triumphant, a halo go round
the moon. But back to Gagarin, the flash and the dark,

back to the viewer taking it in Mama, wanna see, wanna see?
Mama, you’re not looking! Mama lifting off in her Cosmodrome,

to a place where image meets interference, life
by a thousand shadows, the interplay between brain

and eye working overtime to lift us off this earth.

Originally published in The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception (Saturnalia Books 2010).

It's All Gravy

a gravy with little brown specks       
a gravy from the juices in a pan

the pan you could have dumped in the sink
now a carnival of flavor waiting to be scraped 

loosened with splashes of milk of water of wine
let it cook let it thicken let it be spooned or poured

over bird over bovine over swine
the gravy of the cosmos bubbling

beside the resting now lifted to the table 
gravy like an ongoing conversation    

Uncle Benny's pork-pie hat    
a child's peculiar way of saying emergency  

seamlessly        with sides of potato of carrot of corn
seamlessly        while each door handle sings its own song

while giant cicadas ricochet off cycads and jellyfish sting
a gravy like the ether they swore the planets swam through

luminiferous      millions of times less dense than air       
ubiquitous         impossible to define   a gravy like the God

Newton paid respect to when he argued 
that to keep it all in balance to keep it from collapsing

to keep all the stars and planets from colliding
sometimes He had to intervene

a benevolent meddling like the hand 
that stirs and stirs as the liquid steams

obvious and simple        everything and nothing
my gravy your gravy our gravy      the cosmological constant's 

glutinous gravy       an iridescent and variably pulsing gravy    
the gravy of implosion      a dying-that-births-dueodenoms gravy  

gravy of doulas of dictionaries and of gold 
the hand stirs        the liquid steams 

 and we heap the groaning platter with glistening
the celestial chef looking on as we lift our plates

lick them like a cat come back from a heavenly spin
because there is oxygen in our blood

because there is calcium in our bones   
because all of us were cooked

in the gleaming Viking range
of the stars

Originally published in The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception (Saturnalia Books 2010).

Pry Bar Constellation

At the planetarium the docent aimed her light-up pointer at three stars.
This is the Pry Bar Constellation, she said. This is how the mummies

spoke to Osiris, their gauzy mouths pried open like cans
of black olives. But when I GOOGLED Egyptian astronomy

I got nothing—not the Imperishables, stars that do not rise
or set in the land of the Sphinx, not the story about the crown

of Sah, which they rode for seventy days to the Underworld,
sort of like Egyptian Persephones, returning for the flooding

of the Nile. What I’d like to see is a green-backed heron wading
in the Nile. What I’d like to say is that the mummification process –

bicarbonate, chloride, sodium, sulfate, honey and wine, oil of borage,
liver and lungs packed in salt, the body covered in natron for forty days,

the brain removed through the nostrils with a single curved hook—
makes me very tired, or maybe it’s that hot, dry 100-mile journey

to a hidden cave, slaves dragging those impossibly sturdy tombs,
those libation dishes, spoonbill-adorned hair combs, tusk figurines

and recumbent lions, extravagance beyond measure heading
for the dark. I guess I’m lucky I’m not an Egyptologist, white-toga

and sandal clad, deciphering hieroglyphics, because then I’d be the one
who squealed on those who stumbled on the spoils. I wonder

if she made up the part about the pry bar, but really how much stranger
than a sky replete with a crab, a dragon, two bears, a swan?

Than a club-wielding guy in hot pursuit of a hare, a long band of leather
keeping his kilt from falling endlessly through the sky?

Originally published in Mobile City.

If You Could Be Anybody, Who Would You Be?

And that’s when she gave him her answer: Hapshepsut, the only female
pharaoh, who by the luck of her father’s early death managed to rule

for twenty-two years. Or else, if not her, then the last person who died
with the secret recipe for embalming bodies, which wine, which incense,

when resin, when honey, when rubbing with grease, which thorny tree
of the Borage. That’s when she gave him or maybe Thomas Edison

on the day he invented the phonograph--telegraph tape, set at high speed,
emitting human speech. Paper speaking! Carbonate, bicarbonate, chloride,

sodium sulfite, who knows what else. Traveled to distant lands for their henna
and ochre. That’s when she fessed up: Tanya Harding and Olga Korbut. Also,

Nadia Comeneci the day she received that perfect score. Also, she told him,
Botticelli’s Venus. Does it have to be a person, she asked, or could she be

the pink shell? The creamy cockatiel, the yellow dewlap of the dewlapped lapwing?
The emu settling down, in the dirt path, for a late-morning nap? In that case, she said,

I’ll be the light breeze, the glass of wine sweating in the late-June air; actually,
make that the 638 wineries of Washington State, every one of Klickitat County’s

turbines slicing the wind through the cottony gospel of cottonwood fluff.
But she wasn’t only Washington State; she was also a beaver’s persistent teeth.

Gold, silver, bronze; floor, bars, or beam: who even remembers, and anyway
she’d rather be the chalk dust lifting after the champion raises her hand to signal

she’s ready to vault. Or the moss between the patio bricks; a moose, an alpha wolf,
a stealth. Nothing camouflaged, nothing too outrageously flamboyant, nothing

requiring slaughter or stench. I’ve decided, she said, and that’s when she gave him that impossibly loose-lipped flower, white destined to dirty brown, to flop on the ground

for the girls to load their buckets for petal soup, cuz who’d give a camellia less
than a ten, who’d reject a blossom, though why hadn’t she answered nobody

but nobody else, because really she loved her own aorta, her own prismatic ulnas,
was most content in her own cage, with the twenty-six bones of her foot. Not

platypoid, not tarantula-ized, just a gal sporting a gray-edged halo, just a smidgen spooked by King Tut’s bulbous belly, knocking knees, ghostly glowing teeth.

Originally published at Terrrain.org 

Ode to Mystery

and to magic, not magicians with their man-
made manipulations of rabbits and scarves,

of three rings joined then freed, of coins
that disappear/reappear, but the something-

out-of-nothing why of atmosphere, of star fruit,
warthog, and rotifer, extracting minerals

from mountains, refining what’s dug up
into wire, so we can gab with Aunt Polly

across the Atlantic, turn what we extract
into steel for ships and girders. Consider

the intricacy of the human eye—rods and cones
trapping photons, sclera sheathing the optic nerve,

vitreous chambers and vascularization, ganglion cells
and plexiform layers; the ear and its tunnels, its drums,

airflow above and below a wing that equals lift,
power of a motor measured in horses, precision

of a peregrine knocking pigeons from the sky,
uncanny usefulness of yeast—bread broken

at the hearth, at the hallowed screen. O symmetry
of equations! Equal signs denoting equality!

Mystery of spiraling nautilids, benthic
tubeworms, swinging-both-ways squid.

O humans and their enormous heads barely
eeking through the canal, anointing each other

genius when clearly paramecium deserve the laurels.
Mystery of nematodes bravely clinging as they take

their snaky ride not unlike a tunneled, caustic waterslide—
circular, orificial. Who really deserves the shiny trophy:
we, who launch our dinghies into the roaring unknown,
or the barnacles hunkering down for their twice-daily

drought? Language is spiffy, but lo the hocus-pocus
of pheromones, crickets and cockroaches emitting

lick-able seductions. That anything lives at all, that fog
rolls in and out, that milk spurts from the teat, that laughter

erupts when the child reads buc-a-BAC, buc-a-BAC,
and the boy in the story tucks his chicken into bed.

Originally published in The Cincinnati Review 9.2 (Summer 2013).

The Poet Is the Priest of the Invisible
                        --Wallace Stevens

Dark-eyed, mysterious Meadowhawk,
the poet is the rabbi of the diaphanous,

scribe of the sheer, the barely-there
brief, pungi of the five o’clock shadow,

hint of rosewood and ghost. The poet
preaches a thin-barked willow sermon;

what she labors over is always prone
to sunscald, to scrutiny, its veins

visible through the skin. Gossamer
goddess, translucent muse, she lofts

a gauzy lug wrench toward the shadowy
freeway, where the alphabet—each of its

limpid clauses, each hyaline verb—
has once again broken down, needs a lift.

Originally published at Kenyon Review Online, Summer 2011.

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