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Poet's Sampler: Robyn Selman

A friend of mine, a poet, once said that poems will be read as long as they keep giving pleasure. If that's true -- and I hope it is -- then Robyn Selman's poems are sure to have a healthy survival rate. They're such fun! I don't mean they're lightweight or trivial. She's too consistently alert to the sorrows and ephemerality of existence, to the pain behind or beneath family relationships and sexuality and sociability (some of her best subjects). Yet her poems are so inventive, so full of surprises, so refreshing (they seem to refresh themselves -- in language and incident -- as they go along), they don't need to indulge in false sentiment, self-pity, or melodrama. Selman is a comic writer in the deepest sense -- her poems feel (they don't just observe) the world's absurdities, they let the reader experience what it's like to live in such a world, and they refuse to simplify. As long as Robyn Selman keeps her wit about her, maintains her balance among her slippery shifting perspectives, her senses of humorousness, people who discover her work will remain impatient for more.

--Lloyd Schwartz

Poems by Poet

New Language This Meaning

Bullet Train to Mecca

Directions to My House

Amazing Feats of Strength

New Language This Meaning

Day: an open palm. Morning: a nut cupped
in a fist. Overgrown grass throws shadows,
like days in a row, across the square lawn.
Days are numbered here in this July

of minutes. Take them. Take the river
that stops and starts a few times a day,
the truck that can't take the hill so it's parked
down below and I walk. I need aspirin

and a two-day supply of cigarettes.
All four tires are low, I pump them up
with the help of James at Texaco.
The errand takes most of the morning.

Did you see the colt nuzzling the saw grass
stacked like bread or miles of gold fence?
We could have driven these same roads, moonlit,
after drinks in Cafe 1906.

Clay roads rainbowed behind us. Special dust.
Instead, what to hold in the palm of lunch?
A stone house I imagine we live in?
Whether or not to strip the beds. All night

I waited for the three o'clock train
to wake me. I lay awake. Afternoon
drive to the library. Curtains blow through
roadside windows. Flags, but not flags, really.

Because the side of the road is nobody's.
Or the side of the road is everyone's,
where we all blow, fragile and flailing.
A group of bathers floats by -- rafts, canoes,

tubes, one for everyone I miss --
their voices swinging in the air.
Not that we can communicate through
this wind, not that we can make out a word,

still, sending my love, I wave. It's a whole
new language, this meaning with green
and a river flowing toward me and on.
That tree with one branch is tired

of reaching. Today's sun is gone.
Whatever we need recedes. Eventually.
Dear ones, I'm sorry for mixing your dawn
and my dusk. Sorry for turning our

river from green to gray, our sky
from a light house to a dark one.
Until daybreak I'll wade this darkness through.
It's time to turn the porchlight on. I do.

Bullet Train to Mecca

Armed with the Times, two donuts: New York empty
on a Sunday morning as an empty hat.
My mother's ill. I'm scared of airplanes. And though,

it's groundless, I'm scared of Amtrak less. Courage
is a ticket on the nine-o-six thumped full
of holes by Porter Malcolm. There's a delay
in Penn Station.

Something's rusted my Lord, kumbaya. While we're
waiting, hello Sophie's wrinkles in the next
cabin. She's eighty -- that's Ruth, my mother's age.
Sophie notes the books

I'm carrying. She approves! (Ruth says reading
makes you crazy.) Lurch, lumber, we're on our way.
Sign says: Ladies Day at the Jersey Clam House.
Sophie says she's game.

I'm not really. Sophie's sorry my stepmother's
ill. It's one; courage is four lampposts in
foggy Maryland air. Did I say we
passed my real mother

back in Jersey? I slept through her state
in a ball. I'd like to tell her everything.
Tell her on a flute, tell her in a fugue,
in a round, in gales,

on a harp, in a chorale, on a trombone,
on a saxophone. Tell her from Baltimore
in primary colors, Sabrina's a bitch,
is spraypainted on

the station walls. I take the artist's word for it.
My shouts and Sophie's bring Malcolm. There's a mouse
in my cabin. We move through the corridor:
my luggage, Malcolm

and me; following with my sneakers, Sophie.
By two o'clock, Odenton, I'm the daughter
of Sophie. Virginia's where I lived with a man named Ben,
Lori's still alive,

hooked only on coke then. We pass Quantico
Army Base, a pizza place Ruth's daughter swore
cured hangovers. She's sure Sophie's daughter
could make Ruth better

with hot soup, the right moves; her skirt's smooth --
the way Ruth wears hers. (Richmond is a hilltop.)
Sophie's daughter could clean Virginia's dirty
water, heal trees

that lightning broke, tilt tired boats straight again.
Herposture'sgoodasanIndian's. Courage
is a cornfield, now a bus, all just south of
I'll blow your head off.

Remember that girl in school who smoked bad dope
and lay down on the tracks? North Carolina's
her severed leg. No time to mourn though. Malcolm's
back: passengers for

Sparta grab your coats and hats. My mother's ill.
Sophie's daughter's listening to Sophie, who's
rattling on about the Bullet Trains the French have.
They're laying track

from the desert to Mecca for the pilgrims,
she says. Ruth's girl wants Sophie to take a nap.
She lays an Amtrak blanket across her lap.
New Jersey's daughter

tries crawling in with Sophie. Ruth's daughter holds
her back. Seven shades of green in a long green
field. Yellow jutting out like arrow from bow.
Sophie's daughter's starved,

but won't eat without her mother. Ruth's daughter is
never hungry. She's pacing the corridors
through four hours of Florida oranges.
Now Sophie's awake.

New Jersey's complaining of a stomach ache.
Sophie's daughter's cleaning the cabin. Ruth's girl
says that's Malcolm's job. Sophie says Ruth's girl rides
everyone too hard.

Malcolm announces we've arrived in
Miami. His mother's ill. Ruth's daughter ties
Jersey's shoes. Sophie's daughter gets Sophie packed.
Malcolm comes around

to carry the bags. Jersey shouts, look at that:
Sophie's husband waits beside his Cadillac.
We all wave goodbye to our mothers and our
mothers all wave back.

Directions to My House

I spent the afternoon traveling by bus.
First in a rear seat, then, nearing my stop,
I moved up front behind the driver,
my face three times in as many mirrors.

On another bus, three years before,
from Port Authority to Bucks County,
I read that a friend's book had appeared.
She called it The Bus Home.

I wished the bus I was on would lead
to my own. Beside me, though an aisle
apart, a soldier in dress uniform
sprawled sleeping. Under his belt he was stiff,

and I was jealous of what he dreamed.
I took that bus several times more,
then stopped when our bumpy road ended
predictably though not abruptly.

Today, in the front seat, my book ended
with old age, then death: I cried
even though the driver could see me.
The door opened and down I stepped.

I walked the mile home through rain.
The sky was dark but the trees were light
and glistening. Even through the mist
I could see the short road growing shorter.

Amazing Feats of Strength

I've seen one. When I was nine and ten
I was my stepmom's change-of-life companion.
I went with her everywhere. My father
was away working three weeks out of four.
So I was her friend -- not that we would have
chosen each other as adults or as children.
We did what she did, since she was older:
I tagged along to the beauty parlor,
then shopped for blouses at Loehman's and Saks,
riffled sale-priced cardigan sweater stacks
at Altman's where she was a veteran,
and ate small lunches at Schraffts' automat.
My sneakered feet throbbed; she never complained,
forty years my senior in four-inch slingbacks.

Once or twice, it came to her like a headache
to do something that was more my taste.
So we went to a park where I rode
the sweeping rollercoaster on my own.
Next we drove to a Burger King where she,
who ate only melon and cottage cheese,
watched me. One afternoon, on vacation
to an aunt's Florida condominium,
she walked us miles across the street
to the narrow strip of public beach.
She looked fine in her yellow one-piece.
Her pedicured toes lay lightly on the sand
with Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann.
Alone, I paddled, spit, peed and swam.

I made up games to keep myself company --
saluting gulls like John-John Kennedy.
As I stood down Castro in the bluffing waves
playing blondest-frogman sent by the CIA,
what I thought was a missile from the other side
was a sea crab clamped to my sunburned thigh.
I made things worse, launching up, splashing down.
I screamed louder when I saw the red
and orange giant's plate-wide, faceless head.
I could have fainted but I thought I'd drown.
I moaned like a foghorn when the beast released
and saw my miniature mother swim toward me.
Then she, who never did before or after,
carried us as one up the brief, fading beach.

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