Five Poems - Paula Bernett

Paula Bernett


Thirty women appear in the portrait 
because at the last minute Sunday #31, 
naughty last-born child, 
ducked under their wide skirts, 
hid under cascades of  chintz, satin and chambray, 
worsted, brilliantine, shantung, tricolette, 
every fabric under the sun stitched 
and gusseted as if such cosseting of the one 
who even now advances;  
as if such costumery in its wild dazzle  
would dizzy the one  
who even now comes closer;  
hid under those warm wide skirts  
of velveteen, taffeta, and worsted,  
wrapped himself in mousseline and dotted swiss,  
as if such swaddlings might save him, 
#31, boychild among women  
heating inside their magnificent textiles  
they think might woo the one 
who creeps ever nearer;  
hid among drapes of boucle and matelasse, 
organdie, velour and sateen 
cascading from hourglass waists they pray 
the one will close his hands around, 
his eyes dropped shut, face pressed 
into bodices stitched with hieroglyph 
and eroticisms; hid there, 
among billows of plisse and chiffon, 
between crepes and cottons, the crush of crinoline  
and rough linens they think might give him pause,  
whose breath the child can feel on his bare toes  
peeking beneath a hem 
as the eye of the one who even now has come,  
roves the row of women, and misses him.



I dig one chamber, then another nearby. 
I shovel the dirt from the first one into it.  

Then I dig a third, and do the same,  
and a fourth and a fifth and go on like this 
the whole night long.  

With the stars wheeling on broken axles and a gong  
marking the hours.

Swell with pride, broken, faint of, and absence makes  
scribbled in red crayon, are crossed out in black.  

More chambers to dig, each one filled with the dirt of another.

I lay down my spade, my body, my raiment and sleep  
beside the last chamber dug, beside the little pile of dirt ready  
to fill the next.

The shush of backwash through the faulty aortic valve,  
the one-way gate into the left atrium damaged by old wars,  
the hitching gait of the relentless stars.

Blue pushes to red to blue again, from fire to quench to fire.  
Finally, to say heart.



I will be your little sin— 
a pebble skidded on, a knee skinned, 
a hailstone spat from an errant cloud. 
I’ll be the hint of furrow in your brow, 
an evil wish deep-sixed, 
an endearing gaffe. 
But I won’t be incursion 
without retreat, 
nor the pinprick of mortal illness— 
that gestation; 
nor the long scar of incision 
or the hitch of crippling. 
I will live for the nip 
in our last sweet kiss, the bloom 
of blood on a tender lip.



To wit!  
A bee’s nest  
in a junked Mercedes Benz.  
How the bees got in –  
one by one  
through the windshield shatter 
where the guy, the drunk,  
the father sick at heart  
plunged through.  
Went off to death 
with just that slap,  
dispatched by the same god  
who let the bees into  
the wrecked Benz.  
Small comfort,  
that stingy buzz, 
the stinging prayers of us, 
our snub-nosed curse.



— for C.D. Wright, 1949-2016

It sailed off lifted on a wind devil whirl that might have been 
spun from a fit of grief furnaced by rage. 
Went away just like that, the voice of your body leaving 
a vacancy that began looking for itself, inside the vacancy 
which is where you plunged, the first available vacancy 
was good enough and you down there you drew the long coils of sentences 
run on into amplitudes cut loose from the throat, bereft, down between 
thumb and forefinger and around your left elbow. 
I could follow you there hurriedly but then you fed the careful knotted skein 
of cadence and pulse to the coals blown to brief flame 
and thus rejoined and raised up you leapt away.


Paula Bernett

Paula Bernett's poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Clackamas Literary Review, The Louisville Review, Rattle, and Whiskey Island, among others. Her lyric essay "Digression and Memory, The Handmaiden Effect," and a companion essay, "Four Hands Improvising on a Piano" appeared in Fourth Genre. She is the recipient of the St. John’s College 2011 Essay Prize, and holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from St. John’s College.

Paula's Articles on KGB LitMag