Barbara M. White


In memory of Lawrence Sack, M.D.

You’ll know when you’re through. At the first hour’s end, I took home
those words, stored them away to protect from fading,
brought you my own words, scattering them about like the papers

on your floor. I did not yet know the clarinet tones
of your voice would punctuate the years. Or that
your words could catch me off balance—hey, this is me

you’re talking to! I moved to the couch, heard
behind me the scritch of a pen, the scrape of a spoon
in a yogurt carton. Your conversation dwindled,

often into nothing except, we have to stop now,
our time is up, a trope you’d abandon
only for: we’ll have to talk more about that tomorrow.

Fridays, I’d rail against the garbage truck’s
ostinato invading the room. One day I began
to hear the silences curled inside my words,

to sense the weight of all I did not say.
Note by slow note, the words I sang, the chords
that hummed in me, approached each other until

I knew we were near the end of the analysis we
were composing. You were about to leave
for vacation. No matter. Time would return
to its regular pattern. We would place the finishing touches
on our work, hear our opening “hello’s” echo
in our final “good-bye’s.” Indeed—that word you intoned

like a secular amen. The future, you liked to say,
is what I can’t predict. Still I had expected
to sit up so fast at the hour’s end one more time

I’d glimpse your feet relaxing in thin, black socks.


No longer was our goal
    to build ramparts,
        dredge moats,

on the slightly darker
    strip of sand
        beyond the reach

of all but the largest waves.
    Nor to sprawl
        at water’s edge,

scoop up fiddler crabs,
    feel their tickle
        in our palms, release

them, watch their downward
    scuttle into disappearing
        holes. Nor, with limbs outstretched,

to ride the ocean in.
    Not even to wade past breakers
        to swim, keeping parallel

to shore, alert for undertow
    and men who stared
        at our young bodies.

The game now was to plunge
    into the buzzing, sand-locked
        mass of teens as if a monster

wave was curling
    above our heads and we had
        to dive to escape

its painful weight.
    Other girls knew how to parrot
        the patter that lured

but said nothing at all, knew                     
    how to sculpt their stance
        to echo one another,

knew when to respond                         
    to the bass-drum call of surf,
        the salt-drenched air,

and when to loiter
    on thirsty sand. Behind us                     
        a woman, white aproned,

still sold swirls of pink
    cotton candy. I could hear
        the faint clatter

of the buckling ride my cousin
    and I once tried.
        It had delighted me alone.  


Most vowels
go below.

How slender
the vowels, how thin
their reedy voices.

The letters
are consonants. Two
are silent.             

In this spot
I shall place
my silence.

Novels, newspapers,
street signs, leave out
the vowels.

The vowels’ crooning melodies
will disappear,
to live on in the air,
looking down.  

Picture the first Hebrew writers,
tapping their messages
into stone. Imagine their chisels
traveling slowly from right
to left.

I shall read my life
from right to left, tap
my days from right
to wrong, from backwards
to lost to nowhere.

The vav can be
a consonant or a vowel,
or both. In the Bible
the vav can change
future to past.

And yesterday I shall plunge
through foam. And the day before yesterday
I shall swim through an ayin.
Then, now, later, never,
I shall, did, may, dive deeper.

And I did, would, must,
glide to the surface, leap
like a dolphin. The music
of an alien land will sing to me.
I shall drift to shore, grasping
a vav, a most unreliable letter.      

Barbara M. White

Barbara M. White has been a featured reader in the poetry series at the Takoma Park (D.C.) Library. Her publication credits include an op-ed in The Washington Post, articles in Moment and the Washington Jewish Week, and children’s stories in World Over.



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