5 Poems

by Jeannine Hall Gailey


Oak Ridge is a Mystery

It cannot be penetrated because of the dark leaves
of the oaks and maples, standing so close you can hear
them whisper, “Keep out.” The carpet of needles
beneath your feet, silencing. The foxfire in the woods
an illusion of light, the mountains hung with a shroud of smoke.
The robot scientist is a mystery to his daughter, a cipher
that cannot be explicated. His badge is magical; the clicking
of his lab equipment warns her: Keep Out. Even now they rely
on the whisk of data packets on high-speed cable as a way
to tell the truth. Computers don’t lie; they only do what they are told.
Your secrets are safe with them.

Oak Ridge National Labs is a mystery, so many signs
saying: Keep Out. So many files have been labeled
“Confidential: To be opened…”  Our physicist tour guide
laughs, jokes around as he leads us through Buildings
X, Y, and K; but you know what he can’t say,
what he whispered into closed files.

Oak Ridge is a mystery; the dark place in the earth
where poisons are buried, where the worms do their work.
How the grass raises its head even though it carries
a heavy metallurgical load. How the trout and the catfish
tackle the brooks down the hillside stacked with mud.
The wings of the wasp and the swallow whirring: Keep Out.


Heroines at 40, Daisy Buchanan: “The Last of the Sunshine Fell Upon Her Glowing Face”

The white cool fingers of morning light
fall upon me in a caress
careless, nonchalant as breath.
My skin chilled as ivory silk,
the years rinse my hair of all its gold fire.
Your gaze reads nothing, the smooth blankness of the sea.

I stand under snowy curtains,
an idol surrounded by doves.
The years have stolen memories of screeching tires,
kisses beneath an avalanche of shirts,
a yellow car, the accusing eye of the sun.

Later, lost in a maze of English gardens and tennis courts,
I will give you my hand, nod,
ask for another glass of gin and forgetting,
shrug off my furs and shimmy in smoke-filled rooms.

I’m the girl with the glittering green light.
Too much money, too much blood on her hands,
too much dancing in her limbs.
The green light fades at the end of the dock,
until it is nothing but a forgotten fairy tale,
the pale glow of dragons beneath the waves.


How to Quit Your Job

Not with gunfire. Not with a pickaxe or flamethrower
no matter how you’ve dreamed it.
You might be tempted to burn the place down
but it’s wisest to quit your job in your bare feet,
walking from carpet to concrete to green grass,
let your feet do the talking. Find your way to running water
or wildflowers, a tall ship or steam engine.
Say goodbye to all that. Never admit on paper

the real, small tortures of the place; the defeats
that gritted your jaw against bone in the night,
paper cuts whose wounds gaped open and little insults
that drew the last of your breath from your lungs.

Do not admit defeat. Don’t imagine your dreams come true,
but the miracle of your molecules may propel you.
Do not set a trap for them. Do not leave a note.
Fly like the bees towards the unknown harvest,
November sun that promises warmth even if your wings feel frost.


Lesson #1 From Old Photographs: You Will Not Be Picked Up in Limousines Forever

Bony shoulders protruding from dresses slightly too big,
too much makeup and hairspray on the awkward bones
of my teenage face, I emerge from one limousine after another
in these old pictures, boys interchangeable or forgotten.
(Who was that blond one? my mother asks, and I shrug.)
A parade of black limousines in our Ohio driveway,
on the way to some suburban high school Prom or Homecoming
or Winter Formal or Sadie Hawkins’ Day Dance.
I wish I could remind my teenage self how few limousines
would be lining up in the future, to enjoy the few years
in pouf skirts and high heels, the fancy nights out
with shrimp scampi at dimly-lit restaurants downtown.
Because how little adulthood offers of the high life,
of being cherished with orchid corsages and admiring arms around waists,
men pulling out your chairs and paying you odd compliments.
How little time we now spend slow dancing, borrowing dresses,
racing around streets after hours whooping
in horse-drawn carriages or ice-skating rinks.
Much more time will be spent in cubicles, in dry lecture halls,
in hospital beds with their chemical metallic smells.
Maybe right now we should turn down the lights,
slip on an old album, dust off our aging formalwear, and dance.


What She Can Eat

Not dainty cakes, puffed up with glutinous flours,
but asparagus spears wrapped in prosciutto,
dates stuffed with almonds and goat cheese.
Wicked witches cannot tempt her with gingerbread and milk:
allergic, allergic, she picks among pine nettles to find
suitable food for her allogeneic systems: seed butters,
root vegetables, nothing too bright – no shiny red apples,
no cherries, no hamper of sandwiches.

She can butcher a cow inside of fifteen minutes now,
knows which cuts are easiest to cook; holds a wriggling fish
between two hands to weigh it. Her cells welcome barely
anything without blood these days. She devils eggs.
The princess can’t eat peas (or peanuts) but lies in her bed
scant but eager to skin her next rabbit, plan her next kill.


Jeannine Hall Gailey recently served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She’s the author of four books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, Unexplained Fevers, and her latest, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, from Mayapple Press. Her work has been featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Her poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review and Prairie Schooner. Her web site is www.webbish6.com.

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