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Elizabeth Kirschner: Time and Again

My father waited until lights out, then eased into me, like a dress pulled over my head, the pencil of me blunt, done. All night he worked through me, then lit a soiree of matches, quick as second hands.

    My mother ran in, grabbed me, carried me outside. By then, her thighs were charred tootsie rolls, her hair, the focus of much lightning.

    As we went out the door, the hinges screamed, like paid mourners. She kissed me, said, “Let silence be part of all that’s said.”

    I didn’t expect love to feel like this—my mother running in, gathering me up quickly, kindly, my skeleton wired. Swathed in a dirty shawl, she carried me out of the burning house, as if holding a dead pigeon.

     She set me down among petrified chicken shit, the color of violets. Her voice was crisp as a wasp as she said, “I could weep, just weep.”

      When sparks set my nightgown on fire, my mother fell on top of me, like a sack of mangoes, then rolled with me into a heavy tumble of grass and rampant weeds.

     I heard the plangent trill of crickets, saw headless fish swimming through the treetops. Everything smelled, a mucous plug.

     It was such a small space of time. My body was scorched. The horizon, full of smoke. The chimney, a dead periscope, stood unblinking as I passed out.

     When I woke up in the hospital, my skin was akin to the tissue that surrounds a pig’s broiled heart. It was split, blood-dazzled, a wry repetition of dried roses.

     I writhed in jerky undulations which lit my nerves back on fire. My eyes slid into the back of my head, slick as marbles. My bandages, slapped soap.

    My mother stood back in awe and horror, as if watching porn. Her lips frothed, whimpered, a self-soothing baby.

    The faded canary of her dress reeked of tiredness and wine as she said, “the war goes on.”

     She sat in the chair beside the bed, countered, “Sometimes we forget whether we’re animals or gods,” then smoked with the air of an immortal, her lips, slightly parted, the edges of a lake.

     We sat, quietly, listened to the flap of a blackbird’s broken wing. My mother thought of its feathers. I thought of its flight.

     “Time and again,” my mother said.

       Like the skin that came between me and my father. I thought it was a place until it burned, then it seemed rudderless.

      While he tied me to the bed, I thought of tin cans, foil, yellow raincoats, the cold eyes of a fish. His tongue tasted like a fabled statue as he said, “I’ll burn what’s left.”

     My voice, sure as trees, was steeped in no, especially when his hands went to my face as he dropped lit matches, the flames, desperate, impoverished, deemed to eat him, a sharp surprise.

     My father’s face, as he fled, looked like a diminished hostage while mine decanted into the lees of embers. The overtone, the overtone of everything was terror.

      The star face of the pinwheel popped off. Marbles jumbled in the toy box, like baby teeth. The toy box is what I wanted. To climb into while fire climbed the walls, like ivy, or the biggest story ever told, which is always about the outgrown, the never grown, or the never.

      Yes, I wanted to climb in, close it, like a sound booth, or an out-of-body shop. I wanted to be embalmed with my dolls, which held the lingering aroma of old bras, tepid semen, flattened animal crackers.

      It was the dolls I needed, dozens of them, wizened like old widows, dolls hard as my father’s shoes, the ones he walked out in, taut as canvas. Wouldn’t being in there be akin to sitting atop a heap of worries? Didn’t it smell grandmotherly, like lavender soap?

     As the fire taught the house how to surrender, the dolls, they screamed, not me, oh they screamed like ashes that smelled of church pews.

     No, their screams sounded like kitchen tiles, or a disaster that was somewhere else, until it wasn’t. 

     Oh the world failed slowly, then all at once, like a mourner draped in silk, or my mother, who carried me, like cargo, or the lilies, Lord, the lilies.


Copyright 2022 Elizabeth Kirschner

Elizabeth Kirschner’s many books include My Life as a Doll published by Autumn House. Her poems have been set to Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe. Now titled The Dichterliebe in Four Seasons, it premiered in Vienna in the fall of 2005, followed by an American debut in Boston featuring soprano Jean Danton accompanied by pianist Thomas Stumpf.

This doll was found in the ruins of a house in which the owners had died in a fire. (source: Daily Star UK)

13 comments on “Elizabeth Kirschner: Time and Again

  1. patriciarmcmillen
    October 17, 2022

    Now there’s a great illustration (and prose poem). Thanks.

    Patricia McMillen She/her @whitequeen6tova

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

  2. Lisa Zimmerman
    October 16, 2022

    When I tell my students that a poem can be about anything, this is what I mean. And oh, I am undone by this poem😭

    Like

  3. Elizabeth Kirschner
    October 15, 2022

    I want to thank you for taking the time to read this piece and to commend Michael Simms for posting it and the haunting image of the doll which, in my mind, looks like the narrator after being carried out of the burning house.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. loranneke
    October 14, 2022

    I had to get up, throw on a coat and go walk with my dog for the longest time, after reading this….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      October 14, 2022

      Yes, very powerful… I had a similar experience the first time I read it.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      October 14, 2022

      Yes, it’s difference than most of his poems, more like Neruda or Garcia-Lorca, no?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Barbara Huntington
    October 14, 2022

    No words. Powerful. Extremely sad

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Rose Mary Boehm
    October 14, 2022

    O. M. G. How were you able to write this? And so well? This piece will follow me forever.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      October 14, 2022

      Thanks, Rose Mary. I’ve been a fan of Elizabeth’s work for a long time.

      >

      Liked by 1 person

  7. melpacker
    October 14, 2022

    I’m a bit stunned. No, I’m a lot stunned. This is one of the most difficult and painful writings I have ever encountered. Even “difficult” does not convey how my heart pounds and my eyes tear as I think on it….

    Liked by 2 people

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