Denise Evans Durkin writes poems that glow with a gentle melancholy (all memory is tinged with melancholy) unexpectedly laced with joy and wonder. They are wonderful to read, not just for their warm humanity, but for their loving attention to detail, details that seem to accrete spirit and luminescence as the poems develop. She was raised in Brooklyn and lives in Putnam County, New York, with her husband. She wishes me to note that the poem “Letter to My Sister from Bellevue’s Prison Ward” includes a line from Gil Scott Heron’s “Dirty Low-Down.” These are her first published poems.
The girl downstairs waits mostly. Sitting on her luggage
by the cattails, side of the road. Embroidered each star
on the velvet pillow of sky — they glitter
through the pin-pricks.
She waits, lonesome as the notions in her felted sewing box —
mismatched buttons, thimbles and threads in bright
remembered colors — bobbins and hat pins —
good things going away.
She’s there in the spaces where the dime store and
the pay phones used to be. The cart that sold ice-cream and
hot waffles. Relics.
Seeping cold. Click, drag, stop — over
imperfect stones. Her gradual world — ohms build
between receiver and vintage turntable on the dresser
in the bedroom she has not visited in thirty years.
Glass & leaves falling. Dust falling down in the hush —
Letter to My Sister from Bellevue’s Prison Ward
Traveling up from blue-black dreaming
those first pin-pricks of pale blue light give such sudden joy.
Once at a farm I saw eggs that color blue; the class learned
about farms, about far-off things and places where people
know their food, know their land and don’t live like we do.
Do you remember when we used to sing it?
Said I wonder, wonder, wonder, wonder who put those ideas in your head?
You closed your eyes when you sang back up; we got it right.
Mornings are my best time — even the doctors agree — when I wake
full of hope, and my hope is the color of morning, and my eyes
the color of the sea and I know all that the seas know.
A thrum of bees where my heart should be when my eyes flutter
open mother your face dissolving in the water swirling in the silver bowl —
were you here in your white nurses’ shoes? I thought I saw you
in your white dress adjusting the tubes that feed me, that dispense
the medicines, checking my bandages, and my restraints I thought
I felt all the little red lights on the living machines
silver mechanical fireflies that blink and glow redder
through the gauze of my forgetting pieces of what I thought was
my life and I can no longer remember how I got here —
I watch your white shoes walk away squeaking on the tiled floor.
Don’t think I don’t know nothing but the sea stays around
long enough to get old — and all I do in here is imagine
this gossamer daylight everyday — all just going by —
This morning the darkness is thicker — like spider’s webs
spun especially for the heavy snow they know is coming.
Crickets sing in the perpetual twilight of the field beyond my patio —
my small wilderness — where even now leaves are falling.
The vine wound up around that oak; some of its leaves
are already red. This is how I measure time: by leaves
changing color, by feeling the dew clinging to grass,
to wildflowers, waiting for the late summer sun.
The day you left draws nearer now.
Noted on my calendar, of course, but I don’t need reminders.
This is how you return to me: in the small twigs I pick up
for kindling, in the rain battering my old house,
beating the glass skylight, letting me know everything
is the way it’s supposed to be. I walk my solitude
past the fading clapboard and the weeds, deer at dusk
and whitecaps on the lake. These are what you left me.
Fall Notebook: Prayer & Dream
Inside a deep longing I dream alone by the sea.
Wooden table laid ready with black beans, rice and cornbread.
I imagine an indigo sky and wild horses.
Here I dream closer to the weather, to the light, to any decision.
Angel, how long is this bridge?
Over my heart on a lanyard of silver stars, my tiny imagined locket
opens into a mansion where my necessary delights reside.
These rooms full of one wish: for the sisters who
look in on me when darkness falls, who brush sweet almond oil
into my skin, my hair. Lord, my needs are small.
Mother returns in firelight, starshine, moonlight — her fingers
touching the top of my head, reminder that everything is what it is.
Deep cobalt sky and then the moon laying on its cold blessing —
………spoken by my mother
Rootworker they call them in the Carolinas where I was married far from Georgia
where I was born and raised — farther still from these misty Coney Island streets
strewn with blown paper, dirt and sand.
Across the street from the Mount Zion Baptist Church where I sing in the choir,
collect tithing baskets and light white votives at sunset, my sisters wait at the bus stop —
old women with knitting in their straw totes, they nod without looking for me —
like they know I’m in here —
and they do. They know rootworkers are never welcome in this church or any other —
unnecessary anyway with the devil in the first pew every Sunday loudly singing
hymns he knows much better than my choir ladies in their cloches tipped down
on one side threaded with beads like bits of sea glass keeping close together
moving in tune as they file down into the pews, careful
not to touch him whom they have always known.
Lord, I am your child, walking and talking right, gone to the river and
baptized into the ease of your arms, my heavenly home.
Choir leader of my church under this indigo sky —
vesper-quiet in here with this cross and these candles
constant flame of love in my heart —
ruler of this elemental kitchen magic
my sisters call me Soothsayer
and I know what I know.
—Denise Evans Durkin
Denise – your reading at the residency was lovely and heartrending. I remember those lines “once at a farm I saw eggs that color blue; the class learned/about farms, about far-off things and places where people/
know their food, know their land and don’t live like we do.” The egg fixes the sky in something material, earthbound, and tiny and, I’m not sure why, my heart breaks just a little there, especially when you remind us of the separation in those next two lines.
“These rooms full of one wish: for the sisters who/look in on me when darkness falls, who brush sweet almond oil/
into my skin, my hair. Lord, my needs are small.”
One small note: I remember the lyric, but from a different artist, won’t note here.
Rimas, Gracefully written. I like the way you talk about poetry. It does her justice.
These are stunning poems. I’m so glad I was able to hear you read your work. Meeting you and our conversation was one of the highlights of my residency. Glad to see you here on these pages, to my mind this is a place for some of the finest writing on the inter-webs!
I just finished reading every one of these poems aloud. They are solace and comfort and sadness and hope, and your language winds around my heart. Lovely lovely. I’m so glad to have read some or your work. So pleased you graduated. So pleased to know you.
Thank you, Denise, for these lovely, contemplative, prayerful poems.
Thank you, all, for such encouraging, warm words. My heart is full; I am grateful. Be light – Denise
I just now got to read these, Denise – stunning, as was your reading. I’m going to miss our train rides to Vermont!
Ah Denise! These poems bring back wonderful memories from your reading. You know I love the way you capture the subtlety of human emotions through your description of the world around them. So glad to see your work shared with the world.