on keeping things small
Poems by Marilyn Bushman-Carlton



Like my sister and me, they connected
early, shared easily,
my daughters,
learned partnership of press and pull.
Their fingers fused against the rest.
Colored the same—
eyes, brows, lashes, hair,
skin browning quickly in the sun—
sharing love of song and story,
the same grit,
their early seams seemed invisible,
same cloth.

Caught in the curve,
in the brag and brood of bloom,
the oldest pulled ahead,
folded in,
keeping the sparkle and depth from her chatter,
unlike my sister and I
who’d talked each other through
like rescuers coaxing a child
caught deep in a well.
A season late, the younger followed,
equally solitary,
she, too, tight as a fitted sheet.

Now they jaw on the phone,
share letters, advise and confess over lunch,
recall secrets, codes.

I remember
watching laundry dry in the sun. The sleeves
of the blouses my sister and I shared
sometimes tangled,
or flapped and flew alone.

[p.46]Wild Trio

All the emotions of the hu-
man spirit
are coined into song.
—John Wesley Powell

Music pours from the adjoining rooms
of three sons—
the electric guitar twangs, whines,
bellows a massive beat.
I know his pose—relaxed,
chair tipped to two legs,
shoulders sloping to the sound.

The youngest bangs his drums
with each determined limb,
the ponderous throb
energetic as his breaking
from boy to man.

In the middle room, the middle son competes,
violin tucked beneath his chin,
quivering, sawing.
The polished piece belies the work,
no less vigorous than his brothers’,
conceals the storms of seventeen.

Ah, melodious pose of daily life.
Three sons, three dialects.
All from the same first lessons.
Same piano.

[p.47]Geese on Mill Creek in February

So this is winter white!
Plush batting
of snow
folds into the edges

of the ebony creek,
sets off
five milkwhite geese
curving smiles

beneath them
on winter water.
I can’t recall
a colder,

or a warmer,
With down on their backs,

the hearts
within their breasts,
the tops of their heads

from weather,
they are cozy
as folks by a fire.
Tell me,

is this cloud
in the air
stencilled by cold

or smoke
from the flame
of their
blazing orange beaks?

[p.48]on keeping things small

though i know
planting a terrarium
has something to do
with suppression     i allow
myself to wallow
to delight in the sun
of my power to create
build    permit life

fear necessitates
deliberate placement
of each similar
shade-tolerant two-inch
sprig of green
(one red for variety)
in this carefully planned
environment:    a pyramid
of gravel    charcoal    treated
soil    a little water

it takes work
to make plants think they thrive,
to make them lace and perk
a consistent sprinkling
to hide telltale wilting

overachievers must be pruned
anxious leafing
reduced to colorspots
small enough to position
reposition if necessary

this is no place for lush plants
whose large leaves cast shadows

even now brazen greens
press against containment

[p.49]Woman Bathing

And if awoman have an issue [of blood],
she shall be put apart seven days:
and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean
—Leviticus 15:19

She performs the persistent ritual
of cleansing,
the splashing of water
upon her scarlet flesh,
sullied with blood,
to expunge the sins
the fathers shout.

Can she wash away
the distorted reflection,
the accusing leather-bound memorabilia,
she sees in the water lent,
rancid water
pooled in stained basins,
colored with jaundiced eye?

[p.50]The Pulpit

A last bastion,
the pulpit. Prominent
among muscular box shapes;
fenced off and jutting skyward
like a miniature city;
elevated by just enough steps.

clean as boiled water;
tailored as a missionary.
An invitation is required
to lean there.
One must be
as professional as a seminar,
as navy blue as midnight.

But don’t think
anything feminine is missing.
Notice the milkvase
with seasonal flowers,
the flowers stiffened with spritz.
Petals detach
and lie,
reverently wilted.


Let’s begin again. Same garden.
Eve is a natural in Eden,
claret cheeks,
hair lacy as ferns,
a green thumb.
God says to eat freely,
but a certain apple tree is

Eve gets lonely.
Her appetite is tiny.
God sympathizes,
sends animals of all kinds.
She thinks up names: rhinoceros, armadillo,
penguin, yellow-bellied sapsucker.

While Eve naps,
God takes her hip bone, makes man.
He is good company,
and an asset,
can reach the high peaches, trim hedges,
his biceps like new squash
useful for carting off pruned limbs.

One day while the man is exploring alone,
a herpent,
wearing a blue pin-striped suit,
a high heel, gold chain,
loiters near the apple tree.
Every scale in place.

The herpent patronizes man
(he’s used to it):
One bite and you’ll be wise.
Trust me.

Knowledge is appealing.
Eve already got to name the animals.

[p.52]He eats,
sets a flaxen wedge on lettuce,
convinces Eve to join him.
They realize they’re naked,
hide behind a lilac bush.
God questions the woman flrst.
She nudges the man forward.
The herpent is made to crawl on her belly.

As for the man:
It won’t be easy to be a father,
your babies will cry in the night,
your teenagers will talk back.
Woman will be head honcho,
both at horne and in the community.
You’ll desire her more than food.

[p.53]“Lydia Reading in a Garden”

—a painting by Mary Cassatt

Cassatt centered Lydia in a garden
and dressed her down in muted white
where, immersed in reading the news,
she completely fills the space
carved within riotous bloom
and owns the sun
which dusts her face with morning

No feigned adoration
nor eyes pleading
nor naked flesh
hung gratuitously on canvas

Cassatt understood
what her brother painters could not

it is enough
to be woman

[p.54]Wonder Woman


Insert a token
In this wonder called woman

Drop in an orchid
Take out a garden

Kiss her cheek
Pull out a family
A satisfied customer

Pour in perfume powder
Gather a lap     lips     a frill

Turn down the volume
She melts to back-row applause

Turn it up
She swells     sings

Yeast and cover
She germinates     waits     rises as food

Position her     bend arms     legs     tilt head
She is a talking     walking     miracle

Seldom spurts     spits     breaks     squeaks
Self-contained as an earthworm
Seasonless     necessary as liquid

Plink      plink      plink

No ungainly evidence pits her exterior
Her shining walls
Her smooth switches


We’ve circled back.
With color seeping from our cheeks and hair,
being that couple we once were,
just the two of us,
seems again a possibility.
September is knowing we can’t return;
it is not wishing to.
We move enriched by five sprigs
remarkably like us,
and never farther than their daily news.
Like a checker kinged,
we order the same meals at restaurants,
prefer violin concertos,
revive in green scenery.
charge up with deep talks,
mental sparring—
the good list
outweighing what we cannot change,
and growing.
Some say September signals the end,
we slow because our bodies do.
We’ve learned that pausing helps us see.
We bend toward, and cherish,
the few things we’re sure of.
What moves me now
is not the quick, impatient energy
that started us,
but sure moments:
your easy I love you to a son,
your tears at a daughter’s leaving.
It is affirmation in your eyes,
the antics of your mind,
your understanding
when even I cannot explain.

And postscripts:
your smell, the soothing ritual
of peppermint lotion on my feet,
the hope of winter
with you.

[p.56]Mount Olympus in September

With centuries of concern
carved in your
tomato-colored face,
you hug the cribbed valley
dappled with people
similar as cousins,
tight as sisters.

Within splayed arms,
aspens bend
on pole-vault limbs.
a spray of paper green
rattles an entertaining
puppet’s dance.

A pool of halcyon sky
blankets with blue canopy,
and the shimmering
desert sun
throbs heavy as brass
over indulgent
last blooming.

[p.57]November 1st

Nearly naked scrub oak signal November,
that gray pause
between autumn paint
and the promise of winter.
Midway into my morning run
I reach the hilltop
as the sun crests Mount Olympus.
Her long shadows repeat the grays,
deepen tired golds.
Suddenly, a quick cut of blue.
Delicate as dancers’ fans, the wings
dip inches from my shoulder,
sweep to a target
of broken Halloween pumpkin
smashed on a rug of tawny leaves.
Filling its dark sleek beak
with seedy entrails,
the jay vanishes into a nearby pine
as quickly as it came.

[p.58]Worth Keeping

Jari records her life in journals.
Already the assorted stack, uneven
steps to 20, reaches her knee.
The earliest—ordinary writing tablets,
steno notebooks, yellow legal pads—
are trimmed with stickers.
Three-ring binders and pocket-size diaries
have clues scribbled on the covers:
Jeff is Cool. I love Michael Jackson.
JLC & CH. Compact journals
with daisies on the covers,
and the most recent, a black Franklin,
look forbidden, private as a honeymoon.

Each is a friend kept
from a certain neighborhood or school,
each recalls a singular time. If
I were allowed to look inside, I know
I’d find her spare, elusive parts
pressed in pages that listened long and well.
Her hands, still small enough to cup inside my own,
write and write and write her life,
each point, each malleable vein and stem.
One of the lucky ones,
she knows
a story should be saved.

[p.59]While I Wait

Many times I watched
his thick hands touch the soil,
take a fistful,
hold it in his palm,
press it with a fingertip,
pinch, smell, even taste it
with the tip of his tongue.

Anxious for green,
he’d check the sunken spaces
where he’d sown the seeds.
He’d watch his fields,
gaze up and down each row,
slowing the car
each time he came or left.

Now my hands are his.
The one who hated the farm.
The one who chose to live where blocks are square
and sidewalked, where small lots
are filled with houses,
not crops, animals, dirt.

Today, geraniums.
I like the planting,
the safe time after frost. I scoop soil
and the smell of irrigated fields
from a plastic bag,
loosen seedlings at the roots,
cradle and tuck each into the earth.

While I wait
for red and white blossoms
to multiply and spill,
I think of Father.

Each time I come,
I slow my car and watch,
convinced it helps the plants to grow.

[p.60]Poem to Read in November

The last week of February, snow
all morning
dense and pale as blossoms,
a choreography
outside my windows,
lifting my busy mood.
A first blessing.

The second,
birds, everywhere birds, counter-
choreography, flurries
in shades of ink.
Birds cavort, tumble,
sprint in mass
back and forth from cotton boughs
to cordial branches,
their fat painted breasts

Afternoon brings more and more
blessings, sun,
its weave
among the washed and warbling birds,
its bath of warm
spilling promise.
The sounds
of late winter