Poems by Lisa Orme Bickmore

T h e    S w a n    B r o t h e r s

The Messenger [p.49]

He was not asleep when I came to his camp.
Thinking about the droves of goats, no doubt,
The sheep, camels, cattle, and asses he had sent
To his brother, the gift preceding the bearer
To sweeten, he hoped, the bitter taste
Still lingering with the other over the business
Of the birthright, the pottage, the father’s blessing.
He always was a clever man. The sleeping dogs
Stirred but didn’t wake; and in the wind’s drone
He did not hear me slide under the tent flaps.
I pinned him fast, an arm around his neck;
Another holding his elbows tight behind his back.

The hot fear heaved in his lungs, and he could not
Speak; but then the smart desert man’s body
Began its twisting and slipping. He knew
All the ways to make himself awkward: and so
We wrestled there until the break of day,
When I cried, “Let me go, for God’s sake!”

“Not until you bless me, whoever you are,
Coming into my tent and grappling with me till
The life’s nearly gone and my thigh’s out of joint!”

[p.50] I’d wrestled his kind before, and pinned them flat,
I almost wanted to try again; but I had no more
Strength for wrestling. I could hear the women
Stirring in their tents; soon they’d be brewing
Their bitter tea to break the night’s fast.
He told me his name after we broke apart,
I offered my blessing: I gave him the name
He asked for, the name whose long story would hold
Not only Abraham and Isaac, but among them
Reckon Leah, and Esau, the sons of Ishmael—
All the marginal ones, cast out, or lost,
Not favored.

I left him there on the blankets
His had cast down: He would break bread
With his wives,and then go to meet Esau,
Trembling, bearing the burden of God’s name.
The brothers would embrace, Esau falling
On Israel’s neck, kissing him, weeping.

In the Morning of Time [p.51]

All the night before, my sleep was green,
Scented by the odor that by day
I smell everywhere, as bitter and as beautiful
As the light that opened me to the new world,
The world to its new brilliance.
I had not imagined it would be already
This riot of plant, this chaos heavy
With scent and seed and flower.
Now I spend my days with the spike-leaved
Dandelion, the yellow corona exploding
Into a haze of seed, and the twine
Of the morning glory, its mournful
Hearts for leaves, the pale ruffle of its flower.

That first day I didn’t see their life
Underground, how I’d have to seize
The flat circles of leaves and twist till
The ground broke and gave up the root
Like a fat bleached carrot. Or how
The white morning glory root teemed
Without light, turning, turning, restless
To open into air, leaf, flower. We were
Once so sure that we could name
Plants and animals–one would sway in wind,
Another leap, or crawl; but now I am rooted
To this field, my hands green with the weeds,
And everywhere the roots, lithe
Underground. This was for our sake:

That the weeds break the earth,
Crumbling into this new life.

Immigrant [p.52]

On this spring evening, Mr. Nguyen,
I watch you watching your sprinkler
Wreathing circles of sibilant rain in its orbit,
The necessary water for this dry country.
You saw me walking early in the twilight,
Smiled your broad grin to say hello;
It is as much as we can do. We do not speak
The same tongue, though we know enough
To pass as neighbors.

It is later now,
The moon not yet high enough to cast
Its sheen of light upon the lawn.
Though you can likely see me
Sitting here on my porch, watching
You and your water, you do not smile
This time, or wave. You are deep
In the orange tip of your cigarette,
Its slight curl of smoke. The country
You left is green, from leaf to stem
To ground—even the blackening light
Of the moon leaves the shimmer
Of the green patina. Here you must arrange
Your family to fit into the narrow shade
Of the summer’s lone poplar tree,
Its leaves glittering in the afternoon sun.
In this dry country the green labors
For its place, it must be coaxed,
It must be fed the vital water.
It is a ritual you have been forced to learn,
The spring-and-summer tending of the dry
Earth; but now you are father of this lot
Of thirsty land, you smoke your cigarette
And let the smoke curl up,
The transient proprietary sign.

Francesca [p.53]

” … quel giorno piu non vi leggemo avante.”
—Inferno V.138

In those days, love, love, love was all my song.
Now I speak to you, one of the dead, who cannot sing,

Except the thin thread of a cry rent, endlessly, from my throat.
In those days, when my love called me, softly, I would go,

My feet swift and light, the pulse fast in my veins.
How wonderful, the body so fleet, almost without weight:

And now, I long for that body, but slower, a steady hand
On the reins, and not this weightless whirling devil’s dance.

Before we coupled, before desire seized us in its grip,
Before we secretly read the romance, the book in my lap,

His hand turning the pages … before all this, what was there?
I have forgotten, though memory’s a curse here—

The moment, the moment, that was all we cared for, and it seemed
To last eternally, until the moment passed: then that fierce dream—

The longing for more moments. Fools that we were, we cast
Away the future as dross, and blotted out the past:

As lovers of a story, you’d think we’d not forget the strength
Of past, present, future, and the force of events that stretch

Along that passage. Here, of course, the moment is eternal.
In the book of life, we read birth and youth, then death, the diurnal

Round that predicts rise, glory, decline,and fall. Here the rule’s
Desire and desire, the wind that propels the dance of love’s fools.

The Snow Queen [p.54]


First of November, and an early snow. An eerie
Morning, the snow casting

Its alternate light, as if itself luminous.
Under a cold sky, I take the shears

To lop the last roses, the blooms edged in ice,
And I turn and almost see her, a near miss,

Since she had just left her cold signature.
Only two days ago all the flowers were singing

Their irrelevant songs: the blowsy cosmos, I
Am tall, taller than all; sweet pea vine, I

Twine among the taller flowers, but my habit
Is fragrance; calliopsis, I am the sun, see

My ragged rays. But she has made them
To lie down, their cacophonous chorus quieted.

One hears them, reclining, their faint narcissistic
Complaint. But the lips of the roses are frozen shut.

2. [p.55]

I know the flowers don’t sing, and yet, among words
Some of the most tuneful I know are names
For flowers. The boy and the girl thought so,

Under the verdure, the bower of roses under which
They sat, with their little book, naming the flora
And fauna of their beautiful world. The shard

Of ice that invaded his eye turned him from
Their green book to the hard face of a frozen woman:
Dante heard her too, in stony rhymes, that

Woman who makes men spell out
ETERNITY in fragments of ice. The girl wanted to stay
Under the roses, suffused with fragrance, and the light

That seeped down through the filter of leaves. But the ice
Had worked its way to he boy’s heart now, so infatuated
He had become with the Snow Queen, and so the girl must go.

3. [p.56]

Why must she go? The fragment
Was not hers, her eye remained

Uninfected, and she wanted to stay
There, with her book, the flowers,

That impossibly kind light—
But the boy had jeered at her,

And mocked their “nature” as
A book for girls. He preferred

His cold puzzle, assembling
And disassembling, while his

Heart froze and his hands
Darkened, blue with cold.

And the girl ran northward,
Barefoot, carrying the sympathetic sun

As if it were the very blood that hastened her
Onward, that blood that would heal him.

4. [p.57]

My garden is not like the one in which Gerda tarried—
We are well past first frost, and it is too late

For tarrying, or for beginning any mission
Of rescue. I can almost imagine, or remember,

The full round day of summer: and then
I think I might be that girl, my garden

Emblem and effect of nature; that these
Flowers come up from under to redeem something,

To publish their idiot songs, noise their chorus
Of color. In November, how easy to dismiss that

Chorus, to forget how persuasive are color and song,
How they include one in wave on wave of

Opening and blooming and fading and dying.
In the palace of ice, that sympathetic garden

Must come to mean everything, figured so
Irresistibly as a girl whose tears and embrace

Might thaw the hard sky, yield the sun;
Might melt the coldest eternal prison.

5. [p.58]

Tears and an embrace:
How these opened the pair
Back into the wide redeemed world
Where was no winter,

But only water and sun,

Where the roses sang an
Autonomous soothing song—
I am red, I am blood, I
Am nature, the feminine;

If I choose, I shall open

Myself and heal you
As the boy became man,
The girl a woman, it was a song
Whose meaning was made plain.

The Swan Brothers [p.59]

for Richard Howard

Some nights in bed, when no one needs my speech
Or listens, I remember myself, a girl
On the sand at seas edge, and the first time
I saw them fly: birds at sunset falling
Toward me, white bodies in a free plummet,
The sun’s swift slide racing to the horizon.

This was, I think, the best time for us—
For a moment simply eleven swans, then
The tall bodies of my eleven brothers,
Recognition and the clamor of family.
I woke from that dream with a nettle
In my hand, with silence my habit.

And my brothers watched me nights, crushing
Nettles to flax, spinning thread, weaving
Cloth. They too were silent, as if
They were voiceless birds still, and labor
Conversation enough. The youngest wept
On my hands and feet, blistered from gathering

And crushing nettles. My silence kept us
Each night, the lull of the wheel in our sleep,
Unbroken by any word. Morning woke me
To the rush of so many wings. I was not
Surprised by the king’s coming—a neighbor—
Of course I went with him, and he would keep me:

[p.60] To him I was mystery, woman weaving,
Woman without words. It was like that
At first, he would listen to the loom
Watching me as my brothers did, who now
Were flying everywhere; but my silence
Made him uneasy. So that when he saw me

Going nights to the churchyard to gather
Nettles, it was too much: when I returned
The still graves must have shadowed me, and
He turned away. I sewed the last shirt
In a mule-drawn cart on my way to be burned.
My hands stitched a straight sentence:

My brothers beat down around me, and I
Threw the shirts over the birds with a cry,
Making them into men. By now not used
To words, I fell faint, and they told story.
My story: I live with it now as with a scar,
Another lasting estrangement, like the wing

Of my youngest brother, whose shirt had no
Left sleeve—there was no time to finish.
He has lived with me all the years since,
And we never speak of it, nor of why
I turn to him when we sit in silence,
As the night folds close to the windows.

The sea’s heavings, before moonrise,
Remind me of my brothers’ first falling
Toward me, toward where I always stood,
Arms open, calling to them; and of how
They fell to their sister, as if what I said,
Or failed to say, might save them.