Mother’s Soap Bar
Never full like the moon or bright as the sun.
An oval disc, a flat zero sat on her
plastic pronged soap holder, getting smaller
until nothing reigned in the bathroom.
Enough for her, though, born in a ghetto
where, instead of lamb they got
a chicken thigh and murmured over the bone
asking questions God would never answer.
Not Dove or Ivory, rather a no-name
generic kind—who can tell the difference?
she’d say, disparaging those who spent
on a brand when she, simply by rubbing
two pennies together, could make those
soups and stews where the rare piece of meat
is tender as a carrot. Half a cabbage
seared in hot oil with an onion summoned
Poland. I turn from my upper-middle class room,
decide to give in, to meet her in a harsh winter
uncharacteristic of the northwest.
She’s wearing the coat her father the cutter made,
she walks beside snow plowed in drifts
from Montreal streets. The man in a meme
makes his grab. Mother screams so loud
she slips from his grasp.
Spinal Cord Injury
We live with grasses, clouds, and pain.
It is not easy to see us.
We are like hidden pictures,
books shelved in a library
between other books that tell pretty stories.
You don’t want to know
and we don’t wish to trouble
your journey through days of ease,
so please continue to sip
dark chocolate mochas in winter,
draw out that strawberry acai refresher
all summer long.
Gather at parties on neighborhood decks,
sit on wooden benches.
We forgive the ignominy,
the spell of hysterical laughter,
even these petals falling from cherries
to land softly on your arms
as the earth pulls us further
into its molten core.
On Red Maryland Clay
My sister swats mosquitos, my mother
plants zucchini and tomatoes in rows.
Ticks, wasps, and roaches our familiars.
Emblematic of fear, eggplant grows
its large bosom, an unwanted pregnancy
conceived in the back yard’s long grass.
Dreams fall under the eaves, whisper fancy
isms—lynch em knife em girl I’m gonna ass
whip you out back behind the school with my
chains. Father comes upstairs, turns off the fan.
Window AC’s busted. We have to lie
all night with night. Two sisters one bed in
insomnia with wet sheets
for ghosts, full moon mooning
the yard through venetian blinds—slats
stilled, cords hanging. Little knobs come morning
Mother will twist. Her foot on the hoe—
this house is a pig sty!—her work day
clocked in meetings and math, equations so
risky the sun could explode, its rays
singe corn and cotton in the fields where they,
those others, bend down beneath covers
of heat and sweat, labor for hey
you yes you in your face mother fucker.
Mother’s braided rows and columns graph-
paper the yard. Her castes and cliques
joined by conception, whose signs are laughs.
Sticks and stones will break your back
but words will never… –Star party. Girls
are preyed upon, whistled at, learn
planets don’t twinkle. At least less
than, say, Betelgeuse, Rigel. Orion’s
shoulder and foot. The latter blue
from being young, newly born in time.
“On Red Maryland Clay,”
Here all things come to bear the same hue:
scorn, rage, hate. Each flower an alarm
bell set fast, ready to ring harder.
To bear up under, to wither, to spite.
Goddamn abortion, no valium, no father.
South of Mason-Dixon Line. Born white.
Judith Skillman’s poems have appeared in Commonweal, Threepenny Review, Zyzzyva, and other literary journals. She has received awards from Academy of American Poets and Artist Trust. Oscar the Misanthropist won the 2021 Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award. Her recent collection is Subterranean Address, New & Selected Poems, Deerbrook Editions 2023. Visit www.judithskillman.com