circle of women
Like an ambush, the forest
rose around the circled trailers.
Wooden and straight and scrubbed
to the splintered floors, they stood stilted
on tamarack and pine. The men everyday
off to the woods, the smells of heart-
rot and chain oil, the diesel breath
of machinery. And the women, in days
of long summer and snowed-in winter,
each morning rose to put on
make-up before the bacon and biscuits,
before the gooey-eyed children came
stumbling across the numbing linoleum
to lick the sweet crust of jam jars.
Men gone, children to school,
they nursed the babies and smoked
carefully. They painted their nails,
mending each tear with tissue
and glue. Siren Red and Playfully Pink
flashed like trout through the dishwater.
Wedged in highchairs, the women cut
one another’s hair, Sears models
for inspiration, and numbed their ears
with ice before piercing the lobes
with needles fire-blackened.
Denim stained their wash. Pitch
ambered their furniture. Hot mornings,
in meadows of camas and yarrow,
they tanned while brown children in the near
creek clacked stones, and cicadas
whirred away the sound of metal teeth
cutting the fir, the cedar, the very air
the women breathed. Nights, husbands
home and fed, the next day’s lunches
packed, they slept in the clean silence
of mountains. My mother, my aunts, acting
as though the men were not intruders
but the very reason, painted
and sweetened their days for greasy touches,
sweet sap kisses, and sawdust sifting their beds
like sand. The men must have thought themselves
lucky then, finding them waiting,
olden-shouldered, hungry for more.
calling the coyotes in
Dark green ravines run like lava
through the canyon’s fissured humps,
and it is here they come, late
in winter’s good cold, to find
the seventy-dollar pelts.
Crouched in a shadowing hedge
of sumac and sap-leeching syringa,
she waits. Five nights
they have worked the ridges, calling
the coyotes in. From the camouflaged recorder
cries of a dying rabbit play
again and again, a chant
she rocks to, feet numbed to stone.
Beside her, the man squats trigger-ready,
the white orbit of his eyes blueing
in half-moon light.
He’s been in Nam, and though she won’t say it,
there’s an enemy somewhere. Even his breath
seems cloistered, the way his jaw slacks
to quiet the rush of air.
This time, two split
from the tangle of brambled cottonwood,
trot forward, high-stepping the snow.
He signals for her to take the right one.
Raising the rifle, liquid from knees to cheek,
she shoots easy, good at limiting damage:
behind the ear, a finger-sized hole.
The man stands, the blue flame
he holds to her blinding
as she draws the smoke deep.
Kneeling at the first belly, he begins
the skinning. cigarette clenched
between his teeth.
She’ll take her time with hers,
slip the knife between muscle
and hide, follow the leg’s curve
to cobbled spine.
There’s a moment when he’ll call her, in his hands
a bundle rolled tail to nose, and she’ll see
how his lips have tightened to hold
the last biting fire, how he hasn’t moved
to stop the calling, and neither has she,
knee-deep in dark dappled snow,
eeling all around them the closing eyes.
the smell of rain
I’ve read the obituary of a woman
I once knew: Dead of cancer, a lingering
illness, and for a moment I am glad.
Her photo is unfamiliar, a face
already hollowed by pain and decay,
not the face I remember from years
before when I sat in her sixth grade
class and marveled at the gold of her hair.
Mrs. Eisenhower, young then, sure
of her control and nothing to stop her.
We sang Christmas songs all year, each morning
a chorus of Handel’s Messiah, her soprano voice
rising in hallelujahs until the windows chattered.
She drove ignorance from our heads like demons,
pacing the room’s four corners, while we
listened and watched the red of her lips,
perfectly painted to match her nails,
which clicked against the backs of our chairs
like beetles. The day we studied clouds,
I told her my mother could smell coming rain.
She called my mother a fool. Does your mother
watch cows lie down in fields? she asked.
Or maybe she expects company when her nose itches.
No one laughed but sat wondering how she knew
our private lives, now ridiculous, our parents’
wisdom nothing but nonsense. Listen, she said.
Close your eyes and see the lightning
of your own brain. The salt of your mouth
is the makeup of oceans. Tides ebb and flow
in your blood, you will see, you will see.
That day she raged and tore Bonnie Hanson’s
newly pierced ears, still swollen with the heat
of the needle, pulled the small gold rings
through flesh and cast them against the wall
like dice, I remember only our silence and red
drops pearling onto the pages of an open history book.
I wondered then how nothing changed, no parents
demanding resignation, no apologies, just the daily lessons.
It is all pleasure or pain, she said. Our bodies know
only these two things. In sixth grade, we thought we knew
both. What we didn’t know came to me later,
behind the church one Sunday when Bonnie confessed
her brother loved her, and she loved the way
his older body hardened in the bed she slipped to
each night. The earrings he had given for her
twelfth birthday were gone, and only the lightest
scars creased the fullness of her lobes. This knowledge
has stayed with me longest, how we resist what we know
to be true and blame the makeup of our bodies
in their endless beauty, reminders
of what we must leave and come to, the ivory
and roses of flesh bringing us to hallelujahs of ecstasy
echoing long after decay has begun.
poems originally published in Circle of Women
Kim Barnes is the author of In the Kingdom of Men, named a best book of 2012 by San Francisco Chronicle, The Seattle Times, and The Oregonian, and long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her second novel, A Country Called Home, winner of the 2009 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction, was named a best book of 2008 by The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, and The Oregonian. She is a recipient of the PEN/Jerard Award in nonfiction for her first memoir, In the Wilderness, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The New York Times,WSJ online, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, Fourth Genre, Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. She is a professor of English in the MFA program at the University of Idaho.