by Judith Harris

Lost Mother

Maybe I can imagine the tangled roots 
of wildflowers—butterfly weed 
dandelion or Black-eyed Susan, 
budding everywhere around you,

the gardener raking leaves off 
your grave as they continue to fall.
Yet, I can’t bear the nothingness 
that ends you, the last note of music, 

the last mole on your forearm. 
Your name engraved on the headstone— 
as simply “Dot.”

The earth rocking you inside 
the bones of your bones.

Last Rites

Rooms I’ve memorized now vacant,
mute, still. Everything where it was: 
coffee pot, card deck, nightlight 
kept on, dog-eared paperback mystery,
cracked cup. Touch dust, fog on 
the mirror, open a stuck window 
to pigeons chuckling, whispering leaves, 
a single engine plane growling overhead. 
On the counter, her voice jotted 
down on a slip of white paper, 
grocery list for the coming week, 
bread, milk, broccoli, ground beef, ginger snaps.
A weeknight dinner unknowably planned.
I still hear her footsteps on the carpet, 
Wedgewood jiggling in the same hutch
as her antique crystal and collectables. 
How she could spend hours trying to separate 
her good silverware from the everyday,
sorting them into separate holders,
opening the drawer, and shoving it back:
but by the end forgetting altogether 
how to tell them apart.

Remembering Grimms’

My exhausted mother read fairy tales
from a tall book—with embossed lettering—
peering through far-sighted glasses, 
weak eyes magnified into blue fish. 
I recall one about a wolf wearing a granny’s 
nightdress, and one about two children 
fattened up by the witch and shoved in the oven.
Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin,
the imp-like man promised a baby 
for the power to spin straw into gold.  
They all sound absurd now, except the one 
about Sleeping Beauty, where the fairy 
godmothers buzz around her cradle 
with their birthday gifts and she pricks 
her finger on the spinning wheel 
or was it a thorn? Then falls deeply asleep.
That’s just what my ailing mother did 
some thirty years ago and now she
can’t finish the story. 

Mother’s Toilette

Breathless, yet demure, 
she pulled on her corset, inspecting 
her nylons for rogue runs 
before hooking them to her elastic garters, 
and snapping them against her thighs.  
She was a watch running on 
being wound, a layer of cold cream 
to drown the frown lines. 
When she died, I saw her corpse 
laid out and her mouth lewdly 
smeared with lipstick. The same shade 
she wore from morning into night
even when going to bed, as if she were 
expecting someone to walk in, 
and she’d sworn to me she wouldn’t 
be caught dead without it.

For the Dresses

On the gallows of wire hangers,
they sway in Limbo. 
Some ghostly virgins with their 
price tags still on, others, old spinsters: 

waistlines cinched with breaths 
held in, swishing 
under one naked light bulb,

hems too short, zippers fatally stuck. 
They’re all past their prime.
Here’s the black taffeta one 
bought on impulse. 

The paisley one, too wild,  
white ruffled collar too prim;  
fabrics from velveteen
to cotton, wools edged in gold.

I’ll donate some to good causes, 
or store them away, 
in brown coffin-like boxes, 
each sinfully flawed as the body
they meant to adorn.


Let it end with the garden, the maples
packed with leaves, not letting go,

the sweet mums and nasturtiums 
set on dry gravelly banks, in borders
or painted window boxes needing full sun.

Let it end with the curled branches
glutted with corymbs, or peaches, 
the inhalations of light into shadows,

the soft breeze undulating through
the hallways, smelling of Ivory soap—
let it end with the ruins of the playgrounds,

with the pencil-etched birches, 
sessile oaks, with the starlings
gnashing out something close to joy, 

before reaffirming that there’s grace 
here on earth, shattering the air with
the damage of their wings...

Judith Harris’s poetry books include The Bad Secret and Atonement, both from LSU Press, and Night Garden from Tiger Bark. Her critical books include Signifying Pain: Constructing and Healing the Self from SUNY Press and The Poetry of Loss: Romantic and Contemporary Elegies from Routledge. Harris’s poems have appeared in The Nation, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Slate, The Hudson Review, North American Review, Image, Alaska Quarterly Review, Poetry East, Terrain, American Life in Poetry, American Academy of Poets, Poem of the Day and Verse Daily. And her articles have appeared in AWP Chronicle, Green Mountains Review, North American Review, The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, and The Canadian Journal of Psychoanalysis. Learn more about Judith Harris and her work by visiting her website at judithharrispoet.com.

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