When you called I told you all about the party on Halloween.
About the cape and the pearls and the fishnets and the fangs.
About the men who asked me to dance to the slow songs.
The handsome one who showed me around the haunted house and let me, tender me, spooked by suspended skeletons and disposable ghouls, grab his arm.
That I woke up at 6 a.m. the next morning
between the grey satin sheets of a stranger.
What I didn’t say is that I stayed at home alone on Halloween.
Listening to public radio in my pjs.
That at midnight I ate the last bag of candy that the trick-or-treaters hadn’t picked up outside my door.
That yours was the last number I’ve dialed in weeks.
That I’ve been sick all autumn.
The voices of the red birds invade my house at dawn chirping and fluttering.
They ask so many questions that I cannot answer.
I am mute until dusk.
I have a mouth but not until the inky darkness does it dare to whisper.
I want to chant the quiet things but I am tone-deaf.
I long for a new voice.
A voice content to be alive.
Grateful to hear the birds hum each morning.
With that voice I could join the dawn chorus
I could soar like the immortal birds.
I could respond instead of just listening.
And with that voice I could sing.
With that voice I could sing you a song.
I walk for the wet silence
And the non-manmade noises
The unheard and the untranslatable.
Only available Tuesday evenings after seven.
But please don’t tell.
Families have gone home and it is just me and the vanishing light and the roll of the short waves up and down and up again.
I step over electric blue latex gloves and a plastic fork and a razor blade and a supermarket bag and a Barbie doll and an empty bottle of bleach.
A soaked branch decays. A black feather shivers.
Nature kills nature all the time and no one complains.
Fingerprints and footprints dissolve when the tide rises.
Scars fade but never disappear.
The gulls are crying and the prehistoric birds extend their wings to dry as washed linen on a clothesline.
You told me once that horseshoe crabs cure leprosy but their carcasses also listen when you tell them your secrets.
Dead things make great confidants.
Green sea glass sparkles, edges softened by the hand of time.
Crabs like spiders crawl on fuzzy rocks.
Did you know that female spiders kill their male partners after mating? I learned this in biology.
You always told me I was bad at science.
The tide is low and the sea has hemorrhaged rusty red seaweed and artificial possessions and the blue-grey detritus of dreams.
The ocean breathes in and out
I try to breathe like that, I like how it makes me feel.
Tide pools brim with new life, things are reincarnated there.
Streams feed a thirsting sea.
Maybe you were a brilliant scientist,
but you were a terrible father.
My sandals gently crush a graveyard of white seashells.
They crackle under my feet like crepitation in the bony joints of cruel old men.
The sand flies hum, shells become sand.
The flecks live forever. Their tiny ears hear everything and their little eyes have seen the manmade deeds that lie at the foot of the wakeful seabed.
Teeth eat flesh but hard things disintegrate, too.
Everything becomes wet dust.
I believe in the eternal silence of beaches.
So many secrets shared between me and infinite particles.
We know we know we know we know we know we know we know we know we know.
Last night I traveled to Brazil
forced to navigate the rainforest
I stopped a friendly stranger for directions
struggling with a guide to basic Portuguese.
The heat nearly felled me, the thirst torturous, I opened my mouth and let the rain drip past my tongue down to my parched tonsils.
You were there, too.
Arm in arm we penetrated the forest’s dark canopy.
Together we wrestled man-eating tropical plants and gargantuan snakes,
You stole perspiry kisses, pushing my back against king-sized kapoks.
I awake covered in sweat.
Not from struggling with anacondas but from this miserable cold
my passport still in the drawer next to the four-poster bed.
I reach instead for Robitussin to soothe my throat, Advil to cool my torrid temperature.
No need to brush up my Portuguese.
I’m not sure which is farther, you or Brazil.
I don’t even like hiking.
And I lost you a long time ago.
Scheherazade for one night
If you stay I won’t ask questions. I’ll tell you stories, she said.
I’ll weave a quilt with them, I’ll tattoo our earth with rainbows.
And so she told him about mythical creatures and cold seas and spirits who haunt and others who don’t and kings and traveling salesmen and warm-blooded fish and fishermen and manipulative genies and healing herbs and poisons and stone souls and mermaids and an automaton and grief and prophetic dreams and blooming jasmine and secret languages and purple skies and apple trees and lovers and peripatetic courtiers and long suppers in the fourteenth century. About rewards. About women who lie with men and those who lie to them. About so many selves.
But in the morning he left anyway.
She stayed home, listening to their music, her footsteps caressing the carpet where his soles once danced.
Joanna Milstein is a New York-based writer. She received her MFA in Fiction from New York University in 2019. She holds a PhD in History from the University of St Andrews. Her most recent short story is included in the winter 2021 issue of The Writing Disorder. She is currently working on her first novel.
One thought on “Five poems by Joanna Milstein”
These are some of the most evocative poems I’ve ever read, Joanna. Reading them, I am inspired to begin a series of poems addressed to my siblings, five sisters and six brothers, because your voice in your poems, addressing a father and a lover is quite haunting and exquisite. I also have a poem using the image of Scheherazade about my mother. Fine job, Joanna!
F.X. (Fran) Baird author of Painting With My Father, Finishing Line Press.