Poems by Lisa Orme Bickmore
S m a l l F i r e s
The Dream-Work [p.3]
The figures have less to do with recovery
than with resistance: not going to the garden
in October to gather the dry cornstalks,
not the flare of lights in the kitchen
at five. Not the expected spiders
in all the corners after first cold,
not the snow line descending nearer
the valley, or the scarred, crewcut hills.
What we recover every autumn, each withered
garden, the same sinking light every year.
Each night they seem this familiar,
but they resist capture or even
clear sight: looking through the window,
steamy from the warm house and the dishwater,
waiting for father, seeing only the diffuse
headlights turning. Looking into the face
of a man I loved once, now gradually
not his face but someone else’s, this man
I knew once, in a silk suit, saying,
It’s what you want, you want this—yes,
but what is it, exactly? Its name transparent
and relentless, a current of air or water.
His name–he doesn’t matter, he’s here to ask
about desire, what I want: alone on the late
street, him shoving me against the wall,
saying, you want this; fearful I won’t
escape this desire, or that I will.
The oldest poem:
Its verses recursive in these scenes:
The big tableau, Vegas at sunset,
and vast clouds complicate the sky,
their fat forms clotted with pink light,
rose paint suffusing the Dunes’ neon palms.
And they roll on, faster and darker, and
the gamblers do not recognize the night.
North, at home, the cold comes back; but
on the Strip, I am not there to see
the cold-slowed roses loosening one sepal
each day, the impatient frost on the grass.
In the restaurant at morning the smell
of coffee and bacon, and in the next room
the gamblers drink Bloody Marys—they
haven’t yet slept. And at home, the baby
holds on to a chair, then lets go—stands
balancing, his first steps nascent in his stance.
The Suicides [p.5]
They knew the others would find them after the fact
with their reasons clutched in their hands,
or folded into a pocket. They knew, too,
that the others had heard them, in their flat sentences,
saying, How difficult things had become.
How hard it was to fail. How strange it was to be
no one, and yet how loud the noise
that persisted in their heads. That the others
had ignored them, or heard them, and moved on.
And if they had thought of it, they would have imagined
what the others were left with: fragments and pieces.
The terror of cleaning up, the labor of guilt:
turning, seeing the houses burning, a heap of ash,
the windows that framed the world in glittering
shards, the jagged formations of salt. Everything
and nothing. The rope, the gun, the flame.
They walk unfalteringly into a room
where the others are not permitted,
not looking back, closing the door, locking it
as tight as a knot. The room empty and full.
The souls moving like insistent whispers.
This is how the others imagine them—a chance, an insinuation—
since the door is locked, the walls opaque as flame.
They have walked alone and away.
Straight Way Out [p.6]
Have meditated upon it since the night at the amusement park
when I heard of your death by fire, your own hand
striking the match.
Melodrama’s one thing, and deliberation another, but on the lawn
you flickered between them: a simple self-consuming act;
a gesture of decision
That I admire very much–even if it is not my way. Imagining this life
as a room, and one way out through the door, if the room is only
Or if in the presence of a single heat, what to one might seem
an insurmountable accumulation might simply evanesce, evaporate,
become the ghost of that life
that is to another as palpable as a body one longs to touch.
And one does not step over or step through
that loved body or even
[p.7] that body’s shadow. One picks one’s patient way around
the circuits of that life, the room of which begins to seem a whole
world with a door or window
that hold themselves open with the idea of openness,
toward which one never seems to make one’s way … I have tried
to understand the suicides,
their impatience—the press they make for that open door—
and despite the stolid doggedness that keeps me wending
my way around this room
and the temptation, as of a body one longs to touch, of their swift
unheeding feet: the room itself begins to change
and the clutter grows roots
and becomes something green—a potted fern, maybe even an ash
tree, a sapling, but with flowers unlike anything natural—
flowers the color of flame.
Elegy for a Housewife [p.8]
The cold locks in like a coffin in this valley.
Some Januaries it drifts in of an afternoon,
When the winter sun is still clear, rebounding
From snowbank to snowbank, blinding
And bright—then the fog makes its soft entrance,
A bolt of sheer fabric draped over the houses and streets,
A January extended to the indefinite. You didn’t
Last long enough to see it this winter.
Before it ever set its tentative foot on the field
Outside your door, the way the snow lay, gray
And threaded with the wild grasses, the stones
In their old places, veiled with the snow,
And even that worn with the pattern
Of the persistent wind: this seemed so familiar,
So that even a wide-windowed house would not ward off
That wearing and sighing that carved out cliffs
And hollows in winter’s face. Driving home last night
In the fog, watching the tail lights of cars
[p.9] Ahead of me as they vanished, the lights themselves
A kind of blindness, gathering all the mist to them—
The lines on the road made the only flat sense in what seemed
An apotheosis of incandescence. All the lights are like that—
Following in sequence, bursting past me on the familiar roads
That I don’t recognize. The fog makes them an aurora
A lower northern lights—red, yellow, green, and white.
What is missing is the blue, and for that we have to wait
Till morning, or till the morning that breaks in a few weeks.
Just this week, we had an afternoon hazy with sunshine,
That watery winter light bitter and brittle
With cold. I know, you have refused all this, you who used
To refuse nothing. But the air, filled with a dust of diamonds,
The drifting particles made crystalline, was enough
To make us believe that the air is a presence, our true
Element. By ten days you missed it, by just days,
The air’s diamond dust drifting down to earth, our mortal dwelling,
The house you turned from, the rooms you inhabit no longer.
Doomed, Sick, Selfish, Dumb as Shit [p.10]
In those days, my first behind a camera, I used black
And white, a more intelligent medium than color,
Whose glassy brilliance obscured every moody
Shadow of my vision. And thus
This photograph of two babies,
One with her hands clasped confidingly, and a wicked grin;
The other at six months ready to fly,
Or fly apart, the hands in their splayed
Disorganization, mouth pursed to hold
His lifted head up, his balance on the stomach.
Somewhere in the background there, in what
The drape covers, one imagines it waiting—
Black and white admitted that shadow, that germ of decay,
Without my knowing. But open the drape, and in it spills,
The clotted gold of the sun, and all the gaudy colors pursuant.
It is the raucous artistry of this world to work
In color, the whole palette expanded to include
The red skull cap on the head of this street mother waiting
With her makeshift family and their grime at the bus stop,
Their private laughter in a public space tinted
And divided into the spectrum of a rainbow, which
Swirls on the iridescent lenses of this young girl’s
Sunglasses, holding her baby in his carseat as she
Raises her voice to speak over the loud beat of
Her friend’s boom box outside the mall.
Out of those speakers emerges a music as big as all
Ambition, as big and as richly hued as the once
Eminent and estimable glory of the self, sad specimens
Of which we see around us always and everywhere.
Confess a certain gladness at its visible decline—
[p.11] Like the gritty effacement of the high monuments,
The way this world moves at a certain time of day
Toward the limited range of a gray spectrum, and how
We may predict with more solid evidence that indeed
Nobody loves us all, or anyway, not enough—hence
The fear inherent in cities, neighborhoods, walls
And locks. But this evident indifference allows us
Our nostalgias, which is wy I return again
And again to this photograph, black and white, the two
Lives there at their beginnings, in the pristine moment
Before the inevitable spill and stain of the world’s eloquent
Colors, the consequent beginning of memorials, and decay.
The Glad Quality of the Things Beneath the Sky [p.12]
These bright things exist in our world
Despite the condition of loss,
Which, by fiat, governs all
—or so I thought, looking around:
The sad houses that need paint, long roads
Adorned by nothing but the hum
Of wires and a broken painted line;
The way even miraculous birth
May be marred by accident and defect.
The autistic boy at the bus stop, his dance
Of rocking back and forth, the rhythmic
Shift of his wide stance–I cannot help
But stare, such movement superfluous
To bus stops. He knows this, knows his excess,
And stops when he sees me; but it resumes,
His dance, as soon as I look away.
It is unembellished, a simple step of forward
And back, the repetition the entire point;
And my gaze only a segment of the strand
Along which embarrassment, acknowledgement,
And gladness are strung. Before loss,
The very stones learned to sing; one imagines
With the proper teacher, they might also
Have learned to dance. I used to think
That the point of all this was beauty, that
The stones sang in voices drawn
From mineral throats, inhuman and like
That fabled harmony of the spheres.
[p.13] Perhaps I have always been wrong, that the glad
Song of the stones made beauty beside the point:
Much else in our world escapes the logic
Of beauty, and only the moment of loss
Forces us to elide the sheen of gladness resting
On things. Perhaps that rocky song emerged
Scraping along from granite throats, off key
And maybe even without rhythm. Orpheus
Possibly found that once he’d taught them,
He couldn’t stand it, all the earthly
Things singing in their flat tones, their
Inharmonious keening, sucking the breath out
Of the world that, in its silence, had once
Seemed pregnant with song. Perhaps Orpheus,
Contrary to legend, even welcomed loss,
Embracing it with tears streaming down
His face, beauty following hard on the retreating
Figure of Eurydice. Melodious songs of exquisite
Grief are the legacy of that moment; I still
Can’t escape a tear, the luxury of a sob,
When I hear them: but I like also
To witness the way things evade the elegant
Patterns of their designs: windows lined
With foil; the blinds at other windows
Warping their horizontal planes, inclining
Toward the center of each blade; how these blinds
Still raise each morning to admit light, and in
Contrary motion, at the end of day, lower to contain it.
We knew the nights he flew high and hunted, but where
His plane searched, and for what, was his secret.
For freedom, I thought then, and later, for the war,
Its names and places reasons for his absence: Da Nang,
and the Gulf of Tonkin, Tet, Hanoi and Saigon.
His absences I remember, but rarely his returns,
Only coming home from school, the house breathing with
The exhaustion of his sleep. How little I know of his life.
We drove past the hangars once, and he pointed to the big
Belly of the C-130, for him humming with intelligence.
I imagine him now high over the South China Sea, approaching
The central highlands, the fat curve of the coast, heading
South toward the delta of the Mekong, or north to Da Nang—
I search the map of Southeast Asia, and find no names to tell
Where he went, for how long, or how far. So I suspend him
In flight over the South China Sea, at indeterminable height
Headed somewhere, toward the strange place where strange people
Waited for him, at an unlocatable distance from us, alive
In the cockpit, reading the complicated pattern of lights,
The instruments that guide him where he flies.
Waiting for war and bad news: it was the story
Of my mother’s life, the three years we lived
In Japan, in our little house built where the rice
Had once grown. Three children and the thin walls,
And the wind roaring around us while the rain
Pelted the roof. We sat round the table all night,
The candles dripping wax to the wood while we waited
For the typhoon to end, for father to come home.
How available she was to us: her face open to loss
Even as she tried to seal it, keeping the candles
Lit like a prayer. And still I know where to find her:
In that desire for return, the talent for holding the lives
Of children and men close, while all around her, people
Were leaving, climbing into the cockpits of planes,
taking off into the sky. She waited, her patience
The still point. Her face open to this absence, this return.
Always returning, sometimes to the picture
Of the small girl in the dress and blue hat,
The hat not hers but her father’s,
With its silver braid and the eagle.
In other pictures she wears hose and heels,
Her mother’s, with similar glee. Or surely
I must have, in pictures I remember, or imagine—
But I do not return to these pictures.
Instead I come back to a geometry lesson,
The serious inking of proofs,
My father’s way with a pencil on graph paper,
The theorems falling so finally into sense.
Just as finally, my mind consents to that logic,
To the order my father composes
Of the Greek for Euclid’s elegant
Regular forms. By then it had become a pattern,
The insistent return to this man, my father,
Finding him beside the lemon tree where he
Has mounted a telescope over the back fence,
The mirror he himself had polished enclosing
The stars the way the rings encircle Saturn.
At midnight he could map that corner of the sky
That they inhabited, as dark as all space,
As busy and as empty. If he’d turn the telescope
On me, its concave mirror fixing the image,
Perhaps he could as plainly map the way
I came to be this kind of woman, his daughter,
Invent the proper instruments for finding a father, a mother.
Black Ice [p.17]
We might still drive on, sideways, sliding
To the muddy edge, the wind and ice
Locking our wheels into wreckage.
We do not drive without heading straight
Toward that moment: the black sheen of ice,
The wind’s whine, bring us closer, impose
The pulse of danger, danger. It has been
An eternity of cold, and still I remember
The time the windshield cracked, its frame
Emptying gems as we sprawled in the postures
Of the helpless. We counted the injuries
And the losses, emerged stunned but whole.
The bruises of hip and thigh have faded,
No trace or mark. That afternoon, safe
In the car of strangers, I found imbedded
In my finger a seed of glass, its sign no more
Than a pindot, the only blood I saw. If anything,
It is this that, somewhere inside, glitters black.
All this week they have fluttered in the stiff May wind,
These tiny painted butterflies, who’ve travelled,
We read, from Mexico, where lived so many of them
That these had to go. Hard to imagine what would be
Too many butterflies, when here drift thousands across
The western-most road; when the reticulated triangles
Of broken wings litter the walks; when I find one,
Spent, exhausted, on my lap as I drive, the merest
Quiver of silk to indicate a shred of life. It does not
Matter, the idea of excess, to those that alight
On this spring’s exuberance of dandelions.
The formula (worked in insect algebra, one guesses)
That separates enough butterflies from too many have been
Worked months ago in northern Mexico; these, the remainder,
Followed northerly currents to arrive in a place
Nearly too cold. Cold enough, at any rate, even in May,
To halt the migration. If, as we’ve also read, this is travel
Which includes no return trip, we are, for this moment,
Allowed to register the air, alive now as in autumn
With fragments of brittle color; to notice how our steps
Cause a thrill, the beating of innumerable tiny wings;
To remark the specimens our children bring to us;
To imagine that we, like emperors, walk on paths
Awash in silken wings; to begin again to define too much
In a world composed on the principles of extravagance.
Maple Seeds [p.19]
The big maple limbs in the gutters lie so heavy
The stormwater’s rush downhill cannot move them,
So heavy we imagine them not cut by the city’s
Treetrimmers, but broken from the trees by the wind
And the May snow that folds the leaves on themselves
In their glazed coats. All week, though, spring renovation
Goes on in the storm, crews at the crossing shoring up
Embankments, the lights alternating warning and the bells
Banging, the long light of the train moving slowly over
The tracks past the fixed red semaphore. In the afternoon,
An interval of sun, when the crews take off their jackets,
And the steam rises from the flanks of horses, the dirt
Of their corrals, the just-plowed fields. By our house,
The Queen of the Night tulips bend, black, their heads
Beaten down. But before the storm moves on, spring’s
Green detritus collects under the trees, the broken leaves
Sailing in the swift gutter, the tiny maple seeds
Green as pairs of mantis wings. The larger ones
Clinging to the trees will stay there for summer, wait
For a different, drier wind to take them whirring in their flight.
The Mind Turns to Its Own Figurations [p.20]
It costs me exactly nothing,
That handful of coins,
Yielding its slight but not unaccountable
Weight into her hand, her pocket.
I leave what my mother used to call
Folding money folded inside,
And barely break stride.
The Navajo woman blesses me,
Asks God to bless me,
Declares the Lord will bless me.
Money, like metaphor, feels neutral,
And changes hands cleanly,
Its clinking music cooling the skin
That holds it, then gives it up.
I’ve been told that God hears
The supplications of all the ones crying
God bless you on behalf of those
Who help the poor beggars of this world,
And I’ve no doubt that the Mother
Theresas, saints of slums, will roll
In heavenly bank accounts,
That accumulation of figurative gold.
Who’d begrudge such hypothetical
Capital? As for me and my flippancy,
We walk lightly on, the spring air
Showering down its ancient currency,
Invisible coins, with complex
Inscriptions, as if newly minted.
At the end of each broken day, stepping with bare feet
On the stale crumbs of our brittle day’s bread,
I vow to stem my longing for what I can’t have:
The unmarking of my body, a fatal elegance,
True love with a stranger, God’s face, a sure sign.
I pray instead for the ordinary, the daily,
The miraculous banal: crumbling soil, sweet pea vines
Climbing the iris swords, a quiet house at five
In the morning, the chiaroscuro clouds. If I
Cannot love these, I as then for a slow-paced heart
To move me in an even beat, not in this contredanse
I do with desire. Before the break of dawn I wake
To the hum of dream machinery, the hollow inside
Pulling matter and marrow to make a hungry core:
And even before I rise I whirl on the axis of desire.
The Road Out of Lewiston [p.22]
At the point the horizon erases what we can see
I think the road must rise into the sky, invisible,
Circling back to where it began, wherever it began.
This Doors tape, an endless loop droning ahead
To the start, from Riders on the Storm to L.A.
Woman–each time it clicks over, I say to myself,
The beginning. Like this trip to Los Angeles–the origin
Is no place until the return, when I say, where I started.
That boy sitting on the margin of the freeway,
With the cardboard sign and his thumb–he is
Returning, or leaving, one can’t tell from his
Position there his place on the circuit
Of travel. Now he waits on the road out of Lewiston,
Past the confluence of the Snake and the Clearwater,
And I see him near the ledge banked sharp
Against the sky, a curve so fast and so high,
I think, if the guardrail gives, I’ll swing out wide,
Break into an open blue ascent.
Putting Away the Year
October, the end of the warm duration, & autumn’s rain
Has begun to wash the color from the last zinnias. The roses unfold
More slowly now than in August, when they opened & shed
Their petals in a day. October’s end has surprised
Us this year: the summer spilled past its boundaries into
September, the weeks warm with a season lasting past
Its moment. This day, the sky pulled closer with the cold,
Cloaking us in a fall of gray rain, we bend to uproot
The plants from their beds, finding the dirt again crumbling
From the spent roots, & and the drying water-spotted leaves.
The perennials stay–gypsophila, dianthus, gloriosa,
Lavender & carnation. The tall cosmos still bloom, so we relent
& allow the open flowers, the curled buds, to wait for the frost
That withers and blackens. The spent roses we break from the canes,
& the hips that gather their black seed. The petals
Of the roses, the zinnias, calendulas, marigolds, we break
Apart into the earth, uncovered again, doing its good work
Of making & unmaking in the last of this year’s garden.
Night’s Last Child [p.24]
for Jim and Tina Currier
In the summers we used to play at night until
The moon was high over us and the sky had filled
With stars: then we all went in, slamming screen
Doors behind us. And collapsing into beds,
Still sweaty, we fell into sleep, as if sleep
Had found us in the last game of hide and seek.
In that neighborhood, the mothers trusted us
To each other: and we had each other to find
When we were hiding. The same kids in my
Neighborhood now: and as nights get longer,
And the smaller ones disappear into houses,
Older kids remain, their hair and skin sweaty
And warm, down to the last kid alone in the evening.
I see them riding bikes home at ten o’clock;
The same kids who walk the railroad tracks,
Steps slow, measuring the ties; slow, and as straight
As the path a boy ran in the last field
Of winter wheat, a lonely and breathless passage.
Small Fires [p.25]
We waited in a hot wind for the storm
To lift the current up from the close-nubbed field,
The summer the lightning lived in our hills.
We waited on our porches for the spectacle
Stinging close to the huddled houses,
Close enough to charge our own street:
We felt it in the dangerous rattle of windows,
In the kindling of the soles of our feet.
The day late July it leapt to the roof
The hot white flower trembled there in the wind,
And we lived at that moment for the heat in the blo0m,
That small flicker at roof’s pitch,
And the low sky storming with light.
I have imagined it possible to collect such days,
Such light, and though I have not since
Been taken by light of that candor, no other day
Has opened so wide a color: now the nimbus
Accumulates over canyons, the cleaved foothills
Fills with shadow, repel the day’s last light.
[p.26] And if I have imagined such possession,
In the lengthening wait between days
Winter blackens the hours at five,
And at seven already the light
Pools in the bowl of the valley;
And I run in darkness and wrench
My ankle in an invisible hole, and pass
Under the only streetlight which
Flickers and recedes from me.
These moments remind me that every day
Spends its lingering light in darkening
And that nothing is mine: not the summer fire
That woke me from a heavy sleep, not smoke
So close it seemed to curtain the hills into
Rooms I might enter, walk among;
Not even the mottled medallion hanging flat
Over the Oquirrhs, the moon
I run toward breathing
Hard in my lungs, though already
It is fading into the fading blue.
What to Pray for [p.27]
Once I folded hands and said the old words,
So intimate, except in speaking to God,
A conversation that turned them into gems,
Hard and colorless. If now I recall the posture,
It is the same motion that causes me
To collect words for prayer: the word itself
Gathers the associations of hours
Spent on knees talking to bedsheets and
Listening for voices, hands clenched in one fist.
Hearing instead the speech of heartbeat, of
Breath in and breath out, the stroke
Of the slow blood swimming back to the left side.
At night I might still kneel, hear that wordless
Reiteration; but always I make words
For the things I pray for: the empty spaces on maps,
Envelopes postmarked Huntsville or Fairbanks,
A letter with a ptarmigan feather in it,
And the story of the dull bird careening flat
Into the window of a friend’s house.
For the flat planes of the mountain mined
Open, oxidizing into the colors of copper,
And the gathering of water into rivers,
The spilling of spring floods. For the opening
Of doors in summer, the dust accumulating
[p.28] Quietly on the piano. For the ripening and rotting
Of apricots, a night without sleep,
A morning too early. For the intelligence
Of the body even in decay, fingers that turn
The tap in exact calibrations to water the lawn.
For the thickening of breast and belly, a name
For the coming child, and these words of prayer
That sing all night in my veins.