Last Flowers, poems by Jeannine Hall Gailey
Jeannine Hall Gailey served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She’s the author of five books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, Unexplained Fevers, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, and Field Guide to the End of the World, winner of the Moon City Press Book Prize and the SFPA’s Elgin Award. She’s also the author of PR for Poets: A Guidebook to Publicity and Marketing. Her work appeared in journals such as American Poetry Review, Notre Dame Review and Prairie Schooner. Her web site is www.webbish6.com. Twitter and Instagram: @webbish6.
End of September. The sunlight has turned golden,
shadows come early. A row of sunflowers nods
as the valley darkens. The last row in the light
are crumpling, turning to seed. I’ve spent too
much time in a hospital, away from the long
sunny evenings of August, the earliest signs of fall.
Without me, the woodpeckers continued to appear
each morning on a row of dead birch trees,
Without me, a row of dahlias, splendid,
bloomed in my garden, peach and pink,
their fireworks almost over.
Red and pink roses are still hearty on the shores
of Lake Washington – rosehips fattening on the hedge.
Geese honk overhead and crows are gorging on the newest grapes
in the winery yard, the display vines whose
leaves barely turn before they fall. The lavender
surprises us with a second blooming, their
smell on the air in the last light. I break off
a stem and crushes the buds beneath my fingers.
A jay screams on the pine branches, a flicker leaves
the chimney in a flash of orange. A pair of peacocks,
a charm of finches, the flash of hummingbird throats –
I walk slowly in the dimmer light, leaning on my cane,
not yet too late to enjoy the last peaches, the first apples.
I am often looking for charms, magic, in the stones on the ground, in the seaglass near the water. I could use some luck. There’s a charm of noisy goldfinches darting back and forth on the dead birch trees. A goldfinch in a painting years ago meant resurrection – something to do with sun, with brightness. I grew up in a radioactive forest, dark, the swallows building nests for eggs heavy with cesium. Comfortable only in shaded valleys, by the light of foxfire. I am some kind of sign, a mutant outlier afraid of light. Harpies were said to fear the goldfinch. I am no harpy, but I’m thinking of training up in witchery, healing potions and such. Maybe carry some peridot or rose quartz in my pocket. I planted sunflowers for luck, outside my window, their faces reliable, turning to the light. The goldfinch lands among the yellow flowers, paying attention to crumpled petals, the seeds within. We look for hope in the trees.
It was said that an Aztec god died and was reborn a hummingbird. Aztec warriors resurrected as hummingbirds in the gardens of paradise. They were worn around the neck as charms. Sometimes there are swarms of new baby hummingbirds in my garden, raucous and confused. These are also called charms. A lone hummingbird hovers close to my face, challenging me for flowers, moving me out of his turf. The hummingbird can turn his colors on and off at will, a trick of light and angle. If I could disappear or dazzle. By which I mean, enchant.
The children came to our doors as always,
and we gave them candy, we were happy
even though the dust of the week in our mouths still tasted
like gunpowder and pipe bombs, like the seventies
were still here, when there were poison scares about candy,
bombs at synagogues, I was dressed like a small cowboy or dinosaur,
and there were Klan marchers on our street,
angry at other people different from them, and I
didn’t yet know to be afraid but was afraid.
I didn’t know what questions to ask, yet.
The moon was just a sliver, tonight, and the clouds
were spinning, we had ghosts dancing in front of our house,
there were pumpkins in as many colors as we could find,
and spider webs. We ate candy after dinner, too much.
We did not watch any news about hate, but we watched
a little boy dressed up as a dragon and little girls
like princesses. We said hello and good night to our
neighbors, and we did not ask where they were from,
what they were doing here. We were just neighbors.
I put on black lipstick and wore a raven on my head,
and the children smiled at the glitter on my fingers
under the porch lights, in the rain, and I felt for that moment
we would all be fine, that this was my America again,
that they could not come and take it from us by force,
that we would resist, it would be sweet as candy,
that the children of our neighbors could sleep and be free.
In November, the days grow dark,
like the underside of raven’s wings in shadow.
The light that shows through thinner,
the dawn later, twilight earlier.
In November, you can’t help but remember
death, a little row of graves in every
mass of pinecones. The leaf skeletons
already decaying beneath your feet.
It’s wet, the wind cold, you never quite
grow warm beneath blankets.
Every red gleam – fire, sunset, stovetop –
a promise unmade, a lost spark.
Someone else will tell you a story of comfort,
the myth of spring, seeds beneath rot ready
to be reborn. Let someone else warn you –
the last warmth may already be past.
©Jeannine Hall Gailey