on keeping things small
Poems by Marilyn Bushman-Carlton


[p.3]Stone Cows

Beneath the apple tree
he fenced them in
with split twigs and baling wire,
fed them grass clippings,
gave them names,
learned the art of farming.

Now after forty-five years
of twice-a-day milkings and feedings,
sleep stripped by cows
dependent as children,
Father needs to retire.
Wiry legs that sprang him
over low fences and hay bales
bend into the four-wheeler.
He identifies each cow by number,
each wears his brand—
curved back-to-back 9’s
that look like perfect package bows.

Worry wrinkles Father’s face
already ruddied by seasons of farming,
muddies memories of his first cows,
stones gathered from Alpine Canyon Creek.
It won’t be easy for Father to sleep
when loud silence,
as still as stone,
interrupts the sunrise,
echoes from empty backyard corrals.

[4]From Wheat

… [of] the seven loaves …
[all] did eat, and were filled.
—Matthew 16:9

She turned the wheat
from Father’s bin—
amber embryos
raining loose and liquid
through her fingers—
into loaves.
Through cycles of grind, measure, sift,
rhythmic kneading by pan of hand,
they multiplied,
uniform loaves to crack and scent
the morning kitchen,
loaves to slice and send,
bread to bed her children warm at night.
Plump as her aproned stomach,
russet as her summer arms,
her Monday miracles
lined the yellow countertops
like births.

[p.5]Unsolicited Gift

There is a kind of silent permission
in an infant’s face.
Permission to gaze, uninhibited,
into virgin space
allowed, perhaps, in exchange
for the intimacy of offered breast,
trust of cradled arm.
Linger there,
where heaven hovers on the blue.     Feel
evaporation in the purr
of baby breaths.     Allow
the seduction
of taut skin,
blushed for parched and weathered
lips. Wallow
in this gift.     Save it
in the palm of your breast.


Before Father strung chicken wire
around the irrigation ditch
that split the yard,
I remember Mother, barefoot,
holding her housedress mid-thigh,
wading its quick spring waters.
From shadows of the maple
where she’d placed me, barely four,
I heard her cry the names of the twins,
my younger sister and brother
Carole     Kenneth     Carole     Kenneth
Water lapped the yellow
dandelions rimming the banks,
over and over and over
her call—
Carole     Kenneth     Carole     Kenneth
Carole     Kenneth

 [p.7]And God Made Yellow …

I wonder…
did He gather together
thousands of heavenly halos
and guide their sheen
through lightning spokes,
selecting to pierce only a scattering of things—
like a first daffodil,
canary, crookneck squash,
wedges of pineapple flesh,
grapefruit, buttercup
swallow-tailed butterfly?

I think He ordained yellow with power
to quicken
the dour
the mournful
the colorless
the friendless
the shivering
and gave it mission
to shout
into spring


Mother invited April into our bedroom
through windows wide as wings.
On the east, capped mountains
and a too-blue sky; on the south, a breeze.
We wrung rags, scrubbed walls,
and blossomed with dreams.
In spring we were rich—

someday when the crops were in,
a profit made,
Father would expand the closet, build shelves,
make a seat by the window above the front porch.
She would sew curtains with ruffles,
bedspreads to match,
braid rugs for winter floors.

Fat with possibility,
we leaned books on new shelves,
lay, legs scissored, on the windowseat.
forgot bedspreads that didn’t match,
the spill of nail polish on the dresser.

In the thin heat of an August to come,
we rode out of town with boxes
packed in the back of the truck,
waved goodbye to the clean blue walls,
empty hangers rattling the closet.

[p.9]Summer School, 1960

Supper watermelon pink on the tongue,
I meet Linda at Julian’s Drug.
Caressing bottles of Orange Crush
we mosey to Vet’s Field
where lights flood the boys’ softball game.
Yet to come are my first airplane ride,
my friend, Terry’s, death in Vietnam,
Aunt Beverly’s double mastectomy.

Beneath a sycamore we sit,
almond arms bared, jeans rolled thin
above the knees. Whispered news
Suzanne’s parents getting a divorce
falls like a third strike.

We click off all the answers:
Don’t get fat
Or sit apart in the car like old-marrieds
Never curlers or cold cream to bed
Don’t be too tired or have a headache

I take the long way home. Mrs. Smuin’s
chartreuse roses hammer my head,
children’s nine o’clock faces are dirtied,
mud oozes between their toes.
Over and over I try to twist
the melancholy mood of cricket chirr,
I want them to lighten up, to sing
It isn’t so     It isn’t so

[p.10]We Sing with Scarlet

In July when currants are fat,
my sister and I
leave early on Sunday morning,
climb the hill to Mrs. Gray’s place.

One stands guard
while the other reaches into the twisted fence
to pluck the bushes clean.

We race
as fast as horses in the north pasture,
catching occasional glimpses
of cats’ tails
as they scurry in reptilian slithers
beneath the pyracantha bushes
that hide Mrs. Gray
and her tight gray house.

We don’t slow
until we’ve crossed the tracks,
feel the sun warm our tangled hair,
and see the Stewarts’ tall white house
with its lap of yellow roses.

Safe at church
we spread across a center pew
and join, scarlet-tongued,
in “Welcome, Welcome Sabbath Morning,”
cushioning fist-sized currant nests
in just-washed Sunday pockets.

[p.11]On Sunday Nights

We children were allowed to watch
the first dance
always a jaunty number
that required the whole living room.

In stocking feet, tie slack
around his neck, Father would bow
in that mock way that hides discomfort
and extend a gallant hand to Mother.

Earlier, he was the bishop
dozing in his seat behind the pulpit.
He didn’t dance in public.

Sunday nights
after his last meeting, just as Guy Lombardo
animated the black and white TV
Father would come, untie
the apron Mother wore to supervise
our baths.

Around the floor they’d spin,
her green eyes spicy, his hand at home
in the groove of her waist.

We’d listen later from our beds
until the music grew slower, fainter.
Finally it dwindled
to nothing.


October frost starches
the geraniums their deepest reds,
a sort of last hurrah.
Breath defines itself in blue air
through wisps of smoke.
We fasten jackets,
latch windows,
shut down sprinklers. Flung-open
summer becomes vague
as a first kiss.
There is no more honeysuckle
to smell.

Nothing to do
but bunch inside
where we breathe close air
as variegated as a quilt.
Vanilia-laced wassail weaves
ribbons through the pine
as we play Scrabble by the fire.
Giblets simmer on the stove.
Chummy as socks in a drawer,
we recite well-worn stories
and wish that everyone
could be so utterly warm.


He walked me home.
Beneath my dress my legs were brittle,
the right foreign to the left
at each cold touch.
I don’t remember what we talked about,
the brightest stars, asterisks
marking details to tell my diary:
the smell of Aqua Velva,
blues of eyes and shirt,
how moonbeams mottled the pavement.
Dogs barked life in the distance.
When we reached my front porch
our hands were frozen in the same link
they’d started with.
After he left
I massaged mine under warm tap water
until my separate life
flowed through again.

[p.14]At Linda’s House

I tried not to stare
in the open door of the beer joint
on my way to Linda’s house.
The neon COORS and SCHLITZ signs
and smells of drink and tobacco
drew pictures in my head
of goings-on there in the dark—
scruffy men in dirty jeans
and week-old whiskers
sloshing beer on the bar, belching,
laughing at jokes women wouldn’t like.

Linda’s porch was a crooked grin
wrapping her big brick house.
In its shade we’d loop ropes,
toss jacks, hopscotch taws.
I liked to sit on its wide lip,
watch her sisters come and go—
sometimes barefoot, in jeans,
hems of hair wiping shoulders of shirts,
sometimes with boys,
feet pinched in heels,
hair stacked high as loaves of bread on end.

One day Linda showed me the rooms—
her parents’ at one end of the long hall,
and the sisters’
each quiet behind a closed door.
There were clothes scattered,
lipsticks, nail polish,
blue and green eyeshadows,
atomizers with bulbs to pump,
brushes with webs of hair
still warm in their clutches.

[p.15]We tried reds and pinks, tested smells,
held bras to smooth chests.
Under nylon stockings and silks
Linda touched something hard,
flat as a hand—a translucent bottle,
its aroma both sour and sweet.
Walking home, I slowed when I passed
the beer joint, listened
for soprano voices, laughs of the sisters.
I tried to imagine their porcelain arms
lifting heavy thick mugs,
sloshing the counter
with bubbly brown sin.

[p.16]Miss Wolsey

The lesson came
years after I’d sat,
my mouth and eyes capital O’s,
in seventh grade English
listening to her voice
caress the language,
watching her hands form perfect cursive
without the crutch
of solid and broken lines.
Tilting forward on chunky heels,
she couldn’t reach the upper board.
Her heart-shaped face,
bland as tweed, flushed with fire
when she recited Sam McGee,
her eyes flamed to Dickinson and Frost.
She wouldn’t accept
my I don’t knows,
encouraged me to say aloud
what she knew I knew.

Six years later
she was surprised to see me
working the cash register
at a store in a nearby city.
No, I told her, I’m not going to college.
When I earned my diploma I was forty-four.
I still recall how she walked away,
head nodding like a pendulum,
diction crisp:
What a waste. What a
waste. What
a waste.

[p.17]Dance lesson

We talk about being wives,
about being measured
by our husbands’ occupations, incomes,
mourn the disappearance
of our girlhood names.
We remember grade-school Thursdays,
how, after last recess, Mr. Beck came,
snaked electrical cords
across one end of the clean lunchroom,
taught us square-dance,
jitterbug, and waltz.

dressed in colored circle skirts,
we danced, uninhibited,
single checker pieces liquid in squares.
The boys were vague,
just backs to lend for do-si-dos,
arms to turn us under,
hands to spin us out,
our blazing skirts completing
circle after far-flung circle.

It all comes back,
each turn and twist.

Once we were young,
at ease dancing
solo …

[p.18]Today I Saw the Black Truck

rusted and discarded
behind a shed at the top of the farm,
its windows crumbled, the seat gone,
the tonnage, U18000, scribbled
by Father’s hand with a thick paintbrush,
still visible on both doors.
It says  CH  VR  L  T across the dash.

I wanted to write about the blue June Sunday,
how white sea gulls set off
the irrigated alfalfa field
like peace flags flapping over green,
about soft air, of tiny bird sounds,
insects, and the restless gestures
of horses.

I try to recall the happy times
the black truck gave—
standing in the back while Father drove,
my hair straightened by wind,
or how, pausing beneath a summer tree,
it gave us place to play,
offering its fenced bed for our table,
tea set and dolls.

But this is not about sun, nor Father,
nor how he needed this huge black truck
to haul hay, or cows, or loads of wood.
This is about a farm truck, a “family car.”
It is about Mother,
how she washed and wound four heads of hair
into neat round pincurls on Saturdays,
polished shoes, washed, starched,
ironed ruffled Sunday dresses.

It is about my brother’s white shirt,
the necessary t-shirt underneath.

[p.19] Mother carried a bucket of soapy water
outside on Saturday nights
to scrub the wide seat,
a whisk broom to sweep away the hay,
rags to erase the dust
I can hear her plea to Father
not to go through town
on the way to church in this truck
that dwarfs the cars on Main Street.

This is about Mother
in white gloves, Sunday hat,
riding to church
in the cab of a black farm truck.

[p.20]Farmer’s Wife

Sometimes quiet startles her.
Hands wrist-deep in dishwater,
she stops, listens
for the tractor’s thrum
trailing from the fields.
She strains at the kitchen window
for dust signals
rising from beneath the plow.

Sometimes silage-ripe air
breathes pictures of farmers she knows
with missing fingers, limbs;
one with a useless eye;
another smothered by an up-turned tractor.
Wiping sudsy hands on the lap of her apron,
she walks to where she knows he’ll be.
A smile, a wave,
and she returns,
finishes what she left.

Her song travels
to where he pitches hay mid-morning,
to the barn where he milks the cows.
She calls him in
with smoke from a supper chimney
and smells of slow-cooked soup.

[p.21]Because of Cows

My children cried
at the first sight of Grandpa’s cows—
their black and white faces too big,
eyes round blank baseballs,
udders hanging loose and low.

I remember cow smells,
how they leapt corral fences,
hovered over my dates at the front door,
how the cows worried Father home
from a rare vacation
for the early-morning milking.

But morning came warm
with their counted-on chorus of mooing.
Those who hate the taste of milk
should try it double-cold from Father’s milk cooler,
feel lips against the icy tin dipper.
Roast beef, gravy, butter
didn’t have to wait for Sundays.

Because of cows
there were haylofts to hide in, fences to climb.
Because of cows Father dug the well.
Its constant drip,
thin as dangling willows,
created a space at the edge of the farm,
groomed high grasses, grew shade.

There, too far away to hear sounds
of tractor and plow, Mother calling,
we cooled bare feet on mossy rocks
under gaze of cud-chewing cows.
No one could see us,
or hear us, or pass by
as we idled and wished,
so near,
yet far, far away.