on keeping things small
Poems by Marilyn Bushman-Carlton


[p.25]Bathing a Child

Elbow-deep in shallow water
with porcelain pressed against my breast
I dragged the sudsy washcloth
over your squirming body
your soft flesh
lost in the groan of my folded knees
hard upon the bathroom floor.

Always you emerged
powder-fresh and dry
and finally learned to do the task

Now soaking
as soap glides over my seasoned skin
scrubbing my memory
I feel the supple pink you were
like December recollection of roses.

[p.26]The Second Time I Held You

the bright lights had simmered
to indecisive March daylight.
You were newly swaddled
in a blanket of gauze,
had absorbed the antiseptic smell
of the birthing room.
Your skin had purchased an ecru tint,
your eyes had grayed.
After the pronouncement
that all ten fingers and toes
were accounted for,
that the tiny features of your face
were beautiful,
I didn’t notice the arid echo
in the otherwise vigorous cry
that announced your coming,
the sound that made me hold you
the second time
like I think I might hold
a leaf-thin
delicately laced
crystal heirloom.

[p.27]Violin Duet

Today we are merely spectators,
daughter, son,
watching outcomes of resolutions
born from our own
early struggles to blend.
Before the changes of voice and figure,
you were less clearly perceived.
Either of you might lead
an army of green soldiers
or smooth covers over your dolls
dressed for sleep.
Now emerged into a wide ensemble
of players,
you surface with feathered edges.
Sometimes your arms,
strong from arcing hoop shots
of steering ten-speeds,
force thunder from the strings.
Sometimes we hear the sound
of staccato raindrops
born of dreaming soft things.

[p.28]Remembering Teeth

(for J. and J.)

The task to brush your teeth was mine
until each of you was four or five.
An intimate sharing,
your opening wide, letting me in,
my bristly tool brushing away particles
from the pink tunnels of your mouths,
with icy zip of peppermint, the tiny
white-as-pomegranate-seed teeth.
Sometimes your jaws must have ached
at my thoroughness,
yet you tilted trusting faces
like black-eyed Susans
seeking sun.

Long gone, paid for,
a few preserved in folded envelopes—
your first teeth have been displaced
by bigger, firmer pearls.
Filling one-time gaps in your mouths,
the permanents are fences
set in place to guard your rumblings,
cage explosions.

I wish there were a household tool,
one designed especially
to help me lift those gates,
to coax your stingy words.
Some days now
I barely see your teeth.

[p.29]Oldest Daughter, Oldest Son

At these moments, we must let them go,
a flat world at the curve
of each new road.

Today he keeps his father and me near
a little ionger,
the one who, since junior high,
struggled for air like a drowning man.
In a college dorm, the three of us empty
his suitcase and boxes,
fill shelves and drawers,
talk away tremors on his upper lip.

One other time saying goodbye was this hard.
She couldn’t eat for days before,
unpacked and repacked her suitcase
dozens of times,
finally leaving for her first summer camp.
Already she’d been first
to be left with others,
first scout into kindergarten,
first to stand naked
in the seventh grade showers.

No one would say it is easy
for the others, but they walk in a world
where lanterns are lit before them,
where embers glow in the grate.
They wear the thin armor
of their older sisters’, older brothers’

[p.30]Claret Wood

After his first love
didn’t love him anymore,
Jacob shut his bedroom door,
and shut his heart, and hardly spoke
for almost his whole eighth grade year.
What we heard was his listening—
the delicate music of strings
under the door, the dark,
a woeful, trembling sound.
And then the volume swelled
until it filled the space he wallowed in,
and brought him out.
He dusted off the violin
he’d only liked before,
and held it tenderly, guarded
as a father holds his own first infant
When he brought the bow across the strings,
the hard work of the year
rose and bled from its claret wood
like beads of sweat.

[p.31]Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.5
in A Major

Good child, he takes the method books,
ascends, descends the scales.

One day he hears a familiar voice,
a tune from another life.
The music eats him whole,
turns him inside out,
becomes a voice to find himself,
and save himself,
something more important
than hunger.

Tonight his father and I see and hear,
Everything we know of him
spills from the wood
he wears like skin—
balance, explosion,
each deep-throated ache,
sky that spells his life.

In a room of hundreds
we are closer, even,
than blood.

[p.32]There are No Words

For faces of children with swollen bellies.
For the dark cave cut by harsh words
or weight of hand. For emptiness a lost
loved one leaves.

No words for reverence in a canyon—alone,
black earth and pine. For peace.
To tell of milk-tipped water poppling
in a mountain creek.

There are no words for gift of tulips
parting snow. For my friend’s listening eyes.
My daughter’s laugh.

No words to describe one’s hope of heaven,
to share a moment spent inside.
Threads to God-giving birth,
watching death.

There are no words for pain that gathers
in the throat. For glad release of tears.
No words as opulent as August stars.

But there is the violin.

[p.33]Letter from Home

(for Christian)

Picture yourself
the day after your first roller coaster ride,
your legs no longer than a man’s foot.

You found cardboard, scissors, tape.
Like the traveler
whose vision of Russian ice slides
became that wooden ride,
the light you saw was bright enough
to cover, curve, and hill
the living room rug.

From your end of the tunnel, that light
is a dull glint;
your grief-clock ticks
a reminder of time ahead.
You cannot see that pencil-point of promise,
know only that the hill is hard.

Remember, son, that day in June
when wind rushed swift to cool your face
after the long and dreadful climb.

[p.34]Voluntary Poverty

Justin steps into January
with would-be icicles dripping
from the tips of his hair,
a backward cap covering his soggy crown.
Sixteen, he is trying to master
the poverty look he sees on the news.
Homelessness beckons—
a brave, romantic adventure.
The chores of finding daily food and a roof—
wilderness experiences in the city.
Disease is a short rest from classes
and from his job sweeping floors after school.
Have a good day, I say
and watch as he walks away,
the crotch of his X-tra Large pants swinging
between the clothespins of his knees,
the waist nearly a foot south
and cinched like a knapsack.


Smelling of my lotion
you spill into the room
swinging a placard
scribbled with tall words
that might have been composed by me.
I picture a cartoon of mother and daughter,
mouths sharing the same bubble.

Though parts of you still lodge in shadows,
we’ve come a long way, flayed
the veneer that pegged you “daddy’s girl”
(hair, like his, brown as the canyon floor,
eyes big as chestnuts). Flesh
to flesh, we color different
squares of the Clarion charts.

Credit, at least in part, the rocking chair
that bound us as we sang and traveled
(the two of us players)
in worlds inside your Golden Books
and beyond:
we saw Paris with Madeleine,
sang that girls can be anything at all
(except dads and grandpas),
sniffed chocolate and lilacs,
ate bread with the Little Red Hen.

I recognize you now,
your hand familiar in the dark,
the fit of linked fingers.
I love what I can count on.
The rest is surprise—
daffodils in snow.

[p.36]I Would Know Them Anywhere

It runs through each of my children,
indelible as blood in the veins,
or its set stain,
the shyness I’ve hated in myself,
the shyness I see
in my seventy-four-year-old father.
Other traits I passed on comfortably—
brown eyes (to three of them),
slim feet (to a different three), bone
structure (to two), even the stubborn
self-sufficiency (to one, in particular).
But this—this attitude
of shunning the light,
of keeping pieces of the self enclosed—
is present in all of them,
despite the mixing of my genes
with their father’s, who isn’t shy.
I stand back, observe
how they perform, uneasily—
their violin solos, their parts in the band,
their sports—how they struggle
to share their thoughts in a crowd.
I understand them,
would know them anywhere.
I accept this quiet vein, even cherish
what marks them well,
that which fuses them sisters and brothers,
blood of my blood.


She calls, or I do.
She asks how to adjust a high altitude recipe,
I need a copy of her pasta sauce,
she tells me her brother wrote,
she passed her anatomy exam.
I say it’s quiet here,
ask where she gets groceries,
if she went to church.
Her father, the practical.
sees decimals,
pictures himself in debtor’s court,
says our topics are trivial.
I think of those TV shows
where the hoodlums hold a daughter ransom,
call and tell the parents
where to leave the bag of dough.
The detective’s advice is always this:
try to keep the other party
on the line long enough
to get a good connection.

[p.38]My Daughter Calls

The morning after her first night
in D.C., Jari phones.
Vomiting and diarrhea have ransacked
her sleep, necessitating a sick call
the second day of her new job.
Her battered voice describes how,
the first day, the subway map,
hoarded to her chest like treasure,
was grabbed from her hands,
how she lost her way,
ended up in a bad part of the city.

I picture my daughter,
barely 20,
with phone in hand, sitting cross-legged
on an unfamiliar bed, disheveled
from turning, and retching,
sweating the gray skins of possibility
over and over throughout the night,
and hate the miles between us,
miles blackened by crimes on women,
vivid images we both see, both evade.
This impotence I feel is not new,
just sharpened by distance.
I do what I can, dish sensible precautions
across the wires like hot soup.

When she was young,
oblivious to dangers
of traffic, glass doors,
when colors in odd bottles enticed her tongue,
I longed for the safety of her maturity,
somehow forgetting
that her body would curve
into the vulnerable mark of woman.

[p.39]Listening to “lntermezzo”*

Tell me about despair, yours,
and I will tell you mine.
—Mary Oliver

Something wanted to comfort me
in my quiet house.

Something was willing
to lend the solace of an arm,
and listen.
Not to say I’d love again,
that time would heal.
Not to coax my drawn lips up,
nor splash the false red of flowers.

Something knew I had to pry the pain apart
to feel it all,
knew this is where I had to be,
stopped in this sad city.

Happy to hear the story of my life,
the music let me lay my head upon its pillow,
accompanied my thundering heart;
drew a dozen bows across my tears.

It understood
I had to swim through rain
to be truly human,

to be able to put back together
the dark and shapeless air.

*from Pietro Mascagni’s opera, Cavalleria Rusticana

[p.40]When the Rhythm Gets Red

Behind the drums
he knows who he is,
his wrists are loose, his fingers
and hands at ease
pitching the wooden sticks.

Almost fifteen,
Justin slips in and out of manhood,
the echo of youth in his ears,
mystery of men towering at every turn.
He smiles less, rations
his words, hoards affection.

Something happens
in the red and silver circle of his drums.
Four lean limbs,
each managing a different rhythm,
prominent veins, prime muscles
that swell with the work of the beat—
each wears the pleased growth of dark hair,
the steely glister of sweat.

After practice, after the fever subsides,
the cymbals and heads wear new wounds,
his sticks lie beaten and worn.
Already he knows a male way
of letting go—in gushes
and great force.

[p.41]Alisa Leaves for Medical School

What would Grandmother think,
my sending a daughter off
the way she sent hers to Salt Lake
with only a battered trunk
and what she’d learned from a small town?
What would she say, a daughter flying
over the puzzle of states
she, too, studied in school,
their women’s lives lost
in histories logged by men?
What advice would Mother give?

My daughter leaves, not tucked
in the rib of a husband’s hopes,
but chasing her own,
less-accustomed dream.

I rearrange the furniture,
shift the bed near a sunny window,
re-pot the schefflera.

Grandmother and Mother must have done this, too,
not so much to utilize the empty space,
but more to camouflage it—
the way the picky eater moves unwanted food
around her big white plate,
shifting this and that
to fool the eye.