I'm a poet and writer living for the past six years in the South Jersey shore area. I moved here from North Jersey in 2009 after the 2008 death of my husband William J. (Bill) Higginson, author of The Haiku Handbook, to be closer to my daughter and family. I'm a mom, grandma, and sometimes poet-teacher for the NJSCA. My work has appeared in many journals, and in twenty-some books (including chapbooks). I read at the Dodge Festival in 2010, and have enjoyed two poetry residencies at VCCA (January 2011; March 2015). Please visit my website:www.2hweb.net/penhart and my blog: http://penhart.wordpress.com
When I was a child, my father
lit a cigarette in the night
and fell back asleep,
his arm dangling over the edge,
his curled fingers holding fire.
My parents dragged his mattress to the bathtub.
Later, they pinned an old blanket, tight
around its sagging middle
where some stuffing had dissolved to soggy lumps.
For years I watched my mother
change the sheets on that burnt mattress,
smoothing them over the old blanket,
the charred hole in the striped ticking.
My mother changed the sheets on that mattress
even when cancer from three packs a day
began to burn my father's jawbone,
dissolve his soft palate;
even after surgery, when he nestled
into his new life, his body
finding the familiar hollows.
The mattress finally collapsed into itself
twenty years after he stopped smoking.
Somewhere, my father's mattress still burns,
smouldering in the dumps off the Turnpike
like those underground fires
they can't put out for years.
On my son's twenty-second birthday
we recall his birth,
how he nursed for twenty minutes,
and my engorged breasts.
My father tilts back in his chair.
Between spoonfuls of ice cream and cake
he speaks of his mother
whose breasts hardened with unused milk
when his baby sister couldn't take enough.
She asked each son
to suck out the pain.
I can see it plain as day,
my father says, closing his eyes.
I was ten years old.
We were on the back porch.
My younger brother wouldn't do it,
so I did,
I sucked out that milk.
Spit it in the dirt, my mother said.
Next day she went into town
and got a hand pump,
so she didn't need me.
Tonight, driving by a graveyard,
my headlights sweeping tombstones,
I think again of that ten-year-old
and mouthfuls of unswallowed milk
settling into the dust.
Sixteen Years beyond the Breast
Punk hairdo jutting tall,
hoop earring in his left ear,
right thumb thrust deep into his mouth,
the high school senior studies the play.
I watch the thumb slip in,
pull out, popping from the seal
of his lips, slide in again
as his index finger curves around his nose.
I study his distant gaze as he nurses
sixteen years beyond the breast,
shift to his bare ankles,
fatigue pants and flannel shirt,
and I stare at his right thumb,
out for a while,
pale and shriveled like old fruit.
-all poems from Grandmother's Milk, Singular Speech Press, 1995
©2016 Penny Harter